Elephants and Ladders

Elephant and Elephant-Made Ladder, by PrajaktaPradhanAnd just like that, seven weeks have passed. Seven weeks that began as One, stumpingly segued to Four-and-a-Half, and curiously culminated as Seven-that-Felt-Like-Four. Tomorrow, Friday, October 12, marks my last day of radiation, and Saturday, 10/13 will be my first day without it. Again with the Lucky Number.

On my first radiation center visit, I argued with my husband in the car on the drive over and cried the rest of the way, then spent 45 minutes lying alone in a room on a CT table thinking about this: every day for the next seven weeks, I will be forced to wake up in the morning, acknowledge that I have cancer, and drive myself nine minutes down the road for treatment from strangers. The radiation part? No biggie. The acknowledgement part? Biggie.

And so it went that I drove myself alone for the first treatment on the first day and put myself in the hands of four strangers in gray scrubs who would become my morning companions for the next seven weeks of my life. I can’t tell you how much I’m going to miss them.

Years ago, after a particularly shaking experience with someone I cared about, I headed out the door for a walk. I was in a strange city and knew no one, with a map folded into my back pocket. After about 45 minutes of emotions-in-a-twist-staring-at-the-pavement under my mindlessly-moving feet, I looked up and across the narrow road straight into a tea room with its doors flung open to the day. Inside, a woman paused, looked out, and smiled at me. I smiled back. And in that instant, that moment-with-a-stranger, I was fine.

And this has been much like that.

I’ve always been fascinated by the connections we form in life. Some of the people I remember most vividly are those with whom I’ve spent the least time, but with the most intensity. Some taught me life lessons, some gave me a nudge back onto the path, others showed me new ways of being, some simply showed compassion — but almost consistently without a surplus of words — and often with no words at all. And then they were gone — but only — only — in a physical way. Those that impact us in times of need are with us forever.

And I think about this: it’s so easy to be kind. It’s so easy to give a nod, a smile, a touch. I count myself at the top of the list for too often being too afraid, too shy, too sure my words are cheesy or my interest suspect, and I need to change that.

And so to Rick, whose curls bounce every morning when he nods and his eyes twinkle hello: Thank You. To James, who fetched me gently from the waiting room alone on that first day and always tries to make me laugh: Thank You. To Betty, whose mega-watt smile and cheeriness always calm me: Thank You. To Will, who didn’t flinch when I sulked up to him on Day 1 and put my hand on his chest to turn over his name tag because I didn’t want to be treated by a man whose name I didn’t know, and who looked in my eyes to keep me steady: Thank You.

Thank you all for bringing me from this to this to this.

Breast Cancer Biopsy, Radiation Registration Lines, Almost Done

Breast Cancer Biopsy Bruise, Radiation Registration Lines, Almost Done

Oh! The title for this post was provided by my daughter, of Ashinine, quite randomly, with no knowledge of the post content. Ever a lover of Metaphors for Life, I’ll give you this: We are all at times large and clumsy, unaccustomed and often ill-equipped and, certainly in my case, articulate only in an alien-ish sort of way when we encounter the unexpected. Thank You All for being the Ladder to my Elephant, giving me something and often someone to hold on to, a leg up, access to a broader view, and a steady hand. I’ll never forget. Hugs and Kisses.

Presbyterian Radiation Oncology

Red

Finally, I am mad. I guess going through stages isn’t really my nature, and maybe it isn’t such a surprise that I have accepted cancer so graciously. I’ve never been one to make a fuss. It isn’t expected of me, and the times I’ve expressed strong thoughts in the past, the diversion from my usual temperament has not been well-tolerated. And so it goes, these days.

I’m not immune to “life” — or as I sometimes call it, “crap.” Part of this gift of experiencing the universe is learning to navigate with grace and wisdom, and if it were all easy, we’d die just as we’re born — still fighting to keep our toys. I’m game for the paths, wherever they lead, but I do wish for a few small courtesies along the way.

