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Short Story: Love is For Everyone

I love writing and wish I could do it more. Writing is also really hard work. So it kind of rots when you submit something and don’t even hear back from a publisher or magazine or journal. That’s what happened with the following story, which I offered to a well known magazine early last year. Actually getting chosen for publication was a long shot, but receiving a rejection letter is always better than silence. Their loss is my blog’s gain.

When I sat down to write, I had been pondering the question is love for everyone? Even someone who is living with a death sentence? According to me, apparently so. Please enjoy “Love is For Everyone,” and tell me what you think either way!

LOVE IS FOR EVERYONE

              “Mom, stop thinking like that,” Nellie’s daughter Emma scolded lightly as they pushed through the door of the infusion clinic.

              “Emma, cancer just changes everything. The last thing I want to do is give up on love, but it seems like such a longshot now. I mean, Paul…” Nellie’s voice drifted off as she thought about how her longtime companion had moved away shortly after her diagnosis. They still talked occasionally, but he seemed to like his new life in Florida and wouldn’t be returning to Illinois anytime soon.

              “Mom, cancer has changed a lot of things, but it hasn’t changed everything. You’re still human and you’re still worthy,” Emma reminded her.

              “And this is it, hon. Last treatment.” Nellie shivered as Kathy, the familiar infusion nurse, appeared to greet them.

              “Nellie, you look more and more gorgeous every time I see you!” Kathy bubbled.

              “I agree,” Emma chimed in, tucking her arm inside Nellie’s.

              Nellie’s hand drifted up to the black headwrap she had learned to feel comfortable wearing as her chocolate brown hair thinned from her treatments. She felt attractive in a different and unexpected way now, like she had the beauty of strength, of surviving. She lightly squeezed Emma’s warm arm in return.

              “Thank you. I’m ready to get this done.” Nellie took a deep breath and looked toward the infusion area with its comfortable brown chairs and hospital curtains that many patients left open so they could chat. Her appointments were always early, so only a solitary man with slumped shoulders sat in one of the chairs, staring at the floor.

              “Another first timer?” Nellie asked Kathy.

              Kathy’s eyes pleaded with her for help. Nellie knew what Kathy wanted. Nellie would frequently offer a compassionate ear to patients who were there for the first time. Nellie loved to assist.

              Nellie wondered where the man’s support system was. He appeared to be alone. She moved toward him. The man looked frightened. When he lifted his head, she saw that he was also very handsome.

              “Hi, I’m Nellie,” she said, in an upbeat tone.

              “Hello, Nellie.” The man’s kind almond brown orbs drifted over her headwrap, her eyes, her smile, back to her eyes. “I’m Ed, and well, I’m terrified of chemo.”

              “Take my word, I know exactly how you feel. I was in your shoes eight months ago. And do you know what? Today is my last treatment. So, if I can do it, I know you can, too.”

              “You’re a lot braver than me! And it’s nice that you have family to be with you. I’m just a lonely old guy with no one around.” Ed lowered his eyes again.

              “Guess what, Ed? Forget about lonely! You’re stuck with me now! Emma has to run a few errands, so it’s just you and me!”

              Emma lifted her eyebrows to Nellie in surprise, because she always stayed for the infusions. But she gave Nellie a quick peck on the cheek and disappeared with a knowing wink.

              “I’ve had worse things happen to me!” Ed joked.

              “Kathy, I think we’re ready!” Nellie called, as she sat down in the chair next to Ed.

              His shoulders lifted and he leaned back, looking a little more relaxed.

              Nurse Kathy began to set up their infusions.

              “I admire your positive attitude, Nellie! How do you do it?” Ed asked.

              “Well, in this business, it pays to be positive, doesn’t it? Where would we be if we weren’t? This stuff is hard enough without being down in the dumps!” Nellie answered.

              “You’re right about that. But it sure is tough when you lose your wife, your kids live on the other side of the country, and you get cancer.” Ed shook his head.

              “I’m sorry, Ed.” Nellie sensed that Ed wanted to talk about his life.

              “I lost my Peggy three years ago. Cancer again. Took care of her for a year. And now here I am…” Ed’s voice drifted off as his eyes misted over.

              Nellie reached out and touched the top of his hand briefly before Kathy came over with his infusion bag clipped to a medical stand. “You’re going to do great,” Nellie assured him.

              She saw Ed tense up as Kathy asked if he was ready for her to access the port above his heart.

              “I’ll be good with you here, Nellie. But it sure will be harder after today! You’ll be off celebrating your last treatment and living life!”

              “How about we go get a coffee and a piece of pie once we’re done? You, me, and Emma will celebrate your first and my last!” Nellie gushed.

              “That’s something to look forward to!” Ed agreed.

              “Ready, Ed?” Kathy asked gently, about to start Ed’s first infusion.

              “As ready as I’ll ever be, thanks to this lady,” Ed beamed.

Coming Clean, Round 2.5

It’s always something.

Have truer words ever been spoken?

I’ve been kind of quiet on social media as of late. Busy, yes. Holidays are like that. But there’s another reason: My aching back.

