Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Month: April, 2012

Global Warming

I do not like being touched. My friends (mostly Paul) have joked about this for years. Paul’s favorite story about this aspect of my personality is about how he brought a very nice friend to brunch one Sunday morning when Chicago was lucky enough to have Paul here full-time. I can no longer remember the friend’s name, but he was tall, fair-haired, warm, and fuzzy. We ate at Wishbone on the west edge of the city. The three of us had a really nice time. As we prepared to part at the empty lot at the next corner, Paul’s friend went for a hug. I began the dance of avoidance. I started to edge away. I made myself as small a target as I could under the circumstances. I ducked when those long and cuddly arms came at me. There was no escaping it. I was enfolded in a great bear hug by a really nice person and I knew that my pain was evident in my grimace.

Paul and I still laugh about it. While he lived in Chicago we negotiated the matter and settled on the fact that he could hug me once a month. And we’ve been close friends for about twenty-seven years.

I come from an undemonstrative family. I can recall coming home after being away for a year at college. My dad wanted to hug me and I flinched. He realized for the first time how uncomfortable I was with hugging. He said, “You know, I wasn’t going to hit you.” I knew that. Now my dad has been dead twenty years and I see my mom every week. When we part I kiss her cheek. I tell her I love her and she pats me on the back or shoulder as I walk out. Sometimes when we talk on the phone she tells me she loves me. The glaciers are melting. It’s a case of global warming.

I recently went for a manicure and pedicure. It hurts a bit for me to work on my feet these days. I still have some pain in my knees. The toenails had gotten long. I inherited my dad’s hangnails. My hands were looking scruffy. I did my best, which was not very good.

In the last year I have had a hysterectomy. I have had two catheters put in place. I had radiation on twenty-five occasions. For each of those appointments I was naked from the waist down, my feet were strapped to a styrofoam block, someone used a magic marker to tattoo me, including the all-too-embarrassing navigational marker “X” that someone wrote on a place so intimate that when I was marked I thought I might die of shock. My hospital gown got caught one day after I had been given a couple of bags of Benadryl and I flashed a bunch of men waiting for radiation, I have had people install ports and drips and lines into my body for blood transfusions, chemotherapy, magnesium, I.V. fluid, painkillers, potassium, all manner of things. A friend has whipped up my hospital gown and examined my incision scar and run a scenor across my body to help heal me.

If Scotty were on board this ship he’d have been yelling that “our” shields were down.

I cannot say I like it.

In the last two months I have had my hair cut by someone other than myself for the second and third times since about 1987. I had the third or fourth manicure that I’ve had done in my life. Now I must admit that I have had a pedicure. the first in my life. Oh my! What a nightmare for me.

I went to a place in a little mall. I asked for a simple pedicure. No funny nail polish, just the clear stuff. The owner of the shop is a cancer survivor. She wore a tank top and the scar was visible when she sat on a tiny chair and pulled one of my feet out of the nearly hot, blue as the Tidy Bowl man’s sea, rapidly churning water. She pronounced my toes a disaster and started snipping. I felt like a cat about to get a bath. I gripped the arm rests of my chair and held my breath at times. I squirmed. When she took out her razor to scrape my heels I nearly yelped. Sometimes it tickled. Most of the time I just felt exposed and unhappy about it.

She cut my nails, cleaned up my cuticles, rid me of dry skin, buffed my nails, filed my nails. Yikes! Then she massaged my feet, which were so tense it almost hurt to have her rub them so vigorously.

I wish I could say that it felt so good that I now intend to have my feet pampered regularly, but I know me better than that. It was agonizing. I am still laughing about her reaction to my grimaces. She wiped her hands, gripped the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger like she was in pain, too, and said, “It’s not supposed to be torture. Some people like it.”

I laughed. I realize that people like this stuff. I don’t really know why I am so uncomfortable with it.

My defenses against being touched have been in place for a very long time.

