Saturday, November 17, 2012

nothing says “back to reality” like some cancer!

1. who you gonna call

In a couple of sessions with my therapist about my ever waxing and waning hypochondria, I said, “I know I’m paranoid. But sometimes paranoid people are being followed!”

The last time I said that to him was Election Day, when I was worrying about my annual breast exam that coming Friday. He said, “That’s maybe the worst phrase you’ve said.” We laughed.

But reader, sometimes paranoid people are being followed.

Friday I went in for my exam. They told me they wanted to biopsy a couple of spots. I had a meltdown. A nice nurse said, “Is there someone you can call?”

I launched into a hysterical summary of the past two years of my life: “…and then I had a miscarriage and I was so depressed and angry for so long, and everyone I knew was so nice, and I know they love me, but I’ve used them up. I can’t take one more problem to them.”

“You haven’t used them up,” she said. “Call.”

She also said, of course, that lots of biopsies turn up not-cancer, but I knew I wouldn’t be one of them. And I wasn’t.

2. the signifier becomes the signified. or something. i don’t remember my derrida.

In case that seems like a lot of double negatives, let me be clear: I have breast cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma, right breast, two fat tumors and a few “in situ” waiting like evil little time bombs, no lymph node action, stage two (I’m told this is still early, although it sounds scary as hell). These details become very important very quickly. So do a lot of details I haven’t learned yet, like what kind of receptors there are on my cancer cells. But I feel pretty sure that I have an aggressive form because 1) they’re more common in young women and 2) my luck has not been excellent lately.

Point #2 is a tricky thing. Say you spend a year of your life convincing yourself that all the diseases you’re sure are creeping through your body (MS, Lupus, Parkinson’s, breast cancer, colon cancer, this weird pregnancy cancer that actually exists, mouth cancer, neck cancer) are simply signs that you’re depressed and feeling like your body betrayed you by losing your babies. Now say one of those symbols is actually a thing itself. Now your body and mind have betrayed you.

Does Monsieur Derrida know smoking causes cancer?

I can’t really wrap my head around how I’m supposed to think now, or what anything means, if anything means anything at all.

As my friend Kathy put it when I told her the news, “Oh Cheryl, you really don’t need another opportunity for personal growth.”

3. free tits with purchase

I agree! The personal growth I’ve done thus far is serving me well: I haven’t Googled anything like “breast cancer survival rates” (I happen to know it’s 35 in 36, which is not so bad, but my chances of getting this in my thirties were one in 233, so I never know what to make of statistics). I’ve leaned on AK (who has been wonderful, ready with her new cancer notebook like an ace reporter) without dragging her into my spiral of bad self-esteem, which I’ve learned really hurts her. I’ve managed to distract myself for significant periods of time and to focus when it’s time to focus.

But that’s just the first week. I know how these things go. The ups and downs. But I also know—and AK and I keep reminding ourselves—that this is not the ol’ Miscarriage of 2011. This is it’s own thing. We’re different people now, or at least we’re people who know ourselves better.

I’m not afraid of losing my boobs. Actually, I welcome it. I asked my therapist if I’m like one of those people who secretly wants to amputate a limb, but he said no, not if I’m looking forward to fake tits, which I am. I think it’s only fair (“fair”—don’t you love that useless fucking word?) that any shitty experience comes with a free gift, and personal growth isn’t going to cut it in this case. I want smallish, perky tits that let me wear strapless dresses for the first time in my life. I want to go jogging without wearing two sports bras. I want to not look like Jabba the Hutt in photos that cut me off mid-boob.

I might have a cuter smile....
...but do you see the sloping mountain effect?
I’m not afraid of surgery or puking from chemo. I’m kind of afraid of losing my hair, but Nicole swears by this thing her cousin used called the ChemoCap that basically cuts off circulation to your head and keeps the chemicals out.

I’m totally afraid of uncertainty and recurrences and people treating me like a walking reminder of their own mortality. I’m afraid of watching everyone else’s life march forward in spectacular fashion while I fight for my own.

