Monday, March 26, 2012

Day 690: Going Through Puberty...In Your Thirties

So, I’ve been thinking about writing about this forever, but it just seems too absurd to even put out there. And yet, that’s why I do this, right? I write this blog to bring a little bit of the absurdity of cancer into the consciousness of some portion of the general public.

Today I’m going to tell you what it’s like to go through puberty. When you’re in your thirties.

I had a fairly mellow real puberty experience a quarter century or so ago. I was a major tomboy from the age of 8 to about 12, but I was pretty comfortable with myself at that time. I resented my mom for making me buy a training bra when I was 10 (I mean, she stopped wearing them when she was 17, so what the hell?), and I found it more than a little annoying when I got my first period a few months shy of my twelfth birthday. I read all those Judy Blume books and didn’t relate to any of them, except maybe Tiger Eyes, because the girl in the book had some legitimate problems. Even Forever seemed cheesy, and I knew I didn’t want to ever have sex with boys who named their penises and expected me to use said names in conversation.

I wore some strange clothes in junior high, in part because it was the late 80s, and in part because I was figuring out how to actually dress like a girl again. I liked boys who would never like me back, and I was vague and indifferent to the ones who did like me. I would give anything to get a little bit of my dating haughtiness back from the golden ages of 12-14. I would say things to boys like “I don’t want to talk to you on the phone right now.” “I’m sorry, I don’t like you that way.” A boy would say please, I would say no. When did I learn to hide my feelings and lie?

But I digress. The point is, I went through the horror of 8th grade like everyone else (I think that’s the nadir of American children’s lives), and yet my awkwardness was relatively muted. I was pretty comfortable with my body and saw no reason to either hide it or show it off. I dated a lot, and almost all the boys I dated fell into the category of “kids who were so nice to me their friends made fun of them.” I liked fooling around and eventually I liked having sex and I never felt any regret about the things I chose to do or not do. I never had acne. Shit, I never even had bangs. I look at pictures of myself from that time and I look shockingly normal, given the fashion trends in the early 90s.

I did have some issues—my periods were so heavy that I was anemic in 7th grade and was almost put on birth control pills to help, until they realized that would interfere with my epilepsy medication. I got sick every month, and my cycles were long. But I never had any PMS (just violent vomiting for a day once my period actually started), my moods were fairly constant, and transitioning from being a girl to a woman was neither difficult nor surprising.

Then, I went on the pill when I was 18, something I would give anything to do over, given how sure I am that 11 years on the pill eventually led to my contracting triple negative breast cancer, but again I digress. My cycles suddenly became regular, short, and painless. I never got sick. I didn’t gain weight—well, not right away. I think the pill made me gain 15 pounds or so, but it took several years.

Then, fast forward. I went off the pill at age 29 in order to conceive a baby, and it worked. A few months later, Lenny was growing in me. I have never gone back on the pill, but of course I spent much of 2005-2010 either pregnant or nursing, so I had no idea what a “normal” cycle would be for me. When I began having normal, regular periods when Augie was less than 3 months old, even though I was exclusively nursing him, it seemed strange, but I figured what the hell. Let’s see what happens when I stop nursing.

I never really got to find out. I was nursing, then I found out I had breast cancer, and within four months I was in chemo-induced menopause. IT hit me like a truck. I literally had hot flashes every ten minutes all day long. ALL DAY AND ALL NIGHT, I would feel that fire tear through my body. I lost my natural lubrication and sex, while possible and eventually pleasurable, was depressing to me. Sex had always been so easy and so fun for me, I was more like a guy than a girl in the way I perceived it. I thought about it all the time—until menopause, when I never thought about it at all. How can hormones change your actual thought process? I never would have believed in the close mind-body connection of sexuality if I hadn’t seen the disastrous effects of menopause on my body and my desire. Menopause depressed me so completely. And then, it left me—so completely. I was desperate with hot flashes and sadly missing my sexual mojo when BAM. I was back in business.

And I started going through puberty.

You might think I'm exaggerating, but think about it. After Augie was born, I lost weight like crazy, and I've been hanging out in this size 0/size 2 reality ever since. Because of this, I shop in the juniors department at my local department store, where the salesladies have taken to setting aside size 26 Silver jeans for me. I think they like talking to people who don't have to come into the store with their mothers. Look, she has her own credit card. Go help her! God knows I need it.

Plus, I have new hair, and people treat me differently. I am like a tween in my bathroom, awkwardly trying to figure out how to use a straightening iron. After being bald and generally not worrying about what people thought of my looks, I am surprised when I get attention from men. And it's an adolescent surprise, full of flattery and pleasure but trepidation and suspicion as well. It makes me feel 14 again. I am in better shape than I have been in years--I might be in the best shape of my life in some ways, with my relative musculature and strength given this petite little frame. And yet I feel unsure of myself. I worry that I am too fat, or too skinny, or too something, which I never have really worried about, at least not for more than a fleeting minute. I look at and feel my breasts a lot, not to try to detect cancer, but out of some kind of absurd appreciation for what I've got left.

Are you there, God? It's me, Katy. I think I've lost my damn mind.

Anyway, for the last year, I have had periods every 24-28 days. These cycles are shorter and more regular than any I have had in my 25 years of menses. They are completely different, as well—the pattern of bleeding is very consistent but nothing like what I have ever had before in my life. Add on to that the fact that for the first time—EVER—I have every PMS symptom you can name, and it’s like 9th grade up in here sometimes.

I gain 3 pounds in the week before my period every month and my clothes don’t fit right. Then I pee nonstop for 24 hours and it’s all good. I get bitchy, or I yell at Gabe for no reason, or I start to cry on the train, and it’s like a little hormonal alien has invaded my body. I get headaches the day before my period starts, and I have a night of almost complete insomnia (with less than an hour of sleep) like clockwork once a month. I have bad cramps on that first day. My libido, which was always fairly constant, disappears for several days about a week before each cycle, and then comes roaring back and for most of the month I’m like some kid who’s discovering how awesome sex is.

Oh wait, I am actually that kid, because I had six months on the other side, and now I’m trying to make up for it.

But again, I digress.

