Thankful

Today is Thanksgiving. I love this day for so many reasons. It’s a time to be with loved ones without all the pressure of gifts and such. It’s a time to eat lots of delicious food. And it’s a time to look at your life and count your blessings.

I’m feeling especially grateful this year. A serious health crisis really puts things into perspective, and this last year I’ve learned to appreciate what really matters–good health, the love of family and friends, a place to call home, a job that allows you to pursue your passion.

This time last year, I was in a very different place. I was facing terrifying surgery, and I was trying to find my footing after chemotherapy. I didn’t know what the future held, but I was very afraid it wouldn’t be good.

This is me today. I’m healthy. My hair is growing like crazy. My chemo port is gone–only that scar below my collar bone remains. I’ve lost body parts and gained a bunch of scars. But I’m here. And I’m well.

And most importantly, I’m grateful. To God, who most assuredly saw me through this. To my family, who stayed at my side, picked up the pieces and held me up when I started to fall. To my friends, who love and support me like family. To my doctors, nurses and modern medicine, for saving my life. To complete strangers who’ve touched my life in ways I never expected.

Instead of feeling fear and dread, I’m filled with hope and joy this holiday season. I still don’t know what the future holds, but for now it seems bright, and I am thankful.

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October

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October is my favorite month.

I was born in October (as were both my parents). I got married in October. I gave birth to my son in October (he was due Sept. 30–I instinctively knew he’d wait to make his debut in his mama’s favorite month).

October is when the stifling heat of a Southern summer finally breaks, and crisp air turns the leaves eye-popping hues of crimson, orange and yellow. The mouth-watering aroma of fair food seems to hang in the air all month, beckoning with the promise of once-a-year delights like sugary funnel cake and forearm-sized turkey legs. Children (and adults like me) delight in the thrill of a ghostly tale told by the warm glow of a grinning jack-o-lantern. And football really hits its stride, with some of the year’s best match-ups hitting the gridiron.

It’s really quite magical, when you think about it.

Last year, I felt sort of robbed of my October experience. I spent half the month sick and afraid (and not the good Halloween kind) from my bad reaction to Taxol. The rest of the month, I was still in recovery mode, trying to get my sea legs after chemo and mentally preparing for my bilateral mastectomy. Sure, I still took my son trick-or-treating and watched scary movies, but it wasn’t quite the same.

This year, I feel like I’ve gotten my October mojo back. I kicked off the month with my son’s birthday on one of those glorious fall days that makes you wonder why other seasons even bother. He’s really into Halloween this year, so he and I have decked out his room, our house and backyard with all manner of creepy decor.

I’ve gotten an eyeful of peak N.C. mountain fall foliage while watching the Appalachian State University Mountaineers take the field (while eating a funnel cake, I might add). I’ve watched spooky shows (I highly recommend Lore on Amazon Prime), drank pumpkin beer and delighted in scoping out Halloween decorations with my son.

Tomorrow is my birthday. And this weekend I have plans to hit up some Halloween funsies with my kiddo–a pumpkin festival, trunk or treat–and have lunch with my dad and sisters. Then on Sunday, I get to hear the amazing Andre Leon Talley speak as part of the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. And, of course, it all wraps up with Halloween.

It feels good to enjoy all these simple pleasures again. Though my mind and body are very different now, on a crisp October day, I feel like the old me.

Re-entering the World

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This past weekend, I had my 20-year high school reunion. I’m one of those weirdos who actually enjoyed high school (at least, as much as a person can), and I’ve even stayed friends with a core group from those days.

 

At points when we should’ve gone our separate ways, life has thrown curve balls that brought us back together. Our freshman year of college, a dear friend’s younger brother died in a car accident. My mom passed similarly in the middle of our college years, and several other friends lost parents or close loved ones in the couple of years following college graduation. We all rallied around one another in those times of strife, drying tears, offering shoulders to lean on and laughs to help dull the pain.

And from there we continued to see each other–weddings and all the accompanying hoopla turned into baby showers and christenings. Sure, sometimes years will pass before we see each other, but we’re the type of friends who can get together and it feels like no time has elapsed since our last meeting. We just pick right up where we left off.

As I danced and laughed and reminisced with them this past weekend, I experienced that strange feeling of being back with a group that was my world for a time, even though they no longer hold that status in my life. It’s strange to return to a place/group of people you once thought of as a sort of home when that’s no longer your day-to-day neighborhood.

