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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silent night again . . . from sandy hook to dunblane

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December 14, 2012

Cold and lifeless, the bodies of twenty little children lie where they were gunned down that morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is a crime scene that the day before was a school. The medical examiner’s team begins its work through the night to make sure there are no mistakes, no shadow of doubt about the names of those children  – 12 girls, eight boys – along with those of six women shot at close range by a 20 year-old man, whose name everyone now knows.

Later, a state trooper is assigned to each anguished family in close-knit Newtown, Connecticut, as they wait for confirmation of what they already know. And stunned families all around the world will ask why . . .

Why?

We have been in this place before.

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It was the morning of March 13, 1996, when the clocks stopped in the sleepy village of Dunblane, Scotland. Teacher, Gwen Mayor, was with her Primary One pupils – just 5 and 6 years old –  in the assembly hall of Dunblane Primary School when the nightmare began. It was just another Wednesday morning in PE when a 43 year old man on a shooting rampage burst inside, shooting indiscriminately at teachers and children, before turning the gun on himself. His attack lasted three crazed, interminable minutes, during which Ms. Mayor did what teachers at Sandy Hook would do seventeen years later – everything they could to shield their students from the gunfire, to provide shelter from the storm.

There are no words, and there is no way to explain to our children or to each other how a man could stroll into a school with four handguns and over 700 rounds of ammunition and start to shoot, the carnage coming to an end only after he turned the gun on himself. And then seventeen years later, still no words, still no way to comprehend how a young man could kill his mother in her bed, then get in her car and drive to an elementary school where he would kill 20 children – aged six and seven – and six adults, before killing himself.  We know not why. We know only what they did and what they left behind and that what they did forever changed two tiny places, an ocean apart.

Watching from afar, I am struck by the noblest expressions of humanity that emerge from such tragedy; by the immeasurable kindness of those people Mr. Rogers calls “the helpers.”

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

We can all be helpers, as a heartbroken President Obama reminded us in the wake of the Newtown massacre, because “while nothing can fill the space of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a hand to those in need, to remind them that we are there for them, that we are praying for them, that the love they felt for those they lost endures not just in their memories, but also in ours.”

This silent night, I am remembering again Dunblane and those little children who would be all grown up now with driving licenses and jobs, college degrees, marriages, mortgages, perhaps even children of their own. Like many of us, they would be planning for Christmas, hanging lights, trimming the tree, wrapping gifts, spending too much. But these will remain unfulfilled wishes for 16 children taken from us by a former Boy Scout leader with a pair of pliers, four handguns, and 700 rounds of ammunition. A man who slipped into their little school and opened fire. May we never forget them:

Victoria Clydesdale, 5

Emma Crozier, 5

Melissa Currie, 5

Charlotte Dunn, 5

Kevin Hasell, 5

Ross Irvine, 5

David Kerr, 5

Mhairi McBeath, 5

Brett McKinnon, 6

Abigail McLennan, 5

Emily Morton, 5

Sophie North, 5

John Petrie, 5

Joanna Ross, 5

Hannah Scott, 5

Megan Turner, 5

“So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.” BILLY COLLINS

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Van Morrison & Ghosts of a Halloween Past

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Reposted from Halloween 2012.

Given the courage, we live by moments of interference between past and present, moments in which time comes back into phase with itself. It is the only meaning of history. We search the past not for other creatures but for our own lost selves.

~ Roger Shattuck 1958 (Source: Listening to Van Morrison, Neill Marcus).

We knew this particular Halloween would be quiet, falling on a week-night, the Wednesday before the General Election. Naturally, there is homework to do with a plethora of Propositions to study and choices to make over who will be sent to Washington. It just didn’t feel like Hallowe’en with November just hours away and the night air hanging warm at almost 80 degrees. Nonetheless, at sunset, my husband dutifully lit candles inside the pumpkins he had carved with our daughter the day before, and they filled the biggest bowl they could find with Kit-Kat bars, M&Ms, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Between us, we have always taken turns handing out candy, but I preferred to be the one to join the band of trick-or-treaters that strolled our street, stopping only a few paces behind to wait while my miniature make-believe princess knocked on stranger’s doors. This annual trek through the neighborhood ceremoniously ended with a sprint to our front door, where she would knock on the door and call out “Trick or treat!” Feigning surprise, my husband would open the door wide and fill her plastic pumpkin basket with chocolate and sweets. (I have always attributed to Halloween my daughter’s incurably sweet tooth). There was never a trick – always a treat for her and the scores of children who have walked to our door, as though from a scene in E.T. – Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Tinkerbell, Spiderman, Jack Sparrow, Pikachu, and even the sitting President of the United States. This Halloween, would be our teenage daughter’s turn to dole out candy, her daddy close by, only half-watching. Sporting ears of a fictional Japanese cat and a black tail, both hand-sewn by her best friend, she delights in the younger children who can’t wait to be scared by the howls of a pale motion-sensitive ghost hanging above the doorway.

Behind the scenes, I am restless. Paying bills, scrolling through the work emails I didn’t have time to read at work, and following, in disbelief, the devastation and the rising death-toll of Hurricane Sandy. I am also listening to a voice from home, Van Morrison. This time, as Van repeats the ritual of nights spent “spin and turning in the alley like a whirling dervish,” I feel a deep nostalgia, the kind Greill Marcus describes in his brilliant Listening to Van Morrison. The place between Van’s relentlessly repetitive words, is where I find the themes of home, of memory and ritual. In an instant, “Behind the Ritual” takes me home to County Antrim and into the lives of two sisters I have never met.

