Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Death at the Doorstep

A friend wrote and told me she is worried about my health, as my diagnosis has gone from Stage II to Stage III breast cancer after they found it had invaded 15 of the 16 lymph nodes that they removed during my surgery.  I am also worried about my health, but had managed to put that particular demon to rest for a few days.  But her words awoke the demon, and here we are, squaring off.

I see fleeting shadows, the little harbingers of doom, run across walls that shouldn't have shadows.  My legs are restless, I can't sleep or find any peace.  What of death?  What can I do about it?  I can do nothing but hope and wait to find out what my fate will be.  I can fight, to the best of my ability, against it.  But once death has chosen you, what can you do?

The books say to go see a counselor or join a support group, but I see no point in these things - not for me.  What could I say to them that I couldn't say to you, dear reader?  How would it make me feel better to pour all my fears into someone who has no power to change anything?  I have been in enough counseling in my lifetime to know that it may ease my burden, but that I can do that myself.  As for a group, I don't want to sit in the midst of other women going through the same thing.  The thought of all of those bald heads and long faces and desperate hope is even too much for me, actually doing it would put me over the edge.  I've never found comfort in the group; perhaps it was one too many AA meetings as a child.

Instead, I come here to pour my heart out, to rid myself of the demon.  The fear and the anger that live inside me will be put to rest for another few days or a week or weeks if I'm lucky.  I want to put them to rest until I know that I have beat this thing or that I have to keep fighting.  I'm a good soldier, you see, I march on.  I never stop or give up or act as if life is anything less than ordinary.  I stare into my daughter's eyes and see the future, her face is my lifeline, her smile is my strength.  I have to keep my chin up, stiff upper lip, and carry on as if nothing is happening.  Not for them, but for me.  This is how I was raised - shit happens, and on you go.

I see the worry in my husband's eyes, and I think this doesn't make sense.  My body is strong and healthy, I am not wasting away - how can I being worrying about death?  How can I be seeing those fleeting shadows out of the corner of my eye?  Most of all, how can it be me?  I have to be here to raise my daughter.  I have to.

I read back on my old posts, from 7 years ago.  How different from today, light-hearted and carefree.  Before my daughter, before life became so damn serious.  How do I get that back?  Is it just children and stress and age that have made me serious or is it something I can switch off?  How do I turn off the serious voice in my head?  Ah, but these are serious times in my head and my heart.  Everything is so tenuous now.  Honestly, everything has been tenuous for years.  And once everything else stopped being tenuous, then my health got tenuous.  Life on a high wire, with nothing below but the whoosh of wind and air and the smack of hard concrete.  I suppose this is what has made me serious.  When I am on the other side of this, cancer-free, maybe I'll be less fucking serious.  Maybe my "life is sweet and short and so you better savor it" attitude will overcome my high wire act.

My daughter rises this morning and she is ignorant of my fear.  She only wants to cuddle and talk of simple things, and this, this is my freedom.  Her eyes and her smile and her simplicity, and most of all, her complete lack of worry.  She doesn't worry about me, she knows I will be fine, for how can it be any other way for her?  And of course, I will be fine, because how can it be any other way?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Trials, Tribulations, Terror, and Tenacity

In the ongoing breast cancer saga, I had a 10-hour surgery back on June 3rd.  The surgery was supposed to be 7 hours - which seemed plenty long - but they found a hernia, so they called in another doctor to take care of that.  I guess that was nice for my plastic surgeon; maybe he got to take a break then.  As a physical therapist later pointed out to me:  "You had three surgeries in one!".  I got a tummy tuck, a boob made out of my tummy tuck leftovers, and a hernia operation.  Totally gross, right?  Yep.  Gross, but also amazing.  We ladies are now recyclable.  I'm encouraging my friends to keep some of their belly fat in case they need a replacement boob somewhere down the line.

