Adventures With Cancer, Part 4

PART 4

The Upper East Side office is on the ground floor of a brownstone. The brass handle is heavy in my hand as I push the door open and step into a room occupied by several women reading magazines.

A large glass bowl filled with Kingfisher daisies sits on a low glass table in the middle of the waiting area.

My soon to be husband is waiting for me, pats the seat next to him. A single slant of sun bisects the floor. He holds my hand and I cross my legs and swing one foot in and out of the light.

Through the small glass window of reception I can see a large bulletin board tacked with pictures of babies.

Twins.

Triplets in matching jumpsuits.

Chubby babies in the bath. Babies blowing bubbles. Babies with big wet gummy smiles.

Several blue petals lie on the floor under the glass table like small breathless fish.

I’m thinking about scans. An MRI in two days. A CAT scan the day after that. I wonder if cancer lights up a bone like shoots of bright spring flowers.

The intake form asks how long have you been trying to conceive and number of miscarriages.

I am thinking about chemotherapy. Nausea. My hair. The wedding.

The exam room is non-descript other than an ultrasound machine plugged into the wall. The gown I wear has small green diamonds across it, ties once around the neck, once around the waist.

There is a photograph of a small white boat and impossibly blue water.

My soon to be husband is on the doctor’s rolling stool, careening back and forth across the tiny room. He is trying to make me laugh.

For a moment I hate him.

For a moment I want to be very small and climb up his solid body to his broad shoulders and whisper go, go.

I will myself to leave. I feel unreasonable. I feel oddly reasonable. I imagine walking out the door in the green gown, climbing on the next bus, climbing into bed.

The doctor is tall and I am transfixed by the gray curls brushing the top of his coat. His shoes are impeccable. Italian. I hate him. I feel like a beggar. Please give me some embryos. 

I imagine how the doctor must sit on the edge of his bed early in the morning as his wife sleeps. How he must bend to tie his shoes so carefully as not to shake the bed.

He shakes my hand. Asks questions. I want to shake him. I want to yell, Don’t you know I might be dying? He explains the ultrasound. Inserts the wand. Says here is your uterus and here is your right ovary. 

I see moonscape. Sand. A terribly still ocean. A static field.

I feel my husband to be put his hand on my forehead and think of E.E. Cummings:

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

Read PART 1

Read PART 2 

Read PART 3 

read to be read at yeahwrite.me

Adventures With Cancer, Part 3

PART 3

The fine linen tablecloth is cool and rough against my cheek. A glass filled with ice water has one small drop rolling down the side.

Things seem to be moving in stop motion. Forks ring against plates, a dark-haired woman at the next table stands, pushes her chair back. Her pants swish rhythmically as she passes by.

Bathroom. Yes, I think.

My mother’s almond eyes follow me as I pull my head up from the table and walk toward the back of the restaurant.

It is my soon to be husband’s birthday.

My parents have flown to New York. We know I have cancer but not what type. My prospective in-laws make small talk over many impossibly small plates of gravlax, pickled herring, sweet shrimp crudo.

The white pill my mom tucked into my hand earlier that evening has settled over me and I’m moving as if through liquid. I am not tranquil but rather a storm that has been blown slightly off trajectory, weakened.

It is several minutes before I realize I’ve been standing in the bathroom staring in the mirror as hot water runs over my hands. It is the rip of paper against a jagged edge that sets me in motion.

We go home. Sleep.

My parents are in the office the next morning awaiting our arrival. My mother is dressed up. I feel like she might take my picture. Give me a spray of flowers for my wrist. Compliment my cap and gown. I am commencing into an after.

We are taken back to a small, light filled office. The computer screen is dark. There are no sharp implements. No hand drawn pictures of stick figure children.

My father pulls a tiny plastic bottle of Scotch out of his jacket pocket. He has saved it from the airplane. We each take a sip and my father presents it to the oncologist as she walks in the office.

How the hell did you end up here? she asks.

I love her immediately and with a strange ferocity. I want to climb into her lap and smell her hair.

Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

My fingers and stomach are tingling. I want to take off running until my legs burn.

You have Ewing’s Sarcoma.

The thought occurs to me that I might be floating above the room.

It is an aggressive type of cancer that rarely occurs in adults.

I hear the tips of a tree’s branches scratching the windowpane.

Good news is it responds well to chemotherapy.

I hear seconds being snipped off by the second-hand of the wall clock.

When I’m through with you, you are going to feel like you’ve been hit by a truck.

Two taxis are laying on their horns. Someone on the street is yelling.

It is likely that you will be infertile after treatment.

The floor rushes up at me and I am suddenly grounded.

No.

I can’t. I won’t. We want children. We’re getting married next month.

The doctor looks at me then pulls forward a Rolodex, takes out a card and leaves the room.

My soon to be husband’s hand is cold. I look at him and we both shake our heads.

The door opens.

Call this number tomorrow. You have one month to do IVF and then you must start treatment immediately.

Our wedding is six weeks away.

Read PART 1 here
Read PART 2 here

Adventures with Cancer Part 1

PART 1

It was like a grain of sand, or a sliver just under the skin, maybe something magical I thought I was feeling. It was elusive at first, rolling away from the pressure of a fingertip. Over weeks, possibly months it grew. Then it seemed as if something was truly there, a tiny bump. An ingrown hair? A lymph node? Eh, it’s nothing.

It became a little secret that I put away for later, later. But then in bed at night I asked my boyfriend, Can you feel this? Is this something? With the touch of his finger,  what I’d believed was in my imagination was confirmed with a sleepy Umm hmm.

The doctor’s room was cold, I had on a tiny gown tied awkwardly around my side. As I readjusted myself I noticed my legs were sticking to the paper spread across the examination table. Every time I shifted the paper stuck to my legs. There was a two-year old Sports Illustrated in the magazine rack and a few pamphlets about STDs.

It’s a cyst, the doctor declared, washing his hands with his back to me. So I don’t have to do anything about it? I confirmed. No, it’ll probably just go away in time, nothing to worry about, he said, leaning his back against the sink with his arms crossed against his belly.

So my cyst and I went on our way, on the subway back to my office, back to joking around with coworkers, back on the subway uptown to the tiny apartment I shared with my boyfriend turned fiance.

Every night as I read before bed I’d unconsciously find my hand covering the spot that seemed to me to be getting bigger. It’s getting bigger, isn’t it? I asked my fiance. I think so, yeah, he said, maybe you should get it checked again?

This time I reminded my doctor that my mom had breast cancer. Breast cancer that had returned. You know my grandmother and my mother had breast cancer, right? Again he assured me that it was a cyst. It would just leave an ugly scar if he took it out. Nothing to worry about.

My fiance and I went to my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in Minnesota. The cyst was uncomfortable. Rubbing against my dress, interfering with my bra. I pulled one of my cousins, an E.R. doctor, to a private spot. Can you look at this? I asked. Looks like a benign fatty tumor, he said, but you should have it taken out.

The next week I went back to my doctor. Look, I said, I’m getting married in a couple of months and this thing is getting big. When I’m wearing my wedding gown and lift my arm you can see the lump. Can you please take it out? The doctor said it was too big to take out in his office. He referred me to a dermatologist. That doctor would take it out. No problem.

Can I see it? I asked the dermatologist after he and the resident had removed the lump in his office. It was in a small vial floating innocently enough: white, solid. Not what I imagined a cyst to look like. I made small talk with the doctor, joked around as I always do. He didn’t say much. That night I was in pain. I called the on-call doctor and said that Advil wasn’t cutting it. You really shouldn’t be in this much pain she said.

A week later I hadn’t heard from the dermatologist’s office. Wedding plans overwhelming me. Flowers, music, the Rabbi and Cantor, where were out-of-town guests staying? I called the dermatologist’s office. We had to send it to a different lab for more testing, the doctor said, I’ll call you.

A week later a phone call at work. The doctor would like to see you in his office as soon as possible. My stomach dropped. I tried to put it out of my mind. But something wasn’t right. My fiance met me at the doctor’s office.

