Friday, November 22, 2013

Good Words: Opinions

Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

~ President John F. Kennedy

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mental Minds

When I packed us all up for Disney World, I was very good about bringing only the bare minimum. I didn’t even bring my purse; instead, I took the essentials out of the worn little bag and hung it up in the closet. The essentials of my purse turned out to be just five things—my cell phone (obviously), my credit card (which is niftily attached to my cell phone), my license, my Chapstick, and my blue Dana-Farber card. I hid the last item in side pocket of my bag, embarrassed, even to myself, about the fact that I needed it with me.

My reasoning was ridiculous, I know. What if I find a lump while I'm there and the only way I can calm myself down is to go to the hospital and for some reason, at the hospital, they need that card? That was about as remote a possibility as me visiting the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet less than three times, but still, it is possible, I thought.

The cancer card is a funny thing—both the literal one, tucked away in my carry-on bag, and the figurative one that far too many of us hold. Tonight, I will write about something the cancer card did for me.

I have dealt with anxiety for a long time. My anxiety has never been the kind of anxiety that I thought deserved any attention; it's not the kind that people aside from those closest to me would even know existed. It doesn't hold me back or hurt me physically. But still, it's been hard sometimes, and for some reason tonight, I feel a compulsion to write about it.

Thinking back to my earliest memories of feeling anxiety, a few things come to mind. To someone who doesn’t know this condition or illness or whatever it is, I’m sure these stories will sound beyond ridiculous. But to me, and maybe even others like me, they are very real.

One of my most anxious days of the year as a young elementary school kid was of the first day of summer camp. Feel free to laugh, but I'm not joking. My parents sent us to one of the most incredible day camps in the area, and there, the activities were countless. There was carpentry, Indian Lore, music, flag football, arts & crafts, ropes, gymnastics, boats, track & field, tennis, video, and too many other activities to even list. In fact, there were so many activities that every hour on the hour (except for the two hours a day that we all took swimming lessons or played at "free swim"), we each got to choose which activity we wanted to attend from a selection of three or four.

The first day of camp, the head counselors always held a clipboard with a fresh sheet of paper that laid out the “Choices.” The Choices were what we all called the grid of the activities that were available each hour of each day. For most kids, that paper was a chart of a whole bunch of fun stuff they could do that summer. For me, it was an agenda.

Some people may interpret this to mean that I didn't enjoy camp. That couldn't be further from the truth. I looked forward to camp so sincerely and I absolutely loved it. But intertwined with that anticipation and excitement was a feeling that I now understand to be anxiety. It was an overwhelming feeling of, How will I ever get everything done that I want to get done? What could a third grader possibly need to "get done" at summer camp, you may ask. Gosh, so many things!

First, I had plans to go to the Olympics for track & field and gymnastics so I needed to attend every session of either one of those (obviously that 45 minutes once a week with a camper's parent is where champions are born!). But what if one of those Olympic training sessions conflicted with arts & crafts...then when would I make my vase for my mother for Christmas? And I could never miss Indian Lore because that's when I would make the beaded necklace for my sister's birthday and I had to go to ropes to conquer the "spider web" and I had to go to tennis to practice for our family's summer tennis tournament. I could go on. In retrospect, this all sounds very amusing and, if you are spared a photo of how terribly nerdy I was, it may even sound cute. I assure you, however, that at the time, I was very serious about it. And I was not cute. 

Not that these constitute any big or interesting secrets, but I have never shared these memories with anyone. And in all honesty, neither of my parents ever put an ounce of pressure on me to achieve anything. Nevertheless, I was how I was, and since it was the only world I knew, it wasn't until decades later that I consciously entertained the thought that others didn’t feel the same way. Of course, my adorable little sister, the lighthearted one that every counselor wanted to take home with them, offered me plenty of evidence that I should chill out and have fun, but I was wired too differently to be able to chill out. Plus, I was having fun. As long as I was producing something, getting better, achieving ... that, to me, was fun.

Of course, there were some early memories of my anxiety that were, by no means, fun. Take, for instance, my first experience with a panic attack. I remember it as clear as day, although I had no idea what it was at the time. 

