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So I thought this would be the (or, at the very least, the first appreciable) point in this ride where I’d stop having much to say. The mad whirl through all the kick-off procedures, subsequent procedures, phone calls, doctor visits, and emotional adjustments has slowed significantly, and now I should be settling into a kind of groove where every week would pretty much be the same, right?
Heh. Wrong. But more on that later. First . . .
This week’s news
News #1: Good Lookin’ Innards
The CT and bone scans apparently came out clear!
Clear of cancer metastasis, anyway; turns out I have some cysts here and there (some of which I knew about, some of which are fun new friends), and some “degenerative change” in my feet. But aside from benign internal lumps and old feet, the report showed nothing concerning! And as a bonus, it showed that my “nipples appear symmetric.”
Y’all know how I feel about symmetry, and that I’m a weirdo, so I’ll admit I took a little bit of pride in that.
Also, as I predicted, since there was no horrible news, I did not receive any “early warning” phone calls (which has thus far been the case; each time there’s been bad news, I’ve received a phone call earlier than I was even expecting results, based on the timeline I was given after the procedure). In fact, I didn’t receive any phone calls at all. Still haven’t. What I did receive were imaging reports through my online patient portal (which I may have begun obsessively checking roughly 17 minutes after the CT and bone scans were over) . . . I read them, and they seemed like decent news, but I am a not a doctorâ€”nor do I play one on TVâ€”so I relied A LOT on Google to parse those reports, and thereby found a couple of things that gave me pause:
- Renal cysts. These bad boys are a prime example of why one shouldn’t Google in the midst of a health crisis, because they fit under the category of Things That Are Most Likely Nothing But Then Again Could Take You Down Tomorrow. And the deeper you get down those Google rabbit holes, the faster your head spins.
- A “single tiny focus of marked activity” on one of my ribs during the bone scan. The report stated outright that it was likely “an artifact of radio tracer contamination,” (in other words, a drop of the nuclear goo that leaked onto the OUTSIDE of me during the process of getting it INSIDE me)â€”but also mentioned that it “may represent a focus of osseous metastatic disease.” (Againâ€”Could Be Nothing, Could Be Imminent Doom.)
At this point, I gotta give a shout out to one of my middle school besties (whom we’ll call Dr. Awesome Pants unless she chooses to be otherwise identified), who grew out of her awkward years and into a career as an oncologist (I grew, too, and have a career, too, but somehow I’m still in my awkward phase). Thanks to the magic of the internet, we reconnected over a decade ago, and although we haven’t seen each other since one heady lunch we had when our kids were wee (and one of mine did not yet exist), we’re still connected through Facebook. And when she learned about my news (likely through Facebook, but to be honest, I never asked; coulda been a mutual friend, a prophetic dream, or a mystical semaphore), she contacted me with a bunch of experty questions. Through that conversation, she learned about the (then) upcoming CT and bone scans, and lovingly pestered me thereafter until I had results.
When I finally got them, I mentioned to her that they seemed like good news, but there were those couple of things. She asked me to send her screenshots of the reports so that she could try to reassure me. So I took her up on it, and she DID reassure me that this did, in fact, look like good news!
I expected to have the good news confirmed on Tuesday, during my pre-chemo visit with Dr. Cool-and-Calm, but it turned out he hadn’t received the reports yet. So technically, since my fancy doctor friend is not actually MY fancy doctor, I suppose the good news isn’t officialâ€”but again, typically when there’s bad news, there’s a phone call.
I’ve never been so delighted to feel so ignored.
News #2: Genetic Glory
The OTHER good news in recent days is that my genetic test results came back, andâ€”WOO HOO!â€”NO wonky BRCA gene, Baby!
When I received the report in the mail, the letter lied and said I’d been given the results by phone (which I had not, and still haven’t), but any anger or annoyance I could have mustered up about that little business was instantly swept away by the whoosh of relief I felt.
