Cancer is teaching me to let go of timing. My surgery has been rescheduled for three weeks later, on July 5, 2016 at 2:00 p.m., not June 17th. Why? Because my original plastic surgeon was out of network and therefore very expensive. Even with my “silver plan” health insurance, the plastic surgeon specializing in DIEP flap reconstruction would have cost me $8,000. Plus a DIEP flap is an intense surgery to volunteer for. In addition to the surgery after the mastectomies, where abdominal fat creates boobs, there will be 1-3 other surgeries, all under general anesthesia, to do liposuction to obtain more fat from “donor sites” in order to “shape” the breasts. Sounds painful but it is possibly the only way a committed feminist such as myself could achieve a coveted mommy makeover without actually selling out to the patriarchal ideal of female, you know, because of the breast cancer trump card.
Implants will be just fine and there is just one more surgery after July 5th. But then there is a “nipple-creating” surgery. Oh and tattooing the areola. I wonder if I should get rainbows or stars or a series of tiny paw prints. But I will probably just get the recommended pinkish circles.
I went to my hometown of Crested Butte, Colorado a few weekends ago, narrowly avoiding the frenetic summer tourist energy that descends earlier and earlier every year. I ran into my friend Sue who had breast cancer 11 years ago. She generously showed me her rebuilt breasts and they were beautiful, as is she. Then we talked on a big bed in her house while her son, who graduated from high school that morning, enjoyed the fun party she was throwing just upstairs. I suddenly burst into tears talking to her and she just drew me close and told me, “This is what we do, we help each other.” Such generosity in the middle of a very big milestone for her family. But that is her nature. It is good for me to hear good stories and know people who are now recovered and cancer-free.
The next day I ran into my friend Diner who also had cancer 11 years ago. She chose not to have reconstructive surgery and she is so happy with her results that her enthusiasm is infectious. She gave me a ton of hope and a huge, long hug. She was the perfect person for me to run into right before I drove out of town back to my life on the Front Range. Her story has a happy ending too.
In those two days in Crested Butte I ran into so many people who gave me giant hugs and told me they loved me that I lost count. I walked through town in a fog of that love, and it took me a few hours to walk up Elk Avenue because I kept sitting on benches talking with people or ducking into cafes for coffee with them. I am so grateful for feeling at home there, in spite of having left 17 years ago. It will always be special to me, always leaves me wistful and wondering what I would have done if we stayed, and how we would have survived. In my deepest heart I still want to be there sometimes. And that time will probably come again, with patience and timing if I am lucky. I hope so.
My friend Kay is an ICU nurse from the Pacific Northwest and I met her on my first day of freshman orientation at Pacific University. She was a smartly dressed Seattle sophisticate and I was a country bumpkin feeling out of place, thinking college was probably a mistake. My fallback plan was always to be on ski patrol in Crested Butte, do construction work in the summers and be a fulltime writer. I didn’t need college for that, or so my 18-year old self said. At Freshman Orientation, as I was standing alone, talking myself out of college and my scholarship, Kay said hello to me and the rest is history. And now, 35 years later, she decided to fly out to take care of me for the week after surgery. As an ICU/surgical nurse, she deals with drains, bandages and pain management all the time. I am so touched she is coming. I am also touched by my friend Kitty’s offer to come help, and maybe she will be able to for the second surgery. Even my dear friend Glo, who around the 4th of July is as crazy busy as I’ve ever seen her with her birthday, the Black & White Ball, the Fourth of July parade and other events, offered to drop everything and come help take care of me. And Sherrie too, recovering from shoulder surgery, offered to come for a week. You know how to make a chronic caregiver cry? Offer to be her caregiver.
Still, reality crushes in on me a few times per day and I become teary. It’s a little about the fear but a lot about the sadness. I always liked my boobs and I am sad they are going. I wonder if other women feel this way. The boyfriend I had in Paris when I lived there my junior year of college called me yesterday to see how I was doing. We talked for a long time. Then my Paris boyfriend said he knew that somewhere, in his attic in Connecticut, he had a beautiful black and white photo of me naked in Paris, and that he was going to find it and send it to me. I don’t remember him taking it. I wasn’t exactly the picture of chaste young womanhood at the time but I kept my clothes on around cameras, generally. So I feel a little embarrassed, but of course I want to look at 20-year old me, naked in Paris. Especially now, three weeks before surgery. So I told him I’d love to see it but to please not tag me on Facebook with it which made him laugh. And then, because I was filled with both rigorous honesty and a bit of mischief, I told Fred a naked photo of me was coming in the mail soon from someone I have not seen in 30 years. Fred laughed and said, “Bring it on!”
