Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Tag: fear

I Miss Sherry

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It was 1992 or 1993, and I was living in Chicago because my dad had passed away, leaving my mom and brother to run a family electrical contracting firm. Danny had passed the contractor’s exam (a feat for one so young), but he still had to complete his electrical union apprenticeship, and I thought I could help run the company until he completed his studies and could devote his full attention to managing the business. I also intended to live with my mom for awhile and help cover some of her living expenses until we could figure out how my dad’s pensions would work.

I left D.C. after eighteen years of living there. My sister Kathy stayed behind. I left many dear friends and a good job. It was a crazy time in my life, a time when things all the time seemed upside down and inside out and I longed for peace. It was a time like what I’m going through now.

One of the people I left behind was a new friend named Sherry. She was as outrageous a person as I have ever met. The first time we met she was my “floater secretary” during my regular secretary’s absence. She was irreverent, disrespectful, hilariously funny, and completely inappropriate. There are times when I think of outrageous things to do or say, but I bite my lip. Sherry had no such filter to keep her from getting into trouble. The first time she made a bad mistake in the workplace, she strode into my office, shut the door, placed her hand on the wall, bent forward and flipped up her skirt. She announced that she was prepared to be spanked for her behavior. In direct contradiction of this behavior, her underwear read “F*CK U.”

I think my mouth fell open. “I am not interested in spanking you,” I said. “Firing you, yes, but spanking an adult is not something I do.” Oh. I can be so prissy that my mom once said she wished I had done something really bad as a kid so I would know you can get past it. I have. Mom just doesn’t know about those mistakes.

Sherry flipped her skirt back down and sat in one of the empty chairs in my office. “Well, I’m not interested in getting fired,” she announced. She raised one eyebrow.

We stared at each other. It was not the first time I had heard of workplace spankings. I managed luxury hotels before I went to law school and saw many surprising things in that line of business. On one occasion, the hotel’s owner summoned me and a coworker to his office and announced that he knew that I and this coworker had circulated an informal newsletter at one of the hotels. He did not care for the gossip included in it. My coworker immediately stepped forward and claimed sole responsibility. The owner shook his head and said, “I recognize Cheryl’s verbiage.”

My coworker offered to let the owner spank her. At that point he laughed hysterically and threw us both out of his office with a stern warning to refrain from further outrageous behavior.

On a later occasion, while I was an attorney, a word processing employee and “floater secretary” mishandled an assignment for me. She worked in a word processing pool and was not someone I knew well. Her supervisor instructed her to go to my office and apologize. She came into my office, shut the door, apologized, and then asked me if I would like to spank her. Deja vu.

I do not think I am the sort of person who ever liked receiving spankings. I strove very hard not to receive them and have no interest in delivering them.

I told the woman’s supervisor what happened. And the word processing employee was not terminated. I have always wondered whether someone else in the law firm was called upon to administer the discipline I could not. You meet unusual people in my profession.

Sherry was assigned to work for someone else after she worked for me. He was a powerful partner in the firm. While she worked for him, he traveled to Alaska on business. In those days, there were no laptops available to take on business trips. We did not have cell phones. There was no such thing as an unlimited calling plan. Sherry accidentally disconnected the partner while he was on hold. When he called back, he was FURIOUS. And he told her at length what an imbecile she was. Then he asked her, “Have you any idea how expensive it is to make a call from Alaska?”

Her answer? “Hold please, while I call the phone company to find out.” Then she put him on hold.

Even after she lost her job, I kept track of Sherry. We met occasionally for lunch. She told me about her failed marriage to some former hockey player. He was doing time for a crime I cannot recall. I met her son and her even more unspeakably hilarious mom. She brought some boss who seemed not altogether indisposed to spanking to my home to watch a movie and share a pizza. During the movie, Sherry excused herself to visit my bathroom.

Imagine my surprise when I visited my bathroom and found a sink full of shaving cream and hair. While she was in my bathroom, she decided the boss was going to get lucky that night, helped herself to my supplies and shaved her legs in my bathroom sink while the rest of us watched the movie. My mouth still hangs open when I think about it.

I ended up leaving DC to return home to Chicago. We stayed in touch. I think I need a few friends who express personality traits so long suppressed by polite company that I might forget anyone possessed them but for these friends’ company. I need shocking once in awhile.

I have already written in my blog I See Dead People, about Sherry’s death. https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/i-see-dead-people/. She died in her thirties of a brain aneurysm.

I actually got the news from the woman from the word processing department who also asked me if I wanted to spank her. She was assigned to me as a “floater secretary” for the day and took the call while I was at lunch. She decided not to have the caller leave me a voicemail message. She delivered the news in person as a kindness to me even though I had tattled about the spanking incident.

Sherry’s family wanted me to know that she might have wanted me to be her son’s legal guardian. She had told family members that she had written a will to that effect, but, her cousin thought it might not have been anything as formal as a will. The cousin thought Sherry might have written her wishes on a cocktail napkin and put the napkin in her car’s glove compartment for safekeeping. The cousin said that I was welcome to attend the funeral, but should be ready for a backwoods brawl if I tried to take the child back to Chicago.

I am not a properly maternal person. I teach, so I do enjoy the company of young people. But the people I teach are in college and post-college settings. Children are not my thing. I never stick out my arms to hold people’s babies. I do not pat the seat next to me and say, “Come sit here and I’ll tell you a story.” (In fact, I think other people’s insistence on such access is a problem. It seems inconsistent to put children on their guard against Stranger Danger and then insist they submit to “familiar strangers'” hugs and kisses.) I like adults.

I called an attorney from Tennessee to find out what the ordinary estate rules were for that state. When I spoke to Sherry’s mom, I told her that I had never spoken to Sherry about estate planning, had never agreed to be a guardian for her son, and planned to attend the funeral but had no intention of taking her grandson.

Sherry’s mom was not unfriendly. She welcomed me to come for the funeral but warned me not to listen if the cousin who first contacted me hit me up for money before, during, or after the funeral. “She will tell you that Sherry didn’t have enough money to pay for her own funeral. That’s true enough. But we will find a place that will bury her. Everyone knows you gave Sherry the money to move down here so they figure you have money they could find a use for.”

My mom warned me sternly not to go to the funeral. “You’ll just be asking for trouble.”

I flew down to Tennessee later that week for the funeral. I took a cab to Sherry’s sister’s home. Sherry had two sisters. Both were more unusual than Sherry. They were angry and violent. Sherry told me that she had a fight with one sister and, when Sherry turned her back, her sister lobbed a toaster at the back of Sherry’s head. It caused a concussion. Sherry’s sister had married a violent man and he had overwhelmed her violence with his own.

The other sister was very sick, but a secretary to some powerful DC lawyer. As a result of that relationship, she walked around in the mantle of his power, blistering with vile words anyone who upset her. She never raised a hand against Sherry, but that sister could wound with words and did.

Sherry’s mom was unabashedly funny in the way that the TV show Hee Haw was funny. The words might be simple, but the mind was sharp as a tack. When Sherry was married to the hockey player, mother and daughter visited his family in Canada on Canada Day. The in-laws were a bit pretentious and belabored the fact that Canadian fireworks were going to outshine anything you could see in Tennessee.

On watching the much lauded fireworks display from the in-laws’ lakefront condo, Sherry’s mom was asked to compliment the display. She responded, “I can fart higher–and in more colors!”

The house was a lovely home, but you could tell there were going to be problems as soon as I arrived. The cousin hit me up for a thousand dollars to help pay for the funeral. She told me that the mortician was working on Sherry as a favor and the cemetery was a sort of “potter’s field.” I was given the impression that a thousand dollars was needed or we’d be burying Sherry in a potato sack.

My hostess came down from her bedroom in what can only be described as a cocktail dress. It was black, but cut up and down so I knew at once the color of her underpants and that she wore a garter belt and stockings rather than pantyhose. No bra.