My aching back started its aching in September, shortly after I started my teaching year. The first week of the school year was glorious. I felt great for the most part, then the pain started and has not let up for months now. I’ve been in physical therapy for a few weeks, and was supposed to get a cortisone injection before the holidays, but the insurance company said no, I have to do six weeks of PT first. Let that sink in: I have to live my life in pain for weeks before they’ll let me have something that will allow me to get back to my normal activities. It’s an old, old story. Pay for insurance every month, whilst being at the mercy of the faceless suits living pain free existences in some hidden office, who knows where.

This isn’t a rant about insurance companies. It’s a rant about another old, old story.

It’s always something.

Hey, as far as cancer is concerned, I’m doing great. And you know what? I’d love to be enjoying it right now. But I really can’t, because of my aching back. This pain has been worse than anything cancer has inflicted on me in the past two plus years. I want this to be the worst thing that I have to deal with. I’m not without hope. Somehow, I’m not depressed. But unlike cancer, my back is holding me back from keeping up my level of hiking, walking, and fitness. It has taken a big bite out of what keeps me going. Herein lies the real reason that I’ve been so quiet on social media: I have not done a real hike since late November, and most of my posts are about hiking or traveling. Okay, the New England weather is involved too. But this cycle needs to be broken. ASAP.

I’ve come to accept pain as a normal part of my existence. This realization hit me a few days ago. A real WTF??? moment in my former semi-charmed kind of life. So I carried my new acceptance around briefly before I stopped in the middle of everything and said one word.

NOPE.

I absolutely, positively DO NOT accept this pain as part of my life. This pain has to go buh-bye, and it will. If I can survive Stage IV lung cancer, believe me, I will get through this back crap, too.

Is this a play for sympathy? Another big NOPE. I’ve shunned sympathy from the get go. Not interested, any more than I am interested in being a hero or a warrior, or getting sad face emojis on Facebook. In fact, I have done everything I can to appear myself, even as I struggle to get up a flight of steps or carry things without feeling like I’m breaking in half. I’m well aware that there are people out there who have to deal with this kind of disabling condition for the rest of their lives, who have dealt with worse for longer. Same with cancer. I’ve lost several friends and acquaintances to this hell that I’ve managed to survive in spite of statistics screaming out that I wouldn’t. Truth be told, in a chapter from the “life isn’t fair” department, one of my former students is living his last days on this Earth because of this beast. By the time you read this, he will likely be gone. No, not interested in sympathy. Because many people have it a lot worse than me. And not much is going to stop me from believing that my fun isn’t over yet.

Am I done adventuring? NOPE.

I’m going to get through Round 2.5: The Bad Back. If I can get through Cancer Rounds 1 & 2, I can emerge from this too. Scary thing is, all this struggle for survival is getting sickening. But what’s the alternative? Nothing that I’m interested in. Yet. I wonder though, does the human spirit just finally say, I’m done? Admittedly, I’ve whispered it to myself a time or two, but that lasts about ten seconds. If only I could just get to a point now where this back of mine allows me to enjoy my physical pursuits without pain and exhaustion.

Hey, I can still walk and think and read and write. I’m killing my PT exercises. I sleep like a pro. My house is still clean and my teaching job gets done. The bills are paid. I could name many other blessings that make me keep fighting the fight. Yet after all is said and done, I have to accept that it’s always going to be something. Could I maybe just get a rain check for a month or two?

The Real Meaning of MY Christmas

Happy New Year! Yeah, I know I’ve been absent for a few weeks and am a day late and a dollar short as usual, but like mostly everyone else, my holidays were darn busy. For Christmas 2021, I was supposed to resume traveling internationally by enjoying a trip to Costa Rica. Yet as the day got closer, I knew it wasn’t the right choice. I’ve been experiencing some pretty intense back pain for several weeks now, so that was the first issue that made me question if I was doing the best thing for me. Add the possibility of getting hung up in a foreign country due to COVID19, and the cost of being tested to have the privilege of boarding the plane home, and all arrows were pointing toward exercising my cancellation insurance and waiting until circumstances are better all around.

The decision was still a tough one. I wanted to resume my life of seeing the world, and this was a huge step in the right direction. My last trip out of the U.S. was summer of 2019 in Sri Lanka, before my cancer diagnosis, and I’ve been struggling to be me again since then. Cancelling anything, especially trips, is just not like me. Still, the gnawing inside me said that it wasn’t what I should be doing.

So I cancelled.

Then, a golden opportunity arose.

Even before that, something pretty incredible and highly unlikely took place: no cancer showed up on my last scans taken December 20th! Does this mean that I’m cured? That cancer will never be a part of my life again? That cancer is no longer a part of my life now? That treatment changes or ends? No, it doesn’t mean any of that. It “only” means just what I wrote: cancer cannot be seen. Meaning: it’s probably still there, and will likely come back, but the medication I’m on is controlling it very well for now. How long it will last, no one knows. I can only hope it will be for a long time. This doesn’t diminish the miracle that brought me to this, from where I was a year ago. If you know anything about metastatic cancer, I’m damn blessed. If you knew anything about my cancer specifically, well, I’m a long way from where I was in December of 2020. Read about my roller coaster journey here and here.

The table was indeed set for that golden opportunity.

As soon as I told my niece that I was thinking of cancelling my trip to Costa Rica, she invited me to South Carolina to spend Christmas with her. Yes, this was exactly what I needed: a familiar place where I could rest if necessary, a faithful black dog for quiet company, and maybe even some warmer weather. Not perfect Costa Rica weather, but South Carolina would do! And Costa Rica doesn’t have my niece and her dogs!