I’m still not 100% clear on how (or IF) this news may change my surgery options. In the beginning (before any other testing or scanning was done), I was told my choices, after chemo, would be either:
- a lumpectomy with radiation, or
- a mastectomy
. . . and that there wasn’t much difference between them in terms of the chance for recurrence, UNLESS it turned out I had the BRCA gene mutation (in which case a mastectomy would probably be the smarter move). At that point, however, we thought the cancer was ONLY in the breast; since the cancer has now been found in the rogue lymph node (which is becoming enough of a recurring character that perhaps IT needs a name . . . I’m taking suggestions), I’ve now been told that I’ll likely end up having radiation no matter what (so if I was leaning toward the mastectomy in order to avoid radiation, I shouldn’t count on that). So on balance, the positive lymph node and the negative BRCA test may just be a wash. In that case, I guess at this point I’ll just focus on hoping the chemo works as well as possible, and figure out what to carve out or cut off when I get to that bridge.
In the meantime, though, I’m taking great comfort in the fact that I have not unwittingly passed down a mutant bad-boob gene to my children. While it’s true that both of my children are (birth-assigned) boys, the gene could manifest in them as another type of cancerâ€”or as breast cancer, since men can get that, tooâ€”and would put them at higher risk of cancer in general. In addition, the gene could pass through them to their own daughters (or sons). So just knowing I’m NOT the Typhoid Mary (er . . . Breast Cancer Bonnie?) in this situation is a tremendous relief in itself.
Anyway, that’s the news for this week. Now comes the babble . . .
Chemo Treatment #3: More like a (dirty) TRICKment
My third Chemo Tuesday started out with two breakfasts. Under orders to eat before each treatment, I made myself a bowl of oatmeal at home and scarfed it down, not realizing that when Love Tank came downstairs to drive me to my treatment, he was going to say, “I’m hungry. Are you hungry? Do you want to pick up food on the way?”
I mean. When you’re talkin’ to ME, “Do you want to pick up food on the way?” basically qualifies as a rhetorical question.
So I ate a second breakfast on the way, thinking the snacks and lunch I’d packed to bring along were probably going to go uneaten.
My third chemo treatment, however, “hit different,” as the kids say. It started out as usual: a visit with Dr. CaC (the only surprise there beingâ€”as I mentionedâ€”that he hadn’t yet seen my CT and bone scan results), followed by my choice of empty recliners for the duration of treatment.
Again, I chose the area closest to the bathrooms, except this time, there was only one person sitting in the Bathroom Bay. I merrily commented that for a second there, I thought I was going to have the whole section to myselfâ€”but the man sitting there didn’t respond, so I figured he’d probably thought the same thing, and was disappointed by my intrusion upon his solitude. So I shut my flap and sat down, because I’m all about respecting a person’s solitudeâ€”or at least their desire to NOT make small talk with a stranger.
The nurse came over to start getting me hooked up, and mentioned that once the pharmacy delivered the goods, they’d start me on the pre-meds and Benadryl. Soon, another nurse arrived and said, “OK, we’re going to get you started on the Benadryl.”
“Oh,” I said. “I thought the pre-meds came first.”
She replied, “Sometimes we start with the pre-meds, sometimes with the Benadryl.”
And that was fine by me . . . until the guy next to me suddenly struck up a conversation RIIIIIIIIIIIGHT as they hooked me up to the Benadryl.
His story was fascinating: five years ago, he got laid off from his job. Faced with losing his health insurance (let’s take a moment of WTF here to contemplate how ridiculous it is that health care is tied so closely to employment in this country . . . and now back to our program), he decided to get a thorough check under the hood, so he did all the testing he was due for at his ageâ€”including a colonoscopy, whereby he found out he had stage 4 colon cancer.
The cancer had metastasized to his liver, so he underwent resections of both his liver and his colon. When I met him, he was on his fourth round of chemo (the five years since his diagnosis had involved periods of remission, the longest being 1.5 years). “You never really get used to it,” he said. But he did acknowledge how amazing it was for him to be sitting there five years after a diagnosis like that.
I’m sure there were more interesting details to his story, but in the middle of our conversation, the Benadryl started kicking in. As we talked, I found it harder and harder to say words like “remission” and “radiation,” and eventually just had to come clean:
“I’mmmm shorrrrrry; I know my shpeech iz startn ta slurrrrr. I feela Bennndrill kickin’ innn. I mightt fallaschleep onnn ya.”
The last thing I recall clearly is him telling me that he doesn’t let them give him Benadryl prior to treatment. “I hated it,” he said.
