This past Wednesday hubby Steve and I celebrated the eight-year anniversary of the date we first met. Well, met in person. We were introduced via our mutual friend Steve Roberts through Facebook about a week before that, and we traded a few messages and became Facebook friends (the app happily reminded me) on February 21st. Both of us had had enough experience with online dating to know we should go ahead and meet in person before we spent too much time creating (potentially inaccurate) images in our minds of the other. We each had some travel obligations from work approaching, too, so we wasted no time and set up a brunch date at local eatery Rockfish for a Sunday afternoon. We talked for several hours in the restaurant, then continued the conversation in the February sunshine outside the coffee shop next door for another. The rest, as they say, is history.
There’s a bit more to the story–it’s kind of a fun one–but I’ve told it before and better elsewhere, so if you’re curious, you can read it here on my previous blog, Forty-Something First-Time Bride.
With this post I want to give a shout-out to my wonderful husband, who is my friend, my love, my partner, daily hugger, and caregiver. He didn’t sign up for a marriage marked by cancer anymore than I did, and he has stood by me and been my rock through good days and bad. I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten through without him by my side. A lot of people tell me how strong I am (arguable, but that’s a subject for another day), but Steve–he is my evergreen, tall and strong and steady, a sheltering force in all seasons.
Despite the challenges we’ve faced, the wonderful times we’ve shared have been richly plentiful–beautiful hikes in the nearby mountains, live music festivals with friends, travel to amazing destinations ranging from Staunton, Virginia to the Isle of Skye, Scotland. He has faithfully delivered me to a beach somewhere every year we’ve been married (a promise he put in his wedding vows, of his own volition), and patiently allowed me to bring home a passel of shells every time. We’ve laughed and cried and loved and lost and survived home renovations.
Today, I celebrate my honey Steve. We toasted our meeting-anniversary on Wednesday evening with a carryout-wine-and-chocolate tasting from local winery Amrhein’s and Floyd chocolatier Cocoa Mia. We’d technically bought it for Valentine’s Day, but since we were already feasting on raspberry-chocolate towers courtesy of Steve’s arranging a takeout gourmet dinner for us then, we held the pairings for our anniversary.
With each wine-and-chocolate pairing, we added a third element: we took turns recalling a happy memory from our lives together. Perhaps a brunch would have been more appropriate, given our first date, but the beauty is that whatever we’re feeding ourselves, we still enjoy talking for hours. The winning wine-and-chocolate pairing was a Traminette with a Rose Cardamom Butter Cream, which was divine. The memories were all winners, and they inspired us to think about some pandemic-friendly outings we can plan to create new ones.
So, here’s to my honey, Steve. I’m a lucky gal. He’s a catch, and I know it every single day.
I’ve been thinking a lot about laundry. Which, arguably, is not as productive as actually doing laundry–though I am loathe to say it’s not productive at all.
I am terrible at finishing things. Terrible. I start well, with great enthusiasm, but too often my good ideas devolve into good intentions and partially-completed projects. I don’t know why I do this, or why–after fifty years–I still can’t seem to improve on my follow-through.
I started painting the sign pictured above a couple of years ago, when we remodeled our laundry room. We had the wall cabinets that were there removed and replaced, and reconfigured the water access and electrical outlets so we could move the washer and dryer to the back wall. I picked out a cheery tangerine paint and hung a mirror Steve and I bought on a beach trip over the radiator. The long, narrow space between the washer and dryer cried out for something, so on a trip to the craft store, I bought the blank wooden plaque, originally accessorized with twine, intending to paint it.
And then I stalled out for a while, and only made progress–on sign and room–in fits and starts.
I couldn’t find any curtains I liked, so I ordered some fabric from Spoonflower to make some. I wanted to edge the sunflower print with stripes, though, and couldn’t find any fabric that matched the picture in my head. When I finally did, it was a single napkin in the clearance bin at Pier 1. I managed to track down one additional napkin after a multi-state search, and then let the material sit for a while, anxious I would cut my limited supply wrong and ruin it. After some months, I pieced the border on the curtains and hung them. Then I found an ironing board cover I loved, but the new ironing board I ordered was too big for it. Cue delays in returning and replacing the board, then mounting the hanger for it, and so on.