I was a sophomore in high school and like most others in my class, I attended the annual formal dance sometime in April, I think. We called it the “sophomore semi” and it came at a turbulent time in my social life, which is to say that it came before I was a good and strong enough person to know that Brianne was the friend I could rely on forever. I don't remember anything about the planning stages of that silly dance but I somehow ended up on a bus with upperclassmen who were smoking cigarettes in the back. 

I have always hated the smell of cigarette smoke but hating the smell was the least of my worries as the bus sat in the parking lot waiting to depart for the dance. All of the sudden, my claustrophobia met my anxiety and they went on a joyride in my brain. I felt like the smoke was suffocating me. I could barely breathe, my chest tightened, and I thought I was having a heart attack. I have absolutely no idea what I did physically in response to this mental monsoon. I just remember that afterwards, I was convinced that I had a serious heart condition. Little did I know, I had anxiety. 

Since those earlier years, my anxiety has come in waves. Sometimes it's almost non-existent and other times, it's particularly bad. For instance, when I was a teacher, my anxiety was largely in check. In my classroom, I was where I wanted to be and I never felt overwhelmed. Law school added some stress, though not in the I-need-to-do-well sort of way. I was oddly OK with not excelling there, probably because I started with no plans to leave education, and I never thought of myself as a law student or a lawyer. Ironically, this nonchalance was probably part of why I ended up doing well.

Ropes & Gray was a different story. For the most part, I didn't want to be there and despite how much I tried to fight it, I all-too-often fed off of, and contributed to, unstable energy. I generally didn't stress about "meeting my target" or dumb stuff like that. But I did stress about how I would fit in an assignment that needed six or eight of work on a Saturday, without missing any time with my kids. I worried about how I'd get to their school parties and how I'd keep my house clean and how I'd find time to go to the doctor if I needed to.

When I moved to a smaller firm, my anxiety leveled into an extremely comfortable place. Sure, I worried about terrorism and drunk drivers and cancer (doesn't everyone?), but generally, my mind was at ease. It has been a fantastic honeymoon for which, every day, I remain grateful. 

Still, anxiety is something that happens on the inside, sometimes without much regard to what's happening on the outside. If I had to describe what anxiety feels like for me, I would say that it feels like I'm trying to swim in the ocean during a very strong riptide. The waves are huge, or maybe they are small but they feel huge, and no matter how hard I try to swim out beyond the point where those waves break, I can't get there. It isn't so much frustrating, because being frustrated requires feeling some control over a situation -- some belief that, I could do it if only...

But the most real anxiety I have felt is more paralyzing than that. It's a feeling of, this is all just so big, so strong, so powerful, that I don't know how I will face it. And the funny thing is, that the thing that feels so big is usually, to a person on the shore, actually pretty small. 

Now don't get me wrong, I don't want an ounce of sympathy for these admissions. I don't feel sorry for myself or worry about what anyone will think of me (OK, maybe 2-3% of me worries about what people will think). Compared to others, I know that my anxiety is mild, and maybe that makes me freer to talk about it.

Or maybe, I feel freer because of that little blue card that I packed a few weeks ago for my family vacation. 

Truthfully, the cancer card gave me something for which I will always be grateful. It gave me the confidence to admit that I have things wrong with me -- both when it comes to cells in my boob that apparently wanted to kill me, and when it comes to wiring in my brain that made me stress out about wiping down the outside of my dishwasher (a whole other story)...

Cancer also gave me an excuse to say yes to anxiety medication. Sadly, I needed a physical disease as serious as cancer to admit that I needed some help with a mental condition. 

I hesitated to write that word, "mental" -- in fact, I deleted it, then added it back again. That, in itself, is so sad. Because I have learned a funny thing by having cancer -- our culture generally thinks of cancer patients as quite lovable. Unfortunately, I don't think our culture usually feels the same way about patients who suffer only from issues in their brains (unless it's brain cancer, of course). This is a very sad reality for people who suffer from serious mental illness. I know there's no use in comparing our situations, but I am certain that I have it so much easier as a cancer patient in our society than I would as a person with schizophrenia or depression, for instance. But why? A person wants to be schizophrenic or depressed about as much as I want to have cancer. And they're probably not going to have a whole community cook them dinner while they deal with their most difficult of times. 

But this isn't a blog about patients with serious mental illness. I know better than to write about something with which I have so little first hand experience. This is a blog about what I do know -- that even mild forms of anxiety can feel quite daunting. 

