Susan Greco is an Atlanta native, married, and a mother to two sons. Susan's blog, Hindsight, is about life’s choices and our connections with one another. She loves cooking for friends, traveling, growing flowers and tomatoes, and considers it a great day if she’s laughed out loud, had a really good cup of coffee, or made time to go for a run. High energy, high hopes, and vivid details fill her up, and she adores playing around with words to capture moments and experiences she wants to share.
You’re everywhere, but you’re not here. You’re in the grey fog hovering over the backyard. You’re in the daffodil stems springing from your flower frog. You’re tiptoeing on morning moss dusted with dew. You’re warming up the car on a cold morning. You’re you through and through.
Some years you’re here and others I think you must be playing tennis or sunning yourself on a beach somewhere. Did you grow out your hair? You never did let it reach your shoulders. Do they let you smoke where you are? Tell me you didn’t start up again. Do you enjoy bourbon still? I hope you’re having cocktail hour with your parents enjoying all the nibbles Gammy sets out.
Just when I think I’ve put you away, you come back, as if you’ve overcome death. We didn’t finish what we were saying. I’m so sorry you couldn’t catch your breath. I wore an Ann Taylor cream and brown houndstooth dress to your funeral. Did you like it? I went to Lenox crippled with grief, but I needed to find something you would have picked out, stay your Susie a little longer and dress cute for you. I figured you’d make fun of me if I wore black and joined the throngs of mourners cloaked in dramatic greys and blacks, and say things like, “Why so sad? It’s okay.” I felt silly sitting there in the pew by the aisle at St. Luke’s, the only light-colored dress in the place. Why was I not weighted down like everyone else? You insisted I be the light.
So many memories backwards and forwards, sometimes I don’t know where to land, where to find you. Do I remember you that cold winter day when you left without saying goodbye, or do I remember warm summer nights and you finding us pickle jars for our fireflies? Or happy birthdays and the burning candles lighting up your face as you brought in homemade cakes dressed up with flowers you grew. The children and pets you doted on or the clothes you sewed us, or poems you wrote. You needed to stay. There was so much more to say.
When you died, I took several of your suits and altered them to fit me and wore them around for months. We squeezed everything out of those suits, didn’t we? I needed to wear you. I needed to know where you were and if not on me, at least you’d be hanging in my closet. I still see people who knew you and it makes you more real as if it’s not a dream I made up. You lived a full life and all I can do for my children is describe you as best I can.
I see your eyes in my sister and your pretty skin too. Every day you bothered, you worked hard, sweet Sue. You made spaces beautiful, gave them all your touches. You were the arms to lean into as you whispered calming hushes.
I look around and with so many of your things you left behind, I see you everywhere–in Christmas ornaments, furniture, art, even your old-fashioned grocery list I still hang on my wall. I wish I could cook for you. You’d like what I’d make: sundried tomato meatloaf, asparagus with ginger and orange, and an apple tart with sour cream sauce. We’d watch a movie and say goodnight and meet up again for coffee in the morning light.
But you are here in my coffee, which I still take light with plenty of cream. You’re in our cats’ faces who track me each morning looking for breakfast now awake from their dreams. You’re the pile of warm clothes fresh from the dryer, you’re clean sheets on a made up bed, you’re the sound of a dishwasher humming after we’ve all been fed. You’re the elegance of tall taper candles in the dining room, the sound of clinking shoes on hardwood floors gathering for a meal, the whirr of Christmas eve and Christmas morning. The joy of our dog licking the mashed potato pot or gobbling up a ground beef birthday cake.
You’re roasted tomatoes and sweet potatoes, zinnias, and mint. You’re the flame in the wood on this table where I sit. You’re the candle when the power goes out, the bath I draw when there are things to sort out. You’re the bunnies nibbling on our lawn, sweet strawberries in spring. You’re the bourbon in my eggnog, the lemon in your poundcake which I proudly make. You’re Crème Brulee and filet, tonic and lime, tell me please why is it you couldn’t stay?
You bothered, you showed up, you talked a lot. But you had sparkle, and like me, your friends were drawn to all you’ve got. I’ve changed from that 30-yr-old girl you left, yet I haven’t, but I don’t need to tell you that. You know. You’re here with me. So here we are, twenty-nine years later and holding, as you’d say. I’m not yet the age you reached when you passed that day, but when I hit 62, as I often do, I’ll be sure and think of you.
Cancer sucks. Went to my oncologist the other day. Routine visit. Waiting room as packed as a gym in January. I’m hoping it’s cancer screenings bringing people in for a healthy start to the new year and not the room full of cancer patients it appeared to be. The cheerful lady checking me in was wearing a Cancer Sucks button which I prefer to Fuck Cancer, if there is such a button, because while cancer does suck, that is simply a fact you can acknowledge as you set about getting rid of the thing. With a Fuck Cancer button, I see anger with a scrunched face, the very negative energy cancer probably would delight in provoking, and I’m not stooping to that f-ing level. I will occasionally use the #fuckcancer hashtag because it invites a warm camaraderie.
