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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!!

breast cancer, Covid-19, Health, hope, uncertainty

Eighteen days to Brenda

I went in August 24 for a diagnostic mammogram. My radiologist suggested I go ahead and get one instead of waiting until October as my gynecologist planned. The mammogram at this hospital presented stark differences. The robes you change into aren’t a screaming, Pepto-Bismol pink, but a white soft cottony waffle weave accented with subtle thin pink piping. They’re stacked neatly waiting on you in a warming box. Divine. Here I found few deep Southern accents, but more Brooklyn, and simple pastel beach scenes or botanical wall art; you’re not coddled as much either, which surprisingly I liked. Besides, the last place brought bad news, and I am so over bad news, so I  needed a new place.

When you’ve had what I’ve had (yes, I now get to check the “history of breast cancer” box), for future mammograms, instead of going home to wait on your letter in the mail, your results are on-the-spot. It was a long wait, and after looking each other up and down for a few minutes, a woman across from me and I eventually broke our masked silence with a “What are you in for?” dialogue. Me: “I’m Stage II, 100% ER positive, post lumpectomy, chemo and radiation.” You? “I’m triple negative.” Even though no one in our predicament can determine exactly how we ended up here, we each tried our best to reveal what might have contributed, with a Forgive me for I have sinned confessional to each other. She: “I used to eat ice cream every single night.” Me: “I’ve stopped red meat and now only occasionally enjoy a glass of wine.” 

A nurse calls her, and she gets up to go hear her results. Next a man, I presume the radiologist, got me for mine. Immediately I assumed since I got the doctor, the news seemed more complicated, and complicated could spell trouble. We went to a room that was far too nice for doling out good results. He made small talk before he dove in, admitting if he didn’t know better, that I’d had a lumpectomy, my scans might have raised a red flag. Lots of them as it’s a mess in there. Not his words exactly, but with all the pins, scar tissue and density obscuring things, he seemed exhausted from wading through the scans, as if he’d just returned from war. 

I knew my left breast was a mess when back in 2000 I began breast feeding my first baby. I knew there was milk in there but, damn, quite the struggle to get it out! Always a poor producer and the plumbing seemed faulty every time I pumped or breast fed my babies. But you have to get it out of there or you’ve got a painful situation on your hands! After his initial comments about such chaotic density, the radiologist said everything looks fine. Gosh, did we really need to sit in that private room for all this? I got up and left, happy to dodge this scare. The woman who’d led me to the dressing room asked a man at the checkout desk to schedule an MRI. I asked why an MRI, since my mammogram was fine, and she mumbled something about high risk. Wait, me? I ignored my confusion and instead requested the first available appointment and to get on the cancellation list. I snagged the only one they had, four days later at 6:45am. 

I had an MRI before back when all this breast drama started up in November of 2019, but experiencing how particularly thorough this new place was gave me a reassuring level of comfort, that this hospital is sparing no detail, turning over every stone so I’ll continue to turn up “normal.” Friday came and I was up at 5 to leave by 6. It was quiet in the lobby except for a few patients waiting for their own scans. Wonder what they’re in for? Since MRIs are loud, you get headphones and your choice of music. I went for my old standby, classical. No sooner did they slide the headphones on than Pachelbel’s Canon in D began. Always floods me back to my twilight wedding, walking down that beautiful outdoor aisle passing smiling friends and luminaries along my way. The technicians worked efficiently, and I was heading home in 45 minutes. 

Busy in my kitchen later that afternoon, I got a call from my radiation oncologist. She asked, had the radiologist already called me? Uh oh, I’ve heard this kind of call before. Cut to the chase please, I thought impatiently. “Ms. Greco, the radiologist saw some areas of concern on your MRI and wants to schedule a biopsy.” First off, my brain is screaming, area(s) PLURAL? You have got to be &#$@-ing kidding me?! And then it moves on to the OF CONCERN part, concerning it its own right. I had noticed a little pea sized nodule during my daily breast massage but assumed it was just knots left behind from surgery and radiation. After radiation ended in April, the radiologist had suggested I daily massage the tissue to keep it from forming too much scar tissue, which I’ve done.

Alas, this was no dream and I was told they’d be calling soon to schedule my return for another MRI + biopsy + mammogram. Great way to start the long weekend. Ugh. I got scheduled for that following Friday, a 7am appointment, with arrival at 6:30. Another early morning, but nothing like getting it out of the way. 