I recall thinking, as I drifted off to sleep, that that was a good reminder to self-advocate; which for me means not only SAYING no, but even being aware that I CAN say no in certain situations! Mind you, I got no plans to give up the Benadrylâ€”Mama loves a good napâ€”but honestly, before that point, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to TRY.
But I digress.
The point is that next thing I knew, I was waking up (having previously been woken up briefly, asked for my birthdate, and informed that I was being started on the Taxol drip) with a DEEP, GNAWING HUNGERâ€”I mean, the cartoon kind, where every sentient being appears before you as a juicy roasted chicken. I sat up, dug into my bag, and ate every bit of the lunch I’d brought (a turkey sandwich, two string cheeses, and a container of watermelon chunks) before polishing off the tin of almonds and the bag of dark chocolate aÃ§aÃ blueberry balls I’d brought for snacks. Then I had nothing left to eat, but I was still hungry, so I chewed my way through half a pack of gum I found in my purse (it was leftover from my last dental appointment, when I realized I’d forgotten to brush my teeth before I left the house (I mean, I brushed that DAY, but I always brush right before heading to the appointment), and so stopped at CVS for a pack of minty freshness to chew en route).
And that was only the beginning. When, Love Tank came to pick me up and take me home, he asked if I was hungry and YES, I WAS. So I ate another lunch when I got home.
Then I ate dinner.
Then I went to bed, but woke up starving at around 11 p.m., so I ate a “midnight snack.”
Then I lay back down to try and sleep . . . and immediately my esophagus was ablaze with horrible heartburn (and I’ve never experienced heartburn IN LIFE outside of being super pregnant, therefore we don’t stock any sort of heartburn relief in this house). So there wasn’t much sleep to be had after the snack, but I dutifully got up to start my day at 6 a.m. on Wednesday . . .
. . . and the fun continued! I was hungry, hungry, hungryâ€”but everything I ate made the heartburn worse and, as a bonus, made me feel like puking.
This was not how Wednesdays were supposed to go! Wednesdays were supposed to be primarily OK, with maybe a little weirdness (like, mild achiness or a teench of nausea that could be willed away by finding something else to focus on). Not like this gastrointestinal freak show!
Ultimately, I stopped trying to eat anything, took a couple of naps during the day, and managed to will my way to school pick-up time for the littler dude. But once he was safely home with his afternoon snack, I gave up on the rest of the day. Crawled into bed, canceled our weekly Wednesday dinner with my mom (which phone call resulted in a lecture from herâ€”once I’d described the WWE-level smackdown happening within me between the insatiable hunger and the heartburn/nausea double-team that resulted anytime I tried to eat anythingâ€”about how I didn’t need to be eating too much anyway, because I don’t want to put on weight . . . moms, amirite?), and passed TF out.
When I woke up later that evening, the hits kept coming with another double-team disaster: a splitting headache (that laughed in the face of ibuprofen) coupled with deep-deep-DEEEEP muscle aches in my neck and shoulders.
Now basically pinned to the mat by this whole gang of WWE characters (because the heartburn and the nausea didn’t leave the ring when the headache and muscle aches arrived, oh, no, they did not), I was in no way able to get comfortable enough to fall back asleep, so I lay there for two hours, trying to deep breathe my way through it (while my kids periodically came into the room to show me stuff or ask what I was doing; eventually I became unable to maintain any semblance of a brave face, and so started responding (in a whisper, and without even opening my eyes), “Just trying not to puke.”)
They left me alone after that.
(The rule in our house, as it applies to our dogs, is that whoever (a) witnesses the dog puking, or (b) first discovers the pool of puke cleans it up, so I’m pretty sure my children didn’t want any part of seeing me puke (which, FTR, I never did), for fear the rule extended to me, too. Because unlike the dogs, who can’t rat them out when they pretend they didn’t even NOTICE the steaming pool of dog urp smack dab in the middle of the living room carpet, I’m a far more reliable witness.)
