breast cancer, connection, Food, Friends, hope

Hearts Wide Open

Maybe it’s this pandemic or the end of my cancer treatment, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to improve things — my outlook, my sense of hope, tapping into more curiosity and creativity and connection, and not wasting any more of this precious time we get. When I started this blog a few years ago, I titled it Hindsight because I realized it captured so much of what I’ve been doing, thinking about the past and noticing patterns so I can learn more about myself. I hope to collect the best parts of the past and reuse and refashion them for these times, because those bits are the ones I want and need more of.

I’ve been thinking about not wasting any more of this precious time we get.

There are plenty of traditions I’d like to resurrect. For instance, I’ve been wanting to go on picnics again, remember those? Growing up, we had a red checkered tablecloth and four of us would grab the corners and lay it down flat, smoothing out the wrinkles. Then the real fun began, unpacking the basket full of delicious things our mom had packed. Usually we were by a creek or a lake, so along with great food, there was a beautiful backdrop.

Other than packing a meal to enjoy on a car trip, or dining alfresco somewhere, the last real picnic I had, the kind where you make and pack up all the food and sit outside on a blanket, was a surprise one my husband pulled off over two decades ago. It wasn’t fancy or somewhere out-of-town. Instead it was in Ansley’s Winn Park here in Atlanta, and he’d cleaned out our fridge and created a lovely spread, with salami and baguette and artichoke hearts and some sweets and nice beers too. I think he even brought a blanket to sit on. He’d stolen a few hours in the middle of his workday at Colony Square, and the two of us lying under midtown’s twinkling towers in my favorite park was perfect. I don’t know if it was the surprise, the delicious meal resulting in a cleaned-out fridge, the loving company or the magical backdrop that blew me away, but am thinking what touched me most, is how thoughtful he was to plan and prepare this.

Remember visiting with people, before the Internet and answering machines and DVRs, to those times when we spent an enormous amount of time outside? Times when you would walk to a neighbor’s and knock on their door unannounced and while away an afternoon just being together? My recent visit with my friend, Karen, while planned in advance, felt much like one of these. She greeted me at her door with one of those hugs you never forget: big open arms that pull you in tight and hold you there. I haven’t had one of those hugs in maybe ever, nor had I seen her since my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Her hug communicated so much – such happiness and relief to see me smiling and healthy. We drove to Stone Mountain and walked the five-mile loop, and then returned to her house where she gave me a wonderful tour . She pointed out memorabilia and told stories about special items she and her family had collected. Afterward, we had tea on her deck and with lovely Lake Kenilworth in the distance, visited some more.

One of those hugs you never forget: big open arms that pull you in tight and hold you there

Recently my sister and niece came down from Chicago, their visit timed with my last chemo treatment. After the excitement of picking them up from the airport and settling them in, I remember us hanging around my kitchen table nibbling on snacks and catching up. In my usual self-conscious, self-deprecating style, I was poking fun at my various bald spots on my scalp, out of my control from the chemo, the ones where the cold cap didn’t fit well, a visible sign I was now different from them, I was the cancer patient. They assured me I looked fine, and after I joked some more, my sister looked up with her kind loving eyes and said, “Susie, we love who you are no matter what is going on with your hair. You’re still you and we love you like we always have.” In that moment, I saw the truth. All my jokes aside, these two wonderful women before me in my kitchen knew me and loved me all the more. My eyes well up just retelling this.

You’re still you and we love you like we always have.

I’ve always said food is love and I still believe it is. It’s my way of showing I care, that I want to nourish you and delight you with something delicious, and it’s others’ way too. This simple act of preparing food for someone is so intimate and layered and loving, and whether complicated or simple, it’s a recipe that keeps on giving. Over these last few months, I’ve had a half dozen or so friends bring me delicious things — soups, stews, seafood and chicken, all healthy and homemade with love. I’ve frozen extra servings and reheated them weeks later tasting and receiving the love all over again.

I’m finding these times are further connecting us as we isolate. With much of the background noise of our busy lives gone, it seems our conversations, Zoom cocktail hours and texts are stripped down to their essence: how are we each doing and how can we connect, how can we help one other? I’ve got a few friends who thoughtfully tell me when they’re headed to the store and can pick up an item or two I need. And these days, I surprise myself by letting them. In turn, I’m already thinking of what I can do for them, maybe something special to eat or helping to solve a problem they’re struggling with. Or maybe it’s just staying in good touch.

How can we connect, how can we help one other?

The other night our power went out, unfortunately timed precisely during our return from a particularly large grocery run. As I knelt on my front porch, flashlight strategically propped and Clorox spray in hand, wiping down the contents from endless plastic bags, a rush of gratitude spilled over me at this sweet assembly line: I wiped down the items, one son took them from me at the front door and brought them to the kitchen where, by candlelight, the other son and my husband organized them and planned how they’d refrigerate and freeze it all with 1-2 limited refrigerator door opens. These hundreds of dollar’s worth of groceries were our livelihood, our next week to ten days of preparations and conversations over nourishing meals and yes, our share of Haagen-Dazs and chips, fried chicken tenders and other empty calories, too. The candles and oil lanterns I’d rounded up lit our hall, dining room and kitchen, so for the next hour until the power came back on we mostly hung around those areas, all of us hovering near all the food we’d scored and safely stowed.

Today the lights are on, the sun is shining and it’s a new month. It’s also the start of my new and final cancer treatment, the daily ten-year pill I started today to keep this long-gone tumor forever in my rearview mirror. This medicine is known equally for its effectiveness and side-effects. When and if the joint pain or night sweats or doldrums hit, I hope I’ll remind myself that these are signs that it’s working. I hope these annoyances will actually lessen or else become something I absorb and get used to, and that they begin to seem like the helpers you’re supposed to look for in times of need.

So, here’s to more picnics and visits and helpers, and to loving each other with hearts wide open. xoxox