Well, here we are again, friends, talking about tumors and doctors’ appointments not five months after I’d declared the end of the sad cancer blog. I’d wanted to blog instead about walking that half-marathon in December, but it would seem I really know how to get out of strenuous activities. Alas, I will walk another half marathon at a later date, and crossing that finish line will be all the sweeter. But for now, I’ll tell you a little story about boobs.
Months ago, still on chemo, I’d stopped at a gas station, wearing a head scarf and the free breast-cancer-awareness t-shirt my oncologist had given me the first day we’d met. I’d grown tired of the wig already. It felt like hiding. The girls, for whom the wig was intended, had gotten used to the sight of my head capped with something a little less disguising. They waited on me as I angled the gas pump, the sun low over the pecan trees and palms, Hannah in the front seat, the Firecracker covering her knees in grocery store stickers in the back. Then a woman in a fitted pant suit and kitten heels stepped over the sagging line of her own gas pump to cross over to me.
“I want you to know I love your shirt,” she said, “and you’re going to be fine. I was there fifteen years ago, and I assure you. I assure you. It doesn’t feel like it now, but life is going to be back to normal soon. This is just going to be something in the past. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Thanks,” I said in the southern drawl that irons out my syllables whenever I’m pushing myself to be particularly sociable. “It’s always good to hear those stories!”
“Don’t forget,” she said before clattering delicately on her kitten heels back to her car.
Hannah wanted to know what she’d said. I told her.
“That was nice of her!” Hannah said.
I agreed. It was very nice of her. Hope so elegantly demonstrated is always nice. But there was a little voice in the back of my mind saying, this lady doesn’t know — she only knows how it worked out so far for her. I returned to the driver’s seat and looked over my shoulder to back out, looking past the tangles of cords hanging from the ceiling of the car where the DVD player used to be. That day I had my mammogram and sonogram films to take to the surgeon, that day I picked up the Firecracker and wadded up her drawing and strapped her into her booster seat, she was so mad she kicked the DVD player until it fell off. That’s one thing I didn’t describe in that first blog post about the Day One Monster, but that was a monstrous day indeed. Ever since, the cords snake out in every direction, a snarling reminder, waiting for something to snag.
* * *
When I was just a little older than the Firecracker, we used to park the station wagon where San Pedro Avenue met the edge of the airport’s chain-link perimeter fence and wait. Over the rooftops across the street, a dot on the pink horizon, commercial jets slowly descended, stirring our hair and shirt collars as they roared overhead and angled for the runway. I never looked right at an airplane, because if I looked right at an airplane it would crash. So there I was on the hood of the car, giving the 6:20 from San Francisco the side-eye. It’s kind of why I looked away from the magazine stands that stocked Joan Lunden’s recent People cover.
It’s why, two days ago, Hannah and I searched for the remote in the sofa cushions while on the nightly news women in pink shirts of their own lined up on barstools to talk about Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“I think I’m aware,” Hannah said, switching it off.
Even now, as a fairly rational grown person, I’m burdened with my own superstition that if I stare too long at the precarious, the precarious unravels into tragedy. What I’m really afraid of, of course, is that this tragedy will be my own.
Yet when the surgeon called with the results of my first biopsy since being declared cancer free in April, it didn’t feel, as it had the first time, that things were quickly coming undone. The first time, I’d canceled class and sat at home until I could hug the girls right off the bus. This time, Joe actually talked to Dr. Fischer because my evening class was already under way. During the break, I stepped into the hallway to check my phone. Joe had me on speaker in his car, driving back with the girls from dinner.
“Did you talk to him?” I asked, cryptically.
“Yeah, he called,” Joe said. And there’s this little thing Joe’s voice does when he’s preparing his words to hold the weight of bad news. He speaks a little higher. So I knew.
“Did he tell you?”
“Yeah. I have the girls with me,” he reminded, “on speaker. We’re headed home from dinner.”
Now I really knew.
“Well … is it ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”
“Yes,” he said with feigned weightlessness.
And then I walked back in and taught the second half of class.
* * *
Life is going to be back to normal soon. Driving home from workshop, I steer past the gas station, dimly lit, empty of cars. Mine is a quiet neighborhood. Silence sprawls out across lawns as my headlights glide past pumpkins on porch stoops. These are the streets I’d been walking with the intention of readying myself for a half-marathon in December. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to walk it now. I hope I still can. Last week, I’d sat with a colleague who’d told me about the Rome Prize.