I had this same sensation last week at the cancer center. For so much of this past year, that place has felt oddly like home to me. Its inhabitants–the doctors, nurses, staffers and fellow patients–they were my people. Just like my high school friends, they get me in a way few do. They understand a very important time in my life the way no one else really can.

But as I sat in the waiting room, my mass of chemo curls spilling around a headband’s tenuous grasp, I began to realize I no longer belong there the way I once did. And as my oncologist went over my whistle-clean lab work and told me I was going to be just fine, I felt this even more acutely. I don’t look sick. I don’t feel sick. I’m not sick.

And just like that guy who graduated five years ago and still hangs out at high school parties, I need to move on. I need to re-enter the world. I need to take cancer patient off my list.

My high school experience is a big piece of who I am, and those friends will always be a part of my life. Same thing with cancer. This disease has changed who I am. There will never be a time that I don’t return to this place, never be a time that it’s not part of my life. Just as my adolescent years helped shape me, so has my bout with this disease.

I don’t want to go back to high school or my teen years, and I don’t want to go back to being a full-time patient. But knowing those who were there for me during both those times will be there for me now, and in the future if I need them, is a great comfort.

One Year

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One year ago today, my life changed forever.

One year ago today, I got the news no one ever wants to get: “You have cancer.”

My first “cancerversary,” as it’s called by so many who’ve dealt with this nasty disease, felt almost like groundhog day. Last year, when I got the news, I was en route to Chicago for a business trip. The thing is, it’s a trip I make every year at the same time. So, once again, I’m in Chicago. And I feel almost like I’ve been reliving the events of last year.

Just like last year, I spent my layover in the Atlanta airport. And I spent today walking the furniture market in Chicago. I’m staying in the same hotel. Even the weather is eerily the same–hot and stormy.

Looking around this hotel room that looks exactly like the one I retreated to last year, those feelings of terror and despair feel closer to me than they have in a while. And yet, in this same space, I remember good things, too.

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The Chicago sky, last year

In that first awful night after getting the news, I holed up in my room to wallow. I cried–my body heaving with sobs that left me practically breathless. And then, I began to pray.

I’m not a particularly religious person. I don’t go to church. I don’t read the Bible regularly. But, I’m definitely a spiritual person. I pray a lot. I talk to God. And I have a pretty strong relationship with him.

That night, I begged. I bargained. I reasoned. “Please don’t take me now. My son still needs me. Please let me see him grow up.”

And in the midst of my agony, I suddenly felt calm. A strange feeling of peace washed over me, and somehow, I knew everything would be OK.

While some will say it was merely my mind playing tricks on me or whatever, I truly felt it was God letting me know things would be alright.

I’ve carried that moment with me throughout this past year. When things got really hard, and I feared the absolute worst, I returned to that night in this hotel. That moment of peace has sustained me through this ordeal. And though I’m still fearful, I keep that peace with me to calm the worry and anxiety that simmers deep within.

I’ve lost a lot this past year: My breasts, my hair, my ovaries, my peace of mind. I lost my innocence in the sense that I no longer trust my own body. It has betrayed me, and I’ll never be able to feel an ache or pain without that voice in my head wondering if it’s a sign of something much worse.

But I’m still here. And while I’ve lost so much, I’ve gained so many things, too. Perspective. A new sense of gratitude. A renewed appreciation for the gift of life. The knowledge that I am stronger than I ever thought.

Today has certainly been bittersweet, but mostly, it’s been a good day. I’m thankful to be here. To be well. To be alive. And for today, that’s enough.

 

A Small Change

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog (thank you!), you may have noticed I changed the name. When I started this thing, it was a diary of sorts for my journey through a breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and all that goes with that.

But I sort of felt like the name focused too much on my breasts, when this experience is about so much more than those body parts. So, I decided a name change was in order. “Strange Trip” seems apt, as this is probably the most bizarre ride I’ve ever been on. Looking back at everything that’s happened in this past year is truly surreal.

Thanks for coming along with me–it’s been a smoother ride knowing so many are cruising along with me.

Good Days

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My boy, on the pathway to happiness

I’m the type of person who always searches for some sort of lesson or sense of meaning when a bad thing happens. Even when terrible things occur, there almost always seems to be at least one little kernel of good that comes of the calamity. I need this silver lining to help me make sense of the bad, heal and move on.