Meanwhile, I started lettering the sign. I’d decided on “Love, Laughter, Laundry: Things That Are…” but I kept debating the final word. Endless? True, but not quite the ring I wanted. Eternal? Was laughter eternal? I couldn’t decide, so I set the incomplete sign aside on my craft room table. Where it stayed.
Last week I had a conversation with my mom. She and my father recently moved into an apartment in a retirement community, and they are enjoying perks like not having to plan or make dinners. While we talked, my mom was putting the bedspread she’d just washed back on their bed, and she said, “Even in the retirement home, there’s always laundry to do.” I laughed and said, “Yes, that’s how I feel about sabbatical. You think you’ll have all this time off from work, time purely dedicated to writing, but there’s still laundry, and house-cleaning, and you still have to bathe and eat. Life goes on.”
Life–and laundry–goes on: that holds true for “living through a pandemic lockdown” and “fighting cancer,” too. The first makes me feel like time stretches out endlessly before us; the second cautions me it’s a finite quantity of exquisite value. I’m thankful for markers of passing time, however mundane. They remind me that there may well always be more laundry, but there won’t always be more time. It is something to treasure.
I finished painting my sign yesterday, settling on the word “forever”–I like to think that laughter, like love, is a kind of constant: a joke heard once is always available for recall; joy is ever just under the surface, waiting for an excuse to erupt. I hung the sign on the laundry room wall today. Laundry needs must be done (to borrow an old-fashioned phrasing I’ve always liked), so the room where the work happens might as well be as bright, cheerful, and appealing as I can make it.
Here’s to love, laughter, and yes, even laundry, for the ability to sustain the ordinary ritual is itself a gift. Now I just need to find a way to replace that awful dryer buzzer with a soothing melodic chime….
First, let me say I understand why Valentine’s Day is fraught for many. I know it’s especially hard if you’ve recently lost someone you love, whether to death, divorce, or break-up. I spent 42 years being single far more often than paired, so I also know the tropes of Valentine’s Day can be alienating to the unpartnered and unconventionally partnered. (I took seriously the lesson of giving everyone in your school class a Valentine, thus I’ve always considered it a day to celebrate love of all kinds, not just romance–more on that shortly.) I also get that some folks just aren’t much into observing calendar holidays in general. That’s cool.
The people I’m talking to are the ones who sniff each year and utter some form of “I show the people I love that I love them every day, so I don’t need to celebrate Valentine’s Day.”
Give me a break.
Valentine’s Day is a day, so if you show your loved ones you love them every day, you are not off the hook on February 14th.
You’re setting up a false dichotomy: EITHER I show my love every day OR I celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s not an either-or. Ideally, it’s a both-and. Refer back to (1).
Of all the holidays to disdain, why on earth would you choose to disdain one focused specifically on celebrating love?
Aside from the “I’m a world-class Cupid every day” hogwash, the second most popular opt-out clause is “I don’t like the commercialization/It’s a Hallmark holiday.” (A) I hope you don’t celebrate Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Halloween, or Easter, or anything else then, because they’ve ALL become commercialized. And (B) It’s only a Hallmark holiday if you send a Hallmark card or gift, which no one is making you do. Feel free to skip on roses and chocolates and jewelry, if those don’t suit. But insisting on passing up the opportunity to do something deliberate and out of the ordinary to show the people you love that you love them, that you think of them and hold them dear? And then trying to pass yourself off as somehow superior to those who DO make an extra effort, insinuating they’ve just been co-opted by a capitalist machine? What is wrong with you?
Steve and I had a lovely Valentine weekend. He surprised me by ordering a gourmet Valentine Dinner for two (or six, given the amount of food!) from a local caterer that came cooked and ready to heat and eat. We ate our dinner Saturday evening, and saved the amazing desserts for Sunday afternoon, after I made a light brunch of heart-shaped waffles and bacon. I’d already been enjoying the colorful flowers he had sent (I prefer something other than red roses), and he’s been munching on the Kentucky Bourbon Balls I had sent to him. We traded cards (none Hallmark incidentally), including a few from our cats, and he gave me a sweet pillow commemorating our first date.
