Rediscovering You

Here’s a secret: when you first start blogging it’s pretty tough to come up with subjects to write about. Then you get a little bit of leverage, a dash of inspiration, and maybe even a crappy disease, and suddenly, you’re golden! You have a whole list of ideas! That’s what happened to me. It’s for this reason that I’ll follow up my last blog post immediately with the final point of my advice for living successfully with a chronic illness. I have many other subjects to get to and don’t want this final thought to get buried in a bunch of other posts.

Listen, I’d really rather be writing about traveling and writing books, which is what I intended this blog to be about when I first put it together. Thankfully I can still talk about that stuff, but I’ve also been granted this opportunity to help others with my success at battling a chronic disease, so I’m going to take it. It’s certainly helpful to think this way: that this new struggle I’m dealing with is an opportunity, not just a burden. You will need to think this way frequently. To say “always” is not realistic. You can’t do anything always. If you can do it eighty percent of the time you’ll be doing darn good.

To review, my ideas for continuing to thrive with a chronic disease are:

Get the best medical care possible

Seek no sympathy

Find new ways to do what you love

Find new things to love

Surround yourself with positivity

And the final point, which I’ll be expanding on today, is:

Don’t let your illness define you

Since announcing that I have cancer I have been labeled as a “warrior,” an ass kicker, and a bitch, (though that’s not a new designation!) and have been glorified, mourned, pitied, bad mouthed, and name-called. Everyone knows what I am, has a character for me to play. Though many of these identities are well meant, what no one really accepts is that the only identity I want to identify with is ME. When you are first diagnosed with a serious illness the processes that you have to go through to continue to function and/or stay alive can strip you of who you are and who you used to be, even though you may look the same on the outside. I consider myself pretty lucky as far as the cancer treatment I’ve received is concerned, but I’ve still had to deal with the biopsies, scans, blood tests, and procedures that leave me bruised temporarily, and sometimes scarred for life. Additionally, through all these the specter of early, sudden, and impending death has bore down on me more often than not. All the while, the biggest struggle has been to find myself again while others label me as something and someone else. No one realizes that while they indicate that I am now somehow “different,” I just want to be the same old me, though with an extra full plate to deal with. It’s because of this that I’ve stopped sharing a lot of my information, though I plan to”come clean” in my next blog posts, however many it may take. (Yeah, maybe more than one. I’ve withheld a lot of gory details.)

My two year “cancerversary” is coming up next month. In the last twenty-three months of my life I’ve been told that I must be “miserable.” (I’m not.) Some have treated me as if nothing is wrong. (Shame on them.) I’ve been counted out. (Sorry to disappoint you. Wait, no I’m not.) Worst of all, some like me better now that I’m “tainted” in their eyes. (They don’t know that I’m still happier than they’ll ever be.) In the pursuit of finding ME again, I’ve had to dodge a hell of a lot of stupidity, hurt, and crisis. Nevertheless, these days I’m hitting ME again pretty closely and sometimes even getting a break from being Cancer Girl. I guess I won’t ever be the same carefree person I was before, but when I think this way I realize: Everyone has their crosses to bear. If I didn’t have cancer I’d be worried about getting old, losing my figure, or not having enough money, things I don’t even think about now. Getting old will be a privilege. Bring it on! My body still looks pretty good, all things considered. And I’ll always figure out how to survive monetarily. Hell, I’ve survived Stage IV lung cancer!

Am I proud of that last point? You bet your bottom dollar I am. Of all the things I’ve been called, “survivor” is the one I accept. On MY terms. Find YOUR terms, and stick with them. Find yourself again, accept the differences, embrace who you are and how much BETTER you are now that you have overcome the disruption of your life.

In the meantime, please enjoy the photos of ME still being ME.

My Picture Store

Traditionally, my least favorite time of the year is the end of summer vacation, and the end of summer in general. This year it’s a lot different for me, maybe because I’m on a road trip later than usual and don’t have time to mourn yet. Then, as if any of us can forget, there’s this pesky virus that just won’t go away and threatens all the things that we want to get back to doing. And of course I now have lung cancer and never know when my two year streak of good luck will run out. Yeah, my head is in kind of a weird place, I’ll admit it. Trying to turn the corner to better thoughts and having a tough time doing it. Maybe writing about something that makes me happy will help?

