Who would I be, if I hadn’t gotten cancer? Has my fight with this disease fundamentally changed who I am, for better or worse? Would I be less compassionate, more complacent, had I not faced serious health challenges? Would I be quicker to judge, more impatient with my own and others’ foibles?
What would my marriage have been like without these early and constant trials? Have they brought Steve and me closer than we would be otherwise? Would we appreciate each other less, or more? What would it be like to be simply partners, without the added caregiver dynamics?
My mother, in response to my confession that I sometimes feel ugly, physically deformed by the changes the disease has wrought in my body, reassured me that I was still the same person on the inside, where it mattered. But am I? I don’t feel like the same person. Physically, my body is slower, of course. My brain is, too. I am more content to be, rather than always do. I’m less of a perfectionist, which has opened up new avenues to explore my art. I sometimes actually feel I see the world in a different way, as if access to the visual has overtaken the verbal.
I was always emotional, but I think I’ve progressed to moody. Broody. Cranky with pain sometimes. And there are several identities I’ve held in the past that no longer apply. I’m a foodie in spirit only now. Not much of a wine drinker anymore. No longer the one who pulls other people onto the dance floor, or the professor whose courses incorporate hikes. I used to be more of an adventurer. I’d take myself to a park, paddle around the lake. I was a marathon shopper.
Some of those identities were shifting, anyway. But one of the tough things about a serious illness is the way it whittles down your world in ways you didn’t anticipate. Whether you want it to or not, it changes you.
I’m still a crazy cat lady. I still write and create. I still cherish being a wife, a friend, a stepmom, a daughter, a sister. I like to think I’ve gained some valuable insights about myself and who I want to be. But I do miss some of those lost puzzle pieces. Like everyone else, I’ll just have to do the best I can to create a beautiful picture from the ones I’ve got.
Friends, I have a request. I’ve got another week coming where I have a medical appointment almost every day. Will you do me the honor of embracing something you love or enjoy each day, and really savoring it? Whether it’s eating a fave food, or listening to your favorite music, or calling a friend you treasure–anything. And send me some of the good vibes and joy you feel while you’re doing it. My thanks!
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.
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.
This coming Friday, I will celebrate my fifty-first birthday. And make no mistake, though it will just be Steve and me at home with the cats, there will be a full-on party taking place in my heart.
One year ago yesterday, a Saturday, I was at The Stone House owned by Black Dog Salvage, preparing for my “Fifty and Fabulous” birthday party. We’d been planning the party for a while, and I was excited and looking forward to the evening’s festivities. But my joy was tempered by news I’d received two days earlier. On that Thursday I’d been taking part in an annual holiday craft fair sponsored by the women’s organization at Roanoke College. I had arranged my table of wares for sale: origami tea-light lanterns, notecards that featured prints of my watercolors, and a few original watercolor cards. I’d just gotten things set up to my satisfaction when I saw I’d missed a phone call from my breast surgeon’s office. I knew it was likely to be about the results of a recent punch biopsy from a red patch that had developed just above my left armpit. I slipped into an empty classroom, sat down in a desk, and returned the call with shaking hands and clumsy fingers. I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to know. I was worried.
When the nurse practitioner came on the line, she asked me if I was sitting down. I pretty much had my answer in that moment. Then came the gut punch.
“I’m afraid I have some really bad news,” she said.
Wait, what? Even in my state of heightened anxiety, I felt like something was off in the way she was framing things. But it was all I could do to keep breathing. “Okay.”
“The biopsy does show breast cancer.”
“I’m so sorry. I know you were hoping for a different result. We all were.”
Breathe, Sandee, Breathe. I asked her something about next steps, what tests I’d need. She told me they’d refer me to my medical oncologist, and I’d need scans, then likely chemo and/or radiation.
Then she said, “Unfortunately, most of the time when we see it in the skin, it means it’s already everywhere.”
Every cell in my body clanged like a fire engine heading to a five-alarm fire. No. No, no, no, no, no. We ended the call, and I walked, stunned, back to my exhibit table. I’d brought some paints and blank cards with me, and the only thing that saved me running screaming from the room was making art. I put my head down and started drawing, one tiny line after another tiny line, until they formed a flower. Then another. This. I can still do this.
I kept it mostly together until I delivered a pack of notecards to a colleague I knew, though not well, on my way back to my office. She asked how I was doing, and the dam broke. She sat with me in a back room until I calmed down, then I headed to my office and on to a scheduled hair appointment. I cried to my hairdresser, who is a wizard with both hair and human. How on earth was I going to get through my party? I didn’t want it to become all maudlin and weepy. I wanted it to be a celebration. In many ways, perhaps, I needed to celebrate more than ever.
Steve was traveling on business and driving back from Tennessee that day, and I didn’t want to upset him and then have him be on the road, so I held off calling him. My parents were scheduled to arrive late that afternoon. I expected to burst into tears the moment one of them put their arms around me to hug hello, but it didn’t happen. And then something shifted in me, and I didn’t want to be the daughter with cancer. I just wanted a nice, normal afternoon, pleasant conversation, party talk. At some point I decided I would hold the news unless or until one of them asked me directly about the biopsy. That didn’t happen until after dinner, shortly after Steve came in, when we were all sitting in the living room together. My mother asked if I’d ever heard back about my test. I whispered–all I could manage, suddenly–“Yes. Yes, I did.”
I’m still angry about the editorializing that framed the report–you don’t tell a patient “I have really bad news,” which essentially tells them “be scared” and adds to their trauma. Using I-language, something like “I’m sorry to have to tell you that…” helps the patient understand it’s not good news, but doesn’t impose emotions on them. And it was way out of line that I was told skin metastasis is often a sign of widespread disease. It was pure speculation, terrifying, and utterly unhelpful, as neither I nor my doctors could confirm or deny where the cancer was or wasn’t until I had more tests. Because of that statement, I had to do the extra labor of carrying that possible story around while I waited to know. One of the most important aspects of self-care you can exercise as a cancer patient is to distinguish what you know from the stories you might tell yourself about what you know, and all we knew was that I had a small patch of cancer in the skin above my left arm. That news was hard enough to hear without the commentary. We would later find out that it wasn’t everywhere, only in the skin and a few nearby lymph nodes.
But I was talking about celebrations, and I promised you a happy story. As my parents, Steve, and I sat in the living room that Thursday night, processing, after I’d answered my mother’s question and we’d all shed a few tears, Steve asked, “So, is the party still on?”
My answer: “Hell, yes, the party’s still on!”
And it was. We didn’t share the news outside of family ahead of time so we could focus on fun. And it was fun, and fabulous, full of friends and laughter and family and cupcakes and music and dancing. There were a couple of toasts, and as Steve spoke his, I looked around the room at all the people who’d filled my life and heart with so much beauty and joy. And in that moment, I knew something important.
I knew that I had loved, and I had been loved. And I would keep loving and being loved. And whatever else I would or wouldn’t do in my days on this earth, that was the deepest, truest, most wonderful gift. That was my story. That alone makes mine a life well-lived.
Then we all raised our glasses, turned up the music, and danced.