Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Category: Teaching

Checking In

Back at the hospital

This morning I went for my six-month exam. Other than fatigue from having survived a swift move, I have been feeling well. In late February/early March. the daily, serious pains associated with radiation cystitis abruptly stopped. In June I determined that the other side-effects of cystitis–distress and incontinence–were well behind me. I stopped taking the Oxybutynin that had been prescribed for me. My bladder and bowel seem to have healed from the effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

I have had several “clean” pelvic exams and tests for cancer cells. My last scan was June of 2012. It showed no signs of cancer. In October it will be twenty-four months since my hysterectomy. In December it will be twenty-four months since treatment ended. I was thinking there would be a scan and blood tests, but there were no tests today.

My oncology team wants me to undergo surgery to correct a pre-hysterectomy hernia. The surgeon who originally diagnosed my cancer was going to repair it as part of my hysterectomy, but he ended up having someone else perform the surgery. That doctor did not touch the hernia. But it was in the way of his reaching my lymph nodes. As a result, no lymph nodes were tested–which explains why my chemotherapy and radiation treatments were “adjuvant.” They addressed risks unknown. I learned that the scans also can be confounded by the hernia, and that my radiation was more extensive because of the state of my “habilis.”

Everything looks good right now, but, if cancer were to return, everyone would feel better if things got “tidied up.” There’s no question but that I would like to get this addressed as well–EXCEPT–I do not have health insurance, I do not have the money to pay for this surgery, I am about to start school and cannot imagine undergoing surgery during “school time,” and the very thought of checking in to the hospital after my December 2011 experience there is out of the question unless it would save my life.

I am returning this week to teaching at the law school that terminated me the day of my hysterectomy. The law school is facing declining enrollments and has decided to cut the compensation paid to adjuncts, like myself, by 40%. At the same time, it has increased class size by 25%. The school has conducted its own internal investigation of my case and has cleared everyone involved of any breaches of university policies.

I suppose that means that the school would support my termination a second time if I underwent surgery–even if my surgeon said, “You can return to work next week.” That’s what the surgeon said last time.

The EEOC is examining my case now. I would like to wait for the results of that investigation before chancing fate on the subject of job security. As if an adjunct has any job security.

The Affordable Care Act will go into effect this fall. I would like to wait to see whether I can afford insurance when the new exchanges open in my state. I might have new options for treatment at a hospital that does not scare me.

The doctors think the charity that covered so much of my post-surgical care would agree to pay for this surgery if I appealed to it. That will take some time.

The doctors want me to go now for a mammogram. My cancer was estrogen-related. Some breast cancers are estrogen-related. So, I’ll do that. My maternal aunt died after more than a decade of dealing with breast cancer, so I will have the test.

My weight had dropped somewhat. My blood pressure was much better. I’m only taking a water pill for that. The doctors put off until my next check-up an ultrasound of my legs that might rule out varicose veins as the reason for my sometimes swollen right leg. No one else reacted when I mentioned the possibility of lymphoedema–which means nothing. I know that it could be the reason for my swelling from reading the excellent blog http://lymphnodetransplant.wordpress.com/. Check it out if you have unexplained swelling after surgery or other treatment that might have affected your lymph nodes’ ability to function.

I am seeing a GP in late September. I see the P.A. for another gynecological check-up in October. I can investigate my insurance/charity/surgical options between now and my next oncology appointment in February 2014.

I am feeling relieved to have gotten through this check-up, but my definition of “relief” has changed from “phew” to a sort of uneasy reduction of the alarm level from orange to yellow.

Photocredit: ripsaw-defence.co.uk

Photocredit: ripsaw-defence.co.uk

A lot can happen in six months. And I have some checking to do before checking in again with my oncology team.

The Process of Healing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After twenty-five sessions of external radiation aimed at my hips during November and December of 2011, I hoped there were no traces of uterine cancer remaining in the vicinity. I had a number of burns in addition to those pictured above. Some of them were on sensitive flesh that I did not photograph. All of the burns have healed.

At the time, I was under the impression that any burns from radiation would be more like a bad sunburn. I expected to have a band of red skin that hurt but did not weep or bleed. I did not imagine that some of these burns would come in regular contact with fiercely acidic post-chemotherapy diarrhea multiple times per hour.

Suffice it to say that informed consent may be obtained without critical information when your radiotherapist professionals use hand signals to describe what will happen to you instead of words.