Thankfully between our house renovation and chats and visits with my boys and my own endless internet research on breast nodules four months post radiation, fat necrosis, and any other topic which resembled my situation, the week ticked along fairly quickly. 

Up early again for the MRI and arrived to find another handful of people socially distanced in the waiting room. I got registered, my hospital bracelet, etc. and was escorted to the dressing room. As with the previous MRI, I had an IV inserted in my arm so they could inject a contrast dye, which improves image quality. I got my choice of music again and this time I thought, let’s change it up. I asked for something calming but not classical, and the nurse suggested nature sounds, so nature sounds it was.

My nature music started with water sounds and soon my brain went to our recent plumbing situation with camellia roots wrapped around our pipes and toilet and adjacent tub filling with water. After the plumbing fiasco (which we resolved) I moved on to stiller waters and imagined my sister and me canoeing on Lake Lanier, like we did as teenagers. Our oars cut the glassy water as we maneuvered into coves, the mature adventurers we were, now out of view from our parents we’d left behind on our sailboat docked in its slip. As I lay masked on my stomach, the doctors slid me in and out of this machine, instructing me over and over to stay completely still. I’m guessing they felt they must repeat the instruction given how much I talked at the outset, thinking surely this motor mouth wouldn’t put a lid on it and stop moving in order for them to get their work done. But as the kind nurse told me afterwards, I was a real trooper. It must have been nearly an hour that I was on that table and somehow, I didn’t move at all.

After my water music segued into crickets and other summer night insects, I noticed a little half moon shaped light below near the floor or maybe on the table I was on. It looked like the Morton salt girl’s umbrella, complete with curved J shape below for its handle. As I was wheeled in and out of this machine never knowing when they’d move it out or back in, I was reminded of one of my favorite Six Flags rides, Mo Mo the monster, when the guy working the ride spun me around extra times since I was the birthday girl. I decided getting zoomed in and out of this machine was instead a fun ride, plus I had the benefit of summer bugs and the Morton salt girl for company.

Once the biopsy began, the nice nurse – the one who gave me the warm robe and told me I was a trooper — began holding my hand. I remember when a nurse at an earlier biopsy last year began lovingly stroking my calves. This nurse held on to my hands and I realized how good that felt, especially these days when we don’t get to hug anyone except those we live with. I needed that touch so badly and while my left hand was holding on to the emergency ball they give you to squeeze in case you need them to stop, I found a few fingers on my left hand joining her hand with my right to communicate an extra, this is so nice and I feel loved, message. Because I had been numbed, I didn’t feel them jostling and twisting to get this suspicious mass during this core needle biopsy, yet I could tell it wasn’t simply a pulling on a syringe but a turning motion as if wrangling a cork out with a corkscrew. Weeee! I got wheeled back in again and more loud MRI knocking noises harmonized with the summer bug sounds, and I was back out. A final jostling to insert a pin, another marker to light the way for the next person doing my scan, and in and out several more times, and it was done.

Next on the menu was a mammogram. Freshly bandaged, I was promised this mammogram was of the gentle variety. Having not had one since my initial diagnosis in November (and since subsequent surgery and radiation), I didn’t realize how much it was going to hurt since the former surgical site was terribly tender. Picture your ear lobe after you pierce it, forever left with a knot. My knot hurt getting flattened onto the machine, especially fresh from the biopsy. As I was pressed into a pancake again, the blood started coming, smearing the glass. My wandering mind went to a hilarious sketch years ago with Dan Aykroyd channeling Julia Child  boning a chicken, blood spurting up and down onto the bird. Instead of high-pitched Julia gasps, this technician was calm and simply wiped it away. But my poor breast, how much more was it going to endure? A few more images from a few more angles and I was left to wait while she met with the doctor down the hall. She returned with news he was pleased with the images, and off I went to check out.

The nice nurse who’d held my hand handed me off to a gentleman at the exit desk, telling him I’d had a biopsy. He couldn’t hear her, so he whispered, as if trying to simply mouthe it, “She had a b i o p s y ?” lest the folks in the waiting area learn my situation. I felt this strange cloud of shame and sadness waft over me. He told me in a quiet sympathetic voice to enjoy the holiday weekend. I uttered a “You, too,” and got the hell out of there. Once home I had to take it easy which for most people means lie in bed and rest. I had to realize that paperwork, dishes, laundry and dog walks could wait and that I could actually lie in bed and rest, which is exactly what I did, icing the area 15 minutes every hour on the hour until bedtime. The biopsy site stung so that kept me still and thankfully my 13-year-old dog was content to stay put on the kitchen floor, slinking in and out of sleep.