4. make a wish

AK and I have made a conscious decision to proceed with plans for the future. I love that she is willing to be a little reckless with me. My hot Russian doctor looked at my MRI report and said, “This eez not cancer dat keelz you.” Until I hear otherwise, I’m going to assume our plans aren’t just some sort of Make-A-Wish Foundation fantasy, where everyone’s all, “Oh, it’s so cute that she thinks she’s going to grow up and marry Justin Bieber. It’s so heartbreaking that she thinks she’s going to grow up.”

Just because he looks like a lesbian doesn't mean I want to marry him.
I don’t view the future like I used to—and I don’t mean Before Cancer, I mean Before Infertility/Miscarriage—as a simple matter of planning and hard work. I (and Tig Notaro) know that the rug can be pulled out from under you at any time, and when you’ve half stumbled to your feet, it can get yanked again. But I still believe in hard work and planning, if not their infallibility. Doing things other than moping and worrying makes me feel like I’m like the rest of y’all.

It’s easy to feel isolated from the living, for so many reasons, and I can feel it creeping up behind me, whispering that books and a kid and new furniture are the stuff of other, more special people. But this time I’m not going to fucking let it in. I’m going to slam its leg in the door and slam a shot of Jack Daniels if that’s what it takes.

5. your mission, should you choose to accept it

So there’s my call to battle.* Already, my family and friends have heeded theirs, even though they’re tired and busy and retraumatized by all of this. AK with her notebook. My dad and sister, who dropped everything and drove up Monday night without even asking me. Nicole with her endless reassuring facts and unfortunate knowledge of all things breast cancer, since that’s what got her mom a few years ago, and her willingness to indulge my obsessive-ness. Meehan with her walktails (= cocktails in a travel mug) and relentless determination to be my friend, even when I’m like, “Really? Why would you want to do that?”

And all the people who’ve texted and emailed and prayed for me and offered to introduce me to their cancer-survivor friend.

(Everyone has a cancer-survivor friend, just like everyone has a friend who miscarried or a gay friend who adopted. It’s hard being part of yet another involuntary club, because you feel like you should have this kinship, but everyone’s story is a little different. So I can read a lovely essay by a woman who survived cancer at thirty-four and just feel like, “Yeah, but hers was stage zero.” Or someone who miscarried and got pregnant three months later. And then I’m lonely all over again.)

But I do want to know that there are a lot of women who are alive and well years after cancer. And eventually I may want to meet some of them. Maybe you’re one of them. I hope to join your ranks. So keep the stories and offers coming, and forgive me if I’m a little moody and flaky these days. But whatever you do, don’t send me anything pink.

Against cancer, for heart disease. Let's remember that Chick-fil-A is not the only villain, shall we?


*Throughout said battle, I plan to blog only minimally about this. I’m doing a lot of writing about it, and there’s totally an I’m an Infertile Lesbian who Miscarried Twins, Had Marital Problems and Got Breast Cancer book in here somewhere. (Agents take note!) But 1) I’m focusing on ensuring a happy ending that is not fiction, which takes some behind-the-scenes work, and 2) I’ve learned the hard way that spewing it all, all the time, doesn’t serve me or AK well. I know you’re dying to hear whether my cancer cells have HER2 receptors, but I’m going to keep blogging about books and shit too.

Monday, November 05, 2012

back to life, back to reality

My actual lunch basket. Ridiculous, I know.
I’m leaving MacDowell in a few hours. I turned in my key and paid my tab for laundry and postcards. I said goodbye to people, which was the suckiest part—I’m really going to miss the friends I’ve made here, and although we can say things like “I’ll totally come visit you in Berlin!” we all know there’s no substitute for living in the same half-mile radius and eating dinner together every night.

There’s a writer who was trapped in New York for a week because of the hurricane, whom I didn’t get to know very well. He said sarcastically, “Wow, it was great to get to know you so well. All those late-night chats.” That was not the best kickoff to my last day. I always felt like I was boring him when we did talk, and I sort of wanted to say, “Late night chats with me are awesome, dude. Your loss.”

I had a little meltdown last night in the privacy of my studio. As most of you guys know, I’ve had a hard couple of years. Not catastrophic, not even bad in many ways. Just hard, at a time when so many of my peers seem to really be getting their shit together. Many times, I thought, I just want someone to take care of me. And someone did—multiple someones, multiples times—but what I really wanted was the total cared-for-ness of childhood.