Thursday morning, the head and muscle aches were gone, but the gastro issues were still here to play. I made it halfway through the day at work (largely thanks to a pack of peppermint gum I received as part of a glorious care package from a friend I’ve known since first grade; I’m not typically a gum person, but despite having brushed my teeth, and having had nothing to eat or drink aside from little sips of water, I had a HORRIBLE taste in my mouthâ€”so I plucked the pack from the pile of snacks on the kitchen island, and popped a piece in . . . and lo and behold, the nausea calmed TF down a little)â€”but eventually I gave up, made my apologies to my team, and crawled back into bed until it was time to pick up the little dude from school.
Thursday evening, when I felt the Ache Twins coming back to the party, I nearly cried; but the good news was that by that time, the heartburn was gone, and the nausea (thanks to the fact that I’d finally broken into the prescription nausea meds I’d been given for home use, and they were finally starting to kick in) was down to a dull roar.
Friday, the clouds finally began to break. I managed to eat some things (a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, a bowl of white rice for lunch) with no dire repercussions, and so started weaning myself off the nausea meds (because while I appreciated them when I needed them, they made me BURRRRRRRRRP like a sweaty drunk guy with three-day-old stubble; I was frequently emitting lip-rippling blasts like Predator with a bullhorn). In addition, I actually managed to accomplish some things at work for the first time since Monday. (My arrangement with my employer was to have Tuesdays off for treatment, and then possibly Fridays off, depending on how I felt, because up to this point, Fridays had been my “worst” days. But no previous Friday had ever brought anything near the misery I felt on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, and since that misery forced me to bail on work early both days, I went ahead and worked on Friday morning.)
My kids had a half day of school that day, and once they were both home (one by bus, one by mom), I took them out to pick up their lunch. Then I took a napâ€”more by choice than by absolute necessityâ€”and as I drifted off, I recalled how a friend of mine once described the day after a 54-hour migraine:
In that moment, now that the abject horror of the past two days was starting to lift, I felt a soul-deep understanding of that feeling, that complete and abiding love for all the light-filled beings in the world once you come back into it from the darkened basement hovel in which you’ve been living for a couple of days. And that kind of day-after sunshine ain’t a bad antidote to the dark.
By the long weekend, although I wasn’t feeling 100%, I managed to make it to a movie (The Invitation), to a friend’s backyard for food and a firepit (most hilarious part: a “drum circle” consisting of my two childrenâ€”and, at one point, my friend’s husbandâ€”channeling Tito Puente with plastic buckets), and also made it out for a motorcycle ride to try out a new Cuban place with Love Tank (my litmus test is always the Cuban sandwich, and this one was created according to spec (roast pork, ham, mustard, Swiss cheese, and dill picklesâ€”that’s it!â€”no fancy aioli or pickle relish, and ya gotta PRESS it; don’t put it on some artisan French roll, dammit), but the cheese left a little bit to be desired; it was like the Velveeta version of Swiss).
Chemo Tuesday #4 Begins
So as I wrap this up, I’m back in the chair for treatment #4, a little terrified of what’s to come. On the bright side, I guess I now know I can survive whatever hell comes (I mean, not that I WANT to, but I can). And if nothing else, this past week was a lesson in giving myself permission to say NO when I needed to (or hell, just WANTED to, because whatâ€”someone’s going to argue with the bullhorn-burping cancer chick?). Oddly, though, I’m discovering that while I’m embracing the power to say NO to whatever the flupp I want, I also feel like there are more occasions when I want to say YES, because of that niggling need to do all the things I feel up to doing (even things that seem small and seemingly insignificant, like going to Target with Love Tank to check out the Halloween stuff)! It’s a weird place to be, but I’m rolling with it.
And thank you, as always, for rolling alongside.
It occurs to me these days that life rarely goes according to plan, and since the last “week’s” update was damn near TWO weeks’ worth of stuff, I’m going to dispense with my plan to update by “week” and start updating updating by “part,” since those can be big or small (tee hee).
So, Part 4 begins with some (not so good) news from Part 3. By the time I got this news, I was 75% of the way through the Part 3 update, so I decided that rather than re-jigger the Part 3 opening updates to include this, I’d add it to the to the TL;DR intro for Part 4, and here we are, so . . .