I just had to come up with reasonable airfare. From years of traveling at Christmastime, I recalled that December 24th to the 31st are usually the cheap dates. This remains true! I got a great fare and would soon be on my way! But not before wrapping and distributing many presents, falling on black ice, receiving as many presents, seeing friends and family before I left, battling crowds in the stores, starting PT for my back, working full time…

My last two posts are a short story I wrote several years ago. Titled “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” it’s a tale about a woman who disdains the holiday, yet finds her own peace in the season. Hmm, sounds like art imitating life! Because of course, that’s just what I did.

Long before cancer, Christmas was a tricky time of the year for me, and remains so. For more than twenty years escaping has been my way to combat ambivalent feelings about Christmas and what it has come to represent in our culture. Most of the time I would run off somewhere and spend the holiday alone, sans blinking lights and jolly men in red suits. South Carolina is my new favorite escape, and I’ve even learned to appreciate my niece’s special brand of hospitality.

We have a routine whenever I go and visit: bowling, a local farm, ice cream, Chinese food. I’ve gotten to know some of the local people and am always made to feel welcome. That naughty blond pup above vies for my attention with her darker brother while her mom spoils her rotten. Usually when I show up the weather gets thirty degrees colder. Not this time! It was in the 70’s all week. My back started to feel a little better, I got lots of sleep and lots of love, collected and gave more presents, and had turkey dinner left over from Thanksgiving, when I couldn’t be there. I found the real meaning of MY Christmas, and made the correct choice for me.

Perhaps I’ll never really love Christmas again, but I’ve made progress.

I had a great holiday, but I’m glad it’s over for another year! Bring on 2022!

The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part Two

Last week I posted the first part of a Christmas tale I wrote back in 2006. It was more popular than expected, leaving me to think that maybe I should continue to make more of my old fiction writing public. You can read the first half of the story here. What follows is part two. Enjoy!

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS (CONTINUED)

Christmas morning came. Toni awoke to the sound of Hannah rummaging around in her room; when she opened Hannah’s door, she found the six-year-old filling a white tall kitchen garbage bag full of toys: stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, musical toys.

            “Honey, what are you doing?” Toni asked.

            Hannah looked like a little grown-up as she turned to her mother and said, “I’m findin’ all the toys I don’t play with no more to bring to the kids less lucky than me.”

            Toni was so taken by her little daughter’s gesture, she did not even correct her iffy grammar. Instead, she asked herself, Oh, how have I done so well with this child, how, in spite of being a single mother literally left at the altar when I was five months pregnant?

            Toni backed away from the door, realizing that her six-year-old knew more about compassion than even she did. Her daughter was outdoing her! This thought made her rush into her bedroom and throw open the closet door. She looked with derision at all the clothes that she was saving because she might wear them “someday,” when she knew very well that that day would never come, and that there was someone out there who could be wearing those clothes that just hung there, going to waste.  She went to the kitchen and got her own tall kitchen garbage bag and filled it with clothes.  She was thrilled by the exhilarating feeling of unburdening herself of the clothes and filled another bag. 

            “I’m ready, Mommy,” Hannah’s voice came from her doorway.  She turned to see that Hannah had her full winter gear on and had a bag over each shoulder, like a mini Santa Claus.

            “I thought we were going to have breakfast and open one present?” Toni reminded her.

            “But Mommy, this is so much more important.  Can’t we get there early and be waiting for them?”

            “If that’s what you want, honey.  Let Mommy get dressed.” 

            “I’ll be waiting out front.”

            “But it’s so cold!  Maybe you should wait in the kitchen.”

            “No, it’s okay.  I’ll wait out front.”

            Toni knew that this was Hannah’s way of saying that she was ready and didn’t want to wait for her mother to waste time. So, Toni didn’t. She jumped into some warm casual clothes and met Hannah on the front steps ten minutes later. There was only a little snow on the ground but it was bitterly cold.  Hannah’s nose was red, but she appeared unfazed by the weather. Obviously, the child was on a mission. It was Toni who complained to Hannah about the cold as they defrosted the car, whose backseat was piled with their garbage bags full of “gifts.” 

            They hardly spoke on the drive to the shelter. As they neared, they saw a small line of homeless people had begun to form, their breath almost freezing in the air, their clothes not nearly warm enough to battle the elements.

            “Mommy, they look so cold!  Do you have any winter coats in those bags?” Hannah asked, her little nose wrinkled but warm-looking.

            “No, honey.  No winter coats,” Toni answered, distressed by the memory of the two down-filled jackets she had left hanging in her closet because she had made a split-second decision that she would wear them again “someday” after all.

            It was then that Hannah reached under her coat and took out her piggy bank in the shape of Eeyore, the sad donkey from Winnie the Pooh that they had bought on a trip to Disneyland the previous year.  It was their routine to fill it with spare coins and bills until they couldn’t fit anymore, then they transferred the money to Hannah’s small but growing bank account.  Toni knew that Eeyore was close to being full.  Usually, they had about twenty-five dollars in it by the time they made the transfer.

             “I didn’t want you to be mad at me for bringing this so I hid it ‘til now.  Can we go and buy somethin’ warm for them?  It’s full and I wanna share it.” The child shook the bank for effect.  It was all too much for Toni at that point; tears started rolling down her face and she grabbed Hannah and squeezed her tight. Hannah hugged her back, though Toni knew she did not understand her mother’s tears.

