Saturday, December 29, 2007

Drama Princess Seeks Cancer Coach for Off-Off-Broadway Gig

It's been awhile since I've been afraid. The curtain of safety has been parted with news of one friend's recurrence, another's difficult surgery, yet another chum's wait for scan results. The fear is on stage now, the actors are friends. I do not want to see them suffer, nor do I want to lose them from my life. Every trite and overwrought phrase ever uttered rushes to my mouth but I catch myself at the last instant, instead offering up only what I have to give: my health, my company. And self-conscious that these friends must consider me unworthy to share in the sorrow because my cancer is new and has not yet mustered the forces to metastasize, I stuff my own anxiety back into place. 

Yet still there is the dozing puppy that is my future with this disease. I see her over in the corner, one curious eye sleepily checking in to see what story is being told onstage.  The fear I have for myself is that I won't make the right treatment decisions, that I will damage my body beyond repair in an effort to grant it a few more years. My children will not benefit if they have a mother who is alive but has lost the joy in moving her body, in creating stories and believing in them, and who is in too much pain to sleep or hold their hands. I've witnessed the horrific degradation of body, mind and spirit on those who pursue a cure at all costs.  Already I believe I've wasted time with an oncologist who goes by the book and not by the patient, who doesn't listen and doesn't heal. This is my life. I'm "pre-recurrence" and I know that what I do, or don't do, now will affect my survival. Yet I've already given up more of my health to the potential cure than I was ever willing to sacrifice. 

How do I find the balance that will save me? Tell me now before I forget I asked the question.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Mindful Musings

Love the gal in yellow, taking a break on the stairs. Silly of her to wear that fetching frock, you say? But she was just out for a picnic in the woods with her beau. Who knew she was going to have such a bad day? Who knew? And yet she's just resting a moment before starting again. My guess is she's got some really great climbing shoes on beneath those frills.

My fingers are numb and it's not from the December frost hitting California. Twenty-six days on Aromasin and I'm ditching the tiny, sugar-coated white pill, exchanging it for another potential toxin called Arimidex. Thought I might tough out the bone and joint pain, even the insomnia, but the increasing numbness in my hands and fingers cannot be ignored. Although I know my Agent of Doom will never agree, I am having more cognitive disruption and memory loss. How bad is it? I've had to look up the names of the two drugs mentioned above three times while writing this post. Three times. During a conversation with the kids yesterday they repeatedly corrected me ("a tiger, mom, not a lion"). Over and over and I don't even catch myself "forgetting." Arimidex might be a better drug for my body. If not, I have two more options.

Ho, Ho, Ho
Christmas pushes invisible buttons. Rules are in place and not of our making, defining how we celebrate, where and when. Every year I wonder what traditions our children will remember, what they will carry forward. I hope it won't be the mad rush to buy the gifts, wrap the gifts, get the gifts, unwrap the gifts...
Next year, always next year I promise to put more of my own tradition and life into the celebration. The busy-ness of following the established course distracts me, soaks up the energy and competes with the simplicity I long to create. Will the kids be disappointed by just a few gifts and time outdoors, in the woods or near the ocean? Will I have the courage to stand up and make the changes I want, knowing that they won't be popular with anyone? We'll see.

Journey of a Friend
The last post may have left the casual visitor wondering what became of dear Mot. The results of the scan were disheartening: the treatment did not work. After recovering his spirit, Mot returned to Evanston and began Treatment Plan B. Tomorrow he undergoes another scan and will learn next week how effective Plan B has been. No matter the outcome, Mot will be taking a break from six months of chemotherapy to fly the gentle skies to California for a visit with us in February. Yahoo!

There's Politics in Support
There's a hierarchy of sorts in the cancer world. Those with advanced or metastatic disease are "higher" up the totem pole than those whose cancer has not yet spread or recurred. (Yes, it's true. Does anyone on either side of the divide want to debate this?) Although to someone without cancer it seems I've been through a lot (and hell, I really have and still am going through it), I often feel unworthy in cancer groups or in conversations with people dealing with advanced disease. It's as though I haven't suffered enough, or really can't understand their anguish. Maybe I don't let people in enough to see my own pain. Dunno. Now, this isn't the case with Mot of course, or my close friends. Yet I've encountered it enough to be cautious when meeting people in survivor groups. Why mention it here? I've been working to find and now create a support group for women cancer survivors on the Pensinsula. Believe it or not, there isn't one for women (or men) after the initial oh-my-God-I-have-cancer. It's pretty well-documented that support groups add to survivorship, or at least to quality of life, and I know that they are fantastic resources in ways that the medical community is not. So, bringing this one to life is a big deal. It is also stirring up some feelings. Many times I bring good people together and then, not feeling comfortable in the group, I leave. I fear that I may design a wonderful community of support for women and then somehow exclude myself from it.