Today I received an email from DePaul University announcing that I will be one of a number of honorees at the Seventh Annual St. Louise de Marillac Women of Spirit and Action event at the end of May. One of my students nominated me for the award for tireless service to the community. Imagine that.

I feel positively warm and fuzzy at the notion. Joelle, the law student who nominated me, is a very nice person. It has been a pleasure to have her in my legal writing class. I am deeply touched by the recognition, given my difficulties with the law school following my cancer diagnosis.

I have enjoyed teaching so much because I enjoy my students. This feels better than a haircut, a manicure or a pedicure. I feel like a chilly lump inside of me melted because I did not want to walk away when I was told people like me could not be counted on to finish their jobs. I hung onto my job as hard as I could and I got “hugged” in return. Paul, I know you’re listening. When I next see you I may be the first to go for the hug!

Woody the Woodpecker

Woody the Woodpecker. That’s what my hair looks like now. The sides are still very short, but the top is about two inches long and determined to stand up straight. There is no longer any pretense of laying down to cover the wide part on the left side of my head. What’s on top of my head is as light and fluffy as baby’s hair and standing up straight. I fuss with it constantly, but every time I think I have gotten it to lay down it springs up again.

My niece Maureen suggested that I dye it a cheerful color. Pink would be cheerful. I still remember the cancer survivor at Stroger Hospital with her scarlet plumage. My fear is that the law school faculty might find me too stodgy.

I went to a faculty event this evening–with hopes of introducing myself to the dean, who never did answer my last email–but the man made a brief thanks to the adjunct faculty for being the bridge for students between the academics and the profession and departed before I could meet him. He did not make the rounds and introduce himself.

I cannot blame him. He most likely had no idea who I was as I stood in my new dress and the first high-heeled shoes I have worn since my surgery. Many of the adjuncts are alumni. I am not, but, if I were, I would also be interested in meeting him. And, if I were the new dean at a law school, I would view every unfamiliar face in the room as one to which I would like to put a name. People willing to work for inadequate compensation might be sources of future contributions to the university. Alas, the dean was not interested in meeting people.

I did see Susan, the woman who terminated my teaching/reassigned my class while I was in surgery in October. We actually exchanged brief smiles and nods and she met my eyes. That’s a hurdle behind us now. It was painless for me. I think an apology is in order for what happened, but lawyers are not good at apologies. Lawyers call them admissions against interest.

I went tonight hoping to meet the dean. I wanted him to put a face to my name. That did not happen. But I showed up. That’s more important. I am putting a face to what it means to be a cancer survivor. I show up. I have been showing up to my classes since I returned from surgery. I have been showing up at as many lunches of legal writing instructors as I could make when I have been teaching a class that ends forty-five minutes after the lunches begin. I am showing up for office hours when students want to meet to discuss their concerns. I am showing up because, contrary to the prejudice of one of my supervisors, some people in my situation don’t let others down. She wrote to me:

I sincerely hope that you recover from the surgery immediately, but it has been my experience that people in this situation always have slower come-backs than they anticipate. I had no way to hedge against the risk that you might return to teaching this week and then right away, or a few weeks later, find yourself simply unable to continue.

I have continued.

If I were a betting woman, I would bet money that I will continue to teach.

I am reminded of my first day of law school at Catholic University of America. Professor Harvey Zuckman called on me in Torts class. I stood to recite my brief of the first case. Professor Zuckman quizzed me as if we were in court. I had prepared meticulously for class because I intended to treat school as a job and be prepared for every class.

The questions came one after another. Thanks to the wonderful coaching of my former debate coaches from college and high school, I was having fun.

At the end of his examination, Professor Zuckman said to me, “If you mean to continue law school the way you began it today, you’ll do very well indeed.”

