By the time this reaches the general public, I’ll be on an airplane going to see my niece in South Carolina. Yeah, all things considered, it’s a big decision to fly through the COVID19 storm with a “serious underlying illness,” better known to me as “lung cancer.” It’s also a choice that many people have to make as we kick off this holiday season.
To travel or not to travel? To see loved ones or not see them? Everyone’s answer is different for a variety of reasons.
As I write this I have three trips on the horizon of varying lengths, and I’ll make my choice to sink or swim a week before I go. I never seriously considered cancelling this particular trip, because I deem it a fairly low risk for me. The actual flying time each way is less than three hours. I’ll be in close contact with two other people and three dogs when I arrive. I’ll be there for three and a half days. And I’ll schedule a COVID test for the day after I get back, per the rules of reentering my state.
I’m a little nervous, as I’ve fought so hard to stay healthy. One jerk on an airplane that wants to whine about wearing a mask, and the whole “it’ll be alright” plan goes out the window. With cases skyrocketing, it sure would seem that these people would cease to play games. And yet it isn’t too hard to find still another story of someone who is just too good for a face covering. Someone who has to have some silly little moment of rebellion. Maybe the same guy or gal who is running through a red light or a stop sign to save thirty seconds of their life by putting someone else’s in danger? Please folks, don’t let it be you. In the words of the late, great James Dean (who died in a fiery car crash less than a year later) “The life you’re saving could be mine.”
Want to be a rebel? Jump out of an airplane. Don’t infect everyone in it before you dive.
So, here’s my plan: Stare straight ahead. Mouth and nose covered at all times. Wash hands often. Don’t accept any food or drink from the person walking down the aisle in the polyester uniform. And pray some yahoo doesn’t come along and start a fight like the ones all over YouTube. Don’t hate me if I’m not friendly or if you, midflight, decide that the plane isn’t going to return to the station so you let your mouth hang out and I decide to be a Karen. All I want is to safely see my beloved Amanda and eat turkey and Chinese food and put up her Christmas tree. Let’s all play it cool, okay?
Things are going to get better soon than later. We’ve got this!
My next post was supposed to be about a couple of cool hikes that I’ve recently done, but I saw something on Facebook that put me over the edge and I need to have my say about it.
Listen, I know that you’d rather me blog about hiking than cancer. And yeah, I’d rather be blogging about hiking than cancer. I’d rather be doing just about anything than talking about and worrying about and reading about cancer, but here I am, about to write yet another post about, you guessed it, CANCER.
Why? Well, let me explain.
Cancer sucks, if you don’t already know that. I hope you don’t. I hope it has never touched your life. If it hasn’t, you’re in the minority. So many people I know have lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, and children to this beast that nearly took me a year ago. This monster took my sister five years ago. It’s horrible. I have first and second hand experience at cancer.
And guess what? I’m sick of it. I’m especially sick of people who don’t have cancer going on cancer sites and making comments about how “Big Pharma” is withholding a cure, and how CBD oil made their father’s cancer go away forever. Both are major myths, both are words that no one with cancer wants to hear. So stop saying them. I also love the ones about green vegetables and green tea being the answer to everything. Sure, good luck with that. (When your cancer disappears because of iceberg lettuce, let me know, okay?) But none of these examples are what really got under my skin a few days ago. Here’s what did me in: one of those “copy and paste, don’t share” posts that run rampant on Facebook. Now is when I would normally say, “Don’t get me started on that,” but it’s too late, the damage is already done.
First of all, who writes these things? I want that job, and I want to get paid well for it. Because I can write from experience and compose something better, more truthful, and more accurate than whomever is putting this shit out, particularly about the subject at hand. Furthermore, some of my friends that post these things write better than that, but they repost this crap anyway. Not only have I learned things about cancer that I never wanted to know from these stupid posts, but I’ve also been hit in the face about how I need to curb my jealousy when a twenty year old woman with a beautiful body walks by, because I once looked like that, so I need to get over my desire to wring her pretty neck. Only I don’t want to wring the neck of the pretty twenty year old woman because, cancer and all, I don’t want to be anyone but me. I honestly don’t want to be her. Facebook is mistaken, and so is the loser who wrote the viral nonsense.
But, I digress. The “copy and paste, don’t share” post that has me frantically punching the keys of my computer was all about cancer treatment and was meant to honor me as a “warrior,” in my “battle” against chemo and radiation. The offending words remind me that after chemo, I will never be the same again, may never even feel “alive” again. My immune system will be ruined, and so will most of my relationships, because of the damage done by treatment used to “fight the nastation.” (Ooooh, that little red line under “nastation” is telling me that some smarty pants is making up fancy words for Facebook! Don’t get me started on that!) In short, my life is going to suck royally because of cancer, “a very aggressive and destructive enemy of our bodies.” OUR bodies? Is the writer as well as the Facebook user that’s so busy copying and pasting trying to imply that they also have cancer? Because if that’s so, said person better get researching, because he/she/they/ whoever they are, are way off.
First of all, thanks for reminding me that I’m never going to be the same. As if I need anyone telling me that as I struggle to get “me” back after my life was turned upside down. Secondly, before you EVER post such hoo-ha, realize this: the combination of traditional chemo and radiation will eventually become a thing of the past, and in many cases, they already HAVE. Thousands of cancer patients have infusions of immunotherapy or take pills to kill the disease. I didn’t need chemo. And radiation for me was a CHOICE I made because it has made a cure more likely for me. I walked five miles a day daily while I had radiation, not because I was trying to show off or prove something, but because I COULD. I rocked radiation, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
I know these posts mean well, as do the individuals hitting the handy little “copy” button. But they’re also extremely negative and uninformed. There is enough misinformation out there about cancer. The real truth is that cancer is an individual journey, not a one size fits all. Some people aren’t going to do well, others are going to beat it. I’ve known many of the former. I’m one of the latter. And in response to everyone out there frantically spreading the nonsense and giving advice about green vegetables and CBD oil and lifting the middle finger to “Big Pharma,” I’m intentionally littering this post with photos of me loving life even as I give cancer the boot. Every single picture here was taken after my diagnosis.
