Friday, January 18, 2019

Semi Colon

Fall 2018
There are days, sometimes weeks, when you don’t even think about it. Then, one morning,
in front of the full-length bathroom mirror, you face the glaring reminders. Three scars:
First one: Portacatheter, just below the right collarbone, which was used to administer the two
rounds of chemotherapy.
Second one: Colon surgery, J-shaped and six inches long,  from stomach to abdomen.
Third one: Liver surgery, three inches long and straight through the navel.

Winter 2007
They say the worst part of a colonoscopy is the prep, when you are virtually tethered to your
bathroom, so your colon clears out for optimum viewing.
It’s not the worst part.
The worst part is when you wake up to a sea of white coats at the foot of the hospital bed telling
you that the polyp in your colon was so large, the scope couldn’t fit around it and you are being
wheeled down immediately for an emergency CT scan.
The worst part is when 2 days later you learn the diagnosis is Stage 4 colon cancer. The cancer
has spread to the liver.
The worst part is when you realize there is no Stage 5 colon cancer.
You know you have a good match in your oncologist when he compliments your boots and your
silver hoop earrings, and actually makes you laugh while you can still taste the panic in the back
of your throat. He warns you and your family to stay off the internet. Don’t research this because
it will scare the shit out of you, he says. You’re young and we’re going to hit this hard.
You feel a bit better when there is a plan: colon surgery, twelve weeks of chemotherapy. Liver
surgery, twelve weeks of chemotherapy.
You realize this plan is your 2007.
All 12 months.

Late Winter 2007
During your week long stay in the gastrointestinal surgical wing, you realize you are one of the
few female patients, and definitely the youngest by at least twenty five years.
The parade of interns and residents that invade your space daily claim they love your room
because it is full of gorgeous flowers and an array of lavender moisturizers. That’s how you know
you’re winning the hospital room competition.
You know, the one you just invented to keep your sanity and avoid thinking too much.

Spring 2007
Chemotherapy every other week for twelve weeks. Three hour sessions.
You quickly conclude that if the nurse in the infusion room cannot access your portacatheter by
inserting a needle just above your collarbone on the first try, you need to demand another nurse.
You’re more than willing to be considered a bitch for doing so. Actually, you kinda revel in it.
About half way through your treatments, a fellow chemo patient leans over in his chair and says,
“What are you doing here? You don’t look sick.” You stare at him for a few seconds, then reply,
“I’m not. I’m just here for the drugs and the chocolate cookies.” You grab your infusion pole and
move to a chair across the room.
You realize that some cancer patients can be real assholes but in this case you’re not sure if it’s
him or it’s you.
You celebrate your 50th birthday on one of your “off” chemotherapy weeks with a braised short
rib ravioli dinner in the North End.
Maya Angelou comes to Boston during one of your “on” chemotherapy weeks. You’re exhausted
and frustrated and scared of everything but drag your chemo ass to the Opera House because,
well, it’s Maya Angelou. You listen to that mesmerizing voice reading her poetry and weep while
sitting in your chair.
Your “New Yorker” subscription expires. You wonder if you should renew it for the year or wait.
Your MFA membership expires. You wonder if you should renew it for the year or wait.
You decide to wait.
Summer 2007
You receive the good news that, after the first surgery and round of chemo, there is no visible
sign of cancer in your colon and the two tumors on the liver have shrunk. Continued aggression
is still strongly recommended.
Your liver surgery is scheduled for August.
Your surgeon removes one third of your liver.
2007 is more than half over.

Fall 2007
Round two of chemotherapy begins.
You receive gifts of blue colored pins and beaded bracelets that are supposed to be offers of
support for colon cancer patients. They are not. They piss you off in their banality. Seriously
people: don’t buy the cancer merch. They’re annoying and ugly.
You make a list of movies that you’ve never seen but feel an urgent need to, and rent stacks of
DVDs. Anything with Alan Rickman rises to the top of the list.
You give yourself permission to stop reading a book if you don’t love it.
You develop neuropathy in your fingers, toes and throat. You can’t drink anything too hor or too
cold because if you do it feels like daggers running up and down your throat. You keep gloves
next to the refrigerator to protect from the cold. You wear thick woolen socks under your Uggs
and hope this goes away before winter.
On your last day of chemo, you arrive at your car to find it festooned with balloons, and chalk on
the windows declaring “Congratulations!” and “Fuck Cancer!” You know which friends decorated
it, even though none of them would admit doing so.

