Saturday, November 26, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
One would think I would get better at this whole death thing. After all, I’ve faced down death more than once in my life, most recently by fighting off cancer not once but if you count skin cancer, twice in just two years. Thus, one would think I would be more gifted at what to say and how to best to comfort the people I love when they lose a loved one.
My BFF is an incredibly kind, loyal and giving person. She stood by me during chemo and watched over me post-infusions, knitting away in my bedroom while I lay flat on my back in bed, unable to move from the overwhelming exhaustion that is the aftermath of chemo. She kept an anxious watch over me while she knitted all my adorable hats, rapidly and selflessly making hat after hat so my wig would look much more natural (it fooled a lot of folks with the addition of all those cute hats) and so I would have a variety of styles to choose from every day. She stood by me and is easily the person in addition to my daughter and grand baby that I would happily take a bullet for, no questions asked.
So, when she texted me last Friday to tell me her elderly mother was back in the hospital, it was nothing new. Save that this time, with no prior warning, it would turn out to be the last. Her beloved mother had a pulmonary embolism and the emergency room doctor bravely and honestly told my BFF that her mother likely had less than 24 hours to live. I called my daughter, she arranged to get off work that night as early as humanly possible and I got on map quest to make sure I could navigate to the hospital in record time. In a matter of minutes, we had it all planned out.
But life, and now death, had other plans because less than 30 minutes later my BFF’s beloved mother was gone. After everything she had been through physically over the years, she ended up slipping from this mortal coil with a whisper and a sigh.
And after all my BFF has done for me? I could do nothing. I didn’t even make it to the hospital in time to fetch tissues and tea, or hold her hand or anything. Worse, when she called me while I was en route to home and told me her mother was gone, I did something entirely uncharacteristic, I promptly burst into tears, rendering myself totally useless just when she needed me the most. Good one Julie. It was entirely acceptable for me to get cancer, lose my hair, suffer in pain every single day and fight for my very life but I subscribe to the double standard of life experiences: I cannot stand for the people I love to be in pain of any kind, emotional or physical. Worse, I was now powerless to ease her pain because after having lost my own mother so suddenly, I was intimately acquainted with the grieving process. I know, up close and personal, that grief is a solitary emotion, not one easily shared.
Upon arriving home, I was still wreathed in tears so my daughter knew instantly what had transpired. My adult child is extremely intuitive, deeply compassionate and very tuned in to those she is closest to. Me, I just cried and blubbered like an idiot and this when it wasn’t even my mom. In fact, truth be told, I cried far more when Jill lost her mom than I did when I lost my own mother. With my own, I had to be strong, help my daughter through the loss. This time around I just let ‘er rip and cried my eyes out. I loved and cherished her mom but I love my BFF above all. Knowing the depth of this loss broke my heart so I cried not only for her passing but for my BFF.
Just an hour before all this transpired, my BFF’s husband had called to tell me about a rocking chair Jill’s mom had. They had planned on moving her to a new care facility, one that they had hoped would better be able to address her mother’s considerable medical needs and physical limitations. At this new facility, there would have been no room for the rocking chair. Jill’s mom loved Baby Claudia, she had held tiny Baby CJ for hours last Christmas and talked about her all the time. Jill’s mom was a true mom to the end, she loved babies, her daughter Jill most of all. It just seemed fitting that the rocking chair go to my daughter to rock Baby Claudia in.
So, eventually, after all the trauma of coroners and doctors and paperwork were over and done with, Jill’s devoted husband delivered the rocking chair. It was a sturdy thing, well made, of light blond solid wood. We put it in my already overcrowded living room to admire the craftsmanship and to remember Jill’s mom. Then something a little bit astonishing occurred. Baby Claudia, with her impossibly tiny little legs, insisted on climbing up in the grown up rocking chair. An assist, a discrete lift up at the pampies and she was up and sitting and smiling in Fran’s rocking chair. I reached over to rock her gently, her tiny chubby little legs sticking out straight in front of her, her little feet flutter kicking in excitement. Then, if that were not enough, Baby Claudia turned her smiling face away from me and began babbling into thin air. She was having an actual conversation with something or perhaps someone that none of us could see. Her expression was thoughtful and peaceful as she babbled away to someone or something that only she could see.
