Unhappy Trails

It’s hardly a secret that I spend a lot of time in the woods, near and far. International parks, national parks, state parks, town parks, any park. Long trails, short trails, no trails, any trail. The forest is my refuge, where I go for silence, reflection, exercise, clarity. I’m hardly the only person on Earth who practices this. Millions of individuals do. And it seems, as I’ve observed once again, that there are just as many people in the forest that don’t care about silence or reflection or exercise or clarity. Worse, the example that they set for their children says, the forest and the trees and those dummies in hiking boots don’t matter. Don’t worry about them! This land is our land, like the song says. Do whatever you want with it!

To me, no matter how much I travel, a road trip in the United States is the best thing that could happen to me. This summer, I was lucky enough to complete two. I can’t even count how many I’ve taken in this crazy life of mine. But I can count how many times I’ve been disappointed by the behavior of other Americans and their offspring: every single time. The ugly American is alive and kicking and exhibiting several other forms of bad behavior, too.

Here’s my disclaimer: I’m not a parent. I never wanted to be a parent. I will never be a parent. But I am a teacher. I’m that person that takes care of your children for you seven hours a day while you earn a living. I’m the person that gets your child through the least favorite part of their day, and I do it without yelling, swearing, or even being allowed to touch them. Meanwhile, you have them for the part of the day that they look forward to the most, and with all the tools you have on your side your children are disrespectful and you let them be. You bring them to my playgrounds, my refuges, my shrines, and you turn them loose to pollute the silence, the rules, the trees, the rocks, the dirt, and the water and don’t teach them to respect these things. My heart, folks, is broken. Broken like the carved trees and the trashed lands and the sacred air that is pierced with their screams that have no real purpose other than to make noise. But wait, I’m missing something here. The reason that they act like that is because you act like that. You set the example of bad behavior and they follow it. They don’t know any better because of you. Is there a solution? There is. Read on.

The world has places that are made for noise. Disney World. Six Flags. Rock concerts. Sporting events. Go to any of these places and you’ll look like a Scrooge if you aren’t yelling. I know, because I’ve been to plenty of concerts and sporting events, and while everyone is drinking and smoking and acting cool, I’m just enjoying the music and the spectacle and being quiet like I am on the trail. The point is that there’s a time and a place for everything, and the time and place for obnoxious behavior is not on a beautiful hiking trail.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I GOT IT. We live in a free country. You paid your twenty bucks for a week of touring a national park just like I did. Your kids are going to be brats once in a while. You’re going to be a brat once in a while. You need to let your hair down and decompress SOMEWHERE. So I need to stop complaining and mind my own business.

I won’t. Because the way you act goes against everything nature is meant for. Here’s a perfect example. “Mommy, do you think we’ll see some animals?” little Joey and/or Janey asks Mommy and Daddy. “Maybe!” Mommy and Daddy answer with gusto, as Joey and/or Janey pick up rocks and throw them here, there, and everywhere, stand at the top of a cliff and “practice their echo,” and slip and fall and howl for ten minutes because they aren’t following the rules of wild places. Any animal that would possibly want to come out of hiding to meet Joey or Janey would be of questionable character. Maybe a hungry grizzly? Get your camera ready!

The very reason you’re in the woods is negated by your rotten behavior. Get it?

Please, please, please don’t tell me that children have to scream and yell and crash into me to have a good time. That they don’t have to follow basic etiquette after a long week of being cooped up in school. That just because it doesn’t cost anything to walk a trail, the experience has no value and therefore, no rules. You’re wrong on all accounts. Every so often I hike with kids that know how to act because they have parents that know how to act and pass it on. And let me remind you, I see your kids at the worst of times and show them how to be on their best behavior.

Teach your children well. I do.

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!

Happy Birthday, Ma!

I was supposed to be in New York City today, honoring the life of my precious mommy, but I got rained out, so guess what? I’m dedicating a blog to her!

On this date, July 29th, in 1924, an amazing baby name Genevieve Josephine was born in Palmer, Massachusetts, or that’s the way the story goes. Back then the records weren’t always so accurate. Ma always said that she may have been born on the 27th or 28th. But the accepted date was July 29th, and that’s when we always celebrated the date of her miraculous birth. Ma was someone worthy of many celebrations!

