Friday, November 30, 2007

Got Goat?

What gets my goat? My hair. But since you all are sick to death of self-absorbed stories about my hair, I have decided to move on. Besides, this morning I cracked the code on styling exceptionally frizzy hair and transformed my Don King fro into a cute Hillary Clinton bob. Typically, looking like Hill is not a good thing, but it is a radical improvement over looking like Don. Even better news: Knowing how to do my hair is going to free me up--emotionally, spiritually, physically--and allow me to explore exciting new topics.

Old topic: my hair. New topic: my boobs, whoo hoo! I know, it sounds like a tired, old topic, even when packaged so smartly, but continue reading because you’ll see that I’ve got a whole new groove. A whole new boob groove. Honest.

Quick boob update: I had my reconstruction in July of this year. It was deeply disappointing and threw me into a total funk for about four months. Until today. This morning, I made an appointment to see Dr. Loren Eskenazi, the San Francisco plastic surgeon who co-authored “Reconstructing Aphrodite.” I came upon the book one night at the Community Breast Health Project in Palo Alto, where I went every other Wednesday night to write with a group of writers/survivors. I got there early one night and decided to look through the organization’s well-stocked library. I had done lots of online research looking for before/after photographs of women who had had reconstruction with implants, TRAM flap, DIEP flap, lattismus dorsi flap, and I found very little. So I looked on CBHP’s shelves for books on reconstruction. I found “Reconstructing Aphrodite,” and it was exactly what I needed.

The black and white photographs in the book were lovely. The women in the photographs obviously had been through a great deal, but there was something about each one of them that struck me: Each woman looked happy and whole . As I was a couple of months away from my own reconstruction, the photos in the book gave me a big shot of hope.

When I decided to get a 2nd reconstructive surgery, or at the very least to explore my options, I began asking other doctors for plastic surgeon referrals. Dr. Eskanazi’s name came up three times. I looked her up on the Web and was beyond thrilled to discover that she was one of the surgeons who helped create the Aphrodite book. My appointment is in less than two weeks.

I think it’s important to restate that while I am hopeful to be seeing someone of Dr. Eskanazi’s caliber, I am not looking for perfection. I’m not even hoping to look like I did before, which--and I say this with a lot of self love--was unspectacular, although I think the clinical term is unremarkable. I was on the phone one day with my friend Tori after my bilateral mastectomy. I was reading to her my pathology report, which was describing my removed breasts: …tan skin, unremarkable…nipples, unremarkable…. “Those certainly sound like your boobs,” she laughed.

I also understand the limitations of having had radiation. Radiated tissue is less flexible and resilient, which makes reconstruction much more difficult and limiting. In fact, implants can be tricky with radiated tissue. They tend to become encapsulated.

Expectations in check, what do I want? I believe I owe it to myself to look and feel as good as possible after breast cancer; to be able to look at my body and say, “I not only can live with this, I can be content with this.”

I'll report how the appointment goes. Until then, I feel like I've been given another shot of hope, and it feels good.

But, truth be told, it wasn’t just the phone call to Dr. Eskanazi today that lifted my mood. It was a phone call last night with Sam. I was talking to her about my hair and my boobs and abrupt-onset, chemo-induced menopause.

“It all just gets my goat,” I lamented. “But then again everything gets my goat these days. In fact, my goat has been gotten so many times that when I actually do get it back, it’s going to be one tiny, little goat.”

“I think it’s time to decide to be happy again,” Sam announced. “You went through a mastectomy, chemo, radiation, reconstruction, a new job, single-motherhood, a new relationship…and you made it through it all. You have what’s important: fabulous kids, good friends, a guy who’s crazy about you, a head full of bouncy curls and a clean bill of health. Ditch the goat, already.”

Sam’s right, little goat. I think it’s time, finally, to cut you loose. So, go! Run free! Oh, but, hey, before you leave completely, could you stop by the neighbors to munch on their meticulously manicured lawn? You know . . . the neighbors who catch their magnolia leaves before they can fall to the ground and sully their meticulously manicured lawn? The neighbors who tucked an “anonymous” note in my mailbox, telling me that I’d left my garbage cans out on the curb longer than they thought was appropriate? The neighbors who called the police for that same infraction while I was at chemo? Yes, those neighbors. Stop by there first, if you would. And, while you're at it, you might want to ask them if they could use an experienced goat.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thank You Notes

My new sister-in-law, like my mom, is big on thank you notes. When I was in Florence three years ago, I bought her some hand-made thank you notes at a quaint, little stationery store called Il Papiro. (After receiving them, she immediately wrote me a thank you note for the thank you notes.)

My mom is also big on thank you notes. In fact, she’s huge on thank you notes. When I was a teenager, I used to tease her: “If they made you’re welcome cards, I’m sure you’d send those, too. She’s been scouring stationery shops for a box of those ever since.

