Saturday morning, with my cell phone slipping in my sweaty hand, the weight of it yanking the tangled cord of the ear buds, I stop on a street corner to GPS my location. I’m in my own neighborhood. It’s the sort with aging oaks and pecan trees angling over mansions with the occasional 1950s ranch house where the 1950s ranch houses haven’t been torn down to accommodate more mansions. Guess which kind of house I live in? So I wander around the neighborhood in the ambitious ensemble of running shorts plus coordinating tank top, gawking at the grand structures past the giant agave and iron gates, taking more than one wrong turn along the way. Continue reading
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you probably already know that I am Ms. One-Hundred-And-Ten Percent in addition to having a tendency to obsess, which is a frightening combination for all of those in close proximity to me. It’s what compelled me, though, to belly crawl across campus in the Tennille wig to teach through chemo last semester. And now that it’s over, it’s as if I’ve stared into the abyss and the abyss said, “Stop wasting your life! Go do more crafts! More crafts! As many in as short a time as possible!” And, okay, the abyss might have been Pinterest. I started with completing a project I’d left languishing for almost a year – doing something with the old shutters my dad had taken off of their house. First, I made a headboard.
A couple of new things to draw your attention to over at TNB. Right after my breast cancer diagnosis, feeling overwhelmed, I’d tried to quit my gig as Arts and Culture Editor. TNB’s founder Brad Listi, though, wasn’t hearing it. He assured me my post would be ready for me to fill again whenever I was able. Everyone, from my real-world job at UTSA to my online pals, have been absolutely super through this whole ordeal. And, upon my return, I’ve lined up two fantastic interviews just for you.
One is an interview with producer Lisa Bellomo on her project to animate Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column from The Rumpus as well as Tiny Beautiful Things. I am rooting wholeheartedly for this super project to succeed. Check it out RIGHT HERE.
Next is a TNB “21 Questions” with writer/director Kat Candler. When I saw the trailer for her new film (out this week!) Hellion, I just had to invite her to be our featured guest. Candler did not disappoint:
The feature was inspired by the short, but more so it was inspired by southeast Texas. Kelly (producer), who grew up there, started taking me down for long weekends and field trips. I just started getting to know the area and the people. I’d never seen this part of Texas outside of Urban Cowboy and I wanted to capture its heart. Inspirational movies … Over the Edge, Stand By Me, The Outsiders, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore …
She had me at The Outsiders. Check the rest out RIGHT HERE.
* Photo of Kat Candler by Pamela Gentile
I take the Firecracker and Hannah to a Greek restaurant up the street the day I learn my grandfather’s dying. Really dying. He’d been joking about dying for a long time, joking about never buying green bananas, that sort of thing. My mom tells me that if I want to call to say goodbye, the nurse at the veteran’s home will hold the phone to grandpa’s ear.
“He can’t respond,” mom explains, “but they say he’ll hear you. The mind is the last thing to shut down.”
I sit in my kitchen after this, phone in my hands. The Firecracker fills in the pages of a blank book made of stapled construction paper. “Pinky 9985 is Moving,” she titles this one. Pinky 9985 is an imaginary penguin. Sometimes Pinky 9985 is ice fishing in front of the Taj Mahal. Sometimes Pinky 9985 is hidden inside a storm of ink spirals or juggling pink igloos or moving to New York on a plane with wings like tucked arms, bent elbows, a sleek dolphin fin of a tail in a blue scribble sky. Pinky 9985 peers out the airplane window with oversized penguin eyes and a “what the hell is going on” kind of crumple to her beak. Hannah sits on a kitchen bar stool, her own phone in her own hands, thumbs tapping. I look at the hanging pots, the sun catching the rims.
