One year ago today

Y’all know I’m a milestone-observing kind of girl. I’ve written about my cancer-versary, about a revelation, about week-old recollections after The Big Dig, aka my reconstruction, and returning to the tennis court after a long absence full of longing.

I’ve written about the anniversary of my sweet mama leaving this earth. That was early on in my blogging, and I hadn’t mastered the art of inserting photos. The photos of her are woefully displayed, and in my free time (!) I need to go back and fix them. She deserves better.

I’ve also observed the end of the worst year of my life. “Don’t let the door hit ya” was my message to 2010 as it went out like a lion. A mean, underfed, on-the-hunt-for-victims lion. Almost halfway through 2011 and I’m happy to say it’s turning out to be a much better year. Course, we didn’t have far to go to make it better than its predecessor.

Back to the current milestone. One year ago today, I said bye-bye to my breasts and was the lucky recipient of a flat–but cancer-free–chest. This was me, this time last year. On this very day (although it wasn’t a Friday, it was May 13th. Having a bilateral mastectomy on Friday the 13th would be cruel).

Trevor snapped this photo of me waiting for my surgery, in the holding pen before moving to a pre-op room. My brain was swirling with lots of thoughts, too many thoughts, and I was likely firing off a quick email to our BFF Ed with some last-minute kid-wrangling instructions. Notice the pink notebook in my bag: my cancer book, full of pathology reports, doctors’  notes, research, and bills. Bills, bills, and more bills. I think the current estimate of the cost of my last year medically is in the range of $260,000. And we’re not done spending yet.

One year ago today, I wish we’d thought to take a close-up shot of my chest instead of the deep wrinkle snaking across my forehead. My chest would never be the same, and would become a major battleground–and that was after the mastectomy. If I’d seen that pic before going under, I would have asked Dr Dempsey, breast surgeon extraordinnaire, to give me some Botox while she was in there. Yikes.

I didn’t know what to expect from the surgery, other than the basics. With subsequent surgeries, I’ve learned that actual procedures are available for viewing on youtube and I’ve watched a few. Gross. But amazing.

All I knew, really, was that I had breast cancer and I wanted it gone. I could have had a lumpectomy, but chose the slash-and-burn option instead. I’m not a half-measure kind of girl, and the idea of just taking a part of the infected breast instead of the whole thing wasn’t anything I ever seriously entertained. Slash-and-burn meant taking both breasts, even though the cancer was only detected in the right one. Only. Ha! Good thing I lost the pair, because the post-mastectomy pathology showed the left one had some problems, too. If you can call an area 5 cm in diameter full of cancerous junk a problem. I can, and I did. Little did I know then, one year ago today, that pretty much anything that could go wrong with my post-surgery self would go wrong. As my nurse practitioner friend Laura says, “Your case certainly has not been textbook.” Truer words were never spoken, but we didn’t know that one year ago today.

Because there were only 3 weeks between my diagnosis and the mastectomy, and because most of that time was consumed with tests, tests, and more tests, there wasn’t a lot of time for freaking out or being scared or crying about my fate. Not that I would have done any of those things anyway. There was a problem, and we were going to fix it. ‘Nuff said. I had a great team–breast surgeon, plastic surgeon, and oncologist– and was in a nationally ranked and highly acclaimed hospital. Course, I’d end up adding a kick-ass infectious disease team, home-health care nurse, a beloved lymphedema specialist, and wound specialists to my team before it was all said & done.

Dr Grimes, my hero

Tammy Sweed, I adore you!

The week before surgery, Payton turned 11

and Macy & I pampered ourselves with a Chinese foot massage.

I squeezed in as much time as I could with my girls

I didn’t know it would be a while before I did anything like this with my favorite girl.

Going into surgery one year ago today, I had no idea that I’d end up spending nearly a month more in the hospital and undergo 3 more surgeries; minor surgeries compared with the mastectomy, and of course reconstruction was way off in the distance, with even more days in the hospital. I had no idea how much I’d miss my kids while hospitalized

and my dogs (and their friends).

I had no idea how many times I’d need the special parking place.

I had no idea how much infinite kindness my friends would bestow upon me. We were on the receiving end of many, many meals delivered to our house, a kindness for which I’m so grateful. The rides to & from my  kids’ activities helped more than I could ever guess. The sleepovers and outings that my mommy friends provided kept my kids’ life normal when everything else around them was off-the-charts abnormal.

My cousin Teri’s hubby Tom made me more than one coconut cream pie. I ate a lot of this

but not nearly enough of this

Keith’s crab towers were chock-full of healing properties.

As was this:

Yes, lots of champagne eased the way from being an average, suburban at-home mom to becoming a statistic. From regular woman to cancer vixen. From got-it-together overachiever to at the beast’s mercy. And my bubbly companion continues to ease the way, from cancer victim to cancer survivor. Cheers to that.

A week after surgery, I began to feel a bit more human and was blown away by my little girl wearing a pink ribbon on her shirt–all her idea, BTW–to school every day.  

I was not enjoying the amount of time spent doing this:

although Pedey enjoyed every lazy minute of my recouperating.

Seeing me in jammies all the time gave Macy an idea: she could raid my jammie drawer and wear them herself. 

I’m not sure I ever got that pair back from her.

I certainly have learned a lot over the last year. Things I never knew I would have to learn, like the difference between invasive ductal carcinoma and in situ carcinomas. Like how a tumor is graded to determine the stage of the cancer. Like cure rate statistics and recurrence stats. Like how fine a line there is between the science of medicine and the art of medicine. Like how fighting a wily infection could be even worse than fighting cancer.

The crash course in all things infection-related was a big education. A very big, most unwanted education. My biggest lesson in this arena is how many unknowns exist. I wanted to know when, where, how, and why I got this infection. No one knows for sure. I wanted to know why it took so long to diagnose it, and why so many drugs have to be involved. I learned that my oncologist could have me all my drugs delivered to my doorstep via UPS. I learned to love vanocmycin and to depend on probiotics. I learned to eat breakfast as soon as I got up, hungry or not, because I needed to time the antibiotics right so they hit an empty stomach. I learned that morning sickness-style nausea doesn’t go away as the morning changes to afternoon and then to evening. I learned that there was nothing, not one single thing, I could put in my stomach to ease that awful nausea. I learned that washing those drugs down with alcohol doesn’t make me feel worse; that in fact it made me feel a whole lot better. I learned to develop a schedule and a rhythm to taking my antibiotics every 12 hours for 267 days. 

I learned that “We’re discontinuing the antibiotics” are the sweetest words I’ve heard in a long time. I’ve learned about the complete and utter relief of dumping my remaining oral abx out, because I don’t need them anymore.

That’s the tip of the iceburg, or what my friend Michele would call “a booger’s worth” of the practical things I’ve learned. The topical aspects of changing one’s status from normal person to cancer patient. Then there’s the other side of it.

There’s the stuff  I’ve learned in the last year about the unquantifiable side of a serious illness. The depth of inner strength required to get through something like this. The well of emotion that accompanies the clinical stuff. The patience and fortitude I didn’t know I had (although I’m still working on the patience part). The measure of gratitude toward the people who’ve helped along the way. The unbridled joy of making new friends in the midst of a shitty situation. The passion for writing, long dormant in the day-to-day of child-rearing, and the love of blogging. The understanding that my doctors are just regular people under those scrubs & white coats, and while they’re full of knowledge, there’s a whole ‘nother side of unknown things for which they make an educated guess and hope for the best. And, I have to admit, how much fun I’ve had getting to know these people in the white coats.

 

While being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40 certainly does suck, I’m lucky that I made the decision one year ago to not let that diagnosis define me or impede me living my life. There certainly were times in which I was miserable from surgery and infection, and down in the dumps about my limited capabilities during recovery. There were also times over the last year in which I thought for a second I can’t take any more–not one drop more of bad luck, rotten news, and beastly complications. But those times didn’t last long and they did not prevail. Cancer did not prevail. Not over me. No way. Nuh uh. That’s perhaps the most important thing I learned over the last year.


Royal wedding watch party: success!

This morning’s watch party, aka reason to open champagne at 9:00 a.m., was a smash success. We had all the elements of a good party: fun people, plenty of good food, copious amounts of alcohol, and high-quality people-watching.

The ladies sported fascinator hats popularized by the new Duchess of Cambridge. Seems fascinators have become all the rage since the ever-fashionable Kate favors them. Mine was the lamest one at the watch party, because it was a last-minute addition to my garden-party frock and in the interest of full-disclosure, is a clip-on flower belonging to Macy. I grabbed that out of Macy’s hair-art drawer right before the party started rather than fashioning a fascinator out of feathers, as our guests did. Jill’s mom, Joan (visiting from St. Louis) and my mother-in-law, Jody (visiting from Kentucky) had grey and lilac feathers respectively. Jill’s was blush pink, and all were lovely.

They paled in comparison, however, to Keith’s head-covering. 

Embracing the royal occasion and tradition of “frivolous, oversized hats,” Keith came up with the mother of all hats. Whimsically created with found objects, this inspiring chapeau featured a jaunty elephant, which provided the height so desired in an outlandish hat. Candace from “Phineas and Ferb” contributed a nice diagonal line and bolt of bright red. The one lone eyeball from an unseen creature in the center of the hat sends a playful yet contemplative message.

I hope those girls Beatrice and Eugenie don’t get wind of Keith’s creation. They might storm the party and gobble him, and his hat, right up.

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Yikes.

It’s been said that these girls were trying to send a snarky message because their mom, Sarah Ferguson, was purposefully excluded from the royal wedding. Sweet Lord, I hope that’s the reason they chose those hideous hats.

Yesterday I wrote about William perhaps missing his mom, Princess Diana, on his special day. In my effort to avoid seeing any photos or footage of the royal wedding before my delayed watch party, I didn’t hear anything about whether there were intentional efforts by the newlyweds to include Diana’s memory, so I was super happy read this quote from William, about giving his mom’s engagement ring to his beloved: “It’s my mother’s engagement ring. Obviously she’s not going to be around to share any of the fun and excitement of it all — this was my way of keeping her close to it all.” Very nice, Wills.

There were several intentional tips of the hat (or fascinator) to Diana. Kate selected the same flowers that Diana had in her bridal bouquet. The Sweet William and lily of the valley flowers made for a demure bouquet that carried a powerful message.

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Kate’s mom, Carole Middleton, chose a dress that was designed by one of Diana’s favorite designers, Catherine Walker.

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Diana worked with Walker for much of the 16 years between her wedding to Charles and her untimely death, and it’s estimated that Walker designed some 1,000 frocks for the late princess, including the black dress in which Diana was buried. Walker is credited with some of Diana’s most iconic outfits.

