A few months ago, I joined an online group of women also dealing with breast cancer. There are five of us in this private group and using an app, similar to walkie-talkies, we post videos to each other to check in, share advice, build each other up, or simply vent. I’d been wanting to connect with others dealing with cancer’s fallout, but I now realize I needed distance from it to reach out, feel as if I’m going to be okay before I opened the gates to talk about all that wasn’t. I’d need a life preserver if I were to willingly jump in. There would be seemingly little risk, like a game of strip poker, but only down to your underwear. I saw my strain of bravery, this vulnerability “lite,” peeking out to see who might be there, and ripe for a connection, I found it.
I’m two years out with this thing they call “survivorship,” and with another recent uneventful bilateral MRI in the books, but these women are in the thick of it as we speak, getting double mastectomies (one bidding adieu, “Ta-ta, ta-tas” with a sugar coated “ta-ta” sculptured cake with chocolate ganache inside), chemo, and with radiation ahead, and their experiences, like my own, are each unique. Ten years older than the oldest of these women, I bring a combination of mother hen, cheerleader and wise sage, and having something to offer is deeply rewarding and an encouraging reminder that I now have perspective behind me, but I didn’t expect the PTSD. You move through all the things, doing what your doctors say, popping the pills you need, showing up where and when things are scheduled, but you never exactly process the scary busyness that takes hold, that it’s YOU going through that thing we all associate with dread, that invasive spreader whose reputation is to run amok with nothing but destruction in mind.
Enter modern medicine and its loving hands which set to work fashioning an impenetrable fence around me–not scary barbed wire, but a charming, strong wooden fence with heart shaped vines climbing its pickets. My body was open to it all, ready for the help, since we’re designed to heal. Today, the shoulder that wouldn’t rotate quite right–a reminder of surgery, biopsies and radiation–with time and a little work, is now cooperating and acting mostly like it used to, a now seamless part of me no longer vying for my attention. The scar tissue that felt like a pierced ear does, little knots from where needles and a knife twirled inside, is smoothing out, no longer a jumbled mess, but becoming part of a whole again, connected like it once was, but with greater intention. The hair on my head, once gone in places and growing in as little sprigs, has returned and no longer ignores the hair brush, but celebrates it, and it’s nearly ready to be collected into a pony tail, which will be the nape of my neck’s hero as heat and humidity get here.
Initially with the news of a diagnosis, there was the, “How could you betray me so? I thought we were on the same team, wanted the same things?” mindset I took on with my body, which, without my permission, had an invader following some appalling set of instructions. I could neither speak the language in which all my cells were surely now fluent, nor could I override the faulty instruction. The waiting for doctors to weigh in, drugs to suffocate these wayward intruders, and some semblance of normal cortisol to return and restore my hijacked endocrine system seemed endless.
Then I got started, did the appointments, took the IV, the radiation beams, accepted the suppers lovingly assembled, and invited friends to go with me to chemo and on walks. It was there during treatments and on those walks that I think I saw things the clearest. There, at your most vulnerable–I mean, you’ve got cancer for God’s sake–people want to be near you, want a part of you and this godawful experience, not to gawk or get closer to the accident on the side of the road, but for the sole purpose of you not having to carry this alone. They are there to pick up the slack, commissioning their time, their listening and their love to quiet the chaos and snuff out the cancer.
It’s there when you’re at your lowest, in the scariest time of your life, in the middle of the cruelest interruption you could imagine, that love, as pure and unconditional as a mother’s, keeps right on flowing as it always has, unopposed and easy. When you’re getting low, there are filling stations everywhere–at the end of a text, an email, a phone call, and just when you need to hide under the covers, your cat sidles up beside you. It’s there in the videos I’ve left for these women and the ones I’ve gotten back, and with each exchange, each giving and taking, there is a recharging of all of us and of love itself. Some are finding since they can vent in this space, they are now able to enjoy conversations with their partners that aren’t about cancer, for a change. It’s freeing to get it out, but also a reminder that when you do, people don’t go away. Everything changes, but the good ones, the people you need by your side, the ones you have attracted, these people, they stick around.
You can fill up anytime, and have seconds, thirds, fourths even. Whenever you want a clean plate to start over, there are plenty of those too. The more you give, the more you make. Like breast milk. Forgive me, but I do love a good circle back.
I wrote this poem for this dear group, but I think it applies to anyone who is struggling with something and feeling scared, separate, or isolated. We are designed to heal and to connect, and we can’t do one without the other.
Across the pond, up east, down south and in between, we’ve formed a bond, an open circle, one none of us could have foreseen. Women, strong, brave and kind, each with hearts of gold, sending each other videos that nourish the fold.