There were whispers about the other sister. She had arrived late for the wake, insisted on delivering a long speech about her own health issues and how she should have been the one being buried, and then had passed out, putting an end to the evening’s festivities as everyone had to rush home to tell their family, friends, and neighbors about the “hillbilly” (not my word choice) event. The family had taken the sister to the emergency room to get her checked out and had not gotten “home” until midnight. Everyone was tired.

I was several times told that the family would fight me to the death for Sherry’s son. I was told that the attorney who once got lucky after sharing pizza and a movie at my DC apartment had assured the family that, if Sherry had prepared a will naming me as legal guardian to her son, then “that will would never pass across the desk at a probate court’s offices.” I was asked if I knew the whereabouts of the cocktail napkin.

When it was time to go to the church, Sherry’s mom said she would drive me and the cousin to the church in Sherry’s car. I thought someone else should drive, but the car had a stick shift, and I can only drive an automatic. I got into the backseat because, if I had gotten into the front seat, the temptation to open the car’s glove compartment would have been strong. Sherry’s mom asked her son-in-law for a few pointers. He leaned into the car through the driver’s window. Sherry’s mom got a little excited.

She threw the car into reverse, hit the gas, and all four of us hurtled down a wooded hill until we crashed into a large enough tree. The son-in-law was lucky we didn’t kill him. All of us had mild to moderate whiplash that we decided to ignore.

We continued on to the church. As we drove, we realized that the trunk of Sherry’s car had been damaged. The trunk was stuffed with Sherry’s belongings that had been removed from her apartment so the family could avoid incurring more expense. While we drove, articles of Sherry’s clothing fluttered out of the flapping trunk and blew off into the humid breeze the car stirred up. Other members of the family later reported that a blue bra had slapped against a windshield and someone else had caught a pair of underpants as a keepsake.

At the church, the casket was open and set at the front of the church. Sherry’s sisters had an unhealthy fascination for their sister’s corpse. The sick sister redid Sherry’s makeup and ended up putting the cosmetics back in her purse. The other removed an immense, black hat from Sherry’s head and slapped it on her own head. She declared that she was going to wear it because (1) the brim would be crushed when the casket was closed; and (2) I think, most importantly from her point of view, she looked better in it and it matched her black dress!

Someone had set the church’s organ to play what I would describe as spirituals. When the first notes of The Old Rugged Cross pealed out, it was a rousing rendition a little more appropriate at a revival than a funeral and so loud that many in attendance exclaimed and batted their homemade fans until one of Sherry’s sisters ran up to adjust the volume. She announced that we could all rest assured that Sherry knew we were seeing her off in style. “That music was loud enough to be heard in the far corners of heaven and hell.”

I sat in the row behind the family. I was introduced as the lawyer “who had come to steal Sherry’s baby.” Sherry’s “baby” was about eight or nine years old. He stood up and removed his belt, folded it in half, pushed his fists together and then pulled them apart so the leather of the belt made a loud smacking sound. He called out loudly, “That’s right, now I’ve got the belt.”

He looked up at his supposedly abusive uncle for approval, and I wished that there was a will naming me as his legal guardian. But the boy had a father who would one day get out of prison and come looking for him and Sherry’s family was where she had brought her son when she seemed to have a premonition that her death might be near, and I had no legal standing to protest these people’s claim to the boy because no one had found even a cocktail napkin with my name on it, and I am a lawyer and do not lay claim to others’ children without even a phone conversation to indicate that a person means to have her beloved boy placed in my care. As you might now suspect, this will be a moment I never forget, a road not taken, a cause for regret. I am ashamed to say that I did not even stay in touch to monitor the situation.

People got up to say a few kind words, but they mostly spoke about themselves. One of Sherry’s sisters told us how she was going to keep Sherry’s hat forever because it looked better on her and she felt certain Sherry would agree. The other told us more about her illness and her fears that she would die before her own young child was old enough to remember her. She let it be known that her boss’ law firm would fight me tooth and nail if I tried to take Sherry’s boy back to Chicago with me. The boy cried then and I wondered what Sherry had said or done to make everyone look at me so suspiciously. I hardly knew this boy. I probably had known her for a year or two. It had not been enough time for me to develop any relationship with this boy, given my lack of interest in other people’s children.

The sick sister ended the eulogies by losing her footing. Her husband ran forward to catch her before she could fall and strike her head a second time in as many days. I cannot recall whether I spoke (I always speak) or what I said (if I did speak, I cannot imagine what I could have said to save this sad and crazy memorial). I don’t want to go back and read my journal entry. I remember enough from that strange day.

The pastor delivered his own sermon. I have already written about how Sherry’s recent declaration of her faith in Jesus Christ meant she was already in heaven “with Elvis . . . and Jesus, too.”

It was a long drive to the cemetery. A friend of the family contributed the plot. It was a field of green grass, some of it long enough that you knew no one got around to mowing every week. There were very few headstones and the ones that were there were small and flat. It was the kind of sunny day in summer when the air is so thick with humidity that you wade through it. The cicadas and crickets and every other manner of insect whined in a cadence that rose and fell but never quieted enough to let you form a clear thought. There were flies that pestered. My heels sank in the dirt. The grass was coarse and raspy against my nylon-covered ankles.

We gathered by the grave under a yellow and white canopy, all of us fitting in its shade if not beneath its covering. The hole was dug and you could smell the soil that someone had covered with a length of artificially bright, fake turf. The minister was taking his time as he picked his way from the parking lot. The casket rested on a sling of leather belts. There were children present and they had started to run about the cemetery playing tag.

Sherry’s sister, the one who hit Sherry with the toaster, threw herself down at the very edge of the grave and commenced to cryin’. I am talking about grief that seemed out of proportion to her demeanor. She stretched out onto the fake turf like she meant to climb into that grave, too. But she reached back at one point to straighten her skirt so we saw a little more of her legs and behind than was polite but a little less than would have been downright salacious. The hat never slipped from its perch atop a topknot of careless curls. The woman’s husband bent down, picked her up in his arms and carried her back to their car so prettily. For all the crying, I cannot recall a spilled tear.

The rest of us were frozen by the tableau.

I had arranged for a limousine to pick me up at the cemetery. It was finer than the hearse. It was an odd contrast to the collection of attendees’ cars. When the pastor finished his prayers, I said goodbye to Sherry’s mom and just walked away from the whole mess. I am not usually a coward, but I felt I had been dropped into a hot mess of family stew that was so poisoned that I had to get away from it.

When I got home I still had plenty of troubles and sorrows of my own to address. But I felt like I had briefly wandered onto some movie set. All of the classic signs were there. It was a place in which the observer squirms and thinks, “Oh, don’t go there. Don’t get in the car. Don’t open the door. Please don’t look in that closet. Whatever you do, do not go into the basement. Don’t trust them. For crying out loud, can’t you see the danger here?”

In movies, the person does what no one else would do. She succumbs to a bad case of stupid and for her troubles she is roundly punished. And the rest of us take our lickings with her. We are scared within an inch of our own deaths by the prospect of what will happen to one who has been lured into a danger from which there can be no escape.

I did not tread further. I let the limousine whisk me back to the airport. I caught the last plane to Chicago for the day. I picked up the burdens of my own life–bookkeeping for a failing family business, grief from the loss of a father and then a friend, a crazily demanding job in a place with its fair share of strange people–and I tried not to look back.

In the times during the last two years when things have been upside down and inside out people have told me that, if we could trade our problems for someone else’s, we would still take up our own burdens and carry on.

I think they are right. It’s tempting sometimes to try on someone else’s cares and woes and imagine we could handle them, even handle them better. But our own cares are familiar and we often have years of preparation for handling them.

But, every once in awhile, I think about a place in Tennessee where I watched men lower a casket into a grave in the midst of a tragic stew of family drama and I wonder, if I turned back and opened the door, whether I would find all my worst fears realized or flowers growing despite the tears that would surely fall because I still miss Sherry.

Catastrophizing

Feeling snowed under.

Feeling snowed under.