Wish I could remember where I heard that cancer doesn't create your life, it just amplifies the life you already have.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Eat, Pray, Clean

Waiting for test results is perhaps the most difficult aspect of living with cancer. Will the next result take one from "survivor" to the next level, that of living with metastatic disease? Even worse is waiting for the test results of a friend.

Two nights ago I cozied up to a pint of Haagen Daz Mocha Chip. Dairy is not on the healthy living diet I subscribe to. It is, however, on top of the list of comfort foods I reach for when I can't be near friends anticipating life-changing news. Curled up on the sofa, pint in one pot-holder-covered hand, spoon in the other, I allowed myself the childhood pleasure of guiltless consumption. The entire pint of ice cream did what few therapists could do in double-sessions: made me smile. My plastic surgeon will no doubt be delighted by the extra squish of abdominal fat he now has to work with when it comes time for my DIEP reconstruction.

Yesterday I found one of several Catholic Churches in our county with candles, the kind desperate believers light with prayerful intentions. I don't know what it is about modern churches but having canvassed four in the last week I can say that candles are no longer standard equipment. The 5-year-old and I celebrated our bonanza find by lighting six of the tiny lights (25 cents each) and saying our prayer for Mot. God must surely hear the prayers of little boys wishing well for others, don't you think? Even if they try to blow out entire banks of candles on the way out of church?

Today I washed the windows, inside and out. Moved the piano and vacuumed the toaster pastry crumbs from behind it. Pushed the love seat to the wall vacated by the piano. Found more toaster pastry crumbs, evidence of the 5-year-old's passion for secretive eating, I suppose. Scrubbed the kitchen surfaces, laundered every soiled item in the house, sanitized the bathrooms. Still puzzling over the paper cup of urine next to the toilet that the only likely suspect has vehemently denied producing; somehow, I'm grateful to be distracted by this probable intersection of boy, science and bodily functions.

There has been no word from Evanston. The silence fills me with dread. I want to tell him that I will listen, I won't say anything, I won't tell him what to do next. I know he needs time to process whatever has happened.

Cold fear. Acceptance. The distance between is everything.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Autumn for Me, Please

Forget spring, autumn has always been my time of renewal. In Illinois, the days would change in light, scent and even texture, transforming my freckled cheeks into smooth-skinned apples by Halloween. We lived on a large corner lot full of oak trees that rained leaves continuously from early September until the first kick-ass storm. Weekends found us outside, raking and jumping into the piles, again and again until either we tired of the game or our father tired of us. Leaf burning has long since been banned, of course, but in those pre-green days of the 70s we gleefully burned those musty, nearly damp leaves. Grown children of the suburbs need only catch a brief whisper of incinerated leaf in the air to be once again back home, sprawled on cool, hard earth with the neighbor kids, the dog of their youth begging for one more stick throw.

As an adult, or almost adult, football games, the new course schedule, a nubby, cherry-red sweater and pub crawls restored my sense of possibility. The slant of light, the rush of wind promised another good friend, another love, another chance. And at last I could tumble into a book without summer coaxing me out to dance in her sunlight and green, green gardens.

Maybe spring is just too sloppy, with the melting mess of snow, mud and sprouting green things underfoot. Spring showers never brought as much drama as autumn storms. Moving to Northern California 21 years ago I didn't understand that I would be sacrificing thunderstorms for a monsoon season. The first year I kept waiting for the rain to let up and finally asked a neighbor, a native, if the deluge was normal. "No, we're in a drought," he lamented.

