Dog Love

Leeds with Love

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 really here, 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.

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Ta-ta Ganache

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. 

SISTERS

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. 

breast cancer, connection, Encouragement, Health, hope, Uncategorized

Two down, looking up.

It’s here! November 21. Finally, and forever in my head as a threshold I get to cross: the day I had that lumpectomy surgery. I had already put this day behind me when I was wheeled into that operating room two years ago, and now, I am grateful and looking forward.

Here I am. I’ve hit two years and then there’ll be three, five and that mother of all finish lines, ten, where they’ll hand me a “cured” ribbon. You don’t really get a ribbon, I don’t think, but, actually better, you get to drop off of your oncologist’s schedule. If there is a ribbon, I picture it a bright sunny yellow one vs pink and screaming all kinds of hope and happy. The pink doesn’t do that for me. Blood can be pink, Pepto Bismol is pink, calamine lotion is pink, and at the center of the storm, nipples, are pink, unless you radiate them 21 times, and then they turn closer to the color of your skin. Yellow, however, is hope, the sun, happy lemonade on a summer day, my hair keeping my head warm, the color of urine when it’s telling you to hydrate more, the circle of French knots in the center of a daisy. I vote yellow.

For this award, there are people to thank:

General gratitude goes out to people who show kindness. The nurses have it going on. The one standing close to my feet while I was getting biopsied initially, who took it upon herself to lovingly stroke my ankles and drape a warm towel over them. The others, who during office visits continue to hear me and my endless concerns, and help me get to the answers I need. The others during chemo who, like labor and delivery nurses, treat you like a queen when you didn’t think you needed or deserved it, and then like a regular person when you most do. They listen to your wired incessant jokes, as the steroids you’ve had to take for days surge through your veins, and they really laugh, the belly kind when you know you’ve struck a chord with someone. The ones who, after chemo and radiation is through, nudge you to ring that bell, and gather others around to cheer you on, noisemakers in hand, beaming ’til their sweet faces must hurt, and then sending you on your way. 

Hair stylists have it, too. When you go in with a crazy combination of long strung out strands and new little sprouts appearing on your scalp, and you leave with a legitimate cut, you know there are angels out there. You return every few months to lessen the gulf between long hair and short and, two years in, it’s just a head of hair now, like everyone else.

The friends you either don’t know well or else don’t see often, but who know what happened. They see me now and they always seem happy that they can. I worry, sometimes, if my brand is too bright, if this little health emergency I had to tend to might forever define me. Sometimes when I see these people, I wonder if there’s a little curiosity going on, like I’ve had myself with the few people I knew who had “it.” Maybe it’s a little hesitation to stand too close to that lady who saw things. Did she see a white light, you know getting so near to the other side? What were they like, those bags of poison, four of which ran through her veins?  Did she lose hair everywhere, I mean, even down there? And what has become of that poor boob, now that the show is over and the scaffolding has been removed? Is this girl now cloaked in a hopeful gratitude blanket skipping along pink meadows through her journey, or does that why did this happen to me bitterness ever come calling? To which I can answer: I was of course joking about a white light. The IV hurt like any IV does going in, but as for the poison itself, you wouldn’t know that’s what you’re getting. Days later, though, it definitely brought skin and taste and stomach annoyances as it worked its magic. Hair left all the different parts of my body in waves and returned in a similar staggered fashion, but now it’s all back and glorious. The boob is just dandy, thank you very much, and all things considered, seems quite normal and happy for its future still here with me. Gratitude is brighter and I literally must stop and smell every rose I see.  And I do. The small stuff, however, can definitely still grate on my nerves, but any bitter taste in my mouth, literally from chemo and figuratively from all this existential stuff I’ve been wading through, has given way to staying on the hunt for improvements in every area of my life. 

To those individuals, friends of mine, not naming names, but you know who you are, you did things, good things, that I won’t forget. 

-You were with me when I got the call, and only had love – not worry – on your face when I later told you.

-You sent emails telling me I was on your mind.

-You bought cards and mailed them to me, sweet words lifting me up, cards I’ll always keep. 

-You hugged me tight, that yummy long embrace that came out of nowhere, but I so needed, and which still lingers.

-You thoughtfully read my blog and commented, cheered me on, sometimes even remembering important milestones I was about to meet. 

-You helped me get curious about meditation even though, like my only occasional church visits, I’m a sometimes meditator. Still, you let me break down and cry and sent me home with some wonderful books, each with its own accessible, healing approach.

-You cooked for me, all of it handmade with love: chicken with broccoli, kale stew, broiled shrimp and roasted vegetables, vegetable and kale soup.