We both try to show each other we care every day, but realistically, life is hard and often busy with work and home and healthcare responsibilities. Most nights we don’t linger over several courses of dinner, talking for more than an hour at the table. We don’t take the time every single day to write each other lengthy, loving notes or reminisce about happy memories together. We show each other love on the daily in other ways–sharing a morning hug, emptying the dishwasher so the other doesn’t have to do it, offering a cup of tea. But those aren’t quite the same as our Valentine or other special occasion celebrations. And while I know there are probably a few folks out there who manage something extraordinary every day, I suspect most people are more like us. Which means that a day set aside to celebrate love is a gift, a reason to slow down and do something special with and for one another.
Also, I meant what I said about the lesson of giving the whole class valentines. One of the other delights of my weekend was a Zoom call with a small group of girlfriends, wine and chocolate encouraged but not required. We visited virtually for a little over an hour on Saturday afternoon, catching up on each other’s lives, admiring each other’s kitties and pooches, sharing Netflix recommendations, and laughing. I celebrate love for my friends and family as part of Valentine’s Day, too. They fill a significant part of my heart, so why wouldn’t I?
I think of the many joys I would have missed over the years if I sniffed at Valentine’s Day. A fun overnight trip to Richmond with Steve, after we’d played in the snow in Roanoke and built a snow cat together. Spending several evenings making and trading handmade valentines with girlfriends. Purchasing the big metal flower sculpture that makes me smile every time I pass it in our hallway, on another trip Steve and I took to Floyd, where we visited local art galleries. Baking cookies last year for my writing center tutors. Choosing valentine cards to send to our sons.
Which, I suppose, is why I find it rather stingy to be a bah-humbugger about Valentine’s Day. From where I stand, it’s a mistake not to take every opportunity to celebrate every holiday you can, with all the joy and vigor and delight your heart calls forth, especially a holiday that honors love. None of us knows how many holidays we’ll get, and I say embrace every chance you have to be sappy and sentimental. Love is always worth celebrating, every day, including Valentine’s Day.
It’s a cold, drippy February afternoon. I’m ensconced in what I’ve come to call my “nest,” a spot on the living room sofa where I spend much of the two-ish days after each treatment when I feel sluggish and sad. Something about this chemotherapy drug, or the several side-effects-mitigators administered alongside it, sends my mood plunging along with my energy the second and third days post-infusion. I’ve tried to learn to roll with it, give myself permission to rest, curl up with a blanket and a good book for distraction. Yet I often feel guilty and antsy, frustrated by my lack of focus and inability to will myself out of my funk.
It’s fecund breeding ground for brooding, and today my thoughts are vacillating between “the human body is a strange and wondrous organism” and “what fresh hell is this?” To wit: I’ve been dealing with persistent hoarseness going on two months now, and on Tuesday I saw an ear, nose, and throat specialist to see if we could get at the root of the problem. I’ve also been having issues with swallowing, and in the past year have undergone repeated endoscopic dilations, the last one just a few weeks ago. My hoarseness mysteriously disappeared for two days right after the latest endoscopy, but then returned. On the morning of my ENT appointment, I almost choked on a vitamin tablet. It all seemed like it must be connected, somehow.
After listening to me describe my history, the ENT doctor asked if I’d had a recent CT scan of my chest, and “whether it showed any mediastinal lymphadenopathy.” Translation: enlarged lymph nodes in the chest. He suspected that my left vocal cord was paralyzed, possibly a result of enlarged lymph nodes pressing on the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which loops down under the rib-cage. I was surprised that a problem with the lymphatics in my chest could be responsible for issues in my throat, but it’s not the strangest detour my body has taken along this path. A paralyzed vocal cord would explain the hoarseness as well as the swallowing issues, since the vocal cords close during swallowing as well as speaking. If folds on either the left or right are paralyzed, the resulting gap can cause vocal changes and aspiration. Who knew?
