I’ve been sitting in the swing on our newly spruced up porch this afternoon, and…well, that’s pretty much it. I’ve been sitting in the swing on our porch. I could add that I’ve been gently rocking, basking in the sun and its warmth on my shoulders. Or closing my eyes every so often, lifting my chin to feel the whisper of a breeze on my face. Whatever the descriptive details, by most measures, I’ve been doing nothing, and today, like yesterday, and the day before, has been quiet and uneventful.
And what a gift that is.
In this pandemic year, when for so many of us the days have blurred one into the next, in seeming perpetuity, sameness is not a quality that’s been held in high regard. But it has its virtues. Monotony may be boring, but it also signals that no change has come along that’s ripped a hole in the fabric of your life. Novelty in many forms is welcome, but sometimes no news really is good news. A series of uninterrupted ordinary days is, I think, an underappreciated blessing.
Sameness can be a gift in other ways. I’ve been painting a lot recently, and I like to work in an illustration style, a combination of black ink and watercolors. My preferred subjects are fantastical flowers, funny birdies, and (surprise) cats. When my mother recently passed along a plate I’d drawn for her for Mother’s Day in 1977, I was amused to see that my subject matter, if not my style, was established by the time I was seven. There was something strangely reassuring about that sameness. And now, when I paint, I’m drawn to repetitive pattern-making. It’s an immersive, meditative practice for me. The repetition of line and shape is calming, and I like to think that calm translates to the viewer’s experience, too.
There’s not much else to report on today. I’ve sipped vanilla almond tea and written a few lines in my journal. I’ve listened to happy woofs and barks from the nearby dog park, and watched frisbee golfers fling brightly colored discs toward a hilltop of oaks and maples, their branches still winterbare. Kitty Charlie Kate joined me for a few minutes, sniffing the fresh air, turning her long white whiskers to the wind.
It’s a quiet day here on the porch. New adventures await tomorrow. Today I’m content to watch the shadows inch across the floorboards with the sun’s long arc, one slow minute at a time.
The renovation work on our porches and gutters is almost done. All that remains is a little touch-up painting, re-screening the upper back porch, and a final walk-through. We’re so, so close: a tweak here and there, and it would be perfect.
That’s how I feel about my recent CT scan. First, some context: I am a recovering perfectionist. Though I was not fully aware of it at the time, I spent much of my life laboring under the false belief that in order for people to like me, I had to be perfect. I thought I needed to say and do and wear the “right” thing for people to admire me and want to be my friend.
I don’t really know where I got this idea, or why it rooted so deeply. But it shaped me profoundly, as it made me afraid to try new activities–what if I were bad at something and other people saw?–and loathe to persist in anything I wasn’t immediately good at. Coupled with the social anxiety I suffered from (before we knew to formally designate it “social anxiety”), I lived much of my young life, outside of interactions with my immediate family and a few trusted friends, behind what I now see was a nearly impenetrable wall.
Perfection, of course, is neither obtainable nor desirable. My fears and my perfectionist tendencies achieved precisely the opposite of what I wanted–they kept me at arm’s length from people. Though borne of fear and insecurity, I’m sure my reserve came across as uptight and chilly, maybe even snobbish. By my mid-twenties, I’d begun to become aware of its deleterious effects, and my internal monologue started to shift: “If people only knew the real me behind the reserve….” But I’d spent two decades building that wall, and it would take many more years and lots of practice for me to learn how to let down my guard, to be vulnerable, to embrace trying the thing and failing, laughing at myself and trying again.
So, it’s an ongoing challenge to accept that “good enough” really is–because, sometimes, dang it, I still long for perfection. To wit: last Friday’s CT scan. In my fantasy report, the doctor would have said, “The cancer’s all gone! There’s no evidence of disease!” I knew that wouldn’t be the case, given the fact I’d had a biopsy of a lesion under my left arm a couple of weeks before that had come up positive for breast cancer. We knew, then, prior to the scan, that I still had some active disease. Overall, however, the CT revealed good news: a pleural effusion had diminished, and involved lymph nodes have continued to shrink. I have some additional “stranding” in the soft tissue of my left upper chest, but they think it’s fibrosis and lymphedema-related, rather than cancer. The scan indicates that Sasquatch is continuing to work, holding back any significant progression of disease “in a really big way,” as my oncologist phrased it.
