”It doesn’t happen all at once, you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” — Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
The Velveteen Rabbit is one of my all-time favorite books. I don’t recall reading it as a child, but I do love it as an adult. I was sorting through one of the never-ending piles of kid junk upstairs and found my copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. I sat down in the midst of my junk pile to re-read it. It had been too long; I certainly haven’t read it since breast cancer so rudely interrupted my otherwise-fabulous life.
The passage above jumped out at me, and stuck with me after I finished reading the story and got back to my junk pile. As I tossed worn-down erasers and fuzzless tennis balls into the trash and stacked some outgrown books for donation, I realized why that passage was stuck in my brain: it speaks to an issue near & dear to every cancer patient’s heart — the idea of being “done” and being able to get back to our “real” lives.
This is a recurring theme in the life of a cancer patient, whether stoic and methodical or impatient and impetuous. We want our real lives back. You know, the lives we lead before receiving the phone call from the doctor’s office that changed the course of our lives. In my case, it was a life of a million ordinary things — carpool, homework, packing lunches, making dinner, scrubbing infield dirt out of white baseball pants, playing tennis, and raising my kids. Those million ordinary things added up to make a full and contented life.
The life I lead now is quite different. So much so that I’m not even sure what my real life is anymore. I do know that in my pre-cancer life, anxiety didn’t plague me like it does now. I slept easily and soundly without visions of recurrence dancing through my head. I woke up each day ready to attack my to-do list and carve out a little time for me as well.
In my “real” life, my calendar wasn’t chock-full of doctor’s appointments, and now my life seems to revolve around them. Appointments for follow-ups after surgery, appointments to check blood work and feel for enlarged lymph nodes, appointments to monitor the prescription drugs that are a part of my everyday routine, appointments to stem the ever-present threat of lymphedema from the lymph nodes that were sacrificed during my mastectomy, appointments to plan the next surgery necessitated by a hungry cancer beast with far-reaching tentacles.
My “real” life wasn’t bifurcated into B.C. (before cancer) and A.C. (after cancer). Instead of marking time by the milestones of my kids’ lives, I now keep track based on which stage of the cancer “journey” I was in when said event occurred. To wit: Payton’s 11th birthday was 10 days before my bilateral mastectomy and the same day as my PET scan, to determine just how long this cancer beast’s tentacles were. The first Taylor Swift concert Macy & I attended was 2 weeks after the mastectomy. The post-mastectomy infection struck 5 days after my 41st birthday. Payton’s baseball team’s first trip to the State Championships coincided with the second hospitalization because of the infection. The weekend before Payton started middle school I was in the hospital again because of that damned infection. I had a bone scan the same day our new refrigerator was delivered. Payton’s first baseball game of the spring season was the night after my reconstruction surgery. School started 2 days before my first revision surgery. My second revision was 4 days before Halloween.
I’m trying to get back to my “real” life but am learning that some things will never be the same. Like The Velveteen Rabbit, becoming real again means my hair is different from the hormone-manipulation hell required for pre-menopausal cancerchicks. My eyes haven’t dropped out just yet, but my vision has changed (again from the hormones) enough that my Lasik surgery 7 years ago might as well never have happened. I’m for sure loose in the joints from the daily dose of Tamoxifen, and am getting used to the recurring bone pain as well. I am most definitely very shabby overall, with more grey hair and new wrinkles from the stress of life with cancer. Some days it’s hard to decide which has been battered more — my body or my soul.
And like The Velveteen Rabbit’s experience, it doesn’t happen all at once. It takes time. A long time. I’m not very patient, and much of this “journey” has been a true test of my limited stores of patience. They say it’s a virtue, but one that I don’t have. I’m still waiting to just become. Those 2 little words, “You become,” represent what I’m working toward in getting back to my “real” life. It definitely doesn’t happen to people who break easily. Cancer is a mean and vicious enemy. Many times on this “journey” I’ve heard myself saying out loud, How much more do I have to take? And the answer has always been, I don’t know how much, but more. Always more. If I were one who was easily broken, I’m not sure how this story would have played out. Most likely, I’d be in a 12-step program for Oxycontin addiction. Or I’d be a repeat visitor to the Betty Ford Clinic. What I do know is that there’s always more. And that it’s a daily battle to get back to “real.”
One of the many blogs I read is a fine one published by a lovely woman named Marie in Ireland. It’s called Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, and Marie’s goal via her blog is to provide some guidance on how to navigate the “post-treatment limbo” that cancer survivors find themselves in once “it” is all “over.” There’s plenty of information out there for those who’ve recently been diagnosed and for those who are actively in treatment, but not much out there for the “what next?” portion of the “cancer journey.” I was honored to be a guest blogger on Marie’s site in February, and I always come away from Marie’s blog feeling enlightened and empowered. (And really, I’m not just sucking up because she’s giving away a copy of Sheryl Crow’s new cookbook, which I really, really, really want. I mean it. Marie’s blog is fantastic.)
