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An Update on Frank and Nancy

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Do you remember Man of Science, Man of Faith, a story about my friends Frank and Nancy?

Frank was diagnosed with a recurrence of his cancer last month.  He was given 3 months to live.

It hasn’t been a month yet.

Three weeks ago, Frank and Nancy were still kind of hopeful.  Even I am not quite sure what I mean by this.  Maybe just that they believed Frank had some good time left and that he would surpass the three month expiration date he’d been given?

Exactly three weeks ago (a couple of days after learning about Frank’s updated diagnosis), I stood in my kitchen chopping vegetables and browning chicken for homemade chicken soup.  I was making it for Frank.   When the people I care about are sick and I feel helpless, I am compelled to make chicken soup and bring food.  I certainly felt helpless when I heard about Frank’s stomach metastasis, so out came the big soup pot.

A few hours later, when the soup was finished and packaged in big, blue glass bowls, I walked next door to Frank and Nancy’s house.  I dragged my husband along so he could deliver the large bag of organic fruits and vegetables I had picked up at the grocery store for Frank and Nancy.

I knew that Nancy would understand my response to her husband’s illness.  I knew this because she has showed up on my doorstep with food a number of times since my diagnosis.

Nancy accepted the big red bag full of produce.  But she did not want me to leave the soup.  She said that three families from her church had dropped off three different kinds of soup that weekend.

I insisted that Nancy keep the soup.  I said that they didn’t need to eat it, but that I had made it just for them, so they could freeze it or toss it, but I wanted them to have it.  I needed them to accept it.  I’m usually not this forceful, so I surprised myself with my insistence.  But they had to take it, for my sake, because I had to help in some small way.

A couple of hours later, Nancy called me to tell me that she hadn’t wanted to say anything, but Frank was only eating soft foods.  She said that he had tried the other soups but couldn’t eat them (or didn’t want to).  She told me that he tried mine and enjoyed it, including the soft vegetables and mushrooms it contained.  She said that he had even managed to finish a bowl.  She was so happy that she had to call.  And I was so touched that I felt a hard lump develop in my throat.

So two weeks ago when Nancy said that the soup was gone and she asked me to make more, I was delighted.  I was just getting over pneumonia and was so tired that it took me most of the day (with rests in between!), but I was honored that Nancy had asked.

This time I decided to roast a whole chicken.  I stood in the kitchen dressing the chicken, thinking about poor Frank and Nancy.  As I placed rosemary sprigs and a freshly cut lemon into the chicken, I recalled that day two summers ago.  Nancy had arranged a surprise 50th birthday party for Frank.  As I rubbed the herbed butter I had just made onto the chicken and under it’s breast skin, I remember how excited Nancy was.  She wanted everything to be perfect.

Nancy even went so far as to plan the party in a large and lovely space in the new town hall building — in another town a half hour away.  She didn’t want him to suspect.  She told Frank that the party he was going to was a graduation party for a girl they knew.

I was now chopping vegetables, placing them in the roasting pan beneath the chicken, and dousing them with olive oil and salt and pepper.

When Frank walked into the party room, we were all there.  His closest family and friends.  Nancy had even flown Frank’s brother and sister in from out of state.  So when he walked in and saw the fake graduation girl and noticed his own friends and family behind her, I think he was just as shocked as when everyone shouted “Surprise!”

I opened the oven and slid the roasting pan in.  It was time to start working on the soup now.

Frank was clearly surprised.  So surprised and touched that he wept.  Frank is a very tall man, so to see this tall man with a commanding presence stop in his tracks and begin crying was a moving sight.

I filled a large pot with water, chicken stock and salt and pepper, and I began washing and chopping more vegetables.

It was a great day filled with smiling and laughter.  Genuine happiness.  Nancy had done a beautiful thing for Frank.  Though she didn’t have a lot of money to spend, she made the party seem like she had a large budget to work with.  She worked hard on this day and she asked people to pitch in where they could.  She knew it was an important day.

It would come to be more important than she ever could have realized.

I gently dropped vegetables into the pot and added a touch of olive oil and seasoning to the stock.  Soon I would take the golden brown chicken from the oven and add juicy chunks of chicken and tender, roasted vegetables to the stockpot.  And then I would walk next door to Frank and Nancy’s house with my pot and with the hope that Frank would be able to eat my humble offering.

That was two weeks ago.

One week ago, Nancy said that Frank was now only able to drink the broth.

And things got progressively worse this week.  I remember hearing the distress in Nancy’s voice whenever we talked.  She was tired from worry and from caring for Frank around the clock.

And when Frank and Nancy’s son came over in need of a ride to school on a couple of the mornings (because he had missed the bus so he could help his mom take care of his dad), he was noticeably quiet.

Nancy was having trouble keeping Frank hydrated.  She was using a syringe to wet his lips and mouth.  I took Pedialyte popsicles over so she could melt them down and replenish some of his electrolytes.  But we knew they wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

Despite her vigilance, Frank had also developed a bedsore.  Nancy said that the nurses had’t been caring for it, so I took a special cream over that would help to soothe it and form a barrier.  But I was afraid that it would get infected and I knew that it must be causing pain.