The doctor showed me a diagram of what my larynx should look like in both its open and closed positions, then threaded a tiny camera attached to a long, flexible tube through my right nostril and into my sinus cavity so he could take a look at my larynx—uncomfortable, but not much worse than a Covid test. He situated the screen so I could see the camera feed, too, and there it was–my voice box. He asked me to say “eeeeeee,” and while the right side of my larynx flexed closed, the left side only moved a tiny bit toward the center, leaving a sliver of open space in the middle.
It was strangely satisfying, after so many years of scans and biopsies with days or weeks of lag time between test and diagnosis, to see and identify the problem so quickly and definitively. I’m trying not to be too anxious about possible underlying causes for the paralysis. My November CT showed the cancerous mediastinal lymph nodes had shrunk since the previous scan; it is a bit concerning that they may have enlarged again, although inflammation could be a result of a robust immune response. It’s also possible, given my history of radiation and the fibrosis that has developed, that one or both of those have injured the recurrent laryngeal nerve; injury can also occur during endotracheal intubation, which I’ve had my fair share of in the past year.
The treatment for a paralyzed vocal cord is a bit less straightforward than diagnosis, although sometimes the problem simply resolves itself over time. Medically, the impact on swallowing is considered more urgent than vocal changes, so I’ll undergo a “swallowing study,” which as best I understand is me swallowing a series of barium-infused substances of different consistencies while they x-ray the process. Yum. I’ve also been referred to a voice doctor. The likely treatment is injection into the cord of a filler similar to those used in cosmetic procedures to plump it up. For someone who doesn’t like a lot of stuff happening around her throat, the prospect of this procedure both fascinates and horrifies me.
Dealing with a chronic illness means you get all kinds of anatomy lessons you never anticipated (or wanted), many of which fall into the “stuff I never knew could happen” and “wow, bodies sure are weird” categories. I’ve always loved learning new things, so I’ve tried to embrace my innate curiosity, use it as a kind of coping mechanism. That’s more challenging some days than others. Still, whether it tracks the emergence of a new virus or the development of the vaccine that tames it, the science of life astounds. One might as well be amazed.
Inside, I hunker down into my nest, cup of hot tea in hand. Outside, the rain has shifted to sleet. Ice coats the trees, lacquering their black satin branches. They shine against a gray flannel sky.
Snow changes the landscape upon which it falls. It smooths the dips and rises of the land’s topography, even as it throws into stark relief the knotty bark and bent branches of winter-bare trees.
If ever I were conventionally beautiful, I am no longer.
I’m not seeking compliments or reassurances. I do not think myself ugly, though some days I struggle with self-confidence. It’s simply that my body and face have changed in ways that do not conform to society’s ideals of beauty, and I am reckoning with that reality.
Growing up, I didn’t think myself unattractive, but I didn’t think I was especially pretty either. Like so many preteens, I went through an ugly duckling stage in junior high: a mouthful of braces, thick glasses, a head of fine, short hair that never cooperated with the tall, teased tresses popular in the ‘80s. I felt gangly and awkward, out of balance, my skinny legs having grown long well before my torso caught up.
Early on I was labeled a “smart” kid, and given the fierce demarcations of school social categories, it didn’t occur to me that a “smart girl” might also be a “pretty girl.” I definitely didn’t look like the models I admired in the Seventeen and Glamour magazines I devoured; I thought my face crinkled up too much when I smiled, my nose was too pronounced, my chin too undefined. My fears about my flaws were confirmed when a boy I’d briefly dated told me my nose was too big for my face. Then I developed persistent acne.
When, to my own surprise, I took up modeling with a local organization called Fashionista Roanoke in my early forties, it wasn’t because I’d decided I was beautiful, though I was well over most of my hang-ups, and had come to rather like my face, strong nose included. If anything, I thought by modeling I could challenge the narrow American beauty ideals that insisted on privileging young, svelte, willowy waifs. I was 40, not 14; I was thin, but not thin enough by modeling industry standards; I was taller than average, but not the 5’8″+ desired. And while reasonably photogenic, I “didn’t have as many angles as some other girls”—a phrase I picked up from the one episode of America’s Next Top Model I watched at the time.