Marie posed a challenge to her blog community to write a post about our “other” lives, about who we are when we’re not fighting cancer. We cancer-chicks who blog tend to know a lot of intimate details about each other, as is the nature of the beast we all have in common, but we don’t always know a lot about each other besides the beast.
Never one to back away from a challenge, I ruminated on my B.C. (before cancer) life. It took me awhile to remember, so wrapped up have I been in the cancer-vixen lifestyle. I racked my brain to recall what it was that I used to do with myself absent multiple doctor’s visits, endless testing, countless trips to the pharmacy, and hours of feeling yucky.
It was a perfectly ordinary life. I’m not one for a lot of drama; I’ve been to high school, and don’t have any desire to replay it. I have no patience for grown-up “mean girls” and so have a tight circle of true friends. We live an ordinary suburban life, most of us at home during the day, having forgone careers to raise kids, although several of my besties do work outside the home and do amazing things like crude trading and nursing. Ok, I’d better clarify: one friend trades crude oil, and another is a nurse. Since this blog is usually about all things boob-related, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m talking about crude nursing, as in off-color breastfeeding.
So my life was pretty ordinary, pre-cancer. Ordinary, but good.
I left my editing job 12 years ago, when Payton was born, to become a full-time mommy, and after Macy joined the herd my workload doubled but so did my heart. As my kids got older and started school, my life took on the pattern of theirs and I volunteered at their school a lot while also spending some time doing my own thing. I walked that fine line between being a full-time mom but still being my own person. Like millions of other moms at home raising young kids, I packed my kids’ lunches while doing laundry and tried in vain to keep up with the household chores. I stole some time from the domestic hustle & bustle every day to go to the gym or play tennis, and made my to-do list while waiting in the carpool line.
My pre-cancer schedule was pretty full of ordinary things: kids’ dentist appointments, play-dates, sports, lessons, and parties. I served on the PTA board, was a tenured room mom, and worked the school book fair every year. Shortly after my mom died I was at the book fair, surrounded by books and overcome with loss. I missed my mom so much; she was an avid reader and we always talked about the latest stack of books on our nightstands. I met another mom who was volunteering that day. Jenny was new to our school, having recently relocated to Sugar Land. We chatted about books, and she shared with me that her dad had recently died, and she was swamped by grief, too. I decided then and there to start a book club, and to invite her to join me. Instead of allowing my sadness to rule, I wanted to find a way to diffuse it.
I had no idea at that time that Jenny was a breast cancer survivor and would become my mentor and tour guide through the “cancer journey.”
Meeting Jenny was an extraordinary event in my ordinary, pre-cancer life. Along with my Runnin’ Buddy and our nurse practitioner friend Laura, Jenny and I comprise a quartet of book-lovers who meet once a month and discuss the book we’ve read. Five years later, we’re still going strong. We’ve read some amazing books as well as a few clunkers, and are constantly on the look-out for the next great read.
When I first started running the book club, I would research book group discussion questions and print out a list for each of us. Over time, I’ve gotten lazy and now just highlight an interesting passage, a particularly pivotal plot point, or a bit of prose that speaks to me for whatever reason. This is the basis for our book club’s discussions nowadays.
I’ve always loved books, for their ability to transport us to other worlds. The written word is precious to me, and I suppose it’s in my genes; my mom was an English teacher, after all. I chose my college major (journalism) based on the right ratio of the least amount of math & science and the maximum amount of literature. My career in publishing and editing surprised no one, and I continued to read copiously after leaving the industries for motherhood. True, most of what I read was written for the preschool crowd with a heavy emphasis on pictures, but I started building my kids’ libraries long before they could read. I suppose it was perfectly natural for me to start a book club.
Just in case you’re wondering if I sit around and read all day when I’m not fighting cancer, the answer is no. I spend as much time as humanly possible playing tennis, then I sit around and read for what’s left of the day.
Editor’s Note: There’s a glitch on WordPress that is hiding my hard returns, so this is one long post without the usual breaks in text to give the eye a rest. Apologies.
“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.”— George Bernard Shaw
Love this quote. Love GB Shaw, too. Apparently he didn’t like the “George” and refused to use it, personally or professionally. That’s why I call him GB Shaw.
Most are familiar with Picasso’s 1955 sketch based on Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Done during his Blue, Rose, and Cubist periods, the “insightful, sassy, and ubiquitous” sketch has been described as “catchy and full of bright humor” by people who know a lot more about art than I do, but I do know that I’d be quite pleased to have those same attributes ascribed to this little blog.
The fact that Picasso’s sketch went on to become a minor masterpiece is funny in and of itself, but the idea that his inspiration for the masterpiece was a 5×9-inch nut-and-bolt sculpture of our literary hero and his trusty sidekick really makes me laugh. The little sculptures are themselves ubiquitous in Spain, and Picasso, who is said to have had a “sharp, roving eye” and to have been “constantly searching for likely subjects and was not hesitant to borrow from others” parlayed a simple souvenir into a bit hit. My eye isn’t as sharp, but it is roving and always on the look-out for inspiration for this little blog, so I like to think I have something in common with Senor Picasso.