I am not complaining about my health professionals today. My point is that cancer treatment can be as ugly and painful as some cancers. I got through it. I am healing on the outside and on the inside. I hope that this process will continue and that I can go on without a return of the cancer that has turned my life upside down since October of 2011.

Life has been turned upside down. I have been through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, infection, termination from one of my jobs, two hospitalizations, months of incurring medical bills for which I did not have medical insurance, applications for charity, chronic pain from side-effects of treatment, many challenges, blah, blah, blah. I am always aware of the fact that my experience with cancer was mild compared with the experiences of many of the people I met along the way. I feel very lucky because I am healing.

This week I asked the DePaul investigator looking into the circumstances of my termination in October 2011 for a progress report. She told me (as a preliminary announcement of her conclusions) that she has concluded that portion of her work and found no violation of university policies. This is the email that I received October 11, 2011, after I said I was already able to return to work:

Dear Cheryl,

I was so alarmed to hear from Martha that you had to have surgery last week, but so pleased to hear from her that you are already on the road to convalescence! Please take care of yourself and don’t overdo it in an effort to achieve normalcy too quickly. You have been through a lot—both physically and emotionally—and you can’t expect to bounce back with no set-backs.

I understand that you are eager to return to your class this semester, and I know that your students would be delighted to finish out the semester with you; many of them have expressed concern about your health and enthusiastic appreciation for your instruction. I need to let you know, though, that after fully consulting with the Dean of Faculty, I felt compelled to make the decision to reassign your students to other LARC III sections. 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. My first responsibility is to the students’ learning and the smooth functioning of the LARC department, so I made the decision that increases the chances of maximizing both. I am sorry if my decision disappoints you, and I hope that you are able to understand the situation from my perspective.

We have every hope and expectation that you will be fully healed and able to teach in the Spring semester, and we will welcome you back in January with pleasure. If we can do anything for you in between now and then, please let me or Martha know. You have my every wish for your quick return to health and the fullness of life.

Susan

After receiving this email, I was told by the author of the email and the dean of the law school that I would be paid the remainder of my contract fee. I was paid that amount in August of 2012 after I made repeated calls to people.

I am surprised by this preliminary conclusion from the university’s investigator. Apparently, disability law, like cancer treatment, means different things to different people. It is not enough to read the papers and listen carefully to what is said.

I will be interested to hear the results of the investigation of my claim that I have also been subjected to retaliation for my complaint about the foregoing. No preliminary conclusions were shared about that aspect of my case.

This weekend I was flipping channels on the TV and came across the sermon of TV evangelist Joel Osteen. He was saying, with due respect, “Get over it.” He directed his message to people who were bitter about wrongs done to them. His message was directed to persons who hold grudges against a parent who did not give nurturing to a child. He spoke to people who have been wronged by a spouse, another family member, a neighbor, a stranger, or a friend.

I listened for a little while and I now believe that there was a message for me in what I heard. I did not want to accept that on Sunday. I ended up turning the TV off.

Today I am thinking that life is not easy and situations sometimes are not fair. But, if I can handle everything else that has happened in the last nineteen months, then I can handle the disappointment of learning that one of my employers thinks it is okay for its managers to act this way.

I will admit that this is painful. Right now I have pain radiating from my chest to my fingertips. My throat is tight and sore from holding inside my disappointment. It cannot be as terrible as cancer or cancer treatment. The wounds will heal. The burns on my skin healed. The burns inside my bowel and bladder appear to have healed. I will heal from this injury, too. Sometimes life hands us a bitter pill. That does not have to make us bitter, too.

Bruised (Part III)

I still don't know who chews on the hospital's chairs.

I still don’t know who chews on the hospital’s chairs.

I proceeded to the CareLink charity office and waited in line for a number so that I could reapply for charity status. There were not as many people waiting at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday morning. I was number 469 and the office was serving number 458.

I took a seat inside the interior waiting room and tried to grade papers, but I had trouble concentrating. I just stared at the pages and ended up proofreading for typos instead of doing any serious reading.

There were many people waiting in the twenty-seven available chairs, but there were empty chairs, too. Some people were in a militant mood. There were two adult women in long dresses with their hair concealed by elaborate headscarves. They had not obtained a number at the desk out in the lobby and had waited for some time. They wanted someone to serve them without a number. No matter how many times they tried to get served without a white ticket, the staff declined to serve them. Sometimes voices rose. I believe one of them finally went outside to get a number.