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I was glad to see that William and Kate made such an endearing effort to include Diana in the wedding. This screen shot of William next to a photo of his mama makes my heart sad and glad at the same time. Genetics are a powerful thing, and the mannerisms that parents impart to children, unbeknownst to the child, speak volumes. The fact that William exhibited the same nervous half-smile with a slightly bowed head that his mama used to exhibit is a small shard of hope that exists after the loss of someone dear. I’m sure Diana would have given her eye teeth to have been at that wedding, but hopefully she was shining down on the newlyweds and emitting some powerful motherly love.

My favorite image from the day was not of either William or Kate, nor a celebrity. 

It was William’s goddaughter, standing next to Kate on the palace balcony after the ceremony. There was a cool flyover of vintage fighter planes, and it must have been too loud for this little darlin. She reminds me a lot of the little darlin who lives at my house.

Here’s the tiniest member of the royal wedding party silently protesting, while the newlyweds share a smooch in front of the immense crowd.

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Kate looked every inch the princess as she stepped out of the car to head into Westminster Abbey

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and in her second outfit for the after-party, which something tells me Diana would have given an enthusiastic two thumbs up.

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I think Kate would have similarly approved of our fascinators.


It’s my cancer-versary

One year ago today the bottom fell out of my carefully-ordered life when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

To say that a lot has happened in the last year is an utter waste of words. I’m not sure there are words to convey how much has happened in the last year; if there are, they are reserved for better writers than I.

Being diagnosed with cancer at age 40 is a shock. Duh. It’s scary and unexpected and unnerving. Double duh. 40 is when we hit our stride. For me, it meant my kids were old enough to not need constant supervision but to still need my guidance. I’d recently discovered tennis, the new love of my life, and had time and freedom to play often. I had a tight circle of friends who knew who they are and where they want to go. I was very comfortable with the direction of my life and the steps I was taking to make it the very best it could be.

Then came cancer.

That vicious beast had already stolen my sweet mama from me, when she was only 67. I was 36 and finding my own way as a mother, and needed her input and presence. But more importantly, I needed her friendship. She and I never had the contentious relationship that a lot of mothers & daughters have. We always liked each other. Maybe because we were a bit opposite: she was yielding and I was (am) opinionated. But maybe we just got lucky, and had that special relationship that some fates bestow upon some people but not others. The reason for our good relationship is immaterial; the fact was, we treasured each other, and losing her was the worst thing to ever happen to me.

Until April 27, 2010.

My guardian angels were asleep at the wheel. 

I’d been getting baseline mammograms since my mom died, since hers was a reproductive cancer and that put me at a slightly greater risk. More so, though, was my OB-GYN’s diligence. Her husband is an oncologist at MD Anderson, so she’s super-tuned to cancer and its sneaky ways of getting its foot inside the door. She saved my life. Pure and simple. And monumental.

When the news came on this day last year, I listened to everything Dr Dempsey told me about my cancer, as Boss Lady Staci dutifully took notes in Trevor’s stead as he hustled home from a business trip. I held it together until the end, when she asked if I had any more questions and I had one: how do I tell my kids? 

They’d watched their YaYa die from cancer, and while only 6 and 3 years old, those memories are powerful. They wanted a lot of assurance that my cancer was different in every way from YaYa’s and that it was not going to kill me, too.

One week after my diagnosis, Payton turned 11. I was gearing up for a double mastectomy, but wasn’t going to neglect his celebration, because if we can’t celebrate life and its happy moments, then cancer might as well come and get us all. We had the usual birthday breakfast on the personalized birthday plates, just as we had every year. As I placed his feast in front of him, I muttered my birthday wish, which was to make sure I was around to place that personalized plate in front of him on May 3rd for many years to come. My firstborn isn’t going to celebrate his birthday without his mama if I have anything to say about it.

The day before my mastectomy, Macy and I met Jeffrey, the orphaned mockingbird rescued by Amy Hoover’s family. We’d been hearing about this little guy, and my animal-loving girl needed to see him for herself. I had a million things to do to prepare for not only surgery but also weeks of dependency, but we made time to meet Jeffrey, and I’m so glad we did. 

Mastectomy day, I was up bright & early and ready to get the show on the road. Here I am at the hospital waiting to get de-cancer-fied.

Two weeks later, I turned 41. I celebrated in typical fashion, with a girlfriends’ lunch and champagne that night. White cake and bubbly are two of my favorite things, and they just say “party” to me. I didn’t feel great, but I was determined to greet the next year in my life with a glass in my hand and a smile on my face. Being surrounded by my best girls during the day and my family in the evening reminded me that life goes on and that while my recovery was hard, it was do-able, so take that, cancer.

A few days before my birthday, I strapped on as much determination as I could muster and took Macy to see Taylor Swift at the Toyota Center with her best bud, Ella, and my partner in crime, Jill. I was so afraid of being jostled by the crowd, as I was still pretty sore and healing was far from complete. But I wanted to be there and be a part of that big event, and to prove to myself that life doesn’t stop for cancer. I’d lost my breasts but not my drive. The glowsticks burned brightly as the music thumped, and I sat next to my favorite girl and soaked it all up. Every last drop.

Good thing I did, because my healing and happiness were short-lived.

Macy had just posted this on her chalkboard, and for all we knew, the worst was behind us and it could only improve from there. Hahahahahahahahahahahaha.

Just as I felt like I was really recovering from the mastectomy, the nosocomial infection entered my life. A curveball? And how.

Hospitalized for 9 days, pumped full of antibiotics, right tissue expander removed and left expander drained, my life took a decidedly unpleasant turn. It took 6 weeks to diagnose the mycobacterium, and nearly a month total of days spent in the hospital. That first 9-day stay was the longest of my hospitalizations, but also the scariest because the infection was hiding under the tissue expander, hard to diagnose but making me really, really sick. A month after the 9-day stay, I was back in the joint. Out for 3 days and back for 5 more days. Then, out for 2 weeks and back in for 3 days. A seemingly never-ending cycle. Each time I had to go back in, Macy would hand me Froggy, her most beloved of all her “crew” of stuffed animals. He’s been with her since she was a tiny baby and has enjoyed favored status among the masses of other stuffed animals. He’s been in her bed every night and has gone on every trip she’s taken, and she gave him to me to take on each trip to the hospital. He had a bath in hot, bleachy water with an extra rinse every time he came home to her.

She also gave me Baby Snoopy, another coveted member of the “crew,” and my  heart swells at the idea of my baby girl’s thoughtfulness. Though she hated to see me go back to the hospital, she knew her “crew” would comfort me in her absence.

Gross picture, yes, but I did make it smaller so you don’t have to see it in all its glory. Apologies to Christy, who hates this kind of stuff, and Julie: you’d better start skimming because this is the icky part. The aftermath of the mycobacterium is unpleasant, for sure. And this is not the worst shot there is; this shot was taken after much healing had occurred, believe it or not. The wound left behind by the infection was 5.6 cm long, 3 cm wide and 2 cm deep.  That dang bug wreaked a lot of havoc on my already-ravaged right chest wall, and it killed what little bit of healthy tissue was left after Dr Dempsey scooped most of it out to rid the cancer. It’s an insidious bug that is hard to treat. It’s not drug-resistant, like MRSA, but it is very slow-growing and so it responds slowly to antibiotics. Hence the long, long, looooooooong course of oral abx and the multiple rounds of  IV antibiotics, at home and in the hospital. I still have this collection on my kitchen counter, to take twice a day, but luckily haven’t needed the IV version since the last go-round in March. No idea when I’ll get off the oral abx, but sweet Dr Grimes, my infectious disease doc, has told me that he has patients who are on abx therapy for years. Years. Plural. Egads.

Trevor and I became fluent in home health care and learned how to administer the vancomycin and cefapim all by ourselves. The learning curve wasn’t steep, and the whole process was very systematic. My home health nurse, Chona, was as kind and competent as could be, but the gravitas of my situation was clear.While I dreaded it and resented the 3 hours it took twice a day to infuse, I counted my blessings and reminded myself that it could be worse: I could be getting those drugs via IV in the hospital. Again. Which is why I smiled for the camera, tethered yet again but happy to be at home, with Snoopy to keep me and my IV pole company. And yes, that is a glass of wine on the table next to me. It was a dark period in my life, people; don’t judge.

Remember Sucky, the wound vac? This photo is harder for me to look at than the one of the wound. Oh, how I hated Sucky. Necessary, yes, but hateful. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

This is what Sucky’s appendage looked like strapped to my body, so it could suck out the gunk and speed the healing from this curveball. The size of the plastic sheeting and the tape required to keep the Sucky train rolling was big enough to give me the vapors, and my poor skin is shuddering at the memories right now. And isn’t everyone thankful that I didn’t have a better camera than the one on my iPhone? Imagine how gruesome the photos would be! Oh, the horror. 

The amount of supplies needed to deal with that wound was staggering. The home health stuff was delivered in big boxes, which cluttered up my office and dining room for a day or two before I said enough! and organized everything to minimize its presence. Out of sight, out of mind (sort of). I pared it down as much as I could.

I became proficient at prettying up the ugly truth of cancer treatment, and its equally- ugly friend,infection aftermath, fared the same. I may not have had control over the mutating cells in my body or the nasty bug that invited itself in post-mastectomy, but I sure could dictate how my surroundings would look during the after-party. 

The amount of supplies needed for this fragile existence was great, and so was my need for comfort. That I found comfort in bubbly and coconut cream pie should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I may have been down and out, with cancer and infection taking their pounds of flesh (literally), but I was powered by Piper and pie.

The summer wore on and I barely saw the sun. And only then, through the window; I didn’t get out much. Between the hospital stays, feeling puny, IV drugs, and being on guard against germs, I missed out on a lot.

I did make it to Macy’s 2nd grade last-day-of-school festivities. She had something funny to say when it was her turn to take the podium, and although I don’t recall what it was, I’m glad I was able to be there to see her in action. I also dragged my sorry carcass to Payton’s 5th grade farewell. My friends in high places in the school volunteering world pulled some strings and had a reserved seat for me, along with a parking cone to save a parking place for Mary, who carted me there and back. My baby was moving on to middle school, and I was moving slowly–very slowly–toward recovery, from cancer and infection. 

Right before school ended, Payton was honored with a spot on the All Star team. This boy lives & breathes baseball, and has from his earliest days, so this is a big deal.