Our recent and glorious trip to Napa provides me with a whole slew of inspiration. Today’s post is dedicated to Quixote winery. What an incredible place. They make great wine, too, BTW.
The winery was designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an artist, architect, philosopher, and environmentalist from Vienna. “We’re here to give pleasure. With Cervantes’ Don Quixote as our muse, let us all explore the difference between appearances and reality and engage in the noble pursuits of a knight errant.” In designing and creating Quixote winery, he endeavored to “show how basically simple it is to have paradise on earth.” Well done, Herr Hundertwasser, well done.
Before I get into what makes this winery so darn special I must give a teensy bit of insight into Herr Hundertwasser. This guy was nuts, but in a good way. Not sure I’d want to be within spitting distance of him at a dinner party, but I sure do love his work. He’s a true artist, one who says wacky things like “Progression is retrogression and retrogression becomes progression,” and describes his paintings as “vegetative.” I believe him, too, because our tour guide at the winery told us that during the 10 years that Hundertwasser designed Quixote winery, he ran the California hills buck naked. He felt the need to become one with nature in order to impose this physical structure upon Her innate beauty. Hope he used a lot of sunblock. He believed in the power of nature, saying “You are a guest of nature. Behave.” This real-life Austin Powers was buried sans clothes and coffin, on his land in New Zealand in 2000 and a majestic tulip tree towers over his gravesite. Let’s all observe a moment of silence in honor of this nut-job artist.
Everything about this winery has character. Every single thing. Even the signpost, pointing the unsuspecting visitor toward an experience that will make ya go hmmmmm. Kudos to Doug & Amy Ashmore for suggesting this winery. In the multitude of wineries in Napa, it can be tricky to decide which ones to visit. The simple demands of time and liver space dictate that one cannot visit them all, so one must make choices. Listen, people: if you go to Napa at any point in your lifetime and fail to choose Quixote winery, I will never speak to you again.
And you’ll be missing out on an experience that defies words adequate to describe it.
This photo is tiny, and in all my Internet searching I couldn’t find one bigger, but look closely and you’ll see the man himself with a ruler. Only the ruler is bent. Because the man was too. He didn’t like straight lines, and the roof and floors of the winery are angled and slanted.
The winery itself is full of art. Cool stuff abounds, in the offices, even the restroom. This sculpture spoke to me. I love the lines, the exaggerated effects that all come together to tell a story. Then I read the story, on the front, and loved it even more: “Start a saloon in your own home. Go to your wife and give her a hundred dollars to buy a gallon of whiskey.” Now that’s a philosophy.
This creation was simply amazing. I don’t even know how to describe it, so here’s the rudimentary breakdown: cogs and wheels on the bottom powering thin metal spears upon which paper birds perch, and once the mechanism is engaged, flutter and fly at different heights and varying speeds. Wow. Just wow.
The column above and to the left, with the white body featuring a long crack, is emblematic of Hunterwasser’s genius. And his insanity. The story is that someone remarked within earshot of the artist that the building was ‘perfect.’ So he picked up a sledgehammer and smashed the column twice on purpose because nothing made by man is ever perfect. Though flawed, it can still be beautiful and even the imperfections can be delightful in their own right. Some said the crack should be “fixed” or covered up, but Mr H said no way, the crack is part of the beauty and tells an important story. What that story is may vary from person to person, but for me the story is that we are all flawed, yet remain upright. The Birthday Girl was also struck by this story, and immediately thought of my “cancer journey.” She made me pose for a picture in front of the cracked column, but I liked the artwork next to it more, so that’s the pic you’re getting.
The photo below is a photo of a photo in the tasting room at Quixote. I’d love to know the backstory, but suffice to say that I took this photo with Macy in mind, and fastforwarded many years to when she is a grown woman, and hopefully has a giraffe leaning in her window for a kiss. No idea who the woman is or what kind of relationship she has with that giraffe, and I don’t care. It’s a delightful portait of love plain & simple, and it made me think of my sweet little girl and her all-encompassing love for animals.
Hunterwasser’s goal in creating Quixote winery was to incorporate it into the existing terrain, and from the road, all you see is the golden turret on the far right. Mr H believed that a golden turret elevated man’s sense of self.
More curved walls. I bet the contractor was ready to murder Mr H many times during construction.
The tasting room. The photo of the woman & her giraffe is on the ledge, just under the orange column. The light fixture was an explosion of white ribbon that looked more wedding bouquet than light. Beautiful.
The tasting was sublime. Delicious wine with cheese & crackers peppered with charming asides about the artist and the process that resulted in Quixote winery.
Trevor and Keith soaking up the patio after the yummy tasting. Keith is utilizing one of the built-in stools that are conveniently placed there for the spent wine-taster.
There exists a group photo of us on this patio, but I can’t find it and am frustrated by looking. Lisa? Thad? Diana? Whoever has it, send it to me, por favor.