Foot in mouth syndrome. I showed restraint this time and shut my mouth in the lab as the last visit was mortifying. As an aside, much as I have tried to conduct myself, I similarly have taught my kids to not stare or ask people inappropriate questions, such as, “Mommy, look, that lady has a baby in her tummy” when that lady might simply have a thing for Lays chips and Breyer’s mint chip. I mean, who doesn’t? So back to last visit’s labs. I noticed that the nurse drawing my blood had lovely skin and a kind face, and I was happy to see that she was expecting too. I never ask people when they’re due because of that same advice I give my kids because what if they’re just plump? This was not the case with this woman as her weight distribution and tummy swell were clearly the hallmarks of a baby to be. I smiled and asked the question but instead of the ubiquitous, “When are you due?” or “What are you having?” I decided to give my query a unique spin and out of my mouth came this winner: “What ya got brewin’ in there?” fully assuming she’d tell me the baby’s gender. Seriously? Seriously. Smiling through a strained grin, she matter-of-factly offered up, “Honey, I’m just fat.” We found ourselves in the most pregnant of pauses and grasping at nothing, I looked away from her tummy at her bright eyes and said she looked like she was up to something, you know, with those up-to-something eyes and all she must be brewing up something?—she’s mischievous?—and then blathered on about her expert blood draw, piling on an enormous compliments and situation spin avalanche to quickly flatten my beyond ignorant and disrespectful question. We both knew it was a C- attempt at a save, but thankfully she needed to remove the needle from my vein and bandage me, so we moved on. I repeat: seriously? 🤦♀️
Lab etiquette. As if she were a teacher handing out gold stars, this lab tech showered me, her star student, with compliments. The instructions were kindergarten complicated: How nice that I got up when my name was called, listened to the instruction of which chair to sit in and rolled up my sleeve. Thankfully there was no time for me to search the room for the not pregnant lady and try and issue an apology expression for four months ago, which of course would have only buried me deeper. This nurse gushed over her surprise that a patient could actually follow directions, peppering our dialogue with stories about everyone else needing to be called two or three times, missing the lab door entirely, much less locating the proper chair, and then wearing too many layers which took forever to peel off. Somehow in this same exact seat as before, this time I managed to get it right. If only A’s were this easy everywhere.
Stop helping everyone. Anne Lamott said it best here in in this practical advice from her Ted Talk, which I rewatch every year for a good kick in the butt. Stop helping everyone. This visit found me urging my western educated highly trained oncologist to get in to see a chiropractor. Not just any chiropractor, my chiropractor. The poor guy looked strained when he walked in and said he will be standing because he has an injury from ten years ago when he fell off a ladder. From time to time his pain flares up, and today’s one of those times. He looked miserable and instead of talking about me, I focused on him. He’s been to PT and is doing the exercises, but I asked if he’d consider seeing a chiropractor because I also fell years ago going down Stone Mountain. Not to outdo his ladder story but my tailbone hit granite. What did yours encounter? Clearly, he was not interested in my chiropractic recommendation, but nonetheless I went on. After two visits I was pain free and would he like the name? He wasn’t having it.
Lucky 7. Yes, we realize alcohol is a toxin, but still, we cancer patients like to bargain in hopes some new study has churned out an even higher drink allotment. It turns out it’s still seven drinks a week I get, but best to have one on Monday and one on Tuesday etc., instead of two on Tuesday or three on Wednesday, which can only promise more fun. I smiled a what’s the point smile and we moved on.
Carbs aren’t your friend. With labs thankfully uneventful this go round, next up was my weight, literally. Despite my practically stripping before stepping on the scale I’d still managed to gain two pounds. In my defense, I have perfected my scalloped potatoes recipe, tweaking it twice in two weeks (and loving every minute of it thank you very much). Not sure how it came to be that I live with people who don’t share this same obsession, but I happily incorporated these potatoes into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try it!
Uneventful visits are the goal so I’m counting myself lucky this go round. As I’ve reminded you before, ladies please do monthly breast self-exams and stay current on your mammograms. xoxox
There are so many little things that are on my mind, things that December has dredged up. I’ve been thinking about people we miss, ones who have passed, and others we only get to see briefly in person, and the energy they leave behind or change in us. We each release an essence, one that lingers with people we meet and share this life with, which can evoke memories and feelings and jolt us backwards and forwards remembering, hoping, and learning. It can light a fire in us, energize us, deplete us, show us our best selves, or leave us wanting more. It can spotlight our loneliness, too, and remind us how much we need people we can relate to, who see us, and who care.