Late Fall 2007
Your CT scan shows No Visible Sign of Disease. Your oncologist hugs you with joy and sets up
another scan in three months.
You have a recurring nightmare that everyone is lying to you: your doctors, your husband, your
children. None of the treatment worked; you’re still really sick but they decided not to tell you.
You keep this nightmare to yourself.

Fall 2018
You learn that the median life expectancy for Stage 4 colon cancer is 2.5 years.
You’re relieved you stayed off the internet and didn’t know this statistic in 2007.
You now have CT scans annually. Your oncologist tells you the odds of getting cancer are now
no more than anyone else.
You realize a lot of life is just plain luck. You’ve lost three friends, all close to you in age, to
cancer.  Why them and not you? You CAN be a nice person but often times you are anything but
Why NOT you? Luck.
You still have days when you feel something really bad is bound to happen. There’s a cloud over
your head.
No one with all of your faults can be this lucky, to live this life.
So: You meditate. You practice yoga. You write. You take long walks. You scarf down
family-sized bags of Lays.
It all helps.

Most days.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Waiting Room

I arrived well-stocked: water, Kind nut and protein bars, notebook, pens, cell phone charger, laptop, Kindle. I settled into a chair in the corner, a bit out of the way, and opened up the People magazine I bought in the gift shop as a further distraction, determined to block the image of Steve being wheeled into the operating room out of my mind. Not much luck there.
What had begun seven years ago as a once a year or so event had become, over the past year, monthly occurrences which resulted in visits to the Emergency Room. Steve’s heart would go into A-Fib, causing it to beat wildly, quickly and irregularly. This first started happening when he was riding his bike on one of his routine twenty-five mile or more routes over the hills and back roads further north and west of our house.
He called me while sitting on the side of the road, bicycle resting on the pavement, to let me know he had just summoned an ambulance and they were taking him to the hospital. He felt faint and his heart was beating out of his chest. After administering a beta blocker and determining he was not having a heart attack, the Emergency Room cardiologist monitored Steve closely and we watched as his heart returned to a normal rhythm on its own, over a period of eight hours. “Often we have to shock the heart to get it back into rhythm,” the doctor told us. When Steve was released the next day, after being kept overnight as a precaution, he was reassured that this was probably a once only occurrence, and he needed to be sure to stay hydrated on bike rides. A follow up visit to a recommended cardiologist confirmed this.
But then it happened again the following year. And the year after that. And annually for a few years, often unrelated to his bike rides or any other strenuous activity. His heart recovered on its own but he was always uncomfortable enough that we headed to the Emergency Room every time.
This past year, the incidents escalated. Steve’s heart was going into A-Fib monthly, and I would race home from the gym or Italian class or wherever I was to take him to the ER or, in one particularly scary incident, call an ambulance.
Steve is one of the healthiest people I know. He hasn’t eaten meat in fifteen years. He pays close attention to his diet, ensuring he gets enough leafy greens and lycopene, not too much dairy. He considers a handful of walnuts to be an adequate snack. Two glasses of wine is a lot for him. He was biking regularly, even participating in the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Pan Mass Challenge. “I could have ridden further,” he declared at the end of the 84 mile ride.
This A-Fib stuff was confounding. It was easy to understand why the 300 pound guy in the cardiologist’s office had heart issues, but Steve? This made no sense.
“So, is this just going to be what happens now?” I asked him. “Do I have to make sure my hair is done and I have mascara on just in case we have to run to the Emergency Room?” “Maybe,” he said.
We wondered if this was, for him, part of the aging process. He turned sixty-five this summer. Was having a heart that we were told was healthy, but beat irregularly and quickly sometimes, part of Steve’s old man issues, like having difficulty sleeping or thinning hair or being grumpy?
And now, I sit in Beth Israel’s Cardiac Surgery Waiting Room. After consultation with a surgeon, we decide to go ahead with an ablation, a procedure that will shake up the nerves in the heart, and, hopefully, stop the A-Fib episodes.  It’s not open heart surgery since they are using catheters, but still. Shaking up one’s heart is serious stuff.
I try to concentrate and read. I pull out my notebook and jot a few sentences, then cross them out because they are stupid and trite, tearing the page with my fervent strokes. The clock on the pale blue wall next to me counts down the minutes loudly and slowly and the glare from the overhead lights hurts my eyes. I glance up every time a doctor comes in to update others who wait alongside me and overhear phrases. “He’s in recovery.” “Everything went well.” “You can see him shortly.” A short, blond woman about my age, along with what appeared to be two daughters, is lead into a small, private room off the waiting room. That can’t be good. I go for a walk to avoid seeing the trio when they emerge. I pace up and down Longwood Avenue, not noticing the heat and humidity on this early July day, wishing I could have a cocktail and maybe a smoke.
My phone buzzes. It’s the surgeon. “Hi Cheryl, he’s fine and in recovery. The procedure went very well. We’ll come out to get you soon.”
So, now we wait and see. There’s no test to determine if the ablation eradicated the A-Fib. If he doesn’t have another incident, things look good.
We had to adjust some plans for the remainder of the summer: Cancel the Sting and Peter Gabriel concert, and the one with Hall and Oates. Change Steve’s 65th birthday celebration from a gathering in Boston’s Seaport District for dinner, to a quiet family barbecue.  Postpone dinner invitations from friends because he grew tired more easily post-surgery, and was more comfortable being at home.
Six months later, the effects of last summer are still profound, but fading. We’re back in the swing of concerts and theater. He’s almost finished with the last large project of the house renovation, installing wooden slats, which he is individually painting, to cover the storage area underneath the kitchen addition. We walk to the center of town for dinner. He’s even back on the bike occasionally. Cautious optimism is our mantra.
“Can we plan that trip to Spain now?” I ask the other day.  He pauses. “Um, let’s wait a bit.” If I don’t hear from him for a few hours during the day, I trudge up to his third floor office and peer in. “Just making sure you’re still alive,” I tell him. “So far, so good,” he says, not even glancing up from his desk. We both walk a line between caution and the desire to return to what was our normalcy.