To this day it is a memory that spurs me to prepare for every class I teach the way I prepared for that first class. And the echo of that encouragement is there when I read a student’s paper and write, “I like this. Write more like this.” It is in the back of mind when I must criticize someone’s work that no doubt called for the student to work long hours. I never use a red pen because I must be honest about weaknesses, but I try not to draw blood with my own pen strokes.

It is a good day when my criticisms are remembered as fondly as a compliment. One former student wrote to me:

I kept the email that you sent me after my appellate oral argument in my “Atta girl!” file and I pull it out when I’m having a rough week to remind myself to just keep swimming.  It really meant a lot.

Another student wrote:

I want to thank you again for your tutelage. I remember receiving a low mark from you on some cite-checking assignment. You wrote in your remarks that although the work might be tedious, a good attorney challenges himself to excel. I credit your comment with forcing some much needed introspection. From that point on, my GPA went from a 2.6 to well over a 3.5. The work sometimes remained tedious, but I pushed through!

I love my job and I am so lucky to be able to keep doing it. One of the reasons I got through the events of the last seven months was that I had classes to teach. Let me say that with the precision I require of my students: I survived the events of the last seven months because I had students to teach.

For anyone out in the world who thinks people in my “situation” will let them down, I am going to respond like Woody the Woodpecker. It was Woody, with his zany plumage and his relentless enthusiasm for his mission who said, “Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha!” Some of us continue because all of us handle this as we see fit rather than as others might expect.

Eight Hours of Pain Relief

Many pharmaceutical companies offer eight hours of freedom from pain. Between Thursday evening and Friday morning I went eight hours without pain and took no medicine at all. It is the first time that I was without pain for that long since December 2nd.

It’s a medical miracle.

Well, maybe not a miracle–let’s call it a breakthrough.

I have grown accustomed to my bladder’s misery. I sometimes manage it in ways the medical community does not favor. My bladder does not respond well to hydration. Its pain is triggered by an hourly trip to the bathroom. Sometimes the pain is excrutiating. Think of fire blasting through already burned flesh. I now manage to cringe and wince instead of cry over it.

I go without fluids when teaching and manage to spread out that hour between blasts of pain long enough to get through most classes. Sometimes I get home at night and gulp down glasses of water to rectify the situation because my bladder does not like to start up after a dry spell either.

For eight hours I was able to sleep, wake, visit the bathroom, and go back to sleep without pain.

I had a dream. It’s a dream that I have had before. Do you have dreams that come again and again? When I was a kid I dreamed that I could fly over my home in Holland (I have never lived in Holland) by pedaling a contraption that resembled a recumbent bike. The faster I pedaled, the higher I flew over tall homes with glass faces and tulips in their gardens.

When I was an adult I rarely dreamed, but, when I did, I dreamed that I tripped on the stairs. I was on my way down the stairs when my left foot slipped off a step and down I went.

Now I dream that I am President of the United States and the Secret Service is telling me that my son, a veteran of the war in Iraq, is missing. The dream always begins with my asking if the agent knows the location of my son. The agent answers that he believes my son was deliberately infected with the virus that makes a man into a werewolf so that he could be an even more effective killing machine in an elite unit of the Army. The dream ends as I look at the agent and say, “Could you say that again?”

According to The Dreamer’s Dictionary by Lady Stearn Robinson and Tom Corbett, pages 159-160 (Warner Books 1974), when you dream that you are flying it represents ambition. Fly low or medium height and you are likely to achieve your ambitions. If you struggle to reach the heights, then your ambitions are beyond your reach and you are advised to change course. To dream of a foreign place is auspicious because what you seek is attainable if you persevere. That’s not a bad dream for a child to have.

To dream that you fell on the stairs is to be afraid of something, usually a lapse in judgment. To fall down stairs is a warning to be more careful in expressing your opinion. Id. at 146, 344. When I fall in life there generally is behind it a moment when I spoke out about something when others wish I had not.