I am too old for this shit. Pregnancy hormones, fine, I can handle that. It’s expected and you can talk to other moms about it, because everyone goes through that to some extent. But who do I talk to about this? How do I get used to new cycles, new hormones, new patterns that disrupt my life WHEN I AM 36 YEARS OLD AND I SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE WITH THIS 20 YEARS AGO?!

I mean damn. My oncologist always asks me if I’m still having cycles, and he always seems surprised when I tell him how freakishly NORMAL everything is. “Well I guess we reset you with that chemo!” Ha ha, mother…

You know what I’m saying.

Every month it’s new to me. Every symptom comes as a surprise, and I feel ignorant, and young, but not in a good way. It’s just another sign that I’m not used to my body—the body that I have always felt fairly at home in, no matter what it was doing to thwart me.

Stupid cancer.

I’m starting to get it, starting to adjust to this new normal, but it’s tough. Cancer brings you to these weird places, because you can’t appreciate things in the same way that other people do. I could be happy with the regularity of my cycles, with my raging hormones, but it just makes me worry that somehow that will trigger cancer cells to blow up on me again. I worry that my cycles are short and that I have more periods every year than I should have. I think about menopause, about how awful it is, and that Flowers for Algernon feeling comes back to me and I want to rage against the possibility that I will deal with that again in 5, 10, 15 years, that I will lose all of this.

Shouldn’t I just be glad if I get to those 5, 10, 15 years, you ask?

You don’t ask that if you’ve had cancer. Everyone who is a survivor needs to be able to think like you do, that those 10 years will come, and we will still be here. If we didn’t think that way, we would be insufferable to be around. And yet…we all acknowledge that those years might not be intended for us. We acknowledge that while others go through middle and old age, we might not get there ourselves.

We know that most people don’t think about dying while they’re going through puberty.

So what is there to do but laugh? I’m in on the joke, but you can see it, can’t you? There’s something there, behind those eyes, something that knows that it’s funny and knows that it’s not. I’m just doing my best to live inside that something.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Day 682: LTYM Chicago Rehearsal

Today we had our first rehearsal for the Listen To Your Mother performance. I honestly loved every piece, and am more excited than ever to be a part of the show. You all need to stay tuned so you can be sure to buy tickets—soon, I promise—because this is going to be a tear-jerker for sure! And it will be funny too. Well, not my part so much, but no one who is still reading this will find that surprising. It’s interesting how you can see yourself in the pieces that other people write, even when the experiences they are referring to differ greatly from your life. I will admit that I didn’t cry upon hearing any of these, but then again, I never really cry, so it would have been more surprising, I suppose, if I had. I did laugh out loud, and I was still nervous before it was my turn, though not nearly as nervous as I was during the auditions. A few women talked about how they had been inspired by everyone else’s work, how hearing these pieces made them want to go home and hug their children, tell them how much they loved them.

That’s when I had another of those “is there something wrong with me?” moments. I came home and told Gabe about the rehearsal, let him know that the show really is going to kick ass. And then I said, here’s what bugs me sometimes about how I’ve dealt with cancer, epilepsy, car accidents, marriage, motherhood, what have you. I don’t think any of it has changed me. I don’t feel any different at all. Those epiphanies, they just aren’t happening to me.

I’ve written about this so much it almost doesn’t seem worth repeating. I know that cancer is supposed to make me grateful for the little things, grant me some perspective, enhance my sense of humor, make me more of a badass, or something. But I don’t think it has. I’ve always appreciated life and I’ve always been kind of a small, pissed off little pill of a person. After hearing all of these amazing stories today, rather than pondering the deeper things in life, I still thought, shit, how bad is traffic going to be getting home? And I was still glad that I got to spend the afternoon away from everyone. Even when stuck in the car, I could just crank up the stereo and jam.

No matter what, I still do strange things, like write a blog about this, rather than about yesterday, when the kids and Gabe went with me to volunteer on the Chicago river for ROW. Augie is the biggest cheerleader for the team, screaming “GO ROW!!!” at the top of his lungs so they could probably hear him on the south branch of the river (we were at North Avenue). After the kids had decidedly lost their shit and had enough of the temptation of wanting to jump into the putrid, fetid water (are there other words that could work here? Foul, abhorrent, disease-laden, I’m trying here…), we went to Lincoln Park Zoo, and then we found a little place to order some burgers and ate outside in the 80 degree weather. That was a little bit of domestic perfection, St. Patrick's Day 2012 was.

I just don’t feel like writing about it, though. It was an awesome day, and today was beautiful as well. It just seems like everyone’s beautiful surely must feel the same, right? I mean, what is there to say about it, about joy? There have always been beautiful days, though apparently none this warm in March in almost 150 years of record-keeping in Chicago. Living here means that weather will take you by surprise, and you will change your plans, and do things at the spur of the moment, and cancer doesn’t do a damn thing to change that. Cancer doesn’t change the weather, it doesn’t make you laugh harder or feel more deeply. It simply does its best to kill you (as others have noticed; a recent google search that led to my blog read “does triple negative breast cancer always kill you?” Boy I hope I didn’t lead that searcher down a path of depression and doom), and you can hope that you are doing your best not to let it and that in the end, the part of you that doesn’t have any tumors will win.

I just don’t think I’m going to find that moment when the new Katy Jacob please stands up. She’s just here, hanging out, a little more marked up, hair a little shorter, fuse a little shorter for that matter, than before. After getting home today, I decreed that we needed ice cream after dinner, so we went to Rainbow Cone and Augie wrecked havoc there as usual. And then after enjoying family time and laughing with the kids and Gabe, I decided I needed to take a walk, at 7:30, in the dark, rather than help give the kids baths. I got home in time to put Augie to bed, but I literally fled the house almost as soon as I got back in it after my afternoon away. I don’t feel guilty though. Beautiful weather like this doesn’t come around often enough, and I wanted to take a walk at night, and my husband seemed kind of sort of ok with it except for the part where he’d had enough of the kids (see, he didn’t have cancer, I guess he doesn’t have that larger perspective I’m supposed to have received at some point), so I went. And damn, was it a beautiful night. That air you can barely feel until the wind picks up for a minute, when your body almost shivers but then thinks better of it. I will admit for those 40 minutes, I didn't think about the kids at all. I was putting one foot in front of the other, moving fast, happy.