After my mastectomy and during chemo, I kept a detailed journal of the kind and generous things people did for me. I wanted to remember who had cooked us lasagne, who had sent us gerber daisies, who had brought me a bag of Kiehl’s bath products, who had simply called or stopped in front of my driveway to say I’m thinking about you .

I also kept the journal to make sure that I knew who had sent what so I could send thank you notes. I know of three that I forgot: One to my Uncle Bruno for the roses he sent (I just found that thank you note in a stack of papers); one to my friend Lucy for the spaghetti dinner she made us while her own mom was ill; one to my friends Garrett and Susan and their kids for the lavish basket of comfort food and bath items they brought by one evening. (Remember the scene in A Christmas Story where the main character puts a basket of exotic fruit on the desk of his teacher in the hopes of getting an A on his essay? The Garrett’s basket was way more luscious than that, and they weren’t even hoping for an A.) I’ve since verbally thanked those people, but it’s just not like sending a thank you note. Ask my sister-in-law or my mom.

So this Thanksgiving, I'm writing a thank you note. It's actually just the beginning of one, as I have many people to thank. But it's a start.

Thank you

Ocho. For your unbelievable and unconditional love.

Dad. For carefully and tenderly tending to my post-surgery wounds and letting yourself be vulnerable with me when I decided to be depressed instead of stoic.

Mom. For comforting and soothing me like a little girl and making sure I didn't have to think about home details for a solid month.

Mike . For only being 14, but asking me after every single appointment, “How’d it go, Mom?”

Katie. For laughing and crying with me in the Nordstrom dressing room and in my closet.

Dennis. For being present and for striking an impossible but perfect balance between humor and love.

...Jen. For being my friend and making me feel strong when I didn’t feel strong.

...Jan and Lee. For being far away but making sure you were close to my heart.

Danny. For being the kind of ex who would unquestioningly spend the night with me in the hospital.

Jessica. For being more than understanding.

...Sam. For knowing what to say and for saying it--always--with love, grace, compassion and irony :)

Andrea and Tori. For going with me to all those appointments (biopsy, surgery planning, MRI, chemo, oncologist), having a warm buttered croissant waiting for me afterward, making sure my kids and I had dinners on chemo weeks (a huge organizational task), and keeping me laughing and thinking.

Joanne. For being mindfully present during a time in her life when she should have been simply absent.

Anne. For coming out to California to be with me after my parents left, and for filling a strange period in my life with love and laughter.

To be continued…

Comes a time
when you're driftin'
Comes a time
when you settle down
Comes a light
feelin's liftin'
Lift that baby
right up off the ground.

Oh, this old world
keeps spinning round
It's a wonder tall trees
ain't layin' down
There comes a time.

You and I, we were captured
We took our souls
and we flew away
We were right
we were giving
That's how we kept
what we gave away.

Oh, this old world
keeps spinning round
It's a wonder tall trees
ain't layin' down
There comes a time…

PS: The photo is of "gratitude leaves" left on a rock in Bali

Saturday, November 17, 2007

It's Not About the Bike

It's not about the's about the hair. But you already know that, as I go on endlessly (and some would say annoyingly) about it. In the event that you live farther than 75 miles of my house--and therefore cannot hear me every morning at 6:30a.m., sobbing and spewing profanities in front of the mirror as I wield a giant round brush, a 2000-horse power blow dryer, a pricy flat iron and four different hair potions in a harried rush to get my chemo curls (only kind of) under control before racing out the door to work--here’s a hair update: It absolutely defies the laws of gravity.

Most people don’t believe me when I tell them my hair grew back in a fro. Ergo, the faux-finish fro foto. I’m not quite ready to debut the fro without the help of Apple’s Photo Booth effects. And Ocho was kind enough to join in the foto fun.

I don’t have a good transition for this, as it has nothing to do with my hair, but I rode my mountain bike up Mount Montara with Ocho today. The bike trail is the old coast road that used to connect San Francisco to Half Moon Bay. It’s no longer the coast road, and hasn’t been for years, because it collapsed in places. It must have been a dicey drive, as I passed a rusted, abandoned car along the side of the trail.

I’ve attempted the trail a dozen times, and usually have to stop because I heat up like a radiator and my heart begins to race like a turbo-charged engine. Today, however, it was foggy and cool, and Ocho was respectful of my silence and my Dalai Lama-like focus. I decided not to look up the road, as it was maddeningly steep and there is always another incline after each difficult turn. So, I played a little game with myself. I refused to look ahead. I focused only on the dirt and rocks and ancient pavement directly in front of me. And it worked.