Large courtesies I’ve got in spades – love, fabulous friends near and far, sweet notes, red lipstick, sock monkeys, cocktail jelly beans, new teas, funny photos, tomato pie, taxi service, Tuesday dinners out and Wednesday date lunches. I have blessings upon blessings. Every time I pass a radiation patient waiting wordlessly and alone for a taxi ride home, I know I have it better than the laws of fairness would dictate.

But here’s the thing. At 57, I’ve spent a lifetime taking care of other people, from a childhood spent trying to keep peace between my parents, to various boyfriends, three husbands, two kidlets, four stepkidlets, and miscellaneous pets — some of them not even mine. I spoke up for my mom at every appointment while she fought leukemia for six months, and sat with her while she died. Now I try my best to help my dad maintain some quality of life and sense of autonomy while he struggles with a growing dementia and paranoia. And, oh yeah, I work to grow a business. All this is life, of course, and I love living it full tilt. Cancer? Just my luck of the draw, and I can handle it.

But I can’t handle this: an almost complete lack of time/space/breath/peace/environment/solitude/conduciveness/peace/breath/space/time for healing. I can’t put myself anywhere physical or metaphysical where life and needs stand still long enough to shut down my caretaking heart and brain and simply be for enough moments to whitelight this insipid invasion. I can’t fill the reaching hands full enough to be able to let them go and hold my own hands for a day, or half a day. I guess I don’t know how, or maybe it just isn’t my turn yet. But I need this self-handholding, this affirmation, this love that comes from within and focuses on me. Just for a time.

When the kids were growing, a good friend told me that I didn’t seem to do anything for them. I still have no idea what she meant — I thought I was teaching them independence, along with every skill I knew. Another told me that I sure didn’t have any trouble taking time for myself — when I told her I had enrolled in a yoga class for one hour a week. I’ve been told that my (my!) priorities are skewed, and that I was “a failure as a wife, a daughter, and a mother.” In other words: “Don’t be who you are; be who I need.” I’ve dealt with it. I’ve been Zen; I’ve persevered; I’ve adapted and chameleoned and given time and again, and still maintained some sense of self.

I’ve almost learned to let the words of idiots roll off my back, but then there are those with valid needs. I can’t be mad at my father for needing me, for calling six times a day and going through the same conversations and concerns and solutions every single time. I can’t be mad at a husband who wants me to put the computer aside for an hour a day, even though I have three more hours to go on top of the eight already used. I can’t be mad at siblings who are working their tails off to make their own livings and their own lives. And I’m fighting the urge to be mad at myself — for not being fast enough to accomplish mountains in minutes of time, for my tenuous grip on patience, for my occasional need to bitch and moan and my wimpiness for not just standing up and screaming when I need to.

So I don’t know where to point this anger, but it’s here. Finally, I am mad.

Life: Not for the Squeamish

Tiny Flower, Pam Goode

Tiny Flower, Parking Lot, Presbyterian Cancer Center

I walk into my second radiation treatment behind a woman in a fun skirt made of vintage tablecloths, her round head sporting the new growth that looks like peach fuzz. An attendant in an orange shirt helps a blanket-wrapped man from the wheelchair into a waiting car. I see two other patients, both with walkers. The youth of my radiation techs looks good to me now, and the way Amanda’s face lights up when I finally notice she is pregnant and ask about the baby makes my morning. Outside of Amanda and maybe the cute young tech, I look to be the healthiest one here. I feel the need to help carry those who are dealing with so much more than I am, but it isn’t time — I don’t want to infringe.

They say radiation is a breeze, and so far it is, as long as you don’t stop to consider the deadly rays funneled into your body daily — those very rays we’re taught to fear and work to avoid. And as long as you don’t look around too much at the others sharing your journey.