When my mom died, I spent a long time looking for the why. It seemed so cruel and unjust to have her taken from us so soon. But in the years since her passing, I’ve been able to recognize the gifts her loss gave me. A stronger relationship with my dad. The means to live on my own after college. The pain that fed my creativity and allowed me to realize my true calling as a writer.

With my cancer diagnosis, I’ve tried to do the same thing. In the wreckage of treatment, fear and medical bills, I’ve found little blessings that have given me a sense of meaning in this horrible thing. A new sense of perspective (I no longer sweat the small stuff), a deeply humbling sense of gratitude for the people in my life (my family, friends, coworkers and even complete strangers have floored me with their love and kindness) and a new-found appreciation for life.

That last one is a biggie. I feel like I’ve always been appreciative of life, but like most people, I had a tendency to get caught up in the day-to-day bullshit that can distract you from what really matters.

But now, I have a new awareness of my mortality. I know that my time could be cut short. I know that each and every day matters, and I need to do everything I can to make the most of them, no matter how many I have left.

So, this year I decided to do everything I could to live my life to the fullest. Take the trip. Go to the show. Eat the amazing meal. Buy the fabulous pair of shoes. I’m not going overboard, mind you–everything in moderation and all that–but rather, I’m telling myself to say “yes” more often and enjoy as much as I possibly can.

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A boy and the sea

With that in mind, I’ve jam-packed this summer with fun. Last week, we went on our family beach trip, this year visiting Oak Island, N.C., for the first time. It was an amazing trip–just the right balance of activity and utter laziness. Clear-blue sunny beach days with a couple of rainy afternoons tailor-made for napping, reading and boozy card games.

Perhaps most enjoyable, though, was watching my son fall madly in love with the beach. This was his third beach trip, and this was the year he finally got it. The first year, he was just a baby and the water freaked him out. Last year, he was a bit more into it, but still not totally convinced.

This year, though? I had to practically drag him inside every afternoon. He played in the surf, squealing with delight as tiny fish skittered around his feet. He ran up and down the shore, greeting dogs, other children and pretty much anyone who crossed his path. He picked up two buckets worth of shells, and he and I built more sandcastles than I can count.

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Muse

Last night, I continued my quest for living life to the fullest by attending a concert with my sister.

In my younger days, I went to concerts all the time. But, as I’ve gotten older and become a mom, I’ve seen fewer and fewer shows, especially those that happen on week nights.

But last night was different. When my sister asked me months ago if I’d like to go with her to see Muse and 30 Seconds to Mars I said yes without hesitation. If I’m being totally honest, I barely know these two bands. But I really wanted the opportunity to hang out with my sister, so I decided to go for it, even though the concert was on a Thursday night.

I’m so glad I did. Even though I didn’t get home until 2 a.m. (and had to drag my ass into work in the morning), I had the best time. The show was amazing. Muse was excellent, as was 30 Seconds to Mars. If you’re not familiar, actor Jared Leto is the lead singer of 30 Seconds. Yeah, Jordan freaking Catalano.

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Be still my teenage heart

If you were a teenage girl in the ’90s, chances are you were in love with Jared “Jordan Catalano” Leto, the bad boy who broke Claire Danes’ heart on the amazing series “My So-Called Life.” And then, of course, Jared won an Oscar a few years ago for his incredible performance in “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” Suffice it to say I was stoked to see him in person.

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I even love him with a Unabomber beard.

So, you can imagine how I lost my shit when he ran off the stage last night to serenade a boy in a wheelchair mere feet from where I was sitting. It was a sweet moment, and it made the concert even more special and amazing.

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Sisters

But even more than seeing my teenage TV crush, spending some quality time with my younger sister truly made the night. We sang, laughed and even cried a little–and I loved every minute of it. In the immortal words of Rayanne Graff, “We had a time.”

The old pre-cancer me probably would have declined her invitation. Driving to Charlotte for a concert on a school night? Sounds like too much trouble. It’s easier just to stay home. But that kind of attitude causes me to miss out on memorable experiences, so I’m trying my best to fight that instinct to stay in. Life’s just too short not to sop up every drop of enjoyment possible.

Seventeen Years

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My sister, mom and me at the Outer Banks sometime in the ’80s.

I hate April Fool’s Day.

I’ve never really been into pranks or trickery, and there’s something about this day that gives mischief more of a mean-spirited edge. And social media has made it even worse. Every year there are the fake engagement and pregnancy announcements, fake moving announcements, fake whatever announcements. It’s annoying and not really funny at all.