I just don’t feel like there’s anything that I’ve heard, or seen, that has changed me fundamentally, other than the general fact that living life changes everyone. I’m still the same as that little girl, the one who at Lenny’s age had never had a seizure, didn’t remember what it was like not to know how to walk, wasn’t yet aware of her own death, and yet…Wasn’t I the kid who grew up in a non-religious household and asked my mom if she cared if I prayed? She said sure, go ahead, and I gave it my best shot for a while, asking for important things like my family’s health and happiness, and world peace, and other things that didn’t seem selfish at the time. And then at one point I went back to my mom and said, hey, remember how I was trying to pray? Yes honey, I remember. Well, the thing is mom…I was just talking to myself, wasn’t I? I sighed, and went back to my room to play.

See, at six years old, I was the same—thinking too much, kind of droll, kind of pragmatic, and then on to the next thing. And even then, I loved a good story, almost more than I loved anything else. I’m still the same. So come out to see the show. It will be interesting—life just is.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Day 679: On Joy


“Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing." William Shakespeare

Yesterday, I did something typical of me, one of those things that probably makes me ineligible for motherhood awards, if they made those.

I stole my daughter’s jump rope.

Here we are, in the ides of March (oh how different life is than at this time last year), and yesterday it was 80 degrees. In Chicago. I left work early because I was too restless in my windowless office, found the only pair of shorts that hadn’t been put away for the winter (some workout shorts that barely cover my behind) and a tshirt and took a walk. Then I picked up the kids and they played in the backyard; Lenny was excited to show me her newly-learned jump rope moves. And I just couldn’t help myself. I told her to help Augie blow bubbles, and I took the rope to use myself.

It’s been at least 25 years since I’ve jumped rope. I do not have anything approaching an addictive personality, and yet I think I was addicted to jumping rope as a child. I couldn’t do double dutch—well, I never really tried—but I could literally jump rope for three or four hours without stopping. I mean, my mom would have to call me in to remind me to eat or go to the bathroom. I didn’t see the point in taking a break. I weighed 45 pounds in the 4th grade, so you can imagine how little I was at age 6 or 7 at the height of my jump roping prowess. Why, you might ask, did I do this?

I just loved it, with an irrational love that could’ve probably physically injured me considering the intensity with which I loved it.

That’s a love I thought I had lost. When I first started going to the gym regularly, back in late 2007, we would jump rope sometimes during strength training classes and doing it for 30 seconds would kick my ass. Instead of just feeling frustrated or weak, this made me feel like I had lost a part of myself. So yesterday when I stole the rope, I didn’t know if I could do it at all. I have issues with high-intensity workouts due to my hips (probably the reason I don’t remember jumping rope at all after my car accident), and this rope was made for a child, not someone like me with 5-foot long legs, so there were two more problems. Oh well, I just kind of literally took candy from my own baby so I guess I’d better eat it, right?

And I started by jumping, then skipping, only stopping when I got tripped up by the too-short rope. The kids counted for me. Lenny realized what I was doing and declared a jump rope contest was in order. I said fine, you’re on, thinking to myself, it’s been like 28 years but I’ve totally got this. I didn’t want to give the rope back to her when it was her turn. I realized I could actually teach her correct jump rope form and I started trying to remember all the rhymes we used back in the day. I told Gabe later that I wanted to find a correctly-sized rope, since it was such good exercise, even if I only did it for a few minutes a day. I imagined myself stealing away to the back patio or even jumping on our front porch in the spring. I mentioned the cardiovascular benefits, how I must be able to do it easily now because of spinning, I sat there and heard this stuff spewing out of my mouth about how great jumping rope is for you.

What a load of crap. Jumping rope might be healthy, sure. But mostly it is so much damn fun you don’t even care how idiotic you look using a pink glittered rope when you are 36 years old and you don’t even realize you’re hungry or that you only got three hours of sleep the night before. It’s fun to count, and hear the slap of the rope or the whir in the air as you go faster.

So that’s when I had this jumping rope epiphany.

You know how everyone talks about the magic of childhood, the way that you feel things so intensely when you’re young, the way the small things are such a marvel the first time you experience them, the way teenagers just want to live, dance, fuck, experience their bodies? You know how we all lament how that gets lost and think we can only experience these joys again vicariously, through our children?

Well not me. That focus on the small things, that childish joy, that’s me, and it’s always been me to some extent, and maybe that is one of the only things that makes me who I am. Cancer did not give that to me. Maybe epilepsy did, or near-paralysis, or something else. Who knows?

You might think I’m nuts or that I’m just saying this to make myself sound somehow more positive than I am. Don’t get me wrong—this not so sunny personality hasn’t changed. I’m a cynical person. I’ve been a grown-up, all responsible and working hard, since I was about 11. Someone once told me I was “ultra-sane,” and I really didn’t know how to take that, but I knew it meant that logic and reason are defining aspects of my sense of self, for better or worse.

But that joy, that marvel, that wonder, has always been with me. A teenager I know who is a freshman in college laughed at me the other day when I said “you know what, I don’t GO to the park,” explaining why Gabe always takes the kids over there. My mom was the same way—I swear we only went to the park with our friends and their parents, because she just looked at us like we’d lost our minds if we made the suggestion that she come along. I can’t vouch for her, but I’ll tell you why I hate going to the park:

It’s boring. As a parent, I am supposed to watch my kids while they play. I push Augie on the swing because his stubborn ass refuses to learn how to pump his legs (a skill Lenny mastered remarkably early, by 2 and a half). Augie doesn’t even try—he knows some older girl will think he’s cute and take pity on him when I walk away after five minutes, and he will get pushed. The thing is, it’s boring to me, because I WANT TO BE THE ONE SWINGING. And I can’t—because it’s rude of me to take up a swing when there are so many kids around. Because then I can’t keep an eye on my own children, especially the younger one who is crazy and always trying to escape. I want to play, and I can’t, so it pisses me off and I feel bored so I stay home and listen to music really loud and dance around the house (apparently Gabe and the kids sometimes spy on me while I do this). Now, Gabe does play at the park. He throws five kids on his back and swings them around, and they jump all over him and he plays shark attack and does cartwheels and pull-ups on the monkey bars. I don’t actually have any desire to do any of those things. I want to do what I did as a kid:

I want to play by myself.