The most recent big news
It turns out that, contrary to what we originally thoughtâ€”that the cancer was localized to the left breastâ€”it is, in fact, also in a lymph node (at this point, it’s looking like just one, but I’m no longer making declarative announcements, because it turns out that’s a lot like making plans). The MRI (which occurred just a few days before I started chemo) showed a suspicious node just below my left armpit, so during my first chemo appointment, I was told I needed to come back in two days for an ultrasound, and a possible (which turned into a definite) biopsy of the rogue node. That biopsy showed malignancy.
What this means:
- While there will be no change to the chemo/immunotherapy treatment plan at all, this news will change the eventual surgery, because now the surgeon will want to remove lymph nodes as well. (I’m already checking out cool compression sleeves, so I can be ready to rock a fake tattoo sleeve when the time comes.)
- From what I can tell, this moves the staging of my cancer from 2A to 2B.
Staging is determined using three primary factors:
T: The size of the tumor
N: The involvement of nearby lymph nodes
M: Whether or not it has metastasized to distant organs
My cancer was initially clinically staged at 2A, because although the tumor was a decent size (~4 cm), there was no spread to nearby lymph nodes (or so we thought), and no metastasis (or so we THINK . . . see next bullet). Now, the size of my tumor AND the involvement of the naughty node move it into stage 2B, again, with the assumption that it’s just the one node, and the assumption that it hasn’t spread anywhere elseâ€”but in order to determine THAT . . .
- I have now been required to undergo CT and bone scans to check for metastasis to other parts of my bodyâ€”so far, no results yet from those (but by the time I get 75% of the way through THIS update, who knows?).
So here’s what’s been going down since we last talked:
- Monday, 8/22 â€” Weekly blood draw
- Tuesday, 8/23 â€” Second chemo treatment
- Friday, 8/26 â€” Procedurepalooza, Part 2: CT and bone scans
Cast of Characters Jovial Jim and Welcoming Winnieâ€”the other patients I met during chemo round #2 (my elder son has proposed a sitcom called Friends at Chemo; I initially laughed and blew it off, but now I'm starting to think he's onto something). Stinky Sallyâ€”a woman with very bad perfume, whom I encountered in a hospital waiting area. Dr. Cool-and-Calmâ€”my oncologist. Love Tankâ€”my husband.
Monday, bloody Monday
So, when I went in for my #1 chemo treatment, I learned that each week, they’ll need to take a blood draw for labs before the treatment can begin. (This was not necessary for the first treatment, because I’d had labs a few days prior, and since I hadn’t started treatment, it could be assumed that there hadn’t been significant enough changes to my health in the interim as to alter those results.) I was told that I had the choice of coming in the day before treatment each week for a blood draw, or doing the blood draw the day of treatment.
The primary benefit of doing the day-before draw is to save time; because the treatment can’t begin until the labs come back, doing a day-of draw would mean twiddling my thumbs for 1-2 hours, waiting for lab results before getting hooked up with the chemo (and no, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave and go get some pancakes or something during that time).
The primary benefits of doing the day-of draw are:
- To save gas and a middle-of-the-workday dash to the hospital and back (this point is somewhat negligible, since the hospital is only about a 15-minute, mostly-highway drive from my house, which means less than 45 minutes out of my day, and probably only a couple bucks’ worth of gasâ€”or less, if I take my motorcycle (but unlike Love Tank, I AM NOT ready to drive that thing on the highway, so I’d have to take a longer route, although it would be much more funâ€”but I digress), and
- To save myself a needle poke, because for day-of draws, they’re able to use my port to get the blood, but for day-before draws, they go traditional and jam a needle into my arm.
While you’d think that second point alone would be enough to convince my needle-phobic ass to do the day-of draw, I chose the day-before option, mostly because the nurse who discussed it with me was REALLY pushing that as the way to go, promising a quick, “get in, get out” procedure. And so far, she’s true to her word: I arrived about 5 minutes before my 3 p.m. appointment on Monday, and was walking out the door by 3:02. So I suppose I’ll stick with this method going forward, as long as that kinda speedy service stays consistent. And as long as I keep getting THEEEEE most amazing nurse, who has now drawn my blood TWICE, and I BARELY felt anything either time! I may need to marry her. Will keep you posted.
So unlike treatment #1, treatment #2 kicked off (as, I’m given to understand, will all treatments henceforth) with a visit with Dr. Cool-and-Calm. For this visit, he mostly just asked about my symptoms following the first treatment, and talked a little about the results of my labs from the day before.