The road to Quixote winery leads to an experience I’ll never forget. The art fed my soul. The design amazed my senses. The man who is Hunterwasser wowed me. The wine made there satisfied me and made me smile. And the time spent in that spectacular place with forever friends sustains me.
How appropriate after yesterday’s post that the first thing I read today is an excerpt from the poem “Ithaka” by Constatin Cavafy. Remember that yesterday’s post contained a photo depicting my personal vision of paradise? Guess what Ithaka looks like?
Also appropriate is that Amy Hoover showed up on my doorstep last night with a real-life superhero cape, which I clearly need to continue this “journey.” She doesn’t need a cape, because she really is a superhero, but her youngest son, Carter, has one and was sweet enough to loan it to me. We’re changing the C for Carter to C for Cancer-killer. I love the cape.
I’ve been struggling with the “journey” part of my recovery from major reconstruction surgery. I’m not a journey kind of girl; I’m all about the destination. Don’t care how we get there, it’s the getting there that matters to me.
Well, guess what? On a “cancer journey” you’re never “there” and the idea of being “done” is laughable because there really is no end point. There are transitions and transformations, and at some point one does graduate from cancer patient to cancer survivor, but there aren’t any signposts or mile markers along the way, so hell if I know where I am in this whole journey. I can say that so far, to quote the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Enter Constantin Cavafy. Fellow Greek, also a wordsmith (although he was way, way better at the craft than I). He was born and died on the same day, April 29 (1863-1933). I must say, that’s a terrible way to celebrate a birthday; I hope he got a piece of cake before he croaked. I also think it’s terrible, although understandable, that his family chose to Americanize their surname, Kavafis. My dad’s dad came over from “the Old Country,” as the Greeks refer to the homeland, speaking no English with very little money, like millions of other immigrants. Once he settled and raised his family, he wanted them to be Americanized, to shake off the immigrant stink that was considered unsavory, even though the USA is purported to be a melting pot. Thankfully, my Papou did not Americanize our surname, although my dad did change the spelling slightly in 8th grade, from Katopodis to Katapodis, to make it easier for the sports announcers to pronounce it properly; Kat-uh-po-dus instead of Ka-top-uh-dus. True story.
So Kavafis becomes Cavafy, and Constantin writes some poetry. He published more than 150 poems, the most well-known, “Ithaka,” after he turned 40. Some might say he’s a late bloomer, but those of us in the over-40 crowd say, Giddyup.
“Ithaka” was written in 1894, revised in 1910, published in 1911 then published in English in 1924. Talk about a journey: 16 years to complete, then another 13 years to reach a wide audience. I hope Constantin was more patient than I am. I’m sure glad he had a few good years between the poem’s success and his death, and I hope he savored it.
Some believe that the subject of “Ithaka” is Odysseus, from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. I think, however, it applies to anyone who is on a journey, and although Ithaka was the finish line or end point for Odysseus, the location is superceded by the ideal.
“Ithaka” begins with some advice for the traveler, which I think applies to lots of journeys (although on my particular journey I don’t have to “hope the voyage is a long one” because it is, boy howdy it is).
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Well, I certainly have encountered my share of Laistrygonians, Cyclops and angry Poseidons in this “cancer journey.” While Cavafy referenced these giants (cannibals, one-eyed monsters, and the God of the Sea, respectively), I believe such bad-boys take numerous forms and can also be representative of disease, infection, and hardship.
Ok, so far my voyage has indeed been long, with what some would consider adventure and discovery, and full of bad guys, and I honestly haven’t been afraid of them. Frustrated by and utterly sick of them, yes, but not afraid. So far so good.
I’ve tried to keep my thoughts raised high, and thanks to my mom’s “walk on the sunny side of the street” schooling, I think I’ve done that. Sure there have been some bad days, but I’m not going to sit around asking, Why me? when it really doesn’t matter, and it certainly doesn’t change anything.
I can’t say that I have a “rare excitement” stirring my spirit and body, although maybe I did while on morphine. More likely it was while on Versed. That’s one of my favorites; such a happy place.
“Ithaka” goes on to extol the pleasure of steaming into unseen harbors on a summer morning to “buy fine things” and “gather knowledge from their scholars.” Hmmm, exploring, shopping, and learning: now that sounds like my kind of trip. Cavafy implores us to keep Ithaka always in our mind and to remember that “arriving there is what you are destined for.”
Now here’s the part that really speaks to me today, as I continue to struggle with the down-time of recovery, as I want to be “back to normal” and wait impatiently for the passage of time and the reaching of milestones that will prove that it is so.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way.
I have a problem with the idea of the journey lasting for years, even though I know that it’s reality. I can accept it, but I don’t have to like it. I do hope that I am indeed old by the time I reach the island, and I already feel wealthy with all I have gained on the way.
I love me some William Butler Yeats, and what better day than St Paddy’s Day to read a little verse by Ireland’s best? If you’re not familiar with Mr Yeats, today is your lucky day. Keep reading; below are my two all-time favorite poems of his. I love, love, love them both. If you don’t have any Yeats in your collection, click here and order some today. I know, I’m bossy but really it’s for your own good and you will probably thank me later.
