Over the weekend, my favorite girl asked me to help her with a project for her biology class. She’s a freshman in high school now. This is what she looked like at age 8 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I took this photo the day before my bilateral mastectomy. This is my favorite girl today.
I know, right??? How does that happen???
Anyhoo, back to the story: my favorite girl is doing a project for her biology class on a disease or disorder that has a chromosomal component. She chose breast cancer.
She needed the basic info of my cancer: stage, treatment, etc., as well as ancillary materials (photos and such) that tell “the story” of her subject’s experience with said disease or disorder. I pulled out my bulging “cancer catch-all” — my binder that holds all my paperwork, like pathology reports. That was easy because it’s all facts: this scan was conducted on this date and found this. Then she asked for the not-so-easy part: details on how my cancer affected me. While there are indeed facts involved with that part too, something else is involved as well, which is what makes it, for me, the not-so-easy part.
Feelings. The dreaded feels.
I don’t like feeling the feels associated with my cancer experience. (I refuse to refer to it as my cancer “journey” because to me that word implies an end point. With cancer, there doesn’t seem to be an end point. I don’t like it, so I’m not gonna use that word.)
Six years out, I don’t think about my cancer experience nearly as much as I used to (hence the loooooooong periods of radio silence from this blog). As with most calamities, time does smooth out the rough edges. But with my favorite girl asking me for all the gory details, that dark period of my life surrounded me, again.
When, exactly, do we “get over” this? At what point does the calamity of cancer lose its potent punch? I’d like an ETA on the return of peace and tranquility. Can someone please tell me when to expect an easing from the powers of the cancer calamity? Because I need to know that at some point, cancer will no longer upend my day like a sucker punch and leave me reeling, wondering why I feel as I’ve been run over by a truck.
That will happen, right?
Even though my cancer experience is no longer the petulant toddler whining for a pack of Skittles in the grocery-store checkout area, apparently that cancer still packs quite a punch. The simple act of flipping through my medical binder to locate information for my girl’s project sent me on a one-way trip through bad memories and scary places. I see myself from a distance, as if I’m watching myself on a screen. In the blink of an eye, I’m no longer a survivor whose scars are a badge of courage. Instead, I’m instantly transported back to that time. Those days. That period.
I hate that cancer has the ability to do this. I hate that cancer still controls me. Like a bad habit or a selfish lover, my cancer has a hold on me. Other people’s cancers have that power over me, too. Like my sweet mama’s cancer. That rat bastard smiles and licks its lips, knowing it is the puppet master and I am the puppet.
I should know better than to expect to be “done” with cancer. After all, I’ve been thinking about it and blogging about it for years. As I wrote early in 2011:
Another things I’ve learned on my “cancer journey” is that someone keeps moving the finish line. I’ve only been at this for 10 months, yet have seen my finish line recede, sidewind, and fade into the distance. It starts even before diagnosis, with the testing that’s done to determine if we do indeed have a problem. Get through those tests, which in my case were a mammogram, an ultrasound or two, and a couple of biopsies. Then there’s the actual diagnosis, and getting through that becomes an emotional obstacle course. Following the diagnosis are lots of research, soul-searching, and decisions. But even when those are through, the real work is only just beginning. After the big decisions come still more testing (MRI, CT scan, PET scan, blood work, another biopsy), and that’s just to get to the point of having surgery. Get through surgery, then through recovery, and just when I think I may be getting “there” I realize that even after recovery, I gotta learn about re-living, which is kinda different when “normal” has flown the coop and there’s a new status quo involved. You might think that finding the new normal would be the end, but guess what? now there’s the maintenance and screening. If you’re the kind of person who makes a list and takes the necessary steps to reach the conclusion, you’re screwed, because there is no end. I can’t even see the goalposts anymore.
I should know damn good and well that there is no end. So why do I keep looking for it?
It’s out last week in our house.
Things have been pretty busy around here, hence the silence on the blog front. Hopefully that will change as we get settled in our temporary quarters and construction begins on our new house.
Among the purging, organizing, and packing that’s gone on lately, I thought it appropriate to take a moment and reflect back on the time spent in this house. When we moved in 9 years ago, Trevor had just graduated from Duke University with his MBA. Second from the left, he was all smiles. I was too, because we were leaving North Carolina — which was nice for a couple of years — and coming home to Texas. My favorite girl and my #1 son enjoyed graduation day, too.
When we left Durham, my favorite girl was in the throes of the terrible two’s, and my #1 son had just turned 5. The days were long but the years were short. I’m pretty sure I was too tired to envision our life 9 years later, with a girl preparing for middle school and a boy — ahem, a teenager — getting ready to start high school, and yet here we are.
and my #1 son headed off to kindergarten two months after we unpacked. Wearing his beloved Nomar jersey and light-up tennis shoes, that child looks like such a baby. His profile is the same nearly a decade later, as is his signature cowlick on the back of his head.
but he did learn to be a good sport about it.
That investment paid off, though, and Mr P collected his bounty for this first home run. $20 and a beer was the going rate back then (although he made the same face when he tasted the beer as he did when he tasted the fish). Little League is a distant memory, and home-run bounties no longer exist. Fancy bats and the big fields are our current reality.
We’ve seen a lot of changes in the last 9 years. This house has served us well as we navigated the twists and turns of life with two young kids. I can’t wait to see what adventures await us in the new house.
It’s rodeo time again. The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo is a big deal. It’s been going on since 1932, and in those years the rodeo has raised more than $330 million for agricultural scholarships, research, and educational programs. It’s the largest livestock show in the world, and my fair city is the epicenter for all things rodeo. For 3 weeks every spring, people come from all over this great state and from farther afield to compete in all kinds of events. From bareback riding to calf roping to showing prized animals to producing works of art, the rodeo has it all. Then there’s the carnival, with rides and the most inventive fried foods ever conceived.
the highest set of swings in the world,
Read about our trip to the rodeo last year here, in which I feared for my life on one of these carnival rides.
We took special interest in the pigs, of course. This one has similar coloring to our little piggie, but thankfully is a different breed. If Piper ever got this big, we’d be in trouble.
How could we resist that snout??
Watching these giant pigs walking to and from the show ring was fascinating. Although they barely glanced at each other as they passed, I kept expecting them to turn and sniff each other, and maybe even scuffle, the way dogs might.
Their handlers kept them on the right path by tapping them with a thin stick. We must get one of those for our wayward piggie.
This pig needed to step on the scale before going to the show ring, but she wasn’t too happy about it. It took two guys to get her into the pen that holds the scale.
Lots of babies are born at the rodeo each year. This little lamb made his entrance into the big wide world and was on display soon after.
Two litters of piglets were on display, as well. The Little Rascals were born last month and were running and playing. Their next-door neighbors, the Baconators, were a couple of weeks behind them but catching up fast.
There’s a phenomenon in our house called The Pig Flop, in which Piper enjoys the petting so much that she literally flops on the floor all at once, in one smooth movement. My favorite girl attempted to get a Pig Flop from each piggie in the petting zoo.
Of course she succeeded. She is the Pig Whisperer, after all.
We wondered if our little piggie would smell her rodeo relatives on us when we got home. It’s perhaps more likely that she smelled the deep-fried Snickers on Macy’s breath!
Not sure what that’s all about, but it was memorable.
“If I can’t wear my boots, I ain’t goin” sums up the rodeo experience quite nicely. Lucky for her, boots are most welcome at the rodeo!
My favorite girl and I had a busy weekend. While my #1 son was busy with baseball, she and I went to a baby shower for my cousin, then hit the Galleria to find a very special birthday gift, and took a trip to our favorite gourmet grocery store. While normally I’d rather open a vein than go to the Galleria on a Saturday afternoon, my girl’s unbridled enthusiasm made up for the fact that I felt like I was back in NYC with the crush of humanity all around us. No matter; my girl soaked it all in and enjoyed every minute of it. Once we left the mall and pressed on to the smaller yet still significant crowd at Central Market, my little foodie was in her element and wanted to sample every piece of produce and taste the fresh-ground cashew butter and indulge in the specialty Easter candies in the bulk bins. She wasn’t nearly as interested as I was in examining the sparkling wine section, so she forged on ahead to the condiment aisle to peruse the soy sauce (her latest food obsession).
On my own, I would have raced through the store, grumbling at those inconsiderate enough to leave their carts unattended in the middle of the aisle. I would have thrown items into my cart and crossed off my list with much haste. (I still would have lingered in the sparkling wine section, but quickly.) With my girl, however, I was reminded to slow down and savor the experience. After all, it wasn’t about filling my cart with groceries as much as it was about experiencing the store’s bounty with my fledgling foodie.