The doctors told me I’d hear results by Tuesday or Wednesday, and it was an interminable five days. Wednesday came and went and nothing. I had decided it’s ludicrous that I would be the one with that unfortunate case of a recurrence a mere four months post radiation. No matter the new diet, ridiculously slight alcohol intake, stepped up exercise, mine was an aggressive little bugger that could withstand chemo and radiation and emerge with a renewed, Please ma’am may I have another? annoying verve. My sister tried to convince me I’m not special that way. I felt a bit like a criminal, like I was being punished yet couldn’t understand my crime. I figured I had a 50/50 chance and felt like over the weekend they’d rustle up a public defender – a la My Cousin Vinny – and the next week hopefully I’d have some semblance of a case ready.

Now it’s today, Thursday, and I couldn’t stand the silent house any longer, so I left for the hardware store, where I tinker from time to time, just like my dad used to. I love it there because it’s small, there’s plenty of interesting merchandise, and people are ready to help you find what you need, answer any questions you might have (except the What do you think will come of my biopsy? variety). Found some flowers on clearance to replace my tired zinnias and was loading them in the car when the phone rang. An unknown exchange, certainly not my doctor’s office, but I answered it anyway. On the other end of the phone was a smiling Brenda’s voice, which exclaimed: “Hi Mrs. Greco, I have good news for you, as I know you’ve been waiting. We got your results in and it’s only scar tissue. So we won’t need to see you for six months.” I literally said, “God Bless You” and thanked her profusely. If you can hug through the phone, then that is what I did. It was heartfelt and I’m certain Brenda felt it. I love that Brenda. 

These were the perfect segue into fall AND they’re yellow. (win win)
Decision 2020, hope, Patriotism, White House

Show, Don’t Tell

Several years ago while working with a PR firm, I wrote an article for a client’s E-newsletter. My boss wasn’t as in love with it as I hoped he’d be, and advised reworking it slightly, employing the Show Don’t Tell writing tenet. Since then I can’t say my writing has consistently championed this rule, but I have given it more thought and realize it applies to our relationships, motivations, leadership, too  – basically, everything.

“We are at a crossroads of broadening or narrowing what we can be.”

Jon Meacham, American writer and presidential biographer.

Meacham’s recent research and writing has focused on one of our nation’s fallen leaders in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, where he examines the choices of light vs. darkness before us. He talks of Lewis’ sacrifices to his own body and dignity, his march for voting rights which paved the way for so many. Lewis showed us what moral, racial and national responsibility looks like. In contrast, Meacham says Trump thinks of us not as a country but as an audience. He tells us what we should be focusing on, all he’s done, is doing and will do for the American people.

There are those precious times you come away from time spent with a group with that feeling that you’re aligned with kindred souls and it feels like home. I felt that way a few years ago at a writer’s workshop, surrounded by people who, like me, could obsess all day over which adjective would best paint the picture in their minds and onto their easels, laptops in this case. It was easy to respect those in this group who bravely revealed their vulnerability, sharing their stories, however early in their creation, and cultivate an affinity for the lack of affectation, and a connection with everyday people you identify with, root for and want to succeed.

The Democratic National Convention gave me a similar feeling as I witnessed straightforward speakers each casting a different light on these times, sharing their own experiences, and delivering insightful reactions on the Democratic nominee. I felt proud and excited as I tuned in every night, hopeful about the possibilities for change, a chance to restore decency, dignity and reinstall intellect and fairness to our collective futures. And to be fair, I also watched the Republican National Convention, though struggled to savor it all in the same way. It felt more like droning in the background and I couldn’t latch on to the messages from these presenters — sometimes screaming, sometimes preaching, always scripted — as they read the teleprompters and consistently piled on praise for this man who continues to hold so many and so much hostage.

They talked of Keeping America America, if that makes any sense (it doesn’t). Vice President Pence even vowed to “Keep American Great Again. Again.” Please, not another round. They spoke in words similarly loyal to their Law and Order president, a self-assigned wartime hero. (I don’t believe wartime heroes typically assign themselves this designation?) As with the DNC, the RNC produced loads of people at the lectern, including Kayleigh McEnany, the current press secretary (his fourth filling the role three and a half years in). McEnany told of breast cancer in her family and with welled up eyes, revealed she was forever beholden to “her” president because thanks to him she could get a preventive mastectomy — and not only that, he even called to check on her after surgery, better explained by the fact she’s a close friend of his daughter, Ivanka’s. Let’s get this straight: She wouldn’t qualify for this same surgery were Joe Biden president? I believe fact checking would reveal another fabrication designed to tug at your heartstrings, planting the seed that the other side wouldn’t help you, and would instead leave you to suffer, sick and alone, which simply is not true. I’ve recently undergone my own necessary breast conserving surgery (lumpectomy), so I do not consider these matters lightly.