            Toni put the car in drive and told Hannah to find her wallet in her purse and see how much was in it. Hannah did as she was told, though Toni felt her reluctance; Hannah knew better than to go into her mother’s personal belongings unless she had permission.  Hannah took out a handful of small bills and announced that her mother had twenty-two dollars.  Toni made a deal with her daughter: they each would spend ten dollars to buy some nice, hot coffee, tea, and hot chocolate for the people less lucky than them. That way, they would both still have some money leftover. Hannah agreed and they proceeded to the nearest coffee shop and bought as many cups of hot liquid as they could for twenty dollars.  Then, they went back to the shelter; several more people were gathered, waiting for breakfast.

            Hannah was out of the car with the flat box of hot drinks in her little, glove-clad hands almost before Toni could get the keys out of the ignition. Toni only watched from the driver’s seat as the old men smiled like she was a tiny angel sent from heaven and the women patted her head and took a warm drink. Pride was hardly a sufficient word for what she was feeling as she watched her baby; she was learning something about compassion that even transcended what her parents had taught her so many years ago. 

            Not wanting to steal Hannah’s spotlight, she waited until the girl had handed out all the drinks, then she pulled the bags of clothes and toys out of the back seat of the car and brought them over to the gathering crowd. Together, she and her baby girl handed out second-hand gifts to the spellbound poor and homeless that truly looked like they were seeing Santa Claus. Watching their faces, Toni knew that she had not seen sincerely thankful people since those family Christmases so long ago. Suddenly, those days seemed closer, and the real meaning of Christmas was evident for her again. Just as she knew, it had nothing to do with SUVs or Super Soakers or even a million tiny lights on a fabulous tree.  She had found the real meaning of Christmas again and a six-year-old girl whom she had given birth to had helped her to do so.

            Long before they entered the shelter to help serve breakfast, they had won the hearts of the people less lucky than them.  Other volunteers pulled up in shiny SUVs and ran in at the last minute, laughing and talking about the warm fireplace they had left or the piles of presents waiting to be unwrapped. In those final moments, another small miracle took place: Marcy showed up with a huge platter of delightful, homemade pastries. She was dressed to the nines and was in a terrible rush, but Toni hugged her, seeing the satisfaction in her friend’s face for doing a good deed. 

It was a perfect morning now, with the presents and Marcy’s kindness and the hot coffee and the fresh food on the shelter’s stove. Toni and Hannah giggled and joked and felt good about the miracles already performed, while French toast and bacon sizzled and the aroma wafted through the air and the doors were finally opened and the homeless folks entered the shelter already smiling, with toys for their children and warm drinks in their bellies and the smile of a little blond angel on their minds. And mother and daughter waited, Toni with a spatula, her daughter with a stack of paper cups to fill with orange juice, while bells chimed and carols played and real, true Christmas joy filled the rooms of the shelter.

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Merry Christmas.

Thank you for reading!

The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part One

While writing my last post I was reminded of a short story I wrote long ago, and decided that I was going to post it here. It took some searching to retrieve it. It’s that old! The title? “The Real Meaning of Christmas.” I wrote it in 2006. What a long way I’ve come as a writer since then! Yet, for the sake of posterity (or something like that!) I’ve decided to publish it largely as is, other than removing some annoying spacing issues. Because it’s nine typed pages long, I’ll share it in two parts. Look for part two next week!

Without further ado, here is an old story that’s short on style and long on meaning.

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS

Not everyone loved Christmas, especially Toni. She shuddered every fall when the end of November approached because now, for six unbearable weeks, she would have to deal with all the things about Christmas that she hated. Her friends would be chattering about what new toys and gadgets they would be going broke to buy their children. People in their shiny SUVs would be stressed out and driving at breakneck speeds to the next shopping mall to whip out a plastic card and add to their already enormous debt.  Christmas trees would be on the tops of cars and in the beds of pick-up trucks, only to be unceremoniously dumped in a hidden ditch in the backyard once the finest balls and light strings were removed and the expensive presents unwrapped. Some people would light up their homes until absurd dates, well past New Year’s in a silly, futile attempt to keep alive a holiday season that most people had forgotten the meaning of anyway.  She refused to be a part of it all, falling out on the mania that surrounded the holiday that was supposed to represent the Birth of Christ. Instead, she longed for the Christmases of her youth when her parents were alive, when her sisters still talked to her, when people still cared about each other enough to know that love and happiness could not be bought.  Still, she had to keep up some kind of front, because now Hannah was old enough to be excited about the holiday. Somehow, some way, regardless of how much she dreaded the season, she had to make it worthwhile for both of them, to make it special in some way. 

            “Why don’t you spend it in Aruba?” was the worldly suggestion of her friend Marcy, who thought all problems on earth could be solved through the spending of money and a call to Carnival Cruises. Toni did not know whether she was serious, being that Marcy was in a pile of Super Soakers and video game equipment when the suggestion rolled off of her tongue, likely without previous thought. In fact, Toni almost knew that Marcy wasn’t thinking by her harried, pre-occupied tone that accompanied a certain annoyed look. 