Over the past few weeks, waiting for this day, I’ve dreaded the start of radiation because to me it meant this: thinking about cancer for an hour out of every 24 for seven weeks. Now, I know that it will mean this: hurting for every person I see here daily, and understanding that pretty much every one of them is facing a mountain far higher than mine. I am so lucky. Why?

I hope this is the only time in my life that I’m given free and preferred parking. The woman who chose the space next to me sat in a battered once-red car with her hand to her head and the windows down. She didn’t look up when I eased into my car. It was 10:13. Of course it was — it’s my lucky number.

Cancer is not the hardest time I’ve faced. Watching my mother die and trying to steady my father each day as his mind fades top the list. Dealing with pain I’ve caused others is a close second. These passages are agonies. Cancer is a wrench in your life-clock, a rewriting of plans, an upending and introspective re-centering. In a way, it is death and rebirth without the dying.

I don’t know why I have cancer, and I don’t know what cancer wants from me. I know we don’t need more suffering; we are overrun with suffering. Maybe we simply need another voice. Do we? With cancer claiming an ever-increasing percentage of the population, surely the numbers begin to blur. But I can be a voice. I can see beauty and celebrate with awe and I can create, after a fashion. This daily dose of hard-awareness will fuel me, once I release my grip on the melancholia of it all.

We are born into this life fairly fearless, but our willingness to grasp the new is fleeting. More and more I realize that fearlessness only returns to us after we open our eyes and drink in the realities, both good and bad, that surround us. Awareness and action: my two new friends.

Dear Cancer, I Am Not Alone, Part 2

Surgery-Day Post Redux, updated with images that have come in during the past week. The June 29 post was seen by 5 times the number of people who usually check out my blog, and more than twice as many who visited this blog on my best day ever. How many of these visitors actually know me? A fraction. How many hate cancer? Every single one of them.

After a week of rest followed by a great pathology report, tissues are healing and the mood in our house is MUCH lighter. Still treatments to follow, as well as many slow days of trying to find my way again. But make no mistake: science is a wonder and I wouldn’t walk this path without it, but love — even the love of strangers who support us with a smile or a hand or a photograph or a word or prayer or thought or mention of our name or even an acknowledgement that we are all on this path of life together — love in every form from the fieriest passion to the innocence of children in the surf to the gift of human affirmation — love is a damn strong tonic.

This journal is a seed, and these photographs a fledgling reinforcement that we are one in wonderful ways. I’ll keep adding pics from any who send them in the process of building a network for any who need it at any time for any reason anywhere in the world. Cause this love ain’t just me babe — it’s for all of us. Just click on the first image for a really nice slide show.

Today is the day they slice you out of me, you and all of your little scouts and parasites, you with your wily ways, greedy fingers, silent chewing, your poison, your hate. You are not me. I am not you. I will not be you. You’re outta here, and you’re not coming back. And I am not alone.

Many thanks to the fabulous friends, friends of friends, role models, ass kickers, lovers, survivors and supporters for these funny, touching, inspirational photographs. I love you all!!!

Dear Cancer, I Am Not Alone

Today is the day they slice you out of me, you and all of your little scouts and parasites, you with your wily ways, greedy fingers, silent chewing, your poison, your hate. You are not me. I am not you. I will not be you. You’re outta here, and you’re not coming back. And I am not alone.

Many thanks to the fabulous friends, friends of friends, role models, ass kickers, lovers, survivors and supporters for these funny, touching, inspirational photographs. I love you all!!!

Matrix

Matrix, Photo howtogeek.com

I can’t stop the numbers. They trill down my field of vision — awake, asleep, involved or staring into space, alone or with the ones I love. I’m not even certain if I’m seeing real numbers spewed like actuary tables of my years left on the planet, or colors like I’ll use to paint the remaining days, or simply a disconnect, as if all the trains are leaving the station at once and I can’t read the numbers fast enough to know which handle to grab for hoisting myself onto this ride.

Even though I love a metaphor, and this one certainly fits, I hate the numbers. I’m not given to panic attacks, but even in the heart of my quiet moments, I find myself not breathing, or breathing too much, or stopped in my tracks wondering how to breathe, and of course I blame this all on the numbers.