The team went from District to Sectionals to State (or maybe Sectionals to District to State), and I made it to 1 game. Being in the hospital while my favorite player did that thing he does best was hard on this mama. His team had a lot of heart, in addition to some mad skills, and they were kind enough to play in my honor for the duration of their run toward State champs. I’ve never been more honored and humbled as when he came home from practice the night before the first tournament (District? Sectionals?) with a pair of pink sweatbands on his wrist. Learning that the entire team was wearing the pink, for me, moved me, and like the Grinch, my heart swelled to maybe a normal size. 

I’ll be forever indebted to all the other All Star moms who cheered for my boy and provided yard signs, pool parties, custom shirts, and child-wrangling assistance in my absence, at our home field and on the road. Missing the games was hard, but knowing that my circle of baseball moms had my back made it bearable. And having my signed photo of the boys in red (with a dash of pink) brightened my hospital room and my spirits. That frame now sits on my dresser, and every day when I see it I remember not only the special summer of baseball success but also the pure hearts of the families on that team who helped my own family in our time of need.

Good things can come from a bad situation. There is hope inside a diagnosis. You get a measure of the depth of people’s kindness, which comes out in lots of ways. Like custom cupcakes. I liked that one a lot, and so did my kids. 

Like a card signed by the staff at PF Chang’s during a celebratory lunch. Our waiter knew we were celebrating some good news in the cancer battle and took it upon himself to have his co-workers celebrate along with us. I said it then, and I’ll say it again: Eat at Chang’s!

My friend Paula from Duke ran in the Salt Lake City Race for the Cure in my honor and sent me her bib from the race. At that point, I was a long way from even considering doing a 5K, so it did my heart good to know she was out there, pounding the pavement among an army of pink and thinking of me.

One weekend in between hospital stays, Macy and I snuck away to Galveston with Christy and her daughter Alexis, for a much-needed break from illness, wound care, and calamities. Macy caught a huge fish off the dock, and seeing her proud smile made the trip even better. There’s something magical about the sunset off the water, and I savored the splendor.

Before the summer was over, we had the chance to puppy-sit this little beauty a couple of times. If puppy kisses can’t cure me, I don’t know what can! 

Once word got out that the puppy-sitting business was up & running, we got to keep Pepper for several days. My kids loved having her to snuggle with on the couch, and I relished the idea that the hard times were morphing into better times.

School started, much to my children’s chagrin, and Payton went off to middle school while Macy began 3rd grade. A few days after school started, I was fresh out of the hospital, she and I rocked out at the Jack Johnson concert in the Woodlands. Because I had been hospitalized, again, so recently, my attending the show wasn’t a sure thing. I still had the dressing on my port-a-cath and wasn’t feeling great.  What is a sure thing, however, is that I’m as stubborn as cancer is shitty, so I made it to the show. 

August and September were spent recuperating, and at the end of September I hobbled myself on down to Tootsies, a chichi clothing store in the high-rent district that was outfitting survivor models for the Couture for the Cause fashion show. I’d only been out of the hospital for a month, but I had committed to doing the show and I made good on my word. Scared breathless and unsure of myself are not states in which I commonly find myself, but the fashion show landed me smack dab in the middle of “What in the world am I doing?” territory. I wasn’t wild about the dresses I wore, but my shoes were a-maz-ing and the experience is one I truly will never forget. Oh, and we raised almost $100K for the cause. 

October signaled the return of some normalcy. I was able to put together something I’d daydreamed about a lot in the hospital: the First Annual Pink Party. I wanted to gather my circle of girls who had seen me and my family through the roughest part of the “cancer journey” to show my thanks and spend some non-sick time together. With the pink theme, yummy food (if I do say so myself), and plentiful drink, it was a smash success.

We seemed to have the infection under control and the antibiotics were doing their job, and after a much longer-than-anticipated hiatus, I was back on the tennis court. My sweet tennis friends gave me a little trophy that says “Winner,” and it’s the best trophy I’ve ever won. 

This little trophy soon had a friend, though, after Boss Lady and I won the Witches’ Open at the end of October. Being back on the court with my tennis friends was so great. Tennis is very good therapy.

As if that day wasn’t fun enough, that night was the Maroon 5 concert in the Woodlands. Tennis, then dinner and the show was a balm for my battered soul. We ate & drank then sang along with Adam for an unforgettable night.

Before too long, fall was upon us (or what passes for fall in Houston), and we readied ourselves for the holidays. Thanksgiving was spent with Team Cremer, with everyone contributing something to the feast. The kids worked off their meal with the traditional post-turkey swim. We had a lot for which to give thanks.

Christmas and the New Year came and went, and before I knew it was time to start making preparations for reconstruction. The Big Dig was a big step, and I had hoped it would signal the end to my “cancer journey” and allow me to put all that hardship behind me. Adding another doctor, and another Dr S, to my cast of characters could only mean one thing: I was going in for a very big surgery.

The DIEP procedure is amazing and hard, in a lot of ways: time consuming, intricate, detailed, and not infallible. Babying the newly transplanted skin, tissues, and blood vessels was hard work, and the crack team at Methodist in the med center did an outstanding job.

This is what I looked like before The Big Dig:

and this is what I looked like 3 days later, leaving the hospital:

It was a hard 3 days, no lie, but at least I was going home. One thing I would miss from the hospital was the morphine. Oh, how I love that stuff. I guess a lot of people do, too, because they guard it closely and I got a laugh from the ping-pong-paddle-key used to replenish my supply. Kinda reminded me of a gas station restroom key. 

One thing I would not miss from the hospital was this chair.

This was the chair in ICU that I had to hoist myself into, after hoisting myself and my 17-inch-long abdominal incision out of bed. Again, it’s a good thing I’m so stubborn, because it would have been easy to roll over, say this is too hard, too painful, too much. But by golly I was going to get out of that bed and into that chair no matter what, and with my morphine pump in hand, I did just that. I don’t think I cussed too much, either.

Recovery from The Big Dig is ongoing, and they say it will take a while longer. I’m not the most patient person, and I’m ready to have everything back to normal. Of course I know there’s a new normal, and it progresses at its own pace, not mine. It’s been a long, tough “journey,”and it seemed that everything that could go wrong did go wrong, for a while.

But a lot of good things have happened, too. I started blogging, for one, with Pedey at my side or in my chair, or both; who knew so many people were interested in my little “cancer journey?” It’s humbling and rewarding to see my “readership” grow, and I am immensely grateful for all the love and support that’s come my way. Someday I may have no cancer-related news to share. How weird will that be? I imagine I’ll find something to talk about in this space, nonetheless.

I will have more stories to share about my adventures with Dr S. There are a couple of revisions that he needs to make to his palette that is my newly constructed chest, and while we argue about the timeframe for that, it will likely provide blog fodder and laughs along the way.

One year ago, life took a decidedly unpleasant turn. Cancer entered my life like an afternoon storm along the Gulf Coast. 

And like the butterfly bush in my backyard that was uprooted and tossed around by high winds recently, I weathered the storm. I’m setting my roots and hoping that the winds that blow my way in future are calmer.

Like the pillow on my bed says, I am a survivor.


Journey

If you’re like me, once you read the title of this post, you’d end up with “Don’t Stop Believing” running through your head.

“Hold on to that feeeeeeeeling….”

Yes, we are simple creatures at times, and prone to even simpler suggestion.

As I wrap up the Napa series of blog posts, I reflect back on a fantastic trip, an outstanding weekend, and the kind of memories that would keep me warm on a cold winter’s night if I didn’t live along the Gulf Coast of the great state of Texas. Not that the memories aren’t that good, but that there’s little need for warming around here. Especially with my hot flashes. Thanks, early-induced menopause, because pre-summer in Houston isn’t steamy enough.

Thinking about the trip and preparing to say good-bye to our visitors from Boston today makes me a teensy bit sad. I don’t like transitions. I’m in for the long haul and can work long and hard at a steady pace, but I don’t care for the ups & downs, the twists & turns, the stops & starts. This sentiment applies, for me, whether we’re talking about vacation or illness. Going from my “normal” life to vacation mode takes me a little bit of time. Getting into the vacation frame of mind is a conscious shift for me, even when it’s a vacation I’m looking forward to. Having our friends from Boston here is most definitely something I look forward to, but it still requires me to make that shift in my head.

Now that our vacation with them is ending, I find myself again shifting, from the luxuryof sleeping in on a school day and spending the day by the pool, drinking early and often and into the evening; to hauling my carcass out of bed to pack the kids’ lunches, sign their folders, forge notes about their absences, and getting back to my normal life. I like my normal life, so this isn’t inherently a bad thing; it just required me to shift gears and change my  mind frame.

I’ve never been good at handling change, and that may be why I’m not a great traveler. I don’t like the idea of having to decide in advance what I’ll be wearing, and then pack it, taking care to not forget anything. It seems that once I get used to the new location, it’s about time to go home, and then there’s another adjustment to handle. I do it, and without the need for intervention, but it’s an effort.

That’s why this phrase spoke to me:

It was on the wall of the Cost Plus World Market in San Francisco near our hotel, where we popped into for supplies (and by supplies, yes, I do indeed mean champagne) our first night in California. We were at the checkout, clanking bottles and deciding whether to add chocolates to the purchase, when I saw this saying on the store wall. The other shoppers might have thought me a bit mad to be snapping a photo in the middle of a store, but I stopped caring about things like that a long time ago.

The saying spoke to me because I know that Lao Tzu is right.  He was a mythical figure in ancient China and is said to be the father of Taoism, so you know he’s smart. His ancient quote about the good traveler retains relevance today because people like me continue to buck the journey in favor of the destination. I know that it’s not about the destination, yet I can’t wait to get there. I will jump through all the requisite hoops along the journey in order to get to the destination, but for me, the destination is the goal. Wrong, I know, but still I persist.

Some say that dealing with cancer gives you greater clarity on “the things that really matter.” Or that having survived cancer, you become more aware of and grateful for the things around you. Then there are the idiot-balls who say that cancer is a gift. To them, I say choke off. This is no gift. Yes, it does afford the opportunity to re-evaluate priorities and habits, but it’s no gift.

I spend a lot of time in my personal “cancer journey” marking off time and accumulating milestones. Maybe that’s a coping mechanism, I don’t know. I do know that I can tell you to the day how long I’ve been on oral antibiotics (251 days), and how long it’s been since The Big Dig (49 days). More likely, it’s because I’m focused on the destination and not the journey. I can’t wait to “be done” with this cancer business: the disease itself, the surgeries, the recoveries, the uncertainty, and the drug therapies. I don’t aspire to ever be free of the worry that the cancer business drops on my doorstep like an unexpected and oversized parcel. It will always be there, in the back of my mind. I liken it to the childhood sensation of rolling your tongue through the newly-created hole of a lost tooth. Your brain knows the tooth is gone, but your tongue can’t resist checking for sure, by sliding through that narrow, slippery, and slightly nauseating space. My brain knows my cancer is gone, yet it can’t resist double-checking.