Whoa! It’s been three weeks since my last post! Never fails that I get caught up in foliage season and abandon most other pursuits. Like life itself, foliage is fleeting. You have to get it while it’s hot. And let me tell you, it was smokin’ hot this year.
So you see, something has gone right in 2020. New England foliage! Take that, COVID19!
Well, let me eat a little crow. The leaves changed early this go-round, so it was a bit of a confusing leaf peeping season even for me, a pro tree gawker. I booked myself a room in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for October 10th, 11th, and 12th, thinking myself very smooth indeed, picturing the glorious hiking I would do, and what happens? The foliage “peaks” the weekend before! Not only that, but at home, the foliage was making my jaw hit the steering wheel as I was driving north out of it! I strongly considered weaseling out of my reservation in North Woodstock and hiking at home, but with a five-day cancellation policy, it would have cost me as much to sleep in my own bed as it would have to go. With a weather report going south quickly (as I’ve seen happen a few times in the White Mountains!), I sucked it up and made the drive, figuring that at the very worst I’d catch up on my writing and my sleep instead of hiking.
And guess what? I ended up having incredible weather all weekend other than a massive storm that rolled in on Saturday night and closed down the town after I was already tucked away for the night, the foliage was still fantastic, and I caught up on my sleep and my writing! Four points for me. Oh, should I mention that it rained at home for most of the weekend?
Hiking through foliage really does remind me of being in a kaleidoscope. I’m talking about those cheap cardboard ones where you stick one eye in a hole and turn the end of it and watch tiny fragments of color changing form in a pattern that delights the senses. Just one shake of the trees from a wayward breeze adds to the kaleidoscope effect. The real thing is better than anything Photoshop could produce. I still think that taking a great foliage picture is the toughest job in photography, at least for me.
Some of the best foliage I encountered was at little stops on the side of the road that most people were whizzing by to get to the tried and true “views.” Not complaining, because I was headed there, too! But why not check out stuff that others miss because they’re in such a hurry? The world offers some hidden gems, “good things for those who wait,” and foliage is no different.
Like most things worth seeing, foliage takes something we Americans don’t have a lot of: time. It takes time for the leaves to change. It takes time to seek out the best spots. But what a reward!
I run around like a chicken with my head cut off for about three weeks. This year, the chicken sewed her head back on earlier this week. There comes a point when I tell myself that it’s time to stop chasing and just enjoy the rest of the leaves, because what comes after is the death of New England for almost half a year, until renewal comes with the joy of spring. I rest my case and drink in the remainder of color before dull November takes control. The beauty is hanging on longer than usual this year. I hope I follow suit.
I end this post with a special shout out to Amanda, my beautiful and strong niece down in South Carolina: HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I LOVE YOU!
If you look hard enough, you’ll find that the world is still a mysterious place, with lots of hidden gems that can be discovered with a little bit of perseverance. Back when my mom and me used to road trip together, in the days when people read newspapers and cut things out of them that were interesting, she would get her scissors out and I’d get the keys to my car ready. We would go looking for oddities that journalists would write about, sometimes driving for hundreds of miles, even on overnight trips. An Eskimo boy in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire, ghost towns in the American West, a celebration of Marilyn Monroe’s life at her gravesite in Westwood, California. Occasionally, after Mom passed in 2004, I’d still come across something interesting online and would seek it out, but it wasn’t quite the same without her.
About a month ago, I decided to go on a wild goose chase for the grave of a six year old boy named Wendell Farnsworth. Little is known about Wendell, but the story of how he was forgotten deep in the woods is better documented.
Quabbin Reservoir, the largest body of water in Massachusetts, is a man made wonder in the center of the state and with an incredible history. In the 1930s, four towns were destroyed to create the reservoir, which would satisfy the demands for water in Boston. Any map from the era will show the hamlets of Dana, Prescott, Enfield, and Greenwich. Contrary to popular belief, the “lost” towns are not all “underwater.” Quabbin is my second home, and with COVID19 changing the way we all had to do business, I spent more time than ever this summer exploring the old roads and cellar holes and mysteries of the disincorporated towns.
One mystery I never solved was the discovery of Wendell’s grave, though I’ve known about it for years. The story goes that when the towns were flooded, close to 7,500 graves had to be relocated to Quabbin Park Cemetery in Belchertown, Massachusetts. A lone grave was left behind, high on a ridge behind a farmhouse that is no longer a farmhouse. The forgotten grave was not discovered until several decades later, by a hiker who alerted local historians, most of whom didn’t believe the tale.
It isn’t easy to get information about Wendell. In fact, I had two different maps that told me he was in two different places, as well as three different GPS coordinates that were miles apart. Leave it to me to pick the wrong one to follow on my first serious foray into locating the legendary grave!