I am awash with numbers. Statistics, probabilities, centimeters, directions, weights and measurements, years, months, days, recovery times, usable hours in a day, fractions for dividing available time into necessary tasks, blueprints for the time I have left. I’m not a numbers girl, and I want them to go away.

As days go, I’ve been a little better lately — more time with family and a few friends, more emails answered and a more manageable pile of things left undone. And I’ve been a little worse — more in need of two bodies that will pin me between them on the sofa in the evenings, laughing at nothing and making sure I stay upright and intact. For every bit of normal-ness I wear in a day, I carry three times the weight of embryonic panic.

And so I stare a lot more now, looking for that steady place in my soul that keeps me still. Trying to find the balance in breath, which is shockingly difficult when you’re off kilter. Trying to live the truth that what’s “important” will vary on a daily (hourly) basis, and that it doesn’t matter if others don’t understand.

In a former life a coworker said, “Every time I look over, she’s just staring out the window,” and another said, “She’s not just staring, she’s designing — that’s how they do it.” And I hope (and believe, in a very small way just now) that I’m designing. I hope that my staring and breathing is giving (new) life to the balance of my days. I hope soon the numbers will stop and the design will begin to make sense in a way that I can recognize and welcome and begin to play with like fingerpaints, when everything is possible and there are no lines or graphs to fit into.

But for now, there are still the running, screaming numbers. Surgery in nine days. Anticipated one week recovery. Anticipated three to four weeks healing. Hoped-for one week balloon radiation; otherwise five – seven weeks of daily radiation. Five years (1,825 days) taking an estrogen-sucking drug (“If you want to live,” said doctor #1) or (“Your choice,” said doctor #2).

And Poof! Over. Done with. On with your life.

But I will never be the same. And it will take a lot of staring and holding and breathing to get me to the next place.

Mapping a New Landscape

When I was a girl, every Saturday morning breakfast was punctuated by my father pushing his chair back from the table, standing, and announcing that he was headed out to “survey the estate.” Our “estate” was quite small — the size of an average back yard in the city — but luscious, with tended perennial beds, brick paths, a secret Japanese garden with a winding stream and waterfall, a couple of small brick terraces, climbing vines, tall hedges, a fig tree, and a hand-carved grape arbor. I loved this garden because it was cool and beautiful and welcoming, but more importantly, because it lived and breathed a family. Not only did we spend summer days and nights here, but it existed because we existed. Every flower and blade of grass, every scraggly shrub starter, every brick, every hand-patinaed piece of statuary, every pond liner and edging stone and wooden arbor joist had been planted and carved and laid and edged and watered and tended by my visionary parents, with the aid of three fledgling wheelbarrow drivers. I’ve lived in gardens ever since those early years, but my first remains the gold standard. Not because it was prettier or more lush or contained a magical variety of flora, but because watching an ordinary family create that garden taught me just how much influence we have over the landscapes of our lives. I grew up believing that anything was possible with a little sweat, imagination, some scavenging, a tool or two, and someone to help with the wheelbarrow.

And my life has been very much like this. When I’ve acted on this belief, some pretty magical things have happened. I’ve always claimed to be lucky, to be blessed, to have escaped turmoil, despair, poverty. I’ve been pretty good at remembering that I have everything I need to live, create, and love, even if I can’t immediately remember which drawer or which recess of my brain has it safely tucked away. It has been, most certainly, a wondrous life and, despite a few sorrows, I could hardly have penned it any better.

And now at 57, too old to be tragic and too young to be inevitable, I have cancer, and though I am quite often irritatingly adept at seeing things coming, I did not see this.

Today will be hot, but the sky is dishing out a soul-stirring bluster. Yesterday I watched a tree throw her leaves in an arc that crossed a lane, fluttering madly in a last dance. This morning the walnut and elm on opposite sides of the garden are tossing their dual ingredients into the tango in swirls like fall, and it feels both happy and sad to see a summer breeze awash with still-green leaves. No longer green myself, I still feel the flutter and recognize change.

