The first thing I thought about when told I’d have to go through chemo once more was the family vacation we’d already planned for the girls. I didn’t want to be the reason, yet again, that Hannah and Firecracker didn’t get to do something fun. And boy did they deserve something fun. In the past two years, I’ve often had to say “no” to play dates, sleepovers, trips to the mall, being a part of school functions, and most definitely going on vacations due to the toll of being on treatment. And just when we’d thought everything was over but the very last of the post-mastectomy revision surgeries, we’d planned to go to Florida. The girls were elated. Firecracker even wrote about it in her school journal:
This was supposed to be our celebration. Though while the cancer I’d experienced was stubborn, I am infinitely more stubborn. I told my oncologist to plan my chemo schedule around our trip. We still had something to celebrate, after all. This recurrence was tiny, even tinier than the previous masses, in fact. It hadn’t spread. It was found and dispatched quickly, and here I am. My oncologist warned me, though, when I asked her if this trip was feasible, that I’d be extremely fatigued and would have to pace myself, take lots of naps, and stay out of the sun. This is me parasailing in Florida:
But we’ll get back to that. First, I have to tell you about the no good, very bad start to our vacation. Day one seemed to be a good enough beginning as we stayed the night in New Orleans’ French Quarter, even though my hair had started coming out in fistfuls. I’d joked that I was like a dandelion in the wind.
And then my Facebook friend from high school, Amy, had this to say about dandelions:
“In their puff-ball state they are actually quite beautiful, billions of seeds blow off in the faintest of breezes and multiply and become thousands of radiant golden flowers. ingenious. Representative of rebirth, growth, survival and strength. Dandelions also have quite a few great medicinal properties too!”
Perfectly eloquent analysis. I’ll take it!
Day two, however, our 24th wedding anniversary, I might add, involved Joe making the rest of the drive to Destin while slowly coming to the realization that he had food poisoning. After he parked the car in the condo garage, he was done. Laid out on the bed in a cold sweat done. But it was four o’clock. The sun was still glancing off the waves we could see from our balcony, and the girls were suiting up for their first sprint to the beach.
So I had to follow, chase the Firecracker in the waves, clean them up afterward, and take them shopping for a week’s worth of groceries. As our cart grew heavier with all the necessities and a couple of body boards, I strained to steer it down the next aisle, then the next, while sending Hannah out on solo missions. “We forgot mayo! Go get the mayo!” All the while, a child, somewhere in the Winn-Dixie, was making the loudest, most ear-splitting protests I have ever heard. No joke. Ever. Even Firecracker plugged her ears. The sound reverberated down every single aisle. There was no escape.
We approached the check-out where the wailing child and her mother had also situated themselves. A crowd had formed around them. One woman rushed past us and paused to say, “I have just got to see this kid!” An excess of grocery employees clustered around as well, everyone standing just a little ways back as if they’d found a snapping alligator.
“I feel so sorry for that kid and her mother,” I whispered to Hannah.
Something had pushed this child to the brink, and having just heaved our extra-full cart down crowded, florescent-lit aisles, I understood completely. The child’s wailing was the sound I was making on the inside.
“I’m the baby!” she screamed. “I get what I want! Why won’t you give me what I want?”
Her mom simply stood there, paying for her groceries, then stoically guided the girl out to the parking lot where her wailing finally began to lessen.
Then our clerk rang up our grand total. I swiped the Visa gift card we’d been so graciously given for just this occasion, and the clerk blinked at me. “Two-twenty remaining,” she said.
“Oh, okay!” I thought she meant remaining on the card.
She blinked again. “Two-twenty remaining.”
“Oh, you mean that I owe?” Confused, I slid the card through again. The card should have more than covered the groceries.
“Still two-hundred twenty remaining.”
So I gave up and put it on another credit card.
Back at the condo, Joe did some frantic investigating and learned someone had hacked the gift card.
Dear person/s who purchased $435 worth of goods from a California Wal-Mart with a gift card meant for a cancer survivor’s family:
I spent three hours cursing you with things like having your ears sprout unalterable boomboxes blaring Pat Boone’s metal album that only you can hear, nonstop, but now I’ve forgiven you because it’s bad for my zen-thing to harbor resentment.
The person crushing your pea head from afar between my thumb and forefinger for eternity
Since Joe was still too sick for the big anniversary dinner out that we’d planned, I made our dinner around 8 p.m., cleaned it up, got the girls off to bed, and then stood in the bathroom with the hair clippers I’d packed just in case. Last time I shaved my head, Joe actually did it. We had fun carving a mohawk, requested by my students at the time, and snapping pictures.