Children never want to think that their parents had lives before they were born. Admittedly, I didn’t know enough about her younger years until after she passed away.

Genevieve’s parents came to the United States via Ellis Island from Poland and were largely uneducated. However, Genevieve was a hard working student at Palmer High School. She always spoke with pride about graduating in 1942. The first picture (above) is her graduation picture. Genevieve, being a daddy’s girl, would hold tight to the dream of someday going to Czestochowa, Poland to visit a monastery called Jasna Gora, home of the world famous Black Madonna, to honor her father by lighting a candle for him there. Maybe Genevieve, being a small town girl, couldn’t dream big enough to think that this would ever come true. But it did. One of her future daughters would make sure of it.

Genevieve worked what some would now call “menial jobs.” But she wouldn’t remember them that way. World War II was raging in Europe and Asia and Genevieve would be a part of the effort to support the troops. When the war was over she would marry a striking but troubled young soldier named Albert and together they would eventually have six babies. All of those children were girls, the first one born in 1951, the year after they were married, and the last in 1966, when Genevieve was 42 years old, quite a feat at that time in history.

Genevieve gave everything and more for her six children, but she never had the comfort of being a housewife, for Genevieve and Albert were not rich by any means. They both had to work full time jobs in order to have a safe place to live, a decent car to drive, and nice things for the children. Genevieve and Albert didn’t seem to care much about that, because they had each other and their six girls.

Then one cold winter’s day in 1977, Genevieve no longer had Albert, because he died suddenly. She had to go on alone and somehow fight through life without her only love. Genevieve kept going to work and keeping her family afloat even though her spirit was ripped away from her without warning. It would take her a decade and a half to get it back. Meanwhile, her beloved children began to scatter and break apart.

Many years after losing Albert, and as her six children struggled to find their own footing, Genevieve found a new and unexpected love: traveling with her youngest daughter, though that love would be fraught with constant worry, as her family fell apart. As strong and as perfect as her love was, it just never seemed to be enough to mend the destructive forces at work around her. As much as she loved traveling, the loss of the love of a few of her daughters, and the death of her beloved husband couldn’t ever be replaced. She would never be able to fully enjoy life again, though there were happy times. She held her head up and moved forward.

In the end, Genevieve went further than she ever thought she would: to that monastery in Czestochowa, Poland to honor her father, to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and on some pretty great road trips to most of the 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. In 2004, Genevieve took her final road trip and never looked back.

Or, maybe she did. But as her youngest daughter and travel companion, I believe there came a time when she said, I’ll see you when you get here, and chose to truly rest in peace.

Seventeen years is a heck of a long time to be without her, but in some ways it’s a relief that she is in that “better place” and away from a few individuals who still insist on tarnishing a legacy of love, from a heart so pure that everyone should be so lucky to know such beauty. Sometimes I wonder why I’ve fought cancer so hard when I’ve had some pretty great opportunities to be with her again, forever. My love of life won out, but next time, who can tell.

For now…

I love you, dear Genevieve Josephine, and I will spend the rest of my life defending your honor, no questions asked, because I know you deserve better. You deserve the best. I will make up for anyone foolish enough to think differently.

Happy Birthday.

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!

Finding A Middle Ground

Hey, did you notice that I changed my site identity from “The New Face of Surviving Cancer” to “Write. Hike. Survive. Thrive?” Yeah, I guess I’ve decided that I don’t want to be the former and would rather concentrate on the latter. Make no mistake, I am not ashamed of who I am now, with cancer survival on top of everything else I’ve managed to accomplish in my life, but the last couple of months have been pretty tough on me and I find myself desperately needing to find a middle ground. I cannot be all cancer all the time.

When you join a clinical trial, (another thing I never wanted to do but have to do if I want to live) you’re kind of at the mercy of the drug company, or “sponsor,” as they so poetically refer to themselves as, and that has been the story of my life for the past five weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful that it appears that I’m making progress. And what the heck else is there to do while we’re all trying to figure out whether COVID19 is coming or going! But I’d still rather be left alone to live my life. Only, that’s the whole point. If I’m left alone to live my life I’ll die. Understand now?