So there I was on Tampling Road, with a map and coordinates provided by a fellow hiker, who published a blog about finding Wendell. I’ve been to this area of Quabbin a million times and was titillated to find out that Tampling Road held something interesting, as I had hiked it before and had seen a whole lot of absolutely nothing! The hiker’s advice, which I was following closely, led me to a nondescript area of what used to be a town road in the defunct Dana, Massachusetts. Other descriptions I’d found said that the grave was two miles from the entrance gate. According to my map, I needed to go about a half mile from what used to be the center of Dana, on Tampling Road, and head into the woods before the only sharp turn of the road. The coordinates soon had me bushwhacking in thick blown down trees from the last major storm we had here, the tail end of hurricane Isaias. Dropping “pins” here, there, and everywhere, my phone battery was taking a hit, too. As I searched, I had the worst crash I’ve had in a while, my foot getting stuck between branches. Down I went, pitching forward, as I tried to navigate on my phone, which flew out of my hand as my skin tore! Really rather comical when you think about it (and visualize it!) but not so great when you have to walk around all bloody for a week and have people staring at you like you did yourself in on purpose!
After a couple hours more of frustrating searching, my interactive map told me that I was right in front of the grave. But I wasn’t right in front of it. In fact, the grave wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and I was convinced that maybe I needed to suspend my search until fall, when there was less vegetation to deal with. The biggest stumper was the “high ridge” the grave was supposed to be on. No high ridge was to be found on Tampling Road. I dragged back to my car after putting on nine miles, mostly walking in circles.
As someone who has spent her life finding things, I hate NOT finding things.
The following day I reviewed all the information available, looked at dates that the articles or blogs were posted. The most recent visit to the grave was made by the guy whose map of Tampling Road I had used. I saw on his blog that someone had just written to him about Wendell’s grave a few days before. Doubting that the man would get back to me, I left a message for him anyway, disappointment making my craw ache. It was really my only hope of finding what I was calling “the needle in the haystack.”
Sunday morning, the day after my “epic fail,” as I referred to it on social media. Visiting with my sisters and telling them the story of Wendell Farnsworth. I decided to check to see if the blogger answered my inquiry…And he did! With apologies for posting the wrong map and succinct directions to the grave. The fighting spirit rose inside of me. I had to get back there!
I couldn’t return that day, but I carved some time on Monday afternoon before it got dark. As I walked at a vigorous pace, knowing precisely what area I was going to, I envisioned how exciting it would be to find the needle in the haystack. Several friends on social media cheered me on, waiting patiently for a victory post. “After Dana Common, follow Dana Road to the ponds, and take the first right into the woods.” That was the easy part. The tough part was finding what the blogger described as an “area where there would have been a barn on the right and a house on the left.” He had given an approximate length of measurement to get there, but it turned out to be further. Frustration was setting in again, especially since it was already late afternoon and time was of the essence. My phone was fully charged this time, and I started dropping pins again. The coordinates showed that I was on to something.
Massachusetts probably doesn’t sound like a place you would go if you want to find yourself in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve been there many times in my home state. It’s not the same kind of “nowhere” as, say, the Mojave Desert, but close enough. And I was there now. Just me and a wayward porcupine. To my left I definitely saw some crude trails that basically went nowhere, and a hill that maybe could be called a “ridge.” But there was no way I could picture this place where the pins started to make sense as the former site of a house with a barn on the other side of the road.
Yet the pins were right on. So I started making circles again in thick ferns on those animal trails. They just ended in more ferns. I abandoned the trails and started climbing hills. I was getting further away. I went back to the road a couple of times. Back to the original plan. The taste of another defeat rose again in my throat as a lump. Soon I would have to go to get back to my car before dark. One more try.
Hit the animal trail. Wait, is that another one not noticed before, heading up the hill, between wilting ferns? Maybe. Up I went. Yes, it was a trail. It was taking me somewhere. Up to a clearing. Up to a ridge. Up to…
The curve of a narrow stone that my eyes had been keening to see for three weary days, that I had been wondering about for years…
I started to tear up, feeling like I knew this little fellow by now.
Wendell. On a ridge, the stone facing away from what used to be the home built by his parents, John and Sarah. I was incredulous to be there, though sad that I had so little time left to spend with Wendell on that lonely but peace-filled ridge. Like many graves I’ve found, Wendell’s resting place was respectfully honored with gifts from the few people who were tenacious enough to seek it. I sat and pondered my discovery as long as I could, pushing the boundaries of daylight. This was not where I wanted to be in the dark, alone!
As of today, I have not been back, but foliage time is nearly here, and now that I know where I’m going, I’ll soon return to spend more time with Wendell!
You know what I think is kind of funny? That Americans are suddenly “rediscovering domestic travel.” Umm…What? Well, it really shouldn’t surprise me, with “influencers” (ugh, I strongly dislike that term) all over social media blasting the human race with professional selfies in front of picture-perfect settings eight thousand miles away and telling us, “You can be like meeeeee! Just read my blog and I’ll teach you how!” One has been traveling for seven years, waitressing in Thailand in order to spend several months there, another one is teaching English in Hong Kong so he can afford to live there. Now, they’re all home trying not to lose followers and stay relevant while we, the rest of the world, stick closer to our own backyards. What is it about some people that think the further away they are, the better?
I know, I know, I’m one to talk! Until cancer almost took my life and COVID19 followed, I was running around the globe every chance I got. But I never, ever pushed domestic travel aside. In fact, there’s still nothing better for me than a road trip in my beloved American West! I didn’t get there this summer because of the virus, but I still had me a nice drive to South Carolina. I have not been out of the country since last summer. Do I miss it? Yes. But what I yearn for most are my hiking trips to Southern Utah and several other closer to home destinations. The wonder of domestic destinations was never lost on me!
Here are three ways to enjoy America, still the greatest and most beautiful country in the world in my eyes!