We were escorted to the back of the office, to a dark paneled room with medical encyclopedias and family photos. My fiance and I held hands, my knee bounced up and down, up and down. The small staccato of my knee was the only sound.

Soon the doctor came in, sat down behind his desk, and said I got the pathology back and unfortunately what we took out was malignant. It is cancer.

I have cancer? I looked at my fiance, soon to be my husband, and said FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. 

Read PART 2 here

Small Ways To Make A Huge Difference

In light of recent mind-boggling decision-making by Susan G. Komen for the Cure I thought I’d suggest a different approach to giving: Keep it local. Bring it back to your community.

When I had cancer it was the outpouring of support from coworkers, friends and family that carried me and my husband through the treatment. Each gesture, no matter how small, added up and made a huge impact.

We all know someone nearby who is dealing with adversity in one way or another. You get the phone call or email about a friend recently diagnosed with cancer, you see a parent at school wearing a hat over his or bald head, you hear through the social grapevine that someone is dealing with the loss of a job, a divorce, a death in the family.

How do we take care of those in our community who need help? If you feel like me, you might worry about being intrusive or knowing just the right thing to say.

Here are some suggestions for how you can redirect time, energy and resources back to your community.

1. Think small. Really. It makes a big difference to most people just to know that you are thinking about them. Send a handwritten note or a card. It doesn’t have to be a work of great literature. Just a simple: “You are in my thoughts. Sending you my best wishes” will suffice.

2. Think food. Make a simple meal. (Find out if there are food allergies or dietary restrictions.) Freeze it and label with a date and heating instructions. Send the meal in a container that does not need to be returned. If you don’t cook (like me), ask if you can deliver a pizza. Give a gift card to a local restaurant that delivers. Slice & bake cookies.

3. Think music. When I was going through chemo a dear friend made me a Kick Cancer’s Booty song mix. I listened to those tunes during chemo infusions and it really gave me a lift and was a great distraction. Give a friend a few CDs from your collection to listen to. Make a mix of comforting songs for a grieving friend.

4. Think companionship. Sometimes people just want to be alone. But often people need a buddy. Offer to drive to appointments, sit in the waiting room, share a meal, etc. You really don’t need to talk very much. Just listen and let the person guide the conversation.

5. Think daily needs. Offer to babysit, fold laundry, do groceries, pick up dry cleaning, drive carpool, empty the dishwasher, mow the lawn. Give a gift card for cleaning services, babysitting, a handyman, a dog walker, a pet sitter or a local grocery store.

6. Think family. Children are deeply impacted by an ill family memory, or death of a grandparent, divorce, financial strain, etc. Send a note or small gift to the child, take them to the movies, library or out for ice cream. Be a safe person for a child to lean on when things are difficult. Also, support the spouse. It’s just as stressful to be the spouse of someone going through an illness as it is to be the patient.

Think local. I promise it’ll make a huge difference in a real way.

What are your favorite ways to support a friend or neighbor who is facing adversity?

“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday.”

Mawage. I’ve been thinking a lot about mawage lately.

My husband and I just had our 10 year anniversary, and by God we made it there by the skin of our teeth. Lately it’s been pretty darn good, but it’s hard work every single day. I have to consciously work on being a good partner, on being a good friend to my husband, on being nice.

A few years ago my husband was ready to call it quits. We split up for exactly twenty-four hours, and it was the worst twenty-four hours of my life. He walked out because I was acting like a little asshole.

I had been acting like a little asshole for about five years.

It is true.

It always takes two to tango, of course, but I was really on my worst behavior for years, and it just wore my husband down. It was wearing me down, too, and in a way I think I needed him to walk out. It was like an anvil to the head: (Clank!) “Hey you, Little Asshole. Yes, you. You are married. You are married to that guy over there, the one who is packing his bags. Being in a marriage actually means you are a partner. It is not the Little Asshole Show. You have to participate. You have to be nice.”

“Just be nice.”

