A Love Letter ~ “Nothing Good Gets Away”

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I have conducted many of the most significant relationships in my life almost entirely by telephone. With so many miles of ocean or freeway stretching between me and those who matter most, it is often easier to continue the conversation from the comfort of our own homes. There is always something to talk about even when there is nothing to talk about. Before Skype and Facebook, I treasured long-distance phone calls with my mother, usually during the weekend when we could be less circumspect about the time difference and the cost per minute. And, there were sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so achingly familiar we would fall softly into conversation, easily picking up where we left off years ago.

By telephone, I have delivered and received the most important news of my life. from that which cannot be shared quickly enough: “I got the job!” “We’re getting married!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the kind that startles the silence too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. From a village in Wales, my oldest friend calling to tell me her husband had been killed in a car accident: “My darling is gone! My darling is gone! Gone!”  From me in a hospital parking lot to my best friend, who, fingers crossed for “benign,” answers before the end of the first ring, only to hear, “I have cancer.”  Two years later, I wait on the other end of the line on one continent while she on another, enters my home and calls my husband’s name once, twice, and after the third time,  “He’s passed away! He’s passed away! Oh, he’s so cold. I’m so sorry.”

Thus, two people are connected in an ephemeral silence that leaves each with nothing to hold on to. 

Nothing but the distance between them.

Writing a letter is different, giving us time to shape our tidings with the very best words we have, but in spite of my best efforts, the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by e-mails and text messages, that regardless of font and typeface ( or supplemental emoticon) are just not the same.

I miss walking out to my mailbox and opening it to find the red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail – Par Avion. I have saved all my letters and will likely always keep them – to read and reread, because they are immortal reminders of people and places I treasure.

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In part, it is this sentiment that is behind the Letters of Note website, a veritable homage to the craft of letter-writing. Editor, Shaun Usher, has painstakingly collected and transcribed letters, memos, and telegrams that “deserve a wider audience,” taking me back to the reading of  telegrams at wedding receptions in Northern Ireland. They arrived from America and other places to be read by the Best Man. It makes sense then, that when I ordered the book that grew from the website,  I opted for the collectible first edition because it was accompanied by an old-fashioned telegram.

Considering telegrams and old letters, and the heart laid bare on stationery this Valentine’s Day, I am reading again the letter of fatherly advice from author John Steinbeck to his then 14-year-old son Thomas, at the time away at boarding school and smitten by a young girl, Susan.  There is both heart and craft in it, and the reminder we all need – ‘nothing good gets away.’

Steinbeck’s letter below can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,

Fa

 Nothing good gets away.

Happy Valentine’s Day 2017.

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world cancer day & the real warrior in my house

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My breast cancer is not just about me as I discovered when my then fourteen year old daughter decided to break her silence about it. In her own way, on her Facebook wall, and on World Cancer Day 2012.

Thus, on this day designated for speaking up and out, focusing on how everyone – as a collective or individually – can do their part to reduce this global burden of cancer –  I share with you her words and mine from February 4, 2012 . . .

The Real Warrior in our House

I didn’t know about a World Cancer Day. Until today, I’d known only about Breast Cancer Awareness October when the world turns pink for an entire month, so when I detected the lump on my breast on October 30, I should have been grateful for having made it until the end of the pinkest month, blithely unaware that cancer had come calling. Since then, I have encountered more metaphors of war in breast cancer’s literature than I ever found in my collection of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and I am uncomfortable. Within the context of breast cancer, I show up – albeit reluctantly – for every appointment, procedure, and surgery.  As a cancer patient, I am doing what is expected. I am being treated. At best, I am obedient. Not battling. Not a warrior in pink.

my daughter and meI cannot say the same for my darling girl.  Just a heart-beat ago, she was so tiny, asleep and swaddled, snug in the space between the crook of her daddy’s arm and the tips of his fingers. Safe and secure.