I’d like to create a cool metaphor for life out of today’s bike ride, but I’m whooped. Besides, you all know it’s not about the bike (even though it’s a totally sick Specialist Stump Jumper that Ocho got me as a surprise last summer). It was about the bike for two hours. But in 20 minutes, I’m going to get ready for tonight’s dinner and a movie with Ocho. And you know for a fact that as I pull out the hair gear, I will have completely forgotten about my big accomplishment and will be focusing on my big hair. Again.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Rebel, Rebel, You've Torn Your Dress...

I don’t do two posts in a weekend—NaBloPoMo, or no. I simply don’t have the time. But as a pot of lentil soup, one of chicken vegetable and another of butternut squash (ask me for the recipe from “The Savory Way,” by Greens chef Deborah Madison) simmers on the stove, I’ve been thinking about a quote I read on Jacqueline Skagg’s Rebel 1 in 8 blog:

"I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect...for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence."—Audre Lorde, "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action"

Along those lines, I read an article in Newsweek three, four months ago. It was by a guy who had cancer. The cover was white, and on it floated an image of a giant Lance Armstrong yellow rubber bracelet. The story, like the cover photo, was powerful in its clarity and simplicity. I’ve misplaced the magazine (of course), and I tried to Google it but couldn’t find it (of course). It was the most real, authentic, raw/gentle essay I’ve read to date about what it’s like to deal with cancer and its aftermath. (It is infuriating to me these days trying to locate things...)

The Newsweek author talks about his cancer and how he rebels against the notion that people generate their own cancer with their negative thoughts. He also talks about our society’s insistence upon grateful-only cancer patients and how infuriating and dehumanizing it is to live with that expectation. I vibrated to those sentences in the Newsweek article because I've felt those expectations, too. (postscript: anonymous found the story and posted a link in the comments section. Here it is: My Life with Cancer.)

I’m not a bitter woman. I often skinny-dip in a deep, dark lake of gratitude and appreciation. But what I refuse to undress for is the expectation that those of us who have or have had cancer must have off-the-rack emotions and responses instead of the varied and rational/irrational responses that we actually experience.

Quite honestly, I think that most people have good intentions and realistic expectations. But it would be truly empowering if people would allow those of us who have been touched by cancer the freedom to express real, authentic, individual, even negative emotion and response to a highly personal disease and its process. Because that response doesn’t usually come in a pair of shiny patent leather Mary Janes. Instead, it’s just plain, unpolished human emotion that is trying to resolve itself in last-season’s scuffed-up ballet flats.

I don’t, and I probably never will, consider myself a rebel. Women like Jacqueline have that market cornered. But what I share with them, I think, is the idea that being able to express myself openly, directly and truthfully not only means that I’m still here, it means that I’m fully alive.

In closing, while I'm not a rebel in the truest sense of the word, I usually speak my mind, I wear used Levi's, and I can cook three pots of soup at the same time.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


A few weeks after my diagnosis, I found an achingly beautiful, black and white photograph of a woman the night before her mastectomy. There are only three elements in the photo: the woman, a camera on a tripod, and a mirror. Its composition and minimalism is stunning. And like a brilliant short story, it said so much (and no more) with so little.

In the photo, the woman is nude and sitting in front of the mirror. She has short hair and a long neck. The camera on the tripod is right beside her, like a friend who has just heard the news and is being a silent witness. The woman is looking down instead of making eye contact with herself or with the viewer. Oddly, it’s not necessary to see the woman’s eyes to feel the weight and power and pressure of the tsunami that is building momentum behind her.

(Has anyone else ever seen this photo? I stumbled upon it once on the internet, and haven’t been able to find it since…)

I lay alone in bed the night before my mastectomy. Ocho and I had broken up (my idea, so he doesn’t look like a bad guy) and we were trying to figure out how to be in each others’ lives during a crisis. We had only been dating two months when I was diagnosed.

My brother had come down from the City to spend the night and drive me to Mills-Peninsula in the morning. The kids were going to spend the night at their dad’s, since I had to leave the house at 6 a.m., but Mike decided to spend the night here.

Naturally, I slept about two minutes. At 4:50 a.m., I turned off the alarm before it rang. Even with that precaution, my body spiked adrenaline. I got in the shower in the dark, and let the warm water run over me. It diluted the tears, but seemed to intensify the fear. My tsunami was gathering height and speed.

I ran the soap quickly over my breasts. I did not linger. I wanted to get out of the shower, pack, drive to Mills, be admitted, and have the anesthesiologist with the blue Rasputin eyes put me to sleep. Get this thing done. Now. Feel what I had to feel about it later.

As I had hoped, my brother broke the tension while we were driving to the hospital. He put in a CD. “I made this for you for this morning,” he said. Instead of Mozart’s piano concerto in E flat, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” filled his Honda Pilot.

