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Mum's the Word

I am hypersensitive. And I sometimes have a little trouble letting things go.

This is not a headliner to those who know me. And it’s old news to Ocho, who weekend before last made the mistake of asking me why I’d chosen grape-colored mums to stick in the ground next to the Japanese maples in my front yard.

Back in the day, I spent whole weekends in my yard. I maintained my own hedges and trees. I cleaned my own gutters. I demossed my own deck. I built my own swingsets. And I squeegeed my own windows.

But in February 2006, I went back to work full time. Under normal circumstances, working my way back into a corporate environment after freelancing for 15 years would have been a difficult and stressful transition. But the circumstances became a little harder at the end of May 2006, when I was diagnosed with infiltrating lobular carcinoma. New job. New cancer. New loads of adrenaline being pumped into the system.

For a while, I was able to maintain a sense of control. I woke up at 6:00 a.m., put on a full pot of coffee, did a load of laundry, watered the plants, paid a few bills, signed school papers, scrubbed a toilet, ironed my black cotton pants, made Katie’s chicken caesar salad, fed the dog, swept the driveway and showered. All before 7:30 a.m.

After work, I drove home, picked up the dry cleaning, got groceries and refilled prescriptions, got gas, made dinner, Windexed the dog snot off the car’s interior windows, fixed the broken (insert one of the following: faucet, router, garage door opener, washing machine, cordless phone, drip system) __________, read my email, finished a work project, and got into bed to read one of the books on my nightstand: Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, Surviving Breast Cancer, Breast Cancer for Dummies.

Weekends? Same stuff. Except for alternate weekends with Ocho. On Saturday morning, Ocho and I would go get a coffee then either ride our bikes up Mount Montara, hike Purrisima, go to the rock climbing gym, do yoga at Enzo, or take Marge to the beach to unload a little pent-up border collie energy. Then we’d go back to his place, where I would put in a couple hours of work and Ocho would go back out to surf. After dinner and a couple glasses of wine, we’d fall into bed and sleep like rugby players. Then we’d get up and do it again on Sunday.

I felt enormously capable and powerful and proud of the fact that I could “do it all.” But after my bilateral mastectomy, I realized there was simply no way (no surprise) I could do it all. During the week, the only steam I had available went toward chemo and radiation, my job, the kids and the occasional trip to Safeway. The latter of which only happened after Mike would declare an “official famine” in the house. “Me and Ryan are eating your vegan Lära bars, Mom,” he once announced, while staring into a cupboard that held a box of All-Bran and a can of black beans. “They’re good, aren’t they?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “If you overlook the fact that they taste like crap.”

I realized I was in desperate need of an alternate plan. So I created one. It had several liberating elements, including not balancing my checkbook, not cleaning my house, not keeping up with the laundry, cooking minimalist dinners, working out less and totally letting the yard go.

My hedges are now wild green skyscrapers. The once chubby privet that provides essential privacy between me and my neighbor is now anorexic. My 50-year-old California pepper tree is quite possibly dead. The grass is certifiably dead.

But I have brand new motivation to get back into the yard. I’m having a crew at my house for Thanksgiving this year, and I want the house and yard to look good. So I spent the weekend raking, weeding, dead-heading, pruning, trimming. And buying grape-colored mums to stick in the ground next to the Japanese maples. “Wow. These look kinda of stupid,” I thought to myself after I planted them.

When Ocho asked me about the mums—which looked like seven bridesmaids had been buried in a row—the tears shot out of my eyes horizontally. While I’m not a psychotherapist, I think this is a sign of hypersensitivity and indicates feelings of inadequacy. “I know they look stupid!” I cried. I got in the car to buy mum replacements at the Home Depot, while he fixed my leaky faucet.

But as I drove, I realized I wasn’t crying about the grape-colored mums. I was crying because I just need to these days. I tabled a whole lot of emotions from March 2006 to now. Anger, bitterness, grief and fear felt like luxuries I couldn’t afford. I still had to get up every morning and go to work and take care of the kids. Now, however, those feelings are demanding expression. They will no longer be suppressed . And while I celebrate my life and am beyond grateful for my good health, I desperately need to feel these feelings inside. I need to mourn my losses and find a way to incorporate them.

