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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!!

Uncategorized

Begin Again

“If ever you feel discouraged, and you will at times, step away, take a deep breath, and begin again.” These are some of the words I wrote on my son’s graduation card. I don’t know if he’ll hang on to it or them, but I wanted to tell him anyway, maybe because I also needed this reminder? George Floyd can no longer take a deep breath and begin again, despite asking, begging, over and over, to reclaim his breath. And for those of us still here, simply breathing, something we take for granted, has gotten complicated on every level.

I’ve been listening to the news, watching social media and reading perspectives from well-known people and others too. The common takeaway is horrific and none of us can un-see what we saw in that video. And why should we? Haunting and deeply disturbing, that video and George Floyd’s precious life has sharpened our vision, caused us to look more closely at everything, our relationships with each other and the deep-seated labels, consciously and unconsciously, we assign to each other every single day.

Wear the Damn Mask / While grocery shopping, I noticed a sweet little boy, barely even three, wearing a mask like his parents. His had a cartoon pattern and tiny elastic bands which curved around his ears. With sobering headlines these days the likes of “Coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine,” I realized mask wearing will likely become normalized for him, something he grows up with in his daily wardrobe, as commonplace for his preventive health as an annual well check. I wonder, will his family reunion photos depict everyone in masks, with separate picnic blankets and distancing? I keep wanting to look back on this time, have it in our rearview mirror and in many ways return to how things were, but then I remember things will never be how they were and maybe they shouldn’t. Perhaps instead of fighting it, let’s work with it, highlight the best parts and lose the rest.

Change Your Behavior / In an interesting interview on NPR, science writer Sonia Shah, author of Pandemic and the more recent, The Next Great Migration, talks about the pandemic today. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/02/867691497/migration-isnt-crisis-it-s-the-solution-science-writer-says She says what we take out of this will depend on the stories we tell ourselves, which largely fall under the basic narrative that we have been invaded by something outside of us, and we have a sense of us being the passive victims. She observed the reaction to the pandemic for many has been that Covid has befallen us, as if we are objective observers and this plague raging in front of our noses simply happened to us, robbed us of control, and we are now left with the inconvenience of having to react. Yet its deep roots started to take hold long ago. Similarly, the response to systemic racism can be a passive or active one. We can either deny its very existence or change our behavior. It’s proven that social distancing works, and if you follow its guidelines, you will indeed flatten the curve. If a society wants to rid itself of systemic racism, it also must change its behavior. So simple, it seems. Shall we?

Food Is Love / I walked my dog downtown the other day, late in the afternoon when the sun is gentler and the dinner hour looms. Instead of the hum of bustling shops and restaurants, there was only a hot summer stillness under a gorgeous pandemic blue sky. I noticed the same men I often see, sitting on benches in front of the library, their belongings rolled up in tidy heaps near them and against the building. There was another man sitting alone in front of the Rec Center and our eyes locked. I always tighten the leash when I see people, because my German Shepherd/ Husky is big and for some, menacing, and the last thing I want to incite walking by is fear. On this 80-something-degree day, a lady dressed in a parka sat at a bus stop across from the Presbyterian church busy on a phone call, and several other men, one with his head down, dotted the lawn.

I couldn’t shake any of it once I got home and so I did what my instincts told me to do, what I’ve done several times before. The mini Kroger’s parking lot wasn’t too full and a nice smiling lady inside gave me one of the cleaned carts which I filled with deli turkey, ham, provolone cheese, soft wheat bread, fruit cups, bananas and baked chips. I bought paper lunch sacks and waters, too, and scored napkins and even a pack of toilet paper for our own cupboard. I sat in the car and assembled little meals. I brought a stick of butter, knife and cutting board from home and the butter softened in the car while I shopped. I buttered the bread, made the sandwiches and filled the bags full, with a napkin tucked inside each.

I returned and walked toward the two men and offered them a drink and snacks and we started talking. The older gentleman said what he’d really like is some ice cream, and we joked that I came up short. I asked him what kind and he said Haagen-Dazs cherry vanilla and coconut caramel. Then he rattled off more flavors and I said, laughing, “Stop!” We both knew neither of us was going to score a scoop no matter how many flavors we recited, but we laughed anyway at the futility of it all.

Next, I walked to the side of the church by the lawn. The man with his head down had gone, two others were still there. I gave them each a bag and we both told each other “God Bless You.” I never say that, but them saying it to me felt good, and so I said it back. Across the street on the square under the gazebo were two other young men. They were friendly and seemed glad to see snacks and water. They also said “God Bless You” and again I said it back. We agreed God should bless all of us. Around the corner propped up against the old courthouse was an older man, his belongings strewn against him and the building. He wrote things in a tiny spiral notepad and said he’d like some pocket change. I never carry money so instead brought him a water and a banana.

He asked me my name. I told him and got his. Kevin wanted to know my date of birth too and I simply told him “I’m an August baby” and he scrawled that information into his notebook. I asked him his birthday and he told me it’s June 8. Excited, I told him that’s also my sister’s birthday. He smiled showing his few teeth remaining and I said goodbye leaving him to jot in his notebook, the water and banana by his side.