Then, too soon, fourteen and tall, impersonating “strong and stoic,” leaning on her beloved dad and he on her as they wait for surgeons bearing good tidings. Neither feels safe nor secure. Squaring up with a false bravado, she confronts the wild fear that her mother might die yet balks at the notion of wearing the “kid with the sick mom” mantel. She does not want her teachers to know about it in case they might feel sorry for her and give her a good grade out of sympathy.  Mostly, she doesn’t want her friends to feel awkward around her, to tiptoe as if on egg-shells, afraid to say “cancer.” A quick study, she has grown keenly aware of the pink stuff of breast cancer, confounded by “I love boobie bracelets” casually wrapped around teenage wrists when her instinct is to defend me because I was unable, technically, to “keep a breast.

Remember fourteen? A time for rebellion, for rolling your eyes at your mother’s taste in clothes or music because she was your mother for God’s sake and therefore “so embarrassing.” Fourteen was for pushing boundaries and buttons and for experimenting with make-up and myriad ways to style your hair or sign your name -with hearts instead of dots above “i’s”.

For my girl, this rite of passage is forever marred by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, before which she didn’t have to feel as guilty about perfectly acceptable and anticipated acts of rebellion. It is unforgivably unfair. But that’s the nature of breast cancer, isn’t it? Unfair. Lest I forget how it has interrupted her life, I am considering today the first time my daughter spoke of the cancer that entered our home like a thief in the night.

I didn’t know – and I’m sure I still don’t –  the extent to which my cancer has shaken my beautiful daughter, stirred a fear that others dear to her may be at risk.  So when I read the note she posted on her Facebook page on February 4, 2012, World Cancer Day,  I realized she needed to tell – to share with anyone who would listen, in one fell swoop, that cancer had come calling and that her mom was sick, to tell them that being aware means you have to actually do something.

She is the only warrior here.

She’s my hero.

Here’s her note:

In honor of World Cancer Day and my mom, I’m telling the truth … 

Each and every one of you reading this note, know this: you are important to me. And I don’t ever want to lose you. Please be aware. Do not think that just because you’re you, breast cancer won’t harm you. Infect you. Frighten your whole family. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. You can’t escape from it. And my mom, my dad, and I had to face up to that harsh reality. On November 11th of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She told me everything her doctor had told her. About how she had three tumors, and how they had been probably hiding there for five to seven years. Three tumors. Three of them, just sitting in there for all that time, never to be found by her mammograms because they were hidden so well in her tissue. Fortunately, two of the three were benign, meaning they would not hurt her. They were not cancerous. However, one of them was a cancer. Malignant.  My mother’s right breast had a cancerous tumor. But my mom had cancer. My mom had cancer. Mymomhadcancer. I didn’t hear much more of what she said.  After she said “tumor” and that only “two out of three” were benign, it was hard to hear anything else. All I could say was, “But you’re going to be okay…. right?” I asked that question maybe four times in a row. I remember later on she and my dad told me about the next doctor’s appointment, during which she would find out which surgery was best for her.  A lumpectomy or a mastectomy. It sounded like she was hoping for a lumpectomy, which would only remove the tumor. It sounded simpler, but it also meant radiation. Radiation is nasty. A mastectomy means removal of a whole breast. Soon I found out my mom’s treatment required a mastectomy. I would be out of school for a week.

That week, I stayed with my mom’s best friend, Amanda. Amanda is like our own family; she has known me ever since I was little. I stayed at her house once before, when my dad had major heart surgery. Now again, I stayed with her while my mom was going through surgery. Seven and a half hours. An entire school day of waiting. Then my dad – who waited the whole seven and a half hours in the hospital – called to tell me the news. My mom was okay. The surgeons were very happy with the results of not only the removal of the tumor, but the reconstruction of her entire breast.

