Last year when my friend Dr. Nic had a scare in the bosom, she gathered us around a Suppah Club table and told us -- in no uncertain terms – that if she had cancer she would not (repeat NOT) become one of those positive, inspirationally-gooey people who goes around calling her disease a gift and praising God as if he hadn’t been there all along. She'd be on her knees, shaking her fists at fate: “Bloody hell. Why ME? Why the fuck did it have to be ME?”
We nearly passed out laughing and thankfully, she was fine. Still, I knew where she was coming from. She wasn't talking about having a negative attitude. She was talking about the human tendency to go all evangelical and claim to live on a deeper plane than everyone else when faced with a health crisis. She thinks that's horse shit and so do I. Like former smokers who proselytize and wag their fingers in your face, it's a form of self preservation through sanctimony. Your life doesn't have any more meaning than it did before, it just becomes much more evident that you should be paying attention.
Whatever gets you through the night. Prayer is awesome, and so is red wine.
My worst nightmare is to become maudlin, but I was shocked when I was recently asked: "How can you be so positive?" What? I'm certainly not in the bell jar 24/7 but I'm not some shitfaced cheerleader in denial, am I? There isn't a day I don't wake up and think: "Oh SHIT, I could die." But then, so could anyone. Look at poor Natasha Richardson.
I guess it's not the notion of "being positive" that irked me so much as the way the question was posed: "How can you be so positive" -- accusatory --- like I was the man who got arrested for sticking a cucumber in his ass at Shaw's.
Don't get me wrong, I want this blog to have a positive vibe, just not a "Chicken Soup for the Soul-y" vibe. I'm striving for a "Dirty (Filthy!) Martinis for the Soul" vibe (or in my case, "Liquid Perc on the Rocks for the Soul.")
Back from the Wasteland (where I was negative)
Everyone has bad days -- even bad months. T.S Eliot said April is the cruelest month. For me, February is the cruelest and March the most sadistic. A couple of bad days this past week/weekend bloomed into a full-on episode -- and I don't believe it was cancer-related, certainly not entirely. I could feel my serotonin levels plummeting, my mood not far behind.
I've had episodes like this before, always around this time of year: A crop of cartoonish thunderclouds move in right over your head and you can't dispel them. Then, the inner hag, sensing your vulnerability, takes up residence in your soul and turns you into a recluse. For several days, you want to jump out of your skin. You have no energy. You find pleasure in nothing. You can't read or respond to emails. You can't listen to music or write. You can't even make a playlist and go for a five mile walk (an oft-proven remedy for such bouts). You can't stand being awake. All you want to do is go to sleep and wake up when the thunderclouds have passed.
Aside: BTW, I'm completely aware this reads like a bad TV ad for Wellbutrin. I probably have Seasonal Affective Disorder, but that's a blog for another day.
This time around, my physical appearance added to my angst. My baldness. Craving nothing, inside or out. I felt completely inhuman. I was talking to James about how the Nazis dehumanized their concentration camp prisoners by shaving the heads and how effective that probably was for everyone involved.
Aside II: James is thrilled that I’ve now managed to involve the Nazis in this week’s existential crisis.
Thankfully my wee brown ones were wrapped up in school and activities and fun with my sainted sister-in-laws who took them out for many an hour. The kids definitely sensed my bad energy. Caroline even said, "Mommy, your face looks funny." I looked in the mirror and sure enough, my face was contorted. I resembled a sour girl from high school who overplucked her eyebrows to the point of nonrecognition. (Just an FYI: Mine have thinned out from the chemo, I have not pruned them into oblivion. My eyelashes have thinned too, hence the clumpy mascara).
Still, my poor kids:
KIDS: Mommy, can you watch me draw a picture? Can you play this game with me?
ME: Mommy just needs to spend a few more minutes under the sink with these inhalants.
Saints in the Inbox
Over the past nine weeks (it's only been nine weeks!!!), I've met and spoken to so many people who are going through breast cancer or have been there. The majority have been unbelievably helpful and I'm thankful to count them as friends. There's Julie who I broke bread and drank wine with at Rustic Kitchen. She speaks of her BC as "a blip on the radar" nine years ago. I love the sound of that. When she entered the land of NED, she renewed her vows and threw a huge bash. I love the sound of that even more. She turns 50 next month and takes her good times seriously. Fuck cancer, it has nothing to do with it!
There's my friend Doreen who I've mentioned many times here.