I’ve been posting about how important it is to continue to love life even when you’ve been diagnosed with a serious and chronic illness. In my last two blogs I’ve discussed finding new ways to do what you love and finding new things to love. I failed to write about my love for taking pictures, which sometimes gets forgotten with all the talking I do about the traveling and hiking that go hand and hand with the camera work! As further proof that I’m continuing to move forward with my life in spite of the fact that I live every day with a death threat hanging over my head now, I’ve finally done something that I’ve been wanting to do for years: I’ve set up an online photography store! I’m excited to have some of my beloved snapshots for sale after many years of collecting them.

People have been telling me for decades to sell my photography. I have thousands upon thousands of pictures from my travels through fifty states, forty countries, six Canadian provinces, more than forty U.S. national parks and several national parks in foreign countries, as well as thousands more from around New England, my backyard. Overwhelming stuff!

So, where to start? I chose Picfair as the place to set up my store. Picfair suggests picking out twenty excellent shots. Many of my files are saved on an external hard drive, and that’s where I began, going in alphabetical order. I just about made it through the A’s and B’s! Check out my store with my first “twenty best” pictures.

Whenever someone asks me how I take such nice pictures I have the same line: “Being able to go to really cool places is 75% of the battle!” I’m always looking for an interesting shot. Pictures are so easy to delete now, why not take a whole bunch and only keep the ones you like? Better yet, keep them all in case you change your mind. I’m totally guilty of loading up my cameras and only deleting the blurry ones.

Do you ever see that person that seems to be taking pictures of stuff that you walk right by? Yeah, guilty again! That someone is me. I chase butterflies and bugs and flowers. I’ve been accused of talking to rocks. I’m the slowest hiker on the planet because I have my camera bag and stop every twenty steps for a new shot. With odds like that you’re bound to hit the photo jackpot every now and again.

When I was a little kid my eyes were always drawn to the color green. Green just totally did it for me, and my parents indulged that by buying me green clothes, green bikes, green everything! I still love the color, though my eye has gotten a little more sophisticated. I dig color combinations when I take photos, but I also love black and white and sepia tone. When I picked my twenty best I included all the above and shots from several different places. Soon enough I’ll add to them.

Hey, I’m not asking you to buy anything, but I’d love to know if I made some good choices. I tried to do a post on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, but of course you can’t expect to reach anyone on FB without contributing to the Let’s Make Zuck a Zillionaire Fund. Have a look and drop me a line if you can!

I’ve peppered this post with more of my favorite shots from around the country and around the globe. They will probably make it onto Picfair sooner or later!

Okay, I feel a little better now. Life goes on!

Finding New Joy

Hey, how is your summer going? Mine: Great! In fact, I’m ready to head back out on the road again before I have to return to teaching at the end of the month. Before I do, I wanted to get back to talking about how to live happily and successfully with a chronic illness. Yes, I have one, lung cancer, and yes, I’m still loving life.

In earlier posts I laid out some ground rules to consider that work for me. Below, I’m going to list them again, with links to the previous posts in which I expand on the point:

1) Get the best medical care possible

2) Seek no sympathy

3) Find new ways to do what you love

4) Find new things to love

5) Surround yourself with positivity

6) Don’t let your illness define you

In this post I’ll expand on number four, find new things to love.

I don’t know about you, but the pandemic taught me that I can do things I didn’t ever think I could. Maybe it was because I had more time on my hands than usual. I’m a person that is constantly busy doing the things I have to do, followed by the things I love to do. The other way around if I’m having a really good day! One of my favorite ways to pass my time, namely traveling, was a little tricky when we were all quarantining. So, I took on a new hobby, since I was around town so much more. My new fun was art! And I found out that I’m better at it than I used to think. No, I’m probably not ever going to sell anything that I’ve created, but I’ve decorated my walls and steps and porch with my creations, and I’ve even added a new twist to some of my plants! It’s not important to me whether anyone likes it or not. I’m being fulfilled and I’ve expanded beyond my writing/hiking/traveling mindset! Check out a few of my “projects”:

If you aren’t interested in art, find something else. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn a language. Maybe you’d like to learn the rules of football so you know what all the hype is about. How about playing an instrument? Learning to cook or bake better? Planting a garden? The trick is not necessarily to “master” something, though you may very well end up doing that. What’s really important is to continue to learn and grow. When we suddenly have an illness that is not likely to get better or go away we tend to think that we might as well just give up, since our lives will probably be over soon. When I was first diagnosed with lung cancer things weren’t looking all that good for me. But to my surprise, I was able to move forward, and due to a few smart moves (see my list above!) I’m still doing just that. If I can get back on track you can too. Truth is, we are lucky to live in a time that is full of medical breakthroughs that help us to live better and longer. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try? Do it! Challenge yourself, and keep challenging yourself!

Last year I shattered my on foot mileage record. 1,850 miles! I averaged five miles a day. That’s a lot of walking! I decided that this year I wouldn’t try to break that record, but would make a new goal for myself: 1,500 miles on foot, 500 miles of biking. I’ve had a bicycle hanging around for a decade, hardly riding it over the past few years, not for lack of wanting, just too busy doing other things. This summer I’ve really been putting myself to it, finally! I’m not likely to reach my goal this year, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up! I’m just happy to really be doing it instead of talking about it. For me, it’s the excitement of seeing things in a new and different way, finally doing something I’ve been talking about doing for a long time, and having yet another hobby that makes me smile!

Perhaps the greatest thing about learning something new is that your mind is busy and you aren’t dwelling on things that make you sad or angry. That doesn’t mean you’re in denial, but it does mean that you’re putting your best foot forward and coping with the unwanted changes in your life. Try it. I think you’ll like it!

The Fun Doesn’t Need to End with a Chronic Illness

At Mono Lake, California, South Tufa Trail

Did you ever notice how you wait and wait and wait for a certain day, (wedding, vacation, birthday) then it’s suddenly here, and then the days just keep going and going, even though you want time to stop on that pivotal day? Yeah, I’ve experienced that phenomenon many times in my life and am, in fact, feeling it even as I type. I’m currently on the later end of a road trip that wasn’t really ever supposed to happen. But it did happen, and I don’t want it to end, even though I have many other plans this summer!

This was the trip that I had to cancel in 2019 because of cancer. This is the trip I had to cancel again in 2020 because of COVID19. I got a really cheap plane ticket to Vegas this past April, when things were just starting to open back up, and I kept my fingers crossed that maybe, just maybe, I would pull the trip off the third time. Well, I’m kind of believing that “the third time’s a charm,” because it has been absolutely amazing, everything I had hoped it would be and more. All the photos included here are from the past two weeks. Sick of seeing my face all over my posts? Too bad. I think it’s only proper that if I’m trying to make a point I should show that I’m not just saying something, I’m doing it too. You know, talking the talk and walking walk. My message is: Yes, I have a chronic illness. Yes, I’m enjoying life, and yes, you should be too, whether you have a chronic illness or not.

Here goes post number three in a series of six. In my first two posts I started to discuss the basic rules of living life with a chronic illness:

1) Get the best medical care possible

2) Seek no sympathy

3) Find new ways to do what you love

4) Find new things to love

5) Surround yourself with positivity

6) Don’t let your illness define you

In this post I’ll expand on number three, Find new ways to do what you love.  And what better time to talk about it, than when I’m doing just that?

I am the queen of road trips. Not was. Am. I’ve been road tripping since I was in my twenties, and I’m a lot older than that now! When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2019 it sure looked like the only place I was going on a road trip to was the grave. But because I got the best medical care possible, my health and life turned around quickly and here I am, still at it. I didn’t give up anything that I loved to do. I may have had to do things in a different way until I was strong enough to do them like I did before cancer, but if it meant eventually continuing my pre-disease life even while fighting the fight, I was okay with that. Here are some examples of how I altered the pastimes that make me the happiest.

Writing: I had a lot of fun penning fiction for several years. Around the same time I was diagnosed I had decided to concentrate on blogging and writing nonfiction. Though I didn’t expect to be producing a story about how I survived Stage IV lung cancer (this is still quite unbelievable to me!) that’s what I did because it seemed like the right thing to do, it was therapeutic, and hey, it was writing! I really did plan to publish it, but eventually it only seemed to make me relive that part of my life over and over again, so I shelved it. But I didn’t shelve my love of writing. I’m currently working on another manuscript. You can read the beginning of it here.