My ritual observation of the season metamorphosed into an annual pilgrimmage to Chicago. Every October or November I would make the trip, usually timed to celebrate my mother's birthday or Thanksgiving. Elaborate preparations evolved. New clothing was purchased, leather shoes were hunted and acquired, visits with friends and family coordinated. Because I wanted to return to my San Francisco flat and find it welcoming and cheerful (to balance the inevitable homesickness) I would become a whirling, frenzied cleaning fiend for weeks before leaving. Projects untouched for months had to be completed before departure. Since I normally had someone stay to care for my pets this added another wrinkle; I prepared for my "house guest" with the attentive detail reserved for visiting parents and first dates. Everything had to be perfect, and I hoped the petsitter would be of the tidy persuasion and leave my home in like condition for my return.

The journeys home ceased with the death of my parents. Some traditions survived; my husband and children know all too well that the house must be showcase-ready before we leave on vacations. One of Mom's little eccentricities, like having to unpack immediately upon arrival and creating a homey nest for everyone. This current trip back to Chicago is bringing up all the old tendencies that have been dormant for a decade. I've been preparing the house, readying the family, advance-planning the kids' schedules so as not to be avalanched with errands upon return. Today I found myself shredding documents that my husband finally weeded from his bill-paying stash. As I was feeding them one-by-one through the steaming machine, cursing myself for not having invested in an industrial strength model, I noticed the date on one statement: 2003. And I felt the need to shred these documents a few days before leaving for Chicago because...? Because I want my office space, the space I evicted my husband from in order to have a writing area, to be clean and inviting when I walk back in the door. When I come home in eight days I know my house will be unrecognizable. Two young children, an insanely wild Australian Cattledog, several cats and a husband less attentive to environmental conditions than I guarantee it. But I need to leave home with everything in order.

A simple calendar is in place for Joe and the kids to follow. It lists what they do each day and what I'll be doing. There's a page of phone numbers of all the people I'll be seeing and when I'll be seeing them. The laundry is done, and food for snacks, lunches and dinners will be in the cupboard. A present for a friend's party is wrapped and ready to go. Invitations have been sent for our daughter's birthday coming in just a few weeks; her gifts are nearly purchased, the cake ordered, party favors gathered. Today I had the carpet cleaned; it needed it, and the cat who has been mistaking it for her box will be seeing the vet before I leave.

The goldfish seemed to be well -- there's a history of goldfish tragedy and demise related to my trips -- until yesterday, when my daughter noticed that Tigger seemed to be staggering in the water. A gorgeous three-inch-long comet, she did seem to be awkwardly trying to move about, like the drunk who makes a good effort to show she really isn't drunk at all. Pooh was spending too much time hiding at the bottom. An inventory of symptoms, a trip to the fish store, and I've just enough time to treat my 3-year-old friends before leaving.

Does it really matter if I get everything done? Nope. I know this. Does putting my home in order, preparing my family for my absence, taking care of my pets have as much to do with my renewal as it does with practicing to leave? I've been wondering if and how I can ever leave them behind. My little trips are helping me understand how this is done, taking my fear away and I hope building their confidence in themselves, and in my returning to them.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Chicago and Chemo Notes

Spinning right along making preparations for the trip back home to Rockford/Chicago. The last trip was a family adventure in 2003 for Danny's baptism. Now, I'm heading back solo, the first time since my mom was nearing the end of her own breast cancer saga 11 years ago.

Joe has courageously agreed to sacrifice a week of vacation time and assume the title of Primary and Full-Time Parent. Yee Gads. The children are already nervous and have begun petitioning me for favors. They don't understand why they can't buy their way onto the plane ("we have money, you know...") nor do they see how bored they would be doing grown-up things like talking, eating and talking. They've forgotten how much fun they have with Dad when it's just Dad. A shift in the family power structure is good for everyone. I mean, who says there can't be a King Bee in the hive? At least for a week in October.

Two fascinating bits of news I recently learned. One made headlines a couple of days ago. Seems that Taxol (one of my chemo drugs) is completely ineffective in treating my form of breast cancer, which is HER-2 negative, estrogen positive early stage. Taxol is especially nasty stuff and is responsible for the neuropathy (numbness) I still experience in my fingers and to some degree, toes. Other side effects, too... to think that taking it was worthless and harmful supports my original hesitation of proceeding with chemotherapy.