Of course, my hatred of this day is about more than just an intolerance of childish tomfoolery. My mom died in a car accident on April 1, 2000.

There’s something especially cruel about getting the dreaded call from the hospital that there’s been an accident on April Fool’s Day. For a split second I thought, “is this some kind of horrible joke?”

This year, the anniversary fell on a Saturday, just like the day it actually happened. My sister Wendy texted me in the wee hours of Saturday morning, likely awake with her thoughts, to tell me that having the anniversary fall on a Saturday again makes it harder for her. I nodded as I read her words, feeling the exact same way.

Just as it was on that horrible day in 2000, April 1 this year was absolutely gorgeous. One of those warm, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky days that make you revel in spring. As I sat in my backyard looking up at that sea of light blue, I couldn’t help thinking back to that day so many years ago.

It’s kind of amazing that I can remember most of the details of that day as clearly as if they’d happened just last week. I remember the slight nip in the air, what I was wearing (a pastel striped t-shirt from Old Navy and jeans), what I was doing when the phone rang (lying on my dorm bed, waiting for my parents to arrive for a visit). I remember bargaining with God as I careened down I-40 to the hospital in Chapel Hill. I remember realizing my mom was gone when the hospital staff ushered me into a small, private waiting room outfitted with an overabundance of tissue boxes and Bibles. I remember being taken back to see my father, unconscious on a gurney, disrobed and covered with a sheet up to his chest–preparation for surgery. I remember the stunned voices as I called family and friends to tell them the awful news.

In the years since her death, I’ve tried to mark her anniversary in a positive way. Some years I’ve volunteered or participated in a charity walk, others I just try to do fun things to keep the mood light and my mind off the sadness.

This year, I spent the day with Rodney and Alex. We ate pancakes for breakfast, snuggled in bed watching cartoons, went to swim class, went to our neighborhood Easter egg hunt and played in the yard. Nothing particularly remarkable, but without a doubt a good day.

I think this is what my mom would want–her loved ones moving on, living their lives. She’d want to be remembered–and she was–but I don’t think she’d want me or my sister to dwell. I told Wendy this when I returned her text. I asked what she had planned–a trip to Virginia with her boyfriend to see an art exhibition–and told her my plans for the day. And then I told her I loved her.

I know somewhere out there in the ether, my mom was glad.

 

 

I Gotchu

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Me and my baby

One of the most exciting stages of parenthood is when your child learns to speak. There’s something almost magical about a baby going from this drooly, crying blob to a little person able to express himself verbally. It’s a long process, but one with lots of fun stops along the way.

In the past year or so, my son’s vocabulary has exploded. He’s almost two-and-a-half, and since uttering his first word (“mama,” for the record), he has become more of a chatterbox with each passing day. Much of what he had to say before was merely baby babble. And he still engages in his fair share of gibberish, but more and more, his words are actual words, and they’re assembled in phrases and sentences. It’s pretty amazing to witness.

Much of his current vocabulary revolves around cartoon characters (Mickey Mouse and the Paw Patrol are big topics of conversation in our house), his favorite foods (hot dogs, grilled cheese, apple juice) and there are a couple words he’s uttered that I’m mortified he knows (we blame dad’s potty mouth for those gems). But for me, there are two phrases he uses often that just about melt me to the floor.

“I pick you,” is the toddler version of “I’d like to be picked up.” He almost always holds his hands up to me as he says it, and there is nothing sweeter as a mama than to have your baby stand before you with his arms raised, essentially saying he chooses you. Does he necessarily mean it in a literal sense? No. But in a way he does because my arms are the ones he wants wrapped around him.

Which leads me to my current favorite toddler phrase–“I gotchu, Mama.” This is usually uttered late at night, little arms wrapped around my neck, head resting on my shoulder, or in the morning when he wakes up in the bed next to me and clutches tightly for a groggy hug.

If I could bottle the feeling it gives me, I’d be a millionaire. It’s the salve that cures the trivial woes of the day. It’s the balm that heals any hurt feelings. It’s what dries my tears of fear, worry and anxiety when the darkness comes. Hearing those sweet words whispered in my ear as my child clutches me lovingly makes everything better.

Having cancer has changed me as a parent. Yes, I still have my bad days/moments and get frustrated by crankiness, tantrums and misbehavior. But I tend to pause and savor the good moments a bit more nowadays. I know how important these moments are–even the littlest ones–and I’m so thankful to be here for each and every one of them.