Driving home I noticed an older man walking down Ponce de Leon who I had seen earlier near the library. It was hot and he looked hungry and tired and so I pulled over. Walking toward him I asked if he’d like something to drink. I never know how to broach the I’d like to give you some food and water topic. I don’t want to sound condescending or give someone something they don’t need or might be too proud to accept, so I typically just ask if they could use something to drink, knowing if they can, then I have the green light to hand over a bag full of other good things. He gladly took it and we wished each other well and I drove off.

For me, food is love. It would be childish and naive of me to presume I’ve solved anything. It doesn’t fix the deep seeded racist problems in our country and likely inside all of us, myself included. But it’s a way I’ve found of showing love and receiving it too. Each exchange with these people left me more hopeful, happier, and I can’t help but believe they felt the same way. We are all in this together and hungry for so much more than we now have.

Stop Judging Others; Start With Yourself / In Atlanta’s mayor’s moving speech the other day, among other things that resonated with me, she said, “You’re not going to out-concern me and out-care me.” https://www.fox5atlanta.com/video/689455 This reference to one upmanship gave me pause. In the wake of recent events, on social media I’ve noticed the rising need to outdo each other, as if to assuage our guilt from not doing enough? You’re doing nothing? You’re quiet? You’re probably a racist. You didn’t post a black box to social media on Tuesday, the horrors! Honestly I don’t know how. Yes, really. It was all I could do to add a City Schools of Decatur frame around my profile picture.

I wish I had some answers. So many wish the same. On a recent Instagram post, Ellen Degeneres, near tears, admitted she didn’t know what to say. (https://www.news.com.au/entertainment/celebrity-life/sad-and-angry-ellen-posts-emotional-video-message/news-story/1f6a2c4e2ac226e03a03f42af3f3c5fe)

What can we say or do now, should have said yesterday or could do tomorrow? I know I don’t have the solution to rid society of systemic racism, but we need things to happen. It’s a two-way street and while there is still far too much focus on our differences, at the end of the day, we are all the same. Isn’t that something to celebrate?

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” -Arthur Ashe

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So Rad

Walking changes your brain. It shifts it into neutral, turning revolutions and jostling about freely like a pinball that can’t settle on a direction. It puts information on hold – mask-making techniques, shows to stream, the latest Covid-19 numbers, stores stocking hand sanitizer – and propels you forward out of a shelter-in-place and into a new normal.

IMG_7570-1As my husband works from our living room couch and my boys learn remotely sprawled on their beds, I have my own project this month, and as odd as that might seem, I’m actually glad. Every weekday at 8am, I leave my driveway, backpack on my back, coffee in one hand, water in the other, and head out solo or with a friend ( 6 feet apart) or family walking to Emory’s Winship Cancer Center for my 9:15am radiation therapy appointment.

It’s still crisp and cool outside, and I’ve got a good time slot vs. a midday the-air-is-now-thick-and-it’s-hot-outside experience on my hands. The regimen is 21 treatments, and after today’s, just 17 remain, until the final one on April 29. There is a freedom about leaving my house on foot as the day is waking up. I get first dibs on it all, dialed up bright green and fresh.

The treatments are simple, all of ten minutes. There’s no pain and it’s surprisingly relaxing to lie on a table, topless, left arm overhead, carefree, languishing on my sterile stainless-steel spell couch. A machine hovers over my left breast, lining up with the sharpie lines covered in tape, which the techs initially drew on me to guide the beams to the exact place. As the equipment moves to treat from different angles, I must hold my breath five or so times, the longest lasting maybe 30 seconds, and a little box placed on my belly monitors my breathing. If I can’t hold my breath, the machine automatically stops, so I avoid any damage to my heart. So far, I’m a good breath holder.

Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you are at the beginning of something. -Fred Rogers

When I’m all done, the automatic door opens and the techs return, and I get up and dressed so the next patient can come in. It’s a well-oiled machine here, with minimal waits and prompt treatments, yet we all feel the pandemic, with masks covering our faces, tape marking where we must wait, and the substantial distance between us. Still, it’s quiet here and respectful, and we each go about our business, getting our treatment done, and then getting on with things outside.

IMG_7573The way home is different. Usually it’s the same route, but now the sun is higher in the sky, so my sweater is balled up in my backpack and my water bottle nearly empty. The houses and flowers and ivy beds and mailboxes I pass are each full of detail, and I notice every bit. Walking along, I think about plans for my own yard and house and future as I soak up these present moments. It’s so different from being at home inside the usual walls and with a predictable routine. I suspect each of these 21 walks and treatments will be distinctly different, with varying paces and conversations and traffic and weather.

IMG_7567When I look back, I will treasure these walks as much as the healing treatments I know I’m extremely lucky to get during this frightening time for our world, our hospitals in particular. I will remember the chatty conversations with girlfriends, and the sounds of my boys’ voices as they talk to one another along the walk, breaking up little twigs they find into small pieces and throwing them or dropping them like breadcrumbs along their path, as boys do. I will savor the houses we voted the prettiest, the waves across the street to occasional passersby, and these spring mornings it seems we alone got to taste.

