“With the past I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I live now.
I’m digging that quote. Today, as most days, I woke up and stole a few minutes before hitting the ground running. I like to check my email first thing in the morning, and see what’s what before I start my day. I have several cancerbabes in blogland whose musings I follow. I don’t know any of these women personally, but we share a commonality that is cancer, and that tends to make friends from strangers faster than anything, including hard liquor.
One of my cancerbabe friends posted some really, really good news on her blog today, and it was the first thing I read this fine morning. Long story short she’s a 28-year-old dealing with Hodgkin Lymphoma who left her home on the East Coast to spend some time in my lovely H-town at MD Anderson to endure a grueling clinical trial.
Sounds pretty awful, right? As most cancers are, whether big or small, early- or late-stage. Cancer is just plain awful. But my cancerbabe blogger friend had good news to share about her just plain awful cancer: the clinical trial worked and she’s in partial remission.
Hooray & hallelujah!
Another strike against the many-faceted and much-dreaded disease that is cancer.
I read the rest of my emails with a smile on my face, and as I hauled myself out of bed, that smile stayed with me. I believe in celebrating every little bit of good news that comes our way, especially when dealing with the dreaded C. Nope, I’m not opening champagne at this early hour, before even getting my little darlings out of bed, preparing their breakfasts, making their lunches and seeing them off to school. Thought about it, but resisted. I’ve learned the hard way that bad things happen to good people, and to counteract that hard truth by celebrating all the good things that come along. Sometimes with champagne, but sometimes not.
It’s easy to get caught up in all the bad things about cancer. And believe you me, there are many, many bad things. Watching my sweet, vivacious, and much-beloved mama be eaten alive, literally, by uterine cancer was horrific. Knowing that I would have to live the rest of my life without hearing her big belly laugh, without her all-knowing guidance in raising my own kids was b-a-d bad. Seeing her ravaged body become ever more frail day by day left me wondering how much worse could it possibly get. Because as bad as it is, there’s always more. My BFF Ed tried to tell me that. He knew, from watching his dad die of pancreatic cancer. I didn’t want to believe him, and childishly clung to the idea that it was as bad as it could possibly be. But it wasn’t, and no matter how hard one “fights,” once cancer gains a stronghold, it’s devastating. No matter how much one wants to win the “battle,” there’s no guarantee.
If anyone on this Earth deserved to win her “battle” it was my sweet mama. Her own mama died when she was 13, leaving her to raise her younger sister, who my mama had to work hard to forgive for usurping her “I’m the baby” spot in the family line-up. They lived on a farm and life was hard. She was the only one of her 4 siblings to graduate from college, and she did it in 3 years. She was president of her sorority, which is how she scored this fetching necklace, and I’m sure she bossed her sorority sisters into next week. Determined to make her mark in the world, she became a teacher, and did it well. She married into a tight-knit Greek family who didn’t necessarily welcome “foreigners,” but she won them over. Every last one of them. Even the stubborn, crotchety old ones. She raised two kids in a most-loving and uber-secure environment. Everything she did, she did it well and with such love & warmth that people were drawn to her. She made this world a better place.
Yet, after a multi-year, multi-stage “battle,” cancer claimed her as its own. Not fair. Not by a long shot. But fairness has nothing to do with winning the “battle” against cancer. So much of it is luck and circumstance. So much of it is out of our control. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a Type A bossypants like me.
And that’s exactly why I live now.
Cancer steals so much from us. Big things: health (duh), time, innocence, body parts, hair, self-esteem, a good night’s sleep, healthy body image, money, freedom, time, faith, security. Small things: major wardrobe issues, range of motion in yoga class, being able to look in a mirror without wincing, missing important events, becoming fearful instead of being carefree.
The past is gone, and no matter how hard you may try, you ain’t gettin it back. You can’t change it. The future? Good luck with that one. My theory is you gotta work hard, bear down, be the person you most want to be, and hope for the best. Hope that you’ll avoid the evil lottery that decides who will be stricken with cancer. Keep on living a good life and doing all the right things (antioxidants, splurges in moderation, wholesome foods, regular check-ups and exercise, blah blah blah) but don’t for one second expect those things to earn you a free pass. Because cancer strikes no matter what.
So I live now.
I’ve been looking at this art a lot lately. Sometimes I’m more drawn to it than other times, rather like people I suppose. You know how certain friends drift in and out of your life, and your relationships have ebbs and flows — sometimes you can’t get enough of each other and talk multiple times a day, while at other times you go weeks without speaking then, if you’re lucky, pick back up right where you left off. That’s how you know a true friend, IMHO. The picking back up right where you left off part. Love that.
This little gem hangs in my bathroom, right above the light switch. Sometimes when I’m in a giant hurry, as opposed to the regular-sized hurry, I knock it clean off the wall as I grapple for the light switch, dashing to and fro through the house, delivering bundles of clean laundry, exchanging tennis shoes for flip flops, and going about my daily domestic business.
I glance at this little gem every day, sometimes more than once, and in the heat of the battle that was Nancy vs Breast Cancer in the qualifying match, then Nancy vs Mycobacterium in the main event, it made me smile. The battle was long and arduous, and any little thing that propelled me forward or gave me pause to chuckle was most welcome.
In retrospect, I see that the simple yet sassy message on my little piece of art reminded me that I had what I needed for the battles at hand. I was well-equipped with research; statistics; drug therapy information; most excellent surgeons; first-class hospital care (except for the part in which I got an infection, that is); an army of friends & family to help with kids and meals and dogs and errands; and comprehensive medical insurance to cover most of the nearly $300K I’ve racked up so far.