As far as the symptoms went, I only had a few to report:
- Vague nausea (never bad enough, IMO, to take the prescription pills I’ve been given to combat it)
- Moderate achiness/stiffness in my neck, shoulders, and upper arms (bad enough to guzzle ibuprofen a couple of nights, and to try sleeping with my neck on a heating pad for one of them)
- Mild fatigue (typically following an attempt to do some mundane thingâ€”walking the little one to school, my lunchtime cleaning spree, etc.â€”at my “normal” level of functioning (i.e., walking at my typical fast pace once I ditch the shorty-legged kid at school, shoving big-ass furniture around to clean beneath and behind, etc.) rather than my current slightly-puny level of functioning).
- A weird feeling that I can only describe as “feeling my heartbeat”â€”an occasional experience of . . . not pain, but just . . . being acutely aware of my heart glub-glubbing in my chest, which sensation is typically reserved for those times when that sucker is beating demonstrably faster than usual (like when I’m (a) running after a dog who’s hell-bent on dashing out onto a major street; (b) about to get sideswiped by the Culligan Man on the highway; or (c) getting an eyeful of Love Tank cruising Cool-Rider style down our street as he returns from work on his motorcycle)â€”only in this case, it’s beating at normal speed.
As for my lab results, they raised a couple of areas of mild concern:
- Anemia. “That’s only going to get worse,” Dr. Cool-and-Calm cautioned (and, he mentioned, could be what’s causing the weird heartbeat thing), so per his advice, guess who’s now taking iron supplements (andâ€”TMI WARNINGâ€”experiencing the concomitant black poo)?
- Low potassium. This time, Dr. CaC advised handling that by way of my diet, but I went ahead and got some postassium supplements as well, so I don’t burn out on bananas.
Immediately following my short visit with Dr. CaC, I headed on out to the chair. Unlike last time (when a specific chair was reserved for me because, as a newbie, I needed to be in the line of sight of the nurses’ station), I got to choose which area (of three) and chair I wanted, so I chose a chair by the window, in the area closest to the bathrooms (recalling the ungodly number of times I peed during the first treatment).
I found instant camaraderie with the two other people in the Bathroom Bay. One, an athletic-looking middle-aged man who still had hair (and who was getting some sort of infusion via IV rather than a port) declared jovially, “This is the VIP section!” and the other, a slightly older woman with no hair (who was chatting amiably with the friend (sister? wife?) who sat, knitting, in a chair next to her recliner), called out happily, “Welcome!”
We didn’t talk much after that, but Jovial Jim got a lunchtime visit from his wife, who was equally jovial, and Welcoming Winnie did strike up a bit of conversation with me towards the end of my visit. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but she asked about what medications I was receiving, and warned me that the Taxol would make my hair fall out. From there, we discussed:
- The scalp pain she experienced prior to her hair falling out (I was glad to hear there might be some sort of warning sign for me, because I’ve been getting weekly blowouts lately, and I’m always paranoid that my stylist is going to wind up with a fistful of my hair and freak tf out, so I’ve been waiting for some indication of when I should start warning them in advance).
- How what’s even more difficult than the baldness is the loss of eyebrows and eyelashes (“I mean, they define your whole face,” Winnie astutely pointed out).
- How we’re both choosing to eschew wigs, because they tend to look so . . . “wiggy.” And although more than one person has told me there are some wigs out there that look really good, I think about all the “bad wig” moments in big-budget movies and TV shows, and I figure that even though Love Tank and I make a pretty comfortable living, my comparatively meager wig budget is still likely to have me looking like this:
But I digress.
Sadly, I’ll only see Winnie every three weeks, as she’s on a 21-day chemo cycle (SEVEN HOURS each time, blecch). But she did give me a lead on a local shop with good head coverings (she said the bamboo ones, like the one she had on, are the softest), so by the next time I see her, maybe she and I will be sporting matchies.