There were many people with numbers on green tickets. They needed someone to approve a discount or fee waiver on their prescriptions. This was bothering some of them. You have to go to the pharmacy to claim your drug (a task that can take an hour, two, or three), get a sheet of paper that shows the fee for the prescription, take that to the CareLink office, wait for approval of the fee waiver, then go back to the pharmacy to collect your meds. Some people pick up prescriptions in the same building as the charity office (people being released from the hospital or dropping off first-time prescriptions). Some people have to cross the street to the Fantus Clinic. It was cold outdoors and the winds were punishing. Some of the folks waiting were on crutches, in wheelchairs, or carrying luggage.

Only one employee was on hand to approve these waivers. Sometimes other employees came out to approve enough waivers to keep the crowd’s size under control. Then they went back to their cubicles to handle people with previously set appointments and people like me with handwritten white “tickets.” My “ticket” was a red ink number on a piece of white paper the size of a fortune from a fortune cookie. I kept tucking it into safe places and it kept coming loose. I think it was an omen, but I tend to ignore them. One man was incredibly “antsy.” He kept getting up and inquiring whether he could be next. The answer was no. He sat in a chair in front of an empty cubicle, rose, knocked the chair over, righted it, sat down again, studied his smartphone, eavesdropped on the meeting taking place in the next cubicle, studied his watch, observed a woman wearing a long down coat, carrying a rolling suitcase, talking to herself, coughing without covering her mouth, until she began watching him.

As I sat there I observed the crowd. There were a husband and wife with three young children. They had number 468. They sat beside me. They entertained those kids, including an infant, and you hardly heard a peep from them. There was a beautiful woman waiting with a younger woman who might have been her daughter. The older woman had very long brown hair worn in a long ponytail bound periodically with bands. There was a bun wrapped around the top of the ponytail. She had wrapped a silver cord around the base of the bun. The back of her cinnamon-colored winter coat was decorated with black leather medallions to which some other decorations were affixed. It looked like a design from a palace in some Moorish country. There were tiny black stones decorating her collar, too. She wore reading glasses down low on her nose. Her skin was so fair that her freckles looked like pieces of bronze. She was very angry that the wait was so long. I could not make out her words, but she scolded folks regularly. She sometimes got up and escorted her companion out to the first waiting room. Then they returned and continued waiting.

A man in a motorized wheelchair wheeled alongside me at one point. He wore an immense white and black fur hat like a hunter might wear, if he bagged some Siberian white tiger. Because he came up to my side I got a good look at it and believe it might have been real. He also wore a mink jacket with a fur-lined hood. It looked velvet soft and was the most incredible shade of brown. He was a big man, very tall, and, of course, bundled up. He had a lovely smile and lively eyes. His voice was cocoa with whipped cream and a cherry on top warm as he patted my arm and said in a very loud voice, “I just have to say that I am loving your haircut.”

“Thank you.”

“It is just a pleasure to get to look at.” He looked around the room, “No one else seems to have taken hair as seriously as you have. This is one of the best times of my day, let me tell you!”

I thanked him again. He motored away and I saw that, hanging from the back of his chair was one of those yellow and reflective tape vests that road workers wear. It read: “Watch Me For Safety.”

Of course, he proceeded to go to one of the cubicles to demand service. It was so startling to have him publicly compliment my hair one minute and then go batsh*t crazy on some poor charity representative. I thought they were going to call security as things escalated, but a woman with a forceful cloak of authority told him that his needs required special handling and he would be served immediately if he would head immediately to Room 1317. He left as fast as his motorized wheelchair could take him and did not return. As he approached the heavy metal doors to the lobby waiting area, he lifted one foot and kicked the thing open. I think everyone flinched because those doors have no windows and open out so newcomers are always on the other side of them trying to figure out whether to pull or push. No one got hit.

At 10:40 a.m. we were up to number 464. That was incredible. Of course, people started taking lunch breaks. So it slowed down. But breaks appeared to be very short. At 11:10 a.m. staff called 466 and 467. At 11:15 a.m. someone called 468. I was next.

It took sometime for my number to be called. The charity’s staff seemed to be enjoying a Friday moment. As people started getting a tiny bit unruly the staff started repeating certain comments in soft voices and the message began to work its way to where I sat like a game of Telephone.

“He says he’s been waitin’.”

“She says she’s got things to do.”