The Full Road Trip
What the heck is a “full road trip?” Well, if you’ve spent years behind the wheel like me, the “full road trip” is when you drive your own vehicle from your own house and go a long, long way. You can probably guess that these are the gold standard. I’ve done several of them, and the fact that I live in Massachusetts makes for some major drives if I want to get to my favorite places in the west. How long do you need to do a bang up job of seeing America? If you’re really lucky you have all the time and money in the world and you don’t ever have to go home. If you’re like me and most of the rest of humanity, you’re on a budget and you might actually have a job you have to get back to. My advice is to take a minimum of four weeks to have a decent trip in. For me, the perfect time is five to six weeks, though my longest road trip to date was seven weeks. Understand that you aren’t going to see “everything,” so start making your wish list of most coveted sights and connect the dots if you can. The worst thing you could do is try to stuff too many sights into too little time. Better to see a few things well than many things hardly at all, though not everyone will agree with me. Add in some hiking, and your time in one place gets even longer. To me, driving too much in a day is also a major sin. It’s stressful and you don’t see anything. Don’t be one of those road trippers that rolls down the window to take a picture of the Grand Canyon then rolls it up and drives on. Please?
I fully realize that when some people read “a minimum of four weeks” above, they started gasping for air. For those folks, I introduce “the Fly/Drive,” the type of domestic trip that I have taken too many times to count at this point. The Fly/Drive is just what is sounds like: You get on a plane and fly to a starting point, where you rent a car or RV. The trick is to start from a convenient location to what you want to see most. Las Vegas is a terrific place to start. I’ve also grown very attached to Albuquerque as “go.” I guess my love for the west continues to shine through! Then again, I’ve had fantastic Fly/Drives from Miami, El Paso, and Seattle. I suggest at least two weeks even if you’re road tripping this way, though I usually do three. Once again, it’s all about what and how much you want to see. I highly recommend checking air and car prices from different cities. A few years back I rerouted an entire trip because Salt Lake City offers were much better than Denver’s. The Fly/Drive allows you to skip over some parts of the country you might not be as interested in and get to your personal nitty-gritty!
I don’t usually include cities in my road trips, and if I do, it’s pretty quick. Maybe an overnight to break up a long drive, or a special museum or show. What I have done is jet to a city just to see the city. I can remember flying in and out of Chicago numerous times and thinking, Someday I’m going to fly into Chicago just to see Chicago. And I did, and was thrilled with what I found! Some cities are car friendlier, like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Others, like Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and New York, have excellent public transportation systems that will add some extra adventure to your trip. One of my more memorable city trips was to Dallas to do my own investigation into the JFK assassination. In these uncertain times we live in, you will obviously want to call ahead and be sure that you aren’t planning a trip around something that is closed. Even so, filling your day pack and pounding the city pavement can uncover some hidden gems that make lasting memories!
Hmm…I’m getting inspired to get back to writing that little book I started last year, “How to Road Trip.” I’m even more inspired to plan my next Southwestern Fly/Drive!
Well, here we are again. September. The last weeks of summer. Here in New England, a lot of locals are getting ready for what they hope will be a colorful and fabulous leaf peeping season full of apple cider and crisp breezes. But not this local.
This particular local has a dull ache in her stomach that she can’t get rid of as she watches the summer wane. Because this time of the year always reminds her of loss. This time around, even tougher.
In October of 2019 I nearly lost my life to cancer. I was on my way out, on a slow, painful boat motored by metastatic lung cancer, the deadliest bitch of all. But long before that, autumn was the season of the loss of my beloved mother, and that hurt has never quite gone away. Now, added to that is the fear, the trepidation of moving forward, lest I be forced to take several steps back again. I’ve lost a year of my life to the scoundrel nicknamed “the Big C.” Maybe there will be more? No please, no more.
Even before the loss of Mom, the loss of the season of the sun was a shock to the system of this self-proclaimed summer girl. Even as a teenager the question loomed, How many more of these days of sunshine do I have? It sucks sometimes to be human. I want a million more summers. And while we’re at it, why do I have to get old? Because summer was made for youth. Just ask Instagram.
I have a triple whammy on my hands now: cancer, mourning my dear mother, and the retreat of summer. Wait, make that a quadruple whammy, because this is the season I also have to return to the stress of teaching after a mostly carefree summer. That is, if a summer that includes the kind of radiation that happens in a cancer clinic, and not just the kind that takes place on a flat stretch of glorious white beach, can be called “carefree.” If the duration of nine lazy weeks includes long trips on airplanes to exotic locales on the other side of the world and isn’t cancelled by a pandemic. None of that and all of that happened for me this year. It was a good and productive summer, make no mistake, but it wasn’t what I planned. Add to that the fear that…Oh, never mind. You get it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m doing well. Chances are excellent that I’ve beat cancer. I’m not terminal. Yes, there will likely be many more summers for me if my luck holds out. That is a big IF that I’ll live with…as long as I live. Such is the plight of the individual who survives a life-threatening illness. No one really understands, unless they’ve lived it…and almost died by it. You, whose life has not changed one iota in the last year/five years/ten years, don’t pretend you do. You’re forgiven for your ignorance, as long as you don’t try to pretend you know what it’s like. Someday, you may just have to walk a mile in my shoes. But I hope to hell not. It’s only for the strong.
If you’re me or someone like me, questions will be swirling in your mind as the sunshine cools and the earth dies: Why me? Why did I survive and others didn’t? Do I deserve this? Do I deserve cancer? If so, why? What did I do? If I didn’t, why did I get it? And what am I supposed to take away from it? Wow, I have some blogging to do.
