Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Tag: Uterine cancer

I Can Hear You Now

One of the several lingering effects of chemotherapy appears to be tinnitus. Tinnitus is that ringing or buzzing in the ears that some suffer for various reasons. My tinnitus began back when I was in treatment for uterine cancer at the end of 2011 or beginning of 2012.

I did not have the benefit of a huge medical team as I went through treatment. I did not have medical insurance and relied on the county’s medical services. I remain so very grateful for the county’s care that I will state up front that tinnitus has seemed a small matter by comparison with cancer.

No one has ever explained to me what causes my tinnitus or how I might treat it. Ever since the enactment of what people call Obamacare, I have had insurance I pay for without receipt of subsidies. I pay for a gold plan because I know how expensive life-saving care is. But I seldom have used my bought-and-paid-for insurance because, after I pay the high premiums and the deductibles and co-pays, medical care remains very expensive. I have had a more expensive safety net, not an affordable source of ongoing healthcare.

So I have worked on acquiring my substitute for qualified healthcare. I read online sites and try to reason my way through conflicting, incomplete, sometimes advertiser-generated, and often anecdotal information. It has suggested that chemotherapy may have damaged the hairs in my ears that assist with hearing. That damage may have caused or contributed to causing my tinnitus. Do not take my word for it. It is a theory.

I take a Biotin supplement that includes Silica and Collagen. I know. Some will say supplements are unnecessary if your diet is nutritionally adequate. Overweight people often have nutritional excesses. There is no way to judge the purity and efficacy of supplements across the marketplace. What I know is that the hair on my head, my eyebrows, my eyelashes, even the unwelcome hairs on my chin, are all thriving. Just this week someone who has not seen me in years was asking what was with the hair. It is brown, shows very little silver for one who is 58, is thicker than ever, and it is wavy. Once again, I am relying on “sign reasoning” instead of double blind tests conducted by scientists.

Still my ears ring. Sometimes it is a din. Sometimes it is a buzz. I never work or relax in a silent place. Because the “sound” is distracting, I often play a radio, turn on the TV, or run a fan to mask it in part. Nevertheless, it is never absent.

A couple of weeks ago my mom and I traveled east by car from Chicago to visit family. We picked a day in which each of the states through which we passed experienced rain. I’m not talking about wet road conditions. I was thinking Ghostbusters (1984) rain. From its script:

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

For most of the four to five hours it took to cross Ohio we had trouble seeing the taillights of the cars and trucks ahead of us. It goes without saying that there was road work. The big rigs traveling on the other side of the road were in what turned into a channel formed by cement walls on either side. The water collected. As they drove past our car they sent up waves of water that slapped the windshield. Mom and I flinched each time that happened.

Road conditions improved in Pennsylvania, but the weather did not. I kept going. We did not stop for lunch because neither one of us could handle the mad dash from the car to the service stop buildings.

I turned on the car’s radio from time to time, but we never did find a station with weather reports. I would let the radio roam through the few available stations and then shut the radio off. My mom was silent except for the occasional breath caught in fear and released with a sigh when the rain eased a bit in its ferocity or a truck moved a safe distance or the windshield wipers cleared our view for a moment. I was very conscious of my tinnitus during that long drive.

While we pressed on through Pennsylvania, I located a station that was broadcasting the daily rosary. Sponsored by the Knights of Columbus Bellevue Council #1400, someone led us through a rosary addressing the Sorrowful Mysteries. I left it on and we prayed along with the priest and the others present at the recording of the event.

Shortly after the rosary ended I shut the radio off. The rain slowed down. And the tinnitus stopped.

I started to cry because it was so quiet. I cannot explain how peaceful it felt to have the noise stop. I seldom complain about it. It’s not cancer, is it? I have handled many more scary situations. It is not painful. It is not employment discrimination. It is not isolating. It is part of the soundtrack of a busy life. There are a million other things that occupy my mind on most days. I cope with it. It bothers me most at the end of the day. I lie in bed and try to clear my mind. That is when it seems most loud. Sometimes I turn on a “sound machine” that plays crashing waves or a babbling brook or rain. But that is not silence. Most nights I turn on a fan and an air cleaner. But that is not silence.

I say my prayers of gratefulness for family and friends, health and hope, talents and opportunities. I fall asleep focusing on what I have and not what I need. I am blessed, not burdened in my earthly life. I still have the little scraps of paper on which I listed my blessings and my angels on October 6, 2011, when I could not sleep on the night before my hysterectomy. I know what they say.

I pray for the people I know and some I don’t. I pray every night for the souls of the departed. I spend a lot of nights focused on the special intentions of my mom, sister, brother, and their families. I pray for friends and students who face challenges, whether large or small. I pray every night for Mike Terrill and his family and so many other brave and kind people I have met here on WordPress during my cancer treatment and recovery. Somehow those prayers make my mind quiet even if I can still hear that ringing in my ears. But let’s be honest about my prayers–I’ve been doing most of the talking.

That’s why the trip through Pennsylvania was different. This was silence. I kept wiping my eyes because it was so wonder-full.

I did some more reading online and found some reports of tinnitus reduced or abated following fast descents. Maybe the mountainous roads of Pennsylvania helped. But, in the same way I put stock in my supplements, I am putting some stock in the possibility that prayer has found for me another way to silence the din.

The tinnitus has come back. In the week after it stopped, it faded in and out. It did not stop completely during the trip home, even though we passed through Pennsylvania’s mountains on a cloudy and dry day. It continues without change today.