I’ve been thinking about people we miss, ones who have passed, and others we only get to see briefly in person, and the energy they leave behind or change in us.
Like so many I was deeply struck by the loss of Twitch, The Ellen Show’s DJ and dancer, and the tribute Executive Producer Andy Lassner wrote has stayed with me. I only watched the show a dozen or so times, but this lovely man sparkled as he moved his body artfully and effortlessly down the aisle all the while flashing that bright smile. You were always left wanting more of this goodness and light. If he always had it, surely we could muster this magic too? We need each other’s light and joy, especially during those times when we can’t find our own. We need dancers, singers, painters and writers, we need those willing to reveal themselves and show us our own. We need to harness the brightness and fill up on this fuel and lighten all our loads. Here are Andy’s words:
“So many people on social media are posting pictures of themselves with Twitch, talking about their close friendships with him, talking about the texts they exchanged with him just last week. Talking about the conversation they once had with him. The thing is – it’s all true. It’s all real. Those who knew him are not trying to make this tragedy about themselves, they are just trying to convey to you who Twitch was. He made everything about you. He made you feel like the most important person in the world. And he did this for everybody. Not just the people he needed or that were “important”. He did it for everybody. It doesn’t sound real. But it is. All of it. He was everyone’s friend. He really did care for every single person who worked at the show and everyone in his life. And the thing is if you met him just once – you felt that feeling. That light. That’s why I think you and I are hurting. Because we all counted on him. He was our flame. Our joy. Our dancer. There was a heavy burden that none of us realized he was carrying. He must have been so tired. But we didn’t know because he never wanted it to be about him. Ever. So now we can either spend all of our time wondering why and how and never being satisfied with the answers we imagine. Or we can focus on being grateful for the gift he gave us by allowing us to take light from his flame. The thing is that light still burns in us. All of us. Let’s try and share that light with the people we love. It’s really all we can do. And that’s enough. It’s more than enough.”
This last week brought Christmas and with it, like it does every year, expectations and effort, excitement, exhaustion, and emotion. Family came together and then broke off into smaller bits, two leaving on a ski trip and two staying behind, my older son Ben and I the ones staying put. He has work to return to and I particularly enjoy the art of homebodying in the days between Christmas and New Year’s, when that sleepy sweet Christmas dust lingers and the tree seems lighter, relieved to reveal the draped skirt underneath it again, and with everything done, it’s more than okay to just go take a nap. I also had ambitious plans for Ben and me–tennis, bowling, a walk into downtown Decatur for drinks and dinner–but the reality is there’s never enough time nor is a 20-something going to dedicate a huge chunk of it to spend with his mom. I try to remember my own self in my 20s and friends, not mom, were naturally top of the list where they should be. I am learning if you quit trying so hard, the moments come, and if you can just stop and notice, you’re likely in one.
It’s been a good visit with Ben. It left me remembering him, his sweet spirit and our dynamic that I notice best when it’s just us. In my ongoing cleanup attempts, I had set aside some boxes I’d pulled from under his bed, all the stuff you keep from school and sports. He went to work on what turned out to be an interesting exploration of memories, culling the collection down to two boxes, and left a pile to toss. In my closet I found a big box of my mom’s sewing things–colorful spools of thread, her signature strawberry pin cushion, seam rippers and measuring tapes. There was her old coin purse too and inside were the sweetest tags she’d stitched into the many handmade things she sewed. How I miss her infectious enthusiasm, spontaneity, and creativity. Ben got a kick out of all these things, and on this particular visit back home, was fascinated to learn that his paternal great grandmother, too, was a seamstress. Is it nature instead of nurture showing her strengths here?
It was unscripted time, the best kind where you get things done, are on separate floors and don’t need to talk, but return to one another filled up and ready to share. We talked about his sewing projects, items he’s selling and others he’s planning to create. We examined the bag he made me for Christmas which was just as I’d hoped, warm grey upcycled leather, a central zipper, greco tag inside, and a generous pouch for my wallet and cellphone and keys and maybe a lipstick. It looked like a croissant. I love croissant and I love the bag, especially since it’s lovingly handmade by Ben. We talked about New York and my plans to visit in February when a group of ladies I’ve met online are gathering.
Later that afternoon he went out with a friend, and we decided after he got back, we would go bowling, but he called the bowling alley and they had a long wait and another one wasn’t open, so we were disappointed. I was hoping he’d come home, and we’d have dinner together, one of those great moments I’d tried to orchestrate, but the reality was he was in Duluth with friends and having a ball, so I said, “Just be safe and I’ll see you later.” I lit a fire and lit a candle, and I laid down on the couch and went in and out of sleep, listening to a podcast, giving myself permission to have my own wonderful time.