For now, and maybe for just a little bit longer. we are both in the waiting room.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Senior Citizen Discount

When my husband Steve turned sixty, a milestone age which makes many of us who are younger than that squirm, he was no fun. The teasing and old age jokes did not bother him one bit. He shrugged off all references to creaky joints, ignored admonishments that he should stop climbing ladders “because you could fall and break a hip!” and refused the offer to have dinner at 5 o’clock. “I think it’s the law once you turn sixty,” I told him. No reaction. When our daughter started calling him “Gramps,” he found it amusing.  “Well, I feel like a Gramps,” he reasoned. “Nothing wrong with that.”
He did not want a big birthday bash, despite my frequent pleadings. Instead, we rented a house on the Cape for the week, with family and friends wandering in and out, and he happily ate mussels and steamers with our kids and biked the fifty two miles to Provincetown and back. “Turning sixty is way better than the alternative,” he told anyone who would listen.
His real joy kicked in a couple of years later when he discovered the Senior Citizen discount.  “Seniors over 62 get a discount on Amtrak tickets,” he bellowed from the other room. “This is fantastic!”
“So, now you’re calling yourself a senior citizen?” I was horrified.
“You’re just jealous you’re not as old as me. And did you know I can get discounts at Applebee’s and The Olive Garden?”
“Have fun with that.”