Did I mention that next Friday I have an appointment for a gynecological exam and will likely see the “oh-so-very-NOT-nice” physician’s assistant whose examination of me left me upset for weeks? Did I mention that this has me feeling very anxious–as do all doctors’ appointments?

The best part of blogging has been reading the blogs of people whose situation has been worse than mine. I know how that sounds. But the other bloggers’ sharing has given me a perspective on my own experience that I could not have gotten from my own experience if I chewed on it until it was fully consumed and digested–a process that might have taken my whole life.

Until my diagnosis with cancer, I had never had an operation. I had never suffered a serious illness. The most serious medical procedure done on me was the inpatient removal of a mole that was chafed by a bra strap. The most serious pain I had ever experienced was passing a kidney stone at about the age of 20. That experience proved more humorous than serious.

While I was in the emergency room to determine the cause of my pain the doctor decided to perform an internal gynecological exam to rule out some gynecological problem. Following the exam, I continued lying on the table while I waited for results. Then a hospital administrator escorted a university student into my curtained “bay” so that the student could ask me questions about my use of contraceptives for some classroom statistical analysis. I agreed to answer the questions. The administrator helped me sit up. The nurse had not properly secured the end of the table when she took down the stirrups at the conclusion of my exam.

When I sat up, the end of the table fell down and I was catapulted to the floor. I landed on my hands and knees with the hospital gown open from neck to knees. I landed outside of the narrow confines of the curtained bay. There I was, naked and on all fours, in front of everyone, including someone with whom I went to school.

It goes without saying that there were apologies, and many hands reached down to help me rise, and no one laughed. Which seemed amazing to me at the time, because I could not stop laughing! Seriously, the pain from the kidney stone was the worst thing I had ever felt in my physical life. My hands and knees “smarted” in a way that had me thinking about that old adage, “Come over here and I’ll give you something to cry about.” I was blushing the color of a beet until it seemed every inch of my face might explode. And everyone was looking at each other like it might be the end of the world.

It wasn’t. The adage proved to have some relation to fact. There were worse things than the pain I experienced from passing a kidney stone. I could be in even worse pain, naked, on a germy ER floor, in a down facing dog position as others (one of them a fellow student holding a clipboard) tried to get hold of “something” naked, in an non-salacious manner . . . in an effort to help me stand up. Oh, the perspective this gave me helped me accept many of life’s indignities that have followed.

I still have not had a good cry about having uterine cancer. I am not sure I need to at this point. I was nonplussed when I received the diagnosis. In retrospect, it explained so many things that I had been experiencing such as heavy periods and a late end to menopause. I reacted by trying to put the entire puzzle together. I also had a very fatalistic idea about what it meant to have cancer. I just assumed that my life was over and was trying to figure out what I would need to get done before I died. Making checklists is a hobby. I never did make out that checklist.

The doctors were much more optimistic and they were being extraordinarily negative. Their entire focus at the time seemed to be on my inability to survive surgery because of my blood loss (I needed 8 packs of blood to reach a minimum state of readiness for surgery) and my seemingly poor general health. But one doctor, the head of the internal medicine department, kept coming back to report that I had passed another of his department’s tests. It appeared that I might only have anemia and cancer.

I counted my blessings day and night. I am serious about this. I did not have a book to read. There was nothing I cared to watch on TV, and I had no idea if I was being charged for using it and had no medical insurance. When my sister Kathy flew in from DC she brought me two magazines, a pen, and some paper. I loaned a magazine to my roommate and covered the paper with my scribbled lists of blessings. If my luck had run out, then I wanted to recall that it had been a good run. If the Law of Attraction was at play, then I wanted to be in a positive place to attract good health.

I did not sleep for nearly a week (other than during surgery). The closest I got to it was that micro sleep you sometimes feel happening during a long drive. One minute you are on the turnpike in Indiana and the next minute you are seeing signs for exits to Cleveland and are wondering, “What the hell happened to most of Ohio?” You have been functioning, but not optimally.

I have shed plenty of tears since October 2011. I was devastated to learn that the law school terminated me. Radiation was a nightmare. The week after treatment ended was horrific. To this day I feel like I might have died but for my sister and mom “springing” me from the county hospital. I have never been so afraid or helpless. Recovery from treatment was marginally worse than what I felt while going through six weeks of radiation and chemo. Radiation cystitis had me crying twenty-something times a day in the bathroom until that became such old hat that I just gritted my teeth and endured.

But others’ blogs were like speed markers on the road that let me know I should pace myself on my tendency to manage fear by imagining myself handling the worst case scenario. No one ever knows what will happen next or how she will handle it. And the saddest truth about cancer is that others have handled/are handling much worse than I can imagine on my own. They do manage. Sometimes angrily. Sometimes with frightening resignation. Often with grace, humility, and even humor.

I am covering my mouth with both hands and trying not to cry as I think of what some have shared about their experiences. I know that my odds are good for long-term survival. It was stage one with complicating factors, not the stage three cancer the surgeon first described it to be. It was a slow-growing cancer. There appears to be no evidence that cancer spread or remains. My surgery went very well. I am no longer in daily pain. My other side-effects can be handled.

When I agreed to adjuvant radiation and chemotherapy I did not know that they could one day lead me to another cancer. I was awake, but still in that stage of micro sleep. I just kept driving until I saw signs for Cleveland, one of which is an exit marked Strongsville. I took that exit and have put down some roots. I could spend my days catastrophizing, but that might only make this tougher.

Source unconfirmed

Source unconfirmed

The bloggers who have shared their struggles and victories are daily reminders that I should live in the “now” and not get ahead of myself. Whatever is ahead of me will be handled–ready or not–and handled better if I focus on the present and do not let anxiety rule me.

There was a time when I could laugh at the experience of landing naked and in pain on the ER floor while answering questions about condoms and diaphragms. It’s harder to do that when you’re dealing with cancer. But I still have a sense of humor. And I have been shown by some wonderful people that there are worse situations and that I can face them if I must. Life is worth it until it isn’t. And, even then, there will be hope that life’s ending can be endured.

So, I am every day grateful for the community of bloggers who have so bravely shared their challenges and fears. Without your courage and generosity, I could be wasting my life catastrophizing.

If you have never seen Loretta LaRoche, you should. She is the source of the word “catastrophizing.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggGoe_y5WqA. In that video she talks about how we can sometimes take our tough challenges and magnify them until we become hopeless. Here is a link to a video of her discussing the Joy of Stress: Party Pants, in which she reminds us to embrace life’s adventures rather than always putting joy off. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5tOFdSJZJk. Here’s her video on Pessimism vs. Optimism. http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=kqE9cuWxdqo&feature=endscreen. She uses humor to help people handle stress. Her message is resilience. I think she may also be reading many of the blogs that I read about living after a cancer diagnosis. She seems to understand that we can keep smiling–sometimes for a moment, sometimes for a day, sometimes longer.

Did I mention that next Friday I have an appointment for a gynecological exam and will likely see the “oh-so-very-NOT-nice” physician’s assistant whose examination of me left me upset for weeks? Did I mention that this has me feeling very anxious–as do all doctors’ appointments? Maybe I’m already feeling better because of the messages of hope in so many other people’s blogs.

Facing the End

I am a positive person. I think sometimes I am a little bit of a Pollyanna. I am also getting old, which is why I know who Pollyanna is. Anyway, one of the most inspirational blogs that I read is by a man who is running out of options and time. His world is filled with pain. Maybe you are not in a positive place right now. Maybe his blog is not the right thing for you to read. But, if you are up to it, Mike is telling it like it is for him. And I can be positive about what I am learning from him even though I know he is facing a fate I don’t always feel I can even contemplate.

If you’re up to it, check out Living Life to the Fullest from the End Stage: https://miketerrill.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/when-it-all-comes-crashing-down/comment-page-1/#comment-181.
I think Mike inspires like no one else when it is time to put away the juicing recipes and stop buying antioxidants and think about the fact that life is short but the memories you make with and for others can survive what you cannot.