This was the third time I've spent a week in the hospital.  The first time was an emergency c-section with my son.  I don't remember much of it as I was trying to die on the way into it.  I remember lemon swabs in my mouth, a doctor who told me that my son and I should have died, my dad being amused at my morphine babble coma state, and having a smoke in the hospital smoking area.  That was back in the 80's, when hospitals had things like that.  The second time was a planned c-section that was much less dramatic; it didn't involve lemon swabs, near death experiences, morphine, or hospital smoking areas.  Jaundice and breast pumps were involved, but compared to my first childbirth, the thing was a cakewalk.  This last experience was somewhere in between.  There were lemon swabs, percoset comas, some hot plastic inflated blanket that remained on my upper body for months on end (okay, three days) and made me sweat profusely, weird calf massager thingies, and sitting up in bed all the time.  I still sleep sitting up even though I'm home.  When my doctor came to tell me we could take the hot plastic inflated blanket off, I told him he was my favorite person in the world.  And he was, right then.

The hospital is such a strange place.  You lie in a room,  hopefully high on some sort of drug, and listen to the rhythms of the place.  The nurses change constantly and you have to acclimate to their style.  It's like being at work, but where your job is just to lie there and try to get better.  And you wonder which nurse is the most like Nurse Jackie.  Being a patient also requires a certain amount of tenacity.  You have to tell the nurses what you want, and sometimes you have to be a little pushy about it because they sometimes just nod.  I feel bad for anyone that goes into a hospital without the ability to stick up for themselves.  Of course, you must remain courteous, kind, and forgiving, just like Steve Martin's grandma said.

Coming home was equal parts unbridled joy and terror.  Home is home, so of course it's where you want to be.  One nurse did double-check that I actually wanted to go home; she said some people really don't want to go home.  She was obviously a good nurse.  But I was also terrified that we would somehow completely fail in taking care of all my scars and wounds and drains and medications, and that I would have to go back to the hospital and have even more time there.  That terror was unfounded, as my husband has been a better caretaker than I could have imagined.  My sister and niece also were home with us that first week, making everything that much easier.  I am so fortunate to have so many wonderful people in my life.  I know I can get bitchy about having cancer up in here, but I am always aware of how fucking lucky I am for my friends and my family, my job and my insurance, and to live where I live.

Next on the list was dealing with being able to look at myself in the mirror.  Man, body image is a bitch.  The first time I caught sight of those scars, I bawled and bawled and bawled.  My own 7-year old has an easier time looking at them than I do.  Every day is a little easier as they look less Frankenstein-y, but still.  Even the flat belly doesn't make everything seem like sunshine and roses.  At my age and at this point, I gotta get over that shit.  All that matters is that I''m alive and that fucking cancerous piece of shit tumor is no longer part of my body.

Onwards we go to another round of chemo, as soon as possible, then some radiation, and then some medication I'll have to take for 5 years.  But I can hope for another 5 years here, at least.  Facing death and your mortality is a big motherfucking task.  I recently remembered that back in junior high I took an elective class on Death and Dying.  We read the book on Death and Dying, watched Harold and Maude, learned all the right ways to commit suicide, and learned to accept death as part of life.  Reflecting on what I learned on that class has helped me.  I've been through my own grieving process these past few weeks, and finally feel like I'm coming out on the other side.

Sunday, May 25, 2014


We have just returned from a week on Oahu.  We stayed in a moderately okay hotel (the room was smaller than my bedroom, but hey...it was vacation) across the street from the end of Waikiki Beach.  We were walking distance to the zoo, aquarium, War Memorial, and Sans Souci Beach.  My husband was born there and lived there until he was 1 year old and hadn't been back since.  My daughter and I had never been.

Our first experience was at the airport, where we and our taxi driver had a shouting match with some sort of taxi authority person.  Needless to say, it was not the greatest welcome to Hawaii, but that's the airport.  Airport's are like separate worlds, where we all turn into angry cattle and our handlers are tired and short-tempered.

Vacation started as soon as we dropped off our stuff and hightailed it over to the beach.  The water was so clear and beautiful, salty, and kind of warm.  At the end of Waikiki Beach, they've walled off a couple of swimming areas so the water is calm.  The waves break over the walls, and if you stand close enough you can get covered in a little wave action.  That first day, the beach was slathered in tourists; we probably all arrived that Saturday and went to the same beach.  That beach wasn't nearly as packed the rest of the trip.