“It also looks like I can get a free coffee at Dunkin Donuts. I’ll find out which day,” the Senior Citizen coffee snob informed me. “I can learn to like Dunkin one day a week.”
To celebrate Steve’s next milestone birthday, sixty-five, we took a 12-day road trip through the states of Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. We mapped out a route to include stops along the “Blues Trail,” which featured juke joints now run down and shuttered that were alive and hopping decades ago. We stopped by the birthplaces of musicians like Buddy Guy and B.B. King, and lots of others I had never heard of but Steve was an expert on. Most of these spots were noted by markers on the side of southern, dusty back roads, and took some searching to find.
We also visited historical and musical museums that had admission fees. That’s when Senior Citizen Steve stepped in. We went to so many places in such a compressed period of time that the request for a discount was, to me, constant and loud.
“Do you have Senior discounts?” He asked the clerk at The Johnny Cash Museum.
“Yes, sir, 62 and older.
Steve beamed as he saved his two dollars.
It was the same at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, and Sun Studio and Graceland in Memphis and various sites throughout the Mississippi River Delta.
“One senior and one adult ticket, please.” I heard it over and over again as I sighed and rolled my eyes.
On our last day in Memphis, we walked to the south side of town to visit The Civil Rights Museum, set in The Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King’s assassination. As we crossed the parking lot, we stopped to gaze up at the balcony where Dr. King was shot. It was a somber moment in what had otherwise been an exuberant road trip. It happened to be Easter weekend, and church choirs gathered to sing and commemorate. Steve reminded me that Dr. King was 39 years old when he was killed.  Deep breaths.
As we went through the front doors of the museum and approached the ticket counter, Steve nudged me and pointed to the Admission Prices posted on the wall.
Adults: $15.00
Senior Citizens (55 and older): $14.00
I gulped. “That’s me,” I whispered.
“Go ahead,” he smiled, a little too broadly.
I walked ahead of him up to the ticket counter.

“Two senior citizen tickets. And, please, please ask for my ID.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

Moving a Lifetime

We found it on a dreary, icy February Sunday. Close to the city we loved and wanted to frequent more, it was an ugly, dirty brown stucco house, listing to the left, with sad dandelions and other unidentifiable weeds disguised as a front lawn.

We wanted it the minute we stepped out of the car.

Taking an estimated five months to make the new-to-us house habitable gave us time to sort through twenty years of stuff in our current house. Stuff that was shoved into the attic, basement, kids’ closets, under beds.

We assumed our clean out tasks would be a breeze. A cinch. A snap.

Older son’s closet belched out dozens of boxes of baseball cards, little league awards, and speech and debate trophies, along with stacks of high school math and political science notebooks. “I don’t want anything,” he claimed. “Throw it all out.” I made judgment calls, donated or threw out a bunch of stuff and boxed up items that I deemed important.

Our daughter deigned to travel to the suburbs one more time to peruse her childhood belongings. She packed up some letters, books, old CDs. We reminisced about summer camp and quizzed each other with “Gilmore Girls” quotes. “What do we do with the Beanie Babies?” she asked, pulling out green garbage bags filled with the stuffed animals. She chose two to take with her, and tossed the rest.

Younger son, the one still living at home when not at school, was not a tosser. He wanted to keep everything. Everything. The Thomas the Tank Engine trains and tracks. The Legos. Pokeman cards. I relented: “Pack everything up. We’ll shove it into the new basement.”

Many carloads of filled-to-the-brim moving boxes later, with a new basement fuller than anticipated, we trekked to our newly renovated home, excited for this next phase to begin.