I started out a year and a half ago with this big plan to ditch the fiction writing career I had craved since I was a teenager to focus on nonfiction books and blogging. Hiking and traveling would be my favored subjects. Then cancer came a calling, and I decided that I’d roll with it. I’d start speaking at libraries and other local public places about being a cancer survivor and turn it into a full time gig. COVID19 blew that to smithereens. But I continued to work on a book about my journey, which I finished at the end of 2020. After taking a break from the writing to let it settle for a couple of months, I opened it back up this weekend, read six pages and said, I cannot continue to relive this nightmare.

So guess what I did? I opened one of my “writing drawers” and allowed it to swallow up my “cancer book.” Meanwhile, a fictitious tale of a pretty girl and a football player jumped out. It was one of three other full manuscripts I have hanging around, waiting for the attention I never thought I would give them. But guess what? Fiction is sounding like a hell of a lot of fun again. A hell of a lot more fun than I’ve been having lately. Truthfully, I don’t think it’s a really hot time to be writing books about the hiking and traveling that most of us have not been able to do much of in over a year. And I so want to continue writing books. What can I say? I love writing books. Fiction may be the key again. But I also love blogging. Who ever said I can’t do both? Me. It seems that now and forever, I’ve always been my own worst enemy.

Especially over the past several weeks. My mood has been dreary, at best. My beefs, not necessarily in this order: I have this flippin’ disease. It’s snowing and cold and windy in New England. I’m going up and back to Boston in the worst of it and getting stuck with needles and tested to high heaven to keep me from going to high heaven. Even if I could travel I can’t travel because of a global pandemic. Then my fingers start doing the walking to search out the very worst information I can possibly wrap my mind around about Stage IV lung cancer and yeah, then I’m in the hole big time.

Jeez, enough is enough.

Here’s what I realized the other day. Who is telling me I’m not going to be alive to see the end of the pandemic? Me. Who is telling me that I’m not worth anything now that I have cancer? Me. Who is telling me that I’m never going to travel again? Me. Yeah, I’m the culprit. To repeat: my own worst enemy.

Back to finding the middle ground and the search for some firm footing.

I’ve never been one to live one day at a time. No, more like a whole lifetime in a day with my eye on an even better future. Maybe I get one day at a time now. Still, I need to have plans. I’ve decided it’s safe to look into the near future. And I’m not spending all my retirement money to “live like I’m dying” because I know how that goes. Anyway, I’ve spent the last decade living like I was dying. Yeah, really. Things were pretty good there for some time. Can they be again, in spite of everything? I have to believe they can. But I can’t be too sure of it, because I don’t want to be devastated again. I am moving forward with caution, and with the knowledge that I will still screw up and wind up in the hole again.

But hey…It’s spring. My treatment appears to be going in the right direction. Southern Utah is on the April horizon. I’m thinking about summer road trips. And oh yeah, that book…

I can do this!!!

If This is the End

Maybe you picked up from my last post that my cancer is back, and with a vengeance. Well, it may be more accurate to say that it never really left. Stage IV disease kind of hangs around and wreaks more havoc just when you think that maybe you’ll be the lucky one and it won’t return.

Truth is, I kind of am a lucky one (in an unlucky situation) because I have some magic dust in my tumors that allows me to kill my cancer with a pill, at least until the pill doesn’t work anymore. Which means that if I didn’t tell you I had cancer you’d never know. I plod on and silently battle the killer. Some people go on for years this way. Me, a year and a half, and I just started on med number two after the first one gave out late in the nutty year of 2020. So far, so good, but this is not so different than walking a tight rope. You really don’t know when you’re going to topple off and not have a net to catch you. So you just say your prayers and hope for the best. Look forward, not down.

I’m in better shape than I was when I wrote that last post. The new damage is known and the new treatment has started to tackle it. But I’m having a damn hard time having to go back to where I was a year ago. Starting from scratch is really harrowing, because I was doing so well after round one. Still, the desire to get back to where I was before all this happened drives me on.

Will I get there? Maybe the answer isn’t as important as the fact that I was there once upon a time. When this all went down I had been living my best life for many years. Working hard, traveling hard, laughing hard, hiking hard. I didn’t have any money, because I spent most of it. I didn’t care. Still don’t. It was worth every penny. I visited forty countries, fifty states, forty-plus national parks in the United States, and several in other countries.

