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.
On Day 68 the oncologist sends me back to the beginning, back to the radiologist’s office where I had the mammogram and sonogram that revealed the mass before we knew it was malignant. This time I try to park close to the front doors because my red blood cell count is half of what it was last time I was here due to eight weeks of chemo, which means I’m walking very slowly in my wig I call “the Hitchcock blonde.” The “Tennille” wig I wear to work, and somehow I’ve frayed it a little around the bangs. I think from the time I leaned to pull a sheet of sweet potato fries out of the oven and felt the steam from the gap of the oven door sprawl across my cheeks. Leave it to me to melt my best wig. Or it could have frayed because Tennille filed for divorce from the Captain. So I sweep the Hitchcock blonde bangs back and step into the building’s lobby, which looks like the Genesis cave in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. Stone walls and greenery.
Day 55 and I returned to the classroom for the first time since starting chemotherapy for breast cancer. I marched across campus double-time, running a few minutes late, my notebook opened to the building and room number scrawled on the ledger pad, my attaché slipping off my shoulder. As I squinted at the closed double doors of the lecture hall to see if its number matched what I’d written down and tried to assemble the chemo spiel I’d been rehearsing for three days, I heard someone say, “Let’s do this!” It was my assistant, Andy, who I wasn’t expecting until the second class meeting. Andy was among the students on whom I’d dropped the cancer bomb in Fiction class last semester. He knew, and somehow this made it infinitely easier to throw the door back and say, “Hello!” I did not say “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya!” like I’ve always wanted to do, but … some day.
A belated welcome to 2014, everyone! ‘Tis the season for fitspiration overload on Pinterest and gym promos and twenty ways to trim your waistline while eating chia seeds and lawn clippings and so on and so on.
It’s everywhere! I turn on the television, open a magazine, click on my little safari icon and boom – everyone wants me to be Lea Michele in a thong or, rather, a tangle of toothpicks in a rubber band. Just now, for example, as I was eating broccoli soup off a flaxseed cracker, which really does look exactly like shit on a shingle, one of these belly-buster magic pill commercials came on between news segments and my Janeane Garofalo-voiced inner monologue interrupted with, “You know what’s super for a quick slim down? Chemo.” Continue reading
When I spoke to Jody on the phone she encouraged my confidence in her acupuncture services because she used the word “evil” when I mentioned “cancer” and “chemo.” Last week, I had … a vision? I don’t want to say the word “vision” because it makes me think of Dirty Steve in Young Guns warbling out at half-speed, “Did you see the size of that chicken?” I was dozing off at any rate, and I imagined without trying (okay, call it a vision if you want) that chemo was a lanky woman in a cheap feather boa leaning on an elbow, flicking the nails on one raised hand together, looking back at me with her brows aslant in mock pity. I’ve worried that my animosity toward the chemo might manifest itself more deeply, might make my body resist the work of the chemo every two weeks. So I’ve been trying not to see chemo as evil at all, but when Jody made the connection I thought, this is the acupuncturist for me. Continue reading
On Day 30, Joe escorted me to chemo treatment number two, and before the hook-up we visited with the oncologist who asked me about my behavior, sleep habits, and mood. “Fine,” I said. ”Pretty good.”
And to Joe, she asked, “Is that right or is she kicking butts and taking names?”
“Oh yeah,” Joe said.
I slapped him on the thigh. “She means am I being really mean to everybody at home,” I told him.
“No, you’re, like, feisty with a good attitude about getting through the cancer and all. That’s what it means.”
“No it doesn’t!”
“Yes it does. Taking names. Kicking butt.”
“Maybe she’s just a little cranky at home,” the doctor said in a kind of whisper, writing something down. Continue reading
I once stood in front of a British Literature class of sixty and told them, after a long swig of water and a pop of a fresh cough drop on my tongue, that we call the Firecracker “Outbreak Monkey,” as in the monkey in the film Outbreak who unleashes a pandemic. This was my way of explaining my waning voice and the magician tissue-rope poised to stream from my pocket for the rest of the lecture. Three of the sixty offered an obligatory chuckle. The rest – nothing. Seats creaked as a few students shifted. I coughed in the silence. Then one front-row student, resting his pencil eraser on his temple, said, “Oh. That’s cruel. You call your little girl Outbreak Monkey? That’s awful.”
“Well, not to her face,” I said, which didn’t sound any better.
But the gist of the joke remains true – the Firecracker must surely spend her time at school licking the bottoms of every child’s shoe, and the doorknobs for good measure, because she regularly comes down with raging colds she often passes on to the rest of us. In the last three months alone, she’s had pink eye, mono, and pneumonia. It’s the reason I find Ted McCagg’s Day Care Tasting comic so apropos. The problem is the Firecracker’s adorable.
First mammogram. The machine’s clear plates squeeze in on my right breast. A sticker clings just above the nipple. Extreme’s “More Than Words” plays in the radiologist’s office. I laugh when I should be holding my breath. We have to start over. One, two, three, now don’t breathe, the technician says. She’s not laughing, anyway. And she didn’t laugh when I told her that the sticker she applied, at a glance, looked like a sound-effects splat in a comic book – kapow! The sticker marks the place where my doctor, one week prior, found something under her rolling fingertips.
I only noticed it myself when I hugged my five-year-old Chloe. A sore place. Like pushing at a bruise.
***Read the rest here.