I recently was nominated for a Liebster Award. It’s about caring. So I’m going to pay it forward by asking that all the many caring bloggers and visitors who stop by this page now and in the future say a prayer or hold a thought or take a leap and read what Mike has been saying. Because how a man lives is also about how a man dies. And this man’s struggle has touched my heart.

Rerun

I have another appointment with Dr. H on Monday. She has arranged for me to see a gynecologist (Dr. Y) on Friday as well. That means that I have two more “opportunities” coming up to face my fears that cancer will return. I want to be doing the right things so I will go to the hospital and talk with both doctors, but a part of me feels about as excited as a kid going to the dentist for a root canal.

I still have petechiae. It has faded ever so slightly on my legs. However, my shins are covered with tiny red dots. It’s like freckles on steroids. It’s like sunburn, but patchy.

I dealt with medical creditor matters this week. A collector called my mom’s house and got her all stirred up. The medical services were provided at the hospital that diagnosed my cancer and performed my hysterectomy. I called the collections firm. We have spoken before and I four times mailed to it the information about my having been granted charitable coverage at the hospital. However, when I called this week, the woman who took my call claimed to have no record of my communications. I faxed to the collections firm the charity’s letter and more copies of my previous letters and sent everything by certified mail, too. Today I received a letter and the collections firm informed me that the bill had been withdrawn from collections and my credit report would be updated. Score one for me. However, this was one more reminder that cancer lurks out there making every aspect of my life more challenging.

I have submitted several requests for prices on health insurance since the fall. So far no company has sent me a quote.

I had the closest thing to a vacation that I have had in some time this week. I was down to teaching two classes. None of them were night classes. I looked forward to this break. I had plans to get things done. I wanted to organize my home. I hoped to toss some old papers. I longed to get out and visit with some old friends. I had a novel I hoped to read. I have not read a book for pleasure in months.

I did not get any of these things done. I graded papers. I received more than a dozen requests for assistance with students’ job searches. I managed others’ crisis situations.

I took my mom to the grocery store last Saturday right after I taught a five and a half hour class. My mom has had a baker’s cyst drained and has had swollen joints that have kept her indoors for days. She was dying to get out of the house. So I took her to the store and she wandered up and down the aisles trying to find some food that would help to reduce the boredom she has experienced sitting at home nearly every day since Christmas. She walked up and down the frozen food aisle at least three times very slowly.

A fortune teller once told me I would meet my second husband in the frozen food aisle. I haven’t been there in almost twenty years. You can live quite well on food items from the other aisles. Mom and I walked the frozen food aisle again and again until she found a pail of hot beef with its own juices. I scooted back to aisle two to get a pack of rolls and then over to the pharmacy for something to help clear her ears. Each time I came back she was standing in front of a glass case studying a bag or a box or a pail of something frozen. I could not wait to get her and her groceries back in the car.

On Sunday my landlady’s radiator pan split and the water soaked through her floor and my ceiling. I became aware of it when I thought I heard rain bouncing off a window air conditioner. I got out of bed and went out to the living room to check. It was supposed to snow, not rain. As I approached the front windows I saw the brown fluid seeping out of the crown moldings and a seam in the ceiling. I had to find receptacles to catch it to keep it from running down the curtains and into my rug.

Later in the week my mom called to tell me that she thought she had lost her checkbook at the grocery store. I needed to search my car for it in case it had fallen from her purse after our trip to the store. It turned up (thanks to a prayer to St. Anthony) in her home.

I experienced some comic relief when DePaul University solicted me for a contribution to a student scholarship fund. I am taking home about $100/week for teaching an upper level legal writing class at the law school this semester. The school doesn’t offer me health insurance even though I sometimes teach several classes per semester. It does not pay for my phone, Internet connection, or parking in the Loop. The law school terminated me for having cancer. It has been conducting its own investigation of this act since the fall and has yet to report any findings to me. The solicitation implied that students were more in need than I was and the chair of the scholarship fund drive promised to match any gift I made up to $52, which is such an incentive to give, isn’t it? If the law school means to punish me for having the nerve to survive cancer and assert my legal rights, then it has not judged my character (or my legal acumen) accurately. I will not go away quietly. I will hang on and fight for the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

I met with students this week, quite a few students. I heard from several friends. There was a great deal of angst in their worlds, too. Flu, stomach ailments, migraines, parents’ illnesses, family disagreements, a friend’s marriage was in trouble, financial pressures, fear, anxiety, stress, and pain. One friend’s family survived Hurricane Sandy only to have a fire in their home. Now a “hundred years'” snowstorm heads for their damaged home.

Each afternoon I climbed into my bed when I should have been making headway with my various projects. I just ran out of steam. I would lie in the dark and shiver with a combination of cold and nerves. I would wonder how much more stress I could handle. But I got up an hour later and went back to work. There is only so much time that I can bury my head in my quilt and pray for better times. The business of surviving means getting up and getting back to work.

Tonight I went out for dinner and a movie with Barb because I wanted to do something that smacked of a leisure activity. We saw the new movie Side-Effects. Barb screamed once and laughed uncomfortably a couple of times. I won’t spoil any of the plot surprises, but it was all about pharmaceuticals that promise to make you happy and leave your life in ruins. When I got home tonight I noticed that the petechiae has spread down the insides of my arms. All I could think of is that my post-cancer life is all about the side-effects. There are side-effects of having had cancer–fear and anxiety. There are side-effects of radiation to deal with–a burned bladder, the petechiae, and concern that it is not going away. There are side-effects of having been so sick without health insurance to cover my bills–creditors, collection calls, and charity applications to make and renew. The side-effects affect my life in every one of its aspects. This month I am feeling the effects of the lower stipend I receive now that DePaul no longer uses me to teach LARC III, a class I taught every semester until after I objected to being terminated for having cancer. Despite these side-effects, I am resolved to keep going.

I do not believe that my experience is unique. I think many cancer survivors find themselves in “loops” in which they start to feel better. Then they find themselves preparing for their next medical check-up like they were headed back into danger. Positive attitudes and a great support group can help, but sometimes the strength it takes to face fear makes me so tense that my teeth chatter and every muscle in my body clenches and shivers until I have cramps in my legs, pain in my back and neck, an ache throughout my jaw, and a massive headache. But I get up and do what I have to do because I want to live and life always means handling the good and the bad.

It’s not courage that keeps me going. It’s hope. No matter how dark some of these days have been, they cannot rob me of my hope that better days are ahead.

 

Passing the Platelets

So the latest word is that I am covered in red splotches because of the generic drug I started taking last month and not because my platelets are committing suicide. That is a relief.

I now need to go back to the hospital to submit a prescription that I hope will be filled with the name brand version of the drug.

It is an interesting thing–this brand vs. generic issue. I get the feeling it is like Coca Cola and some can that just says “cola.” The two are not the same. Of course, in the cola situation they will look alike. It is difficult to mess up “caramel color.” My medicines look different. One is bright blue. The other is white with faint blue specks. I checked the online pill identifier to make sure both were intended to address my radiation cystitis. This was not a case of pharmacist error. If you get something other than a Coke you may recognize the substitution by flavor. I happen to prefer Diet Pepsi, but have nothing against Diet Coke. I recently ordered the latter in a very pretentious restaurant. It was the kind of place where the waiter took longer to describe the seared tuna than it took to eat the four quarter-sized disks of raw fish with transparently thin slices of miniscule radishes and jalapeno peppers that set my palate afire. The Diet Coke tasted flat and watered down–but it most likely was the “real thing.”

How strange to think that a generic version of a drug could cause my rash. It has infiltrated my hairline, but I still don’t see it on my face as Dr. H did on Monday. Some areas have so many points of red that I look burned. I bought a tube of Desitin yesterday and coated the worst splotches because they were starting to get “weepy.” It may be a good thing that it is 6 degrees outside. I have been layered until most of me is hidden from view.