My mom gave me a rosary recently. This past week the old friend who commented on my changed hairdo gave me a rosary she bought for me long ago in Medjugorje, the site of many unconfirmed miracles.

I pray, but I am not one who often says the rosary. I think that might be changing.

I am sending a check today to the Knights of Columbus of Bellevue, Pa. so that they can continue broadcasting the daily rosary. And, Lord, I am listening. Whether or not prayer will stop tinnitus, I cannot say. I can still hear the tinnitus, but I think I can hear something that will help me cope with it now, too. Lord, I think I can hear You now.

Bad Taste in My Mouth

Thanks to free-graphics.com

Thanks to free-graphics.com

The saga of my termination by DePaul College of Law for having uterine cancer is about to come to an anticipated and unwelcome resolution. I spoke today with a representative of the EEOC who informed me that he is recommending that the EEOC close its file on my case and issue what is called a right to sue letter. I will have 90 days to hire an attorney to litigate the matter at my expense.

My summary of the report is necessarily brief because of the blog format, and that I must wait to receive the right to sue letter to see the actual conclusions before I may request a copy of the file under the Freedom of Information Act to learn more. This is my understanding of the EEOC investigation’s conclusions at this time:

1. My termination was not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to current thinking, it was reasonable for the law school to terminate me after a positive test for cancer on Tuesday and before my Friday surgery because the university had a reasonable need to make sure I only missed one Friday class and I could not assure them sufficiently that I would in fact return Monday before my Friday surgery took place. I could ask to be accommodated for missing one Friday class, but apparently not for the weekend to see if I was able to return the following Friday.

It apparently does not matter that I was able to work the following week and every week thereafter. What matters is that no one could know before my surgery what would happen after it.

I guess the moral of the story with cancer is not to tell if you become sick. Had I given no information that my condition was cancer then the university would not have been so alarmed as to terminate me for having cancer.

Let’s recall what the person who terminated me put in writing:

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.

That letter doesn’t say I was terminated on the day of my surgery because I might not be able to work the next week. It says people with cancer always suffer setbacks and I might return and later prove unable to continue. If you cannot expect a law school to say what it means, then when should words put in writing matter, if ever?

2. Failure to pay the remainder of my contract for November to December 2011 until the following August in 2012 was just a “glitch.” The dean of the law school promised to pay me the remainder of my contract and then paid one last check and stopped. I was not paid until all my contracts for the academic year were completed, I determined the shortfall, and figured out which part of the university failed to pay me. But this was just a “glitch.”

And the reason it was a glitch and not intentional is that the university made a glitch in my favor in fall 2012 when it notified me that it would not offer me the class I taught every year for seven years but would pay me to teach a different class for the same money that semester.

In spring of 2013 it cut the pay for that replacement class in half. It now claims that the letter that offered me higher pay for fall 2012 was a glitch in my favor and the letter that cut the pay in half again for spring of 2013 was part of a preexisting plan.

If that does not make sense to you, then we are in agreement. The explanation does not rule out intention to punish me for making a complaint to the EEOC. I made more money before I had cancer than I made after the university received formal notice of my complaint to the EEOC.

The EEOC may take the position that the two “glitches” cancel out an argument of intent to deprive me of pay in 2011. I guess the lesson here is to not employ self-help. Had I not asked for payment before filing a complaint with the EEOC, not told the university I was filing, and waited to see if the fall 2012 glitch in my favor actually occurred, then it might not have occurred and it would have been difficult to show any glitches occurred. I would then–possibly–be able to show intent to deprive me of pay.

The fact that I was uninsured and needed my income to pay medical bills and that the delay from November 2011 to August 2012 caused me financial hardship is irrelevant. Money paid eight to nine months after it was due was paid soon enough to rule out discrimination.

The fact that I was declared unreliable and deprived of the opportunity to work is of minor significance to anyone but me. It appears that people paid to stay home miss nothing because the opportunity to work is not itself a right. Have you ever worked really hard for less money than you deserved to be paid and been proud of your work? Well, then you may understand why being deprived of my work when I was dealing with a cancer was painful to me, whether or not I was eventually paid to stay away.

3. No retaliatory intent or actions. The university revealed to the EEOC a preexisting plan (not shared with me even as of this date) to cut adjuncts to one course per calendar or academic year–which ostensibly explains why I was cut down to one class per semester after my diagnosis. I am not convinced this was the preexisting plan, but will have to see the file to learn more.

Additionally, while some witnesses overheard and reported statements that may have indicated some negative feelings toward me by the supervisor who terminated me and disparagement of my reputation to others at the university, that was “he said/she said” testimony and not sufficient for the EEOC to pursue further.

I wait now for the official letter to confirm my understanding of the findings. And I have a bad taste in my mouth. Sometimes what people do to you after you are diagnosed with cancer feels hard to bear, too.

But all of us who have faced such a diagnosis learn we are stronger than we thought. Cancer has tested me in many ways and I wake up every day since my diagnosis dealing with things that I never imagined would happen. Disappointment in the behavior of some people and institutions that surround me sometimes seems to go with the territory.

What will see me through this situation is the strength drawn from the other people and institutions that are there to lend an ear, a shoulder, a hand or a smile during the dark, dark days that have followed my cancer diagnosis. I appreciate everyone who has kept my faith in the goodness of people alive during the last two years. Thanks to you, I will never be down or out.