I also need to deal with the overwhelming number of items on my to-do list, those things that I decided not to do for 17 months. Lots happens while you’re off doing chemo and radiation. Wars are fought. People go to work. Babies are born. Houses require maintenance. Shrubs and trees continue to need water and fertilizer. The list alone lately brings me to tears.

The day after the mum incident, Ocho called me while I was driving to work. He said he’d had a nice weekend with me and complimented me on my homemade butternut squash soup with crème fraiche and chives:

“Great soup last night.”

“Thanks. My cooking makes up for my gardening skills.”

“Gawd. Do you ever let anything go?”

“What, are you kidding? And pass up the opportunity to drive something straight into the ground?”

“Honey, if that’s your goal, you’re going to have to dig it up and start over.”

I laughed and then I just let it go. Because that’s the kind of girl I am. The kind of girl that just lets things go. After she’s driven them straight into the ground. Or uprooted and replanted them.


KT said…
Hey Jill, as always, loved your post. I connected with so much of what you wrote, I'm not sure where to start. Let's just say that I totally hear you on the "crying just because you need to" thing. And the "horizontal tears"! What a visual, but how true! I've been doing a lot of that lately. My tears really surprise me. But I'm not fighting them. I agree with you, sometimes you just need them! Take care, Katie
P.S. As for those Lara bars, I think they are great! Especially the lemon ones. My husband and I discovered them this spring. Wish I had known about them during chemo!
Jill Aldrich said…
Katie, I look forward to comments from you. You always say something genuine, heartfelt and affirming...

I wish all of us bloggies lived closer together. I'd love to have you over for a cup of herbal tea and a Lemon Meringue Lara bar :0

As for your tears, please know that my heart goes out to you. I think about you and your new journey daily. And I'm just beyond impressed with your ability and willingness to be going through round two of this with such grace and humor (and little kids). I feel honored to be in the company of someone like you.

Sherry said…
7 bridesmaids buried in a row...I'm still laughing. Gawd Jill you write so well and so descriptively!!

Tears...oh they come at the weirdest times..but they have to come for the cleansing. And we seem to be crying over "split milk" and yet we are crying for all that we've lost. You weren't just crying about mums and Ocho's were crying because you've lost something you used to do and took for granted.

You're learning to adjust and adapt and be a new person and that doesn't just happen overnight. We have to learn to live with limitations and to let things go...and for people who are as goal oriented and "to do list" oriented as you have been all your life that's not easy. But it will come. Six months from now I think you'll look back and wonder "what was all the fuss about" least I certainly hope you will be.

((((((((((hugs)))))))) because no one "gets" this like other survivors.
Jenster said…
Oh, Honey. I can so relate. I still deal with anger and bitterness and stuff sometimes, but I always have to wait for the right time to have a meltdown. Which means it gets put off because when is there ever a good time? But I can only suppress things so long - and I'm just about past full to overflowing right now. I'm sure you'll be reading about it in the next week or two. lol

It does help to know that we're not alone in this, though.
Carolyn said…
Just needed to say " hello " , i saw your comment on Sherrys blog , sorry i only just read it today ! :o)
I felt deeply moved by what you are challenged with at this point in your life . My sister has cancer , so i am " touched " by it , unlike so many women and men who HAVE to deal with it .
I send you positive prayers and wish you a speedy recovery .
You write so beautifully , with honesty and emotion all rolled into one ....
Jill Aldrich said…
Sherry: Your email was just the TLC I needed :) My new goal (check!) is to have more fun items on my to-do list, like reconnecting with friends and getting to know new ones.

Jen: I hope you've had your meltdown and gotten those feelings out. I think once feelings are out, they're like bacteria: They die quickly when exposed to the air :) PS: I loved the photos of the "girl trip."

Carolyn: Thank you for taking the time to read about a crabby, menopausal woman crying over purple mums. Your sister's so lucky to have a sister as caring as you. My sister lives in Ohio, but when she calls, it's like she's here having a cup of coffee with me. I can be bitter and pissed, and funny and irreverent...all in the same phone call. And that makes me feel normal. I'll be thinking about your sister and wishing her lots of love and support (but you already got that covered)

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