Cancer may be over for you looking in, but it isn’t over for me. I’ve got all of October to think about that now.
Sometimes, as I recently shared with my most trusted family member, when the ugliness of life and humanity closes in, an even more painful question pushes through: Should I have died and escaped it all?
Escape never sounds interesting for very long, because I’m not a quitter and I don’t hide from adversity. I’m also not a liar or a genius or a perfect specimen. I allow myself my faults when others don’t. Come to think of it, I allow others their faults when they don’t allow me mine. Which brings up more demands: What is my worth? My worth in being here? Some would have me believe I have none: I’m worthless because I don’t agree with everything they say, because I don’t play by their rules. I must banish these thoughts. I’ll have all of November to quiet them.
That’s when the autumn sun splashes out from a floating cloud and I get my shit (and my hiking poles) together and remember that I fought this fight to win for a reason: I love life. That’s the rub. I fucking love life. This life. My life. The only one I have. The one that some have tried to sum up in three words or less even though they’ve never taken the time to find out who I really am. There ain’t no one out there that is allowed to bring this girl down for very long, not even Mother October, the worst month in the history of me.
Pass me my boots, please?
My life has come full circle, regardless of a season or a virus, or a disease. So, fuck cancer. Fuck COVID19. I’m going to New York, my sparkling Big Apple. And the White Mountains. And South Carolina. And California. And I’m getting Global Entry for when it’s really time to travel again. I’m living my life as I see fit. I’m making my feelings be known. It ain’t all about you and what you want. It’s about me, too. And baby, when you achieve the improbable, it isn’t so easy to forget. Who wants to forget,anyway? Not me, not until I’m good and ready. Until then, I’ll shout it from the mountain tops until I drive you mad. Cancer, cancer, cancer. I survived fucking cancer. I survived the death of my best friend, my traveling companion, my mother. I held my sister’s hand while she died of the same disease one mind numbing January. I saw my father breathing his last breaths one raw February when I was ten. And I’m still standing. And smiling.
Hey, how was your summer? Okay, I know, it’s not over yet! But if you’re a teacher like me…Well, yeah, it kind of is over. Believe me, I can’t wait to retire so I can rethink summer and make it last until September 21st!
Kids and adults are returning to schools that look a lot different than usual. For me, I’ll be teaching over a computer until at least November. But COVID19 is hardly the first thing that rocked this teacher’s world and changed the way I had to look at it. Cancer did that first, then the virus extended the weirdness for me. In fact, I was set to put my traveling life completely back on track this summer after being blessed with an amazing medical team and treatment at a major cancer center. The corona virus stopped me in my tracks, like it did for so many others who had to give up hoped-for plans and stay put instead. I still had a very busy summer in which I accomplished three major things: I got back on the road, saw my beloved niece Amanda again, and with any luck, killed the rest of cancer. Though it was hardly my typical summer, it could ultimately turn out to be the most important one of my life.
The necessity to alter my schedule opened up some compelling opportunities for me, and gave me more time to remember how necessary it is to make time for simple pleasures like taking a ride with the top down on my Bug, hitting the trails with new and old friends, hanging out with animals wild and tame, and exploring my own backyard. Yet, I was still clinging to the possibility of road tripping through the Mojave Desert, Northern California, and Oregon. I was not able to confirm any major plans until after a scheduled scan. This time, it was my post-radiation PET scan in June, which would tell how effective the treatment to the primary tumor in my lung was. It wouldn’t be so wrong to say that my life depended on the outcome. Miraculously, the CT was nearly clear. Just one more small area of cancer, but it would require three more weeks of radiation. Which decided the course of my time off: I would spend two weeks on the road, with most of it in South Carolina with Amanda, then return home to spend three weeks in Boston eradicating cancer. Never have I ever booked hotels two days before heading out on the road! But that’s how tight things were between my scan and the beginning of my plans further from home.
Anyone who knows me or follows me on social media knows that one of my major fun goals is to hike all the national parks in the United States. That dream really got derailed by cancer, but I got the idea to take a couple of days to finish a park that narrowly missed getting taken off the list because of car problems a few years back: Shenandoah, in Virginia. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, always a favorite Eastern Seaboard stop when my mom and I used to road trip, also appeared on my schedule. Now I was more excited than ever! Get back to national park hiking, see an old favorite again, and spend a week with my niece. Sign me up! I also promised myself that I’d make the most of my time in Boston while I was there for radiation.
Well, check them all off the list! I left on June 29th for a 400 miler to Gettysburg, where I spent a few evening hours exploring a fascinating historic town I don’t remember at all but was happy to see again. What I was really looking forward to came the next morning: Gettysburg National Military Park, a must-see of lifelike statues that tell the story of the winners as well as the losers of the Civil War. I found it very important to see the park again, with all that is going on in our country and the questioning of our history.
The weather got more humid as I headed south, but that didn’t stop me from walking several miles in the park. After a morning of exploring, I drove to Virginia for the evening. The following day, July 1st, I arrived in a tiny town in South Carolina to get a whole lot of niece love and dog love, and to have Thanksgiving dinner in July! I was supposed to be there last turkey day, but cancer had other plans for me. It was well worth the wait!
Amanda ran her crabby old aunt all over the area of South Carolina that falls between “the Greens,” Greenville and Greenwood. Our new tradition is bowling, our old one is Chinese food, but we can’t ever get away without going to Walmart! I’ve never stayed for a full week, so I got a better taste of her life and met more of her friends, too! A favorite memory is the full attention I got from Miss Shelby, Jax, and Chevelle, her three fur babies!