If it weren’t for a running tally on my calendar, I’d lose track of the days since diagnosis. That’s where I am now – ready to be done marking time. And this morning I got the girls on their buses, walked two miles, drank a green smoothie, did some yoga, checked emails, and logged on to see the NaPoWriMo prompt. That’s National Poetry Writing Month, for those who are unfamiliar. I’ve never done it before, and I usually make fun of National Novel Writing Month every November (because, seriously, one month!? The novel I’m re-revising now has taken me something like three years). But the new, energetic post-chemo dynamo that is my current self wanted to tackle NaPoWriMo, despite the fact that I typically write prose. So I cheated a little and wrote a prose-poem, and cheated even more by using NaPoWriMo’s “get ready” prompt from yesterday. Yesterday, the prompt was to write an ekphrastic poem, or a poem about a work of art. If wall art in home decorating catalogues isn’t really art, then I cheated all around. Nevertheless, here’s the result:
Minding the IV I shift in my seat to see the home decorating catalogue my sister unfolds. She’s driven roughly 300 miles to sit beside me, chemo snaking through the loose plastic loop pinched between my fingers. It’s like talking to a drunk, I’ve warned her, and the mass-produced paintings on canvases in the catalogue drift one into the other like liquid beads. Blues and grays. I can do that, I tell her. I’d been an art student just long enough to learn to copy.
And after my last treatment, the toxins having done their work, sixteen weeks of squeezing the tumor down so small fingertips can no longer find it, I stand in my studio, a bead-board room in the back of the detached garage, stand by the drafting table that takes up half the space and holds three crates of vinyl records on its crossbar underneath, stand and paint the same squares of color from the catalogue. Blues and grays. I add only a touch of sunrise orange, a nod to George, it’s been a long cold lonely winter. Brush to canvas, bristles dragging, long strokes like drawn breath.
Some nights I’d curl around my little girl and teach her how to breathe deep. In, out. Ocean sounds. Can you feel the waves chasing after your toes in the sand? Can you hear them wiping the bad dreams away?
I paint the squares. I paint over the squares. I wipe color on and off again with a rag dipped into the mud-colored water of a plastic tumbler that reads in scratched, black print: Eskimo Joe’s – Stillwater, Oklahoma. I let the canvas dry. I remember why I’d changed my major. My copy is like a slurred version of the original, like me trying to tell a story while the chemo slips along the IV. But it’s the end, too. It’s the first morning I spend post chemo listening to the raking of the brush bristles while I hum “Here Comes the Sun.”
And here’s the copy of a copy itself (see what I did there? I just copied Trent Reznor):
Hello from the other side of chemo! It’s been a little over a week since my very last treatment, and I’ve been celebrating ever since. Of course, it’s just one phase that has ended. I still have a lumpectomy and radiation to look forward to (gah!), but in the meantime I’m happy to be almost all done with this cancer business.
One thing I had to stop doing when I started chemo, since I had to avoid crowds and germs while my immune system was more fragile, was venturing out to movie theaters. Roll up to the top of this blog, will you? You’ll note that it says: Cynthia Hawkins, Girl on Film. Mostly because I typed it in as a joke and now I can’t figure out how to undo it, but also because many people know me as a film connoisseur.
This blog began with a monster, a Day One Monster that was cancer, the Firecracker, and me at different turns. My breast cancer journey has been that way all along, monsters morphing into other monsters, some benevolent, some bad, if I may borrow the language of Frankenstein. On Day One, my New York friend Carlos started making papercraft monsters, one per day, to photograph and post to cheer me up. And they did, like the many gifts I’ve been given by everyone from my dear friends and family to supporters I’ve yet to have the pleasure of meeting in person. A handmade table, a hand-sewn hat, a Star Trek blanket, a hand-knit night cap, poems and photographs, tea, candy, potted herbs, lotions, yoga DVDs, magazines, rodeo tickets, gift cards, dried fruits, a bonsai tree. A bonsai tree!
This is me. This is the me you’ll see shopping for dishwashing detergent or walking to the curb when the kindergarten school bus pulls up or standing at a lectern at the university. This is a woman with a bag of tricks, a bag on wheels, no less, a bag that thumps over the concrete seams of campus with purpose. A snack-sized baggie with Motrin tucked inside. A bottle of water. Peanuts. A makeup compact. A bottle of hand-sanitizer. Determination. This woman puts her hand on top of her head in a good Texas gust because she’s afraid it will all blow away. This is me when the girls want to trace hopscotch patterns on the sidewalks, when everyone’s smiling, when the sun breaks over the eaves and the bare tree limbs blur into the blue sky.