We owned that moment, in other words. Not illness. Not chemo. But here I was in a quiet Florida condo bathroom leaning over a trash bag I’d spread out and zipping the razor through my hair, solo, on our anniversary. At first, there’s something hugely satisfying about shaving one’s head. You’re doing something few people would willingly do. You’re doing something drastic, eschewing conventions of “beauty.” There’s a lot of power in each pass of the clippers. But then, when all my hair was in a pile and I raised my chin to check my reflection, the utter sadness of it all kicked in.
I stepped out to show Joe, who was sprawled across the sofa talking to someone on his cellphone. ADT. A burglar alarm was blaring back at our house. Police were checking it out. Now that we’re home, I can confirm it had been a false alarm. Nothing broken; nothing gone. But in the condo that night, I was thinking, what now?!
After struggling with the sliding door to the balcony, telling Joe over and over, “no, I’m fine, I’m just going out here, alone,” I sat in the dark on the porch, breathing in the ocean air, listening to the tree frogs squawk like wind-up toys and the white noise of the waves beyond the dunes. You know those scenes in Hitchcock’s Rear Window when the directorial eye moves from window to window and you see little bits of the lives unfolding in each one?
If you’d panned around the condo balconies that night, you would have seen groups of people enjoying a late dinner, a couple toasting, some kids up past their bedtimes, a mom hanging beach towels to dry on the porch rail, and a bald lady sitting in a patio chair with her legs crossed and her eyes closed.
Meditation, as you might remember, was something I explored during my first chemo treatment that had helped tremendously. Since then, I’ve taken group meditation sessions and read Pema Chödrön’s meditation primers, moving from the guided meditations that once got me started to doing my own thing. For me, anyway, meditation and prayer are the same, or the “listening” side of praying. And I always begin with trying to imagine myself in my ideal place for the purpose — the beach. Then I try to quiet all my thoughts, which that night included: The oncologist was right! I can’t do all of this!
Then after awhile, after a lot of listening, it occurred to me — I had done all of it. And I was just fine. Tired like any normal person would be but fine. Then I opened my eyes, and there in front of me, of course, was the gorgeous view of the beach. I was here. I made it.
I was so grateful for that bad day, because that was the day that taught me that I was not as limited as I’d thought I’d been, that I could enjoy the rest of the week just as I would have had I not been on chemo, that my bald head isn’t a sign of sickness but a sign of healing, that I’d made it to my ideal place with my family and I should soak it in. Every minute.
That next morning, I awoke early and went for a walk on the beach, nothing covering my head despite my discomfort with it. Usually, if I’m embarrassed about anything, one of my kid’s in a meltdown when they were toddlers, for example, something spilled on my pants, a bald head, I look down and pretend I’m the only person in the world. No one sees me. No one judges me. But that morning, I greeted everyone I passed in the sand with a bright, “Good morning!”
And I was just fine.
So I thought of another thing I was afraid of: heights. My friend Margaret can tell you how I once cowered on hands and knees about twenty feet back from the cliffs on Inishmore, Ireland while she threw her apple core over the edge and made my stomach flop.
This is a serious fear, in other words. When I came across a coupon in a tourist booklet for parasailing, I knew I’d be doing it because suddenly I was in the business of conquering things, bad days, cancer, chemo side-effects, worst fears. A fear of heights happens to be a fear of Hannah’s as well, so, being my kid, she was up for the challenge.
We slipped into our harnesses and sat at the end of the little boat bobbing in the Gulf until the boat hands let out the slack and the wind lifted us up. The waves became little squiggles under our feet. The metal clips of the harness squeaked in the gusts. I loosened my white-knuckle grip on the harness straps and held my hands out. Fearless.
Most of us never want our vacations to end. Most of us grow sad on that last night. That’s normal. But on top of that normal reaction, I was thinking, right when I get back, I’ll have to go in for round two of chemo. I almost regretted scheduling our vacation at the beginning of chemo rather than the end, because now, this time, I really, really never wanted my vacation to end. I spent my last night in Destin the way I’d spent that first night, in the dark on the balcony, listening to the waves, turning bad fortune to good fortune. I thought, eyes closed, the breeze kicking up, the surf roaring, what are the good things about going back for Chemo Monday? I’ll have the lessons learned from this experience to power me through the remaining fifteen weeks of treatment, for one thing. I’ll have the wind in my hands and the sun across my face and everything else retreating really small beneath me.