In pre-surgery, a sweet nurse gave me two gowns, a disposable shower cap and disposable booties. I took them into the little changing area and got undressed. I looked at my breasts in the mirror and touched them lightly and briefly. And then something happened; something that continued for about a year. I couldn’t cry. Instead, a small painful sound came out of my mouth. It reminded me of the exasperated sigh that Holly Hunter’s mute character, Ada, made in “The Piano,” when she was trying to express anger silently. “How odd…” I thought, as I put on the gowns and slippers and stuffed the cap in my pocket. I took my contact lenses out, while my entire body began to tremble. My brother was a calming presence in the small pre-surgery room.

A few minutes later, my kids, my ex, and my Mom and Dad came to give me a hug and a kiss. As I walked away from them, putting on my paper cap, I felt the tears coming. My mom said something to me. I think she asked me if I was scared. I turned to look at her, but I didn’t want her to see me cry. I told her I was ok and smiled.

Every morning for three weeks after my surgery, I would get undressed, tie my bathrobe belt around my waist, attach my drains to it with safety pins, put on the Dixie Chicks, and get in the shower.

I’m still mad as hell, and I don’t have time to go round and round and round
It’s too late to make it right, probably wouldn’t if I could
Cause I’m mad as hell and can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should…

I knew I was mad as hell; but I couldn’t access that anger, or anything else for that matter. Instead, I would feel an upwelling of grief, followed by that painful sigh that had become my replacement for tears. And then nothing.

I tell this story not to elicit sympathy or any other particular response. I actually tell it to myself. I feel that if I tell my story enough, it will lose some of its awful power.

At the end of “The Piano,” Ada, her daughter, and her Maori lover, George, leave New Zealand on a boat to start a new life together. In transit, she has George throw the piano overboard, and it sinks like an anchor, but not before the rope that tethered the piano to the boat gets tied around Ada’s ankle and takes her with it. We see her sinking and struggling not with the rope, but with the decision to sink with her piano—which represents both her creativity and her captivity—or to swim to the surface. She swims to the surface, where she finds grace, acceptance—and her voice. It’s an overwrought example, but I like the symbolism. I can sink, or I can swim. And, while I’m not ready (or able) to dive into grace and acceptance, I’m happy to just dog paddle for a while. And tell my story.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

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.

Friday, November 2, 2007

When I'm 64

Last night, as I drove down my street on the way to Ocho's in Half Moon Bay, I saw Mrs. Cunningham watching TV from her chair by the window. I've always had great respect for Mrs. Cunningham--Margaret, as she's
known to her peers.

But there aren't that many of Mrs. Cunningham's peers left on my street. When I first moved to my street 10 years ago, there was this lovely mix of age groups on the three or four blocks around my little red house, including lots of people with kids and lots of older folks who had already raised their kids. The older folks included Leo, a retired aircraft mechanic; Frank and Sylvia, who were incredibly tiny and frail but drove a giant pale yellow Cadillac with fins; George and Josephine Cocconi, who were from Italy (or as Mrs. Cocconi pronounced it, It-lee); Frank, who had a thick German accent, and his shy, sweet wife Judy; Ingrid Poore, a 90-year-old old woman who would pad up to the stop sign in front of my house in her nightgown, sweater and slippers, and stop in front of my driveway to say hello to me and my kids (always remembering our names); and my favorites, Phil and Roz. Phil helped me put the sump pump under my house during El Nino; Roz and I would often get together to talk about the deeper issues in life over potstickers and jasmine tea down at the little Chinese place.

To my utter dismay, Phil and Roz a few years ago packed up and moved to Kona. Phil now plays golf and the ukelele and emails me off-color, un-PC jokes, while Roz stoically deals with chronic pain and Phil's jokes. The rest of the older folks...Leo, George and Josephine, Frank and Sylvia...they either passed away or moved into retirement communities.

So, it is always comforting to me when I see Mrs. Cunningham still in the neighborhood, walking her dog at a brisk pace. I don’t know why it makes me feel good. I think maybe it’s because while some of the newer people on the street don’t know Mrs. Cunningham, I’ve been there long enough to know that she used to walk her little dog three times a day, she put up Halloween and Christmas decorations long after her kids moved out of the house, and she lobbied the city of Belmont for years to have our street regraded, repaved and curbed. I worry that people see only an old woman when they see Mrs. Cunningham in her window in front of the TV. I worry that’s all people will see when they look in my window in 30 years. That is, if I'm lucky enough to live another 30 years.

Life is short. Having recently had breast cancer, I am now acutely aware of that fact. But I was just thinking… Maybe if I live my short life as Mrs. Cunningham has—with passion, energy and an outward focus—maybe 30 years from now a middle-aged woman will drive up the street, look in my window, see me in front of my TV, and smile--knowing that I once was a vibrant old chick who sometimes walked her dog, usually cleaned her own gutters, and always tried to be a good friend, a decent mom, and an involved community member. Like Mrs. Cunningham.