Enter the little peach pill. I take it every morning with my Tamoxifen and aside from one side effect that is beyond the scope of this blog (it's kind of R-rated), I have found no side effects of the Effexor. What I have found is that it has helped enormously with my anxiety. 

Of course, there is a great irony to all of this -- my anxiety is, in a way, better now that I had cancer. Let me explain. 

To me, fear and anxiety are not the same thing. Fear is more logical, more tangible; anxiety more inexplainable and impossible to grasp even when it's right in front of you. Fear is uncomfortable and scary, but it's anxiety that has, at times, made me feel like I'm drowning.

My medicine does not take away my fear of terrorists or drunk drivers or cancer, and truthfully, I don't want it to. If it did, I would feel less human and I would never want any medication to do that to me.

What my medicine does is it makes me believe that I can handle the waves. It doesn't make me think that I'm Diana Nyad or anything, so strong and so brave that I can swim beyond the point where the waves break. My little peach pill just makes me able to better focus on the wave in front of me and worry less about the ones that may come next. I know they are there, but I'm strangely OK with that. I no longer feel like I need to deal today with every obstacle of tomorrow. And in that way, it frees my mind up to be able to just be happier right now. 

Let me assure you that I am not a paid consultant of whichever pharmaceutical company makes Effexor (as a health care attorney who deals in the world of conflicts of interest, I feel a compulsion to say that). I'm just a regular person who never recognized anxiety for what is was until cancer handed me a few experiences, and a card that somehow made me feel like it was OK to admit that sometimes my brain wiring goes a little sparky. And I am very grateful for a little peach pill that calms those sparks down a bit; that helps me appreciate that summer camp, and life, shouldn't always feel like an agenda. 

The greatest irony in all of this is that I will forever thank my anxiety for helping to save my life. I believe that part of my funky brain led the healthy 32-year-old me to check for lumps in my breast and have a doctor take a look at the mass that I immediately found. And I'll trade a crappy sophomore semi and some terrified plane rides for the rest of my life, thank you very much. 

I can't even explain the stream of consciousness that led me to start drafting this post in my head while I walked to the train after work today. But I will admit that the freedom I feel in spilling these thoughts and memories onto my screen is indescribably liberating. Which leads me to my last thought in what you may think was a throwback to those steroid-induced blogs of the past. Yes, Effexor helps, but if I had to choose between writing and my little peach pill, I'd choose writing any day of the week and twice on Tuesday. Because for me, nothing steadies my mental state like sitting down and writing about it. And fortunately, there isn't even a co-pay for that. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Along for the Ride

Last night, just after we tucked Teddy into bed, we heard whimpering from his room. Brian ran up first and I trailed.

“What’s wrong, buddy?” we asked.

“I’m so sad vat Disney Wo-wd is ov-o,” he bawled hysterically.

We’ve been there before, following other family vacations or sleepovers at Nana and Papa's house, and we had partly anticipated this meltdown. Still, it was totally heart-breaking.

I usually take the lead on these rounds of kid therapy because when I was younger, I felt the very same way. But last night, Brian graciously took the lead and I listened, half distracted by my efforts to finish unpacking our suitcases.

Brian explained to Teddy that there were so many fun things to look forward to at home and that if we stayed in Disney World, we would miss all of those things—hockey practices, hockey games, hockey team dinners, Thanksgiving, Christmas, playing with his friends. Despite the shameless references to his favorite winter sport, Teddy wasn’t totally buying it.

Thoughtlessly, I chimed in. “Should we plan another trip to Disney World, then?” I asked him while I hugged his teary little face and a pile of clean clothes.

“Yes,” he replied. Then he started crying more. “But I want ev-wee-one to come wiff us!” he wailed. I totally understood and said that we would work to make that happen one day. Then Brian picked back up on the more realistic solutions (back to hockey).

Eventually, Teddy calmed down and fell asleep.

The post-vacation blues are, no doubt, a real thing for me and, so I've heard, for others. Since my last treatment four weeks ago, I had been looking forward to this trip with my whole family. That trip helped me face my first would-have-been-a-treatment day, which, for a few scattered minutes on November 6th, was tough for me. That Wednesday night, I lied in bed wondering what was different in my cells since they hadn't received any Herceptin that day. Of course, I had no idea, and eventually, I gave up and escaped into thoughts about Disney World. 