Previously published in Silver Birch Press

Monday, September 12, 2016

Beach Days

I am sitting in my striped beach chair, close to the white sand, under the red umbrella, Kindle in hand. Every morning this week in August, Steve carries the umbrella to the bay beach near our rental house and secures it in the spot that I like, near the beach grass, out of the way. He then returns to the house to work on the shaded deck, fielding phone calls and reviewing contracts while enjoying the sea breeze from there. I read. And people watch. From time to time, my left sand sifts through the shiny, soft sand by my side and I inhale the salt that drifts in from the water. We are both totally content in these peaceful beach days, days to think and dream and maybe get a little work done. I return to the house around noon to make a tuna sandwich or a salad and iced tea. I pull out my laptop to write for a few hours, then return to the beach to enjoy the late afternoon sun and thinning crowd. Steve comes back down to watch the sun set over the water and we discuss where we’ll go for dinner.  “How about Abba?” I suggest. He carries the umbrella back to the house. Later on, after dinner, we’ll read or watch a movie. We might drive up to Provincetown for an ice cream cone in our little 2-seater convertible, enjoying the cooling hum of the evening. Each day blends into the next, and there’s a wonderful timelessness when I’m not sure if it’s Tuesday or Thursday and I really don’t care. For a full week I can push aside daily worries and concerns, some major, some minor, and consume myself with oysters and corn on the cob and gin and tonics.
We began coming to the Cape over twenty years ago, when our three kids were toddlers and preschoolers. Instead of tossing a couple of suitcases and some sunscreen into the tiny trunk of the 2-seater like we do now, we jammed the mini-van to overflowing: stroller, port-a-crib, buckets and shovels and swimming noodles, games and books, safety gates for stairs, luggage and beach towels and beach blankets for five people. The week before we left, I made lists and lists of stuff to bring and ran around town to collect the necessities we didn’t already have. After the van was full inside, we strapped five bikes to the back and to the roof. The helmets barely fit under the seats. I poured myself into the front seat, wiped out before we had barely begun.
Beach days with three young kids stretch into infinity; like the beach days I have now, except they are non-stop action. Three meals a day, most of which were prepared in the beach house kitchen, with the occasional foray to the fried clam shack. My kids, restaurant aficionados now, were not fun to take out to eat when they were young. Packing up for a day at the beach was no day at the beach. Coolers filled with lunch and snacks. The required beach toys. Chairs, blankets and multiple umbrellas. Steve would, like he does these days, lug all the stuff to the beach, set up, stay and play for awhile and then head back to the house to work. I was constantly on the move, in the water, out of the water. We built sand castles, played whiffle ball, collected shells, reapplied sunscreen. At the end of the day, after showers and baths washed away the stubborn sand, I was exhausted but self-satisfied.  Now, as adults, they remember those beach days and sigh.
“Remember when we were on the beach right before the hurricane?”
“Remember when we had lobster races across the back deck?”
“Remember when Connor would fling himself into the waves, like, 20 times and you had to keep dragging him out?”  
One afternoon last summer (maybe it was Wednesday, maybe Friday), I watched a mother about 25 years my junior chasing her two young kids all over the sand and into the water, while I sat alone under my umbrella enjoying the latest Ann Leary novel. On one of her many trudges up and down the beach, she stopped. “You have no idea how much I envy you right now.” I looked up. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” I told her. “Enjoy this time. It’s over in a flash.”
I took a sip of my water, and went back to my book.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Poolside in the 1970's

When I was in junior high my stepfather, along with some friends, one of whom was our neighbor Cookie, dug a hole in our backyard with a borrowed backhoe and installed a large in-ground pool. By the end of that first summer, we could walk a few steps from the screened in breezeway to the pool’s patio and jump right in.
My mother never learned how to swim and was actually a bit afraid of the water but loved to bask in a lounge chair in the hot summer sun, sipping iced tea after iced tea. My stepfather, the pool builder, was a freckled redhead with very fair skin; he avoided the sun. I never saw him actually swim in the pool he built for his acquired family.  He quickly moved on to rebuilding an old boat from the hull up; that half-built boat loomed over the fence of the pool way past my high school graduation. But that homemade backyard pool made for heavenly summers in the 1970’s.
Cookie’s daughter, Sue, was one of my best friends. We worked together at a Howard Johnson’s cafeteria on the Mass Pike during those summers, she in the kitchen making salads and me at the cash register, collecting money from busloads of tourists. After work, she and I  would joyfully strip off our just-below-the-knee turquoise checked uniforms and leap into the refreshing water. Often joined by a gaggle of girls, we would take turns rushing down the blue plastic slide and practicing dives off the board at the far end. Bikini-clad, we stretched out on brightly colored beach towels and slathered on Coppertone tanning lotion. We would snack on Fritos and Cokes and then jump back in to wash off the crumbs.
When I was a sophomore, I started dating the high school quarterback. The team would have summer practice sessions during stifling August afternoons. “Have the team come over for a swim after practice,” I told John. They did. Often. Sometimes a few, sometimes a lot. A horde of well toned and muscled high school boys would hoot and holler as they cannonballed into the cool blue surface.
Heaven for this teenaged girl.