What a shitty thing for a mom to say! I am supposed to just marvel at my children’s joy. Every time one of them gleefully yells “look mom! Look what I can do!” and I see one of them figuring out how to jump rope, or throwing a balloon in the air, or jumping for no reason, or swimming on their own, or pulling on their own pants, I am happy for them, of course. But a little part of me is also thinking “me too! Look at me! look at what my body can do!” I just don’t have anyone to say that to, and if I did say it, I would sound insane. When Augie joyfully looks at his round belly or barges into the bathroom when I’m in the shower, opens the curtain and says “mom! You have a booty!,” I alternately laugh or tell him to get the hell out of here. But somewhere inside I think me too! Look at this! The last time I went into Victoria’s Secret and a saleslady asked me if I wanted something with “lots of support” (is that the way to politely ask a small-breasted grown woman if she wants a padded bra?), I answered without thinking: “no, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got left,” and that answer was so honest and true that I didn’t realize why she looked at me funny.

So what I’ve learned, rather than how to not feel the newness of everything and the strangeness, the mystery, of my own body, is how to lie about it. How much easier it is, in the end, to pretend that I can’t go to the park because there’s housework to do (with Ke$ha on the radio), how much simpler it is to say that I go to the gym because I would like to survive cancer, or because it’s healthy, or even because I’m vain. How much easier it is to say that I lift weights because it is good for my metabolism.

Let’s break down why Katy loves the workouts she loves. I love spinning, and I love strength training or pilates in the gym or studio. There are two reasons I love these things that other workouts don’t necessarily provide: loud music, and a mirror.

I’ve tried to explain the music part. I could literally be happy for days with nothing but myself and some loud fun songs to jam to; I’m like a teenager that way. It’s never lost its appeal. It’s even better when the music’s so loud you can’t hear yourself think, because honestly, I think so much, thoughts are flying in my brain in such rapid succession, that I just want to scream shut the fuck up to my own gray matter, but I can’t, so I just find a good playlist and TURN IT UP. Or they can do that for me at the gym. The mirror is just as important to me. I only wear short shorts and tank tops at the gym now. The reason could be the equivalent of trying to squeeze into jeans that are too small: if I see myself I will figure out what I need to improve on this body. Or, the reason could be that I am narcissistic and I like to look at myself. Or it could be because I have finally, after almost two years, regained all of the sweat glands that chemo killed in me, and I actually get hot and drippy in the gym, so I try not to wear much. Or…

I could admit that it’s because I have this lifelong complicated relationship with my body, wherein I feel somewhat separated from myself. I have warred with my body so much, and every day I wake up and am surprised. Surprised about what? Well, the waking up part, for one. The way I can tell my feet to go one in front of the other and they comply. The way my crazy-thinking brain works. It hasn’t, after all, always been thus. I like to see my muscles in the mirror, my kind of borderline too-big biceps and my strong legs and even my somewhat sculpted shoulders. And I don’t give a rat’s ass how that sounds. I just think to myself, look, that works, that’s strong even, look how fast and crazy you are when you sprint on the bike.

Seeing your body work is another kind of joy, especially when you never really get used to it or expect it. Perhaps this is the reason I’m no good at competitive sports. I am just not at all goal-oriented with fitness. For me, it’s all about my relationship with my body, not in trying to accomplish something or win. For me, the accomplishment is in my working body itself. Seeing health where there was once sickness, seeing strength where there was once atrophy, or hell, just keeping going when a lot of people can’t do that anymore—that’s it, that’s what I’m trying to do.

I was talking to the gym manager at work about the gyms where the goal is to beat your previous score, to see if you can beat the person next to you at the workout. She said that wasn’t her style and I had to agree. She was cracking up when I said, yeah, if I wasn’t able to do something as well as someone else, I’d be all punching their arm and saying “good job! Good for you,” not giving a shit about my own performance. I guess that’s the reason I won the sportsmanship award for every sport I ever played, but also why I gave up competitive sports early. I loved basketball almost as much as jumping rope, but I quit playing on teams when I was around 12. I saw how much it mattered to the other girls (and boys, when I played on co-ed teams—a terrible idea in the 80s, one that I believe ruined many aspiring female athletes’ self-esteem, as we were taller and better and sat on the bench anyway), how they were practically killing themselves over losing, how much anger and drive they had. And all I would think was, isn’t it something that I’m an 11 year old girl and I can make a half court shot? Isn’t it cool to shoot fifty free throws in a row and only miss five? Isn’t dribbling just fun? I had to admit I could do those things at home, and save the winning and losing for someone who cared.

The things I love about fitness are the same things I love as a sports spectator. I love football when I can see some guy ducking and sparring and running faster than anyone else. I was so pissed at Priest Holmes when he bulked up and couldn’t fly down the field anymore. I would root against my own team to watch him work that short, crazy body. During baseball season, I could watch the same replay of a triple over and over. I love to catch the balk before the ump does. I can’t stand professional basketball because everyone travels and everyone is freakishly tall and no one kills themselves flying into the bench to save a ball the way they do in college or high school.

I like to see bodies work, even on tv. So, after going out for a quick dinner last night, Gabe and I rented Footloose from the Redbox. He fell asleep about halfway through, but I actually watched the whole thing and found it surprisingly entertaining, except for the fact that the lead characters seemed CRAZY old to be in high school. I love to watch people who can dance, since I’m not good at it myself (living room antics disregarded). But then something weird happened. I found myself getting really emotional. Don’t laugh—remember, Ren’s mother is dead, done in by leukemia. I swear to God every movie over the last year has featured a dead mother, and cancer is usually the culprit. Also remember that I still have issues with teenagers, particularly teenage boys, because it’s hard for me to think I might not be there to see my kids reach that age. When Ren made the big speech about how one day, the teenagers would be like the adults in the room, full of worry, but now was their time to live, to dance and act like idiots, I thought damn.

I never grew up, did I?.

I have always worried, even as a child. That didn’t change with age or parenthood. I’ve always been pretty self-composed as well, able to fit into most situations, able to keep my cool most of the time. But I have also been almost selfish in my desire to still act like it’s my time. As I said, even while reveling in my kids’ joy over some activity that is new to them, I always think “me too.” This affects our family in substantive ways, this admittedly self-centered characteristic of mine. When we go to the lake house, I swim, and Gabe makes sand castles with the kids. I float and ignore everyone else. When I eat, it’s like there’s never been food before this meal. My interest in sex is in the pleasure, not the spiritual connection, though I get that too.