Sunday morning we did the hotel cattle call breakfast and then we walked up to Sans Souci Beach, which was much nicer.  Away from the crowds and the tourists, with a strong current that pulled you along the beach.  I saw one woman who was going against the current, just swimming in place.  I wasn't sure if she was doing it on purpose, as she did comment to me how strong the current was.  On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a beach cafĂ© and fueled up.  Eric had the Loco Moco (a big pile of rice covered with a hamburger patty, an egg, and gravy) and I had Surfer's Fried Rice (a big pile of covered with a fried egg - the healthy version of Loco Moco).  The food was so filling and delicious.  We got back to the hotel around 5pm, I recommended that we take a rest, and we all slept until 5:30 the next morning.  I think we were tired.

Monday we picked up a rental car and hit the King Kamehameha Highway.  Speed limit:  35 mph.  Most of the highways we were on had speed limits of 35 or 45 mph...and minimum speeds too.  Although I'm usually a speed demon, I liked the speed restriction because it forced me to relax and enjoy the scenery.  And the scenery is amazing.  Huge green mountains and lush forests butting up to clean sandy beaches with clear blue waters dotted with coral reefs.  We pulled over at a random roadside beach and reveled in the beauty. Standing in the beautiful Pacific Ocean staring at the those big, green volcanic mountains.  How wonderful to get away from the dry, concrete suburbs, away from my cancer land.

We made it all the way to Waimea Bay, where all the tourists were, and then turned back.  We found a great little beach with not many folks, beautiful water, and some great snorkeling.  Peaches made a friend, and then we all slapped on our masks, snorkels, and fins, and floated around looking at fish until we were tired.  I laid on the beach, floated in the water, laid on the beach, stared at the people.  On our way home we stopped at a shrimp truck, which are popular on the North Shore where there are lots of shrimp farms.  I had delicious coconut fried shrimp and Eric and Peaches shared garlic shrimp, all delicious and delicious.  Peaches followed up her meal with a beautiful coconut and drank up all the coconut milk.  We got home around 8pm and all passed out again.  The next day was rest and recovery around Waikiki, swimming at our beaches there. 

One of my favorite things was the rain.  It rained almost everyday that we were there.  A cold, hard rain that would last awhile.  And the clouds...there was only one day that was actually sunny.  The clouds made the heat bearable since the sun wasn't beating down on us.

Our least favorite thing was Hanauma Bay. We went expecting the best snorkeling spot on the island and found a tourist trap.  We paid our nominal fee to get in, had to stand in a line to be herded into a theater to watch a video, then had to herd down to the beach on a roped path.  I don't like any tourist activities that involve large groups all doing the same thing and being herded around.  I didn't even like the breakfasts that we had to stand in line for.  You'll never find me on a tour bus or in a walking tour group.  My husband is the same way, but more short-tempered.  By the time we got down to the overrun beach, we were all hot and irritated and disappointed.  The coral was so close to the surface that you couldn't avoid touching it (which you're not supposed to do) on the way into the water, and there were so many people that the water was cloudy with sand and the fish were scarce.  We tried to make it great.  The scenery was wonderful, but between all of the tourists and the fire ants and the tourists, we were done.  We made the long trek back to the hotel on public transportation, and were so glad to be back in Waikiki.

The next day I took Peaches to the aquarium and spoke to a docent there about Hanauma Bay.  He clarified that the best time to go is 6am, and that you have to swim past the buoys - where you're not supposed to swim - to see really great fish.  And he clarified that there are lots of other places on the island that are equal to or better than Hanauma Bay.  The aquarium was small but spectacular, with frogfish and giant trout and sharks and jellyfish.

We finished the trip by renting a car and heading back to the North Shore to our favorite snorkeling spot.  It was the perfect counterpoint to Hanauma Bay, and Eric was rewarded with a turtle sighting.  I was bullied by one of the state fish, who eyeballed me and made dashes at me until I left his favorite feeding spot. Peaches met her friend again and they frolicked in the waves and snorkeled and were treated to fudgesicles by her friend's mother.  I took pictures for some young tourists, celebrating someone's dirty 30.  I noticed a lot of women - including one of the young tourists - at the beach with make-up slathered on their faces.  They clearly had no intent to actually swim.  I guess there were just there to sunbathe and walk in the water.  I am old and don't understand the point of going to Hawaii and not swimming.  I barely understand the point of applying so much make-up each and every day.  What dedication for false beauty.