An earlier version of this piece was published in Silver Birch Press.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fifty Nine Thoughts About Being Fifty Nine

1. Some of the articles in the AARP Magazine look really interesting.

2. When I'm away from my kids, I should miss them more than I do.

3. To justify this, I tell myself it’s because they are doing well and don’t need me so much.

4. I spend way too much time playing spider solitaire.

5. I am hopeful that studying Italian will help keep my mind sharp.

6. Then, the next thing I know, I have to pull the car over because I forgot where I was going

7. Sometimes I go to bed with my make up on.

8. I really need to start drinking my kale/celery/broccoli stem/cucumber juice again.

9. When my grandmother was my age, she had 17 grandchildren.

10. That crease on my face that I wake up with, the one that used to fade right away? It’s hanging around a lot longer now.

11. I buy clothes for the life I don't lead.

12. Snow is unappealing to me even when it is fresh, fluffy and beautiful.

13. I used to love to downhill ski.

14. Sometimes I am terrified that the cancer will come back.

15. I try not to waste that much time thinking about it.

16. Apparently I like country music now.

17. The sound of a cocktail shaker brings me great joy.

18. I tend to be either obsessive or dismissive. Nothing in between.

19. I don’t think this is a good thing.

20. I love the feeling you get when you're reading a great book and can't wait to share it.

21. I can eat a bag of Lay's potato chips at one sitting and still want more. There were no consequences when I did this as a teenager.

22, There are consequences now.

23. Fear of failure can immobilize me.

24. I wish I had hung onto all those hippie, gauzy 1970’s clothes. ‘Cause now they are back in style.

25. Except it’s called “BoHo.”

26. As my lips grow thinner, I think my nose is getting wider.

27.  A beach house would be nice.

28. Having my younger son call me a bad influence only encourages me.

29. I can't be middle aged unless I live to be 118.

30. I think I did that math right.

31. Laughing is one of my favorite things to do.

32. Hearing laughter is another.

33. The daily vitamins I take seem like a recitation of the entire alphabet.

34. I have had to leave the room while watching my adult children interact, because I was so overwhelmed with the wonder of it all.

35. I would not have predicted that when they were 8, 6 and 2.

36. There is no one who would put up with me on a daily basis like my husband does.

37. Sometimes that pisses me off.

38. My high heel days are long gone.

39. So are my dancing on tables days.

40. The latter is probably a good thing.

41. I never knew elbows could be saggy.

42. No one is surprised anymore when they learn I have a 30 year old son.

43. I own 7 pairs of reading glasses and can never find a pair when I need to. Which is always.

44. I try to remember to whisper a “thank you” every day and hope the words linger and float into the universe.

45. I am aware that I can move into an Active Adult Community at any time.

46.  have never taken, and will never take, one of those large ocean cruises.

47. These days, all birthdays are big birthdays.

48. My limited musical taste doesn’t embarrass me anymore.

49. In fact, not much embarrasses me at all anymore.

50. I try to remain calm when my daughter says, “You sound just like Grammy.”

51. When in doubt, wear black. Throw on a scarf.

52. One of my main missions is to bug all of my much younger friends and relatives to get a colonoscopy when they turn 50. I’ll drive you.

53. I cannot carry a tune but remain convinced I would be an excellent backup singer.

54. I am slowly accepting the fact that I am eligible for some senior citizen discounts.

55. I don’t recognize half the people in People Magazine anymore.

56. I am so delighted that my 3 children have grown into compassionate, thoughtful, funny adults.

57. The hair from my thinning eyelashes is showing up on my chin.

58. If Jane Fonda can wear leggings and over the knee leather boots, I think I’m good.

59. These boots were made for walking.