Thursday, June 30, 2011

Day 421: Like Learning to Ride a Bike

Anytime anyone wants to explain how easy something is, how quickly things come back, how hard it is to forget things that happened in your past, they say that it is like learning to ride a bike. And I know exactly what they mean to say, but I don't really know in another sense, because I never learned how to ride a bike. My brother and I never had bikes as kids--except for a few weeks when I remember my brother trying to learn to ride someone's bike in the house (don't ask me why--maybe he remembers) and another day when a friend tried to teach me to ride when we were about 12. When I was 21 or so, my boyfriend, a master biker, tried in vain to teach me. And that's when I learned that there's a reason that people learn to do these things as children. You know more about falling as an adult, you have less trust, you carry more weight, and you have much farther to fall. They don't make training wheels for adult bikes, and you can't find a grownup bike with a gear cover. It was really hard, and I failed.

And yet, at some point last year, when I was missing out on everything that is summer (and not for any decent reason, like I had a newborn baby, but rather because I was recovering from two cancer surgeries or poisoning myself with a drug affectionately known as the Red Death while I struggled to walk my bald self down the street for my daily constitutional) I vowed that if my cancer went away and I didn't have a quick recurrence, I would finally learn to ride a bike in the summer of 2011.

The last time we came up north, for Augie's birthday in late May, we bought a men's mountain bike for $50 at a local rummage sale. The bike wasn't actually for sale--it was hanging from the rafters of the old barn where the sale was held. We bought a few other small things and I had Gabe ask about the bike. Maybe it's the economy, who knows, but they sold it to us as soon as we asked about it. The guy filled the tires and Gabe took it for a test run. There aren't any places out here to buy bikes, and he always wanted one that he could ride while we were here. And a day or so later I had my first bike lesson from my husband. It was kind of an abysmal failure. We weren't here for very long, and we could only practice while Augie was napping. This time, we have the same drawback with needing Augie out of the way to have successful practices, but we have more time to spend so it's not a one-off lesson. Lenny borrowed a bike from a friend back home so she could learn to ride without training wheels (her bike is big enough for a 10 year old--a great bike but too big for her to maneuver without extra wheels right now). When Augie went to sleep on Monday afternoon, Gabe got ready to teach the girls to ride. We took turns having him push us down the gravel road, which slopes and ruts and is generally not the easiest surface to try to learn to ride.

Oh, how frustrated I was. I couldn't get started at all. If Gabe got me started, I couldn't get going. I felt like I had so little balance it was a wonder I could walk upright. Lenny was having trouble as well, but it was easier for Gabe to right her when she was wobbly. I thought to myself, she is like a foot off the ground on that bike, and she weighs 32 pounds (we're actually really proud of her for weighing 32 pounds--you go girl, keep hulking up!). I, on the other hand, felt too high up, too heavy at 116 pounds, too clueless. It seemed kind of hopeless.

So what to do? Embrace the failure and try again, I guess. For all those who say you need a positive attitude to accomplish something, I offer this. Maybe you could have a positive attitude, or you could just have enough stubbornness to do something even when you think it's inevitable you will fail. I kind of walked through cancer treatment like that, thinking this sucks, it's insane to do this, these side effects are a total nightmare, this chemo has brought me to my knees, this menopause will never end, and oh well, let's keep on plugging, here I go again. Anyway, the next day, after a great trip to the beach (we have been doing everything on this trip we missed last year--hours on the beach every day, paddleboat rides with both kids, trips on the old fashioned steam train to the lumberjack camp/petting zoo, watching our first synchronized waterski show while eating some really good fish), we tried again. We remembered to bring out the iphone and after a half hour or so of practice, most of it spent trying to just get started, I took a video of Lenny as Gabe pushed her and then let go--and she got it. She was riding this little bike and I was yelling, go Lenny! great job! not even thinking about how all you would hear on the video is my voice and the roaring wind. I was so proud, but more than that, so happy for her. Happy that she would be able to ride with the other kids, do the things I couldn't do as a kid. Happy that like most kids she wouldn't remember much about learning to ride a bike (though knowing Lenny, she will remember the whole thing). What a great moment.