I refuse to live in fear, however. I don’t want to have any regrets: about life in general, and certainly not in this “cancer journey.” Each decision I’ve made along this “journey” has been nitpicked and examined half to death, with risk and reward calculated to within an inch of their lives. Some decisions have been difficult, and some have been easy, but none have come without a lot of thought.

I heard from a fellow breast cancer blogger who is dealing with an infection, possibly of her tissue expander, just as I did. She’s on IV Vancomycin, like I have been many times. I commented on her blog to tell her that the Vanc works and it will cure her, hoping to offer some support. She replied that she can’t imagine how I endured that process multiple times because it’s so stressful. Yes, it is. No doubt there. And if someone were to ask me how I endured it, I don’t know that I would have an answer. I don’t know how I got through it, other than I just did it. Just gritted my teeth, tucked my head and did it. Because I didn’t see any other choice. Saying “I can’t” wasn’t going to make it go away.

I do like to make myself focus on good things, or to “walk on the sunny side of the street” (thanks, Mom!). Yesterday I wasn’t feeling well, for the 3rd day in a row, and was a little put-out that my “cancer journey” was once again interfering in my fun. I wanted to visit and eat & drink with my friends who were in town, but instead I had to lay down and take a nap. Take a nap. In the middle of the day, and in the middle of my friends’ visit. That made me grumpy, and I was just starting to think about getting out the pity-party supplies.

Then I told myself to shut the hell up, get in the shower and get on with the day. There was dinner to prepare for our last night together and 3 bottles of bubbly in the fridge, so there was no time for a pity party.

While in the shower, I was wondering why the hell my belly incision is still so tight and sore after 48 days, and when in the sam hell it’s ever going to heal all the way so I can take a shower like a normal person, without wincing as I lather, rinse & repeat, and just be done with it.

Then I realized: I AM taking a shower like a normal person. There were no JP drains to deal with. There were no holes in the side of my body to keep dry. There was no dressing over the accessed port-a-cath that had to be kept dry. 

When my port is accessed, i.e., has a butterfly needle piercing my skin and the port to deliver medicine, it has to be covered to keep it sterile. The port itself is smaller than a quarter, and the butterfly needle (while really thick) doesn’t extend the area. Yet the whole thing has to be covered with this giant dressing. That’s it above, stuck to my clavicle, shoulder, and neck area. My skin hates these dressing with a passion. The sticky tape irritates my skin as much as Sarah Palin irritates me. After I peel the dressing off, there remains a red, raised outline in the exact size & shape of the dressing.

And yet, I’m sans dressing. That’s a bright side, a good thing to be tallied and counted. I’m also sans sling bag. Not having the JP drains means I don’t have to wear the sling bag, cute as it may be, 24/7. That’s another bright side, and a very good thing.

Yep, it’s cute, and it served a wonderful purpose, and I love my runnin’ buddy for getting it for me. Being able to camouflage the drains by stuffing them in the sling bag, then hide the protruding rubber tubing by the cross-body bag, gave me freedom and kept me from being house-bound.

There’s nothing in there — look, Ma, no drains!! — and that is a reason to celebrate. I’m no longer tethered to plastic bomb-shaped udders collecting all manner of gross stuff, fluid and solid, that my battered body is shedding after yet another major trauma. I don’t have to plan my very limited wardrobe around the bright orange pattern anymore, but now I can do that just because I want to.

I will always be grateful to the sling bag for carrying my drains, and my drugs, in such style. The clear plastic compartment in the inside front is not likely designed for slipping in the essential few pills, but it sure worked well for me. I’ve heard that some people keep their driver’s license there instead. How weird is that?! Instead of my TX ID, featured here are my constant companions Bactrim & Minocycline, the antibiotics for the post-mastectomy infection; a muscle relaxer for the super-tight 17-inch belly incision; and a Xanax for any and all calamities, just in case.

So while this “cancer journey” is far from a gift and certainly does suck, I can still “walk on the sunny side of the street,” look on the bright side, and find moments of goodness contained within as I move forward, always searching for the finish line.

This signpost, sent to me by Jill in the Oakland airport en route from Napa back home, is a good mile marker in my journey. I love that my friends see bubbly-related things and think of me, and I love that no matter where this journey takes me, I’ll have great friends, a sassy sling bag, and plenty of bubbly for the ride.


Saturday in Napa

Yes, I know we’ve been home a week already, but I needed to think about how to best convey the utter perfection of our second day in Napa, and these things take time to percolate. Plus, the hustle & bustle of real life intervened, so there’s been a mountain of laundry, baseball games, homework, and errands aplenty since our return from the Golden State. Then there were some humorous interruptions, like Payton’s poker face (or utter lack thereof) and a couple of doctor appointments forcing themselves to the head of the blogging queue. Couple all of that with the arrival of our dear friends from Boston for their semi-annual visit, and you get a better idea of why this little blog has been neglected. Never fear, it is back to business now.

I’m not quite ready to let go of the Napa trip. So much of what I blog about is yucky stuff–cancer, infection, surgeries, drug therapy, and assorted pain & suffering–so when I have a lovely topic, like a trip to Napa, I’m gonna milk it for all its worth. Then maybe milk it some more.

If I still write about the trip and continue to post pictures, it lives on in the forefront of my memory and isn’t yet consigned to the dusty, slideshow status of trips gone by, and it doesn’t quite get crowded out by the workaday stuff that has to get done around here to keep this household running. Our long weekend in Napa to celebrate one of my BFF’s entries into the “Over 40 Club” was the stuff that legends are made of (at least in my mind). It was a celebration of Yvonne’s 40 years on this Earth, and for me, a smaller celebration of life finally, at long last, returning to some semblance of normal after a long, unpleasant, bumpy ride.

Which brings us to Saturday, Day Two in Napa. Friday, Day One in Napa, had been what I thought was the perfect day in Wine Country, but Saturday was even better.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty details, let me share two of my favorite photos from the preceding days. This one  is from Thursday afternoon at the Franciscan in San Francisco, before we left the Bay City for Wine Country. It’s a fave because The Birthday Girl had arrived to start the party-filled weekend, because we’re surrounded by great wine & yummy food, and because it was a harbinger of all the fun times to come. We were still waiting on the rest of our crew to arrive, but we went ahead and got the party started.

This was at Silver Oak on Friday, where we met the infamous Walter, who will live forever in our memories of Napa. In fact, if I recall correctly, the infamous Walter took this very photo. Just after this photo, we moved on from Silver Oak to Quintessa, and the day just kept getting better and better.

But back to Saturday. The day began with mimosas and a bloody mary to toast The Birthday Girl at breakfast. I mentioned before that this was the best-ever bloody mary, and I stand by that claim. Wish I had one right now. But I’m drying out, so that would be inappropriate.

After breakfast Saturday morning, we grabbed to-go cups and hustled outside to meet our ride and the rest of our merry party. While these aren’t exactly Texas-sized to-go cups (or “roaders” as we like to call a drink on the go), they certainly were tasty and really, who needs a Big Gulp when you’re off to taste a hundred wines in one of the best places on Earth? As delicious and festive as those bloody marys were, I’m glad I wasn’t confronted with the dilemma of having a refill to say no to; that would have been tricky.

We were off to Quixote, my favorite of all the wineries we visited. Suffice to say that if our trip had ended after the visit to Quixote, I would have been satisfied. The fact that it didn’t was icing on the cake. Or an extra olive in the bloody mary. I will write about Quixote soon; need to sort through the photos and do it justice. For now, know that it was phenomenal in every way.

None of us really wanted to leave Quixote, and once we were ready to shove off, we were delayed a bit while our driver borrowed a toolbox from Quixote to remove the limo seats to retrieve a fallen iPad. Once that was done and we packed into the car, we headed to Mumm, on the suggestion of Robert, our tour guide at Quixote. He did not lead us astray. Like all of the wineries we visited, Mumm is gorgeous. Stunning views and beautiful flowers everywhere. And the champagne–did I mention that? My favorite drink, being produced in plentitude. Ahhhh. Happy girl.

We hadn’t scheduled an appointment, and Mumm was bustling and busy on that beautiful Saturday, so we each ordered a glass off the tasting menu and strolled the grounds.I’m not sure where I was in this shot, but hopefully I had a glass in my  hand. I might have been in the restroom, checking out the great quotes on the walls, like this one from Bette Davis:

And this one from economist John Maynard Keynes:

Or I might have been mesmerized by this display in the gift shop:

Also in the gift shop was a small shrine to Carlos Santana, who we had seen the previous day at Silver Oak. He’s a regular around there, and Mumm had a signed guitar, a couple pieces of Santana-inspired artwork, and his own vintage of bubbly.

The patio at Mumm was beautiful, overlooking the vista of the vineyard. The weather was perfect, with blue skies, abundant sunshine, and cool breezes. 

There’s also a small art gallery at Mumm, with rotating exhibits. The day we were there it featured black & white photos of “then & now” shots of all sorts of people. Siblings as kids then as grown-ups. Mamas holding babies, then grandmas holding their generation’s next generation. Cool.

After Mumm, we headed back to V Sattui for picnic provisions and ate a quick lunch before our appointment at Stag’s Leap.

The wines at Stag’s Leap were not my favorite. In fact, of the 7 tastings they poured, I didn’t finish any of them. It was still a lot of fun, and being in the tasting room while the rest of the visitors milled around the common area was nice. We had a place to sit while we dissected the wine, and a chance to catch our breath before moving on. 

With our visits to Quixote, Mumm, and Stag’s Leap, we were done with tastings for the day and headed back to our hotels to get ready for dinner at Bottega. Just in case the day hadn’t been perfect enough, we still had a fantastic dinner to look forward to. Rest assured that dinner lived up to its expectations. Being at the chef’s table toasting The Birthday Girl with wines chosen from our tour will forever be one of my all-time favorite things.

The day was indeed perfect. Every bit of it was just plain perfect. Each winery we visited offered something different, and while Quixote was my favorite, by a lot, I enjoyed the others, too. And as if the wine wasn’t good enough, there was the uninterrupted time with great friends, gorgeous scenery and beautiful weather, and for me, freedom from cancer and its messy aftermath. Now that’s a great day.