“He’s got a job to get to.”

In the end I was called. Based on my current income, which is actually lower than it was back in 2011, I qualified for a 25% discount on hospital services. What hurt me was the DePaul did not pay me for my fall paralegal classes in the last payroll period of December. Then it did not pay me for the first payroll period in January. It arbitrarily decided to change the customary schedule for paying “contracts” with people who it treats as employees for payroll purposes and independent contractors when it feels like it. So the most recent pay stub I had showed me as earning much more in one payroll period than I ordinarily do. I also taught a 12-week class in 8 weeks for another school during January. That upped my monthly pay over what it usually is.

I felt really bad for some reason. It was like DePaul took another swing at me, when it really did not mean to do that. An employer’s arbitrary altering of a pay schedule to suit its purposes is a regular event for many adjuncts.

I probably should have waited for a February pay stub showing only the halved fee paid for teaching Transactional Drafting. But I was not trying to “work the system.” I will just keep working on getting a quote for insurance from someone and hope I can cover 75% of the cost of the three doctors’ appointments, five blood tests, and pap test I already have had since the last week of January. I have 30 days to appeal the determination. Maybe my pay stubs will better reflect my circumstances in that time.

In any case, I won’t be scheduling any operations for this year. I have experienced enough “tinkering” in the last fifteen months. I am resourceful and still have people to call and options to explore. And I am feeling much better than I did when this experience began. I am still grateful for the doctor who diagnosed me. I am grateful to the excellent hospital, doctors, and professional staff who operated on me. I value the thoughtful care given by my oncologist and feel lucky to have had her wise advice in making decisions that will affect me for the rest of my life. I think my oncology nurses and the phlebotomist who helped me through chemotherapy were excellent people. I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the two charities that covered so many elements of my medical care. I am grateful to my county, its hospital, and all the excellent people I have encountered there for having resources for people like me.

I have family, friends, and faith that things will turn out well. And I still have my sense of humor.

I remain Not Down or Out.

Bruised (Part II)

My Friday appointment with a physician’s assistant (“P.A.”) in the Gynecology Department at the county hospital was a trial for which I knew I was unprepared. I was nervous about it and the P.A. kept deferring her examination to take a more complete medical history.

After what seemed like a very long time, the P.A. got up and helped me put my feet into the stirrups. She started to run warm water and explained that she would be rinsing the speculum so that it would not be cold when she used it. I was just about to lie back.

Then she changed her mind and decided to perform a general medical examination first.

She listened to my lungs, my heart, examined my breasts, examined my visible hernia, and palpated every place where lymph nodes may be found. Every once in a while I trembled, but I was able to arrest my fears with the certain knowledge that this examination could not possibly prove to be as bad as the last one.

At one point she discontinued her exam to go make more notes on the computer because I mentioned my aunt’s breast cancer. She scolded me so very kindly for leaving this out during the earlier discussion of medical history.

In the end, she did the exam. And it was not as bad as I imagined. Because I have been healing over the last fifteen months. I no longer have a raging bladder infection. My bowel is no longer newly burnt. According to my last CT it has become somewhat “hardened” by radiation. I figured everything else was going to be hardened, too, but there is some resilience left and some of it is emotional.

I will spare you the description except to say that some experiences are more disturbing because of how they are done and not because of what is done.

I felt (and still feel) that I was killed with kindness. I learned certain things about my post-surgical body that no one else explained to me in the last fifteen months. The P.A. commented throughout the exam. I’ll keep some of those lessons to myself. I did appreciate the information. I just found some aspects of the exam uncomfortable. I now wish that I had been more vocal about that. It was not something I could at the time articulate well.

It was not until Saturday that I could say much of anything about the entire experience. I kept asking myself if I had been overly sensitive. I kept replaying the kind words, the scolding tone, the repeated assurances that she treats all her patients like they were family,  and the seemingly intentional delay of the exam. I acknowledged that it was not the P.A. who walked me around the halls nearly naked. I was disappointed in myself for not asserting myself more forcefully. I was kicking myself for not having medical insurance and choices and living up to my own potential so that all of this could have been somehow avoided.

Tears started to leak from the corners of my eyes as the exam drew to a close. I wiped them away with a little embarrassment. It seemed important to the P.A. that I put in words that it had not been as bad as I imagined it would be–and it wasn’t bad the way I feared it would be. But I was so eager to get out of there.