The dream book has no clear interpretation of my latest dream. In general, to dream of power is to acknowledge the greatest of successes in areas that concern you. To dream of something white–The White House–for example, is a harbinger of success. Not surprisingly, the dream book does not disclose the significance of a werewolf or the Secret Service. A woman who dreams of soldiers is warned not to engage in casual love affairs; but to dream of someone in law enforcement is a good sign. It means that help will come from outside the dreamer’s power. To dream of a wolf is a sign of financial hardship. However, if the wolf has been lured away, then those struggles will result in the overcoming of obstacles. To dream of a child old enough to walk or older is another indication of success in what most concerns you. Id. at 87, 95, 292, 294, 377.

I think the new dream means that I will continue to get well. My efforts will bring some of that success, but some will come from outside of me. Those prayers that everyone has been saying on my behalf are like the men in white hats that will come to deliver me from pain. I think it is a good sign.

Up until this week, I interpreted my dream about the missing werewolf son of the President as a message that I should write a book about that scenario. I recently read Christopher Farnsworth’s series about Nathanial Cade, the President’s Vampire. I read Blood Oath and The President’s Vampire back-to-back with gusto. Now I am about to read Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. I thought these books might get me in the mood to write about the President’s werewolf son. When I finish reading the last of them I should perhaps return to my book of daily prayers and my books on fighting cancer. Prayer, no doubt about it, is the link to my most powerful ally in life.

Maybe the truth is that I will find the strength to fight my supernatural foe CANCER with the assistance of my superhero family and friends, whose tools of prayer, support, good humor, and advice can defeat any foe. A few months ago I called a priest because I thought I could die. Now I have managed eight hours without pain without medicine. Maybe this isn’t about medicine at all. Maybe it is about something else entirely. Maybe it is about faith.

All that I know for certain is that there are mysteries to be solved, and it is looking like the outcomes may be favorable. What did my fortune cookie say on the day that I started chemotherapy and radiation? It said: “You will pass a difficult test that will make you happier.”

I am feeling happier already.  My dreams are coming true. Thanks for helping me to get there.

Taking It All Off

I stopped wearing a wig to class.

That’s right. I have stood in front of a room full of people, some of whom must read my comments on their work and wonder what I could possibly teach them that they do not already know, revealing my newly growing hair and my still evident white scalp.

I used to teach public speaking in a time when the nervous overcame their nerves if they imagined a classroom full of naked people. It is tougher to be naked in front of a classroom of people not expressing their reactions to your words.

I made the decision after the darn wig flew off my head while I spoke to my law school students. One minute it was there on my head. The next instant it was on the floor behind me. I was mortified. I laughed and snatched it up and stuck it back on my head. No one else laughed. As I have said before, people are kind. On a prior occasion my wig flew off my head while I drove. It is windy in Chicago. Lucky me, the passenger side window was closed at the time so the wig bounced off of it and down onto the empty seat beside me. Had the window been open I would have had to stop the car on Elston Avenue and chase it onto the property of the Morton Salt Company. It cost me more than $100. I would have chased it wherever it took me.

My hair has been filling in. When I saw my hairdresser a second time she acknowledged that–so far–“she” (my hair is a person unto herself) was not growing in thick and full as the hair of some other chemotherapy patients has. The part on the left side of my head is wide. It’s also lower than it has ever been. It appears that my hair has decided on its own to simulate the “comb over.” I know, it sounds silly, but the hair on the left side of my head is thinner than the hair on my right side. It resists all efforts to comb, wet, or paste it down. Each morning I wake to find that it is standing up, not out, and trying to creep toward the right side of my head.

Maybe men have been teased for a condition over which they have no control. Perhaps hair will naturally cover a head’s bald spots if left to its own devices.

Of course not. That is the type of fanciful thinking that a woman of my education and training ought to reject.

But what if it were true? Maybe the same hairs that seem determined to cover my bald spot were determined to kick off the wig. Something kicked it off. I did not shake my head all that powerfully the day it fell to the floor.