But first, a little background info: Yeats was born June 13, 1865 (a fellow Gemini, and likely half-crazy like the rest of us twins). His dad was a painter, and Yeats was schooled in art but much preferred poetry, and broke with family tradition to pursue his craft. I’m glad he did. He was quite a handsome guy, but wasn’t especially lucky in love. While hard to live that way, I suppose it provided much fodder for his written word. This is my favorite photo of him because of the messy hair and trendy glasses; he could totally pull that look off today, as we speak. I’m not so sure about the Colonel Sanders suit, though. That’s taking it a bit far.
I’m not much of a romantic, and am not very sentimental either (but not quite cold and heartless), but the sweetness of “When You Are Old” gets me every time. I suspect he wrote it about his true love, Maude Gonne (who, by the way, was not his wife; he asked several times but she refused, and they both married other people). The theme of unrequited love is there, among the deep shadows of her eyes and her “changing face.” Now that I too am an old lady with under-eye shadows and a changing (i.e., not so youthful) face, the message of this poem is even more powerful.
The first time I read “The Stolen Child,” I had to sit down and take it all in. It still has that effect on me. I’m already sitting, so I’m good now, but it does move me. I didn’t have kids at the time, was a carefree college girl, and motherhood seemed a very distant destination on that particular world tour. Now that motherhood is my permanent stop, the imagery of the child being lured away “to the waters and the wild, with a faery hand in hand” seems scary and cruel, yet still magical and tempting in its prose. It reminds me a bit of the children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, whose brilliance is not something I can do justice to in this space, so I will defer (for now). Again, if you’re not familiar with Where the Wild Things Are, click here and order it today. And so before I get sidetracked and start rambling about how much I love all things Sendak, “Let the wild rumpus start!”
WHEN YOU ARE OLD
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
THE STOLEN CHILD
Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,.
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To to waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For to world’s more full of weeping than you
Away with us he’s going,
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For be comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
from a world more full of weeping than you.
After reading Cutting For Stone, I was hungry for more from author Abraham Verghese. Wow, was this a great book. Like some of my other all-time favorite reads, it took me a while to get into this one, but once I did, I was so well rewarded. I felt a little bereft when it ended, another sign of a great book. The characters were so richly drawn, they truly seemed like real people, and I was sad to think I wouldn’t know what happened to them for the rest of their “lives.”
I’m not crazy; this happens with good books, and I’ve heard other people say the same thing so I know I’m not crazy. At least not in this case.
I searched in vain for more books by Abraham Verghese and although he’s written prolifically for such esteemed magazines as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, he doesn’t have dozens of novels at the ready for voracious readers. He has written a book called The Tennis Partner, however, which I quickly scooped up on amazon.com.
Verghese is an infectious disease doctor and has been a professor of medicine at Harvard and Stanford, in addition to being a bestselling author. The Tennis Partner tells the story of Verghese’s friendship in El Paso, TX, with David, a medical student who is a recovering drug addict. Their friendship grows amid a shared love for tennis, and they both find the game to be “an island of order in the midst of personal chaos;” in Verghese’s case, his crumbling marriage, and in David’s case, his drug addiction.
One of the things I love so much about Verghese’s writing is his innate ability to describe a scene in such a way that makes it familiar and easy to visualize. For instance, when writing about moving to El Paso, Verghese says “This is the great promise of moving: that if you fold your life into a U-Haul truck and put it on the road, you will be given a clean plate with which to approach the buffet.”
Beautiful prose. Simple and clean, yet so on-the-money descriptive.
It’s a great story, not just because of the tennis. Both men were struggling with different things in their lives, yet tennis became the equalizer. Verghese says, “In the way we controlled the movement of a yellow ball in space, we were imposing order on a world that was fickle and capricious. Each ball that we put into play, for as long as it went back and forth between us, felt like a charm to be added to a necklace full of spells, talismans, and fetishes, which one day add up to an Aaron’s rod, an Aladdin’s lamp, a magic carpet. Each time we played, this feeling of restoring order, of mastery, was awakened.”
I get that. Wow, do I get that. One of the reasons I wanted to get back to playing tennis as soon as I could post-mastectomy was to impose order on a disorderly life. And guess what? 9 days post-reconstruction, I already can’t wait to get out on the court and put this mess in order.
One line in the book has really stuck with me, and I carry it with me in my game. David and Abraham are battling it out on the court, David being the more experienced and younger (read: more spry, less creaky, and speedier) player. He always manages to best Abraham, and after yet another victory explained his winning strategy. It’s very simple. “Remember, the one with the fewest errors wins.”
True, so true, and not just in tennis.
I love tennis, and I’m fascinated by how the human body works. I’ve written about this before, and now that my latest surgery is in the rear-view window, I’m again impressed with and amazed by how our bodies react and heal.
