After Easter Musings

Last weekend Steve and I welcomed Easter and the arrival of springtime weather with a wander around the lake at the Peaks of Otter Lodge, a lovely spot a little ways north of us on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Though it’s been some time since I attended a church service to celebrate Easter, I typically honor the holiday in two ways: I spend some time in nature, and I reflect in my journal on spring’s promise of renewal. This year I’d already been thinking about and writing on the lessons the story of Jesus’s resurrection offers when I saw a post by clergyman Jayson Bradley, shared by a former student of mine, Kerri Clark, who is now herself a Lutheran pastor. Like Bradley, I’d seen a lot of “He Is Risen!” posts come across my social media news feed, and my gut response–which I’d been contemplating in my journal–was that that wasn’t the most important part of the story.

Sharp Top at Peaks of Otter

That may sound like sacrilege to some, but as Bradley so aptly explains, such posts seem to celebrate a kind of “consumerist” approach to Easter: “‘Hey, remember when Jesus *did* that thing so that I could *have* this thing?'” Bradley goes on to explain that, for him, for many years, “[t]he annual memorialization of the crucifixion/resurrection was meaningful because it was a reminder of the day a celestial being made a significant purchase for me that was beyond my means.” He notes that this transactional focus elicits gratitude, but it doesn’t transform. In fact, it reinforces a kind of “spiteful exclusivity,” as many read the story to say that only Christians have access to eternal life, a belief that damns (or shrugs off) a significant part of the planet’s population. It’s that insistence that Christians have a monopoly on the truth that I’ve long found troubling and have, for many years, been unable to reconcile with the inclusivity the stories of Jesus often model.

Given how closely I walk with my own mortality these days, you might well think I’d be happy, comforted, even greedy to hold on to a belief guaranteeing me a life after this one. In part because of my resistance to the “it’s Jesus or else” demand, I’ve stepped back a bit over time from my Presbyterian upbringing and at present identify simply as a spiritual seeker. My outsider-who-used-to-be-an-insider perspective has encouraged me to shift my attention in relation to the biblical resurrection story. Instead of focusing on it as a model for how we die, I see its primary value as a model for how we might better live in community with one another.

Budding branches

One important lesson of the biblical Easter story–one many of us, based on much of what I’ve seen this year, have yet to learn or embody–is a willingness to make individual sacrifices for the greater good. I don’t mean literally sacrificing one’s life, as Jesus does. But we’re coming off a time when far too many people have refused to do so much as inconvenience themselves for the sake of others. If the commandment is to “love one another as I have loved you,” and Jesus lays down his very life, then the least those who find value in his message can do is, say, wear masks and get vaccinated in the interest of public health. Proclaiming gratitude to God is nice, but it doesn’t actually do good in the world.

I also think the lesson of forgiveness is powerful, though I come at that, too, from a less conventional perspective. Rather than putting all the emphasis on a God who forgives and rewards believers with heaven (more transactional thinking), we would do better to focus on God’s forgiveness as a model to follow, as we forgive ourselves and each other. Whether we’re Christian, or Buddhist, or atheist, we’re all human, and we will make mistakes, and our mistakes will hurt others. Before forgiveness, though, there must be a reckoning–an acknowledgment of the wrongs we’ve done, sincere apologies, and genuine efforts to right those wrongs. Here I think about systemic racism, complicity, and how we’ve been reminded again and again that we must take active steps to learn to become anti-racist. It seems incredibly selfish to ask God’s forgiveness in the privacy of a prayer and expect to be rewarded in the hereafter, without making any concrete effort to make amends in the here and now.

Neighborhood dogwood

I’m not (obviously) a theologian; I’m not, by many people’s definition, a Christian. And you may well be asking what any of this has to do with living with cancer. I spend a lot of time contemplating my life’s meaning, what contributions to a greater good I have or haven’t made. Easter, for me, is connected to the concept of renewal. As the daffodils bloom and the dogwoods blossom, I’m reminded of how nature cycles through death and rebirth each year, and how each day brings new chances. I’m also reminded that I am not merely a passive consumer of spring’s bounties. I can plant seeds, tend the soil, and participate in acts of renewal. That, for me, is the greatest lesson of Easter.

Wanna See My New Tattoo?