As always, leaving them and her behind was tough, but radiation in Boston was looming, and I still had a national park to finish!
After missing out on so much of my life for the past year because of cancer and COVID19, this view at Shenandoah was nothing short of SURREAL! I never thought that I would hike a national park again, much less do it so soon after a devastating diagnosis that was supposed to have a much different outcome. And yes, my emotions got the best of me as I looked out at the gentle, comforting sway of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Moment of silence.
Back home, I had a quick turnaround before I left for Boston. I pulled in the yard at five in the afternoon on a Sunday, and headed to Beantown at ten the next morning for an early afternoon inaugural radiation session. First, I had to haul all my clothes and food into my room at Homewood Suites! I did this three Mondays in a row after driving home every weekend. Really tried to make my stay like a vacation. If it wasn’t for that damn radiation I may have been content! Oh wait…that’s the only reason I was there!
Boston is a lovely city, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is in the Longwood section of Brookline, where stunning Victorian homes line the leafy back streets, making for pleasurable city walking. I took the MBTA into town a couple of times too, and enjoyed old and new favorites, but Boston will always mean something different to me now that I’ve been there so many times for cancer.
I was so thankful to get home after my last treatment, with my radiation mask in tow! Muffin, who was an orphaned bunny being taken care of by his fairy godmother (my sister Marie!) was truly the only living thing I wanted to see after being away from home for five weeks.
I still had almost four weeks to get my life back on track after the big interruption of radiation, and was soon back on my five mile a day walking schedule, taking extra precautions to protect my post-radiation skin from the sun.
My summer was still full of fun and adventure. Because there’s more than one kind of adventure!
Maybe next summer we can all get back to normal. What do you think? I’m skeptical, but hopeful too.
Please do your part, wear your mask and remember to social distance so that we can all return to doing what we love doing best as soon and as safely as possible.
Aside from writing my wildly popular blog (wink-wink), fighting Stage IV Lung Cancer, and continuing to figure out how to put my life back on track during the COVID19 crisis, I’m also a teacher. Yes, it’s my bread and butter, a major part of my existence, and I have my opinion on what direction this upcoming school year should be going.
Last week, my school system announced that we would start the new school year remotely and would reassess each new quarter. This news brought mostly cheers, with a smattering of jeers. Those same jeers have also been all over social media since March, many of them coming from parents, and aimed at teachers.
Listen mom and dad, I understand your duress. Now, understand mine.
For the purpose of safety, I was locked out of my classroom as well as my school in mid-March. That means that the only materials I had were whatever I had on my laptop, which suddenly became my forum for teaching my special ed students, all of whom are intellectually disabled and require any number of accommodations to be successful. Nearly one hundred percent of what I teach is on paper, with assistance from other live human beings, a Smartboard, laptop computers, and manipulatives. Suddenly, I and thousands of other teachers around the globe were thrust into a situation where we had none of our usual supplies to guide us in our pursuits to teach your children (and ours!) in the manner they deserve. Over the next three months we were told one thing, which we would start doing, only to have it change five minutes after we perfected it. We found new ways to do old things. They weren’t as good or as effective as the old tried and true way, but then again, when have any of us dealt with a pandemic that shut down the world? All due respect, but we didn’t reinvent the wheel, we made a new one, one that will come in very handy as we make our ways back to our mostly virtual classrooms.
I know parents have pressing woes to think about. Loss of jobs, childcare issues, health concerns. Here are just a few of the many woes of a teacher in September 2020.
Every single child that a teacher comes in contact with in the classroom, in the hall, at the buses, and in other common areas of a school building is a potential health threat. Multiply that by every single other individual a single child comes in contact with in or out of school and the risk balloons. Teachers know darn well that even though it’s a rule to wear a mask, school is for breaking rules. This never changed and it isn’t going to change now. The new “behavior” will be some kid who doesn’t want to wear a mask. How about kids with health issues? Teachers with health issues? Improper ventilation? Buildings not up to standards of cleanliness and sanitation?
Is your head spinning yet? Mine sure is. And those are just the tip of the iceberg. Did I mention that every single one of these things is also a risk to the health of your child…and you?
I’m not lazy, and get no particular thrill from making my paycheck sitting at my kitchen table. In fact, I love being in a room with my students engaged in face to face lessons. Love to see their hard work all over the walls and hear their excitement when they get a question right or learn something they didn’t know before. No, sitting in front of a computer is no match for that and it never will be. But the risks involved in putting hundreds of adults and children back under one roof is too overwhelming to even imagine. We’ve already seen the results of the rush to “get back to normal.”How many more examples do we need? I also understand the concerns about students falling behind. But what’s the alternative? Keeping a virus circulating instead of being realistic and following the rules until we can all be safe? Teachers writing wills and obituaries? (Yes, this is real!) Pretending that COVID19 is fake and invented for political purposes? See-through shower curtains between us and students? (Don’t even get me going on this one!)
The hopeful news is that we now have a starting point, due to the hard work of many dedicated professionals and savvy parents who worked together last spring. Now, we will be allowed into our rooms and buildings to get what we need to be more successful in this unprecedented time. No, it’s not going to be the same, at least not for the time being. But we will figure this out and in the end, being safe is better than being sorry. It’s the rule we’ve always been taught. Why change now?
As I begin this blog, I’m finishing up what will hopefully be my last round of radiation to eradicate the final vestiges of cancer in this vessel of mine that held so many ugly secrets. We’re talking years of feeling like crap, with no clear explanation. Now I can hopefully put my life back on track and move forward. Endings and beginnings. And ugly secrets.