Fire Drill

Photocredit: depositphotos.com

Photocredit: depositphotos.com

At about 9:37 am yesterday the fire alarm went off in my building. I was already in my ninth floor classroom preparing for my 10 am class. I had to power down my laptop and stow it because I once carried it down six flights and knew that I could not do that again. I tucked in a corner where I hoped it would not be noticed if someone came looking to steal it. Theft and a fire drill in the same day would be too much a bummer.

We have property crime here. We are steps away from public transit. People walk out of the school talking on their brand new smartphones or studying the oh so remarkable tablets I think I should try next. Someone knocks them down and steals their technology like people used to steal wallets and purses. Who carries much money anymore? We have cards for buying more things and we can disable them pretty swiftly (if someone else has a phone to lend us).

Because it was Friday and early the building was not as filled with people as it is at other times of the week. When I entered the stairwell I still did not know if this was a drill or a fire. I did not have to merge into a stream of young people that would move like floodwaters. I was able to grip the handrail with my best hand and walk down one step at a time. I felt the vestiges of the last few years’ physical suffering in every footfall and the painful connection to the handrail.

Darn this whole cancer experience! I am not a fit person, but I can still recall what it felt like to bounce my way down stairs. In fact, during my last fire drill I made it ten flights and I had the cancer still inside me. I performed much better than I did yesterday.

Someone who observed my labored escape said something to a maintenance person who climbed to the fourth floor and told me I could stop. It was only a drill. I still had to walk down another flight because there was no entry to the fourth floor from that stairwell. The door was itself “alarmed.”

Moments later the drill ended and I could take the elevator back up to the ninth floor and begin my class. However, last night I was feeling the effects of the six floor descent. My hands haven’t stopped tingling from neuropathy. My knees were clicking and grinding like bent gears. I took some Advil and went to bed at about 2 pm and stayed there until later in the day when I could hear my cell phone in the next room playing that awful AT&T ringtone set at five instead of vibrate–another false alarm because the voicemail from my mom said, “Don’t bother calling back. I’m seeing you tomorrow.”

Photocredit: wunderground.com

Rainfall in Boulder, CO. Photocredit: wunderground.com

I watched TV. The news was filled with stories of people for whom yesterday was not a drill. There were clips from Colorado’s raging floods. I have never been in a flood. But a great-aunt of mine survived one when she was a young woman. She and her husband were caught in their bedroom as they dressed. The brother who came to warn them had taken their baby to safety. The couple climbed up on bedroom furniture and stood on their tiptoes in cold, black, raging waters for an entire night. The water rose to their necks and, after part of their home broke off and was carried away, their dead farm animals floated in and around them.

My grandpa’s sister survived and lived a little while, but not very long. A year or two later she died of what we would call PTSD. There are things we can survive that we can never quite get over.

photocredit: abcnews.go.com.

photocredit: abcnews.go.com.

On last night’s news there was devastation to be faced at the New Jersey boardwalk that burned on Thursday so soon after it was rebuilt in the last ten months following what the newsman called Super Storm Sandy.

This past week one of my students suffered a fire that swept through part of his apartment building. He has had to look for a home. His belongings were destroyed or damaged. He has to start over just as he starts his second year of law school.

I was a new general manager at a small luxury hotel when someone set his hotel room on fire. I can remember walking down the street from DuPont Circle when my beeper went off, I heard sirens, and arrived in front of my hotel in time to see someone from my staff fling the smoldering mattress from a balcony. It landed on the street with its weird, black and red maw of still sizzling bedding smack in the center.

I had no way of knowing whether that was the worst of it, but I can recall running up the stairs toward the fire. My first thought was that I had a staff that was up there tossing items still burning. I wanted to reassure them that they should get out. I needed to be there with them if I could not convince them to leave. There are horrors that we can face with others–because of others. Disasters are times when strangers help strangers, too. Sometimes escape is not possible unless you first do what you can to help others.

The truth is that I reached the floor and found thick black smoke confined to one short corridor and the fire “out” once the mattress went flying. My adrenaline levels started to drop and my hands trembled as I wondered what I would have done if I had faced flames instead of the somewhat giddy coworkers who greeted me and wanted me to look at how smoke alone had done its worst. The memory always leaves me wondering how those first responders manage to do what they do again and again.

It was only a few months later that my husband and I evacuated our basement apartment in the middle of the night because of a fire in a top floor unit of a neighbor’s attached home. The fire was extinguished with water and the soot-stained walls showed afterward where the water carried the smoke. On that occasion, I was out on the pavement watching, not running back inside to see if I could help.

Photocredit: egyptindependent.com

Photocredit: egyptindependent.com

The news from Syria came with a clip of writhing citizens and white-wrapped corpses. Is this still news to anyone? My guess is that decades from now someone will still be denying that a nation’s leader gassed his citizens in much the same way that some still deny the atrocities committed in countless prior incidents–some of them so immense as to constitute attempts at genocide.

And last night’s news was filled with stories of death. Shootings, accidents, and other tragedies happen every day–decimating families and communities. It is mere days since we marked another anniversary of the terrorists’ attack in NYC on 9/11. Life sometimes forces us to contemplate death on a scale that defies comprehension.

All I had to contend with yesterday was a drill. Sometimes we have to face the real deal. I put on some clothes and went back to unpacking. I’m good.

Worst Case Scenarios

Two Rooms to Go

Two Rooms to Go

I manage fear by imagining the worst case scenario and convincing myself that I can “handle” it. Once I have done this, I do not think about it any further. I am very stubborn about this. If I find myself worrying over the “what ifs,” I get up and enter into an activity and focus on the activity. My tactic has not been working as well as it usually does. I am not happy about this.