Early Thursday morning, the phone rang when it was still dark outside.  It was Nancy.  She said that Frank was unresponsive and that he had wet himself.  I tried to conceal how upset I was to hear this, but it was no use.  I talked to Nancy for a little while and told her I would bring some adult diapers over.  They had given me these when I was hospitalized for my hysterectomy last year and had been hemorrhaging and pads were not enough.  I was sad when I realized that I had no idea back then that they would be going to Frank.

Frank came around again that morning and was able to talk to Nancy and his kids, but I knew that these things were signs that he would be gone soon.  My guess was that day.  Frank and Nancy’s son came over for a ride to school after he helped his mom clean and diaper his dad.  He was visibly shaken.  It was heartbreaking.  He is a good kid and a good son.  I was upset that he had to experience this.  His prom was the next night and instead of worrying about what kind of corsage to get his date like his friends, he was worrying about losing his father to cancer.

The day went on and night came.  At 2 a.m., the phone rang.  I knew it was Nancy.  I picked up the phone and heard a small voice on the other end.  It was Nancy telling me that Frank had just passed.  She sounded both upset and relieved.  His pain had ended and his suffering was over.

Cancer claimed another life.

Frank was just 51.  He is survived by his loving wife, son, daughter, brand new (5-month-old) granddaughter, and a large group of friends and family who loved him.

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Palliative Care at 30-Something. What Does it Mean?

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Palliative Care Integration Model
Image Credit: University of Alabama School of Medicine

If you’re like me (until fairly recently, anyway), when you hear the words “Palliative Care,” you think HOSPICE.

Hospice is a scary word in the cancer world.  At least that’s been my experience.  In Cancerland, nothing comes after hospice.  That’s it.  Game over.

So when you are a 30-something-year-old and you hear your oncologist tell you that she wants you to see a Palliative Care specialist, your heart might skip a beat.  I know mine did.

For me, I think it is because I was there as my grandparents went through cancer and treatments and eventually ended up on their deathbeds.  I was there when hospice began for them.  And the fact that the start of hospice coincided with the start of their palliative care was not lost on me.  So it’s only natural for me to associate one with the other, right?

Things were different years ago.  My grandmother suffered with her shiny bald head marked with surgery scars and radiation tattoos and burns from the treatment for her brain cancer.  She suffered with no relief until her poor shiny, wounded head lost its luster.  She suffered until hospice started.

The hospice folks came into her home, set up a hospital bed in the dining room, and they began her palliative care, finally, with some heavy duty drugs.  But she suffered until that point.  And even afterward because the pain control wasn’t great.  It was almost a relief when she slipped into a coma and finally died because it was so painful to watch her suffer and to hear her moan in her sleep when we knew that all hope was lost.

My grandfather’s scenario was different.  I’ve blocked out the length of time he actually suffered with lung cancer.  I was there, so I should know.  But it is too difficult to remember how long the cancer actually took to kill him.

What was different about his experience?  When he was ready for hospice, they didn’t come to us.  We moved him to a hospice.  This was where his palliative care began.

But it only lasted for a day.  We moved him to the lovely hospice home, they started him on morphine and gave me special swabs to keep his cracked lips moist.  The volunteers were warm and comforting and did their best to keep my grandfather pain free.  He died that night.

So it’s likely that my ideas about palliative care and hospice are rooted in my experiences.  I learned that palliative care was end-of-life care. But this is not true.  At least not anymore. So what is it, exactly?

From the Cancer Center’s brochure:  

Palliative Care is medical care focused on relief of the pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness.  The goal is to help people live comfortably and to provide the best possible quality of life for patients.

Patients struggling with the uncertainty of serious illness need comprehensive care and support.  They need to know they aren’t alone.

What Can You Expect from Palliative Care?

  • Relief from distressing symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping
  • Improved ability to carry on with your life
  • Improved ability to tolerate medical treatment
  • Better understanding of your medical condition and medical choices

***

Doesn’t sound so bad.  Sounds good, actually.  So I’m far less apprehensive (and maybe a little excited?) about my appointment at 8:30 this morning.  And I feel pretty lucky to be going to the Cancer Center at the best hospital in our area to meet with a specialist on their team.  Of course I’d feel luckier to not be 30-something and in need of their services, but I’ll take what I can get at this point.

I will let you know how it goes…  Though Percocet (Oxycodone) has been a faithful friend for a long while now, I’m hoping there might be something that works a little/lot better — and that’s less liver toxic — in my future.

We shall see…  Good night…

The Night I Lied to You

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Alright, technically I didn’t lie.  But I may as well have.

Do you remember that night?  It had been a muggy summer day.  But when you pulled up in your car at dusk, it was as if the humidity was sucked from the air, leaving a perfect July night in its wake.

I met you downstairs and we got in your car and drove.  And drove.  For hours with no destination in mind. I don’t think the destination was as important as the distance we put between your little car and our ‘real’ lives.