We are daughters, lovers, some of us mothers, too. We’ll mother a stranger and we’ll mother you. Here, though, we are sisters, together locked arm-in-arm. We’ve made a place that fills us up and tears us up, but which can do us no harm.
It’s a love fest, some say, one that appears to lead the way. It’s a fest about breasts, no matter if they go or if they stay. Whatever stage, whatever grade, whatever scans about yourself, you bring your truth, you bring your heart, and for that you, my dear, are top shelf.
Do something every day that scares you. We’ve all heard that phrase, but who the hell came up with that advice? I am here to attest it yields mixed results. We are in Colorado where we began skiing a few days ago. The boots fit even nicer here than the ones I wore in North Carolina recently at a much smaller place where I went for a skiing test run. There I stuck to the singular baby slope and graduated to skiing two runs down a green. Here, the hotel will hold on to your skis and boots, which makes life far easier. No lugging snowy equipment to your car where freezing wet boots await you the next day.
It all started off pleasant enough, the four of us making our way to the lift. Lifts and I historically haven’t worked well together the five or so times I’ve skied in my life, and despite my family’s assurances and advice–“lean to the edge of the bench and just stand up, let the seat nudge you off and just slowly ski away from the lift, watch that you don’t let the next lift hit you in the head, you won’t fall”–I fell off the lift in a weird way, way over to the right, a spectacle, really. The toxic cocktail of performance anxiety, coupled with extreme fear can only yield the type of result we got, me, plopped down in the snow before us.
I made my way down this green slope well enough, forming the slowing pizza shape with my skis and turning this way and that, my glutes, still sleeping, waking with a startle. Next, I took on a second lift, this time with a stranger. Poor thing had to listen to my lift fall story, but she assured me I won’t fall this time. We exited the lift, her sweetly bracing me, and I emerged standing! No sooner did I begin to ski to the left to go down this other green than a man called out to let me know my glove had fallen off the lift below. Making my way down, I soon realized this green slope was far steeper than the previous and any others I’ve ever attempted. My boys and husband were just ahead and said they’d help me down and also would find my glove. Super sweet of them, but for me, the steepness of the slope rendered this impossible. I urged them to just go on and ski on their own, convinced any lessons they had to offer wouldn’t take, and why not release them instead into this sparkling new ski day in lieu of the stress fest that was unfolding? They insisted over and over, but so did I, and they ended up skiing on down. Well aware of my skiing challenges, I initially wasn’t going to go on this trip, but I suppose fear of missing out on this time with my family changed my mind. I didn’t want to slow the group down, though, and also didn’t want to get talked into super scary stuff I wasn’t ready for.
So it was me and the crazy hill, and the only thing I could do that made any sense at all was remove my skis, cradle them under my arm and hoof it down that hill. Mind you, this is Colorado, and these runs are not short, but my legs are long and strong and so we, my legs and me, began walking it. On seeing a lady walking her run, kind skiers stopped and asked me if I was okay and if they could carry my skis down to the Ritz. The Ritz? Evidently this luxury chain was at the base of this run. Along with this daunting task, I didn’t want to relinquish my skis, only to struggle locating them later, and so I continued. Other skiers came by with similar concerns, some having passed me once and now on their second run. I found a few plateaus where I attempted to put on my skis and ski a little so as to shorten this never-ending hike. Remembering the advice of my son, “Make sure the levers in back of the skis are in the up position when you put your boot in,” (advice he would later recant as amiss), I kept trying to get my skis on, but they wouldn’t cooperate–no clicking, no nothing, even after I thoroughly whacked all the snow off my boots with my poles. I continued the sojourn with skis tucked under my left arm, and made my way down to find a hefty timber lodge, branded as a Ritz-Carlton.
Everyone was outside in groups cocktail-ing and beer-ing themselves silly. I found a water cooler and paper cups, and filled up a time or two. I assumed my family’s trails, wherever they had taken them on blue or black slopes, would feed into this one and spit them out at the base where I now was. With all that walking, I worked up a sweat, and with temps dropping, I went inside to sit by the fire. I wasn’t of course going to get the $30 chicken Caesar salad or the $20 Prosecco everyone seemed to be ordering without hesitation. I was content to just be inside by a fire, and thankful the server didn’t nudge me to order something. After another 45 minutes or so and with night about to fall, I asked about the shuttle or gondola back to the hotel.