My 5K, my way

WordPress hosts my little blog site, and while I don’t understand all the ins & outs of what WP does, I do know that they do it well. Visiting other blogs on other hosts proves it: WP kicks ass.

I often read the updates that come to me from WP, whether it’s to showcase a new theme (the physical look of a blog), or to update users on a new feature, like the new iPad feature that provides those who read blogs via iPad a cool experience. From the gurus at WP: “Our iPad-optimized view is app-like in its functionality, but pure HTML5 goodness on the backend: it supports touch interactions, swiping, rotation, and many other features of the iPad.”

I don’t know exactly what HTML5 is but like the way they refer to its pure goodness.

The Automattic side of WP recently announced a cool idea: let’s have a virtual 5K. This group of 80 hipsters with job titles like “code ninja,” “systems wrangler” and “happiness engineer” are scattered in 62 cities around the globe, but they share a love of fitness, so they knew that getting all the co-workers together on the same day in the same city was crazy talk. Instead, they settled on the idea of having everyone do their own 5K in their own way but on the same day. And then, because they are totally kick-ass, they opened this idea up to WP bloggers, and gave us a week in which to complete this mission.

I’m well-versed in 5Ks from my running days, but with breast cancer and post-mastectomy infection as my sidekicks, my racing days are over. I may be down but not out, and I am definitely on the mend after a long, complicated and downright icky span of nearly a year. I’m officially deeming myself over that mess, however, and ready to tackle the Automattic 5K. Lucky for me, there’s an loophole in this 5K that says it can be “in your own way,” meaning it doesn’t have to be an organized point-to-point or up-and-back race. In fact, the invitation went out to “walk, run, or skip” just do 3.1 miles worth, and it counts. Those Automatticians are so nice.

photo: lonelyplanet.com

Walking through the lush and beautiful Wine Country in Napa Valley counts, right? I didn’t use a pedometer, but I’m pretty sure we walked at least 3 miles over 2 days of wine touring. We walked through lots of wineries, traversing the valley from its  southern end, near Downtown Napa, to Yountsville in the middle, and northward into Rutherford.

No matter where we were, the scenery was spectacular. I never got tired of looking out over the rows of tidy grapevines and seeing the rolling green hills and the majestic mountains rising up toward the azure of the sky. 

Our first stop on my 5K was Chandon in Yountville, where they’ve been making sparkling wines long enough to be household name. Chandon’s wine makers have experimented a lot but settled on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier grapes in the tradition of French champagne. Works for me.

After an hour-long limo ride from San Francisco to Napa, our group of 10 was ready to stretch our collective legs and get our drink on. Chandon was a great place to start.

As we disembarked at the threshold of all things Chandon, the first thing I noticed was this sweet little tableau, at the base of the winery’s entrance. The fountain was bubbling and the calla lilies were blooming. The only way the setting could have been more perfect would be if I had a glass of bubbly in hand. While we were in a rush to get inside and get that bubbly, we did pause at the entrance

to get a group shot of the ladies before we hit the ground running (or strolling, because this is a have-it-your-way 5K). Chandon was the first of at least 4 wineries we were planning to hit that day, so we had our work cut out for us. We needed to get busy.

 

The magnum was sublime. Our group of 10 found a table on the patio and and settled in for our first official taste of Napa. No one had any complaints.

Next stop was V Sattui in St Helena, north of Chandon, for picnic supplies. It was so perfect, we went back the next day, too. Grabbing a variety of picnic items from edamame salad to fancy-pants potato chips suited everyone in our group of hungry travelers. We served up our picnic family-style, passing and sampling our bounty of yummy morsels. 

Doesn’t the sign alone make you want to spend a lazy afternoon there, eating delicious foods and drinking wine in the sunshine?

Yeah, we did too, but we had miles to go before we slept, to quote Robert Frost.

 

Luckily we weren’t stopping by woods on a snowy evening, but instead zipping along southward to Silver Oak in Oakville. Yet another breathtaking view out the vineyard’s doorway made us stop and take it all in. Then we hurried inside in pursuit of some of Silver Oak’s finest.

We found it. We had a lovely chat with Walter, our tastings meister, who got a nice, big dose of our personal brand of Texas revelry. He was great sport, and we enjoyed him and the Silver Oak atmosphere as much as their wines. We could have stayed all day, but alas, we had an appointment with Quintessa, so we moved onward.

Quintessa, in Rutherford, was amazing. It’s a short distance from Oakville to Rutherford, and coming from the wide open spaces of Texas, it struck me how all these little towns seem practically on top of each other, and they certainly blend into each other. You can’t really tell where one ends and the next begins. Rutherford, in fact, is only 6 square miles — for the whole town. Between Oakville and St Helena, this tiny little area bangs out some killer Cabernets. It’s said that in order to make a great Cab, you “must have Rutherford dust.” They are most definitely doing it right at Quintessa

Our first cave tour did not disappoint.

After a tour of the machinery and vats, our delightful guide Lori led us into the cave. The mood in the cave was serene and somber, not in a sad way but more contemplative. Very zen. Until we figured out the cave had terrific echoing acoustics and all started cawing out various animal sounds. Classy.

This fountain stands in the middle of the cave, bubbling away as its water tumbles over jet-black river rocks that appear smooth as glass. It’s a beautiful and peaceful structure in and of itself, but it’s also functional, as it provides humidity in the cave, which is integral in crafting wine. The rooms flanking the fountain are full of barrels of aging wine, which put off a distinctive aroma that I can’t quite capture. I can still smell it in my olfactory memory, but can’t describe it. You’ll just have to go there.

We were intrigued by the reddish stain around the middle of each barrel. We wondered if the wine had leaked and stained the barrels, but then noticed that the stain was contained to just the middle. Lori cleared up the mystery by telling us that Quintessa colors them on purpose, to enhance the aesthetic beauty of their barrels. I had to strike a pose next to these beauties.

We came out of the cave and through these doors into the tasting room, thinking nothing could top the coolness of the cave tour. Then we saw the table that had been laid for us. 

A gorgeous wooden table in a secluded room lit by candles awaited us. Each of us had a place setting, complete with a personalized card surrounded by 3 lovely wines lovingly arranged in order. 

No, I wasn’t too drunk to take a decent photo, but the candlelight and the iPhone camera didn’t think too much of each other, so yes, it’s quite blurry. Next trip to Napa, I will take better photos, I promise.

But I won’t share my Quintessa artisanal cheese plate. Yum. Three cheeses from the region married with the wines so well we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. I’m a fan of cheese, especially with my wine, and these three were outstanding. We could have stayed in that peaceful tasting room for the rest of the day, but we only had it reserved until 5 pm, so we regretfully shuffled out of there, basking in the deliciousness of all things Quintessa.

Our first afternoon of tasting the bounty of Napa Valley’s wines drew to a close, and we headed from Rutherford south to Yountsville, to our hotel, immensely satisfied with the splendor of our first day. I was so happy I didn’t even realize until later that my feet kinda hurt, from my 5K, my way.


Pics, as promised

I really missed my easy access to photos and images while posting from the road. Even though I had several tech-savvy traveling companions, there wasn’t time to set up a functional blogging station (or at least, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice wine-drinking time to getting techy). I had to make do with the cranky iPad, but now that I’m home and plugged in, I no longer have to rely solely on my words to portray the utter fabulousness of our trip to Napa.

The trip got off to a great start with an upgrade and Vueve Cliquot while awaiting our flight out of Houston. I love, love, love my seat assignment of row 1. And if there’s anything I love more than drinking Vueve at 8:00 in the morning at the airport, I can’t think what it is. Some of you who know me well have asked if both of those glasses were for me, and sadly, no one was Trevor’s but he was taking the picture so I didn’t try to steal his glass. Thought about it, though.

Before we got to Napa, we spent some time in San Francisco. Trevor and I arrived before the group gathered at the hotel, so after we checked in we explored the wharf area. A very reliable foodie couple recommended we eat at the Tadich Grill in the Financial District. It’s the oldest restaurant in all of San Francisco, which has no shortage of eateries.

Been in business since 1849, when it started as a coffeeshop. A Croatian immigrant named John Tadich worked at the coffeeshop after coming to San Fran in 1872, and he bought the place in 1887 and renamed it. It’s said to be the first restaurant to grill seafood over mesquite wood, starting that yummy tradition in the 1920s. So glad they thought of it, and that the practice made its way to The Lone Star State.

We walked to Tadich Grill, which I mentioned in a post last week, to find out if they truly do have the best cioppino in the city. The answer: yes. 

Hell, yes.

I could devote an entire blog to this bowl of stew. But I won’t.

This was by far the best ever. Especially after a long plane ride that started early. Especially after a 1.5 mile walk in cold, windy weather. Especially with some hot, fresh, crusty sourdough bread. San Francisco is known for its sourdough, and I tried it everywhere we went. Never had a bad piece, but this was some of the best. So good it didn’t even need butter. 

This scallop and its twin were floating in the tomato-based broth, minding their own business and likely oblivious to the fact that scallops are perhaps my all-time favorite food. I spied the two beauties and saved them for last. After the shrimps big & small, the whitefish, the mussels, the clams, and the crabs. Saved the best for last. And they did not disappoint. I’ve eaten a bunch of their friends over the years, and I can easily say they were the cream of the crop. I miss them. A lot.

Trevor had another yummy dish: shrimp and avocado mixed with rice and covered in a creamy sauce then broiled to a cheesy, bubbly state of bliss. The shrimp and avocado combined with the creaminess of the sauce made for one scrumptious combination. It didn’t sound all the special on the menu, but it came together to be pretty spectacular. Too bad the photo isn’t all that spectacular. It’s probably blurry because I couldn’t wait to tuck back into my cioppino.

On the walk to Tadich, we passed many restaurants, including one that claims to be the best Indian food in San Francisco (a ballsy claim, I’d say), and lots of shops. It’s always interesting to get to know a bustling, pedestrian-friendly urban area, since it’s very different from the life we lead in our SUV-driven suburbs. Pun intended. One shop we passed caught our attention because of the smell wafting out of its doors: buttery, brown-sugary, and mouthwatering. Ahh, a candy shop. Trevor vowed to hit it after lunch, and I’m glad he did. He chose some handmade fudge and we picked up some stuff for the kids, then noticed the source of the amazing smell: homemade caramel corn.

In an old-fashioned popcorn popper. Popcorn is one of the few snacks I can take or leave, but this stuff was of a whole different order. We weren’t going to buy any because we’d already ordered the fudge and were stuffed from lunch, but the heavily-inked salesman threw in a gratis bag, probably because I asked him a lot of questions about his tattoos and he assumed they were of the admiring sort of inquiry. I was really just curious to learn if the tattoo on his lip hurt when he got it. Yes, in fact, it did.