You’ve heard the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and I think it applies here. Good news is good news, even if it’s not the miraculously perfect report I wished for. It takes some getting used to, learning to be happy and satisfied with the concept of “living with cancer,” rather than defining successful treatment only as that which results in being declared cancer-free.
Perfection implies the achievement of an ultimate state, a finality that is counter to our constant human striving. I think the builders are supposed to finish up the last bits of our porch reno this coming week. Then it will be time to order a new doormat, replace a couple of cushions, re-hang the windchimes, bring out some plants…. “There is,” as Dharmavidya David Brazier writes, “always something to get on with.” For that, however imperfect the getting on may be, I am grateful.
If I recall, it was right around this date last year that our pandemic lock-down began in earnest. My anxiety–as an immune-compromised person–had already been building for a couple of weeks when faculty and students at my college got an email saying classes were suspended, immediately, and that we would be moving everything online the following week. I remember feeling chagrined and relieved, and not a little disoriented.
It’s hard to believe a full year has passed, that Spring, once again, is just around the corner. I’m eager for its arrival, but it seems a bit hesitant, showing its face only in fits and starts of sunshine and birdsong. I decided to urge it along with a colorful ball-cap, one that bursts with blooms in spite of its declaration of grim reality. Cancer sucks, and the buds beginning to emerge on the trees make my heart sing. Both of these things are true.
If you can’t tell, the flora on my cap are of my own creation. A sweet Agnes Scott College classmate of mine sent me the undecorated cap several years ago when I was first diagnosed, and after that first round, it got tucked away in a closet. When I found it recently, I decided to give it a spring makeover with some fabric markers. Along with the flowers, I included a couple of lines from a favorite poem, “The Peace Of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry, which captures so beautifully one of the reasons why I am eager for milder days and the access to the natural world they grant:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Yesterday was blue and balmy; today the skies have thickened and the breeze blows crisp. A cluster of golden daffodils, seemingly sprung up overnight, shines from a corner of the front yard. I tip my blooming ball-cap to their nodding yellow bonnets, and await the next harbinger of spring.
Yesterday I learned that my epiglottis is not functioning properly. That sounds like the opening line to a bad joke, doesn’t it? “Epiglottis” is such a funny-sounding word. It has kind of a serious function though, and apparently–thankfully–I’m good at compensating for its shortcomings. “Compensating,” also the crux of many a punchline. I wish I were finding it easier to laugh.
We are rounding on to a full-year of pandemic isolation, and we’re all feeling the fatigue and frustration. For me the pandemic has been co-extant with an intense treatment regimen, and lately it seems like I can’t catch a break. I’m loathe to create a metaphor that demonizes felines in any way, but since I speak the language of cats fluently, the image that comes to mind is of me, clad in a sweater, and each day Kitty comes with claw outstretched to pluck and pick loose still another thread, then another, until eventually the whole garment begins to unravel.
My malfunctioning epiglottis is the latest casualty. It’s likely a long-term side effect of the radiation treatment I had two years ago, during my second recurrence. Yesterday I underwent a swallowing study (you haven’t lived until you’ve chewed a spoonful of cold beef stew, mixed with a dollop of barium, and swallowed it on camera) that showed the strap muscles in my neck are weak. I’ll need speech therapy and a set of exercises to strengthen them and get my epiglottis moving again. I was disheartened to learn I had yet another issue that needed addressing; I’d thought the swallowing study was meant to confirm and illuminate the issues with my paralyzed vocal cord. Surprise!
There’s a popular inspirational meme/poster that circulates titled “What Cancer Cannot Do.” The wording varies slightly, depending on the source, but all versions iterate the limitations of cancer, noting that it cannot cripple love, shatter hope, corrode faith, destroy peace, kill friendship, suppress memories, silence courage, invade the soul, steal eternal life, or conquer the spirit.