And then it was my turn again. I sighed, got ready to have my failure recorded on film. Lenny took the phone to shoot the video. Gabe helped me get started for the seemingly hundredth time, and I pedaled with him holding on for a little while. And then he let go.

And there I was, 35 years old, riding a bike while my 5 year old daughter took a video. I posted this video on Facebook. At the end, Lenny shouted "hey you guys come back. I can hardly see you through the video." My favorite part of that is that she thought that by saying it out loud, we could hear her. My second favorite part was that my daughter will always be on the record as the one who bore witness to the weird scene of her grown mother learning to ride a bike. (She also took this picture of me and Gabe--perhaps she's found a calling).

We've kept up the routine over the last few days, putting Augie down for a nap, going outside to the gravel road to practice. Yesterday we both got even farther by ourselves and I got out to the real, paved road, for the first time. Damn, how much easier that was! If only I had a clue how to get started myself, or turn! But now I know what the "it's like learning to ride a bike" statement is all about. Today, I learned to get started by myself. Tomorrow, maybe I'll learn how to turn. All of this has happened with 45 minute lessons every day with each of us riding half the time and Gabe getting a hell of a workout running alongside us the whole time. He has a lot of patience, and maybe too much faith in us. Yesterday he let me go for a while totally on my own, and I was fine. Then, on the way back, I just lost it, and took quite a fall. Ugh, to be 35 falling off a bike. I was scraped up, the gear gouged me, I was sore and stiff all night just like an old lady. Lenny fell, bled, cried, got over it two minutes later like nothing happened. Today I took another huge fall, into a ditch on the side of the road. Oh the pain, as well as some scratched up raised bump on my left arm that hurts still, all these hours later.

I think about these injuries, and I realize I'm not really supposed to do this. If I listened to the doctors, I would be wearing gloves to wash dishes or plant flowers so I wouldn't scratch my arm where my lymph nodes were removed. Many women with invasive breast cancer wear compression sleeves to do any exercise at all. We are all supposed to protect that side with some kind of fanatical desire to ward off an affliction that no one really understands--lymphedema. And here I am, with tick and mosquito bites all over that arm (one tick got me twice as I sat in the house, playing solitaire), scrapes, bumps, memories of the potentially poisonous plants that I've fallen into--all on that side. Oh well, what can I do?

I said I would learn to ride a bike, and to some extent, I have learned how to ride a bike. It's not necessarily pretty, and I don't know how to turn yet, but I've done it, and on difficult terrain to boot. I don't think I will forget how to do it. I know I will never forget how I did it, with my husband and my daughter right there, in the beautiful north woods of Wisconsin, while my thick unruly hair was blowing the little that it could in the strong breeze and my son was sleeping peacefully inside.

Some people join support groups, some women find fellowship among all the other women who share this common experience, others have affairs or get depressed or become vegan or all of the above. I waited for the weather to change, for the sun to come out again, and I learned to ride a bike, just like I said I would. I have no idea how many other things that I've never done I will get to do, how long I will live, how long I will be healthy. I told myself that no more summers would go by without me knowing what it felt like to ride down the street in the open air, and when I made that promise to myself I didn't know if I would be here for another summer. But i'm still here, and I did it, and it hasn't been so hard after all. Like learning to ride a bike.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Day 413: Heavy Sigh

Most of the time, I am simply amazed at all the bullshit that happened over the last year. I say that because it's a rare moment indeed when the whole thing doesn't seem real, when my life is that cliche: "it must have been a bad dream." Life is just so normal most of the time that I am beginning to understand why that can throw so many cancer survivors for a loop. My kids are having meltdowns at the pool and I'm pulling them aside, alternating between being a hard ass and trying to be nurturing (not necessarily my forte), and they're whining about pizza and I look up at the sky to assess the possibility of a storm and I adjust the tie on my bikini top and then I see my radiation tattoo and I think, huh, look at that. There's a sign of that whole cancer thing, right there in front of me. I almost forgot.