Diane, a dear friend, inquired whether it was the dye in the medication that brought on this allergy. I don’t know the answer to that question. I used my online M.D. (worth every penny I never paid for it) and learned that 3% of people taking my drug have petechiae. I actually am troubled less by these splotches all over me than I am by a smudge I found on my blouse yesterday. I studied it for signs of its origin for awhile yesterday before treating the mark to (I hope) avoid a stain. But I walked around with petechiae for more than a week without much reaction.

We have expressions for being insensitive to the appearance of our own skin, don’t we? Some things are only “skin deep.” No one wants to be so sensitive as to be “thin-skinned.”

I was much more concerned at the prospect of suicidal platelets. Nevertheless, now that the whole “scare” is fading and the splotches are not, I will confess that I am exhausted by the whole affair. My head aches from all the stress of even going to see the doctor, much less starting to worry that radiation cystitis could turn out to be the least of my problems.

I tend not to “catastrophize.” When I get bad news I try to tamp down panic and “chill-ax.” I hope that things will resolve themselves, given enough time. But just for today I think I will crawl into bed, pull up my quilt, cover my head, and imagine that when I wake up in a couple of hours I will look and feel brand new.

Then I’ll climb in the car and drive to the hospital and submit my prescription for processing. Having passed the platelets test I just want to catch my breath before I go back to the place where, for a week, I caught something a little scary, even though it turned out to be painless.

Here We Go Again

It never ceases to be an adventure. I had a 9:30 a.m. appointment at the hospital on Monday. I got there before 7:00 a.m. to ensure I would have a parking place. It was cold and rainy–one of those days when the concrete does not just seem wet. It seems to sweat the moisture. I sat in the front seat and waited for the time when the elevators would be unlocked. It was cold enough that I wanted to wear my coat indoors, but I ended up leaving it in the car. It does not feel good to get cold, but it feels worse to sit for hours in a coat once you warm up.

Once inside I went to Clinic H (Oncology Department) and waited for a while. The receptionists do not appreciate it if you check in more than an hour before your appointment. I took a seat in what seems like an airport waiting area. I had a set of student papers to grade while I waited. The usual crowd assembled. I have never been waiting when it appeared that I might have the worst case. On Monday I observed several wraiths wearing hospital masks. Chemotherapy lowers your white blood cell count to the point that you are susceptible to every form of infection. One man coughed incessantly. You could feel the reverberation of others’ fear each time he did. No one wants to become ill. Surviving cancer is difficult enough. Dying of pneumonia or some other opportunistic disease after undergoing such awful treatments would be cruelly ironic.

There were more African-American men waiting than I usually see. They were stoic in a manner few else can achieve. They did not react to the coughing. They did not suck on water bottles or hold their heads as if they pounded. There was no low buzz of chatter from them. They had not brought their wives or daughters. They dressed in grays and blacks and faded denim. They cupped their own elbows as if their limbs ached, but there were no loud sighs. The painful silences speak so loudly to me now. I can tell when the muscles in their necks are taut from the effort of holding up a painful head. One man’s nostrils flared for nearly an hour. He appeared to be in extraordinary pain each time he drew breath. When the receptionist called his name, then changed her mind and asked him to retake his seat he walked back from the front desk like he could feel every hair remaining on his rapidly emerging scalp. No complaints despite his visible suffering.

Actually, no one complained as we waited and waited and waited. It was about five and a half hours that I waited. I saw countless people come and go.

One man came in his pajamas with six or seven people in tow. When his name was called, all of them rose to lead him toward the desk. There were several young men in the group. When the nurse asked if one of them would translate for him, they all raised their hands. In the end, one man, a son, I think, escorted his dad back to the examining room. Everyone else waved as if he might not return. They hovered in a corner to wait for him to return.

Only one woman wore a wig on Monday. The rest of the women had some hair or little knit caps. One woman had a fresh tuft of silvery hair atop her head and nothing else. She wore dark clothes and a leather bomber jacket. She knew many of the other women who waited. Barely into recovery herself, the woman went from patient to patient offering others comfort. “You look wonderful,” she would say. When a receptionist asked for her appointment sheet she said very softly, “My doctor called and told me to come in. I think she has bad news for me.”

I choked back emotion at her bravery. I hoped it was going to be good news or bad news tempered with hope. She seemed like such a nice person. You don’t wish cancer on a nasty person, but it hurts to see so many ordinary heroes and heroines. When she raised her hand to wave to a passing nurse I saw the large flat fingernails on her hands. I could not help but think of my old cancer buddy Country Joe. He told me those flat fingernails were a sign of lung cancer.

A nurse took my vitals three or four times. She kept forgetting to write things down. She coughed a few times in my face. I did my best not to flinch. She apologized and promptly coughed again. I prayed that she was not sick and would not make me sick. When she was not watching I smeared hand sanitizer on my cheeks.

Eventually I saw the doctor who now assists Dr. H. She always wears her name tag in a pocket so I still don’t know her name. She claimed to have called me twice and asked if I had gone to the restroom. “No,” I answered. “I have been here the entire time.”

She asked me how I was doing and I told her that I had a new rash all over my shins, my legs and chest. She had me roll up my pants legs. She checked my stomach–no rash there. Dr. H came into the room and they called Dr. Z in, too. All three studied the rash and Dr. H scolded me for not calling her when it started. I did not defend myself. But I was amused at the idea. My appointment was changed without notice to me. I just got a letter in the mail. Don’t come 1/23. Come 1/28. Days are fungible at the county hospital. No one calls me.

The doctors described my rash as pitikia or petechiae. I think the word(s) mean(s) “rash.” But I came to understand that it could mean serious concerns. They called the pharmacist to ask why my prescription was changed from one color of pill to another–a different manufacturer. I used to take a dark blue pill. Now the pill is white.

I will go back to taking the dark blue pill as soon as the hospital’s pharmacy can prepare a new prescription–five or so business days from whenever I drop off the new prescription.

Petechiae is like my blood platelets are “committing suicide.” I not only have red marks all over. Some are joining into big red patches. As this happens the blood leaks out of my veins like bruises. When I mentioned all of this later to my friend Mary she thought of the petechiae discussed on NCIS. Apparently one finds it on the necks of strangulation victims.

The doctors eventually sent me for blood tests. Dr. H told me to call her Tuesday for results. She also said she would get me a referral to a gynecologist who will examine me for signs of cancer.

By the time I had my blood drawn I had been at the hospital for seven and a half hours. I waited quite some time for the blood test because the person who takes blood was on lunch break and no one fills in during his absence. The coughing man and a whisker-thin Hispanic gentleman and I waited for his return while the TV blared on with Anderson Cooper and Emmit Smith removing white stains from wooden tables. I still had to go to work after all this. As a result, I never made it to the pharmacy to drop off my prescription. I never made it to the Carelink office to  apply for renewal of my charity status.

I called Dr. H today but she had not been at work and did not have my test results. Maybe tomorrow.

I made it to school at 3 p.m. for my office hours. I finished teaching a class Monday night. I probably graded twenty papers that day. When I got home I realized that I had eaten a protein bar, eaten a piece of string cheese, consumed two sodas, and swallowed a handful of pills and vitamins–what a day! I had to rush home to prepare for a brand new class I started teaching this morning at a different school. I had three resumes to review and fix for students for a resume workshop at school today. There was no time to eat dinner. There was no time to worry about my health.

I crawled into bed at midnight and set an alarm for five in the morning. The truth is that this is what passes for ordinary in my life now. I keep trying to simplify my life and it grows more complicated. I wanted to hear that cancer has not returned, but we somehow got distracted by new complaints that started out as rashes and became suicidal platelets. I got up early and did whatever I could to get in and out from my doctor’s appointment only to spend an entire day waiting to see, to be seen, to hear, and to be heard. I rushed to finish classes and rushed to start them. I pass by sick people every day who come and go as well. I find myself thinking quite a bit about those people because much of the rest of what is happening is just a muddle. What is happening to people all around me is so much more terrible to imagine, much less contemplate.