The trip was everything I had dreamed of (and more) and the only bad thing about it was that it had to end (and that it involved a plane ride). It was the ultimate escape -- the very opposite of cancer treatment, if there is any such thing.

The backs of our t-shirts said, "Go to Disney [check]"

Teddy introducing Big Pluto to Little Pluto

Teddy Ballgame and Tude-alicious

Splash Mountain
Now that our trip is over, I'd have to agree with Teddy that it's sad to realize that it’s all in the past. I'm sure I could cry to my mom about that and I'd bet she would help me like Brian helped Teddy last night but I think I’m a few decades too old for that. So I’ll just have to help myself. How? By writing, of course. 

To be honest, most of the time at Disney, I didn’t reflect. I literally just enjoyed the ride. Sometimes, even for a whole hour or so at a time, cancer felt like a distant relative. We danced in the street below Cinderella's castle when the parade came around and we went up and down the hotel water slide maybe 80 times. I thought about the most basic things, like keeping track of my family in the crowds and what kind of ice cream I wanted for my next snack. And I enjoyed every moment of watching how cute the kids looked as they took it all in. Now, however, sitting on my sofa surrounded by several different Mickey Mice, I find myself reflecting on my favorite parts of the trip. If I had to pick, I'd choose this one.

Whenever the large group of us approached a ride, Teddy would plot who he wanted to sit next to. Brian and I were usually at the bottom of the list and one time that Teddy sat next to me he even said disappointedly, "Oh nooo! Can I sit next to someone on this ride?" Five years in, I guess I still haven't earned my spot as "someone," but I'll keep trying, one game or meal or before-bed story at a time.  

Seriously though, I've accepted that Teddy is a loyal guys’ guy, and that Papa, Granddad, or one of Teddy’s uncles will always come first for him. I know how much he loves me even if he shows it in the most subtle of ways, my most favorite being that when he goes to bed before I get home, he always cuddles up with the two pictures frames of me and him. When I fish those frames out from underneath the covers once he's fast asleep, I'm good to go for at least a few months without an ounce of new affection from him.  

My brother, Teddy and Annabel's Un-coe Sean, is very sweet about encouraging our kids to like us more when he's around. For the first day or so, Sean told Teddy as we approached the boarding dock for a ride, “You should sit with your parents, buddy.” He was almost embarrassed that Teddy always wanted to sit with him. 

For the first day, I repeated, “No, no, don’t worry. Sit wherever you want, Teddy," and Teddy chose to sit next to Sean. Of course Sean loved Teddy's company, but I could tell that he felt like he was stealing time away from us. 

The truth is that Sean wasn't stealing time away at all, nor were any of my relatives whenever the kids chose to sit with them. A day or two into the trip I explained this to them as we all boarded the boat ride in Epcot's Mexico. I told them how much it meant to me that our kids love them as much as they do. And I explained that when my siblings have kids and they choose me and Brian over their parents, I will happily accept all the love they give me. Because aunts and uncles are pretty darn great.  

I can't begin to explain what it means for me to watch how much my kids adore their aunts and uncles and grandparents; how much my heart melted when Teddy drew a picture before we left referencing Brian's parents that said, "I love my Papa and Nana and my house." He tucked it into his bag to remind himself of what he was leaving behind. 

I loved watching Annabel sit across the table from me on Auntie Lauren's lap at dinner, wearing Lauren's fancy jewelry and practicing her "A for Annabel" on the paper placemats. I loved how much Annabel laughed at The Lonely Island's "I'm on a Boat" remake that Rachel invented while we rode the ferry to dinner one night (Annabel obviously had no idea that Rachel was replacing profanity with the words, "Cookie Monster"). 

I love my dad and my brother for trying to encourage Teddy to sit with us but they have no idea how amazing it is to see that Teddy would ride the scariest of roller coasters if it meant that he was more like his granddad or his uncles. 

Finally, I don't know if there is anything that melts my heart more than watching Annabel tell my mom a story. My mom talks to her like a real person and Annabel loves it, so she just keeps talking, and talking, and talking. Kind of like I do to my mom. 

*  *  *

The cancer lens through which I now look at life is getting thinner but it is still very much there. I don't think I've ever escaped more from behind that lens than I did while we were at Disney World. Still, the lens persists. 