As the nights wore on, between presenters an ominous “historic” music (think Gunsmoke theme song) seeped into the show, and B-roll panned to sacrosanct monuments of yesteryear, each sprung from hallowed ground, and on to the home of that resolute desk, the White House, glowing and sexy and cloaked (and nearly choked) in American flags, dramatically lit up at night. On script, our president reminded us of our great American patriots, that “we” built great ships, raised up the skyscrapers. And let’s not forget Annie Oakley and Davie Crockett. I do wonder just as our current Postmaster General admits he doesn’t know how much it costs to mail a postcard, does Donald Trump even understand his own notion of patriotism? Interesting to see how each party looks at this concept. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/03/how-views-patriotism-vary-by-party/

One of several African-American presenters, former NFL player Jack Brewer among other things petitioned for bringing back the nuclear family. Did it actually leave, or did we instead simply open the doors to other types of families that don’t resemble the Cleaver household? The thing is you don’t need to feel scared if today’s families don’t look like they used to; you can instead choose how your family looks. Similarly, if Black Lives do in fact matter, it doesn’t mean other lives don’t; the movement was never created in that spirit, so who, why and when did they irresponsibly start suggesting it? If you want your family to mimic a 1950s mentality, the man as the breadwinner, his wife in an apron in the kitchen and children in their Sunday best week after week, you can do that. This is America. If someone else wants to live with their lesbian or gay lover and adopt a black or brown child, they can do that. Still, we all want and deserve the same things, right? 

During RNC week I heard many speakers remind us how Donald J. Trump is fighting for this and fighting for that. And by the way, what is this new emphasis on the “J.” ? I can’t help but recall Tiny Fey’s hilarious sketch and if, like me, you need a serving of humor in these troubled times, please do grab a fork and dive in. Maybe the emphasis on the “J” is so we don’t confuse the Donald with his namesake, Donald, Jr., which by extension could remind us of his shrieking, excessively lip-lined girlfriend. Donald J. has spent much of his time in office angrily Tweeting, defensive, curt, ready for a fight. We keep hearing he is Fighting for America. Must it be a fight, though, and is there not a way we can just get along? 

Incensed about the fighting and looting of late, he’s promising us if he gets four more years our world won’t look like this, yet he says the violence will continue if Biden wins. The thing is, and as Biden has already underscored, this guy is President now and yet still, there’s fighting and looting happening, all on his watch. Can you assign blame for today’s hostility to a presidential candidate before he is elected? Indeed you can in Trump’s world until it seeps under every MAGA cap and into those fine supporters’ heads, including even one recent underage gun-toting crusader and rally attendee, Kyle Rittenhouse. In addition, even after ten days in, we still haven’t heard Trump mention Jacob Blake’s name. 

Between the Gunsmoke theme song alternating with an awards show style musical score, the RNC brought folks from the mountains to the prairies over red carpeted paths to the lectern, their performances resembling a nostalgic cross between a soap opera, Sunday school and a binge watching week of Little House on the Prairie and Andy Griffith. Eventually, though, you come up for air, and when you do, you realize after those simpler times, you know, when America was America, that we snuck in a few things: we now are afforded the benefits of modern medicine, science, the Internet, and hard-fought freedoms for so many different kinds of people, black, brown, gay, straight and everyone in between. 

Next came the fireworks. I’ve seen loads in my 57 years, the best probably during a visit to Disney World a decade ago. They went on forever and as I looked up into the night sky there was magic and hope and what felt like no expense sparred which of course there wasn’t. And then it was over and by the time we got to our hotel, the magic had faded.

In lieu of the convention tapering down to a folksy scene – picture an upright piano playing Jesus Loves Me as the Sunday School program ends with waxy Solo cups and Nilla Wafers crumbs underfoot – instead we witnessed an operatic Ave Maria serenading this extended first family. But we did get to watch, so maybe he was serenading us, too? 