I’m also fascinated by doctors. Surgeons, especially. Not in the “reverence for the white coat” aspect of previous generations, nor because of the fact that they perform a very difficult job. There are lots of hard jobs out there, and I’m sure there are plenty of things other professions require that docs wouldn’t handle well.
It’s more a fascination with what makes them tick and how their minds work. I always want to ask my specialists, why did you choose oncology? why did you choose plastic surgery? I’m overly curious (some would say nosey) about the minutia of their jobs: how many patients call them after-hours? how long does it take to repay med school loans? what do you do to unwind and feel like a regular person? I mean, after say, a 7-hour surgery in which they restore order to a hellacious mess of a chest wall, do they wash up, drive home in traffic, pop a beer and veg out? Or do they refrain from drinking, even after a long day, because they can be called into surgery at any moment?
Verghese writes quite eloquently about the physician as a regular person and of medical humanism. He’s an old-fashioned doctor in a modern world, and he teaches new-fangled doctors his ritualistic bedside observations. He believes medicine is a passionate and romantic pursuit, not just a science.
Kinda reminds me of my own infectious disease doc telling me that in my case, because of the post-surgery infection, he was practicing the art more than the science of medicine. A lovely thought after months of exams, tests, and hospitalizations that had left me feeling like a piece of meat. Not Grade A meat, either.
As I prepared for my most recent surgery, I remembered a lengthy but compelling passage from The Tennis Partner. Even though my pre-surgery to-do list was a mile long, I found myself flipping through the book to find this passage. I wanted to re-read it, as if absorbing these words into my brain would somehow transfer into the surgeons’ hands as they cut me open and tried to repair the damage that had been done. It took a few minutes, but I found it.
Verghese was treating a young woman in El Paso with mysterious symptoms and no clear diagnosis. He writes about how as he entered her hospital room, he was looking for more than just physical manifestations of an illness:
“I was attentive to the aura of the room, vigilant for her icons — a doll, rabbit-ear slippers, a prayer card, her own nightgown. I inhaled discreetly so that her scents, all the eructations and effluvia that were hers, the redolence that night spell the name of the disease lurking below, could land on the free nerve endings of my olfactory nerve. Smells registered in a primitive part of the brain, the ancient limbic system. I liked to think that from there they echoed and led me to think “typhoid” or “rheumatic fever” without ever being able to explain why. If the diagnosis eluded us in the first few days, her chart would thicken as pages of computer printouts bearing witness to the blood urea, the serum creatinine, the liver enzymes, and other soundings accumulated. But no computer could make the mind-pictures I could form if given the right clues: a liver hobnailed by cirrhosis; a spleen swollen like a giant and angry thumb from mononucleosis; a smooth-walled cavity in the lung apex within which a fungus ball clatters like a bead in a baby’s rattle.”
I love the “eructations and effluvia” especially. That’s some good alliteration.
I also really identify with the patient, and know that I too have a chart that has thickened with computer print-outs and such. Not that it’s a contest, but I bet my chart is thicker than hers.
The book is a compilation of survivor stories from members of the pink ribbon club around the country. Delinksy, a BC survivor herself, wrote the book she wished she’d had while dealing with her mom’s death from BC and her own BC battle.
Her mom was diagnosed with BC in the late 1940s, when a diagnosis was the same as a death sentence. Barbara was 6 years old when her mom was diagnosed, and 8 when her mom died of this wretched disease. I was 36 when my mom died, and it was by far the worst thing that’s ever happened, the hardest thing I’ve ever endured. Fighting cancer is a piece of cake compared to missing my mom. That said, I can’t even imagine how devastating that loss would be to a young child. While I miss my mom every day and get royally ticked at the fact that she and my kids are both missing out on each other’s company, I’m grateful to have had her for 36 years instead of just 8.
The BC battle has changed significantly since Delinksy’s mother was diagnosed and perished. She says that although she was 8 when her mom died, she was in her teens before she learned that her mom had breast cancer, and it was years before her dad could say cancer, and even longer before he could say breast.
One of the women featured in Uplift, Elinor Farber, lost her mom to BC, too, and said when her mom was diagnosed 45 years ago, there were no mammograms, and mastectomies were just short of a butchering. Farber reports that her mom lived more than 30 years after her surgery, but never once spoke of her condition. “Mom endured everything without the support of friends and neighbors, who were not told. My sister and I were both told of my mom’s condition in hushed tones, and we were sworn to secrecy.”
We’ve come a long way.
I for one know with absolute certainty that this “cancer journey” would be hell without the support of friends & neighbors. I said it all summer and I’ll say it again: It truly does take a village, and I’ve got the best village around.
The 5th anniversary edition of Uplift, which is the one I received, features a foreward by Delinsky and some follow-up information on some of the survivors whose stories were featured in previous editions of the book.