            Toni wished that Marcy had not mentioned Aruba. For a split second she wished, too, that she had not visited Marcy at all, as Marcy was one of those people who “loved” Christmas and equally “loved” to spend money on material comforts.  Marcy had always been a bit pretentious and since marrying a self-made millionaire she had only gotten worse. But Toni knew that deep down inside, Marcy had a good heart and Toni still loved her dearly, even if she had to put up with a ridiculous comment every now and then.      

“Actually, I was considering volunteering to feed the homeless,” Toni said.

            “Oh, that’s nice baby. Hannah can stay and play with Amber and Jim-Jim,” Marcy grinned, speaking of her spoiled children.

            “Oh no, I’m going to bring her with me.”

            Marcy was stopped in the tracks of her Super Soakers.

            “Baby, you’ve got to be kidding. You’re going to bring that perfect child to feed dirty, grimy homeless people?”

            “Maybe you should come with me and bring Amber and Jim-Jim,” Toni’s tone was slightly condescending in that she pronounced the children’s names in the same baby-talk way that Marcy used whenever she spoke of them.

            Marcy didn’t even notice.  “You know I have a huge lunch to plan. I don’t know how I’m going to do it without going to that awful shelter.” Marcy rolled her eyes with silly self-importance. Toni knew that Marcy loved her role as town hostess and savored it when her guests bragged about her parties until the next one.

            “Well, we’re going just the same.”

            “You should give Hannah a choice. If she doesn’t want to go, she can stay here and help me cook. She loves to help her Auntie Marcy cook, you know!”

            Toni was relieved that Marcy had finally said something that made sense. She was right: Hannah should have the choice.  Toni would talk to her daughter.

            She tentatively approached her flaxen blond daughter while she was in her room playing dolls. Lovely Hannah, who Toni was trying to lead through her first years of life with compassion for other members of the human race, looked at her expectantly. “Go ahead, Mommy.  What do you want to talk about?”

            Toni was comforted by the patience of her little girl. Sometimes, Hannah was so serene that she made Toni feel like she was the daughter. She began: “Christmas is coming.  Next week it’ll be here.”

            A shadow fell over the little girl’s face. “Mommy, do you have enough money to buy me presents? Because if you don’t, it’s okay. Some kids in my class aren’t gonna get many presents ‘cuz they don’t have no daddy like me and their mommies can’t ‘ford nothin’ for them.”

            Toni didn’t know whether to be horrified that her daughter was thinking such thoughts or to be proud that she was so unselfish.   Hannah had everything within reason that a child needed and wanted, and Toni would always keep it that way, but Hannah was not spoiled or unappreciative. Toni had simply taught her what her own parents had taught her: to not take anything for granted.

            “No honey, it’s not that at all!  I wanted to ask you if you wanted to do something special on Christmas morning.” 

            “What?” 

            “I want to go and feed homeless people at the shelter downtown.  Do you want to come with me?  If you don’t, you can stay at Auntie Marcy’s.”

            “You mean feed people less lucky than us?” Hannah’s eyes widened.

            “Yes.” Toni had used that line on Hannah many times when they had passed the shelter and had seen people out front or on their way there.

            “I wanna go Mommy. We can open presents after?”

            “How about we open one before and the rest after.”

            Hannah smiled widely.  “Yeah!” She tossed her arms around Toni. “Mommy, I can’t wait to feed the homeless people that are less lucky than us.”

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Look for the conclusion next week.

Thanks for reading!

Dear Fellow Humans: Breathe

Well, here we are again: the “Christmas season.” The season of joy and giving and spending time with people that we love. Of reaching out to our fellow humans and showering them with goodness. Of making sure the needy have something to look forward to. Of…

Oh, wait, does this sound like us? Or is this more accurate: the Christmas season means that we run up a big electric bill making sure that our lights look better than everyone else’s in the neighborhood. That we are fighting each other for the closest parking space at Walmart. That we’re trampling our fellow shoppers to get the flat screen TV for fifty bucks off while supplies last. That our children don’t know that Christmas is really about the birth of Christ, not the presents that they’re getting.

That last one is a true story. As a teacher, I deal with around fifty students on a daily basis (but not all at one time!) One year, I was really tired of hearing the twelve in front of me talking nonstop about what they were expecting under the tree. Let me tell you, these weren’t the ten dollar variety presents, but big label sneakers, ridiculous video games, and the latest technology that they didn’t have the know how to need. Add up the prices and I could get up and back across the country a couple of times. But I digress. That year, I put my students to the test: what does Christmas really mean? Most of them said, “Opening presents.” Only one could tell me that it is a celebration of the birth of Christ, and if she didn’t go to church she would have been at a loss, too. I’ve never forgotten this day.

This post isn’t about religion. It’s about the direction we’re going in as people. Are we heading toward a good place? No, we’re screwed, and only getting worse. (IMHO.)

We need Christmas right now like we need a hole in the head, to coin an old saying. This holiday brings out the worst in so many people. I can’t wait until it’s over. Escaping has always been my way of dealing with it, and if all goes as planned, this year won’t be any different. If I look happy in the pictures in this post, it’s because I’m celebrating Christmas in my own way: far away from the nonsense that our traditions have turned into. Nothing feels better than warming a plane seat after handing out the gifts I had to endure long lines and bad attitudes to purchase.

Even without Christmas, we lack empathy. Take it from me, I’ve been living with a chronic illness (called advanced lung cancer, and no, I didn’t smoke!) for over two years now, and it has become very clear to me that other than a handful of amazing family members and friends, most don’t care what you’re going through. I’m not looking for sympathy, but courtesy would be nice. And courtesy is a dying art.