She left me there in the stirrups while she went to find the never-to-be-seen Dr. Y. On her return she announced that he was satisfied with her report on my condition and did not feel the need to see me.

She helped me sit back up and told me that there were no visible signs of cancer’s return. Her practice is to not call if the tests done are negative. We discussed the fact that I don’t use text messages so, if she needs to report bad news, then she will call me and leave me a message telling me I need to come in to see her.

After that, she left me to dress, I cleaned up and tried to leave, but she was in the next room still typing notes on a computer. I went back to my examining room to wait for her to print out some papers for me.

She explained that I will need to have an internal examination every three months for three years, then every six months for two years, then every year. She told me how I should have my hernia fixed and that I should see the primary care physician soon.

Then she pulled out her candy bowl and asked me to choose a piece of candy. She explained that her brother loved candy. She offers some to all her patients. Some of them are diabetics and, particularly after the long wait in the clinic, their blood sugar is down and they are grateful for the treat. I could take as many pieces as I wanted. The bowl was filled with Mary-Janes (a very hard toffee that I haven’t seen in many years) but there were other things, too.

It all seemed very odd to me. After all of the kind comments and reminders about blood pressure, gallstones, diet, diabetes, cholesterol, and everything else, she offered me candy. I took a mini Baby Ruth and said, “I’m going to save this to remember you. See, there’s a little pocket here in my purse for it.”

We walked out to the nurses’ station and she explained that I could ask for her specifically on my return. Lots of people do that. I showed her the note I already had put in my open calendar. It was her name followed by the notation, “SO KIND.”

I have a headache today. I still feel unappreciative of the kindness and that bothers me a little because I have gotten so used to feeling grateful that it seems terrible to me that this seemingly nice woman has bothered me so much when she said the same sorts of things other medical professionals have without giving any offense.

When I spoke of the day with my mom on Saturday she recalled once reading that, in her lifetime, doctors would end up ruling the world. They would order all of us to eat certain things and not others. They would criticize our lifestyles and dictate to us about our behaviors and habits. “It’s come to pass,” she said.

I do these things in my professional life, too. I evaluate. I comment. I criticize. I compliment. I lecture. I intend to examine my own behaviors carefully and question my methodology. But first I need to get over the feeling that I have been bruised. No wounds were inflicted. It was such a subtle experience. It was SO KIND.

Etiquette

DePaul University has invited me to obtain a certificate in diversity skills. The first segment of the certificate program deals with the “etiquette” of dealing with disabilities. Having been terminated for having cancer (arguably a disability), I am very interested in anything the university has to say about the subject, including anything it has to say about doing it politely. This is part of the email sent to me:

“Dear Colleagues,

“The Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity is pleased to announce the launch of B.U.I.L.D., a professional development diversity certificate program available to all faculty and staff.  B.U.I.L.D provides participants with the “building blocks to an inclusive campus”, by:

  • Building multicultural competencies
  • Understanding differences and how it impacts the workplace
  • Inclusive excellence
  • Leveraging Diversity and building Leadership capacity
  • Developing measures of success

“The B.U.I.L.D. Diversity Certificate program reflects DePaul University’s commitment to create a learning culture that values diversity and inclusion. This certificate program helps participants develop cultural competencies, offering the tools necessary for linking diversity to organizational and work performance, and connecting the University’s Vincentian mission of dignity and respect for all individuals to our core operating business principles. This program may be completed within 18 months, and offers a full range of required and elective courses. Participants will have the opportunity to complete a “capstone” practicum project as part of the certification.

“The first available workshop to count towards certificate completion is Disability Etiquette, Awareness and Understanding which will be held on Tuesday, February 12, 2013. The training uses lecture, discussion and cases, to guide participants through disability etiquette & awareness issues from a social justice perspective. Examples of appropriate actions, language, etc. will be reviewed on a disability specific basis.”

I am concerned about the word “etiquette.” Education that averts discrimination on the basis of disability is great. Education that merely makes it more polite is not.

I attended a meeting this week (yes, we finally did have a meeting) at which one of the attendees said that when his students make certain mistakes he describes them as “retarded.”

I immediately said, “I think you should sign up for next week’s seminar on the Etiquette of Disability.” I sometimes wish that the tongue was not as nimble as the mind. As quickly as I said it I was thinking to myself, “Great. Things are just getting back to ‘normal’ and I have gone and used the ‘D-word’ in a meeting with a supervisor present.” But, honestly, what kind of wordsmith uses that word? I even considered referring to it here as the “R-word” because I find it offensive due to a dozen disrespectful uses of it that come to mind whenever I hear it. I decided to spell it out because it was critical to making my point.