The funny thing about the cancer lens is that from behind it, tragedy and sheer joy can be completely intertwined. Because for me, as a young mother just out of cancer treatment, my kids' love of their extended family is more than just a cute photo opportunity. It's proof that my kids can enjoy the ride. Even if they're not sitting next to me. 

Good Words: Patience

Patience is also a form of action. 
~Auguste Rodin

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Flash Mob (Part One)

I have never been one who likes to make a scene. When Brian proposed to me on the steps of the art museum on Bowdoin's quad, I even hoped that the two girls sitting on the grass a few hundred yards away didn't notice us. I just wanted us to have our moment, alone, without any special attention. Brian and I have never talked about that part of his proposal, but I know him enough to know that he felt the same way.

My family members aren't ones who like to make a scene either, but they most certainly are ones who like to celebrate things that deserve to be celebrated. So four weeks ago, as my last treatment quickly approached, it dawned on me that they may have something planned, maybe even something that would result in a scene with me center stage.

At the time, I wasn't in the mood for celebration. I was ambivalent about ending treatment; terrified about being let loose into a world that somehow gave me cancer, and without any more chemotherapy or Herceptin to fight it. So through an email to my immediate family, I came clean.

The week before my last treatment day, I told them that I just wanted to keep it simple. I didn't want anyone taking off work to join Brian, my mom, and I at Dana-Farber. I just wanted to walk in and out of my infusion as quietly and peacefully as possible. I knew that there were patients in that infusion suite who may never have the sort of "I did it," celebration that I was blessed to have. Yawkey 9 serves sarcoma patients as well as breast cancer patients and some other types of cancers, and I knew that my prognosis was much better than many others treated on that floor. I didn't want anyone to feel like I was rubbing that in, even if inadvertently. 

Little did I know, however, that for the past six months, my family, lead of course by my mom's heroic efforts, had planned something big. They had planned a trip to Disney World for ten of us; a trip to the place that I had written about way back in August 2012, as the place we would go when I was cancer free. They had planned an awesome celebration and they had planned to tell me right after my last infusion.

My family joked with me after the fact that my email really threw them for a loop. Nevertheless, they understood where I was coming from and quickly adjusted. The celebration they had been planned for the infusion floor was moved to a private conference room in the Volunteer Services corner of Dana-Farber. After my infusion, my mom and Brian lead me to that area with a fake reason why we needed to go there. When I walked in and saw my whole family assembled -- even the kids who Brian and I had dropped off at school just a few hours before, and my sister from Washington, D.C., as well as my Aunt Helen and cousin Kirsten from New Jersey, I was in complete shock. Completely awesome shock.

Today as my mom and I sat on the plane en route to Orlando, we got talking about that day just over three weeks earlier. My mom mentioned that she thought that people in the infusion suite would have loved to have seen us celebrate the end of my treatment; that something like that could have given someone hope that he or she too, will reach a successful end of treatment.

Of course, my mom is probably right. Perhaps (mostly due my innate default-to-far-too-serious mode) I inadvertently nixed a chance for my family to liven up the infusion floor on Yawkey 9 and bring a smile to the faces of other patients that day. I never thought about it that way, probably because I really don't like to make a scene in public starring myself as a main character.

* * *

Yesterday I woke up at 5am, went to bed at midnight, and barely had a minute to go to the bathroom in between. Nevertheless, three different times throughout the crazy day, I sat mesmerized by a six minute YouTube video that seemed to appear almost everywhere I turned. I generally have a one minute attention span for YouTube, so those 18 minutes already tell you something about what they meant to me.

You probably already know the video that I'm talking about. Heck, you may have even expected a blog about it. While I hate being predictable, I admit my surrender to the expected today.

The video is linked below -- a beautiful young doctor who, prior to her double mastectomy, broke out in dance to Beyonce with her surgery team. If this woman doesn't get a lunch date with Beyonce after this, I don't know who should. Heck, if I were a rock star, I'd invite her to be one of my back up dancers. 

Those 18 minutes of Dr. Cohan and her team dancing held a complex blend of so many different emotions for me yesterday; even more so than any other regularly complex 18 minutes lately. First and foremost, I was fascinated by the setting. I never saw the inside of the operating room before my surgery. The nurses had taken my glasses prior to rolling me down the hall to the O.R. so I couldn't see a darn thing. Plus, I was already so drugged up that if I had tried to get up and dance, I'd have face-planted into the table with the surgical tools. So as Dr. Cohan danced on my first view of the video, I couldn't help but look around that room and imagine myself on that bed. As if I were a detective solving a mystery, I peaked into every corner of the camera's frame to see what may have surrounded me in those five hours that I will never remember.