I confess to being a country hopper. See a place for a week, be the dreaded “tourist,” and come home to earn money for another week somewhere else in the world, on the next school vacation. Right now, someone out there is waving a finger at me and telling me that I can’t “know” someplace when I only get a little taste of it like I did of a million places. Imagine, spending your life telling someone else what they did wrong.

I confess too, to being a day hiker. Doing a great trail and sleeping in a hotel room after a nice shower while my fellow trekkers insist that hiking isn’t “real” if you don’t sleep in a tent under the stars. Funny, how we have to compete over such nonsense. The way I look at it, if I spend five days someplace really great and it’s the best damn five days of my life, then I add and multiply that several times, pretty soon I have something to reckon with: a life well spent.

I don’t want it to be over, but if this is the end, I’ve had a hell of a run. None of this magic was supposed to happen to the daughter of a janitor. This life that I’ve led was probably meant for someone else and I just happened to show up. Really? No, I lie. I busted my ass for all of it but never got any credit for it from any number of people. Always, I was doing something wrong and inconveniencing them in some way. No, I don’t want to look at your 17,500 pictures of red rocks. No, I don’t want to read your books. No, I don’t want to date you. No, you’re over the top. Stop dressing like that. Stop being so honest and in my face. And now, cancer survivor? You’re TOO MUCH, lady.

I’ve spent my life being rejected by men, by my family, and by people I wanted as my friends. The life I built was the life that accepted me as I was (and am.) Moving quickly enabled me to leave behind what and who I couldn’t have, no matter how hard I tried. I found my happy place. The world, my friends, is my oyster.

Someone out there is saying, she was running away from what she couldn’t have! Or maybe, running to what I could have? I like that better. What I could have was better. In the end, it always is.

Ehhh, maybe I deserve all this. Worked too hard. Laughed too hard. Traveled too hard. Hiked too hard. Guess what? I wouldn’t change a thing. And in my heart of hearts, my soul of souls, and my mind of minds, it ain’t over for me yet. I think I still have some fun left in me. Some miles and some words and some laughs and some thrills.

To anyone who has ever questioned exactly what I’m made of: Now you know. I will not lie down. I will not go quietly.

Surprise! I may have lost value to some the day I got cancer, but I still love life. So there.

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!

**********

Season of Struggle

Well, here we are again. September. The last weeks of summer. Here in New England, a lot of locals are getting ready for what they hope will be a colorful and fabulous leaf peeping season full of apple cider and crisp breezes. But not this local.

This particular local has a dull ache in her stomach that she can’t get rid of as she watches the summer wane. Because this time of the year always reminds her of loss. This time around, even tougher.

In October of 2019 I nearly lost my life to cancer. I was on my way out, on a slow, painful boat motored by metastatic lung cancer, the deadliest bitch of all. But long before that, autumn was the season of the loss of my beloved mother, and that hurt has never quite gone away. Now, added to that is the fear, the trepidation of moving forward, lest I be forced to take several steps back again. I’ve lost a year of my life to the scoundrel nicknamed “the Big C.” Maybe there will be more? No please, no more.

Even before the loss of Mom, the loss of the season of the sun was a shock to the system of this self-proclaimed summer girl. Even as a teenager the question loomed, How many more of these days of sunshine do I have? It sucks sometimes to be human. I want a million more summers. And while we’re at it, why do I have to get old? Because summer was made for youth. Just ask Instagram.

I have a triple whammy on my hands now: cancer, mourning my dear mother, and the retreat of summer. Wait, make that a quadruple whammy, because this is the season I also have to return to the stress of teaching after a mostly carefree summer. That is, if a summer that includes the kind of radiation that happens in a cancer clinic, and not just the kind that takes place on a flat stretch of glorious white beach, can be called “carefree.” If the duration of nine lazy weeks includes long trips on airplanes to exotic locales on the other side of the world and isn’t cancelled by a pandemic. None of that and all of that happened for me this year. It was a good and productive summer, make no mistake, but it wasn’t what I planned. Add to that the fear that…Oh, never mind. You get it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m doing well. Chances are excellent that I’ve beat cancer. I’m not terminal. Yes, there will likely be many more summers for me if my luck holds out. That is a big IF that I’ll live with…as long as I live. Such is the plight of the individual who survives a life-threatening illness. No one really understands, unless they’ve lived it…and almost died by it. You, whose life has not changed one iota in the last year/five years/ten years, don’t pretend you do. You’re forgiven for your ignorance, as long as you don’t try to pretend you know what it’s like. Someday, you may just have to walk a mile in my shoes. But I hope to hell not. It’s only for the strong.