At any rate, overall, the second round of chemo was FAST (only three hours this time, since I didn’t get the Keytruda (the immunotherapy drug) this round), far less pee-ful (fewer drugs mean fewer saline flushes in between), and a little less sleepy; I still got the Benadryl, but only napped for about 40 minutes or so on it, as opposed to the HOURS I conked out the first time. I was still a little tired when I got home afterwards, but overall, it didn’t seem to knock me on my ass for THE REST OF THE DAAAAAYYYY, so I was able to whip up dinner that evening (“Really?” my family looked at me, surprised (and, in the case of my elder kid, disappointed, since he’d been hoping we’d order Indian food) as I began browning pork chops) and enjoy it with my sweet little fam.
Procedurepalooza, Part 2: half a day of dye-ing and scanning
On Friday, I arrived at the hospital at 7:30 a.m., ready to be stuffed through some tubes. Although I had experience with MRIs previous to this, I’d never had a CT or bone scan, but I’m not claustrophobic, so I anticipatedâ€”or at least hopedâ€”that they’d be equally satisfying experiences.
I was wrong.
GAH, they were awful. Well, OK, the scans themselves were not too bad, but all the stuff that has to be in your body for them to work would not even be worth the price of admission for an MRI (which, as you may recall, I LOVE).
Upon arrival, I was given contrast dye to drink for the CT scan. It appeared to be a big jug of red wine, but alas, held none of the fun. It tasted like pure ass (a man who sat nearby with his own jug of ersatz hooch to drink pointed out that at least this time it had some flavoring; apparently last time he’d done this, there had been no attempt to make it the least bit palatable), and it didn’t even get me to a state of wanting to kiss everyone (like a few glasses of wine will); instead, it skipped me straight through to the next-morning nausea, because the more of it I tasted at the back of my throat, and the more of it I felt sloshing around in my empty stomach, the more I thought I might hurl.
The last straw was when a (probably kind and compassionate) woman, who’d accompanied a patient to his medical appointment, sat down in the chair next to me (as I deep-breathed and silently pep-talked myself into taking one more, and then another sip of that swill)â€”and her perfume was so strong, and so horrid-smelling that I knew I’d yurp my gut fulla contrast dye straight onto her lap if I didn’t get the hell away from her STAT . . . so the second she and her cloud-o-fumes sat down, I picked up my purse, my jug, and the little styrofoam cup I’d been given along with it, and noped all the way over to the other side of the room. (I spoke in a long-ago blog post about how I’d reached the age of giving no fucks, but in this moment, I hit a new low in fucks to give, because I was legit ready to hurt every single one of an innocent woman’s feelings by telling her she smelled like Satan’s unwashed ass if she dared to call me out on moving away from her (which, I mean, why even would she, since 100% of her focus was probably on the health of the man she’d brought to the doctorâ€”but still, I WAS READY); I wished a mufuggah WOULD.)
The good news, if I have to find some, about this whole scene was that I was provided two breaks from choking down the contrast dye:
- A couple of styrofoam cups in, a handsome young fella in scrubs came and fetched me for the insertion of an IV to inject me full of radioactivity for the bone scan (and I hate to admit it, but yes, the injection of radioactivity into my body was a welcome reprieve from drinking that stuff). I warned him, as I do anyone who’s about to jab me with a needle, that I HATE needles. For the most part, I’m sure it does nothing except make them afraid that I’ll start screaming or kicking or something, but I like to think it makes them try to be a little gentler with the stick of doom. This time, however, he asked (having already determined via a series of earlier questions that I have cancer) if I happened to have a chemo port. When I answered YES, he asked if I’d like him to just use the port to inject the nuclear goo (OK, that’s not what he called it) rather than inserting an IV. As a bonus, he told me the CT scan folks would be able to use the port as well, for the injection of THEIR goo. I was thrilled. He accessed my port, injected a couple of small vials of atomic serum, left the access tube in place for the CT people, and sent me back to the waiting room (where Stinky Sally no longer sat, but I could still smell her perfume).
- A short time later, a young woman with a killer nail polish color came to fetch me for the CT scan. I’d been told, when I was given the jug of Hell Juice, that I’d have about an hour to finish it before the scan, and here I was only 40 minutes in, with a good 12-15 ounces left to drink! I looked at her in panic, thinking she’d start chanting, “Chug! Chug! Chug!” and I’d have to finish it all at once (I glanced at her shoes to see if they were puke proof)â€”but instead, she looked at my jug and said, “You drank plentyâ€”they gave you a LOTâ€”so you’re good.” Then she took what was left in my jug, and my little cup, and tossed them into a nearby trash bin. And at that point, I DID actually want to kiss her. But mostly, I still wanted to throw up, so I didn’t take that chance.