On my first viewing of the video, despite my little peach pill, some heavy anxiety crept up on me. I couldn't help but wonder, Should the surgeons and nurses all be this relaxed before such an important procedure? Shouldn't everyone be more focused? Sure it all looked really fun, but I'll be honest -- if my airline pilots were dancing to Beyonce as they prepared for takeoff, I'm not certain I would get on that plane. Then again, I am most likely discounting professionals' ability to turn on and off different switches of their brains. I know that I do it at work and at home every single day and if I can do it, then others most certainly can, too.

Once I looked deep inside myself, I also consciously realized that the Dr. Cohan dancing clip also made me feel personally inadequate. I'm not proud of that reaction, just like I hate to admit that when I see a woman's tiny waist on TV, in a magazine, or even in real life, I sometimes feel the need to pinch my own stomach rolls. As I watched that video again, I found myself comparing my own state prior to my surgery -- drugged up and near blind -- to this beautiful, brave, and joyful woman. I am so un-fun, I thought, disappointed in myself.

Granted, I am often un-fun and far too serious. I make needless comparisons between myself and others and I'm really working to stop that. Nevertheless, I don't think all of that is relevant here. What is relevant here is something that I didn't realize until my third time watching that video -- that I was doing something to Dr. Cohan that I try so hard not to ever do to anyone. I had taken those six minutes of her life that she let me see and I had made it into her whole story. I had thought to myself, She mustn't even be scared! Look at her! It must be because she's a doctor.  

Maybe Dr. Cohan wasn't scared while she shook it out to Beyonce. But those six minutes are just a small sliver of a much bigger story, one that I know next to nothing about. And despite that we already think Dr. Cohan is a hero from her dancing YouTube video, I would bet that those six minutes only scratch the surface of her courage and her awesomeness.

As I write this, we are thousands of feet in the air somewhere about halfway between Boston and Orlando. Annabel hasn't spilled her Sprite yet (miraculous) and Teddy is three bags of Doritos deep (typical). My mom is beside me, proofreading Part One of my book, and my dad is dozing beside her. My brother and his girlfriend and my brother-in-law are all ear-phoned up in the row ahead of us and my sister is on a separate flight to meet us there. Brian is faking losses to Teddy in repeated games of Tic-tac-toe, and I am seated by the window, my seatbelt tightly fastened even though the seat belt sign is turned off.

Thanks to social media and our love of bravery in the face of terror, we all know that Dr. Cohan can dance. We also know that not long after that video was shot, a surgical team removed her breasts to save her from cancer. Does that surgery make her heroic? Maybe not. But what does make her heroic, at least in my mind, is that despite the fear and the angst that I am certain she felt before, during, and/or after those six minutes viewed by the world, she still decided to let loose; to remind cancer, even unintentionally, that while she fights, she will keep her spirit alive and continue to get her groove on.

The day before we left for Disney World to celebrate the end of my treatment year, Dr. Cohan gave me a precious gift. She reminded me that closure or no closure, clarity or confusion, fear or fearlessness, there's often a way to escape into a moment to find a magically good time. It can happen in the operating room before a double mastectomy or it can happen 14 months later. Upon descent into Orlando. 

To be continued...

Friday, November 1, 2013

Same Old News

Life has been busy, in too many good ways to even count. I have been working hard at my real job, and every night after the kids go to sleep, I work diligently on my book. We are all enjoying the thrill of the Red Sox World Championship, including, of course, Teddy, and Annabel insists that we sing her "Dirty Water" every night before she goes to bed. We are all giddy with excitement over our upcoming trip to Disney World and not a minute goes by that I don't realize how lucky I am. Brian and I have started to explore adoption options and it is indescribably exciting to know that a lifelong joy we thought cancer had stolen from us is, in fact, still very much within our reach. In a nutshell, life is good.

Now, let me be clear, that was not a preface. There's no "but" to follow all of that happiness. There is, however, an "and."