I don’t know what to make of this. I really don’t know what this says about me, but it doesn’t seem good. I don’t know that it can be helped either, not after so many years. Last night, after the movie ended, I was teary-eyed, a sensation I still hate and that feels alien to me, and I woke Gabe up and told him we should go to bed. It was 12:30 and I normally get up a little after 5. In bed I told him why I had been emotional, and I started crying again. I said I wanted to live to see the kids be teenagers. He said of course you will. I said, well, if not, I know they will still enjoy themselves. That made me cry more, and it made Gabe cry too. So we were crying and feeling sad and I wanted to feel better.

So that’s what we did, we made each other feel better, and then it was 2 in the morning, and I set the alarm for 6:30 because I knew I’d be unable to get up 3 hours later. Sometimes you just want to feel your body working, the closeness of another person’s body, the joy and wonder that is at the essence of your life. Sometimes it works, and life seems closer than death, your flesh seems more real than the dust of your bones. And for some people, it’s like that all the time, and our little restless bodies can’t stay still, or sleep, and we can’t remember when it wasn’t this way. It wasn’t cancer that brought me this, in fact it was cancer that tried to take this away, and succeeded for a time.

But I’m back. And Lenny found another jump rope in the house—one that’s just my size. I’m telling you, I’ve got this. Maybe someone should teach me how to double-dutch.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Day 672: Turning Six

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Today my daughter is six years old. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to have a daughter named Lenny, even when I didn’t know if I wanted to have any daughters or sons at all. If it was good enough for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar (or more accurately, if he had the good sense to marry a woman named Lenny and then rightly name his guitar after her), it was good enough for me. There would always be a song for her, this unborn daughter, a song full of tranquility and romance and joy. Luckily, I had the good sense to marry a man who was all right with this reasoning, and then, on March 8, 2006, after hours of torturous pushing and more than a month of frightening bed rest, I became Lenny's mother. And as every parent knows, at that moment the world turned upside down.

Last year, I wrote Lenny a letter for her birthday, a letter I have yet to allow her to read. I was still steeped in the notion that I might not be there to witness many more birthdays, and so I said many of the things that I wanted to say, many of the things I wanted to be sure to tell her if I didn’t otherwise have the chance. And then, a year passed, so quickly and seamlessly it was as if we were floating across water.

Of course, it wasn’t really like that. The last year was full of change, full of surprises. Right around this time last year I came out of chemo-induced menopause just as suddenly as I was thrown into it. A few months later, we bought a new house. We began to live as if that’s what we were doing, living a young family’s life. And then, all of a sudden, my tiny girl turned six. Six! The age I was when I was diagnosed with epilepsy, when I tried to find religion and failed, when I befriended a little girl who became my soul mate and then moved all the way across the globe.

Six is an age that should be simple in a world that is always complicated. For adults, time and change are amorphous creatures. I think about the big events, and those mark time for me. But for a child, it’s different. I mean, at what point did my daughter become obsessed with weather? When did she learn the location of every country in the world? How did she suddenly know how to do division and sodoku? Is it possible that my little girl was able to fall in love with a boy five years older, and that it would be something approaching real love, full of looking wistfully out the window and awkward giggles and misplaced enthusiasm?

These things happened so quickly and so gradually that it just seems as if they have always been. It seems perfectly natural for me to hand my daughter the newspaper and have her tell me, “mom, I think the winds are going to be strong out of the southwest today.” Lenny has become the calm one, the rational one, the one who follows instructions and is thoughtful about things and careful with other people’s feelings. She has tried to create order where her brother has created chaos. And I already find myself wondering who she really is, whether she has created multiple Lennys for a variety of situations, and if she is only choosing to show one of those Lennys to me.

In some ways, that is what we all do. I know when I was a child, I kept so many things to myself that my interior life probably bore little resemblance to the face I showed the world. I rarely asked for assistance of my parents, rarely related the tough situations that happened at school or in the neighborhood to them. Thinking back, I rarely even discussed those things with my best friends. It was as if I needed to be able to take care of myself, and I didn’t want others to have to look out for me, so the world was wider and wilder than it needed to be.

Oh Lenny, how I hope it isn’t like that for you, and yet how I hope you know how to handle yourself if it is. This world today, even on this International Women’s Day, is so hard for little girls who will one day grow up to be women. It always has been, but we give ourselves this hope that things will change, that things cannot possibly be as difficult for our daughters as they were for us, and by God surely they can’t be worse. I find myself getting angry for you in the strangest of circumstances:

--in department stores, where I find hip-huggers for three year old girls and t-shirts for toddler boys that warn parents to hide their daughters

--in doctor’s offices, where I am often treated as if I am your age

--at meetings and conferences, when I am one of a handful of women in a room full of men (and I notice that I am the only one wearing a skirt and I wonder if that somehow makes a difference)

--at home, when I see you cleaning up after your brother when you don’t clean up after yourself

--on the street, when I notice cars slowing down to look at me, or, worse, at you

--at the pediatrician’s, when the doctor remarks at how smart you are, how above the curve you are in almost every sense, until he weighs you and remarks that perhaps we should be concerned, you are only 2nd percentile (so am I Doc, what do you want?)

--in bed, when your father reaches for a condom and I wonder if you will ever have to fight with a man to get him to do that

--at the gym or the pool, where so many women seem self-conscious, in such stark opposition to you, a girl who is just happy to be moving, playing, swimming

--in my office, when I get ready to leave at 4 so that I can see you, knowing that I have sacrificed some lifelong earnings for that privilege

--on the train, when I read the news, and I see how women’s bodies dominate our collective thoughts

--at the dinner table, when you flex your little biceps and I laugh and am proud of you and then I think about how I never want you to have to use those muscles to protect yourself, knowing all the while that you will

--in the park, when boys get away with inexcusable behavior because they are boys, and other parents look objectionably as you do flips on the bars in your dress

--in your room, where you constantly ask me what everything means, even if you already know, and I begin to wonder how I will ever explain certain concepts to you in the way I would like you to understand them (e.g. so-called "virginity:" Lenny, shake my hand. Now look, you can’t have it back. That’s right, that’s ridiculous. What do you have that you can give away and can’t have back? Nothing. You can’t give away a part of yourself. You can just decide who to share it with, and when, and how.)