You know what would also be nice? If humans would just calm down. Several times a day I see people freaking out in everyday situations. My biggest pet peeve is the way we act when we get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. No matter how big the vehicle is, from a standard car to an eighteen wheeler, drivers are in a gigantic hurry to most times get absolutely nowhere by weaving in and out of traffic at top speed, tailgating, and driving distracted. Good luck to the hapless squirrel, or worse, the hapless child getting in the way. Daily, these jokers take my life into their hands, not to mention their own. And this is only one example of bad behavior that has encompassed our nation.

I try not to focus on bad news, but avoiding it these days is getting to be more of a challenge. Maybe it’s because social media constantly has some awful tragedy thrown in our faces, or maybe it’s because we can’t handle not getting our way about something without going to the extreme to avenge our hurt feelings.

And now, we have the mania of Christmas to add to the hysteria, the glut of advertising and garish tinsel, ready made trees, and decor that varies from French fries to ballerinas and includes every interest in between. May I remind you that on December 26th it will all be abandoned in the yesterday’s news aisle and we’ll then be inundated with red and pink Valentine’s hearts for the second most annoying “holiday” on the calendar?

Heaven help us.

Think good and hard the next time you get yourself into a twist to beat someone to the next red light, or to shove yourself into the checkout line in front of an elderly person. Think about what you’re really going to gain.

Breath, folks, breathe. This stuff is not that important. Save your energy for when you really have to deal with something big.

POW!! FOLIAGE!!

If you’re one of those people that chase foliage from afar, I feel for you! As a veteran of attempting to predict, photograph, and schedule the best hikes around the changing of the leaves in New England, I can tell you that this is about the toughest gig in town. This year, even worse. Those loaded tour buses were likely long gone when the trees really started to pop with color in Massachusetts.

I did okay, but peak foliage in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, traditionally one of the hottest tickets in foliage town, and peak in Western Massachusetts, where I live, were a full three weeks apart, which is very uncommon. In fact, I had given up on the colors popping in my local area and then, BOOM! There it was! Crazy stuff!

Though I am merely an amateur photographer and don’t much aspire to be a professional, I still have thoughts about taking a good picture. In my humble (or not so humble?) opinion, fall foliage is the hardest thing to get a great shot of. Those calendar pages with fire engine reds and neon yellows are the work of Photoshop, not a great professional. Or, as I have come to say, “Nature doesn’t do that.” I think it’s quite unfortunate that we live in a world that alters reality to the point that when we see something naturally amazing, we aren’t amazed. How did this happen?

As someone who spends a lot of time outdoors in nature, I have learned to accept the natural world as it is, even if I don’t always capture it in its finest form. I do my best, and let memory take care of the rest. Autumn 2021 sure seemed like it was going to lack foliage memories, but it really turned out okay in the end!

The White Mountains were loaded with visitors, so busy that I had to forfeit a hike or two because of parking issues. Truth: There were so many leaf peepers around, I couldn’t even out hike them! Mind you, I’ve had the Grand Canyon and other national parks to myself by doing unpublicized trails with huge secret views. I thought I had outsmarted the general public a couple of times in old New Hampshire, but voices nearby soon proved me wrong. I’ve done the Whites two year in a row. Next year, I’ll head to some other nearby hills instead.

Know what the worst thing about foliage is? What follows it. Once the leaves are off the trees, I lose interest in the forests of New England. There isn’t anything too great about a naked maple and a frigid breeze slapping you in the face. Even snow is better than that! But what’s better than everything is the hope of spring. My sights are set on it.

Stop Calling me “Sick”

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, and many of them are unprintable. I’ve been called a lot of things since I was diagnosed two years ago with Stage IV lung cancer, and while most of them are probably printable, a few of them are out of this world unbelievable that someone would have the gall to refer to me in such a fashion. One term that I’m really done with is “sick.” According to several people, I’m “sick.” Sometimes the word is inserted into a favorable sentence, so I guess that makes it okay. An example: “No one would ever know that you’re sick.” Am I supposed to be flattered? Would you be flattered if I said this to you? The truth is this: Your “sick” description only moves me further away from who I’m fighting to be again: ME.

How many times do I have to say this? How many people do I need to tell? If I’m not interested in being a “warrior” or a “hero,” why in heaven’s name would I want to be “sick?” The irony is that if I didn’t tell someone that I live with cancer, they wouldn’t even know it. I have stopped telling most people my story, have stopped sharing it on Facebook, have refrained from updates and day by day reports. But some of those in the know have my dossier open in front of them, and instead of being the “Barb Lee, writer, blogger, and traveler,” of the past, I am now “Barb Lee, full-time cancer warrior and permanent sicko.” Never mind that I continue to do all the things that make me who I used to be. Now, my illness defines me.

For the record, are there times when cancer consumes me? Of course. In fact, now is one of those times. As I type this I feel like crap. My back hurts, my gut hurts, my head hurts, I want summer back, and I want this pain to go away. I want my medication to keep working, though I fear it has stopped being effective. I don’t want to be “sick” in the eyes of those who think I am. I want to have another round of great scans next week and keep going in the right direction. Right now, none of those things are happening or seem like they will work out, and I’m floundering.