After we saw and sampled everything there was to see, we pushed our canvas-bag-laden cart to the car. Instead of collapsing in a heap in the passenger seat, my girl hauled her share of the bags from the cart into the trunk, chatting away. Once she returned the cart and buckled up, she looked at me and smiled the sweetest smile and said, “I really like spending quality time with you.” She went on to say that she doesn’t really understand when she hears girls say that their moms drive them crazy or embarrass them (although that’s probably coming). She said that just doesn’t make sense to her, because she enjoys hanging out with me.
What a compliment. And an honor. Huge. On both fronts.
A few days later, we ran errands after school, including a trip to the garden center to pick out some spring color for the front flowerbeds (those of you still bogged down in winter, feel free to curse; I would. We’ll revisit this topic in August or September or October when it’s still hot enough to break a sweat walking through the house despite the $600/month AC bill). Of course my girl wanted to help plant the flowers, too, and had ideas on how to best mix and match the different colors for maximum effect.
Again, I would have quickly divided up the flowers, dug too-small holes, and jammed the plants in, just to be done with it. Not my girl, though; she carefully raked the mulch away with one tool, dug the hole with another, and gently broke up the roots before gingerly placing the plant in its new home. As if that weren’t enough, she lovingly watered each plant with the gentlest of streams from her tiny watering can.
As I stopped myself from telling her to skip the watering because the sprinkler system would douse the new plants in the morning, I could feel the universe trying to tell me something. When the universe tries to tell me something, I stop my busy-body ways long enough to listen. “This,” the universe said. “This is what it’s all about.”
I know in my rational brain that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. But I don’t work that way, and am continually smacking my head up against this conundrum. However, as my girl and I finished planting just as the sun slipped down even with the horizon, leaving trails of pink and orange to match the flowers we’d just planted, I heeded the universe’s message and stopped long enough to notice the stunning colors of the sunset. To inhale the sweet scent of the purple stock. To watch the drops of water pool and drip, one by one, from the newly-planted flowers. To appreciate that my girl wants to hang with me. To give thanks for the fact that we both find satisfaction in a job well done.
This. This is what it’s all about.
And I appreciate it. Especially in light of the fact that a couple of years ago, I struggled to imagine doing something so simple yet so satisfying with my girl. A comedy of errors post-surgery ensured that anything that could go wrong would go wrong, and a relatively simple, early-stage cancer diagnosis turned ugly with a hard-to-diagnose post-surgery infection. She was just 8 years old when I was diagnosed, and even then possessed a wisdom that belied her youth. While my #1 son fretted internally and worried about my survival rate, my girl knew that we would get through that perilous journey. With a wisdom that still belies her youth, nearly 3 years post-cancer, she reminds me that This. This is what it’s all about. Running errands together. Sampling yummy food and picking out new things to cook. Planting flowers with the utmost care. This.
As we headed back into the house last night after our gardening was done, she did it again: she told me that she’s really glad we spent that quality time together. I’m humbled and honored again. Would she say this had I not been picked in the cancer lottery? Would she appreciate the time we have together had it never been threatened? Knowing her, probably so.
We washed the dirt and grime off our hands, vying for the lion’s share of the faucet stream, laughing and chatting about which flower is the prettiest, which will grow the biggest. And this morning, as we backed down the driveway en route to school, my girl told me to stop. I figured she had forgotten something, and as I put the car in park I waited for her to leap out and run back into the house. Instead, she didn’t move.
“What did you forget?” I asked. “Nothing,” she said. “I just want to look at the flowers for a second.”
Driving my favorite girl to school today, my head was full of thoughts of all the things I need to get done. It’s her birthday weekend, so we have a jam-packed schedule of festivities, which means much to do before we celebrate. I was running through my mental to-do list and chatting with the birthday girl about the cookies she would hand out to her classmates on the funny monkey napkins. Our spirits were high, although I felt my inner throttle revving up, readying my body and brain to rush from one task to the next in a balls-out effort to get ‘er done. Get all of ‘er done.
This is one aspect of myself I don’t relish. I’m always in a hurry, rather impatient, and tend to rush through the journey to get to the destination. I’m not a “smell the roses along the way” kind of girl. Perhaps this is common in overachieving busy-bodies. Or in the legions of other suburban at-home moms whose work is never done in ferrying children to and fro and ensuring there are adequate provisions to keep the troops clothed and fed. Or maybe it’s just me.