Hiking: For over a decade I’ve been keeping activity lists and calendars. I love looking back at them and seeing all the things, near and far, long and short, I’ve done over the years. They also help me understand how I’ve built my strength and endurance back up after two bouts of progressing cancer. (I’m currently in remission.) Speaking of endurance, hiking is more often than not seen as a test of just that. Not in my book. Some of the best hikes I’ve done are easy with big payoffs. (The South Tufa Trail at Mono Lake, as seen above, comes instantly to mind!) As I was building back up to tougher hikes I did a lot of easy stuff that was very pleasing. Now, I’m perfectly fine with doing hikes and walks that keep me in shape but don’t necessarily challenge me. I’ve always been a sucker for a beautiful view! Usually once a week I’ll do something that does challenge me. I can still pull off the leg busters on command!

Traveling: Because of COVID19 the verdict is still out on this one! I’m continuing to get my road trip wings back. I took my new SUV on the road last summer, have taken weekend trips, and have visited my niece in South Carolina several times, all of which went as hoped and planned. Later on this year I’ll take my first international trip since my diagnosis, provided my health holds up and COVID19 stays quiet in the U.S. Here’s hoping that everyone’s gets vaccinated so we can keep moving forward!

I hope that my examples have given you some inspiration. Please don’t give up on what you love! Doing so is the biggest mistake you could make. You need to do what you love more than ever now. Do whatever it takes to continue to enjoy life!

On the road…literally!!

Come On, Get Happy: Life with a Chronic Illness

Howdy friends! Been getting your adventure on? You can bet I have. I wanted to get this next post up before I hit the road of life again, and here it is!

Last time out I started sharing my thoughts about what it takes to live a good life with a chronic illness. Yes, it can be done, even on those days when you feel like the world is kicking you to the curb. For sure, it kind of sucks, and some days will be worse than others, but it can suck a lot less if you go about it the right way.

In my introductory post I laid out some ground rules:

1) Get the best medical care possible

2) Seek no sympathy

3) Find new ways to do what you love

4) Find new things to love

5) Surround yourself with positivity

6) Don’t let your illness define you

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Right. And pretty easy? That’s where you’re wrong. All of these points take time and patience and the ability (and willingness) to make good decisions. Some of the choices you’ll be faced with will also be tough. Maybe you’ll need to end relationships or change jobs or stop doing things you’ve always done. The focus is you, not anyone else. This is hard for those who are used to always taking care of others. This time it’s about you, and your ultimate happiness. Look at it this way: you’re already sacrificing enough by leading a life that may consist of pain, appointments, and missing out on fun that you once had. Why give up more?

Getting the best medical care possible is my first suggestion, and was covered in my first post. Rather than rehash it, click here to read about point number one.

Which brings us to point number two: Seek no sympathy. Social media is full of individuals with no self-esteem who look to their “friends” to build them up. Don’t be one of them. One of the things I dreaded most when I first got my diagnosis was what others were going to say to me or about me. This has nothing to do with whether your friends and acquaintances understand and “like” you or not. It’s not about how your hair looks or what clothes you’re wearing and whether they’re envious of you or you’re envious of them. You shouldn’t care about any of that anymore; you have much bigger fish to fry now. It’s about what they think of you knowing you have this new “thing” that is suddenly part of your life. Chances are good that they’re going to come at you with sympathy because of this terrible luck that has befallen you. How do you think you’re going to handle puppy dog eyes? Tears? Your name with the word “poor” in front of it? And what will you get out of it? Will you feel better? I headed my sympathizers off at the pass by announcing my expected diagnosis before I even got it. This likely helped me to acknowledge what was happening to me as well. I’ve come a heck of a long way since. Whether the people around me have gotten as far as I have is a matter of opinion. You’d have to ask them. But I warned them about how I wanted to be treated. I’ve spent the time since my diagnosis (inching closer to two years now) trying to figure out how to continue to be ME again, while so many others have spent the time trying to make me be someone else. Be it a hero or a disease-ridden ogre, it hardly matters. I used to be one of US, now I’m one of THEM. No matter what I do, no one lets me forget it: I’m “different.” And for that, I need sympathy. Sobbing. Words for “warriors” like, “You got this.” Assumptions that I’m “suffering” (I’m not) and that I’m some kind of superhero (I’m not.) Shrug it off or defend yourself against it. You don’t need it.