We got home at 2:30am this morning, overjoyed to see our pets and our beds and all of the space of our house.  Hawaii has made its indelible mark, and we will...of course...research living there.  I commented to my husband that if we had gone to Hawaii before we acquired pets and made a child, we would have never left. 

We also found Da Braddahs...so Hawaiian and hilarious and messy...right there on regular Hawaiian TV. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The End (Almost!) of The Adventure

A few people have told me how proud they are of me for seeing this chemo thing through.  When I talk about these people, I have to make it clear that I'm not talking about people that I'm close to.  They're just acquaintances or work people.  They tell me they are proud or that I am so strong.  And it pisses me off.  Sure, I know they're being nice and supportive in their way, but here's the thing.  I didn't really have a choice in the matter.  Rather, I did.  Be strong and move forward or die.  I suppose I could have withered up and stopped working, but my body didn't go for that.  My body is strong, so that wasn't a choice, either.  From beginning to end, I've felt bereft of choice, and there's no pride in that.

And maybe that's a good thing.  Maybe it's good to have pride and choices taken away, so one can experience what it's like to just be moving along on the great walkway of life, to be lacking that sense of free will that is so important to all of us.  I've had some free will over the last 5 months, I used it to decide to live, I suppose.  But I did that for my daughter and my husband.  Without them, I don't know that I would have made the choice to stay alive.  I am a stubborn thing, so I may have.  But I may have given up halfway through and said: "Fuck this shit, I'd rather be dead."  That's a real possibility.

Here we are now, at the tail end of recovery of the last treatment.  I have come this far, and I still don't know what the future holds.  Some days I feel like I am hanging on to life by a thread, expecting it to be pulled out of my grasp at any second.  Some days I feel like I will get through the surgery and life will go on as if nothing had happened.  The future holds no certainty for me anymore; I cannot confidently envision myself playing with my grandchildren or seeing my daughter through college.

Death has been at my door before, and it left me with a taste for life that I hadn't had.  This is different, though.  Since I've already been invigorated with a love of life, what can this brush with death bring?  Moreover, it's less like a brush with death and more like a long slow massage with death.  Where before I felt like I had escaped death (because I had), now I feel like Death and I are in the ring, sparring.  We may be in the ring for a long time, and I know Death.  Death will let me think I've won, again.

Ah, well...this has ended up much more morbid and angry than I'd intended.  This is the weekend of my last chemo, intermingled with my birthday and Mother's Day.  I am, believe it or not, thrilled to be here.  I am so fucking happy to be done with the chemotherapy, and to have been able to continue in my life throughout it.  I cannot wait to be free of the lingering effects and the knowledge that I have to go back for more, and for my family to be free of it too.  I am so fucking happy, but I am also looking forward to the major surgery and recovery.  Another battle, another war for my body to wage in its effort to move the fuck on with life.

At beginning and end of every day, I look into my daughter's big, beautiful eyes and wonder what she will take from all this.  I hope she sees the strength that others see and takes it for herself.  I hope one day she realizes that I stayed to be with her, to be her mother for as long as I possibly could.  I hope that this doesn't leave a mark on her heart and mind that she won't be able to cover.  I hope she and I live together for a long, long time.  I hope that I heal so that my son doesn't have to lose another parent to cancer.  I hope for every day to be as long and sweet as the last.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Tales of Whoa....

I was telling my oncologist (more on that later) that I don't like to complain or feel sorry for myself because so many people have been through much more than I have, to which she responded:  "Yes, but this is your journey."

Indeed, I thought, this is my fucking journey.  It's a journey....A journey to what?  Death?  Does it have to be a journey?  Right now it feels like a fucking death march through a hot desert while wearing a black wool uniform complete with a scratchy black wool hat and wool lined hard leather boots.  With no water.  And no oasis or camel.  Or helpful Bedouins.

But I don't like to complain.  Occasionally, a thing will set me off.  A thing like a standard line like "this is your journey" will definitely set me off.  Because if this is my journey, I would like to discuss some alternate form of transportation or something different to wear or perhaps a different agenda.  Can we just call it "my adventure"?  That sounds much more exciting and exotic.  In fact, I think if I ever hear someone tell me about my journey again, I will correct them and tell them that it's my adventure.  And then I'll explain that I don't like journey's.  They seem too...ethereal and unfocused, even wishy-washy.  I want ADVENTURE!