At RNC, they opened the curtain for us to get a glimpse, for us to watch them in their house at their party. Toward the end of the last night, POTUS, smirk on his face, turned his head to look at the White House behind him, and remarked, “The fact is, I’m here,” he said, a broad smile across his face. “What’s the name of that building?” he asked as the crowd cheered. Turning back to the crowd, he was even more blunt: “But I’ll say it differently. The fact is we’re here, and they’re not.” It’s shameful to taunt this partisan prop, The People’s House, holding what’s clearly a partisan event on government property. 

That week of the RNC felt like watching a first-class airline cabin from a close distance, watching it yet not even getting the benefit of walking through it. Surely you know the feeling: You get on a plane and pass First-Class where everyone is head down, nose in a book or pecking away on laptops, Wall Street journals in their lap, half downed cocktail by their side. They briefly greet you looking up, uninterested yet mildly curious, surprised even, that you’d have the gall to crash their private flight which was about to begin before the throngs of you harried and hurried passengers climbed on board. Like you’re late for the private screening of the film, an event that somehow leaked down to the likes of you, and they’re certainly not going to catch you up on the plot. An exhausted mule with saddle bags, you barely fit in the aisle, jacket in a wad under your sweaty armpit. Their pressed jackets were hung up hours ago in a roomy compartment up front. You’re both late to the party but you don’t get to go to the party. You’re holding them up.

I found it interesting but not exactly surprising that so many of these speakers are from the South, the Bible Belt where God is good, God is great and God is feared, and from the American plains, where those amber waves of grain grow. Cue more Gunsmoke music, and we see a young Caucasian crew-cut boy running through a cornfield in his backyard flying the model airplane his daddy helped him make. Ahhh, remember those days? I’m all for working with dad on a project, but what about all those other boys, the ones whose stomachs are grumbling from hunger, who have no Aunt Bea making pies for them in the kitchen, or who’ve got marks on their legs from their own Pa’s beating them, and who can only dream of holding a model airplane in their own hands much less having access to a wide open space in which to fly it? Where in this American Dream do they fit in exactly? Couldn’t this crew cut boy at least be depicted as sharing the fun with a black friend? Again, help me understand, am I missing something? Can’t we all be friends?

Much talk went to this land, our liberties and those who defend it. We were told that the foundation of freedom is faith. What about those who don’t believe in God? Or Jesus? Then what? Are they lesser? Surely, we can all agree with the promise that a society should be built upon love of people and service to others? The RNC message is, “Where Joe Biden sees American darkness, we see American greatness.” Joe may have pointed out some dark times still in our midst –- and to be sure there are many extraordinary challenges with which we must reckon and I prefer a leader to be honest about our nation’s challenges — but is it a fair statement to suggest he also can’t see the greatness? I find it a theatrical stretch at best.

By the end, it all felt like watching a party we’re not invited to. This “genteel” suits and high heels crowd, rallying around their leader, acknowledging that he means what he says and says what he means, even though (hee hee) he says whatever is on his mind. Am I the only one who doesn’t find this charming? What about those “African nation shithole countries” of which he previously spoke, and his proud admission of how “When you’re a star, they (women) let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.” Are these the family values, that nuclear family purity we’re attempting to resurrect? I don’t think it’s working.

Watching them all, a chorus line bedazzled by the fireworks display above their hallowed grounds, their White House, it felt like the circle was closed off to just these Trumpians, and instead we at home were given limited clearance to merely watch their event. In contrast, watching Joe Biden’s family at the end of the DNC, the circle felt open and I felt invited inside, like I was one of them, and the circle would stay open for me always.

I grew up in the South. I went to church every Sunday. And then I left for college where it was time to look around and see what else existed. I met so many different types of people and despite our varying backgrounds, I found we all wanted the same things. Can’t we all have a piece of the pie? Is it not as delicious if we are all sharing it? I say cut it in slimmer slices and pass the plates. Surely, that’ll show us far more than telling us that we will all get a taste. 

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, and 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 of course 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

breast cancer, Encouragement, Family, Food, Health, self care, Sunshine

Hurry Up and Wait

IMG_7129Friday I did my big bell ringing victory lap after chemo and was feeling all high and mighty. And then Tuesday hit. Right on time after the 72 hour coverage of anti-nausea meds from Friday’s treatment. I’ve never had it hit before three days post treatment, so why now? I’ll tell you why. These nasty chemicals want you to experience every ounce of this crazy ride, and despite being on your last treatment when you’d think it’s finally time for a break, they will hold good on that promise. So Tuesday was nausea day. As in vomiting 12+ times. All day I focused on trying to feel better. Then the next day I forgot to swish and the famous chemo mouth sores you’ve probably heard about started to happen. Oh, no you don’t, and I swished multiple times and now I think I’ve staved off those from coming. It’s a crazy game where you are trying to outrun these little annoyances and get the skin you live in to stop aggravating you. You have to wait it out and let time do its thing, yet you want it over with. Good luck.

