I let my domain name lapse, and I figured I'd get around to reinstating it at some point or another, when I jolted up in bed the other day and thought, shit, people might think I'm dead. That sounds dramatic but literally when I'd come across a blog of someone who'd had cancer and it was defunct, or neglected, my first assumption was that they croaked. I did not croak. I am here.
My mom's not, so I've been wading through that experience, quite literally wading through the metric tons of her belongings that she kept inside her house. I wouldn't call it hoarding but I'd say...a very extreme case of a pack-rat. On the plus side, it's allowed us to explore her as a person through tidbits of her life (diary entries, little pieces of paper she'd jot thoughts down into), and on the down side, it's been an emotional excavation, a prolonging of pain and grief and stress. The house itself fell into some degree of disrepair in her later years, as her mobility declined. Plus, absent of taking her places when she wasn't able, everyone brought stuff over instead. And so she accumulated and accumulated, and whenever anyone would try to--God forbid--move something, she'd call out (not even seeing you!) - "What are you doing in there? Leave that there," or something like that, so you wouldn't dare throw anything away.
Aside from all that, it's my first free summer since age 13, now that I've become a teacher, and while much of it has been dedicated to the house, I'm looking forward to some rest. I mean, I need a goddamn break. I'm writing every day and reading and working out, so far. It's glorious. Not having to squeeze "free time" into finite vacation weeks (it never felt truly free), to wake up, to know I can have a casual routine, not the pressure of being casual, of "relaxing" but to truly just go about my day without the prospect of work...it feels wonderful.
The writing feels a bit like a job but a job I like, plus my little side gigs, but I do those when I feel like it...because without them I think I'd feel like a deadbeat.
Here's to summer, to emotional excavations, and to feeling free.
PS: I was honored to be asked by some readers of The Hollow who were taken with my experience (I'm assuming they read this, or used to read it) and they asked for me to send them words of encouragement. I found myself bursting at the seams trying to fit in all my anecdotes and advice into these little cards, so what I left out I'll place below. I left this out, because when I re-read it, it was much too geared to my mother's death, and pretty dark. Really, it was a note of reflection to myself. Here goes.
My mother died two months ago (seven years, in increments of deterioration and indignities, s l o w…) a terminal diagnosis that went deeply south in April. I believe I saw what could possibly have been the worst death many will witness in their lifetime. And admitting this to anyone is hard, because no one wants to hear that, and everyone wants to believe in this self-assured peace that washes over you as you die, and the truth is, no. Sometimes people are placed in agony and it is not their fault and they did not deserve it and all you can do is wish for the end, so that they can truly be at peace. And she is at peace. And I am at peace for knowing this, and I see her in the cardinals and I smell her in the lilacs. And I am glad for the experience because it truly makes many of my worries vanish, it clarifies my wants and needs and cares. Because so long as you’re not dying, you are living.
Also, I do feel that to be 100% honest with yourself, with how you’re feeling, with how other people make you feel, is the key to growing as a person, and we should always, always, always, be actively striving to become a better person. So if you’re going through hardship, acknowledge the pure, unadulterated shit of it. Talk to people about it, people you trust, and of course, a therapist (I have had, at one time, two of them listen to me yammer on and weep!). Keep your body moving as long as you are able, and keep your friendships dear and close and nourished, stay interested in many different areas of life, and keep a balance of work and play and love. We need it all. And you want it all, and there’s no shame in that.
My mother was a hard-ass English teacher who dealt with far more hardship than anyone should ever face, who loved her friends and her children more than her herself, who was a complete bitch sometimes and would never apologize for it, and whom I had the honor (but not pleasure, not the slightest) to see imprint and then absent this earth.
I’m finding it hard, these last couple days, after getting the final call that she’s gone—to transition from her dying to her death. How do I move away from the increasingly familiar feelings of dread, anger, distress--to simply sadness?
I do feel immense relief, but also a pressure to transition right into grieving mode. But I've spent so much time waiting, and fighting alongside her - how do I just shut it off and accept she's finally gone? How do I let the rest of the shit go?
A friend emailed me and said, half jokingly, that she was always here to talk, as we are both in the Dead Parents club, and that she finds it odd how weird people are about death, about how we sweep it under the rug, how many aren’t comfortable talking about it, as if it’s not a perfectly natural part of life, a prescribed fate for all of us.
I agree, but I had this to add: how much do you convey (and do you? or do you leave it out?) of the heart wrenching experience of watching someone die for weeks, months, years? When it's not always a completely peaceful end? (Thankfully she did go peacefully, when she finally surrendered and let go).