Into the city, out to the outlying rural towns.  On highways and country roads.  As the mixed tapes we made for each hummed in the background, we talked and talked.  We always talked like this, soaking up each and every drop of our time together.  It was as if we had never spoken before and had to learn everything about each other in one night.  And it was like this every time.

We drove into the starry night.  The music played on with professions of love and stories about loss and visions of star-crossed lovers escaping into the night together.

That is what we were.  Star-crossed lovers, you and I.

We drove through so many little towns that night, asking so many questions of one another.  We were playful and serious, thoughtful and direct.

A casual observer would think we held nothing back when we talked.  But we held the most important thing back.  You knew it.  I knew it.  We both knew that we both knew it.

But tonight was different.  I knew it would be different when we drove through that farm town.  We had already made our way through a handful that looked just the same.  But this place was different. As we drove down that dark road, your headlights piercing the darkness, raindrops began to fall.  We had just been talking about what you would do if you found out I was getting married.  Would you show up and tell me not to go through with it and ask me to run away with you?  Or would you watch me give my life to another?  Or would you stay away?

Though thoughts of marriage were far from my mind, of course I knew the wedding you were talking about was to your former best friend.  A guy who didn’t treat me very well.  A guy who you no longer seemed to care for.  Yet, he was the guy I was seeing.  He was away now.  Gone for a month on vacation with his parents.

And I had time to think about where my life was headed.  I was only 21.  I was independent and strong.  Bright and educated.  I was moving up the ranks at work, making a name for myself.  I had just gotten another raise.  I could have had a bright future ahead of me, but I was considering a move from the apartment I shared with a roommate to a place with the guy who didn’t treat me so well (we’ll use an acronym for him going forward — GWDTMSW).

And you and I were here, in your car, feeling as though we couldn’t get our timing right.  You were seeing someone or I was seeing someone.  Or both.  But we loved each other and had no trouble expressing our feelings in lengthy letters over the years.

But out of respect for GWDTMSW, we danced around the giant pink elephant in the car.  In fact, out of the corner of my eye I could see that pink elephant waving at me from the backseat.  But I ignored him.

And we drove.  Into a little micro-climate in this small town.  A fleeting rainstorm.  Heavy drops of fresh rain pelted the car as you told me it would be too much for you to bear.  You could never sit back and watch me marry another.  You would let me make my decision, but if it wasn’t you standing up there taking my hand, you would not be there.  I gulped as I considered the prospect.

The heavy rain gave way to a sprinkle.  And just then, this desolate country road was filled with frogs.  Little bits of green hopped in front of the car.  There were hundreds of them.  They extended as far as the reach of your headlights.

I made you stop the car immediately, lest we not squash a single one. It was an incredible sight.  Magical, really.

I jumped out of the car to scoop one up, just as I would have when I was 8 years old.  I was filled with glee as I held that slimy little friend in my hand.  And you were grinning, too.   Happy that I was happy.

I forget how long we waited for the frogs to clear.  Shooing them to the edge of the road was slow but rewarding work.  You inched your way through the thinning crowd and I walked ahead and kept clearing.  We lost some of Kermit’s brethren along the way, but the losses were unavoidable.

Afterward, we reluctantly decided to drive back to my apartment in the city.  We both knew the night would end when we reached my driveway.

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It still took time.  These were the days before GPS and we only vaguely knew where we were.  And we traveled roads neither of us had traveled before.

But I felt more found than lost.

We found our way together.  As we pulled up to that disheveled former mansion turned apartment building, you asked if I wanted to take a walk.   The area was divided into two parts.  Bad and good.  My apartment was a few hundred feet from the invisible divider.  On the bad side.  So we abandoned the car and made our way to the ‘good’ side.

We walked on the tree-lined streets, each dotted with lovely cottage-likes homes and large historic mansions made of stone or plaster.   We walked close enough for our arms to brush against each other occasionally.  You made a comment about how the people in their cars were probably wondering why you weren’t holding my hand.  And you said that you would if I would let you.  But I didn’t.  I wanted to, but I couldn’t.  Because I was loyal to GWDTMSW.

As we came up on East Avenue again, you stopped and turned to me.  And this was where you asked me to marry you.  You knew I was the one.  You had been in love with me for years.  And I loved you, too.  I knew you were the love of my life.

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I remember my response as though it were yesterday.  “Yes, barring any unforeseen circumstances.”

What kind of response is that to a marriage proposal?  It is the kind of response you give when you know that something or someone will get in the way.  It is the kind of response you give when you don’t want to lie, despite how much you’d like to simply say, “Yes.” It is the kind of response you give when the bad things you have experienced in your life have so warped you that you are afraid to just choose happiness.

We continued on our stroll.  Dawn would be breaking soon.

