Sunday, May 8, 2011

Day 368: Mother's Day and Annual Breast Cancer Walk

I felt that I should write something today, as this was an emotional and, I suppose, a meaningful day. Obviously, it is Mother's Day. Less obviously, it was also the day of the Beverly Breast Cancer Walk in my neighborhood. I was captain of a team this year, and though I didn't do much to drum up members or solicit donations, we had a very respectable team of 16 people. After the rainiest April in 50 years and one of the coldest springs in memory, the day dawned beautifully, and we had a sunny temperate walk of three miles through the bucolic streets of Beverly with 10,000 of our neighbors. Afterwards we had a brunch catered in our backyard and the kids all ran themselves ragged while the dads (mostly) watched them, leaving the moms to relax.

The strange thing about this year's walk for me was that the strangest part was trying to stick with everyone. It was hard not to lose someone, or everyone, in the crowd. It was strange in its normalcy. I didn't feel particularly emotional, though I expected to, and Gabe was very choked up the entire time we were walking. I stopped at a "survivor's table" midway through and picked up my pink carnation and an inspirational message on a postcard that was so schmaltzy that I threw it away at home (I know, I'm terrible). At that moment I got a little teary eyed, realizing that I never would have expected to stop at one of those tables, to be the subject (and the object) of such an event. Other than that, it seemed like a normal walk, albeit slow due to the kids. Thinking about last year, the only other time we ever did this walk, didn't seem real.

I walked through the streets like a zombie last year. I mean that literally. I felt like the walking dead, a person half alive, as if every footstep brought me that much closer to dust. I didn't want to talk to anyone, and I cried at various moments all the time, especially when we got comments about our hair (your hair is so beautiful! your kids are redheads too, you're so lucky! your daughter is beautiful--look at that hair!) and I had to stop myself from losing it. Five days. The walk took place five days after my diagnosis.

I remember wondering if the next year, my family and friends would have signs with my name, birth date, and death date. I wondered if in a few years there would be teams honoring my memory. I became angry at all of the signs saying things about saving the tatas, upholding second base, welcoming all the boobs to the event.

What the hell does my fear of not being able to see my kids grow up, my plans for my funeral, have to do with my breasts?

Breast cancer is really not about breasts at all. I know that we need it to be, because somehow by sexualizing the issue we make it more approachable. Similarly, if we focus on the fight, or the hope, we can ignore the suffering and pain. Now, I'm not saying that I have a problem with these walks. I think they're great, and
I know that all of these messages are in support of women with breast cancer. It's impressive to see the number of people who come out for this cause, and everyone is extremely friendly and cooperative; it's a wonderful neighborhood event that has a very tangible benefit for all too many people who live in the area. But that's the part that gave me pause this year.

Look at how many people are here, look at how many people have these damn pink carnations, and those are only the women who saw the table, decided to stop, and then didn't care if anyone knew that they were survivors.

There's too damn many women with breast cancer, and we should take the breasts and the cancer out of that statement and say that there are too many women suffering and dying too young.

What a horrible disease. What a horrible thing to haunt me every mother's day that I'm here, as early May will always bring that reminder, no matter how many years I have on this earth. And I am still in that place where I wonder about that. Every time my back hurts I wonder if I will be alive much longer, if I will see 40.

That fear sits with me, but it leaves fairly quickly too. I move on to the next thought. Most of life has nothing to do with cancer, but has to do with life. We visit with friends who are in from California. I juggle a bunch of things at work. We wonder what to do with our Jetta, which has died in our driveway and shows no signs of potential revival. I get nervous thinking about my first water practice tomorrow for rowing, and I try to think of ways to get out of it.

And on mother's day, I open my presents (a gift certificate for a massage and padded bike shorts for spinning from Gabe, a card with Lenny's picture and handprints, a necklace and earrings from my mom, a signed Naomi Shihab Nye book from my brother) and eat too many doughnuts before the walk and then wonder how I gained three pounds this week. I make Lenny clean her room, I tell Augie to calm down. I take myself shopping, wonder if we will be moving to a new house or not, pick out an outfit for work tomorrow, make love to my husband, take another walk because I don't know how to nap, absentmindedly read the paper. I also reminisce about the mother of a dear friend who passed away very suddenly just a few days ago, and I am glad I went out to visit the family and that I will be able to attend the funeral tomorrow. I think about how mother's day must feel so tragic for my friend and her father and the whole thing makes me very sad.

A year ago on Mother's day, I would have been completely unable to think about any of these things, to do anything but feel my own painful breaths escaping quick and shallow and wonder how many more I had left. I didn't know then if in a few weeks I would have breasts, or ovaries, I couldn't imagine how it would be to be bald or to poison myself with chemo. I didn't know what stage I was or if I was likely to live. I know so many things now that I didn't know then, but also so few. One thing I know now is that I have been able to be a mother for another year to two children who changed so much, and yet didn't change at all, in that time. (Lest we forget how quickly we seem to change, I've included pictures here from a year ago juxtaposed with pictures from today.) I might be a trained sociologist but I know from watching it happen that personality is with you at birth. Children are themselves from the start, and life and all that comes with it just adds on to what was already there.

I hope that living with a mother with cancer did not add too much weight onto my kids' shoulders. My mom babysat last night while Gabe and I went out (to get expensive drinks at the bar at the Drake and see Working, the musical made out of Studs Terkel's book) for the first time in what seems like forever. She said that Lenny asked out of the blue, is Grandma Marthagene dead? (She was my mom's mom). Yes, my mom told her. Lenny asked, is daddy's grandma dead? Yes, she is. Lenny paused and said, I am really glad my mom doesn't have cancer anymore. The doctors said she doesn't have it, that it's gone. Yes, that's right, my mom told her, she doesn't have it anymore.

We tried so hard over the last year to not let Lenny equate cancer with death, and it didn't work at all. What can I do? I guess I can just try to be mom for as long as I'm able. I can chastise her for not cleaning her room, yell at her to get her shoes on, make dinner, braid her hair, make her do some math based on the cupcakes she helped me bake, read her a story, kiss her goodnight. I can do similar things for her brother. Maybe there is a snippit in there that they will remember, something that will calm them later in life when the world makes them weary. If not though, I will remember, and this is the selfish part of parental love, where you perhaps get more out of it than they do.

It's hard for anyone not to equate cancer with death, so why should my daughter be any different? The doctor who ordered the ultrasound for my breast over a year ago told me two things that I remember very well. He told me that everyone he had spoken to with breast cancer wished that it could be a year from now already, and that they could see what it would be like. He also told me that I saved my own life. I know the first statement is true. If the second one is also true, I want to say on the record that while I wish time would move slower so that this life didn't seem so astonishingly temporary, I'm glad that it moves, so that on mother's day 2011 I could walk with thousands of other people away from that crushing fear and sadness that breast cancer brought to me in 2010. Whether in a crowd or on my solitary strolls at dawn, I like to think that by being here still I am walking for some other mothers, daughters, sisters and friends who can no longer walk for themselves. That's what we should do--walk for them, not for their cancer or their breasts. Those are not things worth remembering, but a person is, a life is worth it.

Happy mother's day.

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