Once again, every image here was taken post diagnosis.

As previously mentioned, I’m getting ready to get out of Massachusetts. By the time you read this I’ll be on my way to the land of record hot temperatures and no more face masks. (I’ll still be wearing mine when necessary.) California, of course! With some Nevada thrown in for good measure. A colorful trip that will warrant at least one post, if not more. So forgive me ahead of time if my next piece of writing leaves the above conversation hanging! I promise to be back soon with point number three, Find new ways to do what you love. Meanwhile, I’m going to do just that!

Happy Summer! Adventure on!

Chronic Adventuress with a Chronic Illness

Yeah, I guess it’s time for me to face the facts: I’m going to be a sickie for the rest of my life. Believe me, even if I try to forget about it, there’s always someone there to remind me that I could be just as easily knocking on death’s door as I could be hiking mountains and enjoying life. Whoa, wait, did I just say enjoying life? With a chronic illness? Yes, truth of truths is that no matter what stage IV cancer has taken away from me, there’s still more that it hasn’t taken away from me. The number one thing I still have is my happiness. We’re talking real, deep happiness, not the material kind that a lot of people try to substitute for the genuine product. In fact, I find that more than ever, little things make me smile. A lot of things make me smile. And they make me smile a lot! Understand?

Since I was diagnosed in 2019, I’ve tossed around ways to help others who are struggling with illness. I touched on being “the new face of surviving cancer,” and wrote the story of my first year with the disease. (It’s in a drawer now, unpublished!) I’ve ridden the “Who am I now?” wave the whole time. After a recurrence soured my survival skills for a few months, I’m back in a comfortable place full of hope and future plans and feeling like I have something to offer others living with chronic illnesses.

Before I start sharing my thoughts, let me first clarify a few things. Most importantly, my chronic illness is lung cancer, which, if I had it ten years ago, would have undoubtedly killed me. I am extremely fortunate that my illness can be controlled with medication. This likely sounds far fetched, but it really isn’t. Read here for more information about how we can now treat some individuals with lung cancer. Also, my disease has nothing to do with smoking, so before you think that I somehow “asked for” this, read here about how many people who get lung cancer now have never smoked. With that out there, let me just say one more thing…

I recently Google’d some general keywords to be sure that I wasn’t stepping on anyone’s toes by calling myself the Chronic Adventuress with a Chronic Illness, and was disgruntled to find out that there are a heck of a lot of “experts” out there writing about living with a chronic illness who don’t have a chronic illness. That decided it. I have the first hand experience to back it up. And, I can honestly say that I’ve had to change my lifestyle very little since my diagnosis, thanks to steps that I have taken to preserve my well being. I’ve intentionally peppered this post with photos of me winning at the game of life. All of them were taken post diagnosis.

Without further ado, here are my six suggestions:

1) Get the best medical care possible

2) Seek no sympathy

3) Find new ways to do what you love

4) Find new things to love

5) Surround yourself with positivity

6) Don’t let your illness define you

I planned to talk about all six points in this post, but I know the limits of the human attention span circa 2021. Having the opinion that these are all crucial (and we are, after all, talking about life, and living it as happily as possible,) I think they all deserve to be fleshed out, and I will give them all their due, even if I have to write several different posts! So for now, let me talk a little more about #1, GET THE BEST MEDICAL CARE POSSIBLE.

The best medical care possible? A no brainer, right? If I thought it was a no brainer I wouldn’t even mention it. Getting the best care possible is not a matter of insurance or money or location. It is a matter of choice, plain and simple. While I’m extremely fortunate to live within driving distance of some of the best medical facilities on the planet, don’t think for one minute that patients don’t travel great distances across states, countries, and oceans to get here. And don’t think for the next minute that there aren’t people who have access to the same care that don’t seek it, because there are. I urge everyone I talk to who has a serious illness to research the best, and get it any way they can. The more serious your illness, the more likely you are to need something beyond your local hospital. Don’t waste precious time getting what you need and deserve!