--in the shower, when I feel my left breast and rinse my short unruly hair and hope against hope you never have to do what I’ve done over the last two years.

And so it goes. There isn’t much left to do but turn anger into hope, and turn resignation into faith in your abilities to adapt and thrive. So for my daughter, a brilliant and funny and empathetic and beautiful little six year old girl, I wish for the best of birthdays and a hundred more. I wish for the opportunity to spend many more of those birthdays with you. I wish the world was an easier place. In the last six years, you have definitely made it a better one.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Day 670: Hair Ennui



I think I am having a hair depression. I know, you’re thinking it’s been almost two years since I had long hair, and I should be over it by now. And I truly have brought this on myself, since after my first haircut almost 11 months ago, I’ve continued cutting it every 6 weeks ever since. If I hadn’t done that, I would have long(ish) hair again by now. But I still can’t get used to it—I still don’t think I look like myself, and I don’t care if it sounds vain or petty or irrelevant in light of other things. I still feel like someone else with this obnoxious hair.

Last night I was just disgusted by my unruly short hair. I was looking for an opinion from Gabe, for him to tell me if I should just grow it out or leave it short, if I should cut it into a really short pixie or even just shave it off again. He basically said he didn’t care, he thought it was fine, can we stop talking about it? I wanted to slug him. I could explain why, but at least half the demographic reading this understands why without me explaining. And then, I had a dream about my long hair last night. A Katy-style dream, full of realism, just a sleeping memory, really. I was brushing my hair, and I turned it over, brushed it out, and looked at how crazy it was, how it stuck two feet out from my head. Some other (faceless, nameless) people in the dream commented on it, how amazing it was, and I woke up.

To this crap.

There are times when I still reach back to pull my hair into a ponytail so I can put on a necklace. I still have the instinct to push my hair out of my face. I’m still surprised when Gabe can find my neck to kiss it. While I appreciate that now sometimes I get carded, and people are more apt to actually look me in the eye, I still think I look like someone else.

Gabe of all people should understand this. He sees how it is with our kids. People will literally stop their cars, roll their windows down, and remark on our kids’ hair—especially Augie. Friends have told me I can’t cut his hair because “that’s a part of his personality—that wild crazy red hair is who he is.”

Well, no…not really. He was a nut when he was bald, just like his momma. But I heard that all my life—the good and bad aspects of it. Starting when I was 11 or so I got to hear that fascinating question: “So are you a REAL redhead?” or the cruder variations of the same. Note to all redheads reading this. That question will make you lose faith in humanity and might very well be an excuse for justifiable homicide. You might think that as boys grow up (and it’s always boys who ask this), they will know better. It isn’t true. More than a few grown men have asked me that question. I came up with a response when I was 16 and I have never needed another one. Feel free to use it:

“If that was any of your business, you would already know.”

Bam—done. I got so used to all the clich├ęs, all of the ooh, you’re a feisty redhead, look at that wild hair, you must be a firecracker in bed, you must have given your parents a run for their money, you must be stubborn, wild, hot-tempered, yadda yadda yadda.

And some of it was true, because I was stubborn and a little wild and hot-tempered. And then at some point I just decided it made sense to be those things, but even more so, because it was expected of me. I became that person with the beautiful red hair, the one who got called out without anyone bothering to learn my name. I was that girl who had men running after her on the street, saying, I’ve never seen hair like that before, are you free to get some coffee?

Dude, what, you want to buy my hair a coffee?

And now I’m someone else, and sometimes it’s refreshing, and other times it’s just hard to adjust. I’m not saying I needed that validation, that attention, or the unwanted disturbances into my life, but I did get used to it. It’s already happening with Augie. Women, and little girls, gush over his hair, and he’s all like, yeah, I know I’m cute, want to put my shoes on for me? He uses it to his advantage, where the same attention always made Lenny shy and suspicious. It’s very strange, but there it is. How can something physical become so deeply ingrained in your sense of self? Doesn’t that make you shallow, narcissistic? Well, I don’t think so. I think it just means you live in the world, where all the other people live, including the normal folks and the shitty ones. Ask all the people who never let me forget that I looked different than some other people why they thought I needed to be called out like that, and maybe you’ll find part of your answer. As I said to Gabe last night, so I’m sorry that I lost the one defining characteristic that I had due to cancer, and it still bugs me. Sue me.

Again, I know I brought this on myself. I am too stubborn and low-maintenance about hair to deal with growing it out. I like not having to spend time on hair, I remember how hot and heavy that hair was in the summer, and I don’t really feel like going back. I just wish I could look in the mirror and recognize myself. I’ll get over it—I’m just having this hair ennui, this follicular depression, you know?

It’ll pass. Probably when I give in and get another haircut.

You might think it’s bizarre that I’m referring to this hair dilemma as depression, but I really think that’s what it is. People always worry that you will be depressed when you find out you have cancer. It’s logical, and it happens to a lot of people. I think I can honestly say it never happened to me. I got angry, and sad, and the whole thing seemed unfair and chemo seemed like the biggest pile of bullshit to ever befall a person, but I wasn’t depressed. I was reading somewhere that the biggest sign of depression is being unable to make decisions. I remember going through that in my mid-twenties, though I didn’t realize what was happening at the time. It was hard for me to figure out what to do, things overwhelmed me, and every potential consequence seemed so much bigger than it really was. I was unhappy, and depressed I guess, though I don’t know why. Perhaps I was somewhat adrift, though you wouldn’t have known that if you’d seen me working full time, putting myself through graduate school, dating and socializing, buying a condo by myself, living a grown-up life. I got over it, and I made decisions, and then I felt better. Because I have no idea what to do with it, and it makes me feel sad to look at it, I’ve decided I have hair depression.