Life goes on even when it does not. Tonight as I set my alarm again for five in the morning I wonder if the muddle isn’t what saves me from getting lost in the fear that could so easily stop me in my tracks. I know at moments like this that, no matter how muddled life is, it is better than giving in or giving up. So here we go again.

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

Feeling So Lucky

My next doctor’s appointment is tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m. I originally had an appointment for last Wednesday, but the hospital recently sent me a letter to inform me that my appointment was changed to another day of the hospital’s choosing. This is what happens when you take treatment at the county hospital. No one calls to inquire about your availability.

After all of the angst involved in making my October appointment, I am just relieved not to have a conflict with my teaching schedule. I am teaching Tuesday and Thursday mornings this semester. I wanted to avoid a Monday or a Wednesday conflict, and who can blame me?

Much and little has changed since October. My chief physical complaint remains my seriously burned bladder. The radiation’s effects on my bladder continue. It was about a week ago that the pain was so bad that I had to grip my knees to keep from screaming. The pain ran from my bladder to the tips of my toes. Most days I do not think much about the pain. It has become such a part of my day that it has to get pretty bad to be noteworthy. I stopped recording pain levels for each trip to the bathroom right before Christmas. Nothing much changed from day-to-day or month-to-month. I decided that it might improve my outlook if I stopped recording the pain and tried accepting that change was not imminent or even likely.

I think the change had some positive effects. I hardly speak of the pain now that I no longer track it. It has not altered the pain to ignore its constancy. But I am fairly certain that by speaking of it less I have been better company to friends and family. Like me, they must have found it difficult to discuss a problem that does not go away and has few prospects of doing so. I considered the hyperbaric chamber as a possible tool for repairing my bladder, but do not now have the time or inclination to go for hours of lying in some tube infusing my body with oxygen. I may feel differently in the summer when I teach fewer classes.

My bowel also suffered from five weeks of radiation. It is not the same. I take over-the-counter medicine every day to address the remaining effects. I can eat whatever I want, but I really don’t want to eat nuts now that I have undergone so much radiation. It can be a cause of discomfort rather than pain. I have stopped taking yogurt every day. I no longer take probiotic pills. I will just say that I am a different person inside.

For awhile I hated the way my own body smelled. I no longer find my own smell so unpleasant. I cannot say for sure whether anyone else has noticed a difference. No one else ever remarked on that smell of burnt flesh that seemed to hang around me.

My skin is no longer scarred by my external radiation burns. Instead, I am covered with a non-itchy, red rash that seems to be a side effect of my bladder medication since the manufacturer changed. I have the rash over most of my legs and torso, particularly the inside of my legs from ankles to thighs.

My skin was so dry after chemotherapy and radiation that I had calluses on the tops of my hands, but they have gone away.

My fingernails still have bubbles and odd ridges. My toenails have gone back to normal.

My hair has changed again in the last three months. It is not quite as thick and not quite as wavy. But it remains darker and more “silvery” than it ever was before. My eyebrows are thicker and longer. I have to trim them. I never did that before cancer. I have longer eyelashes than I ever had before, but no longer as many eyelashes as I had in October. I miss those eyelashes.

At work at DePaul’s law school, things have not improved. The law school has decided not to use for the LARC III class I have taught every fall and spring from Fall 2005-Spring 2012. Now I teach only Transactional Drafting. Last year the law school did not use me to teach that class. In the fall of 2012 I was asked to only teach it. And they paid me as much to teach it as they used to pay me to teach LARC III. This semester they cut my pay in half. I am told that the higher pay was the mistake. I do not really know what to believe. There are some investigations of this matter ongoing, but no resolution appears to be in sight.

I am not leaving because I make some people at the law school uncomfortable. They are not entitled to discriminate against me for having cancer or for asserting my rights to be free from discrimination for a disability. The result of all this is that things have not changed positively at the law school. In fact, my boss no longer seems to hold meetings of the drafting “professors.” I just started the spring semester last week. It was the first time that my boss did not call a meeting before classes started since I became an adjunct professor in 2005. In fact, last semester she omitted to tell me when she wanted to review my grades for my fall class. She only gave me a deadline for turning in my spring semester syllabus after I inquired about one. I do not know her motivation for holding no meetings since August as she only once considered holding a meeting since then and cancelled it, but I wonder whether she has decided not to even see me since she learned that I formally complained to the EEOC and the university about being terminated for having cancer.

I am putting off thinking and speaking about what really matters. I will be undergoing at least one test tomorrow to determine if cancer has returned. I am nervous about that. I do not think that it has returned. I think positively about this topic. Cancer has not returned. I am positive about that!

I did not know that I had it in the first place, so I should not expect to be able to discern it now; but positive attitude is an attitude and not a scientific condition.

I bought a lottery ticket this past week. The Powerball prize has surpassed $100 million. As I drove away from the 7Eleven I wanted to imagine winning the prize, but I encountered the external dimensions of my absolutely outrageous positive attitude about cancer.

I could not bring myself to articulate a wish for a winning ticket–not in words and not in thought. I got as far as “I wish . . . ” and was paralyzed. I could not complete the thought. I just kept thinking that I already was so incredibly “lucky” to be beating cancer that I shouldn’t want anything else.  That’s silly, isn’t it? It is silly to think that if anything else fabulous were to happen to me that I might lose my life. It is like a superstition, except that my superstition is not that my favorite sports team will lose if I change my socks (I do not have a favorite sports team, so I can joke about that). I have this dreadful sense that I should not want for anything now, which makes the extension of my life silly, right? Seriously.

I have not seen the movie that is out about a family that survived the tsunami in Phuket. However, I saw on TV the author of the book on which the movie is based. She said that she and her family, having survived that cataclysmic tidal wave, have asked, “Why us?” If I recall correctly, her son asked, “What for?” Surviving can be the cause of guilt, can’t it? I have been so aware of the fact that so many people succumb to cancer that it sometimes overwhelms me.

That is a challenge, isn’t it? If you want to stop feeling so frightened of your own vulnerability to a return of cancer, then maybe you have to decide what to do with your new lease on life.

I have no answer yet to the question: “What for?”

I have been feeling so lucky to be alive that I have been keeping myself from moving on in any significant way.

I have faced so many fears in the past fifteen months. I am afraid to face my fear that I could jinx my own recovery by wanting anything else for myself. I will have to address that and put my positivity to new uses.

But, for tonight, as I face the prospect of seeing my doctor tomorrow, I am going to give myself a little more time to just feel so overwhelmingly lucky that I can express no other wants or desires. For tonight I just want to think that, notwithstanding uterine cancer, major surgery, five weeks of radiation, six weeks of chemotherapy, employment discrimination, and all the travails of slow, slow recovery, that I am so damned lucky to be alive that I don’t need anything else.

I Was Scared

Last night I watched Parenthood and was scared. I do not usually watch that television show so was not expecting that the subject would be a mother and wife’s hospitalization on Christmas Eve for a very low white blood cell count and septic shock. It took about two minutes after the character started to show signs of a lung infection for me to feel the first symptoms of stress. I stopped grading papers. I felt my jaw tighten. My fingertips started to tingle. My brows drew together. Her husband insisted they go to the hospital because the doctor had warned them to be alert for signs of infection after her most recent dose of chemotherapy. I did not know her, but I was afraid for her.

The doctors told her husband that it was possible for her condition to continue its decline or improve. They were busy. Sometimes the doctor appeared not to know what was going on. My eyes teared up. My bottom lip trembled. Her husband became angry. He sent his father away at first. He sat at his wife’s side in a yellow gown, a mask, and gloves. He was helpless to do anything else but stand vigil. His father returned with a laptop computer, some clothes, and a snack. They hugged. The father promised everyone at home was being taken care of. The husband watched a video “good-bye” taped by his wife. She wanted her children to know how much she loved them. My nose started to run.