Almost. I think what's actually happened is that I have blended into the world so well--I look relatively normal, I feel extremely healthy, and I'm not regularly terrified or grieving anymore--that when cancer hits me, it hits me hard, because I don't see it coming.

I don't realize how much it's with me, I guess. While I don't cry at regular intervals anymore, I do get emotional at times that don't make any sense, even to me. Recently I realized that I've been having strange sentimental feelings when I'm around teenagers--especially teenage boys. Now don't take that the wrong way--let me explain. A few weeks ago, I went to see a friend's daughter off to her prom, along with a huge number of her family and friends. I brought the kids, and besides Augie's inability to be quiet, forcing us to leave early, it was a fun occasion. I felt very happy for the girl and her family. But then, just the other day, I got choked up (not that anyone could see--I know how to be tough and keep it to myself) hearing one of the teenage boys who coaches the rowing team talk about his prom.

What the hell was my problem? Is this one of those harbingers of middle age (I don't think I'm middle aged yet, am I?), when you get nostalgic about your youth and try to live vicariously? Was I having some kind of flashback to my own prom (or proms--I went to two; I think I went to 8 formal dances in high school...)? A few weeks ago I went out with some old friends and we were talking about our senior prom. Every single one of us lamented the fact that at our school at the time, you were required to go in a boy-girl pair to prom. You couldn't pay half and go alone, and you couldn't just go with your girlfriends, even though we all said that's what we really wanted to do. You just want to wear the dress and dance, right? You're graduating, you don't have a boyfriend anymore, you just want to leave it all alone. Ironically, whatever the intention of the school at the time, that policy just basically put a bunch of kids in sexual situations that should have been avoided when we would have been happy to be PG about the whole thing.

But I still got the dress I wanted--my mom and I went to the Jessica McClintock store, because I had seen this dress somewhere else and knew I wanted it. I didn't have a date yet, but I didn't care. The dress cost $98, which seemed like such a fortune (that's actually $8 more than my wedding dress cost--11 years later). There we were on the mag mile, and I felt so out of place around all the snazzily dressed, north shore daughters. I will always remember how another girl who was there with her father monopolized one of the few dressing rooms forever, whining in a spoiled voice the whole time so her dad would do her bidding. I tried on one dress--the black and white one in the picture, in two different sizes. I was trying to decide which size to get, when the girl saw me talking to my mom and told me she wanted that dress. She actually demanded to try it on--while I was wearing it. She looked at the sizes, told me that I was skinny so I should buy the smaller one so she could have the other one that would fit her better. I quietly went back in the dressing room, looked at my mom, and said, I'm going to get this one, right? That's right, she said, taking the bigger size up to the counter. Take that, honey.

I also had a fun experience the day of the senior prom when the clueless white lady doing my hair--all I wanted was a french twist--completely screwed it up by actually teasing it. I had long red ringlets (as evidenced by this picture taken at my high school graduation--I'm also amazed at my prominent, 17-year old booty), and she TEASED my hair. WTF? She said to me: It's so curly, I don't know what to do with it, and she asked me to leave. I was crying, thinking my senior prom was ruined, when my best friend saw me on the street. She grabbed me and made her hairdresser cancel his appointment with his own mother so he could help me. He did this masterpiece with my hair--some crazy Victorian updo that held up with a few bobby-pins and three spritzes of hairspray the whole night. The entire salon took pictures and he put me in his portfolio. My eventual date was the guy I dated for most of my sophomore year, and I don't think I let him touch my hair even when we were in the hotel room afterwards. It was like a work of art, not to be defiled.

Oh the memories. But I digress. None of this is what was making me wistful. I actually wasn't thinking about my own prom or teenage years at all until I started writing this and those two memories came back to me, making me laugh at the absurdity. It was something else entirely, and I felt so stupid about the whole thing until I realized what it was.