“If you’re selected, they pay you to take your whole family and live in Rome and write for a year,” she said.
“That sounds perfect,” I said. “I’d love that.”
But even then I was thinking I can’t really plan too far ahead. I can’t go that far away.
Like most breast cancer survivors, I always had the possibility of recurrence at the back of my mind. I’d just read an article about a woman who wasn’t even a year out from her first round of chemo treatment, and there she was shaving her head again, in tears, her whole family around her in tears. As I read it, I thought, “I’d lose it if that were me. There’s no way I could take that again.”
That’s kind of been me every step of the way. There’s no way I can have surgery. There’s no way I can have a mediport installed. There’s no way I can undergo chemo. There’s no way. I don’t have it in me. The first time, my surgeon told me I’d surely need chemo, and Joe and I both thought “nope.” We thought we’d meet the oncologist and come up with a genius alternative plan, but the oncologist didn’t see me as a candidate for any alternative plan.
“Will I lose my hair?” I asked her.
“And eyebrows and eyelashes, most likely. But they’ll grow back.”
And in a second’s time, something strange happened. I could suddenly see myself being this person, then being well again on the other side. I could see that I had to do it, and it became perfectly plausible.
“Where do I get a wig?” I asked.
“You can use the Nikki Sixx wig at the Halloween store,” Joe helpfully suggested.
As I drive home now, on another cool Monday evening almost a year to the date, a new ¾ centimeter mass nested under my seatbelt strap, I’m not upset. My mind has made that turn toward action. When I walk in, Joe and I start researching the list of breast-reconstruction surgeons Dr. Fischer gave him, all of us ready to attack the second wave with a full mastectomy. We don’t mess around.
And if you’re feeling like attacking something as well, maybe consider donating to the Thrivewell Cancer Foundation that funds cancer research and runs the terrific, free DIVA program in San Antonio designed specifically for breast cancer survivors. Take that, cancer!
Okay, friends, now that you have a little motivation, some proper shoes, and possibly a Fitbit, it’s time for the training plan. Drill Sergeant Joe emailed me a spreadsheet, detailing how often, how far, and in what length of time I should walk every week. Feel free to follow it with me, whether you’ll be in San Antonio in December to watch me face plant in front of the “lag wagon” half way through or are supporting from afar. (You read that right – “lag wagon.” Remember when I joked there would be an official who could scrape me off the asphalt, pour me into a golf cart, and convey me back to my car that unfolds into a movie theater playing a Rocky marathon”? Turns out that’s half true!) Happy walking, team.
It’s 10 steps from my office to the closest bathroom; 99 steps to the furthest bathroom. Roughly 3,341 steps from my front door to my office, and most frequently 35 from my kitchen to washing machine. Yes, I have a Fitbit.
In the mid 1980s my cousins and I paraded across the kitchen floor, wearing our grandparents’ pedometer, a machine roughly the size and design of a post office timestamp. A loud click poorly documented every other step or so. Fast forward some twenty years and I’m outside my classroom with a yardstick measuring a colleague’s footsteps. Her average gait is 25 inches compared to my 22.5. We’re both wearing bulky pedometers that eat the same batteries as hearing-aides. But 4,217 steps later we can see most of the San Fernando Valley nestled under a hazy marine layer. Below Fryman Canyon our jobs as high school English teachers, cell phones, and cars wait while we talk about our families, what we’re reading, our childhood— anything we don’t have to fact check. Continue reading
As an undergraduate in college, I worked as a shoe salesperson for the now-defunct Mervyns department store. The soothing strains of Faith No More on Musak played as we straightened neon hiking boots and striped ballet flats and assorted white high tops on plexiglass rounders. There was a strange power in disappearing into the dimly-lit stock room with a display shoe, leaving the customer waiting in socked feet in the wash of fluorescent lights. In the stock room, ladders ascended to the largest sizes, boxed near the skylights. To stand at the top was to stand in your own light beam like a deity. If you came to Mervyn’s for athletic shoes of any kind and asked me for advice, you probably left with whatever I thought coordinated best with the pants you were wearing. What I’m telling you is, I once sold shoes for a living and I know nothing about shoes. Continue reading
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):