News item two I gleaned from a fellow blogger's site. Since 2005 it has been known that Tamoxifen is sometimes ineffective in women with an altered gene known as CYP2D6. If it isn't working, it isn't helping prevent recurrence. A test for this gene is available but expensive. My Agent of Doom has been pushing me to have my ovaries removed, hence pushing me difinitively to the other side of menopause and into the aromatase-inhibitor class of drugs. Fine and good, I won't be on Tamoxifen then. And yet...I've been dragging my feet, all the while thinking that at least I was getting the protection of Tamoxifen while waiting.

One tip-off that Tamoxifen isn't working as it should is if patients have mild hot flashes. Hmmm, mine haven't been too searingly hot. And I never did gain any weight from Tamoxifen, and I haven't met anyone who survived the drug without adding pounds. What to think? Well, what I think is that I'd have loved to have been told this last May when I was handed the standard, one-size-fits-all prescription for the little white pill. Yes, I would have taken the gene test. I would have wanted to know before starting a drug I had great reservations about.

Maybe oncologists should ask patients if they want the Real Information and Care treatment plan or the Old Doctor Knows Best program. Don't tell me there isn't time, either. There are enough breast cancer patients trundling through the average cancer center to warrant a well-written hand-out, a workshop or video, or website if not time with the Grand Agents themselves.

Ooooh, feeling a little cranky now. Think I'll go have some organic blueberry green tea...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Dorothy Heads to Kansas (er, Evanston)

In the past few months I've become a frequent nibbler at the health services buffet. The more I desire to escape from appointments, tests and those nagging symptoms of the post-cancer treatment life, the more I find myself trudging out to yet another medicial visit. Addicted to time-consuming, often rude encounters with the health profession? Nah, not so much. I struggle with every event, thinking "Is this a one or three-doctor-visit problem?" Often, I know that if I want to reach the end of the Yellow Brick Road (final reconstruction surgery) I have to first complete the consultations, the oophorectomy recommended by the oncologist and OB/GYN, the echocardiogram that was requested by the doctor who was consulted about the ear pain and hearing loss and instead discovered the really, really low blood pressure. Really, my greatest desire is to present myself to team of specialists and say "Have at it. Find out everything you can about me, why I have no stamina, extreme and uneven bouts of fatigue, ear popping and a sensation of wind blowing through my head, why my left arm burns and the part of my chest that isn't numb aches. Then tell me how to fix myself." Because really, they've done enough damage already.

The node biopsy, bone scan and liver scan, bloodwork and cardio tests have shown me to be in great shape for a cancer chick. As far as my oncologist is concerned, she's done her part and I'm good for another three months. She still hasn't addressed the big problem, of course, and my quest for an integrated program is unsupported. How frustrating that at the point where the recovery should be given top priority to prevent recurrence the patient is set adrift, alone with little advice and only their own resourcefulness and cashflow to create a health program. A recent study indicated that both exercise and diet-and these components have to adhere to specific standards- are necessary to attain a 44% reduction in cancer recurrence from those patients pursuing either exercise or nutrition programs alone. Whoa Nellie, I hear that and think why isn't the oncologist on the phone, discussing my program! Heck, if I could just get a reasoned response when I asked the question and not "eat whatever you want" like I did during chemotherapy I'd be one excited gal.

"Nutritional oncology" is the buzz phrase of the moment for me. No where in this land of medical wonders I call home (San Francisco Bay Area) have I been able to find a one-stop-shop for such a product. I've looked, I've failed. I'm going to my original home, Illinois, where a clinic run by Dr. Block provides integrative mind-body medicine for cancer care and post-treatment healing. My friend Mot will be finishing his last treatment there and I'll synch my appointments with his, then chauffeur him back home to Wisconsin. The trip has become a healing one in other ways, with visits to my childhood town, days with my best girlfriends, reunions with long estranged family members, and a brief respite from hands-on momhood. When I return home I hope to have a program ready to put in place. No way am I going to be a sitting duck waiting for Round Two. Already I'm stronger than I've ever been, and I'm not even close to where I'm headed.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

One Day

This was one day I had little hope for beyond just getting through it.