There were other story lines. I was so nervous. I did not want this to be a sad holiday story. I needed to know that the woman would be okay.

It is happening everywhere. I read this week on Laura’s blog the big scary “C” word about how she worried over whether she could travel or see a nutritionist because her white blood cell count was so low after her last dose of chemotherapy. It seems like everyone I know who has had cancer has suffered from some close call with a terrible infection during treatment.

Last year I was dealing with one of my own. And I spent Christmas week in the county hospital. It was more awful than anything else that I have ever experienced in my life. It was worse than losing so much blood that I had to have eight packs of blood by transfusion before I could have surgery. It was worse than learning I had cancer. It was worse than surgery or recovery. It was worse than when I thought my cancer was at stage three. It was even worse than losing my job because my boss thought all cancer patients made unreliable employees. It was worse than chemotherapy and radiation (and they took quite a toll). I was alone in an environment that was as toxic as the infection that sent me into the hospital.

I remember feeling fear that I might not get out alive.

I have been afraid before. How many times have I watched as some other driver lost control of a vehicle in snow or on ice? How many times have I feared that my own car could not be controlled? There is that moment when every nerve from extremity to brain seems fried. I once was confronted on a street by a man with a gun who demanded my purse. I was a little bit under the influence of alcohol at the time. I remember feeling that my fear had to spread through jelly before my limbs felt it and I formulated the illogical but (on that occasion) effective plan of running away.

I once was attacked on the street by ten men. I was on foot delivering a package to a D.C. residence during a cab strike when the men decided to follow me. I had to push past them to climb the stairs of that home and I prayed mightily that someone would be home. No one was home so I had to walk back down those stairs and through a gauntlet of pinches, bruising squeezes, bumps, and threats of violence until I made it to the next big street. I remember that I was so scared that I lost my voice. I longed to scream, but not a squeak came out of me. Moreover, no one who observed what was happening to me lifted a hand to help.

I once was grabbed in an elevator by a man who tried to force me down onto the elevator floor. He was determined to sexually assault me in the elevator. I remember throwing my hands out to hit every button on the elevator’s control panel. I crawled out of that elevator when the doors opened. That man held onto my skirt, but I managed to claw my way out far enough that the elevator doors were trying to close and my waist was in the way. That time I was overcome with adrenaline and absolutely determined not to be anyone’s victim. I know I landed at least one kick of my high-heeled shoe into the man’s upper torso in making my escape.

Working in hotels had its frightening moments. I once was attacked by a coworker and had to talk my way out of being hurt. I blocked a person’s attempt to enter the hotel by thrusting my arms up into the door’s opening mechanism to prevent its movement. I brandished a telephone in a hotel room when the two prostitutes I was intent on ejecting physically threatened me. I was young then. I faced my fears with the certainty that I would survive. The fear surged through me with so much adrenaline attached to it that I found the strength I needed to fight off what threatened me.

But there are big bad scary threats that I cannot fend off with adrenaline, fast reactions, defensive maneuvers, kicks, claws, wit, or wile. Cancer and its accompanying threats proved much more challenging than any threat to my well-being that came before it. I was trapped in a hospital with no family or friends to fight for me. I was in terrible pain, barely managed by painkillers. Pain came in waves that went on for hours at a time. I had a couple of nurses who had no time, skill, or resources to help me. My doctors were occupied with their own holiday revelry. My infection had me fevered and begging for relief. I went several days without sleep and had no more reserves of adrenaline. I had cried out for hours and no one even came to look at me. I prayed until my words became incomprehensible.

I have learned something from my own overwhelming fear. It is like a bully. It separates you from everyone and everything that would make you strong. You must fight it on your own. No matter how weak or miserable or hopeless you feel, the only way to overcome it is to face it and determine not to give in to it. You long for reinforcements. I have heard that song sung several years ago at Christmas by Carrie Underwood–Jesus Take the Wheel. It’s a wonderful idea. Faith can be your friend in times of trouble. Family and friends can be your allies. But you still have to fight. Some of us fight with will that combats infection at a cellular level. Some of us persevere through dark days by showing the grit to hang on until we find or build the strength to overcome. Some of us put up our fists or kick with our feet. Some of us draw on adrenaline. Some of us scream. Some of us win and some of us lose. All of these battles are easier to wage with the support and assistance of others.

The character on TV made it through the night. I was relieved even though I don’t even recall what her name was or what the name of the actress who played her was. While I was chewing on my lips over the medical condition of an actress in a TV show, there were real people hiding in a Portland, Oregon mall from a gunman intent on killing strangers before he took his own life. Soldiers walked streets in Afghanistan without the ability to tell friends from foes. Mothers and fathers tried to put children to bed in neighborhoods where gun violence makes no place safe. Other parents and grandparents watched their children or grandchildren pray for moms and dads serving in dangerous places overseas or on our own cities’ streets. People sat in hospitals across the country willing loved ones to get better or wishing loved ones would find peace by letting go. Some people huddled over grates, in their cars, or in shelters and tried to find sleep because they were homeless. Others slept in comfortable beds with demons that kept them from resting–disease, addictions, insecurities, loneliness, or something else.

There are people all around us at the holidays who are engaged in battles with fear. Some are sick. Some are watching a loved one suffer. Some are living in dangerous times. Some are living in dangerous places. Some are facing economic ruin. Some are alone. Some face threats to which they cannot put a face or name.

Anyone can be scared.  Instead of letting fear divide us, let’s look for ways to overcome it together. Toss some money in a Salvation Army kettle. Make a contribution to the Red Cross. Give blood at an area blood bank. Donate something you do not use any longer to a charity. Thank a member of our military for his or her service. Ask a caregiver if he or she could use a break to take a nap, a shower, or do some shopping. Visit someone who doesn’t seem to get out anymore. Greet an acquaintance with a kind word. Let go of a grudge. Say a prayer for a stranger if your pockets are empty this season. When someone cuts you off on the highway let it go. If you know someone going through tough times make a phone call, send a card, or make a visit. If you cannot help a troubled soul, then consider calling for help from the community at large. Talk about what scares you so that someone else can reassure you. Everyone is afraid of something. It is society that helps get us past what scares us. It often is by others’ caring that those who are scared find the strength to face their fears. It is caring that makes life’s battles less lonely.

For those of you facing battles that test your mettle, I wish you the strength to overcome your foes, your fetters, your fatigue, and your fears.

Calling All Angels

Monday morning I will be seeing Dr. H for my check-up. I feel the tension like a twisted rubberband from one shoulder to the other. I have an 8:15 a.m. appointment and a 10 a.m. class at the law school. Nothing ever happens on time at the hospital. I will have to get there at about 6:30 a.m. to get a parking space. I will have to beg the receptionist and nurse to get me in and out on time. If the appointment is delayed, then I will have to leave when I run out of time, even if I have not been able to see the doctor.

My doctor only has office hours on Monday mornings. I teach on Monday mornings. I only need to make it to one doctor’s appointment this semester. It will be spring before my next appointment. I have asked to teach on Thursday mornings in the spring. I do not have “sick days” where I work. I was told in the spring when the law school offered me this class that I could not miss any classes. I think my supervisor said that because her boss has zero tolerance for my cancer. She fired me just for having it last fall, not even waiting to see how my surgery turned out.

I would have scheduled individual conferences with my students for this week to ensure there was no conflict between my doctor’s appointment and my class, but I already had to do that to attend my niece’s out of town wedding two weeks ago. I have put a family commitment ahead of my own good health. Now I will put my job before it.

Which explains why it is so difficult to take care of myself. I keep forgetting that I should put on my own oxygen mask before helping others put theirs on. But this feels a little like deciding whether to jerk the steering wheel to one side to avoid a tree or jerk it to the other side to avoid a deer. In each of the scenarios for this semester I have had to make choices to serve some objective of my own–good health, employment, or familial loyalty.

Of course, I may not have cancer any longer. My last scan and blood work showed no sign of its return. In that case, if I have to miss my appointment this Monday in order to make it to my class on time, then I will do so and will suffer no loss. I do not feel like I have cancer. I feel reasonably strong.