Lately I have been as worried about the side-effects of cancer treatment as the return of cancer. All of the packing, move, and unpacking have coincided with the end of summer term and start of fall term at school. There never was a summer vacation. SO many projects are waiting for me and I cannot give them my full attention until I unpack at least one more room. I am down to having made some progress on four rooms. My living room and storage room are a shambles (see photograph taken minutes ago). Ordinarily I would take my mind away from obsessing about my health by working on a project. I used to write a novel every summer (I have several in my desk drawers). I researched my family tree back to the 1400’s one summer. This year my activity has proven inadequate to take my mind off of what ails me because my primary activity has been making things worse.

My ears are ringing. TV would distract me from that, but my TV is piles of boxes away from where I sit. My hands are alive with neuropathy. The left hand tingles the most. I took almost all of my six chemotherapy doses in that hand. My joints rarely bothered me before treatment. Now my knees hurt. When I say they hurt I mean that I sometimes have to use a cane to climb the back stairs. I rock back and forth before getting up from a low chair. It has not been this bad since the last weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. I have what appears to be arthritis in the joint at the base of my left thumb. It has me grabbing things gingerly–always contemplating the possibility I will drop something. Aargh! My doctors want me to get my hernia fixed. It feels like it is a little bigger when I measure it with my eyes or hand. I have to lift with my knees. Oh wait. They are already iffy.  I’ve considered the worst case scenario (that things will go downhill) and now want to move on to activity, but the only activity available is more unpacking, which keeps getting me focused on my health concerns.

I'm so dizzy, my head is spinning. Photocredit: clker.com

I’m so dizzy, my head is spinning. Photocredit: clker.com

 

I work for awhile but then have to stop. There isn’t a comfy chair in the place right now. I climb up into my bed and lie down. Sometimes I take a nap, but it is tough to sleep. Right now my landlord Zen is scraping the wood frame around my big front window. The noise is intermittent but deafening. This started Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. and continued until after 11 p.m. It resumed Saturday night at 11 p.m. and went on until 2 a.m. I could go out and complain, but I am SO tired of conflict. I have considered the worst case scenario and have resolved to hold off a little longer before pursuing it–an argument that could mean I will have to move at the end of my 1 year lease. How long can it take to scrape that big picture window? Surely this is the last day his toil will interfere with mine. When the noise got so loud I could not continue work on this blog I went back to unpacking.

Currently my home is filled with waiting “activity.” There are boxes upon boxes still waiting to be opened, organized, and re-stored. It has become a mindless activity. Yesterday I assembled ten power strips not already employed somewhere in my apartment. Of course, there are three rooms without a single power strip plugged in so they may yet find usefulness. Are power strips like cats and bunnies? Do they reproduce every season regardless of need?

I love office supplies. My dad and I used to enjoy going to office supply shops together. I must miss him even more than I acknowledge. I have a four-drawer vertical file cabinet half-filled with office supplies and there are boxes I have not yet opened. Everything is now moving into space with other like items, but I find myself wondering, what if I cannot recall in what storage bin I assembled all my highlighters? Will I go back to the Staples store and buy even one more? The concern that I will has prompted some worst case scenarios of its own.

I found some items I have no recollection of purchasing, too. Last night I collected several containers of tools and hardware supplies. I can never find a screwdriver when I need one. Somewhere in the storage room I cannot even enter yet, there are two tool boxes. I needed a screwdriver last night and started opening and shutting boxes in search for one. I discovered I have power tools! I thought I had one electric screwdriver, but my brother Danny gave me one as well. Is that too many for a single woman to own? Can I host an evening at my home and invite others to use the tools with me so that all may be happily employed at the same time? Maybe I should choose between them and give one away? Should I keep the one I bought because it has many great features? Or should I keep the one Danny gave me? Because there is something really sweet about my brother imagining there is anything material in the world of which I am in need.

He and his wife Lisa rode their new motorcycle to my home last Sunday. Danny installed my two air conditioning units in windows for me. I was afraid to lift them as I already need to be getting my hernia fixed soon. Lisa stood in awe of the piles and told me she thought I could get a million dollars if I sold all of it. I dismissed the idea at first, but if I sold them for $1 apiece . . . . What might be the worst case scenario for that concern? How many paperclips can I get with $1 million?

Just in time, Zen is taking a break. I think I’ll try resting. Maybe I can manage a short nap before I succumb to the urge to drive to the nearest Staples store for paperclips!

Photocredit:abcteach.com

Photocredit:abcteach.com

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.

Man-handled Pedicure

pedicure chair

Photocredit: uspedicurespa.com (NOT affiliated with the salon discussed herein)

I’ve been getting the occasional pedicure since chemotherapy ended. The Taxol worked my finger and toenails over pretty badly, and I lost the sense of relaxation I once had in tending to my own nails. My nails had all of these strange bubbles that looked like fizzy, orange soda percolated up from the nail bed. There were white and yellow cloudy marks. My nails peeled. And my skin was bone dry. I read about how a pedicure could expose me to infection and read a number of reviews of places before choosing one. The place I chose for my first pedicure was clean and the owner was a breast cancer survivor. It was a very positive experience.