I’ve now exhausted your attention span!

I promise to get back to this discussion soon. Until then, adventure on!

I’m Writing Another Book!

Well, what the heck do you know…I’m finally writing another book! Yay, me!!

My last (and seventh) book was published more than two years ago now. Since then, my life has changed so much and I’ve had so many other things to think about that my writing career pretty much went to the birds. You might say that fighting cancer with all ten fingers was more important than any book that I could write, but not doing something that I love so much has left a big hole in my existence. I’ve been lucky enough to slowly put my favorite pastimes back on track. But finding the right manuscript to delve into was tougher than I thought. I wouldn’t quite call the possibilities “endless,” but I had a few irons in the fire to choose from.

Questions to self:

Do I continue my rock and roll groupie series? Do I continue my “Women Like Us” series? I wrote both under the pen name Brenda K. Stone and really didn’t want to go back to that, so I turned them both down, as much as I loved putting them out to the world.

Do I edit the romance that I finished shortly before my diagnosis? I pulled it out of “the drawer,” read it, loved it, got really excited about it. But I’m here to tell you that being excited about something and following through on a hell of a lot of work are two very different things! I simply lost interest, and back in “the drawer” it went!

Do I edit the true story of my cancer journey, plucked from journals that I wrote freehand in those cloudy days when I was just getting my sea legs to get me through a really frightening experience? To do so would be to relive and relive and relive something I was already beyond. I published a shorter version with an online magazine and kept searching for what I was looking for.

Before “all this” happened I had decided to focus on nonfiction, and started a little thing called “How to Road Trip.” That didn’t do it for me either; who needs to know how to road trip during a pandemic? And after a pandemic, everyone and their cousin will be writing a tome about how to road trip, so back in “the drawer” that went too.

And then, something popped into my head. A real “Oh Yeah!!” moment.

A few months before my life imploded I had written an outline for a a book I dreamed of penning. A small book, short on pages but long on meaning. Something that everyone could relate to; a story of love, loss, adventure and, you know, all that’s good and bad in the world. Well, I found it and I thought it out and I kicked it around, and I decided that it was The One. Rather than just tell you about it, allow me to interview myself (since no one else wants to interview me!)

INTERVIEWER: Does your book have a working title?

BARB LEE: Thanks for asking! Yes, it does. I first called it “A Thousand Winds That Blow,” but have decided to cut it down to simply “A Thousand Winds.”

INTERVIEWER: Wow, great name. Where did it come from?

BARB LEE: Thanks, I thought so too, and I’m glad you asked. The title comes from a beautiful poem called “Do Not Weep” that I discovered when my beloved mom passed. We used it on her prayer cards. I wanted something with very deep meaning for the title of the book and started thinking about lines in that poem, deciding on that one.

INTERVIEWER: Great reason. Now, what is the book about?

BARB LEE: I thought you would never ask! I’ve always thought how amazing it would have been to be alive in the 60s, to go to Woodstock, to participate in the March on Washington, to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement, and many other historic events. So I decided to create a character who did all those things and everything else I’ve ever dreamed of doing. But now she’s dying and she has a granddaughter that she’s at odds with that doesn’t know any of it, and she wants her to know it all. I think the book has an important statement to make about age and life experience, and how society devalues individuals as they get older, even though these people have done such incredible things.

INTERVIEWER: Wow, that sounds pretty incredible. When will it be done?

BARB LEE: When it’s done! I’m not writing on deadlines or worried about word count. Just going to enjoy the experience and the research that comes with it.

INTERVIEWER: Do you at least have a teaser?

BARB LEE: Can do! Below is the prologue in the perspective of Janis, who has just been diagnosed with ALS, a.k.a, Lou Gehrig’s Disease:

The way you look at me hurts. The message in your eyes speaks volumes: You’re old. Therefore, you’re worthless.

            You have no idea.

            Do you think your generation invented sex? Drugs? Rock and roll? You, with your Facebook and Instagram and TikTok? You, that can’t show your face without a “filter?” Because one of your “friends” might see your soul? So you cover it up with whiskers or a pig nose, and think that you have the world in the palm of your hand?