Candy in hand, we said adios to the tattooed candy man and headed back to the wharf. The caramel corn made it a few blocks.

After a short respite, The Birthday Girl arrived, so we hoofed it down to the wharf to meet her and Thad at The Franciscan, a huge, white boat-shaped restaurant overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf and sporting the best view of the water.  

We arrived before the crowds so were able to get a table with a view, and we soaked it in. Diana and Celeste, two more of our group, were already there enjoying the view and a snack. It was time for wine! We ordered a yummy bottle of Sauvginon Blanc and toasted our safe arrival and our good fortune to be in the Bay City, drinking wine and watching the maritime world go by.

Trevor and I were the only ones who had eaten, so the other 4 ordered some good stuff: a sizzling plate of crab legs, mussels and shrimp all perfectly seasoned on their cast-iron platter. It was similar to the sizzling fajitas platter that we all know & love in Texas — the sizzle gets the other diners’ attention, and the smell makes them think they ordered the wrong thing.

Once Lisa & Larry arrived, our group was almost complete, but since Jill & Keith weren’t landing until 10 pm, we went on to dinner without them. We needed 2 cabs to get from the wharf to the restaurant, and the girls all piled in the first cab to stop. That poor cabby was overwhelmed. At first he said he could only take 4, but we had 5 and didn’t want to split up, so we talked him into it. We “buddy buckled” 4 of us in the back, with Celeste in front to keep the driver company. We crested some of the city’s highest hills and squealed all the way down as if we were on a roller coaster. Our driver did not regret picking us up one bit, I’m sure; probably the wildest ride of his night. Sushi at the hip & happening Ryoko was delicious, and the place itself was unusual. Kind of a cross between a bedouin palace and a Japanese tea house, with funky music and chill people. We sat on cushions and ate at a low table. They serve sushi and beer until 2 a.m. but we had to get back to the hotel and drink champagne and await the arrival of Team Cremer.

The Birthday Girl had a conference room adjoining her hotel room, so with sushi-filled bellies we gathered there, ready to party. The bubbly was chilled and the music was loud. I’m sure the neighboring guests smiled happily at our raucous celebration. If anyone called to complain, we didn’t hear them. Once Team Cremer arrived, the party was complete. Because we had an early start to Napa in the morning, we shut it down around midnight.

Saying good-bye to San Francisco wasn’t too hard because we were on to bigger & better. Well, smaller & better. Or maybe equally good but different.

We checked into our Napa hotel and were greeted with the most friendly of things: a champagne cocktail. They must have heard I was coming. Yum! Normally, I like my champagne straight, and will even ask for my mimosas without the OJ. But this was delicious. A hint of lime syrup to complement, not overwhelm, the bubbly and a flower-shaped lime-peel garnish made for a perfect start to our visit to Napa. I meant to ask the bartender to tell me exactly how it is made, but we got busy heading to our first winery, and then I realized that even if I had the recipe, it wouldn’t be the same at home so I need to leave it where it is: in the rolodex section of my brain reserved for the fondest memories.

The flower-shaped lime-peel garnish was a harbinger of things to come: there were flowers everywhere in Napa. As we drove into town, I noticed huge hanging baskets of flowers on the streetlamps. I always love seeing that as it lends such beauty and serene feelings to a city street.

Our hotel had gorgeous gardens, from perfectly composed splashes of colorful perennials to lush greenery and everything in between. The poppies were my favorite. I’ve tried to grow them in my garden, but they don’t like the Texas heat as much as the Napa dappled sunshine. The Villagio had poppies in the most beautiful colors: yolky yellow, coral, delicate pink, and bold red.

I’m a sucker for flowers.

The wisteria-covered walkways were gorgeous, too. Walking underneath a canopy of green and smelling the unique scent of those fun purple flowers never got old. Reminded Trevor and me of the old Schlumberger building in Austin.

Most of the wineries had beautiful arrangements inside, too. This was my favorite, from Quintessa. The size was impressive, and the colors spoke to me. The forsythia was the best, though, because it reminds me of Big Ed, who loved that flowering shrub, because it screams “springtime!” and because of a funny story.

My Aunt Sophia’s sister Polly, may she rest in peace, was at our house a few years ago when we had received a gorgeous cut flower arrangement. It had tall branches of blooming forsythia and Polly told me that once the cut flowers were dead, I could stick the forsythia branches in the ground and they would grow. I thought that sounded kinda dubious, but decided to try it. What’s the worst that could happen — they didn’t take and I had a dead plant in the ground? 

Well, Polly was right. Here’s what those few ornamental branches look like now.

If she were here now, she would have every right to say “I told you so!”

That handful of branches turned into a full-blown tree. It anchors the far right corner of our back fence, near where the pool floats are stored. That tree provides some shade in our little backyard oasis, and its delicate foliage sways gracefully in the breezes. We have to hack it back every year, as it grows quite forcefully. I guess it likes its new home.

But back to the flowers of Napa. This was our first view of our hotel and its beautiful grounds. The fountain out front is ringed with colorful flowers: the poppies I love, tulips, daffodils, dianthus, and primrose in every color.

Such a lovely site, and I never got tired of seeing it. We were sometimes rushing to and from the hotel, to hop in the limo to start the day, or staggering out of it at the end of our tastings, but I savored the site of those flowers nonetheless.

The rest of the hotel grounds were equally stunning, and not just the flowers; there were some cool sculpture pieces. This was my favorite. She looks likes she found just the right spot in the soft grass just off the beaten path between rooms. She was about halfway between our room and Thad & Yvonne’s room, so we passed her several times and she was peaceful yet full of presence every time. I can really understand why she likes hanging around this place so much.


Tomorrow is a big day

I’ve learned the hard way from all this stupid cancer business that every day truly is a gift, as hokey as it sounds, and that life is short, as cliched as that sounds, and that you gotta grab each day and milk it for all it’s worth (I think I just made that one up).

It’s pretty easy to get bogged down in these crazy-busy lives of ours, which by the way, are supposed to be made easier and more relaxing with all the time- and labour-saving devices we have, yet it seems that everyone is still rushed off their feet every single day. Which kinda makes it hard to unwrap the gift that is each day and to savor the little things that form a meaningful amalgamation of life as we know it. I know my to-do list is always a mile long, and some days I have to rewrite chores on the new list, since they didn’t get done on their appointed day.

My to-do list is again long today as I prepare to go out of town for the weekend.

Yes, you read that right: I’m leaving town.

Finally.

After an unfortunate series of non-starters all summer, in which no less than 3 much-anticipated trips erupted in a giant puff of post-mastectomy-infection-tinged smoke, I’m finally going on a trip. First it was the Duke girls’ trip to Tahoe. Gone. Then it was the All Star state baseball championship. Adios. And finally, the annual trek to Boston and Salisbury Beach. See ya. Missing one trip was a hard pill to swallow; missing 3 was just plain cruel. No way around the choking down of that horse pill.

But now, there’s Napa.

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My beacon of hope in a long, barren season of maladies. Could it be that the end to that dreadful season truly is in sight? I’m starting to believe that it is so. There is a part of me, a teensy part, that still fears a blow-up. But just a teensy part. Or a woonty part, as our friends at Salisbury Beach say. The rest of me is full-steam ahead, preparing for one fabulous weekend full of bottled poetry.

napavalley.com

Last time I was in Napa, I was pregnant with Payton, who will be 12 (gulp!) next month. Talk about needing a do-over. And what better reason for a do-over than a BFF’s birthday bash and a celebration of her “40 years of good living,” as the invitation states. I’m in. For celebrating my BFF, for getting a change of scenery, and for relishing this life of mine. 

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This “cancer journey” has turned out to be a bit more complicated than I thought. I’m still a destination girl rather than a journey girl, and I don’t think that’s going to change.

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But starting tomorrow, if only for the celebratory weekend, I’m going to savor every bit of the destination.

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Even if my titanium port-a-cath sets off the security alarms and I ended up getting frisked.

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Even if traffic is heavy and the plane is late.

peju winery, fineartamerica.com

Even if I’m stuck sitting next to a mouth-breather on the plane (no, I’m not talking about Trevor).

napavalley.com

Even if the weather turns yucky.

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Even if the ever-present antibiotics have killed off some of my wine-savoring tastebuds.

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I’m going to suck up every ounce of enjoyment from a trip that has been much anticipated, meticulously planned, and a very long time in coming.

 

Our first stop in Napa is Domaine Carneros, maker of one of my favorite champagnes.

domainecarneros.com

I may just skip all the other wineries and stay right there.

domainecarneros.com


The hits keep coming…

I just got back from the infectious disease doctor’s office and wow, what a visit. What a day. There’s not enough champagne in the world to soothe this jangled mess of nerves. I don’t know where to start, so buckle up and bear with me.

It started with a phone call this morning from Rhonda from the infectious disease team’s office. She said hang tight, they weren’t going to start any new antibiotics until Wednesday when I have an office visit scheduled. I registered my discomfort with waiting 5 days, and hung up wondering what to do next about a 2nd opinion, when Dr Grimes called me back himself to explain.

It was a bit of a misunderstanding: he didn’t realize I was having symptoms in the newly created breast, which is the site of the original infection (the dreaded mycobacterium, which has waaaaaaaay overstayed its welcome). Once he realized we weren’t talking about a problem with the drain site from the belly incision, he got busy and ordered IV antibiotics and said come in today and start the first infusion in my office.

But first, I saw my plastic surgeon for my weekly post-op visit. He was in an effusively good mood, and entered the room smiling from ear to ear. He was at least 30 minutes late, and came in fully loaded: the first thing he said was, “I’m making up for the fact that last week you were late.”

Uh, yeah, I was 5 minutes late. I said as much, and he started to say something along the lines of it’s ok for him to be 6 times as late because he’s the doctor and I’m the lowly patient, but I cut him off and said, You are NOT that much more important than me, so zip it.

He did. I filled him in on the infection scenario and he had some things to say. He’s persnickety, and I love it. From his standpoint, things look good physically and he’s not super concerned about the new infection but was in agreement with Dr Spiegel that a visit to the ID docs was necessary. He said he wanted to talk to both Dr Spiegel and Dr Grimes today to make sure they’re all on the same page.

So off I went to the med center, again. The one time I don’t have any of my handlers present was, natch, the one time I needed them. More on that shortly.