I don’t believe in negativity. But I do believe in being honest and up front. Thus this earnest discussion about being a big time survivor and what it does and doesn’t mean.
Stage IV lung cancer. I don’t look at statistics anymore, but they’re damn grim. I know that from obsessing over them at the beginning of my crazy journey, back when I was destined to die. Now, with CURE being mentioned more and more and EXCELLENT OUTCOME floating hypnotically around like a sweet drug, I can reflect on other things in between high-fiving myself for getting through this, and looking toward a more certain future. I hardly accomplished this on my own, and contrary to the popular beliefs of some, I appreciate everything that has been done for me. But I also had a lot of things happen to me that could and should have been avoided, events that only served to pile on more hurt, and yet more worries to weigh heavily on my mind, which was (and is) already ready to burst. Makes a girl skeptical, to say the least.
Herein lies a sad truth: Not everyone who gets cancer or other life-threatening illnesses are surrounded by supportive loved ones. If you are, consider yourself very lucky. Some of us have to make the most of the ones who are, and extract the rest of our healing from the kindness of strangers. Here’s the side of the survivor story that you may not hear about amid all the parades and fireworks.
Before cancer, I always wondered how my detractors would treat me if something truly terrible happened to me. Now, I know.
If They Resented You Then…
…they aren’t going to stop resenting you just because your life is going down the tubes. I had a great life before cancer. I still have a great life. In between, not so hot. People who don’t like that you made a better life than them might just be happy that you’re struggling. Maybe they’ll want to see you struggle more. And they’ll pile on the negativity. A few individuals in my life have been putting the screws to me all along. Just remember that these people are sicker than you will ever be.
Short Memories Never Cease
Listen folks, cancer ain’t fun. Needles and scans and treatment ain’t my idea of a party. Yeah, it’s gotten the best of me at times. Admittedly, I have not always been nice. But I’ll also note that the past year of my life has chipped the BS tolerance meter down to just about nothing. I never had much of a filter, but now, even thinner. So if you start slinging crap at me, you’re going to get it back tenfold. I’ll hand your microscope back to you on a silver platter. And herein lies the next discovery: People will only remember what you do to them, not what they’ve done to you to warrant your feelings. Best to just let them wallow in self-pity and keep doing your thing.
Name calling, back stabbing, changing sides, being unable to apologize and move on, spreading my delicate medical business all over town. All things I’ve had to deal with on top of cancer. Imagine being called first grade names by someone who is supposed to understand and love you. Imagine that same someone teaming up with your other detractors as soon as things don’t go her way, even though she was there when your life was on the line. It happens, folks. I question my choices now as much as I question theirs.
You Change, They Don’t
Cancer absolutely changes the lives of many people, not just the patient. Loved ones have to find their own ways to deal with your illness and do their own form of grieving and coping. Yet the reality is that this disease and others like it is worst for the person who really has it. The hardest thing for me was the “not knowing” if I would even be alive to see the calendar flip to 2020. There is no feeling like this that I can even compare to the reality that your life is going to come to an end prematurely, and you may not have any choice in the matter. Add to that the endless hours of needle biopsies, lying in MRI tubes with ear-shattering noises echoing in your ears, trips back and forth to specialist after specialist. Meanwhile, those whose lives don’t change at all will increase your discomfort while continuing to disrespect the dramatic changes that you are going through, alterations that they would never be able to deal with.
Downplaying Your Hurts
Back before my treatment options and prognosis changed dramatically, I had a port surgically placed and was faced with chemo. This was the first time that my skin had ever been cut. The port was a degradation for me, and now the scar left after having it removed isn’t much better, though my niecerecently suggested to me that I consider it a “battle scar” and wear it proudly, so I’m kind of liking that idea. The real kicker about the port was that I didn’t need it, nor did I need chemo. But when I was in the heat of all this, I was the only one who thought the cutting of my skin and the loss of my hair was a big deal. (Yet, no one agreed to go bald with me, so there you have it!) Sure, a lot of cancer patients require chemo and make it through, so big whoop, right? Right! Until it’s you. Then see how great it looks. Lesson: don’t ever simplify the hurt of others.
Empty People Won’t Suddenly Fill For You
Individuals with nothing inside of them exist. Cold, uncaring, unloving, narcissistic blame factories that won’t just suddenly start acting human for you. It is beyond their capabilities. Enough said.
Telling, Not Asking
In the world of professional writing, the one banging away at the keyboard letters always has this line in mind: show, don’t tell. In the world of life-threatening illness, this has to be changed to ask, don’t tell. Since I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve had too many people making assumptions about the way I feel. Sometimes, the way I look is presumed to be the way I feel. I look good so I must feel good! I look tired, therefore I must feel like crap! I must be dreadfully unhappy because of cancer! (True enough, though at least in my case it’s better to say that the joy of life was suppressed. That golden gate has been reopened. Those who have never found true joy in life would not understand this.) I can think of many adjectives used to describe me that were totally false, when all the speaker had to do was ask and give me time to speak to get the real answer.
Special Note: my medical team is not guilty of this. They get it.
A Word of Hope
If this is you like it’s me, find the right folks and stick with them. The positive ones. The hopeful ones. The ones on social media that you’ve never met but are generous enough to try and lift you up rather than crush you even further than you’re already crushed. The ones you don’t see everyday, but who can give you a lift with a friendly text or call or email. Thank goodness I have a lot of those.