 

Survivor’s Guilt

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This morning I had my survivorship appointment at the cancer center. This is a next step in my cancer journey–addressing what I need physically and mentally after treatment.

One of the things that I’ve come to realize is most overlooked/not talked about when it comes to cancer is what happens to a person after they complete treatment. When you’re in the throes of the battle, as strange as it sounds, things are almost easier in a way. You have a focus, you have a plan, and you’re really sort of forced to take things one day at a time–handling that day’s treatment, side effects, etc. There’s a routine of appointments, blood draws, check in, check out.

But then everything sort of stops. Appointments taper from weekly to monthly to every couple of months. Your arm stops feeling like a pin cushion (that I don’t mind so much). Your hair grows back (that I definitely don’t mind). Suddenly the routine changes, and you’re supposed to go back to your normal schedule.

Except, nothing feels normal anymore. Even as I go to work, take care of my son, carry on with my regular activities, things are no longer the same. There’s a new sense of fear, anxiety and even guilt.

I’m feeling the latter more acutely this week. On Sunday, Nina Riggs died of metastatic breast cancer. She was only 39. I’ve been following Nina’s story since last fall when her incredible essay about living with terminal cancer ran in The New York Times‘ Modern Love column. Nina’s story resonated with me in so many ways–as a breast cancer patient, as a mother of a young boy, as a wife, as a woman who lost her mother too soon. We had a lot of things in common–we even lived in the same city and had some mutual friends of friends. I wrote about Nina’s essay in this blog, and she was even kind enough to comment and send good wishes my way.

I’ve cried so much this past week for Nina and her family, her two boys in particular. Though I didn’t really know her, I got to know her through her writing and I could empathize with many of the things she experienced during her fight with cancer. I know how hard it was for her as a mom to know she’d have to leave those boys. My heart aches for her in that regard, and for them as  children who lost their mother too soon.

Even more bittersweet is the fact that Nina has a memoir called The Bright Hour coming out in June, chronicling her experience living with metastatic breast cancer. She wasn’t able to live to see its official release. But I hope it will allow more people to not only get to know her great talent, but also shine a light on a type of cancer that is generally kept in the shadows. Nobody wants to talk about metastatic breast cancer because it’s usually not a happy story to tell. But the fact is there are thousands of women and men who face and live with this diagnosis every year. And their stories are important, and I’m glad at least one of them is going to be told in such a public way.

As I wrapped up my appointment this morning, the NP I met with gave me a hug and congratulated me on reaching this point. I know I should be feeling celebratory–and I do in a way–but it’s hard to totally let my guard down and enjoy this moment. It’s a process, and I have a lot of work to go, and I plan on seeking some help to get there. In the meantime, I’m just focusing on feeling grateful. I know how fortunate I am to be where I am, and that’s enough to get me through today.

 

Smoke and Mirrors

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Searching “vintage magic” to find this image was super-fun. 

In the past month or so, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments. Some of them are on my hair (the chemo curls are coming on with a vengeance) or how healthy I look. But most of them go something like this:

“You are just so strong. There’s no way I could have managed all this.”

“You are holding up so well; I would be  a mess if this had happened to me.”

You get the picture. But the truth is not very inspiring.

Inside, I’m a complete mess. Truly. I just do a good job of hiding it.

This same thing happened 17 years ago when my mom died. I was so composed (at least publicly) throughout the months following her death that I actually had two friends take me aside to tell me they were worried I was in shock and on the verge of a breakdown or something. Little did they know I’d cried a river of tears almost every day, just behind closed doors.

My people are a stoic bunch. I’ve seen/heard my dad cry exactly four times (three after my mom’s death, the other after his beloved dog died). I don’t think I ever witnessed my grandmother shed a tear, despite burying her husband and two children, as well as several grandchildren. Tough as nails. But it’s not that we don’t feel these emotions–we just rarely express them publicly. (I’m sure this is a conversation to have with a therapist one day.)

The truth is, I still cry often. In the car. At night after everyone’s asleep. Holding my baby in my arms in the dark as he dozes off. Even sometimes after doctor’s appointments.

And if you could see my Google search history, well, you’d know what an overly-paranoid freak show I’ve become. I consult Dr. Google on a nearly daily basis. Every little pain or twinge could be something in my mind. I read symptom lists. I read message boards and blogs, looking for people who felt the same things I do but were OK. It’s totally unhealthy, yet I can’t stop.

So, yeah, I look like I’ve got it all together. But don’t be fooled–I’m still a mess inside.