Sunday, June 14, 2009

Loving Marian

The bones in her beautiful face hurt. Already the cancer beast has gnawed its way through her spine and ribs, leaving her skeleton with a fearsome lace-like elegance on x-ray images. Now it is attacking her skull. She told me when she first learned of the new mets it never occurred to her that her skull included her face.

Marian has lived with breast cancer for nearly a decade. The second time 'round brought her back to the Bay Area. She's a few years younger than I am, has a 21-year-old son, a husband. We met two years ago at Commonweal's Cancer Help Project in Bolinas, California. Marian was attending Cancer Camp for the second time and was accompanied by her father. I attended solo. That week I formed some of the deepest friendships of my life: Marian, Wayne, and Tom, who left the earth one year ago today. Marian was in a lot of pain during the retreat and still her presence was serene, funny, wise. I wanted more than anything to know her.

Yesterday Marian allowed me to care for her. She is at home in the house she decorated with her husband, her mountain of a Newfoundland, Bessie and Len's sweet Mona. The hospice team visits but does not stay with her and she is alone between friends, family and caregivers. At 9:00 am I arrived with Peet's coffee and bran muffin, as requested. I learn that sometime before I arrived Marian may have shattered a bone in her shoulder or arm while reaching for something over her head. That's all it takes when cancer has made piecemeal of your skeleton. She's in horrible pain yet going to the emergency room is discussed and with the nurse's phoned-in advice, postponed. Instead, we increase the pain medication and use a heating pad. The visits from these friends are too important and the benefits from the hospital trip uncertain.

The day passed in a whirl of friends, oxycodone, calls to the hospice for advice, make-up application, chatting, hugs, foot massages, a special-order lunch run, and so much more. How honored I am to be part of my friend's transition. Is it enough, I wonder?

She tells me she would really like me to help in the evenings, from 9:00 - 12:00, so she can get ready for bed and watch movies while Len can get some rest. She needs help with this, and with getting upstairs to bed. I'm willing. Len's not so sure.

At 6:00 I know I must leave. Marian is weary; she has done too much but could not have been stopped. The next day she has planned to visit her niche at the San Francisco Columbarium. I will join her. But first, I have to return to my children and husband, who have played plumbers all day, installing a new toilet and repairing an old one.

The drive between the two homes ticks by quickly. When I arrive home the relief at being in my house, with my family, is washed away by the weariness of the day. There's very little room to feel anything else.

I'm asleep before 10:00.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Teaching a Ten-Year-Old the Self-Exam?

Grace experienced the excitement and giggles of the Fourth Grade Puberty Talk at school last week. We had the Mom and Daughter Talk, complete with appropriate book, earlier in the year, but this was that school version we all remember, the one where the boys and girls go their separate ways to learn in the privacy of the library or classroom about the great mysteries of growing up. The California public school version was better than the one I saw in Catholic school back in Illinois in the 70s; Gracie came home singing a little song! What she didn't learn is something I never thought about teaching her this young: the breast self-exam. After reading this article, I realized I might have to crash the youthful bubble with another lesson.

Ten-Year-Old Girl With Breast Cancer

I'll find a way to teach Gracie how to love her as yet undeveloped breasts while caring for her health. In honor of my grandfather, who survived breast cancer and died from prostate cancer, I will have to teach Danny the same skills.

The armor we give our children as they enter the world has changed. Protecting them from the enemy within is as frightening as shielding them from the predators on the street.