– You were going through your own similar slice of hell at the same time, yet you were open to meeting me and sharing your story with me over coffee, emails and visits, and we got to root each other on.

-You sent flowers and sweet notes.

-You called.

-You sent love in a blanket with hopeful words embellished in its fabric.

-You sent socks with treads on them that I still wear, ginger lozenges for chemo, special shampoos and other helpful goodies you lovingly researched to carry me.

-You joined me on some of those 21 days, walking to radiation, the six miles there and back. What fun that was noticing things, catching up, laughing too.

-You went to a long day of chemo with me where we hunkered down and where you helped ice my fingers and toes, so chemo’s poison wouldn’t bring on neuropathy. We caught up, killed the time, and we lunched, and I learned that this is what friends do. 

-You checked in.

-You showed up. 

-You loved me as if nothing had changed.

To my family: you continue to dilute my worries and reset me in the direction of everything’s going to be okay. Two of you flew down to be with me for my last chemo. How special that was! Another one of you sat with me and watched TV as I lolled in bed wrung out from that one beast of a nausea episode. You walked with me to radiation that gorgeous early spring day. You all continue supporting and encouraging me as I’ve changed things up and largely lessened my alcohol intake, dropped beef off my menu, and continue to try and make healthier choices. For those of you who pray, you prayed. All of you loved me and listened and cared, and you still do. I know this has been a long haul, exhausting for you, too, but you went through this with me, and we came out the other side together, now with two years under our belts. Now, it’s that much farther behind all of us, thank god, and thank 💛you💛 from the bottom of my heart. 

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In Suspense…

It’s the day after Christmas, 2:42pm and having gotten up at 9am, I have returned to bed surrounded by a new book, my laptop, an occasional cat, and a cup of chowder with which to wash it all down. Decadent and divine, it’s the day after and exactly what I need to be doing. A neighbor friend and I are texting and my sister and I are, too. I love watching blinking ellipses as friends real-time type, and then getting that rewarding toaster oven “ding!”, the sound that your toast or text is ready. As it turns out, a watched ellipse does a text produce. 

It’s the day after and exactly what I need to be doing.

The end of the year has me thinking about waiting for things, as we do as children for Santa at Christmas, and as adults for the better part of the year, anticipating things we want to have happen or acquire, or feelings of hope that a pleasant surprise might be around the corner. It seems we all want something to look forward to.

For days now I’ve been waiting on USPS. I adore sending my sister her Christmas box filled with little things – some she wants and others she doesn’t know she does… yet. Normally perfectionistic with wrapping details, for 2020, I felt incredibly accomplished to have even found a box to fit it all and emerged from the long PO line Covid-free and victorious, tracking number in hand. I’ve signed up for text alerts, little dings to sound along her package’s journey to Chicago, but so far there are no sounds, just a vague “in transit” status each time I check. I’m certain the magic is still swirling inside that box, but the failed by Christmas arrival has taken some of the pressure off all the wondering and tracking.

I couldn’t wait for Lucie – at 13.5 dog years (mid ’80s people years) and hobbling along as best she can – to see her gorgeous pale blue memory foam bed, the one I drove to the far recesses of Smyrna for, the falling snow and sunset more than making up for the trip. I kept nudging her to try it, even putting her in it several times, but she wasn’t having it, preferring the smushed limp one she’s so accustomed to.

Upstairs enjoying post-Christmas lounging, I let the sleeping dog lie where she wanted and just look what happened! She explored the new setup and on her own terms found a comfortable position. My son did tuck the cat under her paw to amp up the cuteness factor, but the dog’s position in the bed is entirely her own doing. People and pets happen on their own time.

With all the fun and glow of the holidays, there are plenty of omissions and unfinished business, expectations unmet, people you’ve lost and now miss, and pressure about the new year, the new chance, the new slate. Every year end, I hear John Lennon’s song Happy Xmas and linger over these lines: “So this is Christmas, and what have you done, another year over, a new one just begun… Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fears.” 

I always think about the past year and year ahead and wonder, aside from all my busyness, what is it that I have done? What is it I am supposed to be doing? Some people are eager to dive into the next year, already filling their slates with a flurry of appointments, zoom calls, reminders. Others on the sidelines are waiting on a nudge from the Universe to direct them where to go. I suppose I’m a combination, additionally weighed down by the ever nagging question, “Will I stay healthy in the year to come? And the year after that?” 

A few days before Christmas I felt a tenderness and twitch in my thigh which I’d noticed for a few days. I had resumed running and wondered if maybe that explained it. And I had stood in my kitchen in my fabulous yet unsupportive new Old Navy boots baking three days in a row. Despite this, my brain jumped to the unknown: Is this how breast cancer returns, showing up right here, right now on my left thigh? Writing this now, it all seems ridiculous, but at the time, that theory felt logical. 