These days I am saying no to caretaking but it is an ongoing challenge. It’s not personal, but I cannot care-take anyone right now. My energy is devoted to healing and I just can’t listen to negativity, and even the news is tough to deal with much of the time. I know I’m supposed to be of service to others, as a rule, but since my energy levels are so low (not from cancer, from stress), I can’t quite discern the difference between being of genuine service to those I love and to those who come across my path, and being sucked into an energy-draining, parasitic vortex of negativity. So, I am going to have to say no for now. And maybe I have to retreat inward in response to all the attention because I have to get ready for this big surgery. It’s not personal, it’s self-preservation.
That does not mean I don’t feel joy. I feel it every day, especially with my dog Lhotse. Pema Chodron says, “Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, how precious things are.” My dog’s spirit is big and is so carefree. She is happy just to be out trotting along a sidewalk, even in oppressive heat. She is just happy to be. And sometimes she brings me a stuffed bear to try to share her happiness.
Each day I try to wear life like a loose-fitting garment, but I often fail. Instead I find myself wearing life like a pair of size zero biking shorts on a size 14 ass, as I am riddled with various fears and attempts at control. It’s ok to wear both, and I am not averse to Spanx-like support garments when appropriate. One moment I’m so full of gratitude I’m buoyant and the next I feel I am stepping through a field covered in a thousand cow pie-sized fears that stick to my shoes. But shit washes off. Eventually.
I am still meditating. I am resting well. I am also in a self-imposed news blackout, or somewhat of one. I am battling nerves, bad dreams about a scarred up chest and my fear Fred will be repulsed and others too. That’s a bad dream two nights in a row. And who are the “others” I’m showing my chest to anyway? I am battling vanity and my insidious ego that predicts my nature is essentially shallow and furthermore, will not forgive disfigurement. My mother would not let them take her breast, would not consent to disfigurement, and it killed her eventually. Not me. I love them but I will love the new ones and still be loving them when I don’t need a bra at 80 years old.
I have a half-assed but helpful yoga practice that consists of 4-6 poses every day. I am stiff and uptight in the beginning but 10 minutes later I am better somehow. I haven’t gone to classes lately because I just don’t want to cry in front of other people. Even though Gary my yoga teacher tells me it’s ok to cry in yoga class, that everyone does it at some point. So I do my half-assed yoga practice and that’s ok for now. I have to forage for serenity where I can. My friend Leah said she went foraging for serenity in the mountains this past weekend. I love that idea. I am borrowing it.
Then there is a friend of a friend, a young pastor, with soft-tissue cancer and a lovely friend just last week diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Their cancers make mine look like the common cold, if the common cold required a double mastectomy. I feel weepy and say prayers thinking about them both.
I am beyond thrilled I will be at a 5-day writing retreat in Tahoe in mid-November. I re-wrote the first 7 chapters of my book after my diagnosis. This is a book I wrote a first draft of and then shelved for about 5 years. So a month or so ago I submitted the rewritten chapters and was one of five writers accepted to this retreat. So I am writing more and more these days with a goal to finish a good second draft of the manuscript by mid-September. It hasn’t been that hard to write once I am writing but I tell myself stories about how much more important work is, and somehow writing then seems frivolous. But it’s not. It’s saving me like writing saved me when my mother left me in the Philippines one morning when I was 10. I began writing a few days later. And that is actually where the book begins. It begins with heartbreak. But it is really funny too.
The owls are here only intermittently. The surviving twin baby great horned owl is a good hunter and around less and less too. Her parents observe her and the surrounding neighborhood with patience. I wonder if they have been having baby owls every January and bringing them back to the neighborhood every April and I just haven’t noticed for 17 years until now. I have been so driven working as an attorney all these years and it is just in the last few that I am paying attention to the open space and trees and sky around me, really noticing all the animals.
Thanks again for all the prayers, for Fred every day, for the people of my hometown, for my long lost Parisian romance, for the card from my sister’s Paris boyfriend Jeremy, for the Mindful Lawyers group in Google Groups, for my steadfast family and friends and neighbors and co-workers and colleagues and judges who have all reached out. You have helped me more than you know, and made me feel so much love and support that I am overwhelmed by the love every single day. Thank you so much. Now on to July 5th and what lies ahead.