My husband would say that to me a lot when I was snarling at him after a long day with our kids, who are fourteen months apart. My version of being nice was gritting my teeth, trying to smile, but usually barking orders at him when he got home from work. There were diapers to be changed, baths to be given, mouths to feed, floors to be swept, puke to be wiped up, toys that were littering the living room like small pieces of shrapnel. (Have you ever stepped on a Lego piece in the middle of the night? Oh, sweet Jesus…) Why didn’t he just automatically know how to jump in and help me? My tone of voice had the sound of a hundred eyes rolling back in their respective heads. There was no “nice” in me. I wanted my husband to fix everything. And quickly.

Our relationship didn’t start out snarly. Or, rather, I did not start out the relationship as a little asshole.

Paul and I met on-line, we wrote to each other for a couple of weeks before going out for the first time. He was a great writer, sweet, funny, I couldn’t wait to meet him. Our first date was amazing. We had so much to talk about, we thumb-wrestled at dinner, held hands in the movies, kissed at the door of the taxi. (He tried to slip me the tongue but totally denies it.)

I loved him right away. He was a grown-up. He had a career, ambition, sexy eyes, a great smile. I was smitten. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, explored new restaurants, traveled to Turkey, hung out with friends, saw concerts. He proposed to me in the rain in front of the laundromat in Manhattan where we had our first real kiss. It was all very fairy tale. I was nice. He was nice. We were even nicer together.

The first snag happened a month before our wedding. I had been watching a small lump under my arm get bigger and bigger over the course of a year. After many visits to my doctor (it’s just a cyst, leave it alone, not to worry…) he finally sent me to a dermatologist to have it removed. Thank God I was vain. I didn’t want the lump to show in wedding pictures. Long story short, it was cancer, Ewings Sarcoma. One month before our wedding we were discussing chemotherapy, surgery, in-vitro fertilization, the possibility of infertility after treatment, and treatment that, as my oncologist described it, would leave me bald and feeling like I’d been hit by a truck.

So, before our wedding ceremony, Paul and I were parents to seven frozen embryos. I was a bald bride. It was a beautiful wedding at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. The day after the wedding we were back in the hospital for a three-day infusion of high dose chemotherapy. And so it rolled on for the next  seven months. Chemo in the hospital for several days, back to our apartment for several days (hit by a truck), back to the hospital with zero white blood cell count and high fever, back to our apartment for several days (hit by a truck), back to the hospital for several days of chemo. It’s all an unpleasant blur. We postponed our honeymoon, we tried to laugh about what we were going through, Paul shaved his hair in solidarity. We got through it, but it sucked.

Fast forward several years, add two toddlers, a cross-country move, a new job for Paul, a new paradigm for me, and I found myself perpetually cranky. Disoriented.

How did I get here? Married? With children? I had cancer? What the hell? I wanted none of it. (Well, I did love the kids.) I didn’t know how to process what had happened to me. I didn’t know how to be a partner in a marriage. I barely knew how to be a mother. All of this led to the frequent: “Just be nice.” Just be nice. Just be nice? It sounded like this to me: Takið þið við krítarkortum.

So, eventually, after trying many different ways to get through to me, Paul left. And during those twenty-four hours everything crystallized in my mind. I was ruining something that had the potential to be really good. I did want to be married. I wanted a mawage.

I wanted to be better. I was tired of being a little asshole. It takes a lot of energy to be that pissed off all the time. Paul and I talked. A lot. We worked on things. There was counseling. He had a better understanding of what was going on with me internally. I finally understood that I did, indeed, need to be nice. So I practiced being nice. It was hard. Snarly had become my default. But with practice it felt better to be pleasant. Niceness begets niceness, so I’ve learned. Mawage began to become fun. I was no longer fighting it. I did want to be with this guy. I did want to build a life with him.

So, ten years on, and I think I am nice again. And when I’m not, it’s okay. Paul knows I’ll turn it around pretty quickly. And now he gets to be cranky when he needs to be cranky. It’s still work. Every day. But it’s good work. I’m down for another ten more years, at least.