While he was gone, I boiled some more water (we’d been on a boil water advisory in our county) and then went into his room to find a tangled mess of Christmas gift cards and comforters and other post-holiday loot you’d expect. I cleared the bed and made it up, filled a new water bottle with boiled water, and got the room to a reasonable state where if you got in late you wouldn’t have this mess on your hands. I also put a space heater in there because he’d said he was cold the night before. Downstairs, the cats were still sleeping, and I looked up at the tree again, something I’ve done multiple times over the course of this month. It’s been a reliable source of beauty and peace since we got it late November, and only now is it starting to drop a few needles. It’s just lovely. Still.
Ben returned and we were up another few hours talking and getting him packed up. We each set our alarm for 5am and then went to sleep. Barely four hours later but right on schedule there was the alarm, and I hit snooze for those delicious extra few minutes I always steal. I could hear Ben’s go off too (he’s right across the hall from my door), and moments later he was in my room standing at the foot of my bed marveling at the kitties who were sprawled out and sleeping. I slid over and opened the covers and he laid down with me. We cuddled together in the warmth trying to stay really still so the cats wouldn’t move. Ben had on the robe I’d bought for Christmas, a beautiful soft plaid one I picked up at the last minute. I presented it as a gift Santa left for whichever boy in the house wanted it, and Ben quickly claimed it. We talked in the dark for a little longer and then the alarm sounded again, and it was time.
While he packed up his last few items, I went downstairs to toast the biscuits I’d made on Christmas, buttering them and tucking a little honey baked ham in each. I made coffee too. Ben said he’s been drinking Eight O’Clock coffee at home, but he really liked the Pete’s we’ve been having each morning, so I made us a pot of Pete’s, filled some to go mugs, filled our water bottles, and we set out for the airport in the pitch-black dark. I left the tree lights on so we could look at it when we drove past. Ben wanted to drive but he also wanted to eat his biscuits, so we agreed I would. Once at Hartsfield (what we native Atlantans call the airport) I moved into the far-right departures lane, but with such heavy traffic, we had to stop just shy of the canopy. I got out with Ben, gave him a big hug, and he headed inside.
I made my way back home, a tiny, tired motorist under the enormous dark sky, and kept driving toward the sunrise, east on I-20, then exiting and getting on College Avenue continuing east to Church Street past Scottdale and into a little subdivision where the sun peaked out. I watched it for a few minutes, then turned back around toward home to the still sparkling tree and quiet. I laid down on the couch with the cats and drifted in and out of sleep.
In between little bits of sleep I opened up Delta’s flight tracker to find Ben. You really sleep well when you know where they are, your heart walking outside of you. My younger son, Evan, is with Joe–they’re probably going to start the day soon on the slopes–and Ben has just landed, so everyone’s accounted for. I’m still gonna doze ‘cause I’ve gotten up at 5am the last two mornings, one morning to send off the skiers, and this morning to send off Ben.
The couch wasn’t comfortable, and I needed a real bed. Ben’s room is the sunniest of all and the only one with an extra heat source in it now, so I slid into his bed and the cats followed me. The sun was so bright, it was hard to sleep, but I managed to rest before getting a shower. Even though you have to boil the water to drink it, you can shower in it, but just need to keep your mouth shut. Life lessons from boil water advisories: just keep your mouth shut.
Next, I was off to see my former Slovakian tenants who’d invited me for coffee and cookies, Their house is like a bright shiny IKEA catalogue, all their gifts are wrapped with fabric, their floors are bleached, cookies aren’t too sweet but lovingly made from scratch, and the coffee is piping hot. The kids are darling, and I love the warmth in their parents’ bright eyes. Their energy is peaceful and kind, and I brought them some of my homemade granola and eggnog.
The fumes from Christmas are only slightly still in the air, but the fatigue has set in from going going going, and I’m glad I’ve let myself be still. The house is mine for three more days, and I’m going to bask in the silence. I doubt a TV will go on and there’s no one to talk to, no one to feed, just the silence, me, and the tree.
Here we are again at the end of another year and it’s Christmastime. Let’s set aside the shopping, baking, and sparkling baubles for a moment and ponder a familiar seasonal conundrum. Why didn’t we finish all the things we set out to do or at least make an appreciable dent in moving along that elusive path we’re on? By December, the year-long cacophony of what ifs and why nots has achieved a tormenting hold. If you strip away the pageantry of Christmas, we’re still just us trying to carve out and extract the best from this life we’ve been given, and it’s simply the end of another year. What was I expecting? I didn’t do much differently this year, though I AM still alive (no small feat). Was I honestly counting on the year to press out all those wrinkles, and now that it’s December, am I really going to STILL fixate on them? ‘Tis the season of trying to wrap it all up with a pretty bow, I suppose.