Not everyone believes in an afterlife or spirits or guardian angels and I’ve always been more of a science geek than a New Age Child myself but if anyone were to ask me whom or what Baby Claudia was speaking to, I would bet on it being the soul or spirit of Jill’s mother, her newly self anointed Baby Guardian Angel. Later that night, as I snuggled the baby, rocking her to sleep, I spoke to Claudia matter-of-factly. I softly told her that Grammie Jill’s mom had gone to heaven. I also told her that Great-Grandma Fran would be watching over her. And I promised that someday, far into the future, when I went to heaven that I too would always be with her. I promised. And then, right as she nodded off to sleep, totally secure in my loving arms, Baby Claudia sleepily reached out with a tiny, perfect pudgy hand into the darkness of the room. But not for me. As she reached into the shadows, she was trying to grasp at something that only she could see.
And as she drifted off, Baby Claudia smiled.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
I am pretty sure my local newspaper delivery person has it in for me. Ditto the local garbage collectors who typically show up pre-dawn, well before any local noise ordinance allows. I know this because vendors don’t mess with my BFF who lives a short, five minute drive from me in the same town. She therefore has the same garbage men or at least garbage pick-up service and she has the same delivery service for her newspaper. Maybe not the very same newspaper delivery person but certainly both carriers work for the San Jose Mercury News, which is owned by the MediaNews Group. Despite having this in common, BFF does not get her daily newspaper soaking wet because her delivery guy didn’t bother to sheath it plastic wrap on rainy days. She also doesn't get woken up at the crack of dawn by noisy garbage men either.
I am officially convinced that these people hate me. Perhaps I should reconsider my annual tip philosophy wherein I start with the premise that nobody tips me for doing my job, even though I like to think I do it really well. I may be eligible for a bonus (in good years, economically speaking) but generally speaking, the economy being what it is, my paycheck is it. If people go above and beyond, then I tip. I am always generous with restaurant servers because I worked my way, three jobs at a time, through college so I know that servers literally make rent off of tips. I also generously tip my hairdresser because she actually lets me come to her house for the odd appointment, in the evening, when my schedule is jammed. She always goes above and beyond.
The local garbage collectors, on the other hand, scatter trash all over the street, always it seems when it is perfectly, according to spec, presented for pick up, not overflowing or in the wrong bins. Like I said, they favor showing up well before 5 a.m., far earlier than they are legally allowed to come rumbling down my otherwise peaceful street at 90 decibels waking up the entire neighborhood. This causes irate neighbors to Spring Into Action by calling the happy folks down at city hall who then proceed to do absolutely nothing about these repeat noise violations. Trust me, garbage trucks are really noisy. Thus, the garbage folks appear to be doing the absolute minimum and all at their convenience, not mine. For these reasons, I don’t think they deserve a tip come the holidays, especially after that last used kitty litter fiasco. Same goes for the newspaper guy who must be hoarding the plastic sleeves that he is supposed to place my paper in, come wet or damp weather. Is he braiding all that plastic into a decorative art piece or what? Perhaps he just knows that I am not one to spend my time calling up the newspaper hot line to demand another paper since all they are going to do is credit me a day and this when I have no clue when the next bill is exactly due ─ only that I pay it quarterly. And yes, I persist in leaving the field on the invoice for a, ‘tip’ conspicuously blank.
When I get a winter’s worth of dry newspapers, I will seriously consider giving this guy a tip. Meanwhile, I’m going to wait him out and start using earplugs every Monday night. That’s because the garbage men come before dawn, every Tuesday morning. And after they wake me up, I get to listen to the melodic, dulcet tones of angry neighbors stomping out of their homes, fairly yelling in the pre-dawn hours.
This morning was garbage day but with a twist. After 7 a.m., I awoke knowing instantly that something in my reality was amiss. Why had I not been awoken pre-dawn like on every other garbage day? My super girl heroine senses were 'a-tingling. Something was definitely wrong with my world but I decided that garbage day got switched and I missed the memo. Like the universe expanding and string theory, there was simply no other logical explanation. What I did hear was Baby Claudia, in a foul baby mood, stomping about downstairs. Oh boy, was her mom ever in for one of those days. I tippy toed downstairs, got my coffee, fed the cats and got ready for work. In a hurry. I then slipped out the garage door, knowing, as I said, my daughter was in for one heck of a day. Once in a blue moon the baby wakes up in the worst possible mood and we call these her, ‘Claudzilla’ days.
On such days, I am secretly thankful I have a job and career to run away to because although I love this child with all my heart and soul, her occasional foul baby moods can be seriously daunting. My daughter was an irrepressibly cheerful child, she never had mood swings or even the occasional bad day like temperamental Claudia does. Well, at least not until she hit puberty. To be fair, my daughter also never had the terrible teething issues poor Baby Claudia suffers from so I suspect the bad moods and teething issues go hand in hand. Still, just to be sure, I keep promising the baby I am going to get her into pee-wee powder puff baby hockey as soon as her tiny feet can fit into ice skates. This is one kid who will have no problems dropping the baby gloves.
Meanwhile, I fairly flew out of the house, feeling a tad bit guilty. I decided I would make dinner tonight, to make up for my cowardice. That’s when the garbage men came roaring down the street. Really? I decided to view their timing with a jaundiced eye. They were messing with me. Still, it was nice to have them show up at a civilized hour. For once.
Feeling optimistic, I picked up my newspaper. It was absolutely soaking wet. Again. It was in that moment I realized that my day was going to be as normal as it gets. I had not, as theoretical physics might hope, fallen into another dimension or Universe. Nope, everything was exactly as it should be. As a cancer survivor, I realized how much I thrive on normalcy. How much I need the expected, the mundane, the usual, right down to my sopping wet newspaper. So much so that I might consider tipping come this holiday season after all.
Monday, November 7, 2011
I spend way too much time hanging out with doctors these days. I know if they are having a good day, if they are stressed and when they got back from vacation and even more scary, where they went and what they did on holiday. I even know what kind of holiday excursions they generally favor.
All this I find nearly as pathetic as when the customs agents at SFO greet me like an old friend. (That generally means I have been traveling way too much.)
It can only get worse if stewards and stewardesses remember you from past flights; that’s an even lower low in my mind.
So, clearly, I need to get a bit more of a life. One that doesn’t include weekly doctor visits would be nice. My dermatologist just returned from an apparently restful respite in Hawaii (where he sensibly stayed in the shade and out of the blazing skin cancer-creating sun). He was in a fine mood. He spent enough time with me to teach me a few things about skin cancer, the most interesting being that while most of us have heard tell about ‘pre-cancerous’ lesions our entire lives, apparently, in the medical profession, at least according to Dr. Imhotep, there is really no such thing. Pre-cancerous is like being a little pregnant; you either are or you aren’t. Certain lesions, however, lend themselves to developing into skin cancer. Meaning some types of lesions are more likely to develop into skin cancer that say, the average freckle. Apparently, though, the insurance companies like the term, ‘pre-cancerous’.
I don’t blame them, for an insurance company, burning/freezing something off that is likely/maybe/could evolve into skin cancer has got to be far more cost efficient than treating full blown skin cancer later on. Not all skin cancers are cured by cutting them out the way my first lesion apparently was.
Still, nice to sit there, watch actual tiny wisps of smoke waft off my porcelain white skin, while the liquid nitrogen did its magic and froze off each offending bit of skin. In truth, this procedure only stings, a discomfort far more tolerable than an actual biopsy. So, I chatted away while the doctor froze off three spots ─ only one of which he said was extremely likely to evolve into skin cancer. The doc indulged me on the other two which is the key when dealing with me. I am betting that smart doctor that he is, he figured out I was much more likely to go away for months at a time if he indulges me.
It’s true, take away anything that smacks of cancer and the doctor won’t see me forever if I can get away with it.
I don’t get that option any more in my life, avoiding doctors forever I mean, but I try to limit visits to real needs and being proactive, like with the skin cancer thing. My oncologist, alas, has a very long memory. He will just not forget the time I was going through chemo and my BFF and I, gauging that I was feeling up to it, went to a Sharks hockey game. We were in traffic, at a standstill with all the other cars and some young 20-something girl chatting merrily away on her mobile phone, proceeded to plow into my BFF’s rear bumper. She actually hit us pretty hard though my BFF has a tank of a vehicle and the damage was minimal, at least to the car. My BFF has awful joint issues and a bad back and neck. She is on intimate terms with any number of cracker jack chiropractors who actually do a lot of good for her. We both knew nearly instantly that her neck and back had been thrown out of whack. As for me, my head jolted. Hard. I could literally feel my brain jar inside my skull and for the record, it's not something you want to feel.
My BFF immediately ordered me to call my oncologist because she was scared. I wasn’t in pain mind you, but I was going through chemo. So, I did as told and called, leaving his answering service a message. Then, I got to watch my BFF, who had been very nice to the girl who hit us up to that point, lose it. The girl had been driving her father’s car and was in her early 20s so do the math and figure that this young lady just knew she was going to lose car privileges. She kept trying to talk to me, find out if I was hurt and this while I kept trying to leave a message for my doctor with the answering service folks. She was young and pushy and then had the questionable judgment to demand to know why I was calling a doctor for a simple fender bender. My usually mild mannered BFF verbally knocked her block off, yelling that I was going through chemo and to SHUT THE HELL UP so I could talk to my oncologist. She quietly went back to her father’s dented car and my BFF watched in her rear view mirror with some satisfaction while the young lady sat in the front seat and proceeded to totally freak out. I am certain she thought I was going to sue her for all her daddy's worth.
I never so much as thought about making a claim. I figure this was the wisest course of (non) action on account of actually not being hurt and generally being as honest as the day is long by nature. The ending of this story is that a few minutes later, my oncologist called me back and did his job by asking all sorts of questions about how I felt with respect to possible symptoms. We were at the Shark tank by this time and the most festive part of the conversation went like this:
“Wait a minute, Julie, what’s that noise?”
“Noise? Uhhhh….that would be people, Dr. C.”
“People? Around your car, wait, where are you?”
“No, we parked the car, it was drivable. We parked it in the parking lot.”
“The parking lot, I see…Julie, can you tell me what parking lot and why it’s so noisy?”
“Oh sure. The parking lot is where the car is, not us, we are inside. The car is in the Sharks parking lot. Did I mention we were en route to a hockey game?”
“Wait a second, are you telling me that just a few short days after chemo and after getting in a car accident you actually went to the hockey game and that that’s where you are right now? AT A HOCKEY GAME?”
“Ok, ok, but I can explain!”
“Oh for this, I cannot wait, please, enlighten me.”
“Calgary is in town. Mikka Kiprusoff is in net. We hate Iginla. He’s the worst.”
“I see. Of course he is.”
“I’m glad you understand doc, say, it’s OK to stay, right? I mean its Calgary so it’s OK, right?”
At this point in the conversation, I could almost see his face, his eyes closing in pain, wondering why he spent all those years in medical school only to end up dealing with crazy patients like me.
“I am sure it will be fine but call me if you experience any of the symptoms we talked about OK?”
“Sure doc and thanks! Go Sharks!”
I thought that was the end of it and that I’d won but turns out, my doctor remembers this incident to the point that every time I see him, he gets a real kick out of reminding me about it.
“Been to any hockey games recently?” he will ask and before I can answer he’ll chime in with. “Because if you get into another car accident, you cannot go to a hockey game, OK?”
Yeah, yeah, ok, ok, sheesh but some people can get so testy.
I’m spending too much time with doctors.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Maybe it was inevitable, me and cancer. I never had the normal sniffles and flu as a child. I never had an ear infection until I was 13 and then it was so bad, both ears, inner and outer, that I landed in the emergency room and could not stand without falling over for weeks thereafter. Going further back, I had a genuine bleeding ulcer at the age of five that put me in the hospital and front and center with astonished doctors. Then, a scant year later, I spent months in isolation in a hospital in Hong Kong battling the most deadly strain of Typhoid Fever. The nuns, doctors and a singular Chatty Cathy doll my only company. Say what you will but I had medical drama down pat before I learned my times tables.
It was a lonely, frightening time for a little six year old American girl who spoke only bits of Cantonese. But there was a very old Chinese man who used to take his afternoon tea with me. He wore no mask and I think he was on the board of directors or one of the founders. Every day, without fail, he would smuggle in cookies with his tea, ostensibly to divert me from the daily round of needle pokes.
He had never seen such green eyes in his life. And I was a tiny, delicate thing, pale as porcelain and sweetly passive by nature. He told me I was special and he treated me with reverence and respect, a big thing for a sickly six year old whose world had dwindled down to the confines of a stark and sterile hospital room. He listened. He was the first adult who ever listened to anything I had to say.
Not sure what happened to my nature but for decades after, whenever I’d meet a new physician (and I did my best to avoid the medical profession whenever possible), they would invariably ask me if I’d had cancer as a child or some other life threatening illness. My personality, they observed, supported this kind of childhood trauma.
And I just thought I was atypically cynical.
But no, apparently there are personality traits indicative of survivors.
So I was different even back then.
There is also a doctor’s theory on personality traits of those he believe are most susceptible to cancer. I did not even want to know how many of those traits I possessed (hint, it was probably seven out of seven). And yes, I also had a traumatic event shortly before my diagnosis.
The article even has a table with the organ or type of cancer and what emotional issue/conflict that may have caused it. For breast cancer:
Conflict Concerning Child, Home, or Mother
So, this yaboo of a doctor is actually blaming my child or my mother? A mother who, had she not died so suddenly and for my family, traumatically, precisely one year before I got cancer, I would have been happy to blame myself.
My favorite is actually skin cancer which the doctor says is because of, get this, ‘loss of integrity’.
Funny, I seem to recall having loads of integrity, by the bucketsful, when I got skin cancer. In fact, I am careful not to even associate with people whom I suspect of even moderate lapses in integrity so I don’t think I could have caught skin cancer from slime balls. Is there such a thing as second hand cancer any way? And there I was, thinking that it well might have had something to do with being pale as death and there being no sunscreen in Southern California when I was a little kid while getting all those sunburns; something I can blame my careless olive-skinned mother for actually.
That and living outside and in the Olympic sized family swimming pool until I was 13. The medical profession may disagree of course, this doctor believes that I somehow lacked ‘integrity’ as the reason I got skin cancer. I prefer to think of it as the combination of sun, no sun factor protection and really pale skin. I may have gotten skin cancer but you should see my backstroke. And I swim like a dolphin. Spackled with water proof SFP 85 now of course, but I still can out swim most aquatic creatures. Just ask the killer sharks I managed to calmly swim away from off the shores of Molokai.
I keep staring table above, the so-called conflict theory/conflict issues behind getting breast cancer. Really? And I thought it was an over abundance of estrogen in my 50s when most women are past menopause. I don’t want my beautiful daughter thinking for one nanosecond that her frankly challenging childhood and adolescence caused her mother’s cancer. She already blames herself for stressing me out.
I think the easiest way to debunk this theory is how the doctor lists prostate cancer as being the result of, and I quote, “Ugly Conflict with Sexual Connections or Connotations’. Since one man in six will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in his lifetime, it begs the question; would these million of potential pervs be better off giving up with weekly visits to their local hookers? Or maybe they just need to stop surfing for free porn while their partners do laundry.
I myself should start worrying about my intestines because the doctor who did the study says that, “An indigestible chunk of anger’ may well lead to cancer in that area.
Somebody pass the Tums because I sure am having trouble digesting something.