Dr Grimes, who I adore for his problem-solving skills, rejiggered his schedule to see me so he could get the full story and examine me. Since they worked me in, I was in the secondary infusion room, which is little more than a broom closet. There are 2 recliners and 2 IV poles, a desk & computer and mini-fridge (which had nothing of interest in it, and yes I checked). There were 2 nurses in this tiny space and they and Dr G were stepping all over each other while I was comfy in my recliner. But without a beverage equal to the stress of my day. This room is so crowded that if both recliners were reclined, the people sitting in them (across from each other) would be tangled up. Oh, how I hate small spaces and crowded rooms.

Dr G needed to take a look at the original infection site, now home of the newly created right breast. The older of the 2 nurses, who is mid-50s and easily 100 lbs overweight, said, Oh aren’t you lucky to have gotten new boobs.

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech.

That would be my patience coming to a grinding halt.

I said, yeah, that’s what everyone says, which sounds great, but they look like this: and I took off my shirt.

What I see as scar-ridden and jam-packed with misfortune and hardship and pain, medical professionals tend to see as pretty amazing. And  yes, going from a completely flat, sunken, and concaved on the right side to two round and realistic breasts is pretty amazing. But I don’t want to hear the “yea, new boobs” line ever again.

The older nurse actually said, in front of Dr G, “Well, at least they’re perky. Mine haven’t been perky in a long time.”

Again, that sound you heard was my fuse erupting and the final straw shattering into a million pieces. I’d trade perky boobs for my old life in a heartbeat. One thing I’ve learned in all this mess: boobs are overrated. Especially the ones that try to kill ya.

I  kept my composure, and so did Dr G, because I suppose she was trying to be positive, and Lord knows that’s a tall order in my situation. So, long story short, Dr G ordered yet another culture and said to get started with the infusion.

I’ve had vancomycin a lot. As in, in each of my hospitalizations, and at home. I’m tight with the vanco. Because I still have my port, it’s easy to administer the IV antibiotics, which is good because via IV is the only way to get vanco. It’s a wonder drug that in the past has worked for me, and worked fast.

Can you guess where this is going?

Because my body can’t do anything the easy way, or without complications, or absent drama these days, I had a reaction to the vanco. My old friend coursed through my bloodstream faster than it ever had in the past, and my body said, whoa, slow down this is creepy and we need to take things down a notch.

And by take things down a notch, I mean I started itching like crazy, felt like I had bugs crawling, in my hair, felt my skin burning, and my hands swelled up.

I’m not allergic to anything, and I’ve never been stung by a bee. Before breast cancer and infections entered my life, I had a pretty strong constitution and a cast-iron stomach. Now, however, I’m reduced to an itchy, burning, swollen, bug-infested mess.

I was about 40 minutes into the hour-long infusion at this point, so the nurses paged Dr G from his hospital rounds and he said finish the dose but administer some Benadryl and then start a second, replacement antibiotic, Cubicin. It’s new, similar to my old-friend-but-now-enemy vanco, and supposedly less likely to cause a reaction.

I need a lot more things like Cubicin in my life. The only drawback to it is that it takes about half an hour for the in-house pharmacist to mix up because it’s a giant molecule that takes a while to dissolve. So I had to wait. In the tiny little room. With both nurses, plus another patient who had joined us. He got hooked up to whatever drugs he needs (I tried to read the bag hanging from his IV pole but couldn’t), and promptly went to sleep. And snored through everything. Man, he looked peaceful.

The Benadryl made me kinda sleepy, but I only took half of what they offered because well, I knew it would make me sleepy, and I had driven myself there and had to get myself home. With my hands so swollen I literally couldn’t make a fist.

Luckily, the reaction didn’t progress beyond the itching, burning, swelling and buggyness, and the Cubicin infused without incident. Finally, something goes right today! And of course, now I know why they wanted the first infusion to take place in the office. Being the impatient old pro with home-health issues, I had lobbied to just run over to my oncologist’s office around the corner to have my port accessed, then have the antibiotic delivered to my house and get cracking. Luckily, Dr G is a lot smarter than I am.

So with the second drug infused safely, I was free to go but first had to go drop off the sample of the drain fluid at the lab. Now, “at the lab” at Methodist in the med center means in a different building and a long walk. Half outta my head on Benadryl and still swollen to the point of really wondering if I could get my credit card out of my sling bag to pay the valet, I left Dr G’s office.

With a good-sized box of drugs and supplies to haul with me.

Yep, they sent me home with a party favor: a box full of Cubicin, saline syringes and heparin flushes. I got to carry the box, and my lab specimen, across the Methodist campus.

Did I mention that this is the one appointment I attended unaccompanied? Rotten luck, that. Not only did I have to operate the giant sausages that were my fingers, I had to find my way with my Benadryl-addled brain limping along.

I went to the place I thought I was supposed to go, and tried to leave my lab specimen with a receptionist. She smiled broadly and did a fantastic job of disguising her disgust as I handed her a pee cup full of drain fluid. Kind soul that she is, she redirected me and sent me on my way to the lab, not the registration desk.

Trekked my way to the lab and found it with no wrong turns (hallelujah! this piece of junk day is turning around!) only to find that I was expected to fill out a form and list all the particulars of my insurance card. Which I did not have.

I explained as nicely as I could (which I admit, wasn’t very nice), that I’ve spent more than two weeks hospitalized in the Methodist system, both at the med center and in Sugar Land, and see no less than 4 doctors who are affiliated with said system, and if she can’t find me in the system then she could take the lab specimen and shove it.

Not really, at least not the “shove it” part but I was tempted. I told her I didn’t have my insurance card because I was still attached to my surgical drains and can’t carry my normal purse, blah blah blah. She said whatever, crazy lady; just fill out as much as you can and be gone.

And that’s exactly what I did.

And I managed to find my way back to the other building, to the valet. But on the way, as I was calculating the best way to make these giant fingers work to open my sling bag, I realized I didn’t have a valet ticket. The little blue slip that the valet always hands me in exchange for my wheels. Never got one.

Or did I? Just because I don’t have it doesn’t mean I never got it, and my mind was clicking along frantically trying to remember if I got the blue slip. I really didn’t think so, but clearly after the day I’ve had, I can’t be trusted and need adult supervision.

I remembered something odd about dropping my car with the valet: he asked how long I would be and if I wanted him to park it close. I said, probably 3 hours and I don’t care where you park it, whatever is easiest for you. That’s an odd thing because the valet usually doesn’t say much but hands over the blue slip. So I hauled myself and my box o’ goodies to the cashier to confess that I don’t have a ticket and was about to launch into a rousing speech of, I don’t care how much it costs to get my car out of hock, I just wanna go home and I wanna go now. I was a little worked up. Thankfully, the speech wasn’t necessary, and when I told the cashier my tale of woe, i.e., that I never got a ticket, she simply said, go on outside.

I guess sometimes the valets give ya a freebie. But then I’m left with the quandry of not exactly remembering which valet took my car without giving me a ticket, and not knowing for sure if he was giving me a freebie or if he forgot or I lost it or what. And the bigger question was: how do I let them know that I have no ticket, haven’t paid, but still need my car?

Again, I needed my handlers. In the worst way.

After a few minutes, the valet that I suspected was the one but I wasn’t 100 percent sure motioned to me and asked if I was ready for my car. Um, sure, yeah, that would be why I’m standing in the valet pick-up/loading zone area. He said navy Tahoe, right? I said yep, and he fetched my car, which sure enough he had parked close, as in right around the bend–not on the roof, or across the street, or wherever they usually park. He is officially my  new favorite, and I’m very glad that when confronted with the choice between a single $1 bill and a $5 bill, I gave him the 5 for a tip. Still made out like a bandit since I didn’t have to pay for the parking at all. And it’s a small miracle that my over-inflated fingers were able to work at all, but thank goodness they did so that nice man could get his tip.

The ending to the whole saga came once I was in my car and on the road home, finally. Still a little itchy, really sleepy, way exhausted, fingers at least 5 times their normal size, but on the road home. The phone rang, and it was my plastic surgeon’s nurse, calling to tell me that he talked to Dr Spiegel and they both agreed that it was ok for me to go ahead and get the IV infusion from Dr Grimes.

Uh-oh. Were they expecting me to wait and get their permission or blessing on that? I had no idea. Good thing they were all on the same page.


This is Kayte, not Trevor

Hi Pink Underbellyers,

This is Kayte VanScoy posting under Trevor’s PU log in. I wonder if Nancy’s ever given a thought to the fact that her blog is peee-yewwwwwww. For sure, the “Cancer Journey” (cue the violins) has been, so why not.

I’m in town imposing on the unending hospitality of the Hickses. I’ve known Trevor, Nancy, and Ed, because, let’s face it, Ed is part of this constellation too, since 1997 or so when we were all friends through the Austin Chronicle–Holt, Rinehart axis in Austin’s writing and editorial community. Eventually, Ed moved in and became my roommate, and that’s how I get so lucky to be able to pretend that I’m family around here. The truth is, we lost touch when I moved to New York to become rich and famous (I’m still waiting). But enough about me. Seriously. Enough about me already this week. (At first I wrote “weekend,” but then I realized that other people are working as I type this; it just always seems like the weekend around here.)

Hanging out with Nancy and Trevor and their kids and Ed and the dogs and Amy Hoover, too, who is a force of nature, makes it seem like life, no matter what comes, is just one pool party away from working out for the best. Look, PU-ers, I’m not going to lie. This has been a really rough couple of days for me. I didn’t exactly plan it that way, but I brought some heartbreak to Houston with me. Because, you know, it’s always all about me. Right? Does someone have a surgery to recover from around here? Is someone dealing with their wife and mother being not at 100%, when she’s usually at 150%? Apparently, I don’t care. Me me me. Sob sob sob.

Nancy makes it seem like my troubles are as big as anyone’s, including hers. And then…. I go to her appointment with Dr. S today.

Now, I’ll just stop here and say that when Nancy and Trevor and I reconnected on Facebook, we had been out of touch for many years. They had moved to NC and back, had another baby, and moved away and back to the Houston area. We had only been blissfully (for me, anyway) back in touch for a few weeks when Nancy got her diagnosis.

You never know how you’re going to react to something, but for me Nancy’s illness has made me realize how much I value my friends, how life is short, how old we really all are now… really, lots of really profound stuff. Maybe it’s been like that for you, too. It makes you think and try to see if you can pull something better up out of the middle of yourself. Those are always good challenges to have… right? I guess so. Whatever. Life.

Anyway, I offered to “help” Nancy and basically invited myself to town. So far, my “help” has looked like me staying out till 5am with other people, waking the whole house up, napping, hungover, through the day, then drinking champagne in her hot tub. You’re welcome! No, really, it’s nothing. I’ll try to do the dishes tonight… ? I guess I’m just not one of those “helping” people.