It's surreal to me to expect to move now into mourning, after being in defense mode for so long. My fists and jaw were clenched for weeks, months. Headaches pounding, heart hammering in my chest, day in and day out. But I had to hold that all in, because I didn’t know when it would end, not exactly, and why burden others with that distress, that pain?
And now, she’s gone, and now I can talk about the death part, because, it's safe?
I'll work on it. This transition. To mourn her, the woman, the mom, the teacher, the human—not the sick person, and she always despised being considered "sick". She always said, “I’m not sick, I feel fine…it’s juts this cancer business that’s in the way” - as if it were an inconvenience more than a disease. Even when she was clearly in pain, she never admitted it. And that attitude is what carried her over and beyond the myriad prognoses over these 7.5 years, this denial, no, rejection, served as a propellent for her to keep going. To never give up.
I’ll never know or experience such strength again. I guess recognizing that is my first step to mourning my mother.
I've avoided writing an update post about myself the last few months, years, really, due to my mother's situation. In her shadow, I always felt my fears and post-cancer "news" were silly, were inconsequential.
But I've spent a long time in this shadow, so I guess I'll start from the beginning. And it'll be through my lens, not hers, so forgive me for some relaying some facets of this situation that may seem hurtful to her. But she will not be reading this. So, I admit, I'm being a coward and writing about it now.
In 2012, my mother's breast cancer returned. She was given a vast, and cruel, prognosis of 5 months to 15 years. She was told at the time that it was slow moving, and that although it had spread to her breast, liver, bone, and lungs, that all in all, they would treat it as a "chronic illness." This proved no comfort to any of us, really, when at its base, it was still a Stage IV, AKA terminal, diagnosis. Each year, we wondered if it would be her last, if the end was nearing. Every interval of decline, every ER visit or spread, would indicate as such.
But generally speaking, for about three years she was, essentially, okay. She lost her hair again, and was a cancer patient again, but she had her faculties. But around 2015, she began to get worse due to the spread to her spine, the pain exacerbated by any slight movement. The protocol, whenever something new sprouted up, was to "zap" - her term for radiation - the problem, and switch up her chemo cocktail. Time crawled on, and she grew weaker. Her mobility suffered, eventually moving from a cane to a walker.
Amid ALL of this madness, I was diagnosed in 2016. This awful, horrific "I have cancer too" dynamic caused our relationship to strain. And this is so sad to me now. But then, I was angry and hurt. My mother's chosen tactic for "facing" anything difficult up to that point was a mixture of denial, outsized confidence that she could surmount obstacles others could not, sheer stubbornness, and self-absorption. For instance, as I navigated treatment--treatments she'd gone through herself--I'd call her while in pain, hoping for a sympathetic ear, a Mother. However she'd respond with a story about herself-- about how she handled the same issue. And perhaps in efforts to calm me, she'd relay her experience flippantly, off-handedly. How it wasn't an issue for her. How strange. That enormous shot you had to get in your spine, the one reported to cause crippling pain for most everyone? Hm, well, I never felt that way, it never bothered me...
I'm sure in her mind she believed she was "relating" to me - but I saw it as her denying me my pain, that she dealt with it in a superior, stronger fashion. She was not a caring mother lending a sympathetic ear in these days. She was not capable of this. Living alone, and dealing with a worse prognosis, everything was about her, and had been for some time. There was not room for my worries, my fears, because I think in a way they threatened to bring hers to light, something she chose doggedly not to do.
In August of 2016, the same week I was due for breast surgery (lumpectomy), my mother started falling, and it was determined the cancer spread to her brain. The week ceased to be anything about me, and all about my mother - my worries swept under the rug for the more dire situation: my mother likely not making it through brain surgery. But she did make it through, and afterwards, She didn't ask me how my surgery went, and yeah, I know, boo hoo, but I felt neglected, dismissed. Afterward, it continued. One example: my mother chose to send out her email announcements about her own status, her own issues and health updates, on Wednesdays. I'd get these emails as I sat in my chemo chair. Wednesdays were my treatment day. I'd stare at the email, wide-eyed. She knows what day it is, doesn't she?
Between the two of us, the situation has been frightening and exhausting and at times, seemingly never-ending.
But what has become very apparent in her sharp decline the last few weeks, is that it will end. Recent falls, caused by more lesions in her brain, have led to a steep decline in her mobility (she can't walk at all, at this point) and cognition. She now needs 24/7 care, which eclipses the cobbled-together care team of friends (mostly friends, mostly her angelic, wonderful friends) and family. So as of yesterday, hospice has been invoked.
It's just been....a lot. The prior week, Mike and I spent hours in fertility offices and my oncologist office, trying to build a future, trying to hope about kids and a normal life. On my way to a CAT scan my mother falls, lands in the ER, and sharply declines from the same disease that I just so-called "beat". I try to cling to moments of levity. She eyed me yesterday with a strange scrutiny. "What?" I asked.