But here’s what history tells me: I always manage to turn the corner. Though it’s always in the back of my mind that someday I won’t turn the corner, I have not reached that particular curve in the road yet. Nor am I planning to any time soon. Does that sound sick?

And how about this fact: I really do love being a survivor. There is something pretty special about being a survivor. A lot of folks out there claim to be survivors, but only some of us can really offer hard and fast proof of cheating death. So should I accept being labeled as “sick” because in order to be a “survivor” I had to come from a place of being severely ill?

Then there’s that pesky little fact that Stage IV cancer isn’t curable. But what the general public doesn’t know is that the cases of people living well beyond their expected expiration date are on the rise in a major way. Big Pharma isn’t withholding a cure for cancer to make money. Big Pharma is plugging away behind the scenes to keep making better and better drugs so that cancer patients like me can continue to live our lives like we always have. There ain’t nothing sick about that!

Here’s a fact too: a pretty high percentage of those that refer to me as “sick” don’t do nearly as much in a day as I do. Maybe they’re the sick ones?

I didn’t feel good for a decade before my diagnosis. Almost always, something didn’t feel right. For a while, I ran doctor to doctor trying to figure out why a woman who was in great shape, looked as healthy as a horse, and did everything she could to stay that way, felt like crap. No one had answers. Some of the individuals I pleaded with for help didn’t believe me. One of my favorite comments was, “Are you depressed? Do you need an anti-depressant?” I gave up after a while and just dealt with whatever I was feeling inside. Until I got the big answer in October of 2019. Quite an eye opener.

Sigh.

The moral of the story is this: I don’t feel that much worse than I did when everyone thought that there was nothing wrong with me, when what was really wrong was unknown. No one thought I was “sick” then. The only difference is that the secret is out, and it’s a big ugly one. I’m still the same ME, and I don’t accept the “sick” label any more than I accept the “warrior” label.

Please…STOP.

Happy Cancerversary to Me!

Since there aren’t that many people out there who want to celebrate my life and my journey with me, I’m just going to do it myself! Two years ago on this day, I was formally diagnosed with non small cell lung cancer. Of course the beast has been in my body for longer than two years, but it was confirmed on October 8, 2019, so this is the date I will acknowledge. My last two posts have recounted my trail of surviving the deadliest cancer out there. You can read them here and here.

I was on a train bound for New York City’s Penn Station last weekend when I started writing down ideas for this post, and decided that I would share my thoughts in two categories: What I’ve Learned, and What I’ve Accomplished, in the past two year. A few years before my diagnosis I was told by someone that I use the word “I” much too much, but screw him. I’ll be using it ad nauseam here to make my point, and I think I’ve earned it!

Ready?

What I’ve Learned

  • I’ve learned more about my strength and spirit than I’ve ever wanted to know.
  • I’ve learned more about cancer than I’ve ever wanted to know.
  • I’ve learned more about people than I’ve ever wanted to know.
  • I’ve learned that some people like you better when you’re down.
  • I’ve learned that some people are never going to like you, up or down.
  • I’ve learned that some people don’t have compassion unless something is happening to them.
  • I’ve learned that people throw the word “love” around but don’t know what it means.
  • I’ve learned that “love” really needs to mean more than just a word.
  • I’ve learned who my true supporters are.
  • I’ve learned that to survive, I had to let go of those who aren’t.
  • I’ve learned that people will crush you in the worst of times.
  • I’ve learned to keep going in spite of them.
  • I’ve learned that me with cancer and me without cancer aren’t that different.
  • I’ve learned to live my life in mostly the same way even though I have cancer.
  • I’ve learned that terms like “fighter” and “warrior” only serve to move you away from being YOU.
  • I’ve learned to reject those terms.
  • I’ve learned that for many people, my illness is over, even if it will never be over for me.
  • I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of cancer.
  • I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of ME.
  • I’ve learned that it’s okay to let my “strong” guard down once I shut the door on the world outside.
  • I’ve learned that the world keeps turning, even though I have cancer.
  • I’ve learned that my world keeps turning, even though I have cancer.
  • I’ve learned that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for anyone.
  • I’ve learned that my life still matters, even if I have cancer.

What I’ve Accomplished

  • I’ve lived through cancer in my lung, neck, sternum, hips, pancreas, stomach, and chest wall.
  • I’ve been on four road trips.
  • I’ve written a 42,000 word book about my cancer journey. (Unpublished)
  • I’ve begun another book about a woman living with ALS.
  • I’ve written 45 blog posts.
  • I’ve walked/hiked 3,350 miles. (Not a misprint.)
  • I’ve lost me.
  • I’ve found me again.
  • I’ve continued my life in full for two years, with cancer.
  • I’ve ridden 110 miles on my $100 bike.
  • I’ve revisited 18 states.
  • I’ve booked my first trip out of the country since summer of 2019.
  • I’ve rebooked and gone on two of the three trips I had to cancel for cancer.
  • I’ve continued my teaching career through COVID19 and cancer.
  • I leased a brand new car but kept my old one!
  • I was debt free for a year.
  • I’ve used up two of my nine lives on cancer.
  • I’ve found solace in art, but am no great artist!
  • I’ve explored New England more intensely than ever.
  • I’ve found friendships with a few of the greatest people anyone could possibly ask for.
  • I’ve left friendships that weren’t productive.
  • I’ve been blessed with the constant love of three family members.
  • I’ve left family relationships that weren’t productive.
  • I’ve requested no sympathy.
  • I’ve held fast to my dreams for the future.
  • I’ve tried to help others with cancer to do the right thing.
  • I’ve survived and thrived because I LOVE LIFE.