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Daily Prompt: Childhood Revisited — Dirty Memories

Written in response to The Daily Post Challenge

Daily Prompt: Childhood Revisited

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Photo Credit: creepypasta.wikia.com

Dirty Memories

Chubby little fingers grip a wooden banister

He leads her toward a strange basement

She is scared

And for good reason

They reach the bottom and he takes her aside

This is where it happens

Again

Her young mind can’t wrap itself around this

And for good reason

No three-year-old should understand this

But she will one day

He finishes

And leads her back upstairs

She does what she is told

She follows

He is her dad, after all

He takes her to the pony rides on the way home

This will wash the dirty memories away

That’s what he thinks, at least

But he is wrong

I will always have the dirty memories

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Resolved — In Memory of Julie

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Julie (left) & Me

I missed last week’s photo challenge, but when I saw this week’s topic, I had to pull out my old photo albums.

The photos you see here embody my New Year’s resolution for 2013.  What is it?

***To appreciate that life is sometimes too short — and to fulfill some of my bucket list wishes.***

The photos I’ve chosen are from a defining point in my life.  Why was this little window of time, this blip in my life, so special that I feel the need to highlight it here?

Because the girl in the photos with me is my friend Julie.  She was one of my very best friends growing up.  I loved her like a sister.  We laughed together, cried together and reached many a milestone together.

These photos of Julie and me are from a once-in-a-lifetime trip we took together.  I know, I know, people say “once-in-a-lifetime” but they don’t always know that for sure.  Sometimes they just say this to be dramatic.

But I am saying it because I know it is true.  I know that Julie and I will never take another trip together.  In fact, we will never laugh or cry or meet another milestone together again.  Ever.

Because Julie is dead.  She was killed in a car accident 5 years ago when we were just 31.

It still takes my breath away when I remember that she is really gone, but I often find myself smiling as I think of the time we spent together.

Though Julie’s death was tragic and horribly sad, her life was the opposite.  Julie exuded warmth and beauty.  She was positive and sweet and lived her life to the fullest.  She was courageous and didn’t let anything stand in her way…

…including me.  You see, I didn’t want to go on that trip.  I had never done anything like that before.  I wasn’t adventurous.  I didn’t think I deserved the opportunity to get on a plane.

It was about a month before our high school graduation when Julie proposed the idea.  Her exchange student for our senior year, now like our new sister, would be returning home to Mexico just after graduation.  What if we went to Mexico to stay with her over the summer?

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I was not the adventurous type and I opted to stay home and work until we started college in August.  Plus, I needed to be home to help care for my little sisters.  And I had never done anything just for me before.  How could I start with something so drastic?  No, I would not go.

But it wasn’t really up to me.  Julie would not listen to my protests.  She jokingly threatened to unfriend me (we had been very good friends since we were kids) if I didn’t commit to going.  She said she knew what was best for me (and I admit that she often did).  So, on one of the many evenings I spent at her house, she made a final plea.  Again I refused.  We were munching on her delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies when she picked up the phone and called the airline (this was before you could use the internet to book your tickets).  She pretended to be me and booked my tickets while I stood in her kitchen.  Though I halfheartedly protested and though I feigned anger, I was secretly delighted.  I knew I would enjoy this special time with Julie.  And I knew I was going to miss Judy (her exchange student), who was now a dear friend and that this was my chance to see where she lived and to say a real goodbye.

This was going to be my first real adventure, my first and last hurrah before heading off to university (20 minutes away – another story!) in the fall.

So we graduated from high school, Judy left for her home in Mexico, and we embarked on our adventure 8 days later.  Before stepping off the plane in Tucson (and driving the 4 hours across the border to our friend’s house), I had been a shy straight-A student who hung out in the teachers’ lounge after school because I could always relate better to people older than me.  Between sophomore & senior year, I took every single Advanced Placement class (and there were a lot!) our high school had to offer — and aced them all.  I was voted “Class Introvert” and could get A’s on Calculus tests without studying.  I thought A.P. Physics and Chemistry were fun.  I had been babysitting since I was eight and got my first “real” job the moment I was old enough to get a work permit.  I balanced school and mountains of homework with two afterschool/weekend jobs.  I volunteered a ton — you name a volunteer activity and Julie, jme and I signed up for it.  I had a resume filled with achievements.  I had a full scholarship to Cornell University and scholarships to a number of other prominent schools for Engineering or Biochemistry/Pre-Med waiting for me and I had every intention of continuing to be that people-pleasing, old-before-my-time nerdy girl…

I thought that maybe before college I would do something crazy like cut my long hair or start wearing lipstick.  I had no idea how this trip was going to change me.

It was an incredible 3 weeks.  Because Julie and I were staying with Judy and her family, we “lived” in the heart of a non-touristy part of Mexico where I was the only person with blondish hair for many, many miles.  We got a taste of what it was like to grow up there.  What an amazing way to see another culture.  Our many adventures included a 28 hour (total) roundtrip escapade on an old, steamy, smelly, jam-packed bus.  We were headed to see another friend (Juan–also a former exchange student) in Mazatlan.  The bus trip came complete with dirt roads, middle of the night stops by gun-toting “bandits” in the midst of nowhere, and people who were so scary that we slept in shifts because there had been a number of recent American kidnappings on buses just like ours.  As the only Americans who had probably set foot on our bus in a very long time, we figured we were targets, which made it that much more exciting for my friends (and nerve-wracking for straight-laced me).  When we stumbled off the bus, though, I realized that it was all worth it.  The area was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.  The days were amazing — swimming in the ocean, drinking pina coladas in the pool, parasailing and so much more — things I never dreamed I’d be doing.