So logical in fact that I called my oncologist and after pressing his triage nurse on the issue, I learned if cancer did return my symptoms would not be how it would manifest, and my dull aching leg is very likely from multiple days of standing. Instead I might see a rash, swollen ankles or other larger noticeable things that don’t necessarily bring pain. Through my now tears, I told the nurse what my oncologist had initially said, that surgery (lumpectomy) was the cure and treatments (chemo, radiation) were the insurance. But is that really even true? In that moment I needed her to ask the doctor whether he says this to all his cancer patients or if these words were particularly suited for me.

Given that it was Christmastime during a pandemic with likely a full actual and virtual waiting room of cancer patients, it was a bit much for me to interrupt the doctor’s day to ask that he qualify a statement he’d already made, all so I could get off the anxiety track — especially since I caught the lump early, have a good prognosis and for the most part have taken terrific care of myself. Ten minutes later she called to tell me that he confirmed his words were unique to me, he does still believe my surgery was the cure and my treatments were the insurance. 

This information helped immensely. Now my two cups of coffee brain (turns out one cup is plenty for the generalized anxiety set; two and a caffeinated panic settles in) could begin to mentally fill in the upcoming calendar since I could clearly envision myself living in it. Every twitch, every throb, every everything on a difficult day can flood me right back to that initial fear surrounding my diagnosis. I remind myself I’ve done all the right things, but then turn around and question why is it I can’t get some assurance that it will be enough? I need that plus a little faith too. I know this uneasiness is going to lessen with time. It is just taking a while…

Every twitch, every throb… can flood me right back

2021 is coming at long last, and I expect to step into it confidently and gushing with good health. And like a flower waiting to bloom, I’ll just keep stretching out in the sun and taking in nourishment, knowing it’s what I need. Instead of watching for signs of hope and surety, and wondering what exactly it will or should look like, I think I’ll just stand tall and see what happens.

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There She Is

Most days you look in the mirror and you see the usual. That face that has been yours all your life, which of course always stares right back, the same one everyone else sees when they look at you. You notice the symmetry, something you’ve always taken for granted, and these days you notice the remnants life has left behind — little scars, dark spots, once fine lines, today deeper and cracked open. Isn’t that where they say the light gets in?

In my 20s heading out to bars to see friends or on dates, I’d catch a glimpse of myself before leaving the apartment. The low light was flattering. My hair, bright blonde, shiny and falling softly in a sheet of rain, that familiar corn silk shower draping my neck, my skin clean and (mostly) clear, slightly dressed up for the evening, a pink lip, lined eye, a touch of mascara. I didn’t need foundation and I let my skin breathe, let the Friday fun draw out its radiance, which even the toughest work week couldn’t conceal. A cheek color seemed redundant since I tended to blush easily, always a great source of embarrassment. It was during that last glimpse heading out the door where I’d catch myself, and smile a little, bathed in that familiar light, as if I’d adjusted the rheostat just right, stopping once I landed on me. Too much turning that dial and I would have stopped short or else blown right past her, forced to wade through that sea of vhs static once again before settling on the right channel.

Years passed bringing marriage and then children, and the mirror glances, largely reduced to mornings rushing out the door and evenings winding down at the bathroom sink, lessened. The grooming, teeth brushing, hair drying, and mostly, back then, thinking about flossing. I remember high school when my mother’s friends would be at the house. They had such fun playing tennis together, each sporting her own take on the crisp white tennis skirt, its hemline skimming slightly dimpled thighs, something every high school girl swears she’ll never get. A moderately “athletic” set or two later and their thinning skin glistened from perspiration, slightly masking the dark hollows under their eyes. With pubescent confidence in spades, I knew, somehow, I would age differently. 

Fast forward four decades (and some change) and here I am. Still in touch with one of my mother’s tennis buddies, Peggy, also my godmother, and who is now 80-something. I look at her when we occasionally meet outside socially distanced for lunch, and instead of thinning skin and dark eye circles, all I see now is someone real, full of grace and hope. I see her, I see Peggy. 

The bathroom mirror is put away, protected from our house renovation, so check-in opportunities are few and far between, save for passing the hall armoire mirror and the one in the kitchen. I don’t need to look so much anymore. We’re in a pandemic, the social dialed up dress-up moments are on hold, as are even the simplest small gatherings set with home as the backdrop. 

