I have this cross

I try to walk with a “Thy Will Be Done” attitude, but I am telling you as a cancer survivor, the days surrounding the six month testing appointment challenge my resolve.

The appointments don’t loom on my calendar like they do for some, but you better believe I feel them coming. I don’t sleep as well. I’m irritable. And I rediscover my hereditary gift for superstition.

Tuesday morning I went to my ultrasound appointment, sipping my third cup of coffee, because everyone knows that’s calming.

I parked in a spot right in front and hopped out of the car into a pile of wet leaves. They squelched, so I looked down and this caught my eye:

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Some folks would say “Ooooh. A sign that He is with me!  My test is going to be fine.”

I said “Sh*t. A sign that He is with me. The cancer is back.”

In the waiting room, I tried to calm myself. I even texted a picture to my mom, who said “Nice message!”. But then the check in lady kept looking at the cross where I had laid it down on her desk. She leaned in and gently asked “You brought your cross with you to your test?”

My heart sank, even as I smiled and said “Oh no, I found this on the ground when I got out of the car! Can you believe it?” She patted my hand and said “You need it today. Hold on to it.” Then I heard her go around the corner and tell the lady at the next desk “She’s here for a cancer test and she just found a cross on the ground in the parking lot. Isn’t that amazing. God always knows what we need.”

I swear I almost crawled over the desk to tell the both of them “Look—I don’t even know if this cross is for me. Maybe I should put it back. Or leave it with you, in case someone comes along who needs it. I don’t need it. I am fine.”

But I didn’t. I picked up my cross and carried it back to my seat.

And I’m not talking about the stick.

Once you have cancer, you never don’t have it. You’re marked, in your own heart and by others. You never ever just have a cough, or a bump or an unexplained bruise. There is always an asterisk. And every odd thing that happens feels portentous. Why did I find a cross TODAY? Why is the nice lady speaking so tenderly? Why did she say I needed it?

Most everyone else finds a lump and calls someone who tells them “Oh my goodness. Don’t be dramatic. It’s not like you have cancer.”

But I did. I did have cancer and I can’t unhave it. Every six months I get to spend a day being that person again, the one others are gentle with and speak softly around. It makes me crazy, but it is what it is and it’s better than some of the alternatives.

Even though the tech said it would be two days, my doctor called four hours later to tell me my ultrasound was clear. For 179 more days, I have a clean bill of health, with an awesome cross thrown into the bargain.

I’ll take it.

 

The Wasteland

My dear and beloved T.S. Eliot begins his epic poem, “The Wasteland” with the line, “April is the cruelest month,” and for me, the end of April through the beginning of May feels like a wasteland.

On April 23, 2013, my dad received a radiation treatment that was a last resort for us, for him. Beginning in October of 2012, as his lymphoma spread, his chemo treatments failed. In the month of April, we received two big blows. We were hoping that he would go to San Diego for stem cell therapy, a treatment that held the hopes of really good results. The day before he and my mom were supposed to leave, they got the news that his cancer was growing, rendering him ineligible for the treatment. I was with my parents when they got the call and it was the first time, during his whole bout with cancer that I had seen my dad truly break down and cry.

The second blow came the day before the radiation shot. The hospital called to inform him that this particular treatment isn’t covered by Medicare, and would cost $40,000. They then asked if he would like to go ahead with the treatment. For the second time, my father cried. He told us that he didn’t want to use that much money.  He cried in the kitchen where I had eaten every breakfast of my childhood. Where he fixed chocolate malts in the summertime. At the table where we laughed. Where we fought. Where we three now cried together.

The dates are hard for me. On the 23rd he got that shot, which had the most negative of side effects. On the 28th, we went to see him in the hospital where he was in treatment for extreme pain. Mazie and Violet picked him a white rose and brought it. His face lit up with joy to see those girls. May 3rd, he collapsed at home and my mom realized she couldn’t care for him alone and he went back to the hospital. May 5th, a CT Scan showed lung caner and we stopped all treatment. May 7th, we decided to bring him home. May 9th, he left the hospital. May 11th, he left us.

m and dad

v and dad

The days leading up to April 23rd, then to May 11th, wear at my soul. I feel physically different. My anxiety picks up. It’s hard to breathe sometimes. My body aches. I told my friend and dance instructor that my muscles are so tight lately and that even though I’m faithfully in yoga classes, my flexibility seems to be getting worse. “It’s because you’re not releasing.” He said matter-of-factly. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You know.” he said, “Emotionally and physically. You can’t do it right now.” And he’s right. Don’t you love friends who know? I feel like if I release these emotions, I’ll drown.

But what is the lesson? What I am learning is to be gentle with myself. I don’t fake being ok. I don’t overcompensate with loud laughter or a huge smile. And that’s all right. My friends who know are loving me right through this.  Many of us feel like we always have to be strong, like we can’t be the ones who break down.  But right now, I am broken, and that is ok.

I spend my days not stressing about what didn’t get done. Right now, that stress is too much for me. My girls and I take longer at dinner, listen to French music, dine by candlelight. In my sadness, I delight in them.

dinner

Many people tack on to their grief advice the phrase, “your dad wouldn’t want you to be sad,” and I hate that. Because deep down in my heart, I think he would want us to be a little sad. Who wants to be forgotten? Who wants to be not missed when they’re gone? What I don’t do is allow my grief to stop me from living. There can still be smiles among the tears. There can still be bursts of light in the darkness. We do a poor job of thinking that things must be black or white. There are not only two choices.

So during these 18 days from April 23rd to May 11th, I’m remembering that. I take my girls on outings and we have fun, but I also allow a space for my sadness. We talk about things that Zsa-Zsa would have loved and I let them see the tears flow from my eyes. We go to Disneyland. We opt for a little longer of a walk and push bedtime back 15 minutes. We live gently. But at night, when the house is quiet, the hole that he left in my heart opens up and I feel utterly lost in a world that just doesn’t make sense without my daddy.

If you are grieving, if you are struggling emotionally, please be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself a space to grieve. Forgive yourself for your moments of sadness or anger. Embrace your struggle. Avoid people with whom you have to “fake it.” If you take a hard look at it, they probably aren’t your true friends, anyway. Surround yourself with your definition of beauty, with things that make you happy. Get a latte. Or a beer. Or a vodka gimlet (the drink Dad and I had together in New Orleans) and raise your glass to us. Smile and cry. And know that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

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