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Julie parasailing in Mazatlan

And the nights were even more incredible.  More things I never dreamed I’d do.  All of a sudden quiet, shy me who hadn’t really dated much was dancing on tables at these gorgeous open air bars, forgetting about all of the responsibilities waiting for me back home, and getting kissed by older guys in their 20s (Mexicans & Americans alike) who could have stepped off movie sets or off the pages of GQ.

On the bus ride back to Judy’s city, I felt like a new person…  All of a sudden I had gone from being a cornerstone on the math team to someone who had 25 year-olds competing to spend a few minutes on the dance floor with her.  It was fascinating and exciting.

Our next stop was a lovely little town on the Gulf with mountains in the background.  Here we had more adventures with sangria, late-night swims, and mechanical bull-riding.  Then Julie’s older brother (who was in a band & lived in San Francisco) asked us to take a couple of days out of our Mexican adventure to come to see him.  Julie hadn’t seen her brother in a while and she had a huge crush on his roommate, so it was a quick yes from her.  All we had to do was drive to San Diego & he’d have tickets waiting for us at the airport.  Along the way we stopped to visit Judy’s cousins in Tecate (right next to the Tecate beer factory) for another wonderful night filled with yummy food & drinks and happy people.  No matter where we went (with the exception of on that bus to/from Mazatlan), I never heard a word of complaint or saw a frown.  Regardless of what everyone did or didn’t have, the people we met/lived with were warm, welcoming, generous, and positive.

Even the drive up to the U.S. was an adventure.  And then we were off to San Francisco, a place I had always wanted to visit.  We didn’t do anything too exciting, but even a trip to the grocery store was fun with Julie.  And, as it happened, the roommate guy she had a crush on actually “liked” me.  Julie was very gracious about it and happily let me have my moment with him.  He was 25 and an engineer on a big naval ship — the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.  Though he was quite handsome, he was nerdy like me & we were instantly drawn to each other.  It was odd for me to realize that I had spent my teenage years feeling awkward and burying my nose in books — and all I had to do was take my hair out of my ponytail and throw a pair of jeans on (and talk to people 7 or 8 years older than me!) and voila…  Eric and I stayed up all night every night talking.  And then we all spent the days together seeing the sights.  It was a total departure from the “me” I knew, someone who had only had a few high school boys show any interest in her.  [Eric continued to send letters & call me (and my mother!) for years after this trip.]

cancerinmythirties.wordpress.com breast cancer thirties 30s young bilateral mastectomy death loss grief

Julie in Spain — wasn’t she lovely?
(I didn’t take this photo — I never made it there)

Before I knew it, Julie, Judy & I were flying back down to San Diego and driving back into Mexico…  And shortly afterward, we made the long trek back to Arizona to catch our plane.  Judy’s family had a condo near the airport, so we spent one last night there — the 3 of us girls — laughing, talking & drinking more sangria in the hot tub (I hadn’t even been in a hot tub (or a condo for that matter!) before).  It was a wonderful way to end our trip.

That summer was — and remains — the best of my life.  After that I started college as a new person.  Still the old nerdy straight-A student who loved math on the inside, but with a new look and a newfound confidence on the outside.  I was always so grateful to Julie for that and so many things.

That trip was the last time I saw Judy… Until 5 years ago — for Julie’s funeral.  Julie was killed by a drunk driver in Spain, a country she loved so much.  The special young man she loved survived, but he was seriously injured — and he had lost the love of his life right before his eyes.  I was no stranger to loss or tragedy, but this was beyond anything I could wrap my mind around.  When jme, who had grown up with Julie from the age of 3, phoned to tell me what had happened, it was an absolutely heartbreaking call.  Jme got on a plane to come back home from Seattle.  And Judy flew from Mexico to stay at my house so we could be together to bury our dear friend…

Though her life was short, Julie’s impact was great.  She made everyone feel special and she touched lives here and across the Atlantic in deep and lasting ways.  The world was a far better place because she was in it.

cancerinmythirties.wordpress.com breast cancer thirties 30s young bilateral mastectomy death loss grief

Julie (rt.) and me
Early morning somewhere in Sonora, Mexico

So, this year I resolve to be more like Julie.  I resolve to check some things off my bucket list (and to make a bucket list).  I resolve to just “go for it” more.  I resolve to work on living my life to the fullest (I’m sure it will take me a while to get there, but I vow to work on it).  And I plan to honor her memory by trying to find and nurture the little light that she saw inside of me when we were just girls on the edge of new beginnings.

In Memory of Beautiful Julie – 1976 – 2007

********************

Weekly Photo Challenge: Resolved

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Resolved

The Daily Post: Weekly Photo Challenge: Surprise

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It was April 12, 2012.  It was the anniversary of terrible surprises.