The thing is, I really don't know any teenage boys. I know a bunch of girls--babysitters, friends' daughters and nieces, my cousin. No boys though. And I think teenagers as a whole are very neat. I'm sure some are a royal pain in the ass, and my memories of being a teenage girl remind me that teenage boys can be horrible, even predatory. But for the most part, they're not like that. These kids are finding out who they are, and they're excited about everything and the world seems so romantic as they have the whole of it before them. At the same time, many of them have lives that are like mine was, and they very much live in the real world and work hard and have tough times at home. But there's still that aspect of becoming yourself that is so apparent. It's especially neat to see boys who are respectful of women, who are funny and thoughtful and well-spoken. It makes me want to meet their parents and say, nice work.

Hearing about a boy going to prom, thinking about him taking pictures with his parents, just made my heart catch in my throat. It's ridiculous, but deep down, every time I see one of these young men, I get this sinking feeling that I will never see my own son grow up, that I won't know what he looks like when his cheeks thin out and he starts to style his insane curly red hair and he learns to be shy and nervous around all the older girls who love him so much right now due to his cuteness. I fear that I will be nothing but a face in a photograph to him, a story his father told him, the phantom author of this strange little blog. Lenny is old enough that I can imagine what she will look like, what her personality will be like, when she's a teenager. Lenny, at least, could remember me if I don't make it out of this mess. That doesn't make the idea of not seeing her grow up any easier, of course. But I'm just saying--what about my boy, the kid who gets insanely jealous every time Gabe gives me a kiss, who holds his arms up to me so I can grab him and hold him, who can't go to sleep if he knows I'm in the house unless I put him to bed? Will I ever know what it's like to look up at him because he's taller than me? Will I get to wait through the years when he's embarrassed to be around me and get to the point where he likes my company again?

Or will he always resent that mother who left him, who did the one thing Dr. Spock said a child could never forgive in a parent, who died?

I mean, look at these kids! I know I'm biased, but damn they're cute. And funny. And a little crazy. And smart as hell. I have such an ache thinking about what they'll be like when they're older. It's hard to imagine, especially with Augie. And I definitely can't picture it with me. Will I get to be middle-aged? Will I get to be old? What will I look like, how will I be? I feel like a little girl, asking these questions, and I realize that one of the lasting effects of cancer for me is this wish: Could I have a time machine that simultaneously stops time and speeds it up? Could I find a way to look into the future without trying to get there too soon?

Frigging breast cancer, man, turning this practical woman (someone once called me "ultra-sane"), this cynical and happy go lucky at the same time girl, into a sappy idiot come summertime. As I said at the beginning, heavy sigh.

And I say heavy sigh because this is buried in me, it's not something I dwell on at all, but it's there underneath all the rest of my mundane life all the same. Everything about me--almost--is back to "normal," if I ever qualified for that term. My energy, appetite, sexuality, cycles, it's all back. The hair isn't, not like it used to be, but that's half chemo's fault and half my fault as I refuse to let it grow out. There's got to be something to remind me that all is not as it was, right?

But something else is there. It's deep in the real sense of the word, it's down there at the core--that fear, that longing. I heard once that clinical depression is simply the removal of the defense mechanism that all humans have that allows them not to think too deeply about death. I am not depressed at all, and my defense mechanism seems to be working pretty damn well as I go about my business every day. But every once in a while it falls away, and I see it--what could have happened to me if I hadn't been so aggressive in taking care of that lump, what still might happen to me no matter what I've done to fight it, what will ultimately happen to me, and to everyone, someday.

I could get more sentimental than I am apt to do, but the wistfulness has passed and I am re-entering the land of the old Katy. I'm thinking about Gladiator, that insanely violent movie that I actually really enjoy. And no, I'm not thinking about myself as a warrior or making some ludicrous comparison between cancer and slavery. I'm not thinking about Russel Crowe's vision of heaven. I'm thinking about Djimon Hounsou's line as he contemplates death and seeing loved ones in the afterlife. After I get over my strange emotions, whenever they hit me, it's what I repeat to myself inside my head. We're all going that way, me included, and cancer doesn't change that, though it might speed up the process. We're all going.