And so I look at the bountiful landscape of a life and wrestle to place my changing self into the life I’ve loved. Though my prognosis is good, I’m irritated that my future, which should map out genetically at a good thirty years (still peanuts!) will now be measured and celebrated in five year increments — barely time enough to make a bucket list, especially one scheduled around chemo treatments. And I’m irritated that my gurus, carefully chosen by the matching of heart to soul, will now be peopled with strangers selected by paper credentials and calendar availability, and that they will have as much say, and perhaps more, in the way I live my days from sunup to sundown for the rest of my life. And I’m irritated that cancer so often attacks women in the very organs that give and sustain life — Karma, wake the hell up!!!

Of course the bottom line is that the landscape of my life has also changed, and shockingly so. The way I look at my days has changed. The way I think and experience has changed. In a way, I’m okay with that. But I need to start over like a child with my trowel in the dirt, learning the feel of both peat and clay, the difference between nectars and nettles, how to map paths around this sinkhole or that hornet’s nest. Landscape, I want to look you full in the eye with my colored lenses off and my antennae roused. I need to know you intimately so that I can meet you on my terms. And yes, I will bitch and moan. I will withdraw. I will snap. I will be preoccupied. I will cry. I will cling. I will write more than I will speak. I will not wear the smiley face. I will be unpredictable, just like this disease. Just like this changing landscape that looks so foreign to me in this moment. But in the end, there will be beauty.

I want to be Zen again, one day, but make no mistake that this time I will be Zen with a dragon tattoo, really good hiking boots, and backup. So please pardon me while I raise a little hell and clear the nettles.

Rousillon

Landscape of Rousillon, France
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Proliferative Rat Bastards

I don’t know how long I’ve had breast cancer, only that today was the first day I woke up knowing it. Today was the first day I opened my eyes aware that something inside me wanted more, and it wasn’t love or inspiration or creation or enlightenment. Today was the first day I opened my eyes aware that something inside me isn’t “me” at all, and I’m telling you, it’s a total Sigourney Weaver moment, but without the big paycheck.

There are many qualities I have to reach for on a daily basis, because living outside of myself does not come so easily for me. My True Self is 99% sensitivity and introspection. I see in others what I know in myself, and I try to serve as a partner along the path. And if I’m all about looking inward, how did I not see this? How did I not feel this? How the hell did I grow this, and allow it to feast on me?

There are many things I’ve worried about in my life, and breast cancer was never, ever, ever even a blip on the radar. I don’t have a single risk factor for breast cancer. I’ve taken diligent precautions in other areas that were much bigger threats to my health. I don’t even think mammograms hurt — piece of cake. Although I hadn’t had one in a while. Not for any good reason — is there a good reason? The last thing my beloved doctor of 12 years said to me before she left the building a month ago and joined a “boutique” practice was “Go downstairs and make an appointment for a mammogram before you leave the building.” And I did. If I could afford the $2500 annual fee, I would walk into her new office and hug her big.

And this is what it feels like: Strength. Calmness. Hysteria. Dissolution. Resolve. Lack of Focus. Resignation. Belief. Giving Up. Anxiety. Muteness. Dirtiness. Openness. Love. Hate. Love. All on the fast track and vibrating like a loaded spring inside me, blocking the pathways between sensing and knowing, between realizing and speaking, between the intent and the act.

I’m not going to turn this blog into a cancer diary, because this damnable grabby greedy rat bastard stealer of life won’t be with me for long. But he has forced himself uninvited and unwanted onto my path, and he will change me a bit just as love and childbirth and friends and Italy and art have changed me, and I will continue to scour the corners of my psyche to see what’s hiding and what needs the light of day for a better understanding. So yeah, more of the same. But I’ve got my growl on now.