Uplift is said to contain all the helpful advice that only the women who have already been there can give, and it’s true. The book is divided into chapters according to category, like radiation, so it’s easy to pick & choose, read a little on exactly what you’re looking for and skip what doesn’t apply to you. I especially liked that last part. I’m always in a hurry and have a lot to do every day, so I don’t want to waste time flipping through a book to find the information I’m looking for. I didn’t need to read the chapter on dealing with cancer and the workplace, for instance. My workplace is in my home, and there was no “boss” to tell the terrible news when I was diagnosed, because that boss is me. There were no co-workers to talk to and sucker into taking over my job while I was out on medical leave because, well, I run a one-woman shop here. No co-workers. And no suckering either because I have the kinds of friends who just show up to take over my “job.” These kick-ass friends stepped in and vacuumed my house, walked my dogs, brought food (delicious food), hauled my kids to school & activities, folded my laundry, dropped off & picked up prescriptions, and drove me to & from the doctor’s office. Sometimes margaritas and champagne were involved, but that was purely medicinal, of course.
Uplift shows the world how real women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer have faced their fears, survived their illness, and bravely gotten on with life and love, career and family. And because she’s filthy rich from all her best-sellers, she’s able to donate all of the proceeds of this wonderful book to BC research. So if you know a woman who’s been diagnosed, go buy her this book. If she already has it, buy it anyway for her to give to her doctor, to put in the waiting room.
I received my copy in the mail from one of Trevor’s dad’s colleagues, a woman I’ve never met but who was kind enough to think of me and pass along this super-useful book. I’ve since bought it for my friend who’s going through the “cancer journey” and passed the link on to a new friend, Paul, whose wife has just been diagnosed.
Paul writes a blog about Bonnie’s “cancer journey” and has mentioned Uplift in his blog a couple of times. He recently posted this about Delinsky. Seems he emailed her to tell her how much he and Bonnie are enjoying the book, and he was tickled when she emailed him back with a very nice note. Go read his blog; it’s good. Plenty of BC blogs written by the women in the trenches (me! me!), but I haven’t seen any written by the men who walk that “journey” alongside these women. I love that Paul writes so openly and eloquently about Bonnie’s “journey” while still seeming so calm and steady. No rants from his blog; ya gotta come back here for that. He pens some original poetry (short and topical), and writes often about wine. Two of my favorite subjects, poetry and wine.
Delinsky must be pretty busy with her correspondence, because she responded to me, too. In the back of the book, she asks for survivor stories, and once I was able to haul my carcass to the computer after all the mess I was involved in this summer, I emailed her a few tidbits from my “cancer journey.” Then I promptly forgot all about it.
A signed letter from Barbara Delinsky herself. Wow!
How cool is that?
I don’t remember exactly what I wrote to her, since I was probably in a vicodin-induced fog at that point, so I scrounged around on the ol’ hard drive to see if I could find the original document. I found it, but rather than bore y’all with it right now, I’m going to save it for the next edition of Uplift. When my name and story appears in print, I’ll let ya know.
Ok, that’s kind of mean, and I for one hate surprises and having to wait to get to the good stuff, so I’ll give you a sneak peek. Some of you may remember this story from my Caring Bridge page. I guarantee it will make you laugh. If it doesn’t, there is something seriously wrong with you.
For the “What was…what did…what is…?” category for which Delinsky solicited stories, I offered this:
The funniest thing that happened to me during all this was a conversation with my 8-year-old daughter, Macy, 2 weeks after my bilateral mastectomy. We were walking to my son’s baseball game and, while she knew I’d had surgery for breast cancer, I don’t think she ever connected breast cancer and mastectomy with losing my breasts. As we were walking she asked if something happened to my chi-chi’s. I said, “Yes, they cut them off. That’s what the surgery was for.” She said, “Well, are they going to fix them? Because they’re not looking so good!” I laughed about that for a week.
That was at the end of May, and I’m still laughing about it.
“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”— Goethe
I’ve always liked this philosophy, and what better day than a snow day to heed his words?
Well, let’s see: it’s a snow day without snow (gotta love Houston), so the kids are home but not playing outside. No snowmen or women, no snowball fights, no sledding or tubing or ancillary snow-related activities. No giant snowbank on which Harry could leave his yellow mark, and certainly no homemade snow ice cream.
Instead, it’s 10:30 a.m. and the kids are immersed in video games and iTouch pursuits. When they become bored from those, they will likely move on to Nickelodeon. The washing machine is humming, the dishwasher is doing its thing, there’s a long list of things to do, and none of them coincide with Goethe’s missive.
Ok, wait, I will turn on my iTunes while I type this, so I am hearing “a little song” (some Jack Johnson to drown out the hum & clank of the labor-saving devices). I will attempt to speak a few reasonable words, but suspect the result will more likely be a rambling blabbityblah instead.
With the humming & clanking sufficiently quieted, I got to thinking about Goethe and who he was and what kind of a person he must have been to utter the above suggestion, which is so simple yet deep. He’s basically giving me a recipe to daily happiness. I like that. I need that. I’m digging Goethe.