After almost two years of jury duty avoidance (cancer centers have form letters to let patients off the hook) the jig was up. The potential disruption in my already disrupted life was sending the muscles of my neck into tight spasms. Jury duty is okay if I have spare energy and some source of childcare. Having neither, but with a husband taking a vacation day to be home for school pickups at noon, I arrived at the courthouse promptly at 8:00 am with a notebook and novel. Turns out my time was not to be spent writing essays or reading. For the first time in decades of appearing in jury rooms I actually encountered someone I knew. Knew and liked! Friend T. walked in, I waved her over, and we spent the morning catching up on the month since we had last gotten together. By 11:00 our names were called and we thought our luck had run out. Instead, we were summoned to the courtroom of a benevolent judge. Realizing that few humans can manage to put their lives on hold for a 5-6 week trial, he asked how many people would not plead hardship. Those nine folks went to the jury box and the other 50 of us were released for another year. Yahoo!

Since T. and I were basically covered for the day, we decided to have lunch. Well, why not? T. can always be counted on to know the best restaurants and she did. A french bakery with sandwiches. Yum. We sampled many desserts before deciding on two to split. In the hours we spent chatting we caught up on the kids (we've known each other since the 5-year-olds were 5 months old), the husbands, the plans for family camp (next summer they'll join us!), and tended to the other bits and pieces of friendship.

T. mentioned where her son had found the perfect Harry Potter costume, and after consulting via cell phone, Danny agreed that he still wanted to be Harry Potter; a quick trip to the party store netted me two Halloween costumes. Gracie will be a witch. Not Hermione, mind you. A witch. Couldn't find a tiger or dog costume so the witch was a compromise. Still need to find a suitable witch wand.

Feeling smug at having obtained costumes by my self-imposed end-of-September deadline, I tooled home for kid approval. Yes, the costumes passed muster. Off they went with their dad to swim class. I continued on with what was turning out to be a vacation day of my own and called my friend Mot. He's undergoing a chemo treatment back in Illinois, hours from his home in Wisconsin. The grueling treatment schedule is in its 4th cycle and I think the travel component is almost as difficult as the medical portion. In late October, for the last cycle, I'll be there to help drive back to Wisconsin and will meet his wife and two of his three kids. For now, we chat about our kids, delve into matters of friendship, banter about topics we know are offlimits (hunting, guns, furry animals mounted on walls for decorative purpose), and an hour quickly passes.

The plastic surgeon I was set to visit tomorrow for a second opinion on my reconstruction cancelled. This doctor has a lousy front office and it has been one hoop after another trying to schedule anything. When I attempted to reschedule this appointment we were up to Thanksgiving when I stopped, thanked the woman and said it was just too difficult. Suddenly she did the tango suggesting that the doctor would find another time more convenient for me, and put me through to the "assistant." The assistant, of course, wasn't there. Is rarely there and hardly ever returns calls. I hung up. Made a decision, at last, about reconstruction. I have all the information I need on doctors. I like Dr. G. He's there when I'm bleeding internally, good with a knife, and laughs at my jokes. (We obviously have some history.) If he thinks I can get decent Girls from the DIEP, and my heart looks good after the echo next week, I'll schedule with him for the spring. Whew. That decision has been a long time coming. Feels good to finally make it.

Joe and I had Back-to-School Night and Luz came to watch the kids. Luz is the woman we hired to help keep the house clean when I couldn't keep things together last year. No woman works harder. She quickly became a friend, and her kindness was evidenced in the way she would take out the recycling and retrieve the garbage cans from the street, tackle the fridge interior or fold the laundry, all tasks more than required, all without being asked. I knew she made sure I was covered with a blanket when I slept during the worst of the chemotherapy treatments. The kids adore her. Weeks ago I asked if her daughter might be available to babysit; she checked the date and said she'd do it instead since Grace and Dan were already comfortable with her. We returned from the school to find both children sound asleep (never happens with any sitter) and Luz refusing payment. "No, Libby, you've been good to me. This is a favor, me to you."

This was one day I didn't expect much from. One day I just wanted to get through. Unexpected friends, kindness, resolutions made. One day. So much comes to us in just one day.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Camping Without Cancer

It's happened. I've spent an entire weekend without thinking about recurrence or treatment side effects.

Sleeping bags, blankets, thermal dainties all made it into the van. Fear and worry stayed home.