I do love this time of year. The air is crisper and the lights are brighter–little twinkly smiles that beam at you from inside windows–and there’s a big ball of hope and love that swells up so full you think it might just burst. For me, this joyful yuletide crescendo continues until sometime around Christmas night, after all has been unwrapped and revealed and then things deflate, leaving behind a gentle return to life as it was, in many ways a welcome relief. Each season, we get this glittery December window in which to dispense this magic over others, but the window is narrow, producing an urgency to harness it and spread it, but hopefully saving some for yourself. Of course, the window is actually as wide as we make it and we’ve got a full 365 days to work with.
Christmas isn’t just a calendar day or a season, it’s a billowy set of sails that charts our course for December and beyond. By the twelfth month, before us is a rich end-of-year stew–chock full of different ingredients, some quiet and lovely, sunny or lonely, some full of remembrance and yearning, dreaming or improving. When we’re young, this season takes forever to get here, but when it finally does, it brings weeks of anticipation with which to plan and savor. As adults we set about intentionally mining for that magic that only Christmas can bring. The season moves at rapid speed and that fairy-tale attention once placed on you now lives inside you, yours to harness and give, though at the end of a tough year, you wonder sometimes if it will even appear. When you least expect it, however, you find yourself pulling from way down deep to do something nice for someone, and you keep doing it again and again. THIS is Christmas.
Walking through our city’s botanical garden recently, I felt some of the magic, but it was a diluted strain and not the intimate experience I’d treasured years earlier under this same canopy of twinkly trees. The last time I came here acapella carolers’ drifting wintry notes drew me in, and I moved in closer to sing with them. These sounds brought sweetness out of the dark and filled me with a renewed appreciation for familiar carols I will forever know the words to. On this night I’d wanted the sparkle to grab my hand, and lead me into the season. Instead, I just saw lights, albeit choreographed spectacular ones, which seemed more fact than emotion. As I meandered along to piped-in familiar songs—The Nutcracker Suite, New York, and All I Want for Christmas is You—the music swallowed up any traces of silence I’d hoped to get lost in or those quiet conversations you hear along a path. It was an orchestrated noise you could hear, see, and even taste if you were willing to stretch your budget further. Directional signs led people to lines for s’mores kits and marshmallow roasting stations, light necklaces, and other tempting extras for purchase, but for us our entry ticket was enough. Off the main path was a tiny Christmas village around which an electric train circled, which I found mesmerizing.
It must be my brain, noisy in all seasons, that craves the quiet, that prefers the sound of snowfall versus sled blades cutting the ice, an intimate conversation over a pulsing party, acapella singing under the stars to brightly lit choirs. Thankfully I’ve got a detailed loop in my head that can recall past merry moments, but I’ve gotten better at noticing which bits soothe and inspire me. It gets noisy starting in Halloween and ramps up until the new year, but if you work at it, you can extract a version that works for you.
These are a few of my favorite things in no particular order:
❄️That first snow falling softly and your dog pressing her paws in it, incredulous, as if it appeared solely for her wonder and enjoyment.
❄️A fresh boxwood wreath on your door
❄️Children peeking from the top of the stairs ready to bundle down the steps and discover their surprises
❄️Ball jars of eggnog chilling in the refrigerator, gifts for delivery later
❄️Caroling with neighbors.
❄️Silent night sung by candlelight at church on Christmas Eve
❄️The sight and smell of cranberry pistachio biscotti cooking
❄️Newscasters on Christmas eve reporting Santa sightings
❄️It’s a Wonderful Life, the movie.
❄️It’s a Wonderful Life, the experience.
❄️A fresh cut fraser fir stretching out its branches and feeling at home in your living room.
❄️Noticing your tree is drinking water and filling it up every morning.
❄️Stringing lights on your tree and then running outside to see the pretty view from the street.
❄️Stuffing holiday cards into a nearly full post box.
❄️Taking your children to the PO to drop off a letter to Santa in the North Pole
❄️Grocery store lines and talking with strangers about the meals they’re planning.
❄️Christmas Eve night when all the packages are wrapped and there’s nothing else to do but look around and soak it all in.
❄️Wishing strangers a Merry Christmas
❄️Letting the tired mom in the minivan with a Rudolph nose and antlers cut you off in traffic.
❄️Finding coins to give the Salvation Army bell ringers.
❄️Finding bills to give a homeless person on the ramp to the interstate.
❄️Wintry pillows and pets who snuggle.
❄️Ornaments you’ve never loved but grew up with which you now appreciate and carefully hang.
❄️Champagne and clam chowder on Christmas Eve.
❄️Sweet rolls Christmas morning.
❄️Realizing how much time and energy your parents gave to make your holidays as special as they were.
❄️Christmas Eve brunch with your best girlfriends.
❄️Finding the perfect gift for someone and beautifully wrapping it.