"So do your students say anything about your hair?" she asks back. I stared blankly at her, confused. She clarified: "With how you wear it the way you do. Do they say anything?"
I try to disentangle myself from an imagined shared fate. I try to stop the voice that says, "You will be her someday. Why would you be spared, if she's not? What makes you so special?" That voice is insidious and ever-present and terrible. It prevents me from feeling relief or happiness at my own good news, like sharing my husband's enthusiasm over trying for a child in a couple months.
It's been year after year of scare after scare - blood clots, surgeries, ER visits, last (maybe) Christmases. Re-configuring responses to people who innocently ask, "How's mom?" and feeling, again and again, like the Girl Who Cried Wolf.
But now it's all coming to an end and it's just as awful as we all imagined it to be - it's just as painstaking as I feared. I wish I could say it wasn't. I can only hope that there is light at the end, that I can have a portion of my life unencumbered by emotional distress and fear. Mike sent me a quote, which I've been running over and over in my mind:
“The future bears down upon each one of us with all the hazards of the unknown. The only way out is through.”
And as KV would say, And so it goes. Onward.
I'm mentally preparing for a 3-month checkup at Dana-Farber. No scans are planned; those come in January. That brings some relief, but it's not like I'm lying awake at night fretting over the appointment. I'm not longer constantly awash in the terror that used to douse me each and every day. Thank God.
That's not to say there aren't are some inklings of intrusion. There's the smell of wet leaves as I walk with Lily in the town forest, which offers a quick flash of me huffing up small inclines and adjusting my wig in fall of 2016. There are the Halloween "memories" of me as Eleven from Stranger Things, nose fake-bloodied.
These intrusions sometimes compound themselves. For instance, seeing that fake bloody nose hurtles me even further back to the summer of 2016 when I would get actual nosebleeds, constantly, while on Taxol. (That was the lovely drug that also gifted me mouth sores, fingertip numbness, and sensitivity to light.) The sensation, and then the sound, of blood dripping down ]and plopping onto the table on which I sat was unsettling, to say the least.
One night in particular is singed into my brain. Due to the unpredictability of the burgeoning bleeds, I had to cancel plans last minute and texted my friend something like, "Sorry, can't come out, I just bled all over the table." I threw in a "haha" after. I felt morose: ugly and old and weak and disgusting. The expensive wig on my head was ridiculous. The bandana holding it taut, hiding the "realistic lace front" (designed to resemble a real hairline) was absurd. Who was I fooling?
This is going to sound vain, but up until diagnosis I'd been an attractive 31-year-old female, in good shape with great hair. I was used to eyeliner and a cute top and a good hair day being met with approving eyes at the bar or restaurant with my friends, my youth not yet faded. (How nice for me, I know, I know.) Now I looked off. I knew it. I looked off, even under the wig, my dry eyes bugged and my cheeks puffed. And to be honest with you, I still don't think I've gotten it back and maybe never will. But the difference now? I don't care much. I look fine. I'm here. That's something. It's everything.
But there are small victories that still come. Last week, in the mirror, my ponytail bounced while on the treadmill for the first time. I mean a real flouncy bounce. At my gym you're all lined up facing a mirror. You can't not notice the people beside you on the treadmill, and I couldn't not notice their flouncy ponytails for over a year--Terry B.'s long blonde pony, Brianna C.'s cute low braid. At the sight of my own I was ecstatic, glad for the sweat masking my tears.
(More milestones for anyone reading this going through treatment: Wringing the tips of my wet hair after a shower. Grabbing that fistful of hair, then a long squeeze, is one of the best sensations I've ever experienced. Another: Straightening the top layer of hair (mushroom top) and it laying flat. Another: Using my beloved turby twist to its intended effect...)
As you can see I'm still obsessed with hair and this is not new. Before I was diagnosed, I mourned my mother's hair loss, twice, and now see it was a spooky foreshadowing of my own.
Job updates: All is going well. Trying to be a better teacher every day and learning from my (many) mistakes and miscalculations. Loving the kids (most of them). Trying to make them better writers (and trying to make myself remember how hard it all is. I mean, I'm 33, and it's still hard. I need to give them a break.)
Now please excuse me as I go straighten my hair, readying myself for a Halloween party in which there will be no bloody noses or hairless heads. I'm going as a Christmas Tree. Ho, ho, ho.