We began what we hope will become a long tradition of family camp adventures at Lair of the Bear near Pinecrest Lake. Somehow I managed to talk my husband's brother and sister-in-law and their 6-year-old daughter into coming, as well as our friends with their three children, ages 8, 5 and 3. We will try to vacation together at the same camp in the summer if this weekend works.

The day before we left the forecast called for rain mixed with snow. Cold no matter how it came out of the sky. Danny and I scurried to an outdoor supply store for blankets, a lantern, thermal underwear for all, folding table for the tentcabin, SIGG bottles, ladybug rainboots for me. Amazing how expensive comfort is when purchased retail.

The weekend did not disappoint. The first night culled the cityslickers, who fled for easier vacation spots the next morning. It was below 40 degrees and by midnight I had a 50 lb 5-year-old boy snuggled deep in my sleeping bag, wedging me into one unmoving pose for the duration of a bone-achingly damp night.

Saturday we farmed the kids off to the staff who entertained them with activities, dodged rain showers, and kept the peace. Meals were prepared and served in the dining hall, no prep or clean-up required. All the moms present declared this to be their dream vacation even if it meant sitting on a folding chair near a forced-air heater while golfball-sized hail crashed down through the trees outside. Why? Surely you jest. Childcare. Someone else cooked and cleaned up. HEAVEN!

Our kids, Gracie at nearly 8 and Danny, 5, were giddy with their sudden freedom. A forest beckoned, and college students were their willing guides into the wilderness. During the rainpours, they gathered in the hall and played games, worked on crafts and goofed around without parental reprimand. By Monday morning, they were happily grungy in clothes that hadn't been completely changed and bodies that hadn't been bathed in days. Gracie took charge of the last project, tie-dying all four t-shirts for our family. Tuesday I would untie and rinse them to discover the beautiful heart design she had learned and worked into each one.

Today we have been home longer than we were away. I have washed more than a dozen loads of laundry, put most of the camping (okay, "camping lite") gear away, and organized the house back into a semblance of family tranquility. The fun and laughter of the weekend are still with us. We have healed a part of our family that was damaged in these past 16 months of anger, uncertainty and loss. The weekend we spent at family camp, the weekend it rained, will always be the weekend I'll think of as marking a change of seasons. My family is with me now. They were with me before, I think, each alone as I was and lost. This new season we are entering is not spring, not autumn. I don't know what it is or where it will take us. We'll find a way to go there, in some fashion, together.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

In the Garden of Dead Cats

We planted another one today. "Buddleia davidii 'Harlequin.' Deciduous, fast-growing shrub with long-arching branches and magenta flowers in summer." Only a one gallon specimen now this plant will soon hover over Clara, a 12-year-old calico with corn-yellow eyes. Our garden is a living tribute to many cats. They pass from the house to the garden quietly, with only the fanfare of children's tears and flower petals. In time we will smile at the flowers and say fondly, "See how well Clara's bush is doing," and "Look, Mika's plant is growing tall!"

I have been looking for my own resting place. No one is eager to accompany me on these trips. Cemeteries are often wildly beautiful; there is no hint of suffering or sorrow in the best of them. The place that most appeals to me is off Hwy 92, the road we travel for weekly swim lessons. From the hilltop the views are unlimited, the winds often unforgiving. Here nature is not contained, not crowded. If anyone wanted to remember me, it is here I would ask them to come.

Someday, when many years have passed, I hope I will go quietly from my house to another garden, with only the fanfare of children's tears and flower petals to mark the journey.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


July 11 is the anniversary of The Surgery. I didn’t realize until a few days ago that I had unconsciously been planning my House Purge Extravaganza around this anniversary. How is that possible? After my trip to Commonweal, the Woo-Woo Center of the Universe, I ask the question with a smile.

What is the meaning of a purge anyway?

Sanctification. Really. I looked it up after I started using the word to describe my plans.

I’m making my home a sacred space. Removing the fear and sadness of the past year and replacing it with healing and beauty, with room to grow.

Purging is physically and emotionally draining, like peeling away layers of an onion that turns out to have been cast in concrete.