The first, Mary, writes a blog at Nelly’s Garden. She stumbled upon a recent post of mine, my Identity Crisis, and left a comment that forever connected us, as is the way of the virtual world. We search for one thing and find another that renders the first forgotten. Within this shrinking world, I learn that Mary’s cousin, Pauline, was my hairdresser over three decades ago. I remember every time I visited Pauline for a trim or auburn highlights, there was always a moment when I considered, silently, the pub across the road. The Wayside Halt stood there almost stoic, a nondescript bar on the edge of the dual carriageway between Antrim and Ballymena. The kind of place that wouldn’t merit a second look, Byrne’s pub was unremarkable except for those who knew of the horror that had visited on May 24, 1974. Every time I sat in Pauline’s hairdresser’s chair, I thought about it. On a St. Patrick’s Day, when my friends and I stopped there for some of Mrs. Byrne’s Irish stew, I marveled at the resilience of her family.

The Wayside Halt lingers still in a distant corner of my consciousness, refining my sense of who I am.  I learned only a few weeks ago, that one of my dad’s friends had suggested they call into the pub for a quick pint since it was on the road home. The “quick pint” is something of a paradox back home, and because daddy was in a rush to complete bread deliveries before dark that Friday night, he declined. Before he reached Randalstown, the harrowing word had arrived that within the previous hour, Loyalist paramilitaries had barged into the Wayside Halt, and shot at point-blank range, Mary’s uncles – Shaun Byrne and his brother, Brendan. Other pub owners in the Ballymena area had been attacked, their places of business vandalized because they had decided to remain open during the United Workers Council Strike of 1974.

Shaun and Brendan Byrne were murdered, while the children were in the sitting room upstairs. In the picture Mary sent me, the only child not home that evening was the little girl at her father’s right shoulder.

The Byrne brothers. Halls Hotel. The Quinn brothers, Richard, Mark, and Jason,  three little boys murdered, burned to death on July 12, 1998. Just eleven, nine, and seven years old, they had been asleep when a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of their home. Their grandmother was my brother’s first interview subject as he began his career in journalism. The La Mon Restaurant. Crossmaglen.  Bloody Sunday, the bombing of Omagh and EnniskillenInternment, the Twelfth of July. Physically untouched by this string of horrors, but changed nonetheless, the images are indelible. Iconic. Father Daly waving a blood-stained white handkerchief, the carnage on Market Street in the heart of Omagh’s little market town, orange sashes, bowler hats, Lambeg drums, and The Guildford Four.

In May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast, based on his interviews with the people who lived there, Tony Parker makes an unsettling but astute observation that those born and brought up in Northern Ireland often display a mutual need to know, from the start, about a person’s background, so they are safe to continue in the conversation and in the wider relationship, without saying the wrong thing, “the wrong word.”  I too have danced this dance, taking cues from our last names, the names of  schools we attended, the way we pronounce an “H” to help establish “who we are.” “Derry” or “Londonderry?” “The Troubles,” “the struggle, or “The Irish Question?” “Ulster” or “The Six Counties?” Myth features prominently, in particular the heartbreaking myth that victims have in some way, brought it upon themselves.

Because it is Hallowe’en, and because she is Mary’s sister, I feel compelled to share Anne’s recollection of Hallowe’en, first posted on her ganching blog on November 1, 2005. Like Mary, she left a comment for me, and the world contracts once more:

Uncle Brendan and the Hallowe’en Parties.

I loved Hallowe’en when I was wee, except it was called Holloween in those days. Next to Christmas, it was the best holiday of the year.  It was also mid-term break. Holloween was always celebrated in our house.  When we were very small my mother would make a lantern from a turnip she’d scobe out with a knife which, if you’ve ever tried to do it, is bloody hard work. The next oldest sister to me was very keen on traditions even ones she’d made up herself.  When she was around eight she decided that every year she and I would make witches’ hats out of newspapers rolled into cones and blackened with shoe polish.  So we did this for at least 3 or 4 years.  We’d run around the yard with the pointy, floppy hats falling down over our eyes, our faces and hair stained with polish, singing:

‘I’m Winnie the Witch, Witches can fly and so can I, I’m Winnie the Witch’

I have no idea where this came from.

In the evening we would tie apples from a string attached to the ceiling and try to bite lumps out of them or duck for apples in a basin of water set on the kitchen floor.  This involved much splashing on the quarry tiles and younger siblings spluttering and snottering into the water.   I was pretty crap at it but my brother would have drowned himself rather than admit defeat. He would suddenly rear out of the water, his whole upper body soaked, grinning so widely that he was in danger of dropping his prize.  Later we’d have apple tart with hidden money in it wrapped up in silver paper.

When we all got to be a bit older my aunt and uncle, who had no children of their own,  held a party each Hallowe’en.  They only invited our family and one set of cousins which meant they had 15 children in attendance. There was always a bonfire and sparklers but no fireworks as they were banned in Northern Ireland.In the middle of the party there would be a loud clatter on the door and my uncle would go and investigate.  Without fail he would return with a scary stranger with a stick, wearing a thick coat and a scarf wrapped round their face.  Usually the stranger did a lot of muttering and, more often than not, he’d use his stick to take a swing at you if you came too close.  As the evening progressed and we worked ourselves up into a frenzy the stranger would suddenly reveal themselves to be the man who lived next door or even occasionally our Aunt Mary.  Presumably she got drafted in by my uncle in the years when he couldn’t persuade any of the neighbours to come and scare us half to death. I think the parties started coming to an end when I was in my early teens but by then I’d grown out of them.

I always think of my uncle at this time of year.  He was murdered, along with his brother, in the mid 70s but in Spring not October.  The scary, masked strangers who came to the door that night didn’t reveal themselves to be friends or family.

All this happened a long time ago and besides the past is a different country but it has been haunting me lately.

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