At some point since 2012 the salon was sold. All new chairs and tables were installed. There now appear to be three or four family members working there. A mother and her daughter have handled my pedicures on most occasions. Both are very gentle. I chose to have only clear polish applied so that I could monitor the appearance of my nails. This summer–about 18 months after chemotherapy ended–I appear to have no more cloudiness or marks on my nails. But they are weaker than they once were, prone to peeling unless I keep them polished. I do plenty of polishing between pedicures and apply tea tree oil to my bare nails before polishing them to diminish the possibility of infection.

This week I had my pedicure handled by a male attendant. According to reviews on yelp.com, this is the owner’s son-in-law. I wasn’t sure how I felt about having a male provide this service. It is a personal service. No one else touches my feet. I grew up in a family in which hugging is strange. We sometimes have gone long periods of time between visits without hugging when reunited. It’s not quite a head nod greeting we exchange, but it’s close. I actually had to think awhile about overcoming my aversion to casual contact to have the first pedicure. But I like to think I’m “equal opportunity” when it comes to workplace matters so I made no objection.

The experience was not the same as it has been in the past, and I have since asked several friends who have a long history of having manicures and pedicures and they have not had a male attendant so I don’t yet have a complete handle on what troubled me. Maybe you can help.

The attendant was polite and spoke excellent English when he greeted me and asked me what services I wanted, but he did not use English again until I was ready to leave and he suggested I wait a little longer for my nails to dry. During the pedicure process, he used hand gestures and spoke in another language to the other two attendants in the shop. The air conditioning was not on and it was 85+ degrees outside. After my feet had been sitting in some warm water awhile, I started sweating. Everyone else in the shop (the three attendants on duty) enjoyed a good laugh after a lively exchange in another language right before the salon owner turned on the air.

Why do people do that? I don’t care whether or not they found my discomfiture amusing as much as I care that they spoke so that I would not understand them. There’s more courtesy in talking in the storeroom than there is in doing this in front of me. I was reminded of an episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine realizes the Korean nail attendants are using the same word to discuss her as to discuss a customer’s dog “princess.” She takes George’s father to translate and opens a new can of worms.

I understand that I may be overly concerned about the possibility that I have been discussed in my presence:

The narcissists or paranoid customers might think that nail technicians are talking about them when they speak to each other in other languages across the room, but they aren’t. Apparently they don’t care to share with each other how lovely your nail beds are or how gross your big toe is. “In general, they mostly gossip about their family and friends and the shows they watched last night,” says [celebrity manicurist Jin Soo] Choi.

http://www.totalbeauty.com/content/gallery/nail-salon-secrets#4.

This attendant did not display the pampering that is part of getting a manicure. He barely had me soak my feet before he got to work. The hot soak in bubbling water is one of the best parts of the experience. He used a rotary tool to file my nails. I found myself wondering how clean it could be when, following his use of it on me, he just plugged it into the wall to recharge and did not place the rotary head into the steamer for cleaning. He did a good job handling my cuticles, but he had me keep both feet on the footrest the whole time. I am accustomed to more soaking between some of the stages of work being done. This helps with exfoliating. He didn’t do much exfoliating. My feet were in pretty good shape to start. It was only a month since my last appointment, and I don’t wear open shoes, which means my skin is not that dry now that chemotherapy is further and further behind me.

The foot massage was minimal. Have you seen the commercial for a spray-on lotion in which the woman in the commercial sprays a stripe of lotion onto her legs and steps into her clothes and runs? That’s only a little less attention than I received. All the time, he’s using these hand motions to communicate. Usually the word “manhandle” implies unnecessary roughness. Here, I use “man-handled” to convey a lack of attention to detail by a particular man.

I came home, stripped the polish and covered my nails in tea tree oil. Then I soaked my feet in a combination of Listerine and vinegar (thanks to a tip from pinterest.com) and used a pumice stone to finish exfoliating my feet.

I hoped the pedicure would counteract some of the punishment my body has taken during the month of packing, moving, and unpacking, but I ended up feeling like I had subjected myself to new suffering. My knees were painful from thirty minutes of sitting with them flat out while he conducted his checklist of activities.

I don’t think this service needs to be performed by a woman, but I don’t think I’ll be giving that shop my business again. I tend to be pretty direct with people when I am unhappy. But I did not speak up during the process. I just kept thinking this was wrecking my effort to pamper myself. I’m not sure why I did not say more. I only know that I grinned and bore it and then skedaddled home to fix things.

Nails are a $6 billion business, according to totalbeauty.com. Manicures were one of the few things I did to pamper myself. Now I have to go check out new places. Bummer. But the suspicion that the rotary tool might not be properly cleaned is reason enough to choose another place. I found this online:

Podiatrist Dr. Robert Spalding, author of “Death by Pedicure,” states that “at this time, an estimated one million unsuspecting clients walk out of their chosen salon with infections — bacterial, viral and fungal.” And no matter which salon you go to, there is always a risk of infection. He claims that in his research “75 percent of salons in the United States are not following their own state protocols for disinfections,” which includes not mixing their disinfectant solutions properly on a daily basis, not soaking their instruments appropriately, and using counterfeit products to reduce costs (for example Windex substituted for Barbicide), says the doctor. And the problem is that there is no way to really “verify an instrument has been properly soaked and sterilized,” without watching the process.

http://www.totalbeauty.com/content/gallery/nail-salon-secrets#2.

I don’t mind having men cut my hair. I’ve had that experience several times in my life. I worked several times with a male trainer at a gym. He was fine. My opthamologist is a man. He crowds right up against me to study what’s going on inside my eyes and behind them, but it is impersonal. I have had many male doctors. But this guy rubbed my feet the wrong way. Is it me? Or have you had a pedicure that killed your buzz?