On Day One, I finished Danny's room. It took an entire day. When the dinosaurs were sorted, the cars tossed in their bins, the sharks and sea creatures nestled under the train table, I hauled the boxes of not-used-so-much toys out in the hallway. Turning to look at the room from the doorway, I had to smile. This was a little boy’s room again. When he arrived home from daycamp I wondered what his reaction would be to the way I’d moved the red wooden train table, actually more a play table, from the back of the room to the front. Now he’d be able to stand at one of three sides and draw or play games, not just stack piles of toys and clothes and books on it. A cozy nook in the corner welcomed one or two children to read or discover together. The closet was no longer a fearsome place where haphazard towers of toy boxes threatened to collapse whenever the door opened, but one where a few extra toys were stored, boxed and neatly labeled. Order imposed on chaos. Elimination of excess. Yes, this was good.

Gracie’s room contained a year’s worth of a champion packrat’s best efforts. Every piece of homework, drawing, doodle, note, fuzz, bead, doo-dad, hairclip, ribbon, rock, shell, and paper she had come into contact with over the past 365 days were hidden somewhere in that room. The excavation would take at least two days and, overwhelmed by that thought, I retired to the sofa with a bowl of brownie mix, a book, a cat and music. Purging would wait.

After a decadent and refreshing interlude, I stepped back into my reality and began to wrestle my daughter’s room into submission. Two days drifted into three before the match concluded. Exhausted, I stood at another doorway and grinned.

Art materials in containers, crafts stored on closet shelf, desk clear and ready for story writing; desk chair available for sitting once again, bookshelves holding books, all standing straight and tall; knick knacks arranged in containers, no longer flung willy nilly in every cubby. A rocker beckons the young reader, the daybed sweetly holds the teddies and unicorns. Check, check, check. Twelve grocery bags of papers went to the curb that week for recycling. One long plastic bin went to basement storage. In it resides the best of K-2 art, writing and special works from a creative mind.

Our bedroom was next. The space resembled Ground Zero. It is the sorting room, the boxing room, the bagging and debating room. Bit by bit everything will make its way out the door and down the hallway, on its way to charity, a friend’s house, a sale or with regret, the dump.

With every layer that is chipped off, peeled away, torn off and deposited somewhere else the house feels lighter, cleaner, fresher. It is easier to say no to bringing new things in when the progression of their life in our home is seen. How long will that toy last before it goes to charity? To the dump? Will the enjoyment last as long as it did?

As the house empties out of things I feel joy seeping back in. The gifts I now wish to receive are small ones: time with friends and family, art, green and growing things, healthy food, beauty and love. Always love. My husband and children will thrive with those gifts. I will receive them, I will give them.

My home is sanctified now. I am purged.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Over The Rainbow (Arlen-Harburg)

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
There's a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true

Some day I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemondrops
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can't I?
Some day I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemondrops
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can't I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can't I?

The imagery from The Wizard of Oz has been appearing in my life with great abundance of late. Thought I'd revisit and share these lyrics.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Men Who Leave Women Friends for Women

Women don't abandon other women for men. Or if they do, they don't do it twice.

Men do.

At least one man did, and I don't understand why.

By the time a person hits fifty they must have some experience in romance behind them. It's not as though puppy love just pawed on the door for the first time and dragged them off, you know? So what excuse can a man, a man I thought was my friend, have for abandoning our friendship when he began dating a new woman?

Was his new love jealous? I asked at the beginning of their relationship if she was the jealous type, fearing I would never get another walk or lunch out of him.

"No," he said, "or she wouldn't be with me."

Did he go all ga ga over a lover and lose track of his life? Hard to believe; he's pragmatic to a fault.

Okay. What I'm left with is that the friendship I thought was in place wasn't. Or, to co-op a pop phrase, he just wasn't that into me.

The loss is unlike any casual rejection I've experienced. This man, a friend of my husband's, was the person I had chosen to enter my inner circle as an adopted brother. Over the course of a year I had shared much with him, and thought he enjoyed spending time with me. Now, the memory of all that has soured with the silence of two months. I wonder how long it will be before he remembers me, or the things he said we would do this summer? As much as I miss him, I won't be the one to break the silence. Not this time.

The sorrow I carry deepest in my heart is that it wasn't a friendship at all. It was one person being kind to another person in cancer treatment.