I had to lock down my website & blog in April because I started looking for other jobs and by other jobs I mean a complete life-changing career shift. Call me Mrs. B, cuz guess what, I'm a teacher! It happened lightning fast. I signed up for, studied, and took the MTEL's in English. I gathered my transcripts and spoke to every single teacher I knew. I observed English classes at my old high school. I applied and was ignored by many public schools nearby and on a whim emailed the director of a charter school on the Cape and not even joking, a week and a half later - I got the job. When I say fast I mean fast.
So, how'd I get here. Well...after eleven years griping about cubicles and office jobs I finally started listening to my inner voice, the one who screamed at me day after day as I languished in a stale office, staring at a computer screen till my contacts dried up.
"Who cares?? This voice kept screaming. And after all the cancer nonsense it was even more evident that what I was doing day after day after day was helping zero people in this world. This all bothered me to a terrifying degree but I didn't know what to do about it. Because, you know...bills.
Until one day around my birthday I made a pros and cons list. A wants and needs list. And on it I listed what I want and need: Needs: Time. Free time. To write, be with my family. To have a goddamn break. Not 2.5 weeks vacation. Needs: To be in a more bustling, lively environment where I talk to human beings and not a screen, where the tapping of a keyboard doesn't give me nightmares and I don't have to hear the phrase, "Year-over-Year." I wanted to talk about books and reading and writing and make someone's life better, somehow. Who? Whose life could I make better? And somewhere along the line I had the idea to try becoming a teacher. It was helped along by several teacher friends and my mom.
But I also subscribe to this notion written in a letter by Hunter S. Thompson, a letter that I had taped to my cubicle wall. Every year of my life since I discovered this letter, a particular part of it nagged at me. It reached my depths. It helped me make my decision:
"The answer—and, in a sense, the tragedy of life—is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things...When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It's not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.
So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis? ... So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.....A man has to BE something; he has to matter."
And so...I'm three days in to the hardest job I've ever had. I'm already having nightmares about my lesson plans going awry. I wake up every night at 4 AM in a panicked sweat. I think constantly about my kids; especially the troubled ones. My heart hasn't stopped racing. I'm panicking 24/7 over how to fill each class period. I make significantly less money. And I've never, ever, felt more exhilarated, and I've never ever felt like I've belonged anywhere more. Most importantly, I care.
We’re coming up on 2 years since finding the nefarious lump, one year on being declared cancer-free. A lot has changed for the better, one being that I feel like I’ve kind of emerged out from under this cloud or rock or boulder or whatever you want to call it and see things much more clearly. I temper past anxieties and anger with a more measured approach, now. And I know that all sounds la-dee-da and vague, so…let me try to expand on that. Expound? Expand? Both.
I digress. It's both a good thing and a bad thing to see things so clearly, mainly because one character trait I’ll never lose is my impatience. When I see something that needs changing, I’m incredibly angsty to Change it now! Life is short! This is your life and you only get one!!!! I mean the voice is relentless. That voice makes me very much aware of how I spend my days, weeks, hours and minutes, and of course being cognizant is great - but for things like my career, which can’t change in an instant even though I’d like it to…yeah, not so much.
And of course things like my hair - you should see how many bobby pins I use to trick myself into believing I can put it up into a ponytail. Still not there yet…slowly…but surely though, it’s getting longer. Can I also add I’m SO MUCH STRONGER?? All caps because that’s how diesel my legs are. Thank you Orangetheory.
I still have no friends out here in the ‘burbs, which has been strange; I know I talk about this constantly but it was hard to make friends when your face was blown up from chemo and your wigs are ever-changing and you just don’t feel like explaining your sad little plight to strangers - so even though it’s been a few months (9? 10?) since that very last treatment, I have not gotten any more open about what I went through. It’s hard enough making brand new adult friends in the ‘burbs. A) It’s hard to say “oh, well I had cancer that first 1.5 years so I lived under a rock and thats why I have no friends in this town, hi nice to meet you will you be mine now?) and B) Possibly even harder is that we are--dun dun dun...childless in the burbs. Little did I know most people have kids - or plan to very soon - when they move to the suburbs. Coming from the Cape I guess I just didn’t really think it would be so prevalent and assumed. I have an urge to start a club called “South Shore DINKs & SINKs” but I’m not sure that would fly and honestly, I am not sure there would be many people who would fall under that criteria to even join!
I’m rambling. Long story short, it’s been a hell of a 2 years, and there are still struggles and worries and feeling like I’ve landed in an odd, foreign juncture of an odd life path that I’d never expected and sure as hell never planned on navigating. But with it has born clarity—and I’m so blessed to have that clarity. I know who I love and who I will pour my energy into. I know who saps me of energy, who consistently makes me feel not so great and so I avoid them when I’m able, and brush off what I can. And I know I have a lot more learning and living to do. And I’m incredibly thankful.
PS: I updated my professional website, as I'd love to take on more freelance work. Check it out!