But my bladder continues to burn each time I urinate. I am not complaining about twinges or mild discomfort. This is knife sharp and red hot pain. This week it was particularly bad. I attribute that to stress. I think I sometimes have a “guarding” reaction, a flinch that is its own painful spasm. The prophesy of pain is thereby fulfilled. Today that pain was terrible. I had other pain, too. I kept pressing my fist into my stomach in an attempt to find the body part that hurt, but I was unsuccessful. There was pain beneath my sternum and below my navel and deep in my gut, but no tenderness. Its nonspecific ache makes me think it was nothing more than stress leaking out of my cells and pores like acid rain.

I think I should try the hyperbaric chamber to see if it can heal my bladder. I recently watched a video on youtube.com about this treatment for radiation cystitis and a doctor said that the oxygen would help bladder cells regenerate but would not feed cancer cells because cancer cannot grow in a highly oxygenated environment.

I guess my body is not all that well oxygenated as it has housed a cancer before. If I try the hyperbaric chamber it might be just the thing to empower me for whatever comes next.

In the last few weeks I kept running into stories in which cancer returns. This week I had lunch with Rodney. His mom is dealing with breast cancer for the third time. She has already had two mastectomies and has decided that she is too tired to fight now that her cancer has metastasized. I just saw Robin Roberts on TV. She is dealing with cancer for the second time. First it was her breast and now her blood. How many weeks ago did Andy Williams die? That was bladder cancer, wasn’t it? My aunt has not answered my last note of inquiry about her health. Her breast cancer has persisted for more about a decade.

I push these thoughts away every day with positive thoughts. I am cancer free. I am much stronger than I was when I finished treatment in December. I got at least part of my job back at the law school. I ended up qualifying for charitable assistance with my hospital bills at two hospitals. My family is doing well. All I am dealing with at this time is fear.

So I am calling on all of the angels who got me through the last year and asking them to help me through the next few days. You know who you are. You prayed for me when I went through my surgery. You held my hand during chemotherapy and radiation treatments. You called me with words of good cheer as I completed each challenge. You sent me cards when I was weak. You let me lean on you when I was tired. I need your positive vibes now. Just keep sending your love and support. If you send me your positive thoughts now, then I can handle whatever this week brings. When you lend me just a little of your strength I can handle anything.

Make New Friends

When I was a Brownie we used to sing a Scout song that began: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold.” http://www.scoutsongs.com/lyrics/makenewfriends.html. Yesterday I received a phone call from Joyce, the woman I met while waiting for my June CAT scan. She has learned that breast cancer has invaded lymph nodes. It is has spread to the point that it is difficult to remove. For twelve weeks she will undergo chemotherapy in the hopes that the cancer can be contained, reduced to a size more manageably removed. She has already had her first treatment. It went pretty well. She was nauseated, but not overcome by her treatment.

We spoke for about an hour. Toward the end of the call she said that she has not claimed the cancer as her own. It is just the cancer, not her cancer. She won’t claim it because doing so gives it more power over her.

She has read quite a bit about the Laws of Attraction. The theory is that you manifest what you contemplate. More power to her. I hope that she keeps getting well by focusing only on good health. I have put an index card over my desk that says, “Joyce is 100% cancer free.” I say it aloud each time that my eyes pass over it. I want to help Joyce deal with the cancer in her own way.

I have claimed my cancer. I have gone warrior, which is pretty funny if you know me. I much prefer to fight for others than for myself. When I was a kid, my little sister Kathy fought my battles. As I walked home from kindergarten, I turned the corner on Victoria Lane and the Kirky Boys (named for their leader Kirk) would run after me. If they caught me, they pounded me with their puny fists. It was scary. But Kathy, who struggled with asthma and allergies, would see me coming and run into the fray. She was a fearsome ally. She is a fearsome ally still. Her prayers on my behalf have mighty mojo.

I have had my cancer “excised” by doctors. I have “scorched” the “earth” that was its last known site with radiation and chemotherapy. I have prayed and others have prayed for me to be strong enough to handle what I must so that my cancer is “vanquished.” So far that is working pretty well. There have been some casualties (my bladder reminds me every day that the war has been costly), but I am on a march.

My Aunt Arlene has metastasized breast cancer. She has been fighting it for years, unwilling to give up the battle because she loves her life. She recently lost the ability to stand and walk. After a bad fall, she learned that her one leg and hip had become appreciably less strong than the other. She began physical therapy and learned to walk again. Her therapists told her she was amazing. No one expected her to be able to do that.

I know of at least one person who has decided to do nothing. Ann is in her nineties, a widow, living with her slightly younger sister. She has breast cancer and has decided not to treat it. I understand that the cancer is visible at this time. It turns her skin an ominous black as it spreads. She still goes on living, each day waking in the easy chair that she sleeps in and struggling to her feet to walk with her sister’s help to the bathroom. You cannot say she isn’t a fighter. She has simply chosen a different battle. And, like others I know, she looks to her faith for the strength to carry on.

Through this blog and by reading others’ blogs, I have made new friends in the community of people who deal with cancer. All have sought the help of husbands, wives, lovers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, friends, doctors, or God. But they fight with the tools available to them, whether or not they claim cancer as “theirs.”

Today I watched a video from a breast cancer survivor who urged women to fight the implementation of the Obama care program because it would stop mammograms for women under fifty. It would, she said, limit Medicare coverage for women with cancer. No more mammograms for young women. That bothered me because I did not think it was right and it seemed inconsistent as Medicare doesn’t cover many women under fifty. Moreover, I had just read a discussion of the program in an article of the new issue of The Nation, which stated that more women would have access to mammograms under the program. http://www.thenation.com/article/168833/obamacares-women.  If you have not read the list of health care benefits for women, including women who now have health insurance, you might want to do so.  As an example, do you live in one of the thirty-seven states that permits health insurers to charge women more for health insurance than they charge men? That is gender rating and, according to the article,  it won’t be permitted under the Affordable Care Act.

Why should you believe The Nation or me? You don’t have to. I found a copy of the Act online–http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-111publ148/pdf/PLAW-111publ148.pdf. I am reading all 960 pages of it. You can read it, too. I’m going to figure out for myself why people fear it, whether I will be helped by it, and how to use it in my battle. The thing about fear is that it starts with ignorance. People who hate others fear them. They do not know them. People who are angry fear people and things, too. I am not going to be afraid of a law that is intended to help me and people like me without good reason. I am not going to listen to every person who tells me to be afraid and be very afraid. As long as I rely on others to inform me I will be vulnerable to their efforts to manipulate my fear by playing upon my ignorance. Isn’t this the game that makes me change channels when Peggy from Cancer Centers of America talks about expiration dates on people? Well-intentioned people use fear to cultivate new patients for their business. If I’m determined not to be manipulated by people who use my fear of cancer, then I will be just as determined not to be manipulated by that same fear into rejecting a plan that could help me vanquish cancer. Maybe cancer isn’t the Boogeyman. Maybe it is just like the Boogeyman. Either way, I will find it easier to face with the lights on and the shadows dispelled. Maybe I should battle cancer by not claiming it as mine, as Joyce does. Maybe by eliminating as many of my fears about what cancer is and who my allies might be, I will find myself stronger in my war against it. I can claim the war even if I don’t claim the cancer.

God is an old friend whose value is proven in my war. He is the friend of gold, as are all the others who have supported me these last ten months. But Obama care could be a silver lining and a source of new strength. I’m out to make new friends, too. The Laws of Attraction say that I can manifest what I contemplate.

So this is what the index card over my desk says right now:

Peggy has no expiration date. Ann will know peace at the end of her days. Arlene will live a long life. Joyce is 100% cancer free. My family and friends are my “secret” power. Prayer is the best medicine. Cheryl is winning her war against cancer. All of us find strength in knowledge and faith.

Universe, make it so.

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