Life, though, is crap from time to time, and you have to complain.  I've been complaining on and off since August.  Here's why:

We decided to move to LA for my job.  In August.

The day before the packers came, I was told that the company I was working for got sold.

We moved anyway.

My favorite cat ran away after we moved.  Now I only have a boy cat named Muffin.  His manly older brother, Jimmy, fled the scene.  Who can blame him?

It was over 100 degrees everyday for at least a month.

My first LA electric bill was $700.

I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer on December 26th.

People suggested that I should wear pink or breast cancer ribbons.

The sale of the company went through in February.  I got demoted.

What is there to complain about, really?  There's not.  I am a white woman living in California in 2014.  I completely understand that I am living THE LIFE.  I know how to make lemonade out of lemons.  I know that some people have so many lemons that they could make oceans of lemonade.  I am an incredibly fortunate person.  I am humbled by my good fortune.

My hair fell out from the chemo.

I got promoted back into my old position for the same salary.

I own 3 wigs and innumerable hats and scarves.

That is my adventure this year.  This is the year of my CANCER ADVENTURE.  I will travel to places I've never been.  I will meet new and interesting people!  I will explore strange new places.  I will try new foods!  I will fall asleep at inopportune times.  I will make people uncomfortable with my cancer jokes!

I will not be on a journey.  Too many people have been on this journey before me, have made this journey so much easier that it will be an adventure.  And it will be funny.  And complaining will only be allowed when the chemo zaps my mental and physical well-being for a week.  And then it will be back to ADVENTURE.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wee Hours

The wind blows hot through suburbia, rattling the palm trees and the wind chime, knocking over anything that it can.  No one is outside in the suburb; they are all cocooned in their houses, at work, at at school or at the mall.  Outside of the suburb, they tool from place to place in their air conditioned car, just like me.  The suburb seems a lonely place, adrift from its original planned nature as a community, a place for families and friends; it has become a desolate, unfriendly place where neighbors don't really know each other.

I feel like a castaway here, lost on land, too far from the sea.  I miss my little ocean side paradise, the actual community, the familiarity and smallness.  This place is too large, and 5 months here seems like an eternity.  We make plans to leave in another 7 months.  Since 5 months here feels like a year, if we last 12 months here it will feel as though we've well exceeded our original limit of 2 years.  We need the ocean, the salt, the smallness, the people who leave their houses and say hello and know their neighbors.

The weather is unvarying here.  Perpetual blue skies and heat and wind make the days incredibly repetitive.  I never realized what an important role that changing weather plays in my life.  They set the cadence of life, the moods, the want of warmth or cold.  In this weather, the every day blue skies and sun and wind, I just want for something different.  I want a cloudy sky or no wind or a cool breeze or rain or a sudden, thick fog.  Anything other than blue and sun and wind.  I want to bundle up in the middle of the day, to wear a scarf.  I want cold.

Yes, there are good things to say about the place, but there are always good things to say about a place.  Saying the good things does not erase my longing for the good things I left.  The good things here do not overshadow the good things we left behind.  The good things here contrast the good things left behind, making them shinier and prettier.

I will go to sleep praying for rain and there will be none.  Just more wind and sun and blue.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

South Bound

I made a decision to accept a promotion and a raise, with the requirement being that I move myself and my family down to Southern California.  My mother was born and raised in Pasadena, CA; in fact, her family came out to Pasadena after the Civil War and set up shop there, becoming an influential force in the area.  C'est la vie, all that money and social status was flushed down the drain by my grandfather.  Probably for the best, or I might have been a debutante.  Being born and raised in San Francisco, with my father's half of the family Bay Area residents for generations, I was taught that Southern California, specifically Los Angeles, is no place to live.  I was taught that it is hot, shallow, unlivable, etc.  I lived here once before, actually in a small town of San Bernardino county.  And it was hot and shallow and unlivable, especially in my old muscle cars that were always breaking down and had no air conditioning.