I rest my case as I look toward the future.

Coming Clean, Round 2

Me at 53, after cancer, Round 1

It’s inching closer, my cancerversary! Less than a week away, when this goes public. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my journey anymore, but most people don’t know all the crazy details, so I’m letting them be known for anyone who cares to read. Last week I recounted my first “round” of cancer and treatment. You can read the post here. All involved were hoping for a knockout punch that would last a lifetime, but it was not to be. After radiation to my lung and neck, and a year of targeted therapy, I noticed a small bump on my right flank. My oncologist sent me to a dermatologist in November of 2020. The skin guy did a biopsy in the office, and as I awaited results I headed down to South Carolina to see my niece. Surrounded by love from her and her three adorable dogs, we decorated her Christmas tree, went bowling, and shopped for homemade soap at a local farm. A huge celebration occurred when the results came through: No new cancer! The bump should go away. Life went on happily!

If the bump had gone away and life had gone on happily I probably wouldn’t be writing this post. The next month, just a few days after my 54th birthday, I went to Boston for a PET scan, with my fingers crossed that I would get the coveted news that I had No Evidence of Disease (NED), a designation that I had cut so close during the summer. I wasn’t feeling well, but I still had hope. Feeling crappy had become a way of life even before cancer, and after treatment it was even more so. Fatigue and exhaustion would hit me and stay for a week or more, but I’d keep pushing through to feeling better. By this time I had put my life back on track fully, I was on pace to shatter my yearly mileage record for walking and hiking, road trips were happening again, and I had great hopes for the future.

Which made the results of my PET scan all the more shattering: I had more cancer. That bump on my back meant something. It had not gone away, and was now lighting up as cancer on the scan. But there was worse news than that, as cancer had also infiltrated several other places, including both my hip muscles, my upper stomach, and worst of all, my pancreas. I won’t soon forget receiving this news in the cold of COVID19 December, all alone in Boston as the world got dark, and someone who is supposed to love me making it even darker. That last part is another story in and of itself, and at this point I’m over it. From here forward I’ll keep this post about cancer.

Now what? I was surely going to die, with cancer happily invading my space again. I would have to switch medications. My oncologist’s suggestion was a clinical trial for a brand new tyrosine kinase inhibitor, or TKI, like the one I was currently on, but considered a”next generation” drug, called Repotrectinib. Before I could go on it I had to endure a new series of scans and blood tests, and a fresh biopsy to be sure that the new metastasis was the same as the old one. I also went back to South Carolina to dog-sit my favorites canines while my niece went to Florida. Perhaps it would be my last trip there.

I had so much new cancer I was having trouble keeping track of it, so I made this fancy diagram:

My rendition of me, loaded with new cancer

Cute, isn’t it? Yeah, unless it’s you.

I waited a tense month for the drug company to accept me into the clinical trial. My cancer was growing, making the likelihood of death all the more certain if the new wonder pill didn’t work. The tumor on my back continued to grow and topped off at 3.3 x 3.0 centimeters before I started treatment. Not only was it disgusting to look at (this one was actually like a skin tumor and growing on the outside, unlike the tumors in my neck, which were under the skin,) but it was also bleeding and getting in the way of life, because if it rubbed against anything it would gush blood. I had to keep it covered 24/7 and couldn’t sleep on my right side. A few times I had to cancel plans with friends because I had to take care of my tumor. Yay, me! (Eye roll.)

By the time I started treatment in late January of 2021, all my tumors had grown. In centimeters, my pancreatic lesion was 2.1 x 2.0. Left hip: 3.2 x 1.9. Stomach: 2.7 x 2.1. And tipping the scales at 8.4 x 3.8, the right hip tumor. They had gained considerable steam in a matter of a month. And that bleeding tumor in my side? Any information that I found on lung cancer metastasis to soft tissue was extremely grim. I was literally dying for treatment. Again.

Somehow, I kept going. Shout outs to several friends and a few family members for sticking with me and helping me through. Remote learning saved my finances. I got an accommodation from my school system to teach from home until the end of the school year in June of 2021. The tumor on my back, as disgusting as it was, turned out to be a creepy blessing, as I was able to watch it shrink down to nearly nothing and knew the medication was working. Within six weeks I didn’t need to cover it any longer, and it stopped bleeding.

I kept hiking and walking. Went back to South Carolina in February, revisited my beloved Southern Utah in April, took two fantastic road trips this past summer.

I get scanned every eight weeks on the clinical trial. I don’t feel fabulous most of the time, and am currently sore as hell and have weakness in my legs, but hey, the bottom line is that I’m still able to do everything I love. As long as my luck holds out, I’ll be heading to Costa Rica for Christmas!

Let this sink in: Thus far, I have survived cancer in my lung, neck, hips, pancreas, flank, and stomach. Last scan, in early September, my hips and pancreas were clear, with the stomach and flank tumors significantly reduced. Still hoping for NED!

Sigh.

And what a two years it has been! Bring on the cancerversary!

10-2-21, Roosevelt Island, New York City