And just fight your best fight. Strength, courage, integrity, the will to live that no one can take away.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but other ideas keep getting in the way. Now, with my mother’s birthday here, it’s the perfect time to celebrate her and my wonderful friend Barbara, whose passing was two years ago last week. I credit these two incredible women with being the most influential people in my life. Considering I’ve spent most of my life around women, this is a pretty big honor! Each of them helped to mold me into the person I am today, and for entirely different reasons. Yet, they both had the most precious gift of all for me: love. How I wish they were here to help me through cancer and COVID19, and so many other struggles! But their special gifts to me are so strong that they will last a lifetime, even without them near.
I’ve met a few people who’ve had poor relationships with their mothers, and have seen it first hand. I understand that not everyone is cut out to be a great nurturer, or even a good one. But mine, well, she was the best! Not only was she my mom, but she was my best friend, travel companion, and staunchest supporter of mostly everything I did. I have to say “mostly,” because Mom was not afraid to speak up if she didn’t like something! She was fiercely protective over her six daughters, and that didn’t always go over well. The interesting thing about Mom’s opinions, however, is that they were usually right!
Mom was a hard working, trustworthy, and emotional lady who was a member of the Greatest Generation and was honest to a fault. She was fiercely in love with my father, and when he suddenly passed away in 1977, Mom was forced to raise us by herself, pay for our family home, and somehow keep us going. Honestly, knowing what I know now, decades later, I don’t know how she did it. But she did, even though she had lost the love of her life and partner in everything. In my estimation, Mom needed a full fifteen years to get over my father. In the interim, she dragged her tired body to work everyday, paid bills, gave us the many shirts off her back that she had to wear without Dad, and cried frequently. When you’re young and you see your beloved mother an emotional wreck most days, you don’t really understand the underlying pain, and I’ll admit, I thought that she was a weak person because of what I witnessed. Not anymore! She battled through physical and familial pain, eventually finding a new love: traveling with me!Even that had its hardships for her, because it was so tough for her to leave her family. But she would somehow end up in the car, or on the airplane, or on the bus next to me.
Mom taught me the true value of love, the love of travel, to work hard for what I want. (Have you noticed how many times I’ve used the word love?) She left us for the big vacation in the sky in 2004, at the age of eighty. Here’s a shot from her last birthday, July 29, 2004:
I wish I could report that her final birthday was spent surrounded by the love of her six daughters, but it wasn’t. Because of unbridgeable differences, what should have been the celebration of a major milestone was a quiet affair. I’ll never quite get over the sad fact that my dear mother never got what she really deserved, but endured a lot of what she didn’t. That has shaped me into someone that will not be walked on or taken advantage of.
In the end, I became her staunchest supporter and protector, and made a lot of enemies in my immediate family because I made myself a wall between her and them. The last several years of her life were tougher than they had to be, but it was love at work again: she never gave up on people who gave up on her. That’s one trait that I definitely didn’t get from Mom! I don’t give up easily on people who hurt me, but I do let them go.
Her death left a deeper sadness in me than cancer ever could. Her passing remains the worst thing that has ever happened to me, the most significant event of my life.
Special Note: The picture at the top of this post is Mom’s graduation picture, which hangs in my bedroom! She was very proud and talked often of this accomplishment.
Here’s our last traveling picture together, taken twenty years after the first:
Happiness was fleeting in my family. Any attempt at sustaining it would be shot down by someone’s negativity. So when I met my dear friend Barbara in the mid-eighties, when I was seventeen and she was a woman with a great deal of life experience, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she was so positive. In fact, she had such a positive attitude about life that my first impression was that she was “a fake!”
Barbara was my hairdresser. That’s how we met. She cut Mom’s hair now and then, too, so my two biggest influences met a handful of times! I’d gone to high school with one of her daughters, but it wasn’t her daughter that I had a thirty-plus year friendship with.
Like Mom, Barbara was a hard-working lady who shot straight from the hip. She was also independent and a successful business woman. We weren’t a likely combination, but let’s face it, when you’re sitting in that comfy chair for hours having your hair cut and colored and blown out, you have to talk about something! And Barbara and I talked about life. Her ability to see something good in everything and everyone started to have an effect on me. It was eye opening and mind opening! I realized one day: Barbara is happy. She made me want to be that way, too. But she taught me that happiness isn’t about walking around with a smile on your face, or doing good deeds to make yourself appear to be a decent person, or having a significant other to “make you whole.” Real happiness truly is a state of mind, of being, of thinking. And taking care of yourself and feeling good about yourself is no crime.
Barbara and I eventually became friends outside of her shop, meeting for lunch or breakfast or dinner, or at her condo and later, her home, for wine and conversation. Our time together was deep and meaningful, and I always came away having learned something important. Over the course of our friendship, Barbara lost all of her possessions in a fire, had two open heart surgeries, and found the love of her life in her 70s! Talk about a never say die attitude!
Barbara gave those who loved her the feeling that she would live forever. But in 2018, while I was traveling, she succumbed to a virus. One of her daughters left me a message on my home phone that I didn’t get for over a week. I won’t ever forget standing in my kitchen at two in the morning, just back from yet another stupendous road trip, as I listened to it, and the emptiness I felt that this wonderful woman was gone from my life.
Her memorial service was held on what would have been Mom’s ninety-fourth birthday.
I oftentimes wonder how Mom and Barbara would feel about me fighting cancer. Unlike so many people I’ve dealt with over the past year, they would have been stuck like glue to my side! But part of me feels better that they don’t have to see me go through what I’ve dealt with since my diagnosis. Knowing that they’re in a better place and watching over me is probably better, as much as I miss them!
Everyone should be so lucky to have had such amazing people in their lives! If you don’t have them, find them!