I won’t name them all.  Just a few.

It was the anniversary of the day I was certain that my unborn babies and I would die in the hospital.  It was the day after Easter.  I had been hospitalized with preeclampsia since the week before when I had gone to my check-up and was told that I needed an emergency induction.  I was sent next door to the “best” hospital in our region.  The hospital with the Level III NICU.  The hospital that people traveled across counties and hundreds of miles for.  I had been in active, induced labor for 4 days by April 12, 2004.  By then, the preeclampsia had become severe.  I was so sick.  I was shaking.  I was bleeding (from a yet-to-be diagnosed placental abruption).  I was being pumped with high doses of pitocin to keep me in active labor — and competing doses of magnesium sulfate because my blood pressures were so dangerously high.  And I had gained an inconceivable almost 100 lbs in edema weight since my admission into the hospital.  My organs were shutting down.  I was hearing Christmas music when there was no sound.  I was dying.  And my babies were, too.

Fast forward to April 12, 2005.  One year later.  Two days before my babies’ 1st birthdays.  The day the woman who was like a second mother to me took her life… a woman who also had breast cancer young (but for her, her diagnosis came in her 40’s)… a woman who was also the mother of one of my two very best childhood friends.  I had known her for what felt like my whole life.  I had lived with her during a rough patch in my life.  And now she lived around the corner from me in a house matching mine.  And she had reached out to me and asked me to spend more time with her…but I was so wrapped up in my own traumas and exhaustion that I didn’t see her as much as I should have.  I thought there would be more time.  And then the call came on April 12 that I was too late.  We all were.

And fast forward ahead again to April 12, 2010.  This was the day before I learned for sure that I had breast cancer.  Nuff said.

But…

I had to put these difficult/horrible memories the back burner because April 12, 2012 was 2 days before my twin sons’ birthdays.  It was also their Spring Recess from elementary school.  So we wanted to do something special and make some happy memories for their birthdays.

We packed up the car the day before and set our sights on Philadelphia.  I never been there, but we had free passes for the nearby Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ.  Since it was “only” about an 8 hour drive and we had heard the aquarium was something special, we couldn’t pass the opportunity up.

April 12, 2012.  After a struggle with traffic and an almost unsuccessful quest to find cheap parking, we arrived at the aquarium much later than I had planned.

And I was already exhausted.  You see, only a couple of weeks before I was lying in an operating room while my gynecologic oncologist was performing a radical hysterectomy and oopherectomy on me.  I was 35 and wanted another baby.  But what all of the breast cancer crap would have made unwise and extremely difficult, large masses that we were all certain would come back as ovarian and pelvic metastasis, made perfectly impossible.

surprise the daily post weekly photo challenge cancerinmythirties.wordpress.com breast cancer feeding the stingrays philadelphia camden, nj Adventure Aquarium thirties 30s mom motherhood family sting ray tank touch wadingDespite this, I entered the crowded aquarium in a wheelchair and with a twinkle in my eye.  I was planning to enjoy the day with my boys.

It was when I was handed a map at the admission desk that I first saw it.  There was something special going on today.  At precisely something-o’clock (I don’t remember when the something was!), a few lucky aquarium goers would be selected from the crowd for a special stingray encounter.  Now this wasn’t your average aquarium encounter.  This was an opportunity to wade into the large stingray pool to hand-feed the rays!

I was determined to be one of the lucky few.

But there were a few major issues with my plan.

  1. My plan wasn’t a plan.
  2. I generally don’t win things.
  3. The place was packed.  And I mean packed.  Everyone with kids on Spring Break clearly had the same idea as we did.  It seemed like the whole east coast was in the aquarium.  There was no way I would be able to get anywhere near the stingray tank, let alone in it.

Nevertheless, I told my husband and my boys that I would be in that tank that afternoon.  My husband told me to give it up.  There was no way.  So we visited the other exhibits and made our way through the aquarium.  We were looking at the hippos in a giant tank filled with hippos, fish and hippo poo when I said, “Oh no, it’s 5 minutes til something-o’clock!”

Unable to run because of the surgery and my post-chemo fatigue, I asked my husband to push me over to the exhibit, an exhibit located almost all the way over on the opposite side of the aquarium.  He told me that it was impossible to get there in 5 minutes and that even if I did, I would never get near the tank and I would certainly never be chosen.

No matter.  I called in all of my favors and groveled, something I never ever never do with him.  I was determined.  So we weaved in and out of the crowds and crowds of people and finally made our way around after what felt like an eternity.  When we arrived near the entrance of the giant stingray room and pool, I emerged from the wheelchair and we left it outside.  I walked into a densely packed room filled with children and adults alike.  It was chaos.

And we were late.  They were asking the audience 4 questions.  4 people who were given the opportunity to answer the questions and who answered correctly would be invited into the tank.   The selection process had already begun.  I had already missed question 1.

Question 2 came and at least 50 hands shot up in a crowd of many more than that.  The tank-keeper wouldn’t even see me.  She selected a child in front and, with the assistance of her dad, the girl gave the correct answer.  Question 2 came.  50 or 60 more hands.  She chose a teenager in front who also answered correctly.

