Cancer is a funny thing. It’s very hard to get one’s head around, even 3 months after diagnosis and 15 chemos later. Who? Me? Oh right, me. Me. ME. There are moments when I forget it, then I catch my bald head in a store window. Me.
So far though, and this seems ridiculous to say, but I believe it has brought more positive into my life than negative. I am certainly paying more attention. I have connected with people from past, present, and future in ways that I am pretty sure I would not have otherwise. I have received more presents than any person should on a not birthday/not Christmas. I have gotten to fly in little tiny airplanes and private jets flown by incredibly generous pilots (PALS). I rarely pay for a meal out (really folks, stop that, you’re embarrassing me). My daughter has come home to stay for a few months, hang out, help out, and watch Supernatural! And then there is Judy.
Last Thursday my brother Greg called on his way back from Brimfield, an antique show he does seemingly 80 times a year but actually 3 I think. He often calls when he’s driving, to check in and stay awake (we both are sleepy drivers, often having to stop and snooze a mere 20 minutes away from our destinations… lame but safe). His phone started breaking up as I heard him say “So it sounds like Judy… not… very well. May be… to .. end.” Me: “What about Judy? I can’t hear you! What about Judy?!” Then he repeated what he said before with different words missing. “Is something wrong with Judy??” Finally, “cancer”. So apparently my friend Judy Carlhian has had ovarian cancer for 5 years and NO ONE THOUGHT TO TELL ME (I’m looking at you Greg and Gioia).
Judy, Gioia, and I were the 3 girls (oh fine, young women) in the Northern Studies program at Middlebury in 1981. We lived in Wolcott, VT, albeit in different houses, and attended the Center for Northern Studies there. We traveled to Newfoundland and Labrador, cross-country skied to class everyday of the very long winter (where it literally snowed everyday, heaven!). It was a magical time full of words like: boreal forest, glacial geomorphology, bergy bits (the little, or not so little, pieces that calve off of icebergs, yes, calve, isn’t that a cool way to put it?), puffins, Equisetum arvensii, Solidago canadensis, Gandor, and Red Bay. I could totally go on but will refrain for you non-northern studies majors.
Judy and Gioia came to Wolcott already fast friends. I have been forever grateful that they let me in to their pod. I felt unworthy, they seemed so capable, so “outdoorsy”, so worldly, but that’s typical of me at that age (yes… and now occasionally).
Fast forward 38 years and we have seen each other times that can be numbered on one or two hands. But those times were always pretty joyous, very much having to do with who Judy and Gioia are, effusive, loud in a good way, loving, with great hugs. And now I get this news of Judy’s illness. I got off the phone with Greg, googled and googled to try to find her number (thank goodness someone in the world still has a land line! and unsurprising that it would be Judy). Did you know that Waltham, VT has an online phone book? I didn’t and it’s the first of its sort I have ever seen but there was Judy’s number (thank you Waltham).
I called not knowing what to expect. Would a caregiver answer? Was Judy strong enough to answer? Maybe one of her family? So a woman answers and I ask if Judy is in and she says “speaking?”. And I say “Hey Juday (because that’s what I always called her), it’s Mary Hamilton” “MARY HAMILTON!? MARY HAMILTON!? Wait, I have to get the jam off the stove.” (apparently she’s strong enough to answer the phone). I hear her put the phone down and as she’s walking to the stove, she’s shouting MARY HAMILTON!
And that was that, I went down to Waltham under Snake Mountain the next morning and hung with my old friends Judy and Gioia and it was, you got it, joyous. We talked about family, the past, mortality, birds, mountains, and we ate watermelon, fresh peas from Gioia’s garden, sweets from the Vergennes Laundry, assorted soft cheeses. And it was real, and sad, and funny, and the absolute best.
As I was driving home I pondered if I would have taken action, or if I had, what kind of action, with this news years ago or even 3.5 months ago prior to my own diagnosis. I suspect I would have thought “Well, we haven’t seen each other in years. She’s got her friends and family. What can I add? What would I say?” etc. etc. etc.
This is where Freedom comes in. Having cancer gives one (me) the freedom to just do that thing I want to do, shoulds be damned. And treasures appear when I do. I am reconnected with Judy and Gioia and that makes me remarkably happy. I say I love you way more than I used to and as most of you know, I already said it ALOT. I forgive more easily (and I forget a ton so that works out for all of you) and I apologize more easily. All in all if this cancer doesn’t kill me, I am pretty sure I’ll come out of this a better person. And, if it does, I am pretty sure I’ll come out of it a better angel.
Best Things, Worst Things About Being Bald
Best: You can shower WHENEVER YOU WANT because you don’t have to wait 3 hours for your hair to dry and that includes RIGHT BEFORE BED when you are hot and sweaty. So you slide into your sheets all cool and clean to find that your cat threw up under the covers. Thanks Primrose. Think I’ll go shower again.
Worst: Your finger nails don’t get clean while washing your hair because you don’t have any so you actually have to buy a fingernail brush.
When Your Friend Aces the Test
We all received the most excellent news from Mo yesterday. You will recall that Mo came down with this totally rare cancer 9 weeks before me (I think you do not know what rare means IBC). Well, after the most grueling of chemos with every fecking bad symptom you could have, her pathology results from her mastectomy came back with her breast and nodes clear of cancer!!!! Woooohoooo! That is an enormous step, but yes, it is just one step. IBC is cagey and likes to return so there is radiation and then hormonal infusions after that for 10 months. But that’s one hell of a first step.
And snuggled in my happiness for Mo is this little black doubt seed of my own making. In this exceedingly rare and aggressive cancer, what are the odds that two people who know each other and got the cancer within weeks of each other both have excellent outcomes? Should I have signed up for this trial? What if it’s a total bust? What if I don’t ace the test?
I have been filled both with a kind of survivors guilt over how well I have done with chemo, very little sickness, just a bit of breathlessness and fatigue, and being proud of my body for handling it all so well. Friends call me a “model patient”. Then while visiting Gioia and Judy, Gioia talked of the first couple years after Judy’s diagnosis: “she was a model patient, walking all the time (me too), gardening (me too), etc (me too).” Uh oh went a little voice in my head. So… being a model patient does not necessarily correlate with outcomes. Sheeeit.
And then again, that freedom somehow kicks in. “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know” (name that politician!) and we can’t know them til we do. So we pay attention, we do our best, and we show up (thanks yet again Becca).
So your homework for the week, or until I write again: pay attention, do your best, and show up for those you love, and even those you don’t know like the homeless guy who sits at your exit every day. Give him some change.