If you’re me or someone like me, questions will be swirling in your mind as the sunshine cools and the earth dies: Why me? Why did I survive and others didn’t? Do I deserve this? Do I deserve cancer? If so, why? What did I do? If I didn’t, why did I get it? And what am I supposed to take away from it? Wow, I have some blogging to do.

Cancer may be over for you looking in, but it isn’t over for me. I’ve got all of October to think about that now.

Sometimes, as I recently shared with my most trusted family member, when the ugliness of life and humanity closes in, an even more painful question pushes through: Should I have died and escaped it all?

Escape never sounds interesting for very long, because I’m not a quitter and I don’t hide from adversity. I’m also not a liar or a genius or a perfect specimen. I allow myself my faults when others don’t. Come to think of it, I allow others their faults when they don’t allow me mine. Which brings up more demands: What is my worth? My worth in being here? Some would have me believe I have none: I’m worthless because I don’t agree with everything they say, because I don’t play by their rules. I must banish these thoughts. I’ll have all of November to quiet them.

That’s when the autumn sun splashes out from a floating cloud and I get my shit (and my hiking poles) together and remember that I fought this fight to win for a reason: I love life. That’s the rub. I fucking love life. This life. My life. The only one I have. The one that some have tried to sum up in three words or less even though they’ve never taken the time to find out who I really am. There ain’t no one out there that is allowed to bring this girl down for very long, not even Mother October, the worst month in the history of me.

Pass me my boots, please?

My life has come full circle, regardless of a season or a virus, or a disease. So, fuck cancer. Fuck COVID19. I’m going to New York, my sparkling Big Apple. And the White Mountains. And South Carolina. And California. And I’m getting Global Entry for when it’s really time to travel again. I’m living my life as I see fit. I’m making my feelings be known. It ain’t all about you and what you want. It’s about me, too. And baby, when you achieve the improbable, it isn’t so easy to forget. Who wants to forget,anyway? Not me, not until I’m good and ready. Until then, I’ll shout it from the mountain tops until I drive you mad. Cancer, cancer, cancer. I survived fucking cancer. I survived the death of my best friend, my traveling companion, my mother. I held my sister’s hand while she died of the same disease one mind numbing January. I saw my father breathing his last breaths one raw February when I was ten. And I’m still standing. And smiling.

And even better, spring is one day closer.

What No One Tells You About Survival

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As I begin this blog, I’m finishing up what will hopefully be my last round of radiation to eradicate the final vestiges of cancer in this vessel of mine that held so many ugly secrets. We’re talking years of feeling like crap, with no clear explanation. Now I can hopefully put my life back on track and move forward. Endings and beginnings. And ugly secrets.

I don’t believe in negativity. But I do believe in being honest and up front. Thus this earnest discussion about being a big time survivor and what it does and doesn’t mean.

Stage IV lung cancer. I don’t look at statistics anymore, but they’re damn grim. I know that from obsessing over them at the beginning of my crazy journey, back when I was destined to die. Now, with CURE being mentioned more and more and EXCELLENT OUTCOME floating hypnotically around like a sweet drug, I can reflect on other things in between high-fiving myself for getting through this, and looking toward a more certain future. I hardly accomplished this on my own, and contrary to the popular beliefs of some, I appreciate everything that has been done for me. But I also had a lot of things happen to me that could and should have been avoided, events that only served to pile on more hurt, and yet more worries to weigh heavily on my mind, which was (and is) already ready to burst. Makes a girl skeptical, to say the least.

Herein lies a sad truth: Not everyone who gets cancer or other life-threatening illnesses are surrounded by supportive loved ones. If you are, consider yourself very lucky. Some of us have to make the most of the ones who are, and extract the rest of our healing from the kindness of strangers. Here’s the side of the survivor story that you may not hear about amid all the parades and fireworks.

Before cancer, I always wondered how my detractors would treat me if something truly terrible happened to me. Now, I know.