There are people I've met through the PU and through friends of friends.
I talked to Kelly Tuthill, whose fight with BC I closely followed three years ago. We have identical diagnoses and she's doing awesome these days. She's also a philanthropist with her time. During our conversation, she mentioned that so many people out there are "counting on her to stay healthy." And I thought that is such a blessing and a curse. It's probably hard enough dealing with grabby, newly-diagnosed people like me who are trying to clamor out of the cluelessness, but she said she enjoys talking to people who are going through the war. It's a sentiment I want to pay forward once I reach the land of NED, but you really have to be self-possessed and have a sense of boundaries so you don't become consumed. I'm wondering if I have them.
Because, based on my interaction with a handful of people, I can see how easy it would be to become consumed. (Let's just say I will never attend another support group). I'll mention three examples: The first woman was a stage 1 and recovering from surgery with an excellent prognosis. The second has been cancer free for almost two years and the third one should, at the very least, be out interviewing bands for her NED celebration. Each of them was dour and negative, seemingly hanging around on hooks waiting for their cancer to advance, recur and take them out once and for all. Together, however, they were a united front: "How can you be so positive?" I felt obligated to try to talk these people off the ledge. Mistake. I should've recognized these types a mile away.
My friend Dave would call these people “camels.”
Camel (n.): One who makes misery for the sake of making misery. Name inspired by the melancholic facial expression of the common camel.
ME: Dave, don't be so judgmental, maybe he/she is just having a bad day.
DAVE: Maybe people he/she is just being a camel. Being a camel because they can be.
Dave's banal, often stereotypical labels for people used to get on my nerves, but man, he was right on with this one. Because, every single time, the "camel" in question was not just having a bad day. It was always something. It was a lifestyle choice.
Example of a common camel: If it's someone's birthday, a holiday party, a wedding, a bridal shower, any reason to celebrate outside the house, the camel will manufacture a crisis. They will either get sick beforehand or find a reason to be offended and leave once they've arrived. Your 40th birthday will coincidentally turn out to be the 14th anniversary of of the camel's grandmother's death. The night of your holiday party, the camel will come down with a crushing migraine and throw up in the hotel lobby (or tell you they did).
So went the conversations with current and former cancer patients: Graphic bowel issues. Leg pain. It's only a matter of time. Always looking over your shoulder. How can you be so positive?
MF camels. If it wasn't cancer, it'd be something else. It's always something.
Ten years from now, these same women will be attending support groups, hell bent on spooking other "positive" assholes like me.
Ask T.S. Eliot
I was looking for a quote from one of his poems because I was thinking about an essay my niece Sarah wrote about her mother, my sister-in-law Paula, who has ovarian cancer. She wrote about "the seasons" and how during the winter months, her mother was sick and bald and was in and out of treatment. Then, springtime came and her mother's hair was growing back. She knew she was getting better when she saw Paula on her hands and knees digging out flower beds and planting annuals. Her essay conveyed a genuine love of life and an appreciation for the turn of the seasons -- something I've always felt deeply connected to as well, particularly this year.
"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?"
This past week, Paula and Sarah flew off to Florida with family and friends to celebrate Jon's cancer-free scans (Yahoo!) Because that's what they do: they celebrate the present. They also know that 38 degrees in March is complete bullshit and unworthy of their presence.
"We should be on Ellen!"
- Paula, on the amount of family members currently undergoing treatment at DF.
Their attitudes strike such a sharp contrast to those of the camels' who -- as camels tend to -- have an inherent distaste for life.
But I give thanks to the camels because they pissed me off! In anger there is adrenaline! And adrenaline is a natural serotonin booster. I'm back on my game.
The "readers guide" for that T.S. poem said "living a life devoid of meaning is death.” That's pretty bad, but it's even worse, I think, to manufacture misery or aspire to have a shitty day.
Don't be a camel.
That said, the thunderclouds have lifted and I’m pre-ordering a case of champagne to be uncorked upon my arrival in the land of NED.
Seven Songs of the Day -- 3/23/2009
Here I Come - Luscious Jackson
In the Journey - Martin Sexton
Stronger - Kanye West
Support System - Liz Phair
Dreams - The Cranberries
You Are the Best Thing - Ray LaMontagne
I Won't Back Down - Tom Petty
Courtesy of Michelle X. Curran (aka Singuloso)
(p.s. Congratulations on your new baby boy, Michelle!)