Last week, I got a haircut. The bald areas chemo brought had started filing in, and I needed a compromise  between my longer hair and new sprouts on top, now bending slightly from gravity. I’ve been desperately wanting to recognize myself again, yet voluntarily signing up to lose more hair was nerve-wracking. The mirror glances this last year have been humbling – the ghostly pasty pallor, the 2-D moon face with scant dirty blonde smudges where eyebrows used to be, the thinning and balding crown (rhymes with clown) and the stunned reflection which could only respond back with a slightly sad deer-in-headlights gaze. However, time has brought my color back, eyebrows too and that third dimension I’ve been missing. I had a lot banking on this cut. With the last of the sun-kissed strands on the floor and the wiry bendy hair staking claim to my scalp, I worried this new external version of me would reveal what I’ve been desperately trying to hide, the crazy chemo roller coaster I’ve been on, the cancer. Yes, it messed up my hair but I’m increasingly seeing bits of myself that I recognize. There is great comfort in that.

Julian, the stylist, is steady, unflappable and encouraging. He knew he could help me and scheduled our time for early morning so it would be just the two of us. Extremely nearsighted with my glasses off and unable to see changes underway, I sat still in my chair, trusting him completely, resigned to just being there. We chatted about his terrific playlist, his adorable toddler and of course the election. Julian and I voted the same way. 

That simple cut made so much sense. I felt pretty again, feminine, healthy. It gave me back a piece of myself. The little girl, the middle-aged woman, the breast cancer survivor, all of me. I saw a plan ahead, I saw hope and I saw that I had to show up, ask for what I wanted, and then put my trust in the process, in the person in charge. 

When you get a cancer diagnosis you can’t simply dust your hands off confidently and exhale, “Phew, glad that’s over.” Instead you solider on, regularly checking in with doctors, with your diet, your exercise, stress levels, hoping to tip the balance, change up the environment on your insides, and erect a flashing billboard shouting a resounding there’s no room in the inn from the rooftops should a malignant passerby come knocking. 

Weeks ago, I noticed a small round red spot on my leg, which my paranoid brain knew was surely a skin cancer red flag. I’d been coming and going between our houses, doing this and that, always rushing, and very likely bumping into things as I moved about my days. Calm and assuring, Joe leaned in, studied it and proclaimed it was very likely a bruise with blood under the surface. Joe was right. 

Last week Joe made me a snack, an empanada we bought at a local farmer’s market, heated up in the toaster oven. Joe likes his coffee strong, his toast dark and extra crunchy, his food highly peppered, and as it turns out, his empanadas absurdly hot. Starving, I dove in, immediately burning my mouth — the roof, the sides, my gums, the whole shebang – yet still finishing the delicious pastry as fast as I could. Days later, long after that snack, I felt something with my tongue inside my left check, a raised Rhodesian Ridgeback line extending diagonally. I knew I had developed some god-awful oral disease and despite all the cancer treatments I’d weathered, this was some new thing I’d now have to attack. I decided to consult with Joe again who inspected the inside of my check, thought for a minute and reminded me I’d burned my mouth days earlier, and this was what that was. Thank you, Joe. Crisis averted again. E x h a l e. 

This past election week left me with a splinter embedded under my fingernail. Not sure what got in there, but no, it wasn’t a ballot chad. It hurts like hell and the skin surrounding it has swollen, gotten firm and red, and literally slammed shut any hope of my tweezers gaining access to slide between my nail and skin, pinch it and drag it the hell out of there. Like a self-cleaning oven that locks itself shut so it can get on uninterrupted with the painstaking work of blasting the oven’s insides so the grime will peel off the sides, top and bottom, the racks too, and only once it’s done will the door lock release and let you back inside. 

Describing the 45th POTUS recently, a neighbor remarked, “He is truly a cancer.” I of course cringe hearing that word especially because MY cancer, MY tumor, the one that is GONE, scored a whopping 45 on its oncotype test (not the worst, but not nothing either), the test that predicts the likelihood of that unwanted second term happening. All this to say, just like POTUS, this invader had a healthy dose of making plans to come back. But I retaliated with similarly heavy chemo and radiation artillery, my own customized insurance plan. And our voters retaliated at the polls. Because our nation’s 45 need not ever come back, it was that much more important that my own not too. He is a cancer of the fast spreading and making plans to return variety. But he was stopped and will continue to be. 

We are beginning to wake up, warm up, thaw and put salve on our burns; we are beginning to see ourselves once again. It’s been the longest of hauls, exhausting, scary, but there is a light ahead. The noise, the static, the searching for a channel is over. As Joe Biden said after acknowledging his imminent victory in this 2020 presidential race, “Let’s give each other a chance… to see each other again. To listen to each other again.“ 

Let the healing begin, for each and every one of us. GO JOE!!