I was Cancer Chick. Hear me peep.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Unbearable Tenderness of Boys

They sit, arms entangled, caps tipped on top of their unruly hair as another Saturday T-Ball game stretches out like summer before them. Their heads are pressed together, they confer in some mysterious language known only to them. Every now and then one will tip back his head and laugh, the clear sound sending ripples over the field. Now five years old, the boys have been friends for two years of preschool and carpools, birthday parties and playdates with older sisters bossing the activities. The smaller boy is more expressive with his affection and greets his friend with warm hugs, grins; he's never been refused.

Another day, another boy shares his time. They head to the bowling alley, happy to be just two boys and a mom, no big sisters hovering nearby to take over. The second boy is dark, the same age, and quiet. Only the edge of competition is visible between them and they skirt it with a smile, hefting over the ball or uttering "good one" now and then. There is no challenge between them yet, and parting is time to race and yell "let's go!"

Between bites of our staple of lunches out — chicken strips — he glances up and holds my gaze with his water blue eyes so like his grandfather's. "I love you, Mom." No preamble, no agenda. He seems a little surprised at himself, then admits, "I didn't know I was going to say that until I said it."

"That's the best kind of 'I love you', buddy," I tell him.

Most mornings he is in the bed, sprawled between his father and I, when we awake. Somehow, sometime during the night, he managed to place himself between the covers, not waking us and leaving undisturbed the arthritic cat who has been known to reward unexpected movement with slashes. "Time to cuddle, Mom," he whispers, snuggling his blonde head in my neck and wrapping gentle arms around my waist.

His sister is two years older. The two of them are tightly bound, almost like an old married couple, knowing how to needle each other to blows and cajole the other back to good humor. If he is offered a treat he has never failed to ask for an extra to take to his sister, and he does, proudly offering his bounty to her. This past year he drew a family portrait and the family member who was at center, and the most detailed in his novice art portrayal, was not his mom or dad or cat but his big sister.

We are in the ER, another weekend begun in fun and ending with curved steel threading closed the edges of skin. This time his forehead carries the evidence of exuberance denied. Run, run, thump, sob. The sound brought me from dinner ministrations to the opening of the living room, where he is staggering towards me, a hand to the gaping wound, blood cascading down his cheeks. A warm blanket of calm wraps itself around me and I begin to touch him. As he relates in a cracked voice how he stumbled and flew into the hard leg of the chair I'm shepherding him into the kitchen, directing his father to get a clean towel from the drawer to staunch the flow, wiping the red drips from his blonde hair and dark lashes before they reach his eyes. His sister stands in the doorway, sizing up the scene, leaves and returns with her coat and a statement: "I'm going."

We all go. We are turned away from Urgent Care when they see the wound. The hospital ER requires longer waits: triage, registration, nurse, doctor, cleaning, doctor. While he is being stitched I am leaning on the bed, holding his hands and gazing into his tearless eyes. He is searching mine, seeking reassurance so I cannot look away. I count the stitches (2 interior, 4 or 5 exterior) and pretend he is the toy bunny I have recently sewn up, but the thread is not green, like the color we chose together. I don't think I can ask the doctor for a bright color; black seems to be standard issue. I decide to wink, a skill he has recently mastered. He winks back, and I melt. My little one, his forehead splayed open, already attempting to bridge the gap between boyhood and manhood by reassuring his mother that he is ok.

It is late. I am on the sofa reading, an unheard of pleasure. I hear him before I see the tumbled curls atop his small, sturdy frame in the doorway. "Mom, I can't sleep."

I hold out my arm and he tumbles over the sofa back, wedging himself between the pillows and my side, his breath warm on my cheek. We share the quiet of the slumbering house together. In a husky voice that hints of the boy he may grow to be my son asks, "Mom, do you think you're gonna die from the cancer?"

Oh, Danny, how do I answer you? Because I honestly, at this moment, think that I am going to die from the cancer that found its way into my breast, the breast that you nursed from for two years. The breast that you made such a sour face at before switching to the other side, the favored side. Did the milk taste foul to you? Would I have discovered the tumor sooner had I abandoned the sweetness of nursing you after only a few months, or did those two years keep the cancer at bay?

"No, Danny, I don't think I'm going to die from cancer." His body relaxes into mine, a deep sigh escapes his chest. He believes me. His arm twines itself around my neck like the star jasmine I planted near the front door last spring, the sweet tendrils of his love reaching, reaching far into my heart until I too, believe me.