Now. Amy Hoover. That’s another story. Let me tell you… that’s a whoooole other story. Talk about Wonder Woman. I would give anything to have a heart big enough to contain other people’s needs. I’m happy to meet someone so competent, focused, giving, and living in love. Reminds me what is possible when we ask more of ourselves.

All right. I’ll get to it now. Here’s the story part of the blog: so, here we go… me, Nancy, and Amy, off to Dr. S’s for Nancy’s seeming daily appointment.

Okay… hi again. I saved this yesterday evening so that we could all sit by the pool and talk and eat and visit. This scene is pretty good, you guys. Pooltastic.

Now. Getting back to Nancy, her appointment(s), and Dr. S: Listen, if you have not been so privileged as to be invited into the presence of Dr. S, please endeavor to procure an audience with His High Holiness, the Plastic Surgeon’s Plastic Surgeon. And, you know, no joke, the man is more than skilled. He is more than artful. He is OBSESSED. He is the Picasso of the female form. Which is also another way of saying: Nancy looks amazing. She is in very good—and very specific—hands.

Now that’s just the intro. That’s the nice way of easing you into the jarring reality of Nancy’s daily life. When I was here last summer, Nancy was still battling her infection and still coping with an unreconstructed, post-surgical mastectomy site. I can’t really describe what it was like to see the Amazing and Beautiful Nancy in so much pain. It wasn’t comfortable to see. And then she invited me into her bedroom—with Amy Hoover—to observe the changing out of her wound dressing and, I don’t know what you call it but for lack of a better term, wound stuffing. The generosity of this invitation… I cannot overstate it. It was deeply moving, as much as it was unsettling. She even, and seemingly without thinking about it, invited in my friend Sarah, whom she had never even met, to watch the procedure. I don’t know why she did, but of course I was curious. I didn’t know that Sarah would want to but (and her dad is also a plastic surgeon, so perhaps it’s just a natural, genetic inclination) of course she was curious too. I realized, then, that Nancy was so much more than my old, smart, sweet, sassy, challenging, gorgeous friend from Austin. She is someone who does not see her body as only her own. She is so generous that she understands that to share her journey with me and with Sarah (and with all of you through this blog) is to expand and extend the boundaries of those who are ready to cope with their own cancers or the cancers of their friends, to grow the pool of people who will have a driving need to see research and fundraising get pushed to their limits as fast as possible. Although this journey, and her body, are certainly her own, Nancy is strong enough inside of herself to not feel stingy about her experience. I know that I could never offer as much to the world and she simply floors me. I am in awe of her and forever in her debt for inviting me in. My world is permanently changed.

Which brings us, finally, to the examination chamber of the ebullient Dr. S. His examination table more throne than bed, a leather club chair for me to lounge in, a rolling stool for Amy, and Nancy perched at the ready for what she calls, not unfittingly, The Dr. S Show. And in he comes, fanfare root-a-tooting, a fit and attractive man with dark skin, of some Middle Eastern or Asian descent. But who has time to ask after such trivialities as background? He blazes in and begins the performance, and Nancy—the Judy to his Punch, the Lucy to his Desi, the cream to his coffee—giving it back every step of the way.

First, down come the clothes and there is Nancy’s body in its glory, stripped to the hips. Now, I’m not a prudish sort, but from the unconcerned way in which she peeled off her kit you’d think her profession involved a pole or the transportation of chicken wings from kitchen to salivating male maws. I guess she’s used to it. She didn’t seem impressed. He, on the other hand, lit up. Not in a yucky way, but in the way of an artist unveiling his greatest work of art—behold, Nancy!

Like the cartoon painter, holding out his thumb to measure his progress, he stood back to take her in, stepped forward to touch, prod, palpate, and even just to elucidate. It was the longest, by far, that I’ve ever been in a room with a half-naked person and  three dressed people having a conversation as if, you know, it just happened every single day of our lives like that. Of course, I was the only one there for whom it doesn’t. So, I mostly kept my big mouth shut and tried to take it all in.

First, there was the issue at hand. The Soup du Jour was the “divot,” as Nancy had come to call a thumbprint-sized indentation of her upper-right, newly reconstructed breast that had just drooped into existence in the past 24 hours, along with some new and concerning pain. This was the exact site of the infection that had so bedeviled her and she was worried it was all coming back.

Right off the bat, with the most self-assured manner imaginable (imagine Justin Timberlake meets Arnold Schwarzenegger with just a soupcon of Karl Lagerfeld), Dr S announces that this is nothing to worry about, there is no infection present, and that everything looks amazing. This indentation can be filled with injected fat, or they could go back in and fix it in another surgery.

Is he serious? Another surgery. He’s blasé. She is too. The explanation for it, he says, is simple. One of her ribs had to be carved out to allow a blood vessel to pass through, to supply her new tissue. I shudder at the carving motion he makes in his finger, showing how the rib was sliced into with a crescent moon. Again, this registers almost zero with Nancy & Amy and I keep my yapper zipped.

Now, in a regular doctor’s visit, Nancy would cover up as soon as possible, he would busy himself with scribbling something and mumble his way out of the room. You know how it goes. Right away, however, and Nancy seems to understand his need to do this, he begins to survey “the field,” as it were. Nancy has a hip-to-hip incision with two drains on either end. This is where The Dr. S’es harvested the fat she had so obligingly grown for them to build her new breasts.

He sways over to the paper towel roll on the wall, whips out a square of paper, takes out a Sharpie and begins to diagram the procedure. Nancy is rapt and I figure she knows what he’s talking about. Later, we both confirm that we were lost in all the medical jargon. I’m confident that Dr. S has no idea what’s going on with his audience and is even less interested. He continues on, diagramming, explaining, gesticulating. Finally he announces, “Now I do not even give this lecture to other surgeons!” Nancy, Amy, and I break out in a round of (bewildered) applause.

Unfortunately for Nancy and, one would think, the future of all mankind (given the intensity of his passion around it), two weeks post-surgery Nancy still hasn’t lost every single nubbin of extra fat globules from her hips beyond the incision. This cannot stand!

I can fix this! he quips, gesturing dismissively to the offending blobs. “We call these dog ears.” I put this in quotes so that you will understand that Yes, He Actually Said That. Nancy is NAKED, SCARRED, RECOVERING… but, dog ears. THIS is our priority. My mouth snapped open and didn’t close for several minutes. He wasn’t done. And this, he sweeps his hand up her side a bit–not touching her, but seemingly carving into her–“You have no waist.” Again, Yes. He Said That Too.

I don’t even think I had time to be shocked. Or… you know it was just one of those situations, like walking into a market in Marrakesh, where you just have to let it all wash over you and vow to try to remember all the sights and sounds later.

Of course, Nancy is still Nancy, folks. If anything This Cancer Journey (insert Lifetime movie music here) has only hewn her into more of what she always was—a tough cookie, and sweet to boot. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something along the lines of, “Hold up there, buddy!” Amy, Nancy’s constant, devoted, caring, and almost superhumanly nurturing medi-buddy, also reacted. They’re used to this type of onslaught of useful (no infection) and uncalled for (dog ears? really, dude?) information spilling forth at a clip.

“I have a waist! What are you talking about?”

“Because I gave you one, you see. You didn’t have one before.”

Now look. Women argue with men. Wives argue with husbands. Friends argue with friends. But until you’ve witnessed the debate of a beautiful and self-possessed naked woman and the plastic surgeon who feels more of a right to claim her beauty for himself than her husband, herself, and, as far as I could tell, even God Almighty could take credit for, then you have been spared the edges of a couple of very sharp dueling scalpels, let me assure you.

Give and get, back and forth, round and round they go. He asserting, she parrying, she wryly pointing out his clear social deficits, he roundly ignoring these helpful hints by turning, again and again, to the centrality of his craft. Indeed, isn’t that why we’re all here? Because Nancy is the canvas and he its master?

But. No. No, indeed. Because Nancy is no kind of plastic surgery bunny. She is a survivor. A WARRIOR, really. I’m not really a pink ribbon type. I’m one of those people who says things like, “Where’s my Fun Run?” and other such obnoxious, self-centered garbage. I enjoy provoking and being contrary and I do not enjoy, any more than Nancy does, coddling and cooing over every emotional need. But Nancy? She is something else. She has kicked cancer, infection, and reconstruction in its big fat fanny.

Before you know it (and not before I’ve snapped a series of pretty hilarious and totally covert photos of Dr. S on my iPhone), we’re wrapping up the burlesque portion of the program and transitioning into the grotesque. We troop into his office–he seems completely informal and unconcerned about this invasion of his  personal space, basically totally unlike every other fancy pants specialist I’ve ever been around–to behold his treasure trove of photos of Nancy’s progress over time. At first I think there is some point to this, that it is part of a regular office visit and part of Nancy’s treatment. As he clicks through the photos and he points and she points and he asserts and she parries I realize, oh, no, I see. This is all just part of the performance art piece known as Nancy Visits Dr. S Again that they both, clearly, enjoy and thrive upon. They bring out the best in each other, and this is the best of the best, folks. Gladiator Wars.

Does she have a waist? There it is! she points. Uch, he scoffs. Me, mouth agape, hanging back. This goes on a really long time. Her breasts used to be “boxy” and now they are so much better. Eventually he will build her a nipple, its color to be added by tattoo. He goes out onto the Internet to show us how natural this result can look on other finished reconstructed patients of other doctors who, I guess, probably similarly after their Cancer Journeys, found themselves more interested in opening minds and hearts than covering up. Bless them and their candor. My heart peels open. My mind rewires.

The body is not the vessel; it is less, even, than that. It is just the sack of skin we carry around our hearts in, the perch for our big juicy brains, the tentacles we reach out to each other with. We can do with it what we will, as it will try to do back to us. It is a battle of the wills between the spirit and the cell, between love and pain, between courage and flesh.

Nancy is winning this battle and now that I have seen just how gracefully, and forcefully, and what the anatomy of her support system is like, I know how. I have limitations in life, I think. Somehow I would like to be part of this world that Nancy supports and that supports her back, but so far I’m not sure I’m equal to it. I’m a writer, a feeler, and kind of a weirdo. I don’t know how much I have to add. I don’t really do dishes or make beds—-I will, but you have to remind me every time. I don’t “take care of things,” so how can I “take care” of Nancy? Maybe you feel similarly confused about how to play a role in Nancy’s recovery process.

What I learned this weekend, though, is that Nancy takes care of her own dang self and thank you very much. But, she doesn’t mind a little company along the way.