"But not yet. Not yet."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day 406: To My Husband on His 36th Birthday

I figure I have a theme going here with these birthday letters, so it makes some sense to keep it up. Yesterday, Gabe turned 36. I didn't have time to write a blog then, because we went out to dinner right after work and then to our first Cubs game of the season. Besides, for the last two days, I've been at a training for work--focusing all of my brain power on "efficacy for women." While I take issue with some things we discussed and found other things useful, there is one thing that I definitely learned from this career development session:

Apparently, for the sake of all forms of communication, I am a man.

I'm not kidding. I literally exhibit every single one of the supposedly "male" forms of communication. I found myself sticking up for the guys yesterday, since I didn't want us to get too deep into criticism for something that I would eventually confess amounts to the way I go about things. Interestingly, Gabe exhibits many, though not all, of the traditionally female traits.

I'm not sure what this says about us. It could explain why we get along, or it could explain why we don't understand each other at times. I do think that if I were married to someone like me, there might not be enough sentiment in the house, or there might be too many sports channels. On the other hand, I guess I can just put all my sentiment here, and not have to say it, and pretend to be the soft one for a change.

Dear Gabe:

I know that I cannot give you the two things that you want for your birthday this year. I can't guarantee that my cancer is gone for good, and I can't magically sell our house. So instead I gave you a wrench (you asked for tools), a bike helmet, some dvds, push-up equipment (for me, I guess--someone has to join me as I work out all the time) and chocolate (you're the only guy I know who's addicted to chocolate). I gave you a trite card from the store. We went out to eat, saw a ballgame. You gazed at me all adoringly on the el like you always do and I rolled my eyes. You tried to kiss me too many times at the game and I got embarrassed. You carried my girly bag the whole time without batting an eye.

That day, your birthday, seemed so normal in a way for us. I think about what we've gone through, and I have to acknowledge that the tough times didn't start with cancer, and won't end there either. We are very different, you and I, and yet there are these ways that we work well together. I don't say that with some romantic vision of fate or things that are "meant to be," but rather with the same pragmatism that has captured our relationship for more than eight years.

It was at that time, when we were 27, that we met on a blind date, back when online dating was so different than it is today, less dramatic and intense. I had just broken up with someone and I didn't want to date anymore. I had seen your profile before and ignored it. You can't blame me for that. You mentioned your cats (I'm allergic to them), didn't say where you lived (I wouldn't have known where Country Club Hills was anyway) and were a little too deep for me, so it seemed. Plus, you were dressed in drag in the picture. Though it might seem natural to some that a straight guy would put a picture of himself on a dating site wearing pleather pants and a boa, it seemed a bit odd to me.

But then I got an interesting one-line email: "So what is it like to work in a think tank?" I knew I would answer it, and that maybe I would meet you (as long as you came to me, to meet in my neighborhood, which you did). So many other men commented on my red hair, my love of football or kung fu movies, or other things that guys would typically favor. Not you--you asked me about my job, about my brain.

That nerdiness ran through our first date, when you had that crazy floopy hair and you bartered with me so you'd get a second date, and you seemed so harmless when you said that you had taped a Buffy episode for me since I missed it the day before, and because it was raining you offered to drive me the block to my car and give me the tape, and then you kind of attacked me, which I really wasn't expecting.

We spent those first few months doing the things people do as they start a relationship, though things were dramatic for me for a variety of reasons. I kept that to myself, and it didn't affect us too much, thankfully. I liked that you weren't afraid to go on vacation with me so soon after we met. I wanted to go on a road trip, not get married, but that's not what most guys would've thought. And though you tell me now that you knew you would ask to marry me on that vacation two months after we met, I didn't foresee that at the time. I did, however, feel comfortable with you, and I could just somehow see it.

See what? Well, this, or something like this. The two of us living a boring life (oh how I've always wanted one of those!) together in a residential neighborhood, with a family, and all of that. It wasn't fireworks, it was just...there.