Inspiration comes in many forms. For some, it is found in nature. As I type this, I see the gentle motion of the lake across the street, calm waters moving peacefully just beyond the sign that says: “DANGER! Beware of Alligators.” As I glance upon the calm yet gator-infested water, I hear birdsong of many varieties. While the little birds that perch on the peak of our roof drive Harry the dog completely insane, I like their song and welcome their feathered presence into the hustle & bustle of my busy day. Hearing the peep! peep! peep! of baby birds in a nest, buried high and deep in the Italian cypress trees along my back fence, made me smile and reminded me that life’s not so bad, even with cancer and infection and all that mess.
I suspect those babies have grown up and left the nest, as it happens quickly in the bird community. I haven’t heard the sweet little peeps in several weeks, nor have I seen parental bird figures flitting in and out of the cypress to care for their young. The only evidence that the fledgling family was even there is the one long string, raffia-like, that must have been used in the nest-building process. It sticks out of the cypress about 8 inches, and while I always assumed it was leftover building material, it strikes me now that perhaps the industrious nest-builders placed it there on purpose, to make it easier to find the nest from outside. The 3 cypress trees along the fence are identical in appearance, and the nest was buried deep within, not at all visible from the outside. Perhaps the momma bird told the daddy bird to leave a piece visible from the outside so they’d never have to stop for directions.
Or maybe it’s just a fluke.
So much in life is just that, a fluke.
I find it helpful as I go about my daily ablutions, especially on days like yesterday as I made myself presentable for an event I dreaded attending.
No one likes going to funerals. Well, if there are people who do, I don’t get it. There probably are people who like it. If there are “extreme couponers” willing to spend hours preparing for and doing their grocery shopping, I guess it’s possible that there are people who like going to funerals. Yes, I can see how some people need closure, one of the most overused words in the English language. Ok, I can see how some people find comfort in the ritual that envelopes saying that final good-bye to a loved one. I also can see how some people enjoy the socializing that occurs before and after, in which people from near and far come together for a sad and solemn occasion.
But wouldn’t it be nice if we were spending time, good quality time, with our loved one, instead of saying good-bye to them?
I definitely needed an extra surge of power to prepare for Sophia’s funeral. And if that surge comes from a snarky piece of art in my bathroom, I’ll take it. In addition to facing my own demons of funeral-memory-overload from my mom’s event in October 2005, I also had the momentous task of getting my dress-clothes-hating son kitted out in appropriate funeral attire. Not that this task was on par with the Navy Seals taking down Osama bin Laden, by any means, but it was complicated and fraught with peril.
There were multiple-stage negotiations, some of which turned hostile; trial runs and practice fittings; surveillance to be done, and more than one recon mission to procure the necessary supplies to make this task a success.
With supplies gathered from multiple trips between our house and Amy’s house and two trips to Target and with fittings complete despite tricky buttons, we were good to go. My boy had the dress clothes he needed for two occasions. Back-to-back dressing up was torture for him, but like any good soldier, he dug deep and found the resources to stay strong and carry on.
He noted that Aunt Sophia was one of the few people on this Earth for whom he would subject himself to the torture that is dressing up. Not once, but twice, and not spaced out over the passage of time but one day right after the other.
He didn’t want to, but he did it. When I commented that while I know he hates it, he actually looked quite nice, his reply was “Your opinion.”
Back away slowly from the crazy boy.
As we saw our relatives gathered at the funeral home and then again at the church, I murmured, “Don’t comment on his outfit. Pretend everything is normal.” His smartened-up look was duly noted but not commented upon, and peace was restored in our little kingdom.
The memorial service the night before the funeral was sad, very sad. But good. Lots of reminders from the priest to remember the good times, to not let our sadness override our happy memories. A whole lot of talk about Sophia being in a better place. While I can’t deny that her being free from the horrors of a brain tumor is a good thing, the “better place” idea is cold comfort to me.
I certainly don’t want her to still be here, suffering and unable to communicate, a prisoner in her uncooperative body. I most definitely don’t want her to be subjected to living a life devoid of independence, something so very important to her. I don’t even want her to have to live in a skilled nursing home instead of her own neat & tidy, cozy home that was so much a part of her.
What I want is for her to still be here, healthy and vibrant, with no trace of glioblastoma or any other disease. What I want is to be sitting at her kitchen table, watching her fold tiropitas as if it’s the easiest thing in the world (and knowing that I’ll be going home with some of those little yummies). What I want is to be in her pool, watching the delight on her face as she presents my kids with their own individual pool floats: a huge, inflated baseball glove for Payton and a hibiscus-flower decorated inner tube for Macy. What I want is to walk into her cool, dark garage, with the musty smell I remember from childhood, to grab a popsicle from the deep freeze. What I want is to be calling her on the phone to tell her we’re having a family party, after the kiddie party, for one of my kids’ birthdays, and to listen to hear volunteer to make the cake. What I want is to see her walk through my door and to hear her say, “Hi, Nance.”
What I want, I guess, is to stop time. To freeze our lively interaction. To halt the passage of time and the acquiring of diseases that rob us of our health, our independence, and our lifestyles.
And while I’m at it, I sure would like to have the same thing for my sweet mama. To have her sitting next to me at Sophia’s table, assuring me that folding the perfect tiropita is easy. Just pinch and seal and brush with melted butter, and the filling won’t leak out during baking. To have her in the pool with my kids and me, mediating their squabble over whose turn it is with the blue pool noodle. To be grabbing her a Diet Coke from the fridge in the musty garage. To hear her voice on the phone, even if it’s the 11th time she’s called me today. To know that she’ll be at the family after-party, scurrying around my kitchen and telling me how to do a task I’ve done a thousand times, but which she thinks still requires her expertise.
Is that really asking so much?