Unpacking

Photocredit: www.indianajones5.com
Photocredit: http://www.indianajones5.com[/caption%5D

It’s been more than two weeks, and unpacking has a long way to go. I am so physically weary of the process that I now unpack for a day or two and then need a day off. The largest room in the house is my office. I have made headway there. Books fill the bookshelves. A file cabinet is filled with supplies that are in some order. My desk is assembled and has space for me to work. Most of the furniture that will remain in this room is in place. My kitchen table will now become a conference table. I have not yet attached two of its legs so that I can set it in place. A mover handed me some washers and screws during the move. I put them in a “safe” place, but that box has not yet appeared from the rubble that is my storage room. That room still looks like the government storage room at the end of the movie Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Ark of the Covenant gets filed away.

My bedroom is 90% unpacked. It needs a little organizing. When the movers were unloading they filled my closet with things that should have gone into the store-room closet. I need to move them to make room for what is waiting to go into that closet. Then I can finish that room. Of course, the storage room is filled all the way to the door. The work must wait.

The bathroom is small, so I unpacked it first. It looks pretty good.

The kitchen, living room and storage room are overrun with boxes and shelving units. The movers brought in the boxes first and the shelving units at the end, so I have to move boxes out of the way before I set the shelving units in place and then can store the boxes on shelves.

Sifting through the haphazard collection of a 56-year-old woman’s life in boxes marked no more specifically than Kitchen, Bathroom, Bedroom, Office, and Stuff has convinced me that much of this must now go.

Seals and Crofts
I had no time to weed through stuff before the move. But this time capsule in which I now live feels like a confused jukebox. One minute I am opening a box in which I relive high school. I keep hearing Seals and Crofts singing Summer Breeze and We May Never Pass this Way (Again). I find journals from college in the next box. The soundtrack from those years is very disconcerting and revolves around guys I was dating. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart by Elton John, Weekend in New England by Barry Manilow, and C’est la Vie by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, do battle with countless disco songs. I still have the LPs, cassettes, and CDs. In the next box there are wedding photos from the marriage I hope will finally be annulled this year–today would be my 32nd anniversary. I hear Dan Fogelberg singing Longer, a song sung at our wedding, but our song was Babe by Styx, and he did leave me, so it is the song that lingers longest in my memory as I encounter items I received at the time we wed.

I collect. I have a number of blue and white porcelain items: lamps, vases, pots, figurines, and boxes. I have pink and green Depression glass. I have children’s books, mostly written when my mom was a child. I have thousands of books on various subjects. Long ago I imagined these would be interests I would pass down, but I never had a child who would be saddled with my proclivity for assembling collections.

I suppose I should do my family a favor and get rid of them. After all, I might only live as long as my dad did (59). I may sell them off now. But this is the “wealth” I accumulated in my life and it is difficult to “spend” it when I could live as long as my great grandmother did (99). What I do know is that it takes too much energy now to pack, move, unpack, or even experience all of this again.

I don’t need another thing, except a couch or maybe a chair or two. See how easy it is to keep accumulating. Barb and I were in the store buying moving supplies a couple of weeks ago. She saw me looking at a display and started scolding me not to even look at anything!

Thanks to www.fotosearch.com

Kevin, my former naturopath, once told me that the reason why I collected and could not part with so many things was that I am a Pisces with a south node in Taurus. The Taurus south node was tied to things that provide comfort. It also made me stubborn so that I would not part with them. I don’t know if I believe it is that simple. I think, however, that I might have enough containers to open my own Container store. Maybe life would improve without at least some of them.

Taurus-NASA Public domain photo
(Image of Taurus)
It does not help that I am physically affected by cancer treatments in ways that linger. My knees have had it. The joints were never a problem before my 2011 diagnosis with cancer.  I think it was the chemotherapy that rendered all of them “tricky.” At the end of the day I lie on my back in bed and listen to little clicking sounds every time I adjust my position. The neuropathy in my hands has become more than annoying after weeks of packing and unpacking. I am very conscious of the fact that I have an uncorrected hernia. My mom keeps telling me, “Enjoy this moment. It’s going to get worse!” She’s probably right.

From my desk

I’ll tell you what part of me feels younger than ever though. My mind. As I have pondered thousands of reminders of days gone by I could not help but think of what is just around the bend for me. Today it is raining. I sit at my desk that faces a busy street. Cars rush by, their tires making that shushing sound that draws me down an unexplored road. If I got in my car with no itinerary, where would I drive? My current home is mere blocks from Lake Michigan. Today I would drive north along the lakeshore until I could drive no farther. There is nothing that makes me feel happily tied to my world like a shoreline. Perhaps that is my water sign directing me.

There are trees in front of my window. As the rain strikes the leaves and then bounces down to the ground below, my eyes are drawn up to the sky. It is gray with clouds, but a plane passes just to the north, and I think about travel. Where would I be today if free to fly away? I think I would choose to sit in some huge cathedral in Europe to contemplate lives spent on the construction of a single building that could not be completed in one person’s professional lifetime but would still draw in people many, many years after its architect’s death. Imagine using your life to leave such a monument. This must be that Taurus south node at work again.

In the back of the building there are workmen finishing a new deck that makes me think of parties. If I could have the party of my dreams, who would be on that guest list? Ah, that I will keep to myself, except to say that I might need the help of a higher power to assemble everyone whose company I would enjoy even for an hour.