❄️Opening your mail to find Christmas cards, some with a heartfelt handwritten personal note.
❄️A living room strewn with wrapping paper Christmas morning and your cats joyfully romping in it.
❄️Going to bed Christmas Eve knowing you gave your very best and excited to watch it all unfold in a few hours.
❄️Your dog gnawing a bone from her stocking and beaming lovingly at you in gratitude.
❄️Cats on their sides humping their catnip toys, dizzy with delight
❄️Napping Christmas afternoon sleepy from mimosas and sweet rolls and secrets that finally got unwrapped
❄️A Christmas cactus that has bloomed
❄️A paper white narcissus, standing tall and thin, blissfully unaware of its glorious scent.
My neighborhood is going to sing carols again like they did last year which was my first time participating. For any locals who want to join me, please reach out. It’s on Sunday the 18th. Here’s a sampling from December ’21:
Nothing is perfect but trying to watch the chaotic tennis match between past and future Christmases only robs you of this Christmas. Believing the purpose of the end of another year is for all to be solved feels short-sighted and shallow and surely sets you up for failure. Instead, I believe our takeaway should be simply, “All is calm all is bright.” Remember? From the song? As the following clever poem illustrates, the power just might reside in our lungs of all places.
My brain and heart divorced a decade ago over who was to blame about how big of a mess I have become. Eventually, they couldn’t be in the same room with each other. Now my head and heart share custody of me. I stay with my brain during the week and my heart gets me on weekends. They never speak to one another; instead, they give me the same note to pass to each other every week, and their notes they send to one another always say the same thing: “This is all your fault”
On Sundays my heart complains about how my head has let me down in the past and on Wednesday my head lists all of the times my heart has screwed things up for me in the future. They blame each other for the state of my life. There’s been a lot of yelling – and crying so, lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my gut who serves as my unofficial therapist. Most nights, I sneak out of the window in my ribcage and slide down my spine and collapse on my gut’s plush leather chair that’s always open for me and I just sit sit sit sit until the sun comes up. Last evening, my gut asked me if I was having a hard time being caught between my heart and my head. I nodded. I said I didn’t know if I could live with either of them anymore. “My heart is always sad about something that happened yesterday while my head is always worried about something that may happen tomorrow,” I lamented. My gut squeezed my hand.
“I just can’t live with my mistakes of the past or my anxiety about the future,” I sighed. My gut smiled and said: “In that case, you should go stay with your lungs for a while,” I was confused, the look on my face gave it away. “If you are exhausted about your heart’s obsession with the fixed past and your mind’s focus on the uncertain future, your lungs are the perfect place for you. There is no yesterday in your lungs, there is no tomorrow there either. There is only now. There is only inhale, there is only exhale, there is only this moment. There is only breath, and in that breath you can rest while your heart and head work their relationship out.”
This morning, while my brain was busy reading tea leaves and while my heart was staring at old photographs, I packed a little bag and walked to the door of my lungs. Before I could even knock, she opened the door with a smile and as a gust of air embraced me she said, “What took you so long?”
Laura and I met online Feb 1st of this year in a Sisters breast cancer group. In her first video, Laura smiled and told me she’s from Leeds in Yorkshire, and I left her my own introduction from Decatur, Georgia, each of us happy to connect over these first shy hellos. We soon merged with a larger online Sisters group where we all got to know each other and Laura better. We learned she’s a Kate Bush fan, art maker, teacher, friend, mother, lover, and we all loved her vibrant, passionate, beautiful, soulful self, and of course that glorious accent. All of it was ace, as Laura would say.
For now our group is seven ladies, five in the US, one in Canada, and Laura in the UK, and our ages range from early thirties to late fifties, and we are connected along this journey that is breast cancer. I’ve compared our video platform to a hop on hop off bus. When we need to get on, we hop on, and find a new experience waiting for us with new information, connection and care, or we hop off and rejoin again when we can. Depending on what stage of treatment we’re in, sometimes we show up with hair on our head, then with no hair, and then with hair again. We show up however and wherever we are and whenever we want, and we cry and we laugh, but mostly we just show up and share.
At first, for me Laura seemed far away, far across that pond we knew was between us, but with each new video, that distance melted. As Laura began her afternoons, we would wake up to her occasional morning Marco Polo videos (polos as we call them) and find she’d already completed her writing and yoga morning routine, walked her dog Wally and moved a mountain or two long before any of us had even begun to stir. As our bonds grew some of us sent each other little gifts; I sent Laura chocolates which she loved and later mailed Wally some bacon bones, but they were returned to me in the States for some reason marked “undeliverable.”