My look was decidedly different than most of the younger women I modeled alongside. A picture of a group of us lined up on a stairwell at one event is telling: one, two, three sleek brunettes smolder fiercely at the camera, and then there’s me, wearing a broad smile, blonde hair tossed in messy waves. My early beauty influences were clearly more Farrah Fawcett than Katy Perry. But I had chutzpah (a gift of my age), a lifetime of stage performance, and an acute awareness of my body in space born of years of childhood dance lessons. I participated in several local runway shows and a number of photo shoots, and it felt good to get a public stamp of approval on my attractiveness.
Then, cancer. Chemo. Surgery. Radiation. At first, the impact on my appearance was minimal, and temporary. I lost my hair, but it grew back; my left arm swelled a bit after my mastectomy and the accompanying removal of lymph nodes, but the difference was almost imperceptible. With each subsequent recurrence and round of treatment, the changes have grown more profound, my appearance progressively less conventionally attractive. I’ve lost corporeal symmetry, one of the elements science has shown affects our perception of beauty. The lymphedema in my left arm has made it markedly swollen, my shoulder drawn up and rounded by a combination of fibrosis, capsular contracture, and edema. A rope of scar tissue tracks my left collar bone, the skin on both chest and back red and inflamed from radiation dermatitis.
Most distressing, a patch of skin just above my left breast has remained ulcerated for almost a year. My radiation oncologist believes it’s cancer the drugs haven’t reached due to the lack of blood flow in my previously irradiated skin. He told me not to worry about it–“As long as it’s not getting bigger, who cares?” On the one hand, he’s right. On the other, he does not have to live with a daily reminder of cancer festering on his chest, itchy and ugly and scaly. I long for the reassurance its healing and disappearing could provide. Instead, it’s a daily source of shame and anxiety.
The most obvious changes, the ones I cannot hide under cold-weather clothes, are those to my head and face. A beautiful woman, society tells us, has a mane of long, shiny hair, full shaped brows, a thick fringe of eyelashes. These are things that, objectively, I no longer possess. (My head shines, but not in the way the world tells me it should.) And since I’ll be receiving Sasquatch long-term, at least at a maintenance level, I can’t look forward to a time when my various hairs will grow back.
These losses may seem like minor hits to my confidence or vanity, but there’s potentially more at stake. Beauty is a currency. In a 2010 interview with Sharon Driscoll, Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode cites a poll conducted for a Newsweek article that “revealed that two-thirds of hiring managers ranked appearance above education in importance for hiring. And the same percentage agreed that appearance would affect job performance ratings.” Rhode’s book The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law details numerous instances of appearance discrimination, arguing that those who do not conform to culturally accepted ideals of beauty face real consequences–and their legal protections are few.
At present I don’t venture out much, but I do wonder, post-pandemic, what the wider world’s response to my changed appearance will be. In the meantime I’ve been trying to find ways to get comfortable myself with my new look. There are plenty of products out there to help me fake what’s missing–faux eyelashes, eyebrow tattoo stickers, wigs. But faking it takes a lot of time and energy, and I’m not persuaded trying to “pass” looks all that great, or is all that convincing, anyway.
Which is how it came to be that, when we got five inches of snow here in Virginia last weekend, I decided to become a snow princess.
The benefits of conformity notwithstanding, I deliberately set out to find ways to feel beautiful by defying conventional standards and fully embracing my changed canvas. No hair? How about a cap of silver glitter! No eyebrows? Create expression with arching crystal gems. Instead of fake eyelashes, define and highlight the eyes with a line of shimmery ice-blue shadow.
Granted, the otherworldly-snow-princess-look isn’t particularly practical for a run to the grocery store or doctor’s appointment. (Though it would be kind of fun to see my students’ reaction if I showed up in full princess regalia on the first day of teaching class….) But my goal was to see if I could feel pretty, even beautiful, without attempting to “pass,” without attempting to hide all the changes my body has undergone.
The good news is, the answer was yes. The bad news, well–beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder. And the only beholder’s perception I can control is my own. So perhaps a different goal is in order. Whether or not I’m beautiful by conventional standards, I am, as Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit describes it, most decidedly Real: “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But those things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I think I do understand. And it’s a beautiful thing to be Real.