If They Resented You Then…

…they aren’t going to stop resenting you just because your life is going down the tubes. I had a great life before cancer. I still have a great life. In between, not so hot. People who don’t like that you made a better life than them might just be happy that you’re struggling. Maybe they’ll want to see you struggle more. And they’ll pile on the negativity. A few individuals in my life have been putting the screws to me all along. Just remember that these people are sicker than you will ever be.

Short Memories Never Cease

Listen folks, cancer ain’t fun. Needles and scans and treatment ain’t my idea of a party. Yeah, it’s gotten the best of me at times. Admittedly, I have not always been nice. But I’ll also note that the past year of my life has chipped the BS tolerance meter down to just about nothing. I never had much of a filter, but now, even thinner. So if you start slinging crap at me, you’re going to get it back tenfold. I’ll hand your microscope back to you on a silver platter. And herein lies the next discovery: People will only remember what you do to them, not what they’ve done to you to warrant your feelings. Best to just let them wallow in self-pity and keep doing your thing.

Infantile Behavior

Name calling, back stabbing, changing sides, being unable to apologize and move on, spreading my delicate medical business all over town. All things I’ve had to deal with on top of cancer. Imagine being called first grade names by someone who is supposed to understand and love you. Imagine that same someone teaming up with your other detractors as soon as things don’t go her way, even though she was there when your life was on the line. It happens, folks. I question my choices now as much as I question theirs.

You Change, They Don’t

Cancer absolutely changes the lives of many people, not just the patient. Loved ones have to find their own ways to deal with your illness and do their own form of grieving and coping. Yet the reality is that this disease and others like it is worst for the person who really has it. The hardest thing for me was the “not knowing” if I would even be alive to see the calendar flip to 2020. There is no feeling like this that I can even compare to the reality that your life is going to come to an end prematurely, and you may not have any choice in the matter. Add to that the endless hours of needle biopsies, lying in MRI tubes with ear-shattering noises echoing in your ears, trips back and forth to specialist after specialist. Meanwhile, those whose lives don’t change at all will increase your discomfort while continuing to disrespect the dramatic changes that you are going through, alterations that they would never be able to deal with.

Downplaying Your Hurts

Back before my treatment options and prognosis changed dramatically, I had a port surgically placed and was faced with chemo. This was the first time that my skin had ever been cut. The port was a degradation for me, and now the scar left after having it removed isn’t much better, though my niece recently suggested to me that I consider it a “battle scar” and wear it proudly, so I’m kind of liking that idea. The real kicker about the port was that I didn’t need it, nor did I need chemo. But when I was in the heat of all this, I was the only one who thought the cutting of my skin and the loss of my hair was a big deal. (Yet, no one agreed to go bald with me, so there you have it!) Sure, a lot of cancer patients require chemo and make it through, so big whoop, right? Right! Until it’s you. Then see how great it looks. Lesson: don’t ever simplify the hurt of others.

Empty People Won’t Suddenly Fill For You

Individuals with nothing inside of them exist. Cold, uncaring, unloving, narcissistic blame factories that won’t just suddenly start acting human for you. It is beyond their capabilities. Enough said.

Telling, Not Asking

In the world of professional writing, the one banging away at the keyboard letters always has this line in mind: show, don’t tell. In the world of life-threatening illness, this has to be changed to ask, don’t tell. Since I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve had too many people making assumptions about the way I feel. Sometimes, the way I look is presumed to be the way I feel. I look good so I must feel good! I look tired, therefore I must feel like crap! I must be dreadfully unhappy because of cancer! (True enough, though at least in my case it’s better to say that the joy of life was suppressed. That golden gate has been reopened. Those who have never found true joy in life would not understand this.) I can think of many adjectives used to describe me that were totally false, when all the speaker had to do was ask and give me time to speak to get the real answer.

Special Note: my medical team is not guilty of this. They get it.

A Word of Hope

If this is you like it’s me, find the right folks and stick with them. The positive ones. The hopeful ones. The ones on social media that you’ve never met but are generous enough to try and lift you up rather than crush you even further than you’re already crushed. The ones you don’t see everyday, but who can give you a lift with a friendly text or call or email. Thank goodness I have a lot of those.

And just fight your best fight. Strength, courage, integrity, the will to live that no one can take away.

Some will resent you for it. Let them.

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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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