            Do you know what it’s like to truly be loved? By the same man, for forty-eight years? Could you find joy in a sandbox? Or playing house in the woods, where the rocks are your toaster, the trees your shower stall? Have you ever had to disappear into that same forest to escape a man that would hurt his own daughter to satisfy his sick fantasies?

            Coachella is a meaningless spot on the map to me, yet your biggest accomplishment. But were you marching in Selma, Alabama in 1965? Were you in the crowd for the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, 1963? Did you see the Beatles land at JFK on February 7, 1964, after hitching a ride from California? Not looking so smug now, I see.

            But there’s more. Much more. The life I’ve led even overwhelms me, to the point I have to leave it in the past sometimes and keep moving forward.

            You don’t know any of it. All you know is that seven years ago you found out that I’m really your grandmother, and who your parents really were. You haven’t spoken to me since.

            I guess you’ll never know where your grandmother has been.

Because you hate me. And I’m dying.

INTERVIEWER: Powerful stuff! Is there somewhere where I can read more?

BARB LEE: Yes! Click here, or go to my In Progress tab. And thanks for your interest!

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Rebirth!

Don’t you love spring? I certainly do, always have. This year, I got an extra special present two days after the beginning of my second favorite season: I’m in remission again. Thanks to the latest offering for metastatic lung cancer from Big Pharma, my scans from March 22nd look very promising. Promising in what way? For cure? Being done with treatment? What? Let’s just leave it as promising and hope for the best.

I didn’t post every step of my journey on Facebook this time. Not because my friends and followers are sick of it, but because, frankly, I am. And I matter for something besides cancer, even though I kinda sometimes feel that I really don’t matter that much because of cancer. Oh, don’t be that way, you say. Be a warrior! You got this! Kick cancer’s ass! And I say, I hope you never have to know what it’s really like to have this monster lurking inside you, and find out how all of that typical language starts to turn your stomach. That’s why I chose not to shout it from the treetops. Instead, I’m standing somewhat firmly on the ground with a pleased smile and hoping it lasts a long time.

Yeah, I know everyone “means well.” And I really do appreciate it. But sometimes I realize that people really don’t THINK about what they’re saying to me. Their fingers just fly over the keyboard of their iPhones because, well, they have to say something to show support in five words or less. My advice: Just press the heart, folks. Just press the heart, instead of breaking the heart.

I am suddenly reborn hand in hand with the entire Northern Hemisphere and can move toward the future with a little more of a stride in my step after a few months of stomach churning uncertainty. Soon I’ll be fully vaccinated and will start to travel again. Plans are made, other plans are in the works. Life feels good again, though as the old saying goes, “It’s always something.” Always something to rain on a parade already drenched with “somethings.” A precious fur baby crosses the Rainbow Bridge, a long time friendship is at odds. Sure seems wrong that I have to deal with all this and cancer too. WTF.

Before all this happened I was living my best life, yet always counting my blessings. Stopping long enough to realize how lucky I am? Yes, indeed. Never so busy that I couldn’t do that. Now I’ve arrived back at that after hours and days of gloom and doom, of wondering how life could go one way for so long then make an abrupt u-turn and continue on to the point of no return. Well, I just never made it to that pinnacle, made another abrupt u-turn, and here I am, so close to having the opportunity to live my best life again after surviving what kills big strong people continuously. A lucky girl? Oh, you can’t even imagine. What did I ever do to be able to tell this particular story and not lie? No idea. This may sound like another lie, but in many ways I wouldn’t have it any other way. When the going is good, like it is now, I am content to be an odds beater. Nothing quite like it. Tom Brady has seven rings. I have life. Beat that.

I’ve had the good fortune of having some incredible people always at the ready to pick me up before I get too far down. They more than make up for the few that should be there but aren’t for one selfish reason or another. It’s okay, you can’t win them all. If someone can’t be there when I’m flying high, when I’m down in the dirt, and when I’m somewhere in between trying to find firm ground, then they need not be there at all. And I know how to return the favor. It ain’t all about me. I get that. Relationships are give and take. How many times have we heard that but still insist on having one-sided affairs? I’m in a secure place with some pretty special people all around. Imagine the irony of thinking that after all the building I’ve done, cancer would knock out one block and the whole wall would collapse. Not the case, I say with a shiver of warmth. The foundation is pretty sturdy.