I remember seeing her in the ICU, when she woke up from the surgery. Her skin was so white, as pale as Boo Radley‘s. Her normally inky blue eyes now reminded me of a colorless sky. I cried at the sight of her. She looked like my mom, only dead. She had been given lots of morphine and so much other medicine, so she was way beyond groggy. Out of it. And then she was able to smile. She squeezed my hand, and she asked me what day it was . . . four times. Thursday, Thursday, Thursday, Thursday. I cried. My dad cried. He wiped his eyes on his shirt. We just stood there crying, rejoicing that my mom was going to be alright.

After removing her original breast and the cancer, her surgeons used skin and tissue and fat from her abdomen and molded it into the shape of a new breast. It was amazing! Today, her reconstructed breast looks almost identical to the other one. Made from her own skin, it looks fine. Just a bit bruised. But those bruises will fade, and this cancer will become just a bad memory. Unfortunately, we still have some healing to do. There’s a large scar across her abdomen, and it hurts her to stand up straight. If she lifts her right arm too high, it hurts. Then there are the tubes and the three surgical drains. Attached to my mom were three long tubes which then attached to what looked like little plastic grenades. Every day, I’d help drain the bloody fluid from them and record how much on a chart. Two have been removed, now there’s only one drain left, attached to a tube from a hole under her right arm. And then there’s always the fear that the cancer may return. Yes, her cancer was removed, but maybe there was some that the doctors couldn’t find and it could scare us again. It could invade my mother’s body once more. It could invade anybody. Which is why I’m begging: get yourself checked out. Find out your breast density. Do self-exams. Please. And it’s not just women. Men can get it too. SO if you’re a guy and you’re wondering why I tagged you in this, there’s your reason. So please. My mom discovered her cancer before it had spread into her lymph nodes. She got lucky, because she found the lump by accident and because her doctor made her get an ultrasound. She learned just in time that her negative mammograms had missed the cancer.

Many women, just like my mom, never even check their own breasts, even though they have been told over and over. It is so important to know what our breasts normally feel like, so we can notice when they change. So please take the steps to know your breasts, to know your body!

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spare me the cancer celebration – a reprise

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Profoundly saddened by the recent death of Dolores O’Riordan and news that Tom Petty died of an accidental overdose, I barely looked at the clock yesterday, the way I have done for the past six years, on January 19th.  I am loath to declare the date I underwent the mastectomy and reconstruction of my right breast, a “cancerversary,” one of those cheery-sounding sniglets often used to mark milestones for those ensnared within the disease. There are too many milestones – the day a lump is discovered or a diagnosis delivered; the date of a surgery undertaken to remove tumors or breasts or pieces of a lung; the day, five years after diagnosis, when an oncologist makes pronounces NED – No Evidence of Disease.

Maybe it’s because we don’t have the right words to respond to cancer, that we make up others to minimize and manage the havoc of it, to shelter us from it, to make us smile through it even as we are scared. So scared.

me with Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie. says that writers must write about the scariest things in their lives. Intrigued by this advice, I went to hear him speak one evening at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. I took my daughter, in Junior High at the time and immersed in his Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Along with everyone else, we laughed as he shared what were surely the scariest things about his early years on the Spokane Indian Reserve.  His own laughter as he described his father’s beverage of choice,”Squodka” – a mix of Squirt soda and vodka – belied, I imagine, the anguish of a young boy confronting the reality of an alcoholic father who disappeared for days at a time. We know Sherman Alexie knows that  alcoholism on the rez  is no laughing matter.