Three a.m. on Day 89 and I’m sitting on the side of the Firecracker’s bed while she howls over my many reasons why we can’t turn the clock radio on high in the middle of the night. INXS is playing. “What You Need.” I turn it off. She balls her fists over her eyes, begs to go to my bed, squirms under the new Minnie Mouse sheet set and blanket we’d bought to lure her to her room to sleep in the first place. The clock radio had been part of that package. Along with one plush penguin with a flashlight tummy and a zebra-striped beanbag chair she’d pushed into her inflatable igloo in the middle of the room.
On Day 17, after my first round of adriamycin and cytoxan, I’d stuffed myself full of anti-nausea meds, curled up under my blue blanket, and found the Firecracker beside me. “I want to sleep in mama’s bed,” she said, and we held fingertips and whisper-sang her usual bedtime songs and somewhere in the middle of “When the Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along” I drifted off. That’s okay, I thought. Her mom has cancer. She needs comforting. And hadn’t it been a comfort to me too, to roll over and find her softly snoring away on her dad’s pillow. She’s pretty much been there ever since because it would seem the corners of her room at night yawn wide with terrible monsters, like the one she met in the Whole Foods fish case earlier on Day 89, the red wide-eyed dead fish which sent her into a blood-curdling scream-run toward the bulk bins.
The problem is, she’s a restless sleeper unless she’s in her own bed. She’s been staggering off the school bus in the afternoons, wild-haired and half-awake, having slumped to sleep on the ten-minute ride to our front door. She’s been in a bad mood. She’s told her best friend she’s not her best friend anymore forever and ever, sparking a meltdown worthy of a call from her teacher. The problem is, an overtired Firecracker is even more fervently firecracker-like. So I turn INXS off, though the song keeps playing in my head. All night.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer and given the treatment plan back in November, the first thing I did was research. I learned what to expect on chemo, what to do to curb side-effects, what to eat, and so on, but nothing explained that while I was on chemo the kids would take over like kudzu vine through window gaps. One reason is ease. It’s so much easier from under the throw blanket on the sofa to wave a hand and let them play video games for hours on end and eat all the snack packs meant for their lunch boxes and gather every cushion and pillow in the house to make a fort and scatter uncapped markers across the wood floors and accumulate laundry. It’s so much easier to shrug off a sibling shoving match with something like, “Just ignore each other for awhile, please,” than to actually bring down the hammer of discipline.
The even bigger thing is the cancer guilt that functions in at least two ways. For one, I never want to be the reason why they can’t do something – have friends over, go to a movie, stay after school, play outside – whatever it is they often ask to do that requires a little more effort, a little more planning than playing video games and inhaling Oreos at home does. I don’t want to be the reason, or, more to the point, I don’t want cancer to be the reason. And when they want something – a shopping spree, skinny pants, a second Instagram account, another dozen stuffed penguins, a spot in mommy’s bed forever and ever – my default reaction is to think, That’s okay. Their mom has cancer.
Maybe few have written about managing the family on chemo because there aren’t any easy answers, no right or wrong under the circumstances. Maybe there’s only pushing through to the other side of treatment and reorganizing in the aftermath. And we’re almost there. Two more chemo sessions to go. Four more weeks.
I assure the Firecracker that daddy told the people at Whole Foods to take the red fish to the polar bears at the zoo. “They ate them up, and they’re gone,” I say. “The red fish aren’t coming to our house tonight.” Then I try to convince her again that she doesn’t need her radio to go back to sleep. She’s only quiet under her Minnie sheets when I tell her I’ll sing the song that was my favorite when I was her age:
My dad had a box of fishing tackle he kept in the garage, a great silver box that accordioned into eight levels when you opened the lid. That’s how I remember it anyway. The glints on little hooks. The feathers. The spools of iridescent fishing line. Later he’d carve his own out of bass wood and hang them on handmade racks to paint and epoxy them to a high shine, writing names on the tails he’d picked out of an English to Spanish dictionary: Pescado, Nadar, Niño Malo. But these in the box were store bought, some still in their clear plastic containers that snapped shut. Lying stretched straight in a tray — a rubber worm twice the length of my finger and the purple color of an old bruise. I was six or seven, living in Arkansas. One month before my breast cancer diagnosis, D. R. (Duke) Haney and I were working on a piece about Frankenstein and Duke told me that growing up in Virginia he was able to tune into a D. C. station to watch Detroit-based Sir Graves Ghastly present films like Whale’s Frankenstein in the middle of the night.