Despite all that, I took the job and the move, and here we are.  The first three weeks we were here, the weather was an atrocity.  Over 100 degrees every day; the air stale and hot and polluted.  One night we went to Thousand Oaks for dinner with co-workers/friends and I got a whiff of ocean air.  Salt on the breeze, moisture in the air.  Confirmation that the ocean is near!  All is not lost!  Although I work in Burbank, we decided to move to Santa Clarita Valley.  We chose SCV because we heard this a lot:  "It's a great place to raise a family!".  Yeah, heard that so much that it started to have a Stepford Wives ring to it, since the phrase was always accompanied with a great, big pile of enthusiasm and a big smile.  People here are inordinately happy and friendly, for the most part.  Even the homeless guy in Ventura that I gave a couple of smokes to yesterday was happy and friendly, despite the many layers of dirt on his skin and the missing teeth.  Anyway, there is no ocean breeze in SCV...the ocean is 44 miles west of us.

I've moved a lot in my lifetime, I usually adjust quickly, adapt to the new surroundings...or at least quickly come to accept them as they are.  I'm still struggling with this area, perhaps because I'm older and more set in my expectations of "how things should be".  For example, I don't think I should be passing burning guardrails and flaming minivans on the freeway as I head into work.  I don't think there should be mini-malls on every corner, or concrete walls in by backyard, or car lots that sell cars by parking them in sparkling ponds.  That strikes me as something that shouldn't be.  The first three weeks here with the heat put me in a foul state of mind, struggling to adjust or to accept things as they are.  But the heat also made me wonder what the fuck my family was thinking when they rolled in in the 1800's and set up shop.  I suppose it was not in the dead of fucking summer, and that perhaps the death heat came as a surprise to them.  Back then, a woman couldn't just strip down to a pair of shorts and a bikini top; they didn't exist and that would have been absolutely scandalous.  Perhaps they had linen for summer and wool for winter.

Now the heat wave has passed and I've been to a couple of beaches, so my scathing anger and resentment have passed.  Part of the anger and resentment were actually related to work; I found out our company had been sold the evening before the packers arrived to move us down.  That's sort of like holding your mommy's hand in the mall, losing contact, and her disappearing into the crowd - all of the security of the job and the move were ripped out from under us.  Life marches on, though, and we will make the best of whatever the future brings.  Also, warm and sunny beaches help put perspective on things.  Being able to jump into pounding waves of cold water and then lying down on a warm towel on hot sand helps.

With all of the strange things here, there are good things.  In our house, the master bedroom has a bathroom attached to it.  I had this luxury as a single woman in Dallas, TX, but didn't appreciate it nearly as much as I do being a married mother.  This morning was my day to sleep in, but I didn't end up sleeping that late.  Instead, I awoke, snuck out to the kitchen and obtained a cup of fresh, hot coffee, and snuck back to my bedroom.  I spent an hour and a half reading quietly in my bed.  This sort of activity has been almost unheard of since my daughter learned to walk.  Also, there's a hot tub in our backyard.  Yesterday morning, I strained a muscle in my knee, so I just got into the hot tub and then it was all better and I carried on with my day.  Everything is less expensive here, the stores are less crowded, services are easier to find, and life seems to be generally easier.  This must be the reason everyone seems to be so goddamned happy.

But there are still things missing for me: loved ones, cold and foggy mornings, dark starry nights, the ocean breeze, the foghorn, the warmth and familiarity of a small town, the oddity of the neighbors, the lack of people and chain stores and Botox and tans.  People here are different, the emphasis on looks and status, what you wear and what you drive and how you look.  It's a subtle emphasis, but I can see it and feel it.  Back in our little town, people didn't get up every morning intent on looking their best.  Well, sure, some folks do but they could never achieve the shiny, polished look that comes with years of sun exposure and plastic surgery that's so prevalent here.

For now, I am accepting of where we are - what else can I be?  It was my choice to be here, so there's no logic in hating every bit of it.  I'll enjoy the little things here that make it nice - warm beaches and swimming pools and a master bedroom and functional dishwasher and so much closet space - and eventually we'll close this chapter and head back to home, the place that is always home, the place I always go back to. 

I'll enjoy Seaward Village in Ventura; it has that small feel, the crusty ocean town sprinkled with money and poverty.  I will look for places to live there, just to entertain myself...I really don't want to pack up and move yet again, until we hit the road back to the North, where the living is expensive but buckets more nurturing for my soul.