In Dreams

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For the first couple years after my mom died, I had a recurring dream about her.

The dream would change slightly, but would always involve her still being alive, and having left us in some other way. She and my dad would divorce, or she would simply go away, only to return later. I would wake up from these dreams so angry. Why did she leave us? How could she abandon us when we needed her? And then once that half-asleep anger subsided, the wave of pain and grief would wash over me.

I suppose this was my subconscious’ way of sorting out her loss. Her death was so sudden, so completely jarring, that my psyche just didn’t know what to do with it.

I haven’t had one of those dreams in a long time–until today.

I took a sweet nap with my son this afternoon, a rarity these days since he’s hitting that age where naps aren’t guaranteed. In the midst of our slumber, she returned.

This time, I found out she’d faked her death to leave us. But she eventually came back and moved into an apartment in my hometown. She would occasionally text me, or send me a card in the mail, but we never saw each other.

In the dream, I called my dad, asking him about her. He said they’d gone to dinner and they’d had a good time. He said she seemed happy, and he seemed OK with whatever the status of their relationship was. I tearfully asked him if she said anything about seeing me or my sister, or ventured to explain why she left. He said no to both counts. Then he changed the subject and started talking about something unimportant that I didn’t care about–this, a bit of reality since he has a tendency to do that when the conversation hits a subject he’s uncomfortable with.

Upset, I went to see my sister. I asked her if she’d seen mom, and she said no, sort of in an exasperated way, like, “Not this again, just let it go.” But I couldn’t let it go. I remember saying, “Why would she go to such lengths to leave us? Why doesn’t she want to see us? Why doesn’t she want to meet Alex?” She didn’t have an answer.

The last thing I remembered before waking up was trying to figure out why she’d gone to so much trouble. I recalled standing in the funeral home, looking at her lifeless body in the casket–the bruises on her forehead from the dashboard, still visible through the heavy pancake mortician’s makeup. The plastic wrapping I could see around her wrist inside the sleeve of her dress–likely some sort of preservation method since we had to wait a week to hold her funeral because my dad was so banged up from the accident. Was none of that real?

I awoke with that same dazed, angry feeling I haven’t felt in years. And then the familiar rush of sadness. Alex was snuggled close to me, and I held him a bit tighter and kissed the top of his head, breathing in the sweet scent of baby shampoo and wild boy. There’s no way she’d miss this.

Grief is a sneaky beast. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, when it feels like enough time has passed to ease the burden, it sneaks back up on you, often in unexpected ways.

I’ve missed my mother so acutely the past few years. Through my pregnancy, motherhood and my cancer journey, I’ve longed to talk to her. To lean on her. To hear her voice tell me she loves me. That it’s going to be OK.

There are some losses you never get over. Some that shake your faith and leave you wondering what the hell just happened. Time passes and you learn to manage it, to move on and keep living. But that grief is always there, waiting to haunt you even on the prettiest of days.

Adventures in Hair Growing

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I’ve always had a lot of hair.

As a kid, I would suffer through sob-inducing post-bath de-tangling sessions with my mom, her hands nearly cramping from raking a comb through my long, matted hair.

In my 20s, I went to a stylist who called over some of her coworkers to show them exactly how much hair was on my head–circus freak-style. And my poor current stylist would sometimes have to take breaks while coloring, cutting and styling my hair during the waning months of her first pregnancy.

Of course, all that changed with chemo.

But here’s the good news (besides that clean path report): My hair is growing back!

And boy, is it growing back weird.

In Cancerland (that sounds like the world’s worst theme park, doesn’t it?), they call the situation I’ve got going on “chemo curls.” My hair is about an inch long, and in the back especially, it is curly. Really curly. Shirley Temple with a Richard Simmons perm curly.

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This really doesn’t even begin to capture the ringlet action I have going on back there.

Apparently, this is another fun side effect of the chemo. A friend who’s much smarter than me when it comes to matters of science explained that the chemo curls happen because even though it’s been months since I’ve had a treatment, the lingering effects of the drugs remain in my system. That’s kind of crazy to think about. That’s also why after six months to a year, the hair starts growing back as it normally would (in my case, not curly).

In the meantime, I have no clue what to do with this mess on my head. I’ve tried all manner of taming methods–texturizers, headbands, etc. I’ve also played around with the color a bit. For a while, I thought I might like to be a redhead. Then I realized, nope, what I really want is to be blonde again. It’s weird, but even though my blonde comes out of a bottle, it makes me feel more like me.

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Like a sexy Medusa robot

So, I went to the salon a couple weeks ago to get some highlights. I was amazed that the stylist was able to put my short, kinky strands in foils. That is some next-level styling, right there.

The result isn’t exactly where I was before, but a step in the right direction to looking more like the me I see in my mind’s eye.

That’s the thing about this whole losing my hair process–in my mind, it never really happened. When I imagine in my mind’s eye how I look, I look as I always have with long, blonde hair. It is truly jarring sometimes to catch a glimpse of my reflection and see how I really look.

I get lots of compliments on my short hair. A lot of the time, I think people are just being nice because they feel sorry for me having gone through this shit. Sometimes the compliments come from strangers, though, so I think they might be genuine. Regardless, while I appreciate being told I look “cool” or “sassy” or whatever, I can’t really love this hair. While I’m very grateful to have it at all, the current state of my tresses is just a constant reminder that something really bad happened. And something really bad could happen again.

So, I’ll let it keep growing. And hopefully I’ll figure out a way to grow with it.

Seventeen Years

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My sister, mom and me at the Outer Banks sometime in the ’80s.

I hate April Fool’s Day.

I’ve never really been into pranks or trickery, and there’s something about this day that gives mischief more of a mean-spirited edge. And social media has made it even worse. Every year there are the fake engagement and pregnancy announcements, fake moving announcements, fake whatever announcements. It’s annoying and not really funny at all.

Of course, my hatred of this day is about more than just an intolerance of childish tomfoolery. My mom died in a car accident on April 1, 2000.

There’s something especially cruel about getting the dreaded call from the hospital that there’s been an accident on April Fool’s Day. For a split second I thought, “is this some kind of horrible joke?”

This year, the anniversary fell on a Saturday, just like the day it actually happened. My sister Wendy texted me in the wee hours of Saturday morning, likely awake with her thoughts, to tell me that having the anniversary fall on a Saturday again makes it harder for her. I nodded as I read her words, feeling the exact same way.

Just as it was on that horrible day in 2000, April 1 this year was absolutely gorgeous. One of those warm, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky days that make you revel in spring. As I sat in my backyard looking up at that sea of light blue, I couldn’t help thinking back to that day so many years ago.

It’s kind of amazing that I can remember most of the details of that day as clearly as if they’d happened just last week. I remember the slight nip in the air, what I was wearing (a pastel striped t-shirt from Old Navy and jeans), what I was doing when the phone rang (lying on my dorm bed, waiting for my parents to arrive for a visit). I remember bargaining with God as I careened down I-40 to the hospital in Chapel Hill. I remember realizing my mom was gone when the hospital staff ushered me into a small, private waiting room outfitted with an overabundance of tissue boxes and Bibles. I remember being taken back to see my father, unconscious on a gurney, disrobed and covered with a sheet up to his chest–preparation for surgery. I remember the stunned voices as I called family and friends to tell them the awful news.

In the years since her death, I’ve tried to mark her anniversary in a positive way. Some years I’ve volunteered or participated in a charity walk, others I just try to do fun things to keep the mood light and my mind off the sadness.

This year, I spent the day with Rodney and Alex. We ate pancakes for breakfast, snuggled in bed watching cartoons, went to swim class, went to our neighborhood Easter egg hunt and played in the yard. Nothing particularly remarkable, but without a doubt a good day.

I think this is what my mom would want–her loved ones moving on, living their lives. She’d want to be remembered–and she was–but I don’t think she’d want me or my sister to dwell. I told Wendy this when I returned her text. I asked what she had planned–a trip to Virginia with her boyfriend to see an art exhibition–and told her my plans for the day. And then I told her I loved her.

I know somewhere out there in the ether, my mom was glad.

 

 

A Letter to My Fear

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This morning I had my first appointment with a counselor at the cancer center. Our session was mostly paperwork and getting-to-know-you questions, but toward the end, she asked me what tools I’m currently using to cope with my emotions in the wake of my diagnosis and treatment.

I told her about this blog and other writing I do, and before I left, she encouraged me to use some writing exercises to help work through all the feelings I’m experiencing now. One of her suggestions was to write a letter to my fear and/or my cancer. It sounds kind of hokey, but I’m going to give it a shot, starting with fear. Here goes.

Fear,

I won’t use the salutation “dear,” as you are no more dear to me than a smear of shit on the bottom of my shoe. You are no friend of mine. You are the enemy. You live to undermine me. To torture me. To keep me cowering in the dark, unable to make a move without worry or anxiety.

You’ve always been around. Even before cancer, you’d rear your ugly head before big presentations, on airplanes and even on days that should have been nothing but happy, like my wedding or the day my son was born.

But now, you’re especially vicious. You’re around every corner, it seems. No longer content to just lurk in the shadows, you parade around in the bright light of day, emboldened and relentless. You don’t care if I’m at work, at home, in the middle of something important or joyous. Like the unwelcome guest that you are, you horn in on good moments, popping up in places you don’t belong. You rob me of sleep, of solitude, of peace.

You drive me to Google symptoms over and over again. Pelvic pain. Back pain. Neck pain. Every little twinge sends me into a frenzy. The old me would chalk it up to sleeping wrong, exercising too hard or eating too much rich food. I’d pop an Advil or antacid and keep on moving. But with you on my shoulder, such nonchalance is impossible. Nothing is brushed off. There’s no such thing as just a little ache. Everything must be over-analyzed, scrutinized, fretted over. Every little feeling could be the beginning of impending doom when you take over my brain.

And here’s the thing–I don’t know how to shake you. I know my good buddy time will help me, but he takes his…well…time to do that. So what am I to do until then? Just put up with you? Allow you to control me? Allow you to make my life hell?

And if we’re being truthful here, even time won’t banish you from my life completely. You’ll always be there in some way, lurking around along the edges, just waiting for the opportunity to strike. You can smell my vulnerability like blood in the water–you know all my soft spots and when I’m at my weakest. No predator has ever stalked his prey with more deft cunning than you.

My only course of action is to face you. To call you out. To tell you to fuck off. To allow the rational side of my brain to tamp down the irrational, obsessive side more often. I know this will not be easy. This is going to be a bloody, brutal fight between you and me. But I’m ready. I’ve fought scarier, more dangerous opponents than you. Ask them how that went. I have reinforcements, and my team is stronger than yours. Let’s do this.

Until next time,

Jennifer

I Gotchu

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Me and my baby

One of the most exciting stages of parenthood is when your child learns to speak. There’s something almost magical about a baby going from this drooly, crying blob to a little person able to express himself verbally. It’s a long process, but one with lots of fun stops along the way.

In the past year or so, my son’s vocabulary has exploded. He’s almost two-and-a-half, and since uttering his first word (“mama,” for the record), he has become more of a chatterbox with each passing day. Much of what he had to say before was merely baby babble. And he still engages in his fair share of gibberish, but more and more, his words are actual words, and they’re assembled in phrases and sentences. It’s pretty amazing to witness.

Much of his current vocabulary revolves around cartoon characters (Mickey Mouse and the Paw Patrol are big topics of conversation in our house), his favorite foods (hot dogs, grilled cheese, apple juice) and there are a couple words he’s uttered that I’m mortified he knows (we blame dad’s potty mouth for those gems). But for me, there are two phrases he uses often that just about melt me to the floor.

“I pick you,” is the toddler version of “I’d like to be picked up.” He almost always holds his hands up to me as he says it, and there is nothing sweeter as a mama than to have your baby stand before you with his arms raised, essentially saying he chooses you. Does he necessarily mean it in a literal sense? No. But in a way he does because my arms are the ones he wants wrapped around him.

Which leads me to my current favorite toddler phrase–“I gotchu, Mama.” This is usually uttered late at night, little arms wrapped around my neck, head resting on my shoulder, or in the morning when he wakes up in the bed next to me and clutches tightly for a groggy hug.

If I could bottle the feeling it gives me, I’d be a millionaire. It’s the salve that cures the trivial woes of the day. It’s the balm that heals any hurt feelings. It’s what dries my tears of fear, worry and anxiety when the darkness comes. Hearing those sweet words whispered in my ear as my child clutches me lovingly makes everything better.

Having cancer has changed me as a parent. Yes, I still have my bad days/moments and get frustrated by crankiness, tantrums and misbehavior. But I tend to pause and savor the good moments a bit more nowadays. I know how important these moments are–even the littlest ones–and I’m so thankful to be here for each and every one of them.

 

On Shoes Dropping

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Last fall when I was really sick after my first dose of Taxol, my dear friend Carla sent me an incredible book to help wile away the hours of headaches, fever and worry.

The book was “In the Body of the World,” a memoir by Eve Ensler, the writer and activist best known for creating “The Vagina Monologues.” It details her fight with uterine cancer, while giving a healthy dose of perspective in the form of harrowing tales of the horrifically abused women she advocates for in the Congo.

While I related to her words and experiences on so many levels, one point she made really resonated with me above all others. Ensler talks about her cancer diagnosis and dealing with the feelings of “why me?” She explains that having survived sexual abuse at the hands of her father, as well as abusive relationships with other men, she sort of felt like she’d been through her really bad thing. And now, even though she’d already been through hell, she was being put through it again.

Yes! I know it’s unrealistic, but after my mom died, I sort of felt like I’d paid my heartache dues. Sure, I knew there were plenty of bad things that could and would happen to me, but I felt like maybe I’d earned a pass to not have to experience anything really catastrophic for a while.

As Ensler and I both learned, unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to people who’ve already been through more than their fair share of bad things. Bad things happen on top of other bad things. Bad things don’t have a rhyme or reason. There’s no real pattern. And that’s what makes them so damn scary.

As I walk this path of survivorship, it’s hard for me to keep the fear at bay knowing this truth. There are no free passes. This shit could come back. It could come back today, next week, next year. There’s no guarantee.

I made a therapy appointment today. As I wrestle with all these feelings, I know this is the right move for me. Thankfully, the cancer center has counselors on staff to help people like me make sense of all this and try to move on with our lives. I’m excited to take the first step.

 

Recovery, Part Deux

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Very early yesterday morning, Rodney and I went to the day surgery center for my exchange procedure. After a short wait, the staff ushered me back to one of the staging rooms for all the pre-surgery prep. That includes donning some really sexy hospital shorts (which I’m grateful for since they kept me from flashing people as I walked down the hall in my gown) and getting my chest marked up by my plastic surgeon.

After getting hooked up to an IV, the very kind anesthesiology nurse walked me to the operating room–a very bright, cold place. After meeting all the nurses assisting my plastic surgeon, I climbed up onto the narrow table and a few minutes later I was out like a light.

I woke up a few hours later in the recovery room. The surgery went really well–so well, in fact, that my surgeon decided I wouldn’t need drains this time around.

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I’m pretty sore–both my chest and stomach since she did some fat grafting–but nothing like my previous surgery. I’m staying in bed mostly, but I’ve been up and moving around since I left the hospital–I even walked out of the hospital to the car. So far, this recovery is much easier, which is really nice.

Thanks to everyone who’s checked in on me–if you need me, I’ll be enjoying some Hulu in bed (you know Golden Girls is on binge mode here!).

Here We Go Again

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I’m going under the knife again.

Tomorrow morning I’m heading over to the day surgery center bright and early for my exchange operation. This is the procedure where my temporary tissue expanders are removed and replaced with the permanent* implants.

I will also have fat grafting done from my belly to help fill out my chest and make it look more normal since the implants and muscle can’t exactly replace all the tissue that was removed. Much of my adult life I’ve joked that I wanted to suck the fat from my belly and put it into my boobs–who knew all it would take was a little cancer to make it happen?! (Sorry, I’m really into the morbid jokes these days.)

I’m going to have the blasted drains again (UGH), but hopefully  I won’t have to keep them as long this time. My recovery is supposed to be much shorter, too.

I posted a question about the surgery today in a Facebook breast cancer support group I participate in, and one of the members told me this was a step toward getting back to my old self. I really hope she’s right, because my body feels very not-like me right now. The tissue expanders are uncomfortable–they feel sort of like wearing a bra that doesn’t fit quite right all day. And then there’s this concave situation I have going on in the middle of my chest that’s kind of a mess. I know that I’ll never look or feel exactly like I did before, but if I can get close, that’s good enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Survivor’s Guilt

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This morning I had my survivorship appointment at the cancer center. This is a next step in my cancer journey–addressing what I need physically and mentally after treatment.

One of the things that I’ve come to realize is most overlooked/not talked about when it comes to cancer is what happens to a person after they complete treatment. When you’re in the throes of the battle, as strange as it sounds, things are almost easier in a way. You have a focus, you have a plan, and you’re really sort of forced to take things one day at a time–handling that day’s treatment, side effects, etc. There’s a routine of appointments, blood draws, check in, check out.

But then everything sort of stops. Appointments taper from weekly to monthly to every couple of months. Your arm stops feeling like a pin cushion (that I don’t mind so much). Your hair grows back (that I definitely don’t mind). Suddenly the routine changes, and you’re supposed to go back to your normal schedule.

Except, nothing feels normal anymore. Even as I go to work, take care of my son, carry on with my regular activities, things are no longer the same. There’s a new sense of fear, anxiety and even guilt.

I’m feeling the latter more acutely this week. On Sunday, Nina Riggs died of metastatic breast cancer. She was only 39. I’ve been following Nina’s story since last fall when her incredible essay about living with terminal cancer ran in The New York Times‘ Modern Love column. Nina’s story resonated with me in so many ways–as a breast cancer patient, as a mother of a young boy, as a wife, as a woman who lost her mother too soon. We had a lot of things in common–we even lived in the same city and had some mutual friends of friends. I wrote about Nina’s essay in this blog, and she was even kind enough to comment and send good wishes my way.

I’ve cried so much this past week for Nina and her family, her two boys in particular. Though I didn’t really know her, I got to know her through her writing and I could empathize with many of the things she experienced during her fight with cancer. I know how hard it was for her as a mom to know she’d have to leave those boys. My heart aches for her in that regard, and for them as  children who lost their mother too soon.

Even more bittersweet is the fact that Nina has a memoir called The Bright Hour coming out in June, chronicling her experience living with metastatic breast cancer. She wasn’t able to live to see its official release. But I hope it will allow more people to not only get to know her great talent, but also shine a light on a type of cancer that is generally kept in the shadows. Nobody wants to talk about metastatic breast cancer because it’s usually not a happy story to tell. But the fact is there are thousands of women and men who face and live with this diagnosis every year. And their stories are important, and I’m glad at least one of them is going to be told in such a public way.

As I wrapped up my appointment this morning, the NP I met with gave me a hug and congratulated me on reaching this point. I know I should be feeling celebratory–and I do in a way–but it’s hard to totally let my guard down and enjoy this moment. It’s a process, and I have a lot of work to go, and I plan on seeking some help to get there. In the meantime, I’m just focusing on feeling grateful. I know how fortunate I am to be where I am, and that’s enough to get me through today.

 

Ultra-Sad

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Last month I started taking Tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker often prescribed to women with breast cancers that are estrogen receptors, like mine. This medication helps block the hormone from feeding cancer cells, and works to reduce recurrence.

As one would expect, though, any medication that tinkers with hormones can have some wonky side effects. I’d heard some horror stories–side effects so bad that the patients had to discontinue or find an alternative medication–but my side effects have been pretty minimal, thus far.

That said, I started noticing some mild pelvic pain a couple weeks ago. Nothing major, just a little pain/pressure, mostly when I was walking or active.

Old me would have just ignored it and moved on. New, paranoid cancer patient me lets very little go unchecked. Though inconsistent, the pain persisted for more than a week, so I called my OB-GYN’s office to let them know (per the instructions on my Tamoxifen patient leaflet).

Yesterday, I went in to have everything checked out.

Going to my OB-GYN office is kind of a sad experience for me nowadays. The place is teeming with women at various stages of pregnancy–the newly-pregnant, with their nervous significant others in tow; the second-trimester gals, all cute belly and glowy faces; and the almost-done ladies, bellies about to pop with that third-trimester look of being completely over feeling like a beached whale.

I’m done having children. I’d made that decision long before my cancer diagnosis. But I still can’t help feeling a pang of jealousy when I see these women. I loved being pregnant, and there are days that I would love to be pregnant again, but that’s not in the cards for me.

This visit only intensified those feelings. After my exam, my doctor sent me to the ultrasound room for a quick look-see just to be certain everything was kosher.

The last time I was in this part of the office, I was one of those pregnant women, excited to get a look at my unborn child. I absolutely loved getting ultrasounds. It was so cool to see my little guy moving around inside me. That blurry black-and-white screen was full of promise and excitement.

Not so much this time. As the tech went to work, I watched the screen nervously, this time hoping my womb and surrounding area were empty. She made a few measurements, and when I asked questions, she gave me some vague answers–standard protocol for ultrasounds. But sensing my terror, she reassured me when she was done that it looked good.

My OB seconded that opinion when we met in her office shortly thereafter, going so far as to say that my uterus and ovaries were “textbook perfect.” Too bad these model parts are where no one can see them!

I left the office with a sense of relief tinged with sadness. Though my decision to be one-and-done was already made, a part of me still mourns the end of this chapter of my life. And I’m angry about the no-turning-back finality that my cancer adds to that ending.