The final question came.  “What kind of seastar is this?”  I knew the answer.  My hand shot up with about 1,000 others.  She asked a child.  Wrong answer.  She asked an adult.  Wrong answer.  I was so buried in the crowd that she would never see me.

But then she pointed in my direction.  “The young lady with the longish red-brown hair.”

“Oh, that’s not me,” I thought.  “I have ugly short not red-brown ‘I’ve had lots of chemo’ hair.”

But then I remembered that I was wearing my lovely wig.  It was me.  She was asking me.  “A chocolate chip seastar,” I shouted!

It was the right answer and I was invited to come out of the crowd to get ready for my encounter.

It was incredible.  I changed out of my winter boots and into the crocs they offered me and we walked up the ramp to be debriefed.  We would be given dead fish parts to hold between our fingers and the rays would glide across our hands and take the carcasses into their mouths.

I could barely contain my excitement.  I had never done anything like this before.

cancerinmythirties.wordpress.com thirties 30s stingrays sting ray weekly photo challenge surprise hysterectomy twins aquarium camden, nj philadelphia mom motherhood infertilitySo I waded into the tank and began feeding these beautiful creatures.  It was an incredible experience.  And I made a new friend, a giant ray who seemed to want to climb into my lap like one of my dogs.  He didn’t take the food from me, but let me pet him as he slid up my shins and splashed me.

When it was over and we were washing our feet off and changing our shoes in the little prep room, I was so overwhelmed with the beauty of the experience that I felt the need to say something to the tank’s keeper.

I told her that I was surprised to have been chosen.  Shocked, actually.  I told her that this was such a special experience for me because for the past 2 years I had been battling breast cancer.  She told me that I was so young and she gave me a hug.  She said that she was a 10 year breast cancer survivor.  She said that though they caught hers early, she still looks over her shoulder, wondering if it will return.  But she said that it also makes her grateful for every day that she is here.

I thanked her with tears in my eyes and we parted.  She felt good about her choice.  And I felt grateful for this once in a lifetime opportunity to wade with the stingrays.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Surprise

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$50 Straws AND How Cancer Changes Everything

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A different day. A different place. In a less hospitally-looking reclining chair at the Cancer Center.

This will probably seem like an odd post, but I’m going to present a snippet of my afternoon from two different perspectives for no other reason than “just because.”  Thanks for indulging me.

Scenario 1:

Across the room, a girl sits in a recliner with a small table beside her.  She is sipping a large cup of tea.  The tea bag tag dangles gently over the edge of her cup. The girl stares off into the distance and a smile crosses her lips.  What is she thinking about?  Perhaps she is remembering a lover from her college days?  Maybe she is picturing a basket of puppies?

Wait… judging from a frame most would describe as thin and a belly that is unmistakably large and rounded, it’s clear that she must be pregnant — she must be thinking of the baby growing in her womb.  Yes.

Her eyes light up as she thinks of the “baby duckling yellow” paint color she and her husband chose for the baby’s room this morning.  “It’s not too masculine, not too feminine, and it will be easy to paint over if we decide to change it when the baby gets a bit older.”  She bites her lip as she wonders how she is going to wait for the next three months to meet her new baby.  She has slipped her calendar out of her purse and is making a list of baby names now.  It’s the same list she and her husband have been coming up with every night before bed.  But she thinks she might have a revelation and “the one” might pop into her head today.

She continues her list.

She is mostly alone as she relaxes in the large open room filled with beds and curtains and chairs just like hers.  Mostly.  She has a number of visitors over the course of the next hour.  Each one stops by to chat briefly with her.  She laughs and talks with them individually.  And then her visitors move on, one by one.

She continues to sip on her unusually large cup of hot tea. Her final visitor is dressed in white and bears the name of her grandmother.  Her hands are full, but with what?  It’s hard to say.  The visitor dressed in white sits across from the girl and then leans toward her for an unusually long time.  She holds what looks like a long, shiny pin or needle in her hand.  Odd.  But when she stands up to walk away, her hands are empty and she and the girl are both smiling.  She now has something pinned to her chest — a flower perhaps?

Just as her name is called she looks at her list.  She is clearly pleased with her accomplishment and is excited to share this new name with her husband.  It was her grandmother’s name.

She slides gracefully out of the chair (well, as gracefully as a pregnant woman can) to meet the woman who beckoned her.  They walk happily down the hall together and slip into a room nearby.  The door closes behind them.

When they emerge, they are smiling and walking again.  The girl is stroking her belly, as if to comfort the baby inside.  She returns to her chair as the lady in white brings her a cocktail with one of those cute little paper umbrellas poking out from the rim of the glass. She relaxes for a bit longer before rising from her comfy chair, bidding adieu to her friends and walking out to greet her waiting husband.

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Cartoon Credit: chibird.tumblr.com

Scenario 2:

I am sitting in a large, sterile room.  Across the way, I see a girl…or a woman, really.  She looks biologically young, but I can tell she has been weathered by experience.  Something tells me that she probably still thinks of herself as a girl in the quiet morning hours when everyone else is asleep.  So I will indulge her and call her “a girl.”  It’s the least I can do.

