A Bright Light

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Today’s the day. The amazing book by poet Nina Riggs, “The Bright Hour,” is now available.

I wrote about Nina last year in this blog after reading her remarkable Modern Love essay in The New York Times about living with metastatic breast cancer. That essay led to a book deal, which gives us this gorgeous, gorgeous memoir.

I got the absolute honor of writing a piece on Nina’s book for The News & Record, the newspaper in the city where we both lived. It was probably one of the hardest–and most important–things I’ve ever written in my career as a journalist. Though I’m a writer by trade, I find it so hard to put into words the feelings I have about Nina, her story and this book. She has touched me in ways that I really almost can’t describe, at a time when I was most vulnerable and afraid.

Nina not only captures exactly what it’s like to receive a cancer diagnosis and go through treatment, but she also shines a light on the oft forgotten/overlooked metastatic/stage IV cancer community. Stories like hers are so important, and are so rarely told. Even rarer, told with such beauty, humor and courage.

I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It will move you, and it will change you. You do not walk away from Nina’s story unaffected. And you’re better for having heard it.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

The Ones Who Came Before Me

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I’m a member of a Facebook group for women with breast cancer, and yesterday one of the women posted a gratitude thread. There were all the usual sentiments–gratitude for family, friends, the group itself, etc.–but one really struck me. I’m paraphrasing, but she said she was thankful for all the women who came before us; the ones who did the clinical trials that led to the drugs that fight our cancer, the ones who allowed doctors and researchers to discover new breakthroughs, the ones who survived and give us hope, and the ones who didn’t, reminding everyone how serious this disease is.

Her comment reminded me of the above photo, which I took last week while working the High Point Market (a big bi-annual furniture trade show here in NC, for the uninitiated).

I was taking a quick lunch break when I noticed the huge pink firetruck parked near a group of food trucks. After getting my food, I found a seat next to the truck to enjoy my meal. Sitting alone on that bench, I started reading all the messages written on the truck. There were so many–it was almost completely covered!

The more I read, the more emotional I got. There were so many in memory of someone lost–mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, wives, friends. We all know that cancer can kill us. This is an undeniable fact. But, in the interest of self-preservation and not going completely mad with fear and anxiety, I try to push that fact out of my mind as much as possible.

Seeing those names reminded me the disease I’m fighting takes women just like me all the time. In the middle of Pinktober, it was both a scary and good reminder–breast cancer is not all pink ribbons and festive charity walks. It’s a real, deadly disease. It ravages bodies. It decimates finances. It breaks up families. The lucky ones–the survivors–bear the scars and carry an unseen fear (will it return?) with them forever. The others lose it all.

But those weren’t the only names I read. I also saw the survivors. The ones who wrote how many years they’d been cancer-free. The ones who left uplifting messages reminding us to keep up the fight. The survivors keep me going.

So like my fellow group member, I also would like to thank the ones who came before us. No matter the outcome, their experiences made a difference and I am thankful for those courageous women.