I’m not going to wear the wigs I bought unless I think they will make me feel better or make the day more fun. They are accessories now, not necessities. I am at peace with the pieces of my hair that have returned.

Not everyone likes my choice.

I stood in the hair products aisle at the Walgreens drug store studying a product called After Party by Bed Head that looked like a neon pink adult sex toy and promised to smooth my flyaway hair without weighing it down. (It works, my flyaway hairs are smooth but not weighed down. They still aim toward the right side of my head.) A woman joined me for a moment and commented, “You do need to do something about your hair!”

Not everyone is nice.

I answered, “I did. It’s called cancer.”

She made no further comment, just took a jar of some kind of wax for hair that grows like a hedge in a maze in a children’s book about wizards and witches, and walked away. See, I’m not always nice either.

This past week I waited for one of my evening classes to start with a student who shared the fact that this year she also learned that she had cancer. She can’t be even half of my age and she has survived stage three cervical cancer. She declined to have a hysterectomy because she has always wanted to have children. She told me that she chose to go to her cancer treatments alone because she did not want her family to be depressed by what depressed her. That way, when she was with them, their spirits would be positive enough to buoy her own to a place they might otherwise not reach.

I cannot imagine going through my own challenges without my best friend Barb watching for my allergic reaction to the chemotherapy drug, my sister’s hand stroking my hair while I writhed in pain, my brother’s strong shoulder, my niece’s steady hand on the wheel of my car, my friend Dominique to minister to my body’s need for natural pain relief and vitamin support, my other friends’ calls, messages and cards of support, or my mom’s insistence that I climb into bed and rest.

My student’s family was there for her, too. However, her family did not know just how frightening it was to take a chemotherapy-type pill she called Pegasus that killed cancer and healthy cells. It was a twelve-year-old patient who sat beside her waiting for radiation treatment in the basement of a hospital so large that she got lost finding her way to appointments.

I have been the recipient of some surprising confidences in my career as an educator.

A student once asked me to “pinky promise” never to tell anyone at school that she suffered from a learning disability. We went to the law library and did her research assignment together after she admitted that she could not find her way because all the books looked the same color to her and the Dewey Decimal system meant nothing to her in finding her way.

A young woman with three children and no husband told me that her babies’ father, depressed over the fact that one of his legs was amputated following a gang-style shooting, had beaten her with his crutch. She grew up in a house in which her father’s violence toward her mother had the children of the house walking on “tippy-toes” for their entire shared childhood. No one wanted to step wrongly and bring a beating upon their mom. Her mom wanted better for my student. She taught her girls, “Never get into the car with a boy. You never know who he angered on his way to see you.” The young woman told me two of her cousins were shot while they sat in the backseat of some boy’s car. One of them died when she was a child with child.

When my student’s boyfriend hit her with his crutch, the woman realized that she had the power to answer violence. She decided not to tell her children or the aging grandparents with whom she and her children live. She decided not to make them live her drama because it could not help but upset them. So she asked her boyfriend to meet her out on the street near his car.

She followed him out to the street and beat him with her son’s little aluminum baseball bat until she had blackened both of his eyes and he had retreated to the front seat of his car and prepared to speed off. She doesn’t think the boyfriend will hit her again, but she cannot be sure that his violent anger has been tamed by having been shamed.

I guess there comes a time in many lives when what we have hidden must be shared, even if by sharing it we risk laughter, mocking, scorn, judgment, or tears. Life is about struggle and success. It is about learning mispent and utilized. It is about fear and courage.

If you have a chance to do so, take it all off and share with someone else what life has taught you. I teach, but my students teach me, too. In their recounting of their lives’ lessons I am made a better person. My family and friends have shown me, too, that the truth of my life is something they accept and wish to share. By sharing with someone else such trust we earn theirs and often find that what lies beneath wigs, masks, labels, and secrets is far more inspiring than what we might imagine.

%d bloggers like this: