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200732_1019668373106_1267069810_30054034_3664_nOn the first day or the last day of every school year, I force my daughter to pose for a photograph. It’s just one of those non-negotiable traditional things that comes around but once a year. All I ask is that she smile while holding a sign declaring the grade level ahead of or behind her. She used to love it, but now she doesn’t and tries to avoid me in the rush of getting ready in the morning or in the throes of “really important” homework in the evening. The latter doesn’t fly on the last day of school, but I wouldn’t put it past my darling girl to tell me she’s simply too busy getting a head start on her summer reading and has no time for her mother’s antics with the camera. In the end, of course, she always indulges me with the most sincere smile she can muster. After all, she knows I’ll show it to her grandparents, and they always get the real smiles. On the other hand, a roll of the eyes involving her entire body is often reserved for yours truly. I know, I know. It’s just a phase. 

yw50Fitting then, that when my fiftieth birthday arrived last week, my daughter decided it was time for me to hold the sign, to proclaim to the world that I was about to enter a new chapter in my life, my Second Act. Turn about’s fair play after all . . .

For today’s WEGO Health Challenge, I’m supposed to post a vintage picture of myself and wax lyrical about “the condition” I was in when it was taken.

So here I am. My condition and me.  Standing in our back yard, an impatient hand on my hip, and fifty candles on a cake inside just waiting for me to make a wish. The sign says I have been on this earth for half a century.  Congratulations are in order. Happy Birthday. Make a wish. Make fifty of them.

Happy? Yes. Healthy? I don’t know for sure. It’s complicated.

Let’s see. I look healthy; although I have to start running again. Laziness is just easier. I still have my hair. I refused chemotherapy which gave some strangers free reign to judge me, because, you know, they knew the cousin of a brother of a friend in Chicago who had cancer. And she did chemo. And she is “just fine” now. And, lest I forget, the good Lord would never ever give me more than I can handle. If it doesn’t kill me, it will make me stronger. Really? Why, yes. After all, they reassure me, I am a fighter and very strong, and they just know I have this thing beat. In fact, I should try to find the good in it, consider it a gift. After all, it is the good cancer.   I can only imagine what they would say if they didn’t think I was a fighter or strong. I’ll never know.

I’m heavier than I was a  year ago, but that’s probably good, because I weighed not much more than 100 pounds following the shock, the surgery, and the stress of that damn cancer diagnosis. At just over 5’6″. the extra 30 pounds still find a way to fit into my clothes. Snug, but enough to merit going up another size. Who wants to turn 50 and go up another dress size? No. Far easier to take the dress and the denial  to the matronly Mexican seamstress who hems things and finds an extra quarter inch or two that wil make the dress fit perfectly. I found her at the back of a barber’s shop owned by a Russian immigrant. It amused me to think of Ireland, Mexico, and the former Soviet Union all represented in a tiny piece of real estate where people can also sell gold and buy replacement batteries for their watches.

The wise doctors won’t tell me I’m in remission yet, although everyone else has decided I must be. It’s too much trouble to explain to them that, actually, no, I’m not in remission, because it’s only been 18 months since I was diagnosed with Stage II Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, 16 months since the 8 hour surgery to remove and reconstruct  my right breast, 14 months ince I started taking Tamoxifen at 9 o’clock every night, and 3  months since I switched to Arimidex which I think might be responsible for the brief but boiling hot flashes and aching joints every morning not to mention the  unfathomable fatigue. As I see it, navy may be the new black, fifty may be the new forty, but fatigue is definitely the new “f” word.

Occasionally, I’ll forget that I am being treated for cancer, that there is no cure, and that metastasis is always a possibility, the thing that scares me most. When I sit down and allow myself to think about it, I realize I need to last at least four more years before some doctor will announce, “No Evidence of Disease” (NED) at which point an angel will surely get his wings.  And that will have to suffice, because I’m not convinced we’re going to figure out what caused my cancer or how to prevent it rearing its ugly head again any time soon. Call me cynical, but there are too many women who started out with the same diagnosis and they didn’t live long enough to hear NED.

But, enough of that for now. It’s a birthday celebration after all. I’m here, and as Glenn Close told Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, “I’m not going to be ignored.”  I don’t feel like being invisible. Not yet.

I met a woman who wasn’t there

Marge Piercy

The CIA should hire as spies
only women over fifty, because
we are the truly invisible.

We pass through checkpoints
as if through spider webs
with only a slime of derision.

Watch television, go to
the movies (if you can afford
the ticket prices; maybe not

since older women are the
unimportant poor) and you see
only children, young females.

Older men thrive, with escorts
half their age, but older
women must die off en masse.

In middle age even with botox,
liposuction, face lifts, tummy
tucks, whatever mad torture

to the poor hardworking flesh
surgeons can devise, we
begin to vanish. Walk through

a lobby, a crowded airport:
men, children will run into you
in the obvious opinion you

cannot possibly exist. We
are inaudible too. We speak
and people turn away. Although

we know more, our opinions
are dust on the wind. Nobody
collects or records them.

We are the age’s lepers.
They would like us penned out
of sight in colonies of hunger.

You have let yourself go. You
have not refused the years
politely, firmly like an anorexic

at a dinner party. A sitcom joke,
jealous witch, bag, you are in-
tangible, for who trained

on media will stroke your soft
quivering belly, your tingling breasts.
Survivor, crone, wise woman

history’s warnings are etched
on your bones. Like Cassandra
you have witnessed wars and famines

and you foresee that wind of ash
blowing in, but to your prophecies
only your cats will listen.