Our friendships have brought a positive, helpful energy as some of us are still dealing with surgeries, chemo, radiation, and other treatments still ahead. Sometimes post chemo and still with steroids in her system, Laura would fast talk through her videos, giddy and silly, and other times her lovely enormous eyes would widen and her voice dim when she was having a particularly difficult day. The ease of showing up as we are before people who understand and want to listen is a comforting reminder that we are together for all the seasons of our lives, of our years, and of our cancer.
We cry, we laugh, but mostly we just show up and share.
This past July, my husband and I visited our son who was studying abroad in Oxford, and Laura agreed we should meet. She’d take the train from Leeds into London, and we’d set aside a day in which to play. She videoed me after she’d bought her ticket and now this fun almost fictitious online creation of ours would get to step out into the sun. We let the group know our plans and promised to send a polo. We knew it would be a ball, but couldn’t have predicted the unprecedented London heat wave with temps soaring to 103F and cancelling all trains. The rails buckle in such heat, my mechanical engineering student son told me. Laura and I were certainly disappointed as was the group, since they were excited to take the trip vicariously through us, but cheerful Laura decided it just wasn’t meant to be and besides, she’d come to the States next year and visit New York.
Fast forward several months and my husband had another trip planned—technically a necessary international mileage run if he wanted to keep his Delta SkyMiles diamond status—and this new travel itinerary could and would include London! I proposed another try at a visit to Leeds, but Laura said she’d likely still be in the middle of radiation. Drats! We kept up our chat back and forth, however, and because of our will, we found a way and a day after her radiation was complete. I suggested we not tell the group–a tad deceitful, yes, but I didn’t want there to be another disappointment and also there’s nothing quite like a good surprise, is there? Cancer patients put their lives on hold, and with so many appointments, travel is mostly nonexistent. We knew our group would enjoy a Laura/Susan Leeds redo and we’d send them a video when it happened.
On schedule, the 9:03am train arrived at London Kings Cross station Platform 5, and I found a great seat with a table in a mostly empty car across from a woman who’d scored a similar setup, also on her way to Leeds, to one of the The Ivy restaurants she oversees. As we settled in, we got to talking and each admitted noticing the palpable somberness in the air since the Queen’s passing and burial just two days earlier. I learned this lovely woman was from Italy–either Sicily or Sardinia, I don’t remember—but had lived in the UK enough years to now feel a part of it, and admitted that she deeply felt this loss of Her Majesty the Queen. She worked some and we talked some as hay bales, cows, and fields whirred by, accelerating the 2.5-hour ride.
Soon I would see Laura’s face and be in the company of her voice in real time—a half hour to go, then fifteen minutes more, and then I’d be there. Finally, the train pulled into the station, and I hopped off, glancing at my text from Laura on where exactly we’d meet. When I looked up, just a turnstile between us, before me was this magnificent beaming face with wide eyes full of love, and I fell into her open arms as if they were my own mother’s. So much emotion in this long-awaited embrace. I’m reallyhere, we both kept marveling, and Laura captured this moment in that surprise video we couldn’t wait to send the group.
Laura had the entire day’s itinerary set and said she’d run it by her therapist that morning who thought everything sounded great. I love that my visit made it into her session, and that the day was equally important to her. This girl outing in some ways felt stolen and deliciously and satisfyingly selfish, one of those rare opportunities you don’t question, you take. First, Laura said she’d show me around her city, Leeds architecture and history and places she thought I’d find interesting, and then we’d have a nice lunch at a fancy place, Uber to her house, see her sons and dog Wally, and then walk to the whale rock. I was all hers until 6 o’clock, and so we began our adventure. We saw the Leeds Corn Exchange, a gorgeous building dating back to the 1860s, and the equally stunning Leeds Market and County Arcade, and Laura bought me a box of her favorite Yorkshire tea as well as a hand towel with Leeds landmarks.
Lunch was deluxe, as Laura would say, and we got seated at a nice window table. It was a beautiful restaurant and as I was taking it all in, I noticed the lady from the train in the other corner of the room at the lunch meeting she’d been preparing for, and she recognized me too and smiled my way. Like old friends, Laura and I talked and laughed nonstop, and each time a server came by our table, it flooded us back into our reality as restaurant patrons who ought to look at the menu and order lunch. No one rushed us, however, and we enjoyed delicious soup, salad, and salmon, and the attentive staff seemed to feed off our good energy.
Afterwards, we caught a cab to Laura’s house where she left another video: “Hi everybody, I’m with Susan and we’re going into my house. She’s come all this way. Susan is still here and so am I. I’m taking her to see my yellow gate and cheeky hens and so weirdly Susan’s here! You know they (her hens) started eating their own eggs? It’s so gross.” Soon after, it was no surprise that our phones began blowing up with new videos:
-One woman from her NC home shaking her fists exclaimed: “Susan and Laura! Oh my gosh. Ahhh, that’s so exciting, what a surprise! Susan’s makin’ the rounds, she’s gonna have met all of us in the next year.” (I’d already met two ladies in May while visiting my son in NYC)
-Another from her car while driving in Canada: “WTF that’s so cool, what a lovely surprise!”