The woman, uh, girl, is sitting in a reclining hospital chair.  Beside her is a small table where alcohol swabs and some medical paraphernalia sit. She holds a large, lidded Styrofoam cup, the largest one I have ever seen, in her hands.  Dangling on the side of the cup I see a tea bag tag.  She looks at the bit of wisdom the tag has to dispense, rolls her eyes, and takes a sip from her straw.  Odd that she is drinking hot tea through a straw.  Maybe she’s one of those women who don’t want to stain their teeth so they drink their tea and coffee through straws?

Just then a nurse walks over to her and asks her to sign a form stating that she understands the risk of drinking this tea.  WTF?

Well, it’s not your average tea.  It’s tea that has been infused with a radiocontrast agent.  Is it radioactive tea?

The girl stares off into the distance and a smile crosses her lips.  She is thinking of a sandy beach in a warm place far away.  “If this is more cancer,” she thinks, “I am moving to that beach.”

She puts her hand on her protruding belly and secretly hopes one of the nurses will ask her if she is pregnant when she signs the next consent form.  It’s an odd thing to hope for, almost masochistic, really.  She pictures what she would say in response to the question.  “Of course I’m not pregnant.  I’ve been gutted.  Every part that makes me a woman (except the “V” one) has been stolen from me.  I am empty inside.  Dead inside.  And, oh, this?  It’s edema.  My belly is swollen with fluid.  No baby.  I’m here to see if it’s cancer in here, not a baby.  My fate was sealed at 33 when those lumps in my breast were written off as nothing.”

Of course no one asks her if she is pregnant.  They all know the answer.  They all know why she is here.

And she wouldn’t have the guts to say what’s on her mind, anyway.  She wouldn’t want to hurt or bewilder anyone.  She wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s day.  So she thinks about what she would really say.  “Nope, just fluid.”

She snaps out of her daydream when a second nurse asks to see the port in her chest.  They’ll need it later.

She slips her calendar out of her purse and tries to recall the appointments she has scheduled for next week.  Her fuzzy chemobrain has made it impossible for her to remember much these days.  She soon finds herself drawing seagulls and starfish in the margins.  “Oh, to have my toes in the sand right now and to be anywhere other than here,” she dreams.

She shifts gears and makes a list of everything she needs to do when she leaves.  Her 3rd graders — twin boys — will be waiting for her.  It will be dinnertime.

She is mostly alone as she sits in the large open hospital room filled with curtains on tracks and not rods, hospital beds and hospital reclining chairs just like hers.  Mostly alone.  A number of nurses stop over to check on her progress with “the drink” or to ask her to sign a form.  She smiles and makes small talk with each of them.  And then her visitors move on, one by one.  She continues to sip on her unusually large cup of hot tea.  Through a straw.   That’s probably so she doesn’t spill the giant cup of lukewarm possibly radioactive tea on herself.

Her final visitor is dressed in white and bears the name of her long deceased grandmother.  Nancy.  Her Nanna was one of her most favorite people in the world.  She watched her die a painful death from cancer when she was 8 through 9 years old. “My kids are 8, too,” she thinks.

The nurse sets up a tray with everything she needs to access the girl’s port.

She holds a long shiny needle and asks if the girl likes to hold her breath or if she applied the EMLA cream in advance to make it hurt less.

The girl laughs, “No, no need.  Just go ahead.”  She has been poked and cut so many times it’s not even funny.

The needle punctures her upper right chest skin and enters her port.  Now they will be able to push the intravenous radiocontrast agent through her chest.

The nurse dresses her port with a tegaderm and gauze.  With the little yellow butterfly clip sticking against the transparent tegaderm, it almost looks as though the girl has a flower pinned to her chest.  An ugly flower, but a flower nonetheless.

Just as her name is called, she looks at her list.  She is already tired, but smiles at the thought of being able to sit down with her kids when she is done.

She drags her body from the chair to meet the woman who beckoned her.  They walk quietly down the hall together and slip into a room nearby.  The door closes behind them.

When they emerge, they are smiling faint smiles and walking again.  The girl is doing that thing she does — looking dizzy and as though she is going to hit the deck.  She strokes her sore belly.  The nurse asks her to lie down until she feels better and says that people who receive the contrast through their ports need to wait 10 minutes for observation before they can leave anyway.  The nurse brings the girl a drink.  This time it’s plain cola.  Nothing added.  The nurse puts a bendy straw in the Coke.  The straw wrapper bears the name of a famous medical supplier.  “Yikes, a straw from a medical company!  It probably cost $50,” she thinks.

When her 10 minutes is up, she is so ready to leave that she walks out in her disposable drawstring hospital pants and stuffs her slacks in her bag.  It’s time to go home.

———————————–

So I was sitting in one of those recliner-type hospital chairs drinking oral contrast in preparation for my CT scan when I started thinking about perspective.  Of course the “girl” above is me…

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