If I disentangle myself from some or all of what now holds me down, will I catch the upsurge of a breeze and fly away? Who can say?

It almost is enough to make me forget that I see Dr. H on Monday for my six-month check-up. Bummer.

What have you hung onto that ought to now wind its way somewhere else so that you can feel free for new adventures as well?

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.

You Gotta Ride the Rails, Little Lady

Grandpa Tom

Grandpa Tom

This week I had to cancel plans to visit my sister and friends in Washington, DC because my landlady has decided not to continue leasing my apartment. I have to move and the news has upset me. I know, I kicked cancer, but, seriously!!! I am tired. And I cannot help wondering why I never get the “test” in which you get a million dollars and the heavens watch to see if you will use some of it for charity.

Someone from among my friends suggested that I should have planned a trip to Disney world. She says that, if she kicked cancer, that’s where she would go.

I do not have children. I am not required by the natural law of making children’s dreams come true to visit the place. My family visited Disneyland for our last “family” vacation in about 1972. My sister and I were in high school. Grandpa Tom wanted us to see the West. He was 100% Irish, but he retired in Santa Fe, New Mexico with Grandma Elsie (50% Swedish/50% German) and he “went native.” He adopted the bolo tie. He explored every historical site in the area. He read the history. He had always told us stories of natives living in the western states while the women (sometimes Grandma Elsie all by herself) washed the dishes.

In my grandpa’s stories, the natives were smart and possessed a wonderful sense of humor. I am not sure where he learned his stories, but his father was a railroad engineer (as in a designer of the engine cars). They lived along the railroad tracks in many American cities. Perhaps his father told them. Perhaps he read them. After he moved to New Mexico there was little talk of Ireland. He identified with the native cultures. We think he adapted his “look” to blend in. He even started to refer to the Spanish that claimed the territory and subjected the native population to their rule “bloodless devils.”

He wanted my sister and me to take the train to New Mexico. We traveled by ourselves. Our parents loaded Danny into the backseat of the station wagon and set out by car while Kathy and I shared a two-bed sleeper compartment and dined in the diner car with its linen tablecloths and napkins.

(c) cardcow.com--Hope I don't offend by borrowing this photo.

(c) cardcow.com–Hope I don’t offend by borrowing this photo.

It was a wonderful experience. Having spent several preceding summers under the camp names Kettle and Little Pot at Norwesco, a Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin, with five cots in the tent, this was luxurious. We even had misadventures. We stored our Brownie Hawkeye camera in the tiny cabinet in our sleeper until our porter exclaimed that, “You don’t put your camera in the shoe box.” We were unaware of the fact that he could access shoes from the shoebox when outside of our room so that he could shine them. “Everyone knows you can’t leave your camera in the shoebox.” That was not true until after we rode the train. Grandpa had wanted us to see the world from a train and we learned many things from our experience. One thing that I learned was that a train ride can be marvelous! I loved the many luxuries and the stress-free travel.

Brownie Hawkeye Camera

Brownie Hawkeye Camera

We met up with rest of the family in Santa Fe. After an excellent exploration of the surrounding area, we set off in the station wagon for Arizona and then California. We visited with one of my dad’s friends from the Marine Corps. The two men posed gut-to-gut after deploring the way in which married life had softened them. At the last second one of them sucked it in and made his buddy look bad. I think it might have been my dad. He was a prankster.

We visited my mom’s dear friend who lived near the ocean. Her family seemed unfamiliar with Chicago. The kids kept asking us about Illinois where we “pushed cows and pulled pigs”–whatever that means. The culmination of our trip was a day at Disneyland.

I can remember every detail of the railroad ride to Santa Fe, but the only thing I can remember of Disneyland is Pirates of the Caribbean.

Fast forward about thirty years to the summer I took my niece and her son to Disney world. My plan was to rest in the hotel room. I was exhausted after a difficult project completed while I was sick with an upper respiratory infection. I was hospitalized the evening before my departure. I thought I was having a heart attack, but it turned out that my esophagus was seizing following weeks of coughing. I slept and read novels in the comfort of an air-conditioned room. Lisa and Ryan spent day and night in the park.

I only joined Lisa and Ryan one day. I paid for the lunch with the costumed cartoon figures and wanted to see Ryan’s reaction. I drove to the park and took a little train ride to the correct portion of the park. As I recall, I went to Frontierland. The heat was devastating for me. Then we ate lunch. I took pictures. When lunch was over the kids decided to continue on with their steady pace of rides and meals. I arranged to pick them up later at the park. Lisa asked me if I would mind taking back with me a bunch of souvenirs.

A storm was rolling in off of the ocean. I carried my umbrella, Lisa’s umbrella, a purse, a camera bag, and a bag of toys. At one point it did rain, and I was grateful to be under cover by that time. I joined the line for what I presumed was the little train that would take me back to the park entrance. I waited with lots of other people, but it never occurred to me that we were all waiting in the covered waiting area for anything other than the little choo choo. No one spoke with anticipation of a roller coaster–no one. When we finally entered a building the wood-slatted walls of the building reminded me of the train station. Then I turned a corner and saw the loading area for a roller coaster. It was the California Gold Rush ride.

A costumed employee who looked like Pecos Pete waved me toward the ride. I did not want to get on the ride. I explained my reluctance. I did not want to ride a rollercoaster. I was sick. I did not have anyone with me to share the ride. I was holding too many items to hang onto the handrail.