If I stretch back into the deep recesses of my grey matter, I recall that he was a German writer in the 1800s from a good family. After some trouble in school, he was home-schooled, and his mama encouraged his love of the written word, just like my mama did. He’s described as a polymath, a word that’s always intrigued me. Of course the Greeks defined it best and used it to describe someone as “having learned much. ” While Goethe is perhaps best known for his written word (he was called the supreme genius of modern German literature, after all), he also was into nature, politics, and painting. A real Renaissance Man.
Goethe’s insights on plants & animals paved the way for naturalists like Charles Darwin, and I like to think that Goethe opened the door to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Our modern-day jokes about the shallow end of the gene pool wouldn’t be nearly as funny–or true–without either of these guys. Don’t know why, but I find that interesting.
Politically, he was conservative and thought the revolutionaries in France were wasting their time because people couldn’t possibly govern themselves. He was a fan of small principalities ruled by benevolent despots. Which is all fine & good as long as the principalities want to be ruled and the despots are indeed benevolent. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
Seems Goethe anticipated being remembered for as a painter, but he gained his fame as a writer. He did study colors extensively, and considered his Theory of Colors to be his most important work. He believed that colors developed from “the dynamic interplay of darkness and light.” I’d venture to suggest that this concept does not apply strictly to art. If I were a better student with more patience and time, I’d love to investigate this concept and expand on it. But alas, the laundry calls and the dog-hair tumbleweeds grow. Goethe probably didn’t do his own laundry, and I bet he wasn’t troubled by the accumulation of dog hair on a tile floor. He was busy pioneering the idea of physiological effects of color, which is intriguing because he lived in a rather black & white world. Imagine how he’d react to our technicolor lifestyle.
Since he was famous for his writing, I thought I’d break out my copy of his most well-known poem, Faust, (anything to avoid tacking the to-do list) but then I remembered that it’s really, really long. I remember it being billed in one of college courses as relevant and timely for our modern world, but I don’t have that kind of time to sit and read it.
A little Carl Sandburg, perhaps. His stuff is easy to bite off into manageable chunks. Fog is my favorite. I’m not a cat person (d0n’t flame me, cat lovers, I don’t not like them I’m just more canine-inclined). I do like the image that Sandburg paints of “little cat feet.” If you don’t know this poem or are a little rusty on its simplicity, allow me:
“The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.”
Simple, beautiful and I can read it in about 10 seconds. Yet the imagery will resonate with me long after. I think Goethe would approve.
The body is a miracle, the way it heals. A factory of survival and self-repair. As soon as flesh is cut, cells spontaneously begin to divide and knit themselves into a protective scar. A million new organic bonds bridge the broken space, with no judgment passed on the method of injury.
Wow. That’s pretty prose. I wish I had written it.
I’d love to claim it as my own, but that would be wrong, and Lord knows I need the great karma wheel to turn my way. I can’t afford to tempt the gods of fate, as they seem to like toying with me.
Carol Cassella wrote that prose. If you’re a fiction fan and don’t know her work, I encourage you to get her books sooner rather than later. Whether you run to the bookstore or download onto your e-reader, get on it. You won’t be sorry. She’s an anesthesiologist-turned-author whose first book, Oxygen, is one of my all-time favorites. Her second book, Healer, wasn’t quite as good but I gobbled it up in hopes that it would be. I liked her right off the bat, because she’s a Texas native and a Duke graduate. A girl after my own heart. She’s also the mother of two sets of twins (!) and how she got anything done, much less wrote 2 bestsellers, is a mystery to me.
I read Healer this summer, while I was trying to heal. I was struck by the passage above, and loved how dramatically it introduces the book. From the very first sentence, I was hooked. While I certainly didn’t set out to turn this blog into a space for book reviews, sometimes things happen that way, and I’m an equal-opportunity blogger, so there we are.
As a physician, Cassella understands the intricacies and magic of the human body. As an author, she’s able to capture that and express it so that someone like me, an impatient patient, can read it and say, yeah, that’s right–the body is a miracle!
I needed that reminder. I was so focused on wanting my healing to occur faster, I didn’t realize that the fact that it was happening at all was amazing.
Equally amazing is the education this experience (e.g., the “cancer journey”) has provided. I’ve learned a bunch of lessons I never wanted to learn, such as how utterly unfair life can be. I’ve acquired skills I never thought I could and hope to never have to use again. Anything involving packing a wound or administering IV drugs at home falls into that category.
I’ve certainly learned a new vocabulary. Not just the new definition of “normal,” either. Things like nosocomial (originating in a hospital, as in a nosocomial infection). Like debridement (removal of foreign material or dead tissue from a wound in order to promote healing). Like aromatase inhibitors (drugs like Tamoxifen that lower estrogen levels in the body by blocking aromatase, an enzyme that converts other hormones into estrogen). Like oophorectomy (surgical removal of the ovaries).
I’ve learned how to get a good night’s sleep in a noisy hospital. I’ve learned the difference between DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) and invasive breast cancer, and that they’re both plenty scary. I’ve learned that an injection can leave a bruise for close to 3 months. I’ve learned that the practice of medicine is both a science and an art. And I’ve completely forgotten what it feels like to wear a bra.