As it turns out, you must ski down to the gondola, surely this was a joke, and the last one was leaving at 5pm, so I needed to get a move on. The guy giving me those directions assured me it was only a “catwalk,” which in ski speak, I think means a meandering, mostly flat trail. In disbelief and feeling deflated, having sworn off skiing for today, this longest of days, I soldiered on toward the trail. A gentleman was heading there, too, and assured me he would help, and so we began. It was lovely and somewhat flat and meandering, just as I’d hoped, and my skis magically popped on and I glided along, thrilled that around each bend I was that much closer to home. The man I was following was a fast skier and I hustled to catch up, flying around a hairpin turn until there before me it appeared, a huge slope down, the man halfway down it waving at me. I approached as far as I could and then came to a halt.
“I can’t do this,” I yelled. Echoing my family from hours earlier, he retorted, “You can!” After a few more “No, I can’ts” and his same response, he offered to reach for me and take my hand. We both fell and then my skis wouldn’t go on. He began yelling at this point, both of us needing to make the last gondola stop of the day, “Get up,” and try as I might, I just couldn’t, skis crisscrossed underneath me. I urged him to please just ski on and I would be fine, and after much back and forth, he disappeared down the quiet hill leaving me the only person in this stunningly silent winter wonderland.
Once again, I found my poles and removed my skis, clutching them under my left arm and continued down the hill. I found a few plateaus ripe for putting on skis and trying again, but the damn boots wouldn’t click into the skis (that earlier piece of upside-down advice I unfortunately didn’t think to challenge), and so I walked. The very occasional person glided past me, a few of them asking the kind, yet predictable question, “Are you alright? Can I take your skis?” to which I always replied, “No, thanks, I’m good.” More walking and then my phone, now with 5% charge, began pinging, and it was my family texting me. Where are you? Want us to come get you? I wasn’t sure exactly where I was, but I knew it wasn’t much farther until I was at the base by the gondola stop. I noticed a road ahead on my left and a small stone structure, the size of a gate house. Using his Find my Friends app, my son soon located me, and shortly after, Joe called with the instruction, “Stay put, we’re coming to you.” I walked to the road, and within ten minutes, the trusty rented Ford Expedition pulled up. I placed my barely used spoiled, chauffeured skis in back and I climbed in front, the family all there and comfy heat blasting out the vents.
Suffice it to say, the next day my ribs hurt. A lot. All that ski carrying on the left side had made turning over in bed, coughing, walking, pretty much anything I did, hurt. I took this as a sign to take the day off, and sent my family off into their day of invigorating blue and black runs. Besides, I’d learned our cat back home had escaped, and so I operated cat central from my hotel room, contacting neighbors and family for help. Eventually, I took a gondola to the village where the next day I would resume my skiing, this time at a beginner slope named Buckaroo Bowl, basically, KinderCare goes skiing. I assumed I’d get the typical experience I’d done before, short straight slope down, up with a magic carpet and repeat, however, this run looked different, curiously intriguing even, and tomorrow I’d experience it. For today, I wandered around the village dotted with shops and restaurants and with a lovely skating rink in the center, still on call and worried about the cat. When I least expected it, the text came. My brother-in-law managed to catch him and he was now safe inside. Big e x h a l e.
As the day was winding down, I made my way down several escalators toward the hotel shuttle stop, and in front of me saw a chef carrying an enormous tray of cookies, surely heading to some catered event. Instead he stopped, and a swarm of people rushed up to him, and he began handing out cookies. I stepped in line and got mine, an enormous, still warm chocolate chip cookie which took many many bites to consume. The cat was back and now this. Heaven.
Day three came, technically day two on the slopes for me, and with slightly healed ribs and sore calves, I climbed into the shuttle toward the slopes. The gondola took me up and I made my way down, sideling up to groups taking lessons and mothers offering little ones advice, absorbing it all, “Push your foot right, left, and turn, turn.” This run was delightful, offering something for everyone, bonafide doable inclines, winding paths and gorgeous scenery. Sweet little animal figurines dotted the path, and around a bend I saw a husky silhouette, which I pretended was my dog Lucie guiding my way, and I whispered, “Hello, sweet girl,” each time I rounded the bend.
When disembarking the gondola, I decided to put my skis on while standing on the rubber perforated mat, versus doing it in the snow. This way, you don’t have to whack your boots over and over with your poles to get the snow off, and the boots more easily snap into the skis. Heading down the slopes, I discovered the key to success was turning often and not letting the skis face straight down, lest the fear creep back in. The fear was still there, but my turning overcame it, and I gave myself advice as I moved. Push right, push left, turn your toes, pizza brakes, bending my knees, now effortlessly gliding around groups and singles. I did this over and over again and on into day four (my ski day three), and on this day, when the snow began falling, oversized flakes rained down all around me as if I were in the center of a magical snow globe.