I’ve gotta confess, I have increasingly mixed feelings about this message.
Attitude may well be half the battle when it comes to fighting cancer. But that’s just it: attitude is half the battle. Battles are hard. And it’s something less than easy to stay on a steady, even keel mentally and emotionally when your body is in the fight of its life, especially when it keeps throwing you yet another left hook. Or a recalcitrant epiglottis. It’s unrealistic to expect of myself, yet I often feel like I’m letting people down if I don’t “stay positive.” Someone complimented me recently for my lack of self-pity, which left me wondering where the line is between descending into said self-pity and just being transparent about the realities of this disease. I’ve no desire to wallow, but acting as if there’s no muck to slog through would be dishonest.
Do I sound cranky? I feel cranky. I’m weary, and I’ve been struggling. So when I read about all the things cancer cannot do, it makes me twitchy. Maybe cancer cannot cripple love, but it can sure wreck your libido. It might not destroy your peace of mind, but knowing some of your own cells mutated and tried to kill you certainly disrupts it. And anyone who’s undergone chemotherapy can tell you that cancer may not suppress memories, but the treatment robs you of your ability to recall events and words most effectively.
Maybe it’s my inner English teacher, the wordsmith in me who demands precision of language, who trips over the “cannot.” If cancer has not conquered my spirit, it isn’t because it can’t. Lately, depression and anxiety have interrupted my days as much as the physical symptoms and side effects. If my spirit remains unconquered, it’s because I fight, hard, on that front, too. I talk regularly to a counselor, and I take medicine to help me manage the emotional fallout.
The meme borders on reinforcing toxic positivity, a form of “staying positive” that denies another’s grief or pain, that seeks to leap-frog over losses to the lessons those losses may have wrought. According to Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, “Toxic positivity is forced, false positivity. It may sound innocuous on the surface, but when you share something difficult with someone, and they insist that you turn it into a positive, what they’re really saying is, My comfort is more important than your reality.” You can only see the silver lining if you first acknowledge the cloud. And sometimes the fog that surrounds you is thick.
Cancer, and its treatment, does damage, and I grieve my losses. A partial list, in no particular order: all of my hairs, including eyelashes and brows, and all of their functions, including the facial expressiveness eyebrows provide; my voice, and thus my ability to sing along with my favorite songs; my ability to swallow with ease and thus my enjoyment of food; the strength and mobility in my left arm and dexterity in my left hand; the ability to fit into some favorite clothes due to the swelling in my upper arm; my natural breasts; all sensation in my chest; my ability to recall words; wide swaths of memory; executive functioning skills (good-bye, multi-tasking, and hello, increased difficulty making decisions); my stamina, and thus my ability to hike or run; my dignity on occasion (drippy nose and loud belches will do that for you); the ability to wear my long-awaited wedding ring (due to swelling) or most any other jewelry except earrings comfortably; general comfort and confidence in my body; easy imaginings of a long-term future for myself, my marriage, and my dreams.
There have of course been lessons, and I acknowledge those, too. I’ve definitely no shortage of writing material, though I will always hold that I had plenty BC (Before Cancer). A changed perspective and sense of priorities, in terms of what deserves my energy and time. Patience. A strong desire to be a positive force in others’ lives, whether that means telling my loved ones I care, giving more compliments, sending someone a note or gift to brighten their day, or just trying to be the person about whom the doctor’s scheduler goes home and says to their partner, “I spoke to the nicest woman today.” Keeping petty grievances to myself, and speaking up for justice. Always seeking the beauty. Letting the small stuff go. Increased awareness of my own resilience. Understanding just how much I am loved, and how lucky I am to have the family and friendships I do. Recognition that way more people are going through hard stuff than most of us would ever imagine. Kindness always matters.
I would like to think I didn’t need to face a serious illness to learn these lessons, but it certainly has had a way of highlighting them. I value what I’ve learned, but I also have to be allowed to mourn my losses. They are real, and they hurt.
There will be losses, and there will be lessons. And I thank you, readers, for the third “L,” an act far more meaningful than the platitudes of any inspirational meme: listening.