Nor is cancer. It is a serious disease deserving of serious words, but we do a lousy job of talking about it in a way that confronts the reality of it – beyond awareness – or that leads us to knowing what causes it or how to prevent it. We speak in codes that keep this scariest of things at a safe distance. Code is acceptable in the cancer conversation and not just the pink stuff of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the “save the boobies” fare. Codes. “Mastectomy,” for example,  is code for “amputation.”  I wonder. Were I an amputee in the “traditional” sense, would I refer to the day I lost a limb as my “ampuversary”? No. I would not.  Medical euphemisms abound. I used to toss around “lumpectomy” as though it were the removal of an inconsequential wart, instead of what it really is – a partial amputation. When I was first diagnosed, I presumed a lumpectomy was in the cards for me. As a word, it didn’t pack much of a punch, so it didn’t frighten me. Then I met my surgeon who pointed out that my cancer was not amenable to lumpectomy given its proximity to the nipple and the fact that I was not endowed with large breasts.  Essentially, she didn’t have enough to work with; therefore, the surgery to remove my breast and reconstruct it would be trickier than the “simple” lumpectomy I had anticipated. As her meticulous notes would later confirm, “dissection was very difficult given the very small circumareolar incision used for the skin-sparing mastectomy.” It would require additional time and effort, not to mention skill and patience. So she recommended (and I nodded sagely in agreement as though I knew what she was talking about) a skin-sparing mastectomy which entailed removing only the skin of the nipple, areola, and the original biopsy scar to create an opening – a small opening – through which she would remove the breast tissue. Duly spared – spared, no less – the skin would then accommodate a reconstruction using my own tissue. Simple.

Reading through the details of my surgery, you would never know that cancer and its treatment is ugly or that it hurts. At times it sounds downright regal, befitting a fanfare of trumpets, especially that climactic moment when my breast tissue was “elevated off the pectoralis and delivered from the wound.”

While three surgeons operated on me, my weary husband waited, leaning on our daughter, she on him. It would have been about ten o’clock in the morning when my surgeon came out to announce to them what she would later write, that “the frozen section was negative for metastatic disease,” that there were no abnormal nodes, that no further dissection would be needed. She and my husband performed a silent high-five in the hospital hallway. And, after three hours, she had removed all the cancer she could see and could go about her day, leaving me in the capable hands of two highly sought after plastic surgeons, one being one of the best in Phoenix, the other a master of DIEP flap reconstruction, who had flown in the previous evening from Texas.

They worked on me for the next six hours, and a day later released me back to my life. Six years later, I am told I look just like myself. You would never know, unless you asked to see, or I summoned the courage to show you, that I really don’t look like myself. Not my original self. Hidden under my clothes, since the DIEP flap reconstruction, is a trivial but nonetheless relocated belly button, its circumference now dotted with tiny white scars. Below it, a thin scar, faded to white, stretching from hip to hip, with ‘dog-eared’ reminders on either end where JP drains pulled excess bloody fluid for days after the surgery. I have a right breast too. Sort of. It is in the shape of a breast, impressively so, now that all the post-surgical swelling and discoloration has gone. Its skin is the same, spared by the mastectomy that removed its cancerous tissue through a very small incision around the areola also removed with its nipple.

I tend not to dwell in the macabre, but I cannot help wonder about my old right breast, now a mastectomy specimen preserved in a container of formaldehyde solution. It weighed 294 grams, “the words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.'”

Contemplating all that has happened in the past six years – the cancer, the death of my daughter’s daddy, the shift in priorities – I suppose you could say what they say in Northern Ireland. “God love her, she’s come through the mill.” Lest I wallow too much, however, there is always the reminder that I could be worse off.

I recall encountering someone I hadn’t seen for a few years, and he asked me if I had read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. Yes. Indeed I have. Several times. I know great chunks of it by heart.  And then he said, “Well, at least your daughter didn’t die.”

At least your daughter didn’t die. 

No. She didn’t. She is right here. She is 20 years old now and beautiful. She is tough without being hard. She is vulnerable without the man who was her first word and who bought her ice-cream every Friday afternoon. She learned to drive without him and walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma without his cheers ringing in her ears. She earned her first paycheck without the winks and smiles that encouraged her to keep being great at at being herself. She completed her Associate’s Degree and is off to complete a degree in Psychology, so she can one day work with young people who have lost parents.  Sometimes my lovely girl reminds me of a beautiful bird.  Exotic. Rare. Endangered.

On the anniversary of his death, she told me it was beyond her grasp that two years had passed and that one day it would be ten years, twenty years, forty years, since her dad last held her hand in the frozen food section of the grocery store. To keep her warm.