*  *  *

When Scott Herr died tragically on January 1, 2010, Brian and I, like the rest of our town and so many others, were crushed. His death was so unexplainable, so cruel, so unjust. It was so sudden and honestly, so truly incomprehensible. Really, Brian and I both said several times after his passing that we honestly couldn't comprehend it. Maybe we were just in the middle of a bad dream. But we weren't.

The spring after Scott's death, some of the most generous people in town decided to organize an alumni hockey game to raise money for the scholarship fund created in Scott's memory. Annabel didn't exist yet, but I remember taking Teddy to the game. I remember the rock-sized lump in my throat when they played the national anthem, and how I tried so hard not to cry whenever I thought of how his mother must be feeling. I remember seeing Linda at that alumni game, and I remember exactly what she said to me after I hugged her and remarked at how great the fundraiser was. 

"I just want Scott to be here," she explained. I will never, ever forget that. 

I think of the Herr family often, especially as I watch, from a long distance, Ashley's family grieve. I see so many similarities between Ashley's mother and Scott's. Both of these mothers are as kind and as selfless as they come, and both had life's most precious gift stolen away from them.

I do not claim that my situation is like their's because in so many ways, it is not. But I have come to see one way that our experiences, and those of so many others, are similar. Tonight, that explanation begged to pour onto my keyboard with the force of a flood. 

What I've realized through my own cancer battle and through watching brave women like Joy and Linda, is that people, including myself, generally like linear stories; straight lines that move forward. We dread tragedy and the best of the best communities, like mine, unite when it happens. But then, so many of us want things to go up from there. We want to believe that every day is easier than the one before. But as anyone knows who's been through something tragic or really scary, life can be so very un-linear. Often, it feels like a spiral, and we are forced to wonder if things will ever stop spinning. 

For me, all of this comes by the fact that lately, I think I feel cancer. If you just thought something along the lines of, OK, I've already read a blog about this; Isn't she over that phase already? then you prove my point exactly. Truthfully, I am even writing this thinking, I've already written four blogs on this topic. Hence, the spiral. 

Joy's most recent Air for Ashley blog began:   

I just read the note I wrote for "two months later" and find that not much has changed and in fact, this month was harder. There is no "recovery" from this kind of loss. There is no getting back to normal - everything has changed and our precious daughter is gone and nothing is going to change that. There is no tidying up loose ends in a neat little package and going on with life as usual. Closure is a word for other people....other people who want you to hurry up and get through the grieving stage to make their lives more comfortable when they are around you.

Obviously Joy's blog is tragic beyond words. I'm not trying to acknowledge that tragedy tonight. What I am trying to acknowledge, however, is the significance, at least for me, of Joy's honesty last week and of Linda's honesty back in April of 2010. Because while our situations are all so very different, I understand so wholeheartedly the truth that often there is no "neat little package" at the end of a story; often, closure is impossible. 

I have come to realize that I may fear cancer for the rest of my life; that I will have moments at my desk or at the dinner table when I think I feel something -- a lump or a backache or some other pain or sensation I can't explain. Like I do now, I will keep my mouth shut because that's old news and no one needs to hear it. Of course, like Joy, I am blessed to be surrounded by family and friends who do not try to hurry me through any stage so that they can feel more comfortable. But sometimes I want to hurry myself, especially in those moments when I feel that cancer once again could be lurking inside me. 

Here's where honesty becomes a precious gift. Joy's blog and Linda's comment years ago remind me that while there's nothing anyone can say to make me less scared that what I feel is a vengeful tumor, I don't need to feel the pressure of moving towards closure. 

I am sure there are people who, without a single ounce of malice, will think that our family's trip to Disney or us adopting a baby or publishing a book are all evidence of closure -- all parts of a neat little cancer package. Trust me, I know how lucky I am for the chance at just one of those things and I will soak up every ounce of joy and victory that will come with them. I'd be silly to think that they mark an end to the torture that is cancer, however. 

I don't mean this post to sound redundant, another blog about how my hypochondria is haunting me. Or better yet, I guess I do mean it that way. Because I'm pretty sure that some of life's worst pain is so hard to bear because of its redundant nature; because it will never really go away. I'm pretty sure that straight lines exist only in geometry and that neat little packages exist only under Christmas trees. In real life, there are a lot more spirals than we allow ourselves to openly admit. And yet I believe that admitting they exist make them a bit easier for all of us to bear.