Sometimes it is by making decisions that you know who you are and you can place yourself in the world. I found out I had cancer, and I never stopped making decisions. I decided what surgery to do, which chemo to choose, to shave my head before chemo took my hair, to just walk around bald, to raise hell in front of lots of doctors, to write about controversial things in this blog, to switch jobs right after my recovery, to buy a new house when we had no prayer of selling the old one, to keep working out no matter how I felt, to be pissed off when people told me I should be grateful. I never had time to be depressed, frankly. I was too busy hating cancer and trying to reclaim my life.

So the hair thing sucks, but I know there are worse things, so don’t be clueless and tell me that. I’m the poster child of knowing that, actually. I just need to wallow in the hair self pity for a day or so. Then I’ll chop it, be ok with it for a few weeks, and hate it again. The cycle of life.

I’ve been on a roll with poems recently, and this is a blog about making decisions. So I’ll end with this, perhaps to remind myself that there are things that make me who I am that can’t be seen, things that are beneath the surface. There are lots of ways to find out who you are. Eating a nectarine is, apparently, one of them. Happy Tuesday.

Nectarine

I stood in a small sunny room one day in hot summer
and picked a nectarine from a bowl my mother had set on the table--
absently, as if this happened every day.
When I took a bite, I expected fruit, not revelation.
Such a nectarine had never been eaten before,
and surely would never be eaten again.
The dilemma before me was as serious as any.
What to do? Devour it in all its incredibly juicy deliciousness
or savor it, make it last as long as the afternoon sun?

Men have spent years comparing peaches to women’s breasts,
attempting to convince us of the sex in the ocean.
It would be difficult to get it more wrong.
That nectarine! That taste that made me close my eyes and sigh!
I suppose when we make love that is what we are trying for;
we are asking ourselves if it is better to take it slow or fast,
we are hoping to be the best there ever was.

I think there are two kinds of people in the world:
those who place great importance on anticipation,
and those who crave memory.
It is by knowing which type you are
that the dilemma can finally be solved:
Perhaps the taste of sweet flesh over a long,
languishing hour is your idea of perfection.

Or maybe for you, a poem is like a photograph,
a way to remember the heat in the air, the particles of dust floating by,
the smell of toast and furniture cleaner,
the juice dripping all over your face, the stickiness on your hands,
the way the little nectarine shards tried to stubbornly adhere to the pit
as your ripped them off with your teeth until nothing was left
and then—only then, did you open your eyes
and pick up the phone in the kitchen, still sticky and wet,
and when your lover answered and didn’t act surprised,
you knew what kind of person you were, both of you.
It’s sixteen years later, and you still need to tell someone just how good it was.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Day 666 (spooky!): Listen To Your Mother, Chicago!

Wow! I am so excited that I really don’t know how to write this blog. But I won’t let that stop me! I did something a little (ok, light years) outside of my comfort zone recently, and decided to audition for a show called Listen to Your Mother, which showcases performers reading original work about motherhood. It started in Madison, WI, in 2010, and expanded to a bunch of cities last year; it will be performed in 10 cities in 2012. AND I WILL BE IN THE INAUGURAL CAST OF LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER CHICAGO.

Can I get a WHAT?! That’s right! Me, on a stage! The show will take place on Sunday, May 6, at a downtown theater in Chicago. I heard about this opportunity from an old friend and colleague on Facebook and decided what the hell, sent an email without allowing myself to think about it, and asked for an audition. The auditions were on a first come first served basis. I got one, and then I thought:

What have I done?

I mean, I HATE reading my creative writing in public. I always have. This audition would require me to reduce one of my insufferably long blogs to five minutes or less in spoken words, and I would have to, you know, read it--in front of people. It would even involve eye contact, and the potential for public emotion.

If you ask me to discuss global payment systems in front of an audience of hundreds of people who have higher levels of education and income than me (academics, CEOs, you know what I’m saying), I have no problems doing this. I can even be funny, and self-deprecating, and interesting. I will be nervous for maybe thirty seconds beforehand, and then just totally rock it out. I can do youtube videos about boring economic topics as if they were going out of style (which should never happen, because they are actually more relevant than most of youtube). But just don’t ask me to do PERSONAL things in public.

I’ve said it before in this blog: I don’t do that. I watch at karaoke, I don’t sing. I’m not a big fan of PDA, no matter how much time I’ve had to spend removing Gabe’s or some other man’s hand from my ass. I disallowed toasts at my own wedding because I didn’t want to hear people talk about us. I would rather the attention was placed on my children, my mom, the furniture, than on me.

And I NEVER read my personal writing out loud. I’ve always been this way. I won a decent amount of poetry and other literary awards in school—grade school through college--and I would always be asked to do a reading as part of accepting the award. So I would do it, somewhat quietly, hating it all the time. People could tell me I did well, that I have a nice voice, or something else, and I would just feel sick. I have always walked away when someone was reading one of my poems. It is only after nearly a decade together that I can let Gabe read a poem of mine when he’s in my presence. He often leaves the room to read this blog, because he almost always cries. I am kind of an awkward person around crying, even with my own children. So it’s for the best.

It just feels too personal, too intrusive, to read these rambling thoughts out loud. I can write about anything here in cyberspace without ever having to confront the reality that someone who is a real, actual person, is reading it. At the same time, I didn’t really come by this blogging thing honestly. My reasons for blogging are really inherently selfish, and strange. I am not a normal blogger. I did not do this to be heard, to unleash my voice, to engage in a community, or even to share my experiences. I did this because I had cancer, and I couldn’t bear to pick up the phone and talk to anyone. I was scared and mystified and I was trying to save my close loved ones from having to have painful conversations. I can’t count the number of times in the early days when I would overhear Gabe saying, “I can’t talk about it. Just read the blog.”

So it served its purpose, and then it just morphed. At first, it was cancer therapy for me, albeit cheaper and a lot closer to home. I said things here that I wouldn’t have said to an actual person, because I have that tough-Katy persona and I don’t like to admit to my weaknesses. The blog was very meaningful for me as I saw how people supported me through everything, when they weren’t close by or didn’t know what to say. It helped me feel the love, you know? And then I got a little political with it, as I began to feel that we have framed breast cancer in an injurious way as a society, so I used this medium to speak out against that. I decided to say things I didn’t hear a lot of other people saying, and I put pictures on here that I know have been at times disturbing. Sometimes, ironically, this blog has made me feel isolated, as I was stuck in cancer-land, overwhelmed by my life, and people were somewhat afraid of me, so they sought me out in virtual ways while I lived my physical life in a very small circle.