Yesterday was the last ski day, and in lieu of taking a shuttle to Vail, we decided to stay put and ski Beaver Creek again. We booted up, and with skis in hand, took the gondola to an area where we took the first of three lifts, which would carry us high up to McCoy Park, a vast isolated and nearly empty of skiers 250-acre ski park, which opened just this year. It was on this first of three lifts where I put into practice the best advice I learned yesterday from an employee here. If you’re one of those who struggles departing ski lifts, as you approach the lift operator at the end of the line, you can wave your hand up and down, palms facing down, indicating a “go slower” movement, much like you get from a lady at her mailbox if you’re driving too fast through her neighborhood, and the lift will slow down to a near stop as you exit. Similar to the satisfaction of pumping your arms up and down so a trucker will see you and honk his horn, this is remarkably empowering and reassuring for us green skiers.
The boys were faster than Joe and me, and they skied on ahead taking the forest route, cutting through the trees with sharp turns before heading to another slope. Sticking to his promise to hang with me all day today, Joe slowly skied ahead, turning back every now and then to check my progress. The snow continued to fall, and instead of pelting us in the face as it did on the lift, it fell quietly over the thick blanket spread out everywhere. Cutting through this thick snow was like water skiing when you’re cutting through the wake of an inboard motor, and my skies effortlessly plowed the thick fresh powder. The sky was white, the ground was white, and my jacket was white, and without sun and shadows to reveal contour, everything looked rather flat. It was blind trust, the blind following Joe, who did his best to carve out the least steep route.
There was one short crazy steep area, and out of habit, I took my skis off and walked it until I found a landing to regroup and get my skis on. We made it through this run and went for a second, this time taking a different route past stunning snowy trees lined up majestically in this white winter scene. We took the green trails down to Beaver Creek Lodge via the Primrose and Intertwine trails, and I won’t lie, there was another short walking in ski boots stretch for me, my stubbornness holding tight against Joe’s assurances it wasn’t too bad. I know myself, but I also trust him. Still, on the edge of a steep precipice, my brain seeing it as the grinch’s sleigh about to tip over that edge, with the option of walking it vs facing a frightening fall, I’m choosing option #1. We pressed on until the end, signage pointing to the easiest way down, which turned out to be a steep and narrow and icy curvy mess, one we had to walk a short distance. Others behind us also were stunned to find this “easy way down” nearly impossible, and yelled behind them for others to go a different way. Nice to know it wasn’t just me.
We made it down and back to the village where I suggested we treat ourselves to a beer. Inside the Chop House, we scored a window seat, and instead of a draft, opted for bloody Mary’s, tall ones with a spear of those crunchy yummy garnishes you get–dill gherkin sized pickle, pepperoncini, and an olive–and a sprightly tall stalk of celery to stir the whole thing. Joe opted for the candied jalapeno bacon as an additional garnish in his. A lady next to me, also with a bloody Mary, was enjoying a huge bouquet of fries, which I couldn’t stop staring at. Five minutes until the kitchen would be closing, and I caved and ordered some. The seven dollar price tag proved worth it, and soon a basket arrived containing two enormous metal cones each with a splay of french fries, and two metal ramekins of chilled ketchup. As we settled into the hot fries and the cool drink, we both agreed we were done skiing, and we’d hang here leisurely, and take the shuttle back. A vehicle with wheels as the way home versus skiing it. Yippee!
Can’t say this ski thing has actually taken and it now consistently feels more like pleasure than a somewhat nerve-racking task, but I had some fun with my family, am intact and am still learning. It IS beautiful scenery, and despite my not graduating to blue slopes or even a slew of green ones, I AM making strides. Baby steps folks (literally if you find you can’t handle deep inclines, or your skis won’t go on).
Our room is cozy and all you need, a bed and a sofa bed for the four of us, a microwave and refrigerator, too. The shower is hot and strong and there is self-serve good coffee downstairs each morning. The lobby is full of twinkly trees, a few two-sided roaring gas fireplaces, and a view of snow-capped Colorado Rocky Mountains in the distance. Dogs are welcome here and roam the hotel, and I find I am petting each one. The guys are having a blast and every day becoming better skiers, and making new memories together.
As for me, I’m fairly certain I will get more gutsy if I get another chance at this nonsense, but for today, I’m proud of my accomplishments. This trip reminded me how I’m risk averse, but that this precious body of mine is strong and capable, and for that I’m grateful. If I can get my mind to trust that people–in this case, my family–have lessons to offer and there’s a good chance I will be safe, I can tackle future outings like a snow plow, pushing aside fear to the edges to explore what can be a wondrous path ahead.