At least my daughter didn’t die.

So I didn’t know what to say to the person who asked me about Joan Didion and therefore said nothing. I should know but still don’t that when people show you who they are, believe them.  Instead I reminded myself of  Lou Reed’s reminder of magic and loss and of Sherman Alexie who told us that night in the Heard Museum that when we despair at the lack of compassion in the world, we might remember that the world gave us Hitler – but it also gave us Springsteen.

The world gave us Bruce Springsteen.

And Dolores O’Riordan. And Tom Petty. And, yes, the world also gave us Donald Trump.  And all the people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time. And somehow we have to find the sweet spot in which to live and die.

Magical thinking . . .

So what will I do to mark the day?

A day late, I may just climb again to the summit of Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. It has been over a year since I sat at the top, and I have missed it. Up there, I will survey the valley below. And, glad to be so high up and far away from where I lay eight years ago, I will weep.

I will weep.

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pretty in pink – for my daughter

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For almost twenty years, this Hong Kong orchid tree has welcomed me home every day.  I recall the evening we planted it. It was at the end of a hot Saturday when our little family drove to a nursery in Moon Valley in search of a tree exactly like those which provided shade during our weekend strolls through the Biltmore Fashion Park. At the time, this open-air mall boasted a row of what I finally learned were Hong Kong Orchids.  My then two year old loved to stand on the tips of her toes and stretch each of her piano-player fingers high into the sky, hoping to pluck one of the enticing pink blossoms that hung there, blooms  as worthy as lilies of Georgia O’Keefe’s attention.

So enchanted was Sophie by these, that she wanted a pretty pink tree for our yard. Naturally, I had the perfect spot, because right in front of her bedroom window, she should have something magnificent to look out to every morning. Too, it would fill, at last, a space previously occupied for over seven decades by a grapefruit tree that had given up the ghost.

My girl was at that tender age when she needed to and wanted to hold my hand everywhere we went, on a mission to find a stray cat, a hummingbird drinking from Mexican honeysuckle, or the pink tree, the one that was proving to be more elusive than we had anticipated. The nursery was all out of mature orchid trees, and the saplings were wholly unimpressive. It was anti-climactic at best when we finally found, attached to a single green stalk, all of three feet tall and the width of my little finger, a price tag identifying it as the coveted Hong Kong orchid. Nary a bloom just a couple of leaves drooping sadly from the top of the stalk. The young man who sold it to me was very charming and assured me it would be providing “all kinds of shade” for us in no time. Skeptical, we bought it anyway, and off we went.

More to appease this tired little girl and her mother, than to show off any horticultural prowess, her daddy planted and staked what he called a skinny little excuse for a tree in the vacant spot. Then we began tending it. Like the watched kettle, it was naturally unresponsive to our vigilance. Then, almost magically, not unlike Sophie herself, it grew up all too quickly. Beautiful, independent, fragile and alert, with a strength that sometimes takes my breath away.

Bending and swaying just when it should, at all the right times for almost twenty years, our pink tree is a survivor, standing up to scorching, record-breaking temperatures, frost, intense monsoons, and even a “haboob” in spite of our abandoning it for the cool central coast of California. Unfazed, it was waiting for us when we returned as if to remind us that we live and move in its shadow.

 

This, my favorite tree, for many years, annually inspired a shock of petunias in the flower beds, geraniums, fragrant pink stock, freesias that remind me of my father planting bulbs, and snapdragons. Too, it played a role in the color of paint I chose for my front door – I had entirely too much fun mixing colors, one of which was “black raspberry” to create something that would complement the pink tree. And as I remembered this week while reading through old scrapbooks, the tree was the inspiration behind Sophie’s first foray into poetry for which she earned a blue ribbon and honorable mention in her grade school’s annual poetry contest.

Through all the beginnings and endings, the reminders of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the finality of death, the pink tree abides. Transcendent. 

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