This apocalyptic landscape, no longer dotted with many cars or people and with closed storefronts, is still full of squirrels and dogwoods and blue skies and pollen. So much is the same, yet it’s all changed. We’re still here, though, putting one leg in front of the other. These times, these talks, every breath is a gift.

All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.

 

connection, Encouragement, Grace, Nature, Uncategorized

The Show Must Go On

The birds don’t know. They’re singing as the sun climbs higher in the sky. Spring is continuing with its plans as various shrubs come out of hiding for Fashion Week, sporting pink and white and red buds.

The news outlets are encouraging us to call our grandparents – if only! – to find out what they used to do in their day, how they filled their free time at home, inside with family and outside, playing with their imaginations. Board games can be dusted off, families can reconnect and we can return to togetherness, the new separate variety.

What do you do if your family doesn’t like board games, won’t sit with you and play Scrabble (asking for a friend :)? Do you force family fun time or let teenagers default to video games and group chats? The prospect of being home together indefinitely looms and I suppose as with most things, you strike a balance, engage and disengage. There is food in the fridge and dry goods to tide us over, though I wasn’t early on amassing TP so we’ve got all of 14 rolls in the cupboard. I remind myself, stores will restock and besides, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s toilet paper supply.

That I even stopped to count tells me I’ve been watching too much news. My husband toggles between CNN and MSNBC, and the numbers of doctors and experts they interview and re-interview is staggering. Yet the news is largely the same: wash your hands the right way (I’ll spare you another set of instructions), stay home, practice social distancing. It will get worse before it gets better. What else can we do as we wait?

Italians are choosing to open their shutters and sing, tap tambourines and wave to one another across piazzas. The Whos down in Whoville had the same idea as they awoke to nothing yet realized they already had everything. It’s morning and those birds are still at it, and a light breeze ushers in their concert through my kitchen window. The sun streaks across the breakfast table as the house sleeps. The TV off dials up the sounds, the refrigerator rattling, the dog sleeping and cats moving through rooms sizing up the day.

The natural world is calling. While we can’t touch our eyes, nose and mouth, we can see and smell and taste the season, and let it touch us. We’ve all got tickets to our very own Broadway show outside ready to fill up our insides. Be well and enjoy the show.

 

 

 

 

breast cancer, Health, Uncategorized

It’s Just Hair

IMG_6707I’m in the thick of it. No, not suddenly showered with the thick tresses I’ve wanted my whole life, but rather I’m in the thick of chemo. The twitching eyes, the mouth threatening to develop a sore if I don’t swish with mouthwash thrice daily, and then there’s the hair, which now resembles a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. With each step around my house, its needles fall, and it seems the tree’s trunk has weakened and bent over.

Just this morning I submitted my third patient support ticket to the Dignicap folks inquring what I can expect as I’ve been diligently wearing their cold cap during treatments. Certain they’re sick of me, sick of all the questions, like a child incessantly asking, “Are we there yet?” But I need answers and their experience to settle me down. Seems I’ve lost at least 50% of my hair at this point, with most of the shedding occurring last weekend. Even though their literature warns this will happen, with only half of my treatments behind me, if the shedding continues at this clip, I can’t imagine I’ll have a head of hair left by my final chemo blast February 28. It’s uniform at least and has thinned out symmetrically, though I find myself stepping lightly so as not to loosen any more strands. Shhh, don’t wake the hair! Crazy how obsessed I’ve become. My doctor thinks since I still have hair at this point that it will remain, and despite his words, I’m not completely sure.

Shhh, don’t wake the hair!

baby hairWhy does our hair have to be such a thing? I was born bald and by all accounts a plenty cute and happy baby. Yet as my hair grew in as full sheets of cornsilk and as I grew, like many girls, I don’t think I appreciated what I had. My hair was whisper thin, though to its credit a bright natural blond, and over the years I grew to love it, especially since I didn’t need to color it, but for the two times I did foils just for fun. All my life, my hair’s sleek softness, shine and spirit has wrapped my head and shoulders in health and bounce and in some ways, I suppose I took that for granted, assumed it would always be there, a pretty veil covering the nape of my neck.

I don’t think I appreciated what I had

These days, I pull my hands around my hair and realize the scant covering I now have, an oily few strands deep extending over my scalp which plays peek-a-boo when a little wind or head tilt reveal the sparsity. I know this is temporary and I know these drugs are doing what they’re supposed to do. They attack fast dividing cells, which are both the malignant ones and the ones affecting your hair, and digestion, too. It all makes such sense on an intellectual level, but I feel self-conscious even going to the grocery store at this point, though thankful that the weather is cold and I can wear a hat indoors. I bought a second bucket hat, camel corduroy, another option for ducking in and out of stores, hopefully unnoticed.

susieI feel a tad guilty about this vanity realizing I am lucky I’m even alive since my jarring discovery just three months ago. Still, I can’t wait until these drugs are done doing their thing and my hair and body can return to doing theirs, return to how they were, but that much stronger and better. Good hair days sure can carry you, help out a shabby wardrobe, dulling makeup, a bad mood. But good health, like a tall towering tree trunk, has the power to lift you like nothing else.