And then at some point, I began to do this because it made me feel better—not to talk about cancer, but to write words that left the complicated stratosphere of my brain. I have thought about stopping this blog so many times, wondering what there is left to say. It seems lacking in purpose, self-aggrandizing. And yet… here I was saying I would read it in front of people, with the ultimate intention of reading it in front of a lot of people, on a stage, in a theater in Chicago.

God was I nervous before the audition. My family did not understand this. You wrote those words, Katy, you own this. You’ve had much worse things to be nervous about. Well, yes. I hear you. It is much worse to be nervous for 24 hours while you wait for the results of your core needle biopsy (women talk about those as if it’s a single procedure. Let me state, on the record, that when I had that done, they did not one but seven. SEVEN needles as thick as your finger in my breast). Waiting two weeks for BRCA results leaves you wringing your hands a bit. Having nightmares about shaving your head, feeling your heart explode out of your chest as you close your eyes and hand over your arm for a poisonous cocktail that will have effects you can’t even imagine, all of that is difficult on the nerves.

I’ve done big things—gotten married, delivered babies after months of nerve-wracking pregnancies, decided to put myself through graduate school and buy a condo at the same time when I was single, working full time at one job and part time at another and essentially flat broke. I’ve had huge fights with my husband, walked away from people I loved so much it was like they were a part of my body, held my breath when my children hurt themselves until I could see the final result. All of those things made me jumpy, maybe even a little bit crazy.

But just because life has happened to you and it has been difficult, that doesn’t lessen the impact of other things. Cancer-related nerves are in a category of their own and are steeped in terror and sadness. It’s not fair to compare the nervousness of waiting for chemotherapy with the nervousness of an audition. Just because one is worse, doesn’t mean the other isn’t real. So this was just me, nervous about reading something personal in front of three women in a coffee shop. In the scheme of things, it was not a big deal—but at the time, it was a very big deal to me. I am not a theatrical person. I have never done any stage work. When I read something, I read it with little affectation, as if I am holding a regular conversation with you. This does not seem particularly interesting to me. I practiced at home and thought, who wants to hear that? And then I thought, well, I can think of a few people. They might be too young to sit in an audience in a big city show, but didn’t you write this for them?

I knew what piece I would choose right away, and I knew I would have to make it much shorter and more succinct in message. I figured I would never get chosen, but I could print the piece off and use it as a present to be read when the kids were older. So when I practiced, I pretended I was reading to them.

I got to the audition early, as Gabe decided to drive me and take the kids to the lakefront to run around, something they don’t usually get to do, given how far our neighborhood is from the water. The woman who was looking for LTYM folks kept thinking the next person was me, but several women were brought back before it was my turn.

But your turn always rolls around, doesn’t it? Even if you don’t want it to, it always does. So I stood there, and cut to the chase, and read it. I knew that the subject matter would catch the small audience by surprise, and I knew they would act as if it didn’t. I stumbled a few times. I finished. One woman told me it was beautiful. Of course she did—I just admitted to three total strangers that I had cancer and talked about being afraid that I wouldn’t see my kids grow up; what else is there to say?

I was done, and I was relieved. I was proud of myself for doing something so outside of my comfort zone. My stepfather asked me why I was doing the audition, and I told him how I found out about it. No, that’s not what I asked you. Why are you doing it? My mom asked me something similar: What is this thing you’re doing, what is it for? And I didn’t know how to respond. Why have I ever done anything? I told you, I just hit send on the email and then I had to go through with it. It’s like getting married or taking a job or having a kid or buying cereal or spinning when you don’t know how to ride a regular bike or picking out your clothes for the day. I don’t know why, or what the process is behind these decisions. I did this audition and told myself I was glad I did it, even though I wouldn’t get picked, because I might have regretted it if I didn’t do it. Those closest to me told me it would be a great experience for me to just try, and that’s what I did—tried for something I knew I couldn’t do.

Or so I thought. I guess I did a good job, because I was cast in the show. The email that provided me with this news included some really nice comments about my reading, which surprised me. So good God—I have to do it AGAIN. A bunch of times—rehearsals, the show. More people. A stage. The potential for crying. Jesus. Now I am REALLY nervous, and excited. A little proud even. Kind of wondering what the hell I was thinking. It’s only one show though, and as Gabe said, well, you can do anything once.

Baby, I said, sometimes you can do things multiple times that you thought would kill you to do once. So yeah, I can do it. And if I don’t make it out of this mess, my kids can read this blog, and know I loved them, and also know that I was willing to talk about how much I love them in front of a lot of strangers, which is the last kind of thing their small, stoic, unsentimental mom was ever apt to do.

The show is on May 6, two days after I will acknowledge (celebrate seems like the wrong word) my 2 year cancerversary. That isn’t technically two years NED for me; that will be June 4, two years from the day when I had the cancer removed. But May 4 was D Day for me in 2010 (Diagnosis day), and every cancer survivor I’ve ever met starts the countdown on that day. And on May 8 I will have my next mammogram; if all goes well, I can go to yearly scans rather than every six months, which seems hard to believe. I guess I can tell myself that when I’m going completely insane, driving Gabe nuts and being out of control with nervousness for several weeks before the May 8 scan (because that happens every time), that it’s just stage fright. And in some kind of irony, or fortuitousness, or something, LTYM Chicago will donate some of the proceeds of ticket sales to Bright Pink, a nonprofit that seeks to provide resources to young women diagnosed with breast cancer. Can I get another WHAT?!

The real question is, with all of the emotional things happening around the beginning of May (including the breast cancer walk that will progress directly in front of my new house on Mother’s Day), how will I actually get other things done? You know, like my job, and raising my kids, and housework? This should get pretty interesting.

I’ve decided that if I ever turn this blog into a book (as everyone says I should do, though I have no real interest in promoting myself or turning this into, you know…WORK), I know what I’ll call it:

Curveball.

Life has sure thrown me a few of those. Some I’ve caught, some I’ve dodged, some have hit me square in the face. Some I’ve thrown back. I guess this is one of those, this fact of me going up on a stage to give some strangers a very short glimpse into this strange little life. So take that, breast cancer. Right back at ya.