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.

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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Not Another Cancer Survivor’s Story?!

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Yeah, I’m a cancer survivor, and yeah, I’m writing a book about my journey. Told here for the first time, the tome’s working title is “Destination Life: My Cancer Road Trip.” Though everyone has a story to tell whether they have cancer or not, I think that my tale is quite interesting, perhaps even a little over the top, and not one you’re going to hear that often. Some parts of it are typical for sure. Yes, my life was devastated. (Though really, is having your life devastated “typical?”) Yes, I was frightened that I was going to die. And yes, I had an incredible amount of stuff to learn. This is probably where the “typical” part of my journey ends. Because I’m one of those people that eventually took control of my care, had a fair amount of good luck in a bad luck situation, called out the prayer warriors, eliminated negativity, and saw things turn around quite dramatically. I know the wonders of modern medicine. I know the power of Big Pharma. But I had to go through some poop to get to the right place.

Before all that happened, I was just a human being flailing with the thought that my life would never be the same again, and maybe I wouldn’t even have a life to look forward to:

It’s still warm in New England, and foliage season is approaching. Autumn is not my favorite time of the year as it is for many, but definitely a beautiful time, and one that I always enjoy hiking in. The leaves are changing colors, and so is the rest of my world. As my sister drives us home the “C” word starts to set in. I look at other people out the window and they appear so casual, so carefree, no worries in the world. They don’t have to think about cancer, but I do. And I come to understand something again, that I realized in 2004 after my mom passed: the world still goes on. Life goes on, even as you’re suffering, even as your life or your world has suddenly been dealt a devastating blow. The world doesn’t care. It has to keep turning for everyone else. It is one of the many sad facts of humanity.

As I write this post, I’m stronger than ever in many ways, but I had to find my wings to fly through my new life. It wasn’t always easy or positive. The ground I was walking on was shaky, uncertain. The fear was real, and debilitating. For a while, the news was getting worse. Here’s an excerpt from one of my darkest days:

A lymph node on the right side of the base of my neck is on the rise. Supposedly it’s on the PET scan, but wait…wrong. The one on the PET is in the lung, a hilar node. The neck node is unaccounted for. I discover it when I scratch my shoulder one night, while talking to my sister on the couch. So now there’s four areas.

          Or…five?

          Dr. L finds an abnormality in the back of my throat and matches it up on the scan. Now we have to find out what these two new discoveries are. The possibility of two different cancers is floating around. Could I really be that unlucky? Head and neck cancer, and lung cancer, too? The cure word gets tossed aside, the waters  muddied. The rug gets pulled out from under me again.

          More questions without answers are swirling around. This is an all-time low point. Two more biopsies are on the near horizon. The throat node requires a trip to another specialist, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor.

          Treatment looms too far ahead as cancer grows inside me, packing its bags for an adventurous road trip.

I wasn’t totally serious about this book when I sat down to type it from the original journal I composed in longhand. But I’m committed to it now, as hard as it is to relive such heartrending moments so soon after they happened. Yes, this was only four months ago. Oh, how far I’ve come since then!

I don’t know how this particular book will end, since my new life is still unfolding in the most interesting of ways. Nor do I  know when it will be done. I’m not on a schedule; I’m in no hurry. But I’m pretty sure that it won’t be the only book of its kind. Thinking it might be a series. I have a lot to say, and I’ve always wanted to write nonfiction. Here’s my chance!

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