His reaction surprised me. He said, “I can’t think of a better word for that behavior.”

The man obviously knew nothing of my situation. There was zero sensitivity to the plight of one who has been found to be disabled and sidelined for it.

It reminded me of a time in my career when I attended a lunch meeting of an organization to which I belonged. During the lunch, one of the members talked about a legal issue involving people who claimed that a facially impartial employment practice had the practical effect of depriving senior employees of credit for service that they needed to qualify for certain pension benefits. She said that a member of her team had described the potential claimants as “pension n******.” I do not use the “N-word” because it is impolite but, more importantly, because it is one of those words that reverberates with hatred and disrespect. No matter how you intend it, the word’s many nasty connotations travel with it.

The room got pretty quiet–even more so when the speaker realized that the audience was shocked. To this day I think she, like my coworker who used the “R-word,” just did not understand how words can hurt. I do not excuse either of these people. I just allow that they may not have intended the offense they caused.

Back at the meeting in which an attorney used the “N-word,” the entire incident became so much worse when a senior member of the organization said, “Thank goodness we don’t have anyone of color in the room.”

I looked up into the eyes of the African American colleague seated across from me and shared the moment when we realized what the speaker did not. There was person of color in the room. And what had already been an awful incident had somehow become worse because someone we respected was treating this like an off-the-record moment. We were about to go on as if nothing serious had happened. What goes on behind closed doors is, after all, what is most pernicious. If I know who my enemies are because they toss their fighting words in my face, then I can arm myself, can’t I? When they cloak ignorance and disrespect in polite words or conceal their motives, well, I have to box a shadow and it is tough to wound shadows. Even if you turn light on shadows they disappear, don’t they?

On another occasion in my career I sat at a board room table with a bunch of men old enough to be my dad or grandpa. I was going to work on a lobbying project for their industry. I sat beside a senior attorney who was serving as my mentor at the time. During the meeting one of the attendees drew the symbol for Batman but with the bottom of each wing depicted as a breast. Beneath the image, he wrote “BATGIRL.”

The men at the table passed it first to their right so that it came closer to me. It came close enough that I managed to see it. I was in my thirties at that time–old enough to school my expression and betray no reaction. Eventually someone realized that I might see it and the paper began to travel to the left. All the way around the table there were various reactions of humor, but, even when there was no visible reaction, the men passed the paper. When it reached the man who sat beside me, he alone shook his head “no” and looked sternly at the man who had passed it to him. Then he turned it over and went on speaking.

He never looked to me for approval. He did not raise the subject after the meeting and ask me if I had taken any offense. He did not apologize for our colleagues or his gender. I appreciated the way he handled it because, at that table, he, like me, was a service provider. He had to think about his relationship with our client as he chose his reaction. But he used some of his “intellectual capital” with the client that day to do the right thing in the situation. He trained by example.

In the many years since that meeting I have taken certain stands that have cost me. There also have been some times when I took another approach and let the moment pass. On some of the occasions when I have spoken up I have suffered consequences, including consequences that affected my income and my stature in the workplace. On some of the occasions when I have been silent I have felt far worse than after having been singled out for a reprimand for refusing to go along with the “flow.”  If I could get back certain moments in my life it would not be to relive my youth or take a different shot at first love or choose a less travelled road. If I could get back certain moments of my life it would be to redeem myself by expressing myself more forcefully. I wish that I always had the guts to protest injustice done in my presence.

Anyway, when my colleague this week defended his own use of the R-word, all I said was, “Maybe you should sign up for that class in Disability Etiquette.”

Everyone who offends does not intend to do so. All of us face situations in which we struggle for the best way to express a reaction to another’s offensive language. A few lessons in etiquette will not necessarily coach others to take their ignorance behind closed doors. It may coach them to choose words more carefully so that people used to being slighted can live without having to deal with the unintended indignities they now encounter.

What would really help though would be classes that educate about the reasons why healthy and successful businesses succeed by stamping out discrimination in their public and private communications. I am hoping that DePaul’s new seminar and staff certificate program will do that, rather than merely make people more polite in public settings. It is as important to wrestle with bias behind closed doors as it is to do so in public.

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.

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.

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