Ten months after we met we were engaged (after getting in a big fight since you were so nervous you acted like a jackass all weekend, and you proposed by taking the pearl ring our of your pajama pocket, asking if I wanted to "marry you anyway" while I was sitting there glaring at you, wearing my flannel nightgown and glasses, reading a book), and we got married eight months after that. We bought this house right before our marriage. Soon we had Lenny. Everything was perfect, right?

No, of course not. We went through a lot of hard times together. So many things have happened, but at the end of the day I guess I just had to trump all of them, and pull this cancer card out of my pocket. And what a trump, right? You once had a young, healthy wife with long red hair, who nursed your son and ran circles around everyone because she was too busy to sit down. And then, you had a bald wife, who was potentially dying, who was so weak at points that she had to hold one hand with the other in order to stop the shaking while she was feeding that same son his baby food from a spoon. You had a wife who was in menopause, who could no longer have any children, who had a burned-up chest, a tattoo where her perky cleavage used to be, short brownish-red hair, and all the rest. Where you had always been the crier, suddenly I was sobbing all the time; I was just beside myself when I had always had it so together.

You thought you would be raising these kids alone. I know you feel bad that I know you thought that, but it's not as if I didn't think that myself. Most of the time, we had this little cocoon built around ourselves and we protected each other the best we could, but it wasn't always easy. I wondered if we would make it through this if I made it through this, if that makes sense.

And we did--so far at least we have. I am healthy again, busy again, and let's hope to God you never again have to shave my head or stand in the bathroom consoling me while I vomit after we make love. Let's hope the times when you need to leave the room to cry lessen, as Lenny stops asking us if she will get cancer, stops saying she's glad mommy's cancer is gone because she knows I so easily could have died. I still could, I suppose. I can't make you any promises outside of the ones I made you almost seven years ago, and even those I feel like I might have broken:

"I will love you when we are together and when we are apart, when life is peaceful and when it is in disorder, when I am proud of you and when I am disappointed for you. I promise to try to make your life easier, rather than harder. I will honor your goals and dreams and help you to fulfill them."

I'm sorry for the disorder, and for the hard parts. I like to think I helped with the part about your dreams. You seem to be one of those men who want nothing more than a family life. I'm glad I found you, or rather that you found me, and I let you come around. You speak German, and I like this obscure German poet, so why wouldn't we include this poem in our wedding? (And what a wedding that was! On what should have been a beautiful October day, it was 37 degrees and raining. We got married at a community development corporation on the west side of Chicago, and the bakers refused to deliver the cake to that location until my mom raised hell. My brother almost didn't make it in from Budapest, which would have been a problem, since he was the MC of the whole thing; we didn't even have a wedding party. It was his job to announce to the reception crowd about the three cars that were hit by the wayward car in the parking lot. We didn't want gifts, but people brought them anyway, and we had to fit them all in the Jetta and drive them home to the south side. You asked what I thought about the whole day, if I got the wedding that I wanted. I told you the truth. I said it was perfect.)

“Secretly at Night” by Else Lasker Schuler

I have chosen you
Among all stars.

And am awake--a listening flower
In the hum of the leaves.

Our lips are eager to prepare their honey;
Our shimmering nights have blossomed forth.

On the blessed splendor of your body
My heart ignites its heavens.

All of my dreams hang from your gold;
I have chosen you among all stars.

It was much harder for me to write a blog for you, Gabe, than it was for me to write letters to the kids. I really didn't know what to say, and none of this seems particularly interesting or important as I read it back to myself. I am not good at romance or sentiment, at least not when it involves other adults; I am not even good at giving you compliments. But I am still here, and will be here as long as, well, as long as I am able to be here. Shortly after I was diagnosed you told me that you hoped we would grow old together, but if not, you hoped I would at least grow old, whether it was with you or without you. As you think about what it feels like to be 36, realize how young that really is. I guess I will make it there too in a few months, and perhaps we will both indeed grow old someday. If we do, why not do it together? You've already seen what it will be like when I'm old, you already know how to take care of someone with a terrible illness, and you're still hanging out with me. So let's give it a shot. Happy Birthday, Gabe, one day late. I love you.