Anyhoo, there I was in the car with my girl en route to school, thinking about going to Walgreens to pick up yet another prescription; hitting the grocery store for kid wine (sparkling cider) for tonight’s kid party and for crayons for my girl’s science fair project; going to the gas station to fill up and get a quick car wash, as well as scratch cards for the birthday girl (yes, gambling starts early around here, and the fact that my girl requests scratch cards for Christmas and her birthday is an insight into her wacky personality); driving my other kid to school; gathering the stuff for the party-favor goodie bags; wrapping the gifts; sweeping, mopping, dusting, and freshening the powder bath since the party guests will arrive this evening and I’m the whack-job type who thinks the house must be spic & span before guests invade; and cleaning out the twigs & leaves that fall into the back seat of my car on top-down days, since the party guests will be riding with me.
Just when I thought my full-to-the-brim brain might overtake me, the universe intervened and saved me from myself.
As we traveled down the street, we drove under a wire that stretches across the road, up high. Maybe it’s a telephone wire, or perhaps a DSL cable. I don’t know; I’ve never even noticed it before, but it traverses the street I drive up and down a thousand times a week, every week. Today as I traveled that street, a fat squirrel was dashing across the wire, doing a squirrel tight-rope act. The movement caught the eye of my girl, who spied the bushy-tailed performer through the open roof of the car. We slowed down, literally and figuratively, to watch. I slowed even more when I realized that if that squirrel fell off that wire, he’d plop right into my car. While my animal-loving girl would love that, I didn’t relish the thought of it.
With no cars behind us, we slowed to a crawl to watch the rodent acrobat scurry across the wire, high above the road. His tail bobbed in the air as he ran across that wire, and I imagined his little squirrel hands (paws?) gripping tightly. My girl wondered aloud if he was nervous or confident in his attempt to cross the road, and that naturally led to her ad-libbing a few “Why did the squirrel cross the road?” jokes. Ahh, the humor of an almost-11-year-old.
Our squirrelly performer trucked across the last length of wire, safely making it to the other side. The punchline to the “Why did the squirrel cross the road?” joke that most tickled the girl making them up was “Because he needed to scratch his butt!” The squirrel was gone, and a car approached, forcing me to move forward. As we neared the school, my girl said, “Mom, I’m sure glad we saw that squirrel on the wire. That totally made my day.” And then I realized: while the jam-packed to-do list seems so important, and completing those tasks to ensure a kick-ass birthday weekend for my favorite girl is important to me, what’s really important is noticing the moments of everyday wonders, and savoring them. The squirrel on the high-wire smacked me in the face with that realization. My girl re-affirmed it.
Much has been written, on this blog and elsewhere, about how surviving cancer can make one appreciate life even more. I will never, ever, ever say that cancer is a gift or that it’s changed my life for the better or that there is a silver lining under that dark cloud that so rudely interrupted my life with disease, infection, and worry. Never. I appreciated my life and the bounty of good things in it just fine without having to lose my breasts and a chunk of my security along with them. I lived life out loud before cancer robbed me of my belief that if you do the right things and try your best to be a good person, that bad things won’t happen. I gave thanks for the friends and family and privileges that exist in my life before this wretched disease snuck into that thankful life and dislodged my sense of me. I realized that random fate of being born in the time, place, and family I was born into was as much a player as hard work in creating this charmed life, and I knew that before cancer entered and laid waste to my body. I appreciated the little things in life, and knew in my heart that it’s those things, not a new car or a big house, that lay down a basis for a fulfilling life; I certainly didn’t need cancer to bully me into realizing this fact.
Surviving cancer and an insidious infection didn’t teach me to appreciate life’s everyday wonders. But a squirrel on a high wire sure did.
I had every intention of waxing poetic about my dad for Father’s Day, but the words aren’t flowing in a way that will allow me to do justice to the topic. Instead, I’ll resort to letting pictures do the talking for me. A picture is worth 1,000 words, right?
My brother and his kids arrived from New Jersey on Saturday for a long-overdue visit. My dad is in hog heaven with all 4 of his grandchildren together. My parents waited a long time for grandkids, then got 4 in 5 years. My brother and I both had a boy followed by a girl, just as my parents had. While these 4 kids have never lived in the same state, they enjoy each other’s company as if they have grown up next-door to each other.
They don’t often sit down for a meal together, but when they do, they have a ball.
This visit has been full of fun. Nothing makes my dad happier than being surrounded by his grandkids. It’s a mutual adoration society.
Splashing in the pool, riding amusement park rides, and hanging out — good times.
We miss you, YaYa, but promise to have fun and to love each other nonetheless.