“There are only two choices,” he said. “Get on the ride or push and shove your way back out of here.”

It was, for me, an impossible choice. I refused to get in.

That’s when Pecos Pete snarled, “You gotta ride the rails, little lady!”

I got in and Pecos Pete locked me in. For the next five minutes or so I screamed as my behind slid from side to side in my seat. It was all I could do to hang onto the items in my arms. I did not have a free hand to stop the relentless motion.

I screamed until I coughed. Then I could not stop coughing.

When I got out of the rollercoaster someone had to grab my hand and drag me out. I looked like I had been dragged through the bushes backwards. A park employee came over and offered to escort me to the train ride when I could not stop coughing even after they got me some water.

The moral of the story is that you take a train when you want a scenic ride in comfort, but you never know when you buy your ticket if you’ll be taking a choo choo or riding the rails with Pecos Pete.

I may not like the fact that I will be moving in the next forty-five or so days, but I can complain all I want and I will still have to ride the rails. The thrills and chills are part of the price of the ticket in life.

I’ll keep you posted on how it turns out.

Taking Off

I had a bad surprise yesterday. My landlady for the last eight years announced I will need to move. My home is owned by her and her brother; and they have made a family decision to have me leave. She did not say it, but it sounds like a family member wants to live here.

I have never wanted to own my own home. I managed luxury hotels when I was in my twenties and had quite enough of property management. I used to enjoy moving, even looked forward to it as an adventure. My last move took a “day”–thanks to two immense moving trucks and five professional movers.

After I heard the news I got into my car and drove for about an hour because I hated the fact that my home was not really mine. The car will be paid off in less than a year–so it felt like mine as I drove in holiday “exodus” traffic.

I found myself wondering again about fate and about our capacity for steering in life. In the last two years my body has been treated for cancer–an ongoing event that has had me feeling alien in my own skin at times. After a gut-wrenching shedding of a massive amount of blood that left splash marks on my walls at home, I had parts of me excised. I have experienced what it feels like to have had nerves cut in surgery and (when the pain of surgery abated) to have no feeling whatsoever in the proximity of my incision. Then I subjected myself to radiation and chemotherapy that killed and damaged countless cells in an effort to root out the really sick ones. I have felt like every part of my body was strange (shedding, peeling, leaking, rushing out of or off of me). I lost much of my hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows. Blood ran from my nose every day for months (as well as from all of my other orifices). My nails bubbled and peeled. Even my own body smells changed for a time and I hated them.

I lost a loved job teaching part time at a law school for having been diagnosed with cancer. I have returned to work there, but nothing is the same except the students and how I feel about them. Just this week I was invited to teach again this fall. The invitation requires me to teach my fourteen classes and attend five (now) mandatory meetings. The list of the five dates of mandatory meetings was accidentally omitted. The invitation tells me that the school reserves the absolute discretion to terminate me at any time for no reason. The invitation omits any mention of compensation. Ordinarily, an offer of employment requires each party to promise something to the other. Here, what is promised to me is nothing. The email invitation laid bare the deal–if I return, I get nothing from the school.

The last bastion of peace and quiet in life has been home and we will soon be parted, too. I have so many “things” in this apartment. I will have to part with some of them, too, before this is over. Every move I have ever made has involved some shedding. But I have long thought of this place with the living room laid out like my Grandma Elsie’s, its sunny yellow walls, and silver and turquoise bathroom, as a haven. It will be very hard to pack it all up and move.

This coming week I finish three more classes. That will get me down to one online class. I was looking forward to the summer slowdown. I was hoping to write. I have not done reading for pleasure in months. I recently began work for a search firm–as an independent contractor–and hoped I would have the summer to devote to it. I even made plans to go on a short vacation–ten days with family and friends in DC. I will probably have to cancel the vacation. There may not be any time for writing or reading. I will have to juggle to not lose this new opportunity to stretch my wings with the search firm.

That’s what finally did it. That thought is what finally broke me down emotionally yesterday. It is what made me drive back to the apartment so as not to risk others’ lives by driving while in distress–distress that I felt to the roots of the hairs on my head and arms. I haven’t cried for what I have experienced during the last twenty-one months. I have cried through physical pain and suffering but never for having learned I had cancer. I did cry when I heard I lost my job. And I cried yesterday for the loss of my home and my plans and all the lost freedoms. I finally cried for the cancer, too. It was not for very long. It is not like me to cry for things or events. I cry for other people in pain and animals abandoned. But it was another form of shedding that I guess I had to experience because I will stretch my wings.

This entire dreadful, painful, frightening, awful experience has been about peeling away what is nonessential. It has been a wrenching agony since it began and I have hated it even as I marked how things have started to improve. The very foundations of who I am and what I want have been tested, shaken, and stripped away. Soon it will just be me.

I sent my friends in DC a message yesterday to let them know that I might not make it out to see them this summer. I realized as I sent them that message that I have lost family and friends in the last twenty-one months, too. My aunt and uncle died. There were friends who were not strong enough to walk with me through cancer treatment and dropped me. (I am intensely grateful for the many family and friends who did not jump ship.)

I have been very focused on images of birds, but maybe this is the story of a butterfly. Maybe I will take flight after the last of the shedding, peeling, stripping, and leaking of all but the essential me is complete.

I should end this posting there–on a positive note.

But I am NotDownOrOut and part of the essential me has to ask, “What the f*** is going on here?”

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