(These pictures uploaded in a strange order. There's one of our wedding photos, photos we took of each other on the beach in Maine on my 28th birthday, photos we took of each other this spring, a kiss in Michigan on our six-year anniversary right before I finished chemo, and one of the very first photos ever taken of us together, back in early summer, 2003).

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Day 395: One Year Cancer Free

In one of my very first blogs, I related the story of how I learned about the concept of the future when I was nine years old. I was wistfully watching other kids jump in the leaves, and I lamented that I couldn't do that. My mom told me I could jump in leaves next year, and the world of possibilities opened up for me as I realized how different life could be in the future.

I kind of feel that way today. One year ago today, I had three cancerous tumors removed from my breast. Though I had to go back less than three weeks later for a re-excision, we learned during that second operation that there were no cancer cells remaining; the surgeon just wanted about 1/4 cm more clearance away from what had been the tumor site. She took a big chunk to get that 1/4cm, but I wouldn't have cared if she just took a third of the whole breast at that point. So after we received that pathology, I realized that I had indeed been cancer free since June 4, as far as anyone knew.

It's hard to imagine life being more different than the difference between June 4, 2010, and today.

My lumpectomy blog gets a lot of hits. A lot of women must be searching for answers that their doctors don't provide, because every other day or so a stranger is sent to my blog by googling "lumpectomy blog." However, it is one of the few blogs that is just too hard for me to read. The fear, the pain, the sheer number of procedures, the dread of waking up and looking for the damn drain, not knowing if cancer had spread, not knowing my stage, being doped up on drugs, unable to walk into the house by myself, the knowledge that my cancer treatment had only just begun, and I was about to embark on chemo but I had no idea what to expect. I was still mourning my hair, still waking up in the middle of the night terrified. I cried all the time. If the future was there, it was hard for me to see, at least the part that didn't involve poisoning myself or suffering through treatment. I hope the blog helps the women who find it, but it pains me, so I avoid it. June 4, 2010 was just a harrowing disaster, starting at 5 am when I had to get up to get to the hospital.

And then this year, I slept in a little. I made chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast. Lenny and I went to get our hair cut--she is five years old and has never had a haircut in her life (this picture shows how long it was before the haircut; now it's the same, but three inches shorter). My hair was getting so curly and thick and out of control that I couldn't take it, so I had it cut super-short. I told the stylist that I used to dread getting my quarterly haircuts because I was afraid that she would cut too much, or it would be too short. Now I just don't care. Cut it, cut it! Why not? What do I have to lose? One of my neighbors, an older woman who had breast cancer years ago, remarked on my short hair several weeks ago and said she liked it. I said, I am getting used to it, but it seems so short. She shrugged. Well, you've had less.

And isn't that the truth. I've had a lot less, in general, and very recently. I've lost so many things, and gotten most of them back, and I find I don't miss the other things nearly as much as I expected. Life now is just much fuller, much more, than it was a year ago. After the haircut Lenny and I walked home. Augie and Gabe came home from toddler soccer and we all went to the pool. I put the kids down for their naps while Gabe went over to meet some contractors at the other house (thank God, it's definitely his turn), and I sat down to write this blog while munching on some grapes.

How far this seems from a year ago. I just can't let myself think about going back there, even though it's hard. I saw my ob/gyn the other day for my regular annual exam, and he was just beside himself. The last time he saw me was shortly after my diagnosis. For a while, he called to check up on me and always seemed concerned and surprised that I was so down, so scared, so sad. He tried to talk me out of that with the positive cheerleader speech. I don't begrudge him that. But except for the fact that I had long hair, I pretty much looked exactly the same a year ago. I weigh the same, my breasts are still pretty much the same size, obviously my face hasn't changed.