-Another in Michigan post chemo from her pillow where she was resting: “I love seeing you two together. That’s so sweet.”
-Another, walking the streets of New York, “Oh my gosh, I was so happy to see you guys together!”
-Another, smiling from her home on Long Island, “I loved seeing Susan and Laura together.”
Inside I met Wally, the part shepherd all love pup we’ve seen in so many videos and who now had an edible parcel from America to open, and I didn’t hesitate to let him nibble a few. Laura’s older son was home so I met him and later on, his brother too. In past videos, Laura’s occasionally nudged her sons to say hello to our group, and they’ve politely obliged, but it was particularly special to meet them at their home in person. It was a win-win-win, traveling on my own by train to a new place, a full day with Laura, and the happy greetings we shared with our Sisters group.
While we’d been busy around town dining and laughing, Wally, I’m certain, had been anticipating a walk. We booted up (Laura loaned me her new boots) and coated up (Laura also loaned me her waterproof coat) for the rainy walk, a light mist none of us minded, and set off toward the whale rock on meandering trails, steep inclines and through dense forests. Occasionally we’d look at the time and realizing we still had loads, the day continued unfolding just as Laura had planned. Wally occasionally went exploring off leash, but always returned when Laura called. What a good boy. The whale rock was just as I imagined, a large stone whale-shaped outcropping with an eye cut into one side. We sent the girls another video and again, those likes and hearts came rolling in. When did we plan this? How long had we known? Oh, how they all wished they could be there too, and we wished that for ourselves. For this entire day I knew just how lucky I was.
Over the course of this day, all the bits of videos Laura had previously shared with us on her walks unfolded before us. We passed the sweet foal who’d grown up quickly, and I stopped for a photo. We picked red and black currants, the black ones tasting the sweetest and the red ones uncomfortably tart in my mouth. (Did you know? Great Britain grows more black currants than anywhere else.) Even the acorns seemed special, and I grabbed one which I still have, because it’s not every day you get your hands on a Leeds acorn, is it? We passed apple trees, too, full of sweet tiny fruit and we each picked and pocketed one. Walking and talking together and surrounded by the beginnings of Fall, we’d unlocked a big ball of wonder which followed us around like a happy summer cloud.
Back home, still cloaked in the misty day, we unpeeled our layers and left them inside by the back door. We checked the time again and we still had more time, so Laura suggested we have cake and tea. Her friend had made a lovely apple flan, gorgeous custardy goodness inside, flavorful thinly sliced apples outside and bits of almond all bound together in a brilliant tart, something I’d never had or made but am going to try. We took our tea and cake upstairs to Laura’s room and sat on the bed to enjoy it all. Like 8th grader BFFs we talked nonstop, and Laura pulled things off her shelves to show me–books she liked including one by an author she loved and knew I would too that she insisted I keep and read, a lovely plate she’d made—with all her other artistic talents it seems she’s also a potter—and the inset of a record album she and several friends had created, all gifts for me. As we ate pie, drank tea, and laughed, we posted another video for our friends, and Laura joked about my American accent which her friend earlier noticed and kidded that in these few hours together, Laura’s voice had taken on a similar American lilt.
“Do you want to see my scars?” Laura asked earlier but we were too busy eating apple flan and exploring her room to switch gears back to breast cancer, the reason we met in the first place. But when she asked again, I said, “Sure.” We got up and went to her bathroom and she lifted her shirt, and I was at first struck (and a little jealous, actually) by her firm belly (which clearly didn’t make a habit of apple flan) and then I saw the beautiful blank slate in the space her breasts once held. It was the innocent chest of a sweet little girl, a post mastectomy canvas lovingly cleared of unwanted intruders and wiped clean to begin again, leaving behind two whisper thin scars each in the shape of a smile. She thought her surgeon did a remarkable job and I agreed. I showed her my own scars, two thin lines from two lumpectomy incisions plus two small divots from subsequent biopsies, which Laura said looked like dimples. Her smiles and my dimples. How cute are we?
It was getting to be that time, so Laura helped me pack up my many gifts and we said our goodbyes to her two sons and to Wally. At this time, Leeds was in the middle of its rush hour and as her car slowly inched along, time suddenly sped up. We agreed if I were to make my train, I’d need to walk the short distance, so we said a quick goodbye and I set off on foot. Laura kept her eye on me, and I turned to see her car advancing in traffic before I waved one last time and crossed the street, disappearing into the station. It was an extraordinary day full of flan and fun, and I sunk into my seat on the crowded train as it made its way toward London realizing you’re never too old to make new friends and you never run out of love.