Shortly before I set out on this journey that would culminate in perhaps my biggest learning experience yet (survival), I was right where I wanted to be. Maybe that was a dangerous thought. But, to heck with it. I hereby announce myself there again.

Born again.

Happy Spring!

The Glory of Aging

I hereby promise that this is the last opinion piece I’ll be writing. One of my upcoming New Year’s resolutions is to focus my blog on hiking, traveling, and all the other activities that make me the New Face of Surviving Cancer. So, if you would be so kind to listen one more time, I’ll get on to that stuff soon enough.

Still, this kind of fits, in its own crazy way.

As I reach my fifty-fourth birthday this day, I’m reveling in the glory of aging, because, you see, I really wasn’t supposed to be granted a fifty-fourth birthday. No, at the end of 2019, months before COVID19, I was faced with the very real possibility that I would never see the end of 2020, maybe not even the end of 2019.

For reasons I’ve blathered heartily about (lung cancer…shhhh!) I’m supposed to be, well, um, dead. But here I am, still chipping away at my allotted number of lives (ever been on a burning DC-10? I have) which must be in the triple-digits, (how many times have I been around the world alone?) or I’m just living on borrowed time, as it sometimes seems now.

Man, I’ve had a good life. I have a good life. Even after cancer, and so much loss, and so much heartache, I can still say that. How?

I have nothing left to prove. Oh, I still want to travel the world, and experience true and lasting love, and hike the other thirty national parks that I haven’t done yet, and write a bestselling memoir. But I’ve stopped worrying about many of the things I used to cringe over.

Aging is a biggie. I have a whole new perspective. Getting old, my friends, is a privilege. I’ve always respected the elderly. Now, even more. I want the privilege of being one of them. And I’m going to enjoy every step of the journey until then with my fingers crossed and my upper body in a PET scanner.

You think I care about bikinis? The wisdom of Kylie Jenner? How much cash you have in your wallet? How much your car costs? To me, Coachella is the name of a nowhere town in my beloved Mojave, not a festival where the youthful and stupid compete for social media attention. I don’t envy the young, who will never know what it’s like to be able to trust people they’ve never met, or play in the woods with reckless abandon.

The other night a wonderful friend of mine came to deliver presents, and took a picture of us using a filter, to show me how it worked. I was horrified to see my face look so different. But to some, this is the norm, because it’s easier to look fake than look like you. I can’t even relate.

I love talking to people older than me. Walking in the local cemeteries, I always meet someone with interesting stories to tell. I’d much prefer to hear real life tales told by an authentic person than the overblown fiction of a “sophisticated” twentysomething. In fact, I have every intention of buying property in a 55+ community the second I’m old enough. You couldn’t talk me out of it if you tried. And hey, I’ll be the youngest one there! Beat that!

I don’t want to overstay my welcome. Give me eighty or eighty-five years and I’ll be happy. Very happy. That will give me plenty of time to finish up my earthly business. Anything more than that and I’ll start to be a burden. To some, I’m already a burden. Why be more of one than I already am, right? That should be our real goal: strive to live a full and fruitful life, but check out before we become a liability.

The elderly are often looked upon as just that. The jokes about the old couple driving around in the RV are tacky. They earned their retirement through working for forty years. And you? Wrinkles are looked down upon as if we aren’t all going to get them. Remember, some of those folks saw Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, or fought in Vietnam. How’s that for life experience? Some of them beat cancer in the days when the treatment options were even more archaic than they are today. They traveled and made love and got high and experienced sadness and fear and devastation. They lived through epidemics and pandemics. We didn’t invent that stuff. They had it down pat long before we came along.

As for me, I’ve bought me some time, such a priceless purchase, and hope to keep on buying it, an installment loan like no other. If I get my way, cancer will turn out to be something that touched my life “thirty years ago,” that I’ll look back on with a shake of my head, a lilting sigh, and a wry smile. That I made it through to bask in the privilege of old age. I’m a year into it already! Only twenty-nine to go!

Merry Christmas. See you in 2021!

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A Tale of Two Women

 

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.

Mom

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:

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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:

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Barbara

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!

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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!

Oh, one more thing…

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!

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