Here, I sort of got that for three weeks. I didn’t have to report to work or cook food or even buy food. I didn’t have to wonder who I was going to hang out with. I just had to write. Writing isn’t easy—there were days I wrote scenes that made me break down sobbing and days I had no idea how to fix structural problems—but for once everything else was conspiring to make the writing as easy as possible. When there were problems, it was someone else’s job to come up with a solution. Hurricane? Why don’t you just stay in this beautiful old mansion for the night. Here are some clean towels and a Wi-Fi password.

Now it’s back to solving my own problems—with help, of course, albeit help from people who have plenty of their own problems. That’s how the world works, and how it should be, and I’m dying to cuddle with AK and Team Gato and see my friends and family. But the part where my only problems were the ones my characters were having? The part where I got to be my best, most carefree self instead of my real self? That I’m going to miss for a long time.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

bark and fungus, improvisation and bones

Okay, I guess they don't look that much like anemic zebras.
The hurricane blew the leaves off most of the trees, which makes the birch trunks, with their anemic-zebra bark, stand out. Yesterday a man came by with a leaf blower and blew the leaves from one part of the meadow to another. If you want to talk about work that’s never done, watch a guy with a leaf blower tackle three hundred acres.

One of the visual artists invited me to come see her studio this afternoon, since I’ll be leaving before she gives the official tour. She’s been enjoying the birch bark too. She does a lot of site-specific work with found objects. Those are the kind of terms—site-specific, found objects—that lose meaning quickly when you overuse them. In this case it means her work is her studio and her studio is her work. She’s staying in Alexander, an old stone building that looks like a chapel. Initially, she said, all its fussy parts threw her off: the big bulletin boards, the arched doorways, the twin bed with the green blanket.

Then she hung empty wooden frames—stretchers without canvas—and started filling them with little things she brought from her home in Mexico City and found here. Rocks, chunks of asphalt, a fungus blossom. Birch branches. She connected the holes in the bulletin board with wire and made constellations. She drew one line drawing of a rock each day and date-stamped it. Each rock is lined up proudly next to its portrait along the forest-facing window.

“The bed is starting to call to me,” she said, a little worried. She wasn’t sleepy; it wanted her to make something out it. “It’s just right there, so long and….”

Her work is very improvisational. It’s a different way of life. Say you drive into Keene with her and have to be back by two. There’s a very good chance you might miss your Skype date, because look, there’s a yarn shop and she’s always wanted to learn to knit.

But when you see the sensual interplay between textures in her studio—the photos of paint splatters, the stone rubbings, the big flakes of lead she collected from the crumbling roof of a nearby studio—you kind of want to see what she could do with a ball of yarn.

All of this could add up to a scrapheap, but the beauty of it is the organization. She likes to think of her work as a “cabinet of curiosities,” and it’s as much about the cabinet as the curiosities. It told her that walking into her studio felt like walking into a map. (Not coincidentally, she’s been tracing pieces of bark on the wall, and the result looks like an archipelago.) You feel intrigued and calmed at the same time.

I asked her if she had a plan. It sounded sort of wonderful to just wake up every day and go trolling for funky-looking sticks. Also a little scary.

“I came here to work on paintings, but my canvas hasn’t arrived in the mail yet, so I do this,” she said. “For now, I see what happens. But after a while, not having a plan, I begin to feel very anxious. So then maybe it’s good to have a plan. I don’t get too lost. But I’ve been doing this for many years. I know that even when you’re lost, you find things there too.”

Okay, so it wasn’t so different from writing a novel after all: You improvise until you can’t stand not having a plan. Then you build some frames to hang your improvisations on. Sometimes you have to dismantle the frames and start over.

“Even we have frames,” she pointed out. “Our bones.”

I left her studio feeling inspired to write or draw or hang a chip of slate from a binder clip on my wall, just like her. I’m so glad MacDowell is interdisciplinary. Sometimes I learn more from hearing how other artists approach their work than writers—there are just enough differences and similarities. I miss the rest of my life, at least the people and cats, but I’m also going to miss its absence, and all the things that have filled in the space.