Like everyone else, he just doesn't see it. I wouldn't recognize you on the street, he exclaimed! You have never looked better! You must've lost 50 pounds! (Um, yes, since right before Augie was born--over 60, in fact. But again, a year ago, when you saw me, I weighed what I weigh now). He didn't believe me. I think he must have been so distraught last year that he didn't see me at all. He went on and on about how at peace I seem, how sophisticated, how stylish. He said he was so proud of me, and I should be an inspiration for other women, and all of this stuff. He hugged me and kissed my cheeks. He told me to live my life--as long as I didn't get pregnant. I wanted to laugh. Are you kidding me? That's the last thing I would allow to happen at this point.

I appreciated all of this, but what is there to say? How am I inspirational? Because I suffered, or went through some bullshit, or because I have a cute haircut? That's the part of cancer (or epilepsy, or anything) that doesn't make sense to me. How could I help a woman who has late stage cancer, what do I have to offer someone who isn't going to go through this in the same way that I did? It's hard to imagine. I also don't think it's impressive to survive an illness, especially one that can come back and kill you later, no matter what you do. There is no statement here, if that makes sense. My hair isn't short because I'm a new person, a woman reborn. It's short because I am the same--impatient and clueless when it comes to doing hair. I can't deal with it when it's a little longer, so I chop it to avoid dealing with it at all.

This seems true for any of the things that people compliment me about these days. People talk about all the stuff we've got going on, all the drama with the houses and work and kids and everything. But when was I different from this, when did I ever really sit down? What does that have to do with cancer? The only thing I can see is that I feel less insecure these days, due to the massive physical changes I endured over a year and how I just decided not to let them bother me too much in the end. Today, I wore a bikini today for the first time in probably 15 years. I worried about whether I could pull it off for about 30 seconds. Between that and the short hair, I could barely recognize myself. But then I thought, well shit, last year I was walking around bald, until my chicken little hair started to grow in but at that point I had no eyebrows or eyelashes. I put pictures of my marked-up, burned chest on the internet. It's hard to hold on to too much vanity or insecurity after that. Besides, last year I didn't get to go swimming at all--I missed out on the entire summer. I don't remember if I even put a bathing suit on, and all I really remember about sunscreen from last summer was slathering it on my bald head. I felt like a kid going to the pool today, almost as excited, kind of ridiculous.

And at the end of the day, I have to admit that I've had some practice with this stuff before, I guess. I've had a lot of things happen that became a part of me but not the whole of me. I've been noticed for a lot of the wrong reasons. I was the kid in a wheelchair, the one who had convulsions on the classroom floor. I was the 8 year old with red hair so curly all the kids made fun of me and called me Annie and the old ladies stopped their Oldsmobiles in the middle of the street to tell me how gorgeous it was. I was the kid who had night terrors until I admitted I was afraid to die. I am still paranoid about cars, and driving. I made a decision to never drink very much when I learned how anti-convulsants had destroyed my liver (didn't help me avoid breast cancer, unfortunately).

And then with all of those things, life just continued, and it was different from before, but I felt the same. I still feel like I did when I was 6, or 9. I feel closer to those little girls than I do to the woman I was last year. I feel cranky, and I geek out over stupid things, and I still love fruit and chocolate above all other foods, and I consciously think about the breaths that come in and out of my body all the time, and it feels miraculous, in a small and strange way.

I feel cancer free now. I didn't feel that way for a long time, even after it was true. And for all I know, it's not true right now. Some bad cells could be lurking somewhere in my spine, in my lungs. I don't think so, but I don't know. Right now, today, I don't care. I might look like someone else, but I feel like me.

So here's to a June I will get to remember for its normalcy, here's to a summer I won't miss. If there were leaves to kick, I would, but there aren't, so I guess I'll go swimming, row a boat, learn to ride a bike, go on vacation, eat an ice cream cone. I do not plan to live this summer as if last summer didn't happen, but rather like it did, so I will do all the things that were so far in the future just one year ago. And why not? I'm 35 years old, and I get to start the clock over. Kind of neat, really, not worth what I had to do to get here, but neat all the same.