When you lose all your hairs, including brows and lashes, to chemotherapy, your complete hairlessness becomes a visual cue to others that you are ill. It’s possible to pass off a bald head as an intentional style statement, though rarer for a woman than a man, and of course you can cover baldness with wigs and hats and scarves. But once the rest of those hairs go, especially the brows, something about your face looks off. You’d think in an age of mask-wearing the absence wouldn’t be so obvious, but it’s the precisely the swath of face exposed between headscarf and mask where something is missing. Minus eyebrows, you tend to look sick, even on days you feel good.

Something’s just missing…

It is, I imagine, a little like being pregnant, in the sense that you’re undergoing an immensely intimate corporeal experience that displays in profound outward bodily changes. Others–even strangers– often take those changes as permission to make comments or ask deeply personal questions. Thankfully no one seems inspired to reach out and touch my head the way they do an expectant mother’s belly, but it’s still disconcerting when someone stares a little too long, or starts offering me reassurances, or sharing their own cancer story.

So it was with much joy and not a little relief that on Tuesday, I had my first eyebrow tattoo session.

My tattoo artist, Jordan Kantor, was recently featured in an article in The Roanoker magazine

I am lucky to live literally around the corner from an amazing cosmetic tattoo artist, Jordan Kantor, of Skin Care Consulting. Kantor works in two sessions, six weeks apart. Her work is detailed and dimensional, the results amazingly realistic. The process was a bit uncomfortable, a feeling somewhere between having your brows plucked over and over again and repeated bee stings. But it was bearable, and worth it. I’m still in the early stages of the healing process–like any tattoo, there will be some flaking and settling of color, and of course, there’s a second session planned specifically because we may decide there needs to be some tweaking. So far, though, I’m thrilled. In fact, it’s hard to describe just how different I feel when I pop into the bathroom or walk past my dresser and catch sight of my face in a mirror–and I have eyebrows again! My face looks almost…normal! Each time, the sight feels like a small miracle.

Perhaps that sounds like an overstatement, but something that creates a sense of normalcy in a body that often no longer feels like my own, functions as I expect it to, or looks like the “me” imprinted in my mind, is a real gift. My face no longer immediately telegraphs–to me or others–“this woman is ill.” It’s a profound shift in my headspace, for which I am deeply grateful.

I won’t say I missed my brows more than my natural breasts, but I will say that it’s easier to fake natural boobs with implants than it was to fake eyebrows with any of the various products I tried. And brows play such a key role in how we read emotions and identify faces. An artist friend of mine told me that whenever he paints a portrait, he starts with the eyebrows, because they are so expressive. Steve was talking to me a couple days ago and said, “Your face is so much more expressive with your new brows!” The tattoos really are a game changer.

So this week, I’m celebrating art. Jordan is an artist, and I am happy to be one of her canvases. My only regret is that I didn’t get my eyebrows tattooed a couple of years ago when I first considered doing it to boost my natural brows. If I had, I wouldn’t have had to spend the last ten months without. I look forward to seeing how my new tattoos develop over time, and doing lots of raising and furrowing and flexing in the meantime.

In Praise of Sameness

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.

I never tire of this view

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 Good Enough

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.

Porch in progress…so close!

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.

A new spring wreath and fresh white pickets

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.

Heads Up, #11: Blooming Ball-cap

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.

I rest in the grace of this world, and am free.

Losses and Lessons

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.

Watch out for incoming claws…

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.

All pink and pretty, with flowers, too…right.

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.

Your brain on chemo… Image source https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/chemo-brain.html

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.

Another lesson: the rejuvenating power of a good nap!

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.

Love is Evergreen

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.

Preparing to toast our day-we-met anniversary

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.

Celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary at the beach

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.

Cocoa Mia’s delectable offerings

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.

Laundry Time

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.

Finn posing with the curtains

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….

Sappiness Makes Happiness

I’ve got a bone to pick with some of y’all.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. Of all the holidays to disdain, why on earth would you choose to disdain one focused specifically on celebrating love?
Kiss off, ya haters!

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.

Really glad I didn’t miss this incredible dessert!

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.

Much love to you, my friends.

Amazed

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.

Hanging out in my nest

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.

Image from https://www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/fact-sheet-vocal-cord-palsy/

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.