Our construction we’ve been planning for years has been on hold due to the many weeks of rain. Our cellar looks like a retention pond. We’ve picked the brick we will want surrounding the cellar and around the new fireplaces and are ready to go. Waiting on the weather and a good stretch of days that make starting up again worthwhile. We’re so ready yet must wait it out. I worry the renovation will drag on and then I laugh at my worry. We’ve started at least, haven’t we? That is huge. A truck pulled in the drive today and I thought wow, maybe they’ll work in the rain. But alas, it was the porta potty truck changing out the toilet. Still, progress with a clean toilet. Maybe the news will spread that the toilet is brand spankin’ new and we will have workers’ trucks again crowding the driveway. The sun has to come out again. It always does.

The sun has to come out again. It always does.

My son has long finished his college applications and was deferred by his first choice. He’s got another week of waiting until he knows. Big decisions. What town he will live in, will he be in state or out? All that work, the essays, the SATs the applications and then the endless waiting. I tell him just a little longer, but it’s no help. You just have to ride it out. He’s gotten several acceptances, so he has places to go, good places. But still, he is waiting for the answer he wants so he can get on with things. Time can be cruel. And so we wait.

My other son already in college in New York has applied for a post associate degree major and is waiting to hear. He worked hard and pulled together an impressive portfolio and is hopeful he can dive into this new course of study this fall. He’s plenty busy with classes and work and friends but not knowing if he’s accepted in this major is unnerving. He’s got another week until he hears. Time will tell.

FullSizeRenderIsn’t all of life a waiting game? Not much you can do really except maybe distract yourself and hope the calendar moves along, which it always does. But in between there is time with people and pets and work and play and delicious food. My sister and niece flew from Chicago to be with me during my last treatment. Such a treat to have the house full of girls and constant random conversation. We ate out and then ate leftovers and out again and more leftovers. Lingered over our morning coffee and laughed and shared and walked and shopped.

I’m waiting for the three week mark to hit when my body will no longer get another chemical blast. It must be thinking dear God, how many more days til we do this again, and I wish I could reassure it that this hell is done and it’s all about healing and strength going forward. Want to scream it to my hair follicles too who also aren’t sure what is going on. They’re still getting their weekly shampoo and holding on to the front and back of my scalp, but the sides just couldn’t fully hang in from a poorly fitting cold cap. Odd for sure, and cold when the wind blows, but under a cap it just looks like normal, albeit scant, hair.

IMG_7181In a robe for two days with my Pedialyte cocktail, I couldn’t decide today what foods would taste good. So with no planning and few groceries, I grazed. Oatmeal and banana, frozen Whole Foods bean and cheese burrito, bone broth with vegetables that the same angelic Pedialyte-delivering friend made, and then it went downhill from there. I glanced in the refrigerator door and there they were: Keebler fudge sticks. I’ll just grab one of those. What’s the harm? Then I had another. Those flesh colored chocolate dunked cream filled innocent sticks. Divine. Like I used to eat at my grandmother’s at her apartment off Peachtree Street. Always kept in the refrigerator. Later my husband came home and as I hadn’t shopped we had breakfast for dinner. He made bacon. I haven’t had a slice since November and I pinched a little off one. They were well done and cooked in the oven. Crispy, no fat, the no nitrite kind. Innocent, right? So good. Then I had a whole piece. Oh my, the food of the gods. I can’t love stuff like this but then I remembered my oncology nurse said once, if during treatment you want mac ‘n cheese, just have it. She didn’t mention what to do when the urge for fudge sticks or bacon strikes. I’ve decided no more fudge sticks and as for the bacon thing, maybe once a month I might have a slice. Surely that frequency can’t kill me? I just didn’t want to love it so much, but it was the best I’ve had. Like ever.

As I move out of self-soothing and into Friday shampooing, I hope this bizarre post chemo taste leaves my mouth and the sunshine that’s ahead will propel me back on walks and into enjoying large kale salads. I want my taste buds to really love what’s best for me and try to put the bacon and other stuff on the back burner and into the very occasional category. But you just reach for nostalgic comfort food when you are trying to feel better. I tell myself it’s ok. And so I wait to feel fully better and then once I am, radiation will begin. The calendar is indeed moving.