Brat

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All around me this month of November people are being grateful.  Gratefulness posts fill the Facebook feed. People are grateful in the newspaper. Soon it will be Thanksgiving, and people will take a pause on bad news and be grateful on the radio too. This gratefulness is very wearing.

I do not feel grateful. Although I know I should.

It is not yet three months since I was diagnosed with  bilateral breast cancer, and I have a lot to be grateful for.  My surgeon and staff were wonderful, and surgery went well. Lumpectomies, rather than full mastectomies. My surgeon is happy with the cosmetic result. So am I. Now it is November, and the prognosis is good. Friends and relatives call and write and show up in our family’s life to take care of the business that I can’t take care of myself. Despite being truly thankful for the help, I am not experiencing gratefulness in my heart. I see rather than feel the good fortune that surrounds me.

I am afraid.

I still cannot use my arms freely. I tire easily.

I wonder what the next treatments will bring.

Lately, I am a grumpy brat.

And unfortunately for my family, I have never been very good at “faking it.”  Honesty oozes out of me, like ripe cheese.

It’s taking far longer to recover from my surgery than I expected. I am not sure what I expected. The scar tissue in my underarms still pinches or burns if I lift things, move or twist. My lymph system hasn’t figured itself out yet, and sometimes my underarms are puffy with lymph fluid that can’t circulate properly. Three of my perfectly healthy lymph nodes in each armpit had to be removed to ascertain that they were cancer-free. I should be grateful that there were cancer-free, I know. But I just want my lymph nodes back. If this puffiness lingers or becomes extreme it’s called lymph-edema and requires medical attention. This is very frustrating to me me: shouldn’t there be a better way to tell if an organ is healthy or not, than by removing it from the body and chopping it up??  I was told about the possibility of lymphedema, but I didn’t think it would happen to me. I didn’t think breast cancer would happen to me. I still don’t really believe it is happening to me.  I picture being stuck like this, alive, yes, cancer free, but unable to DO anything. Alive, but not able to LIVE.

I am impatient, as you would expect an ungrateful brat to be. At least I am staying in character.

People come up to me to congratulate me on the latest good news, which is that I do not have to take chemotherapy. The results of my tumor biopsy and my blood work show that hormone therapy with tamoxifen will be enough to repel cancer, (unless it gives me cancer which is also a possibility). I want to be happy about not having full scale chemo, and when the doctor tells me, I am relieved, and I celebrate. But once the  bottle of white tablets is sitting on the kitchen counter, the idea of really taking this drug for 10 years fills me with dread. I am already dealing with fluid-filled arms and other medical side effects of the cure — how next will my body be altered? I remember how I felt at the beginning of this process, before every appointment  like hiding under our bed. Now I feel like climbing into my car and driving to Mexico.  I like my body the way it is. I do not want to be altered, even in an effort to save my life.

One night before I say prayers with Owen, I try refocusing my mind on some things I’m grateful for. The temperature is dropping, so I say I am grateful for a home in which to stay warm and cool and dry, no matter what the weather. I am grateful for yummy, interesting food to eat. I am grateful for nurturing care from family members and from friends — for meals and groceries arriving at our door. Loads of laundry washed and folded. For people who care.

Owen leans over and places his hand on my head as I speak these words aloud. I have to smile. It feels like a benediction. The hand of an angel boy on my head. A  mischievous and naughty angel boy  — capable of pilfering snacks from his nephew’s backpack and sneaking off with them — yet who still seems to act on behalf of better, gentler spirits than my own.

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Yesterday I poured out all my frustrations and negativity to my physical therapist Erica. It’s asking a lot from a PT, but she’s a game lady. Maybe I am not the first. Her response was to show me a diagram to explain how the lymph works, how it meshes with the capillaries and yet operates in an entirely different manner from blood. That really helped. I could see this troublesome lymph as beautiful, not stupid and lost, but clever.

And at that moment I made a decision. I will take my tamoxifen for my mom, I decided. I will do everything that imperfect medical science has to offer in her name. Rather than driving to Mexico or hiding under my bed, I can do this for her — because she didn’t make it in her fight against cancer, and I very probably will. So this afternoon, after a certain number of hours of avoidance, I faced down my white tablet of drugs beside the sink. It was surprising and nice to turn around and see her face just then, smiling at me from inside a frame on the kitchen counter. My mom, captured looking joyful and festive in her kitchen, preparing a turkey for a Thanksgiving long ago.

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Dinner

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A lot to digest…

Much like the snake I photographed in the chicken run a few weeks ago, (find Part 1 at suburbangrowing.com)  the human folks at our house have been working our way through a big meal this fall. Speaking only for myself, in September I wasn’t able to write or do much else of real meat (haha), besides eat, breathe, sleep, and process. Me and the snake. Thank goodness the surgery date is moved up into October, and so we can get through quicker.  It’s “really just a blip on the way to the rest of your life” as my mother-in-law put it, bless her, I hope so. The footage of snake working its jaws around bird is a graphic if gory presentation of the job at hand. Feathers and all. Feet last. Once you get all the information downloaded, which is worth taking your time about, you still need to come to terms with it, and that also takes time. The correspondence is complete, even to the fact that this experience of having cancer is a kind of a meal, something I will grow from going through, and be enriched by. Although I guess that’s up to me.

Owen may be affected by the vibes, or just doing an unusually busy stage of his own development. Lately, he’s been showing affiliation with his Nordic ancestry and leaving warm bed or hot bath for the cool of the brick patio backyard, where he will stand chopping plastic at the table until he feels sufficiently chilled.  Or until I go look for him. He has figured out how to operate the deadbolt on the back door to  achieve early morning freedom. But since there are plenty of shrubs around the property lines to screen him, this seems like a decision he should be allowed to make.

Owen appears fed up with being “directed” these days. And given that most of his hours he is being directed, or pushed or hurried, a little early morning nudity may be just what he needs. If only all his problem behaviors were so easy to deal with. Thank goodness for our homeopathic doctor. I really don’t care if it’s voodoo or what, but the remedy (three little pills of a dilute substance in a sugar pellet) he gave to Owen seems to be calming down his prickly irritability and mulishness.

The night-time care of Owen is another matter, and Edward and I are reaching our limit. Trying to imagine what Stage 2 of Caring for Owen might look like has been keeping me awake at night as much as Owen himself.  How can I make space for Owen to be Owen, and have a life and keep a sense of humor, as I go forward toward 60 and Edward toward 70?  How will we find the care we need for him? And if we do find it, how will I let him go from our house into the care of strangers? How do I send my son away? What kind of life will he have? The need for help is a palpable as the sadness that threatens to choke me. This is a meal to manage in tiny bites. Thank goodness for Owen’s county resources coordinator Nicole Chittams, a woman of great heart and also great practicality and many resources, who has some answers to some of those questions.

My surgery is set up for October 18th. Family and friends have rallied to help out. It turns out things are not going to be as difficult as I thought at first. Where I thought twin mastectomies were called for, it turns out that lumpectomies will do just as well, and maybe better.   I have leaned that for many women Radiation is not the problem for every woman it can be for some (I heard a bad story).  It is possible that I may not need chemo. The best news of all is my own realization that I will come out of this cranky, stiff, and sore true, but still feeling like me. And since mostly I like my me this is a relief. After a September of digesting, on to an October of adaptation.

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Our black caps – fruit from prickles