Unfortunately, although the nice CT scan lady had saved me from the torture of the contrast dye, she was also the bearer of bad news: because the CT scan folks were unable to determine whether my port was a “power port” (after my port placement surgery, I was given a card that apparently contained this information, but heck if I had it on me), they could not, in fact, use it to inject their goo. So I had to get a damn IV inserted, anyway, which they used to inject me, during the scan, with what I can only describe as Instant Hot Flash. The nice woman had warned me that I’d start to feel warm, and that it would FEEL like I was peeing myselfâ€”but, she assured me, that would not actually be the case. Turns out she underestimated the feeling of warmth; I hadn’t worried too much about it, I mean, I LOVE Bikram yoga (in fact, this past winter, I bought a membership to Hotworx, because it’s the closest approximation to Bikram that’s available in these parts), so how bad could it be?
OH MY GOD, it was like all my internal organs morphed into the earth’s core, and were incinerating me from the insideâ€”which did NOTHING to help my nausea; my only hope was to keep my mouth shut so the magma churning inside me wouldn’t come glurging out and melt my face. What she OVERestimated was the pee-pee sensation. I felt it, but barely, and it came nowhere close to making me believe I’d tinkled on myself. I guess the good news was that neither sensation lasted longer than about 12 seconds.
The other good news is that I only had to keep the IV in for the duration of the CT scan; both it and the access tube still attached to my port were removed immediately following the scan.
But the BEST thing that happened after the CT scan was that I got to EEEEEEEAT. Before the scan, when I was given the dye to drink, I was told that I could use the restroom, but that I was to have nothing to eat or drink from that point until the CT scan was completed. The bone scan came with no such requirements, so in the hour and change I had “free” following the CT scan and before the bone scan . . . well . . . I’d like to say I went and treated myself to a fancy, four-course meal at a place with at least three dollar signs in its Yelp profile, but (a) it was only 9:30 in the morning, and (b) Mama was HONgry, so in reality I whizzed to the nearest Wendy’s drive thru, ordered a #9 breakfast, and started eating it as soon as it was handed out the window to me, so it was GONE by the time I’d driven the two miles back to the hospital. The silver lining THERE is that it went a long way towards alleviating the nausea I’d been feeling all morning (and as a bonus, shoveling the food so quickly down my gullet helped scrub away the red dye stains I noticed on my lips and tongue when I first got into the car and looked in the rearview).
When I arrived back at the designated waiting room for the bone scan, I still had an hour to kill, so I conked out in my little chair for about 45 minutes. Then the handsome dude who’d injected me with the Area 51 brew came back to get me for the bone scan.
About 20 minutes (and a warm blanket) later, I was out of that tube and (at long last) on my way back home (where I crashed for the rest of the day). I’m told I’ll have results Monday or Tuesday. I’ve been checking my patient portal to see if any results have popped up earlyâ€”and none haveâ€”but I’d like to think that this means my scans will come out clear. It seems like every time I get news before I’m expecting it during this process, it’s bad news. So maybe in this case, “on time” news will be good news. Cross your fingers.
This week's BONUS content: Livin' for the weekends. So the pattern that seems to be emerging, in terms of how I feel with the chemo treatments, goes something like this: Tuesday: Treatment day. Feelin' good, but a little sleepy from the Benadryl. Wednesday: Feeling fine, maybe a little left of center, but not to a noticeable extent (in other words, if I didn't know I was fulla chemo drugs, I could easily blow off the weirdness I feel). Thursday: Feeling a little more pud, but still not too bad. Friday: Feeling noticeably gross now, but can still accomplish what I need to. Saturday: Starting to ride the upswing. Sunday: Swinging up even more. Monday: Feeling easily 97.4% normal, JUST in time for the next treatment. (The thing that makes it challenging to assess how I'm feeling after chemo is that so far, I've been required to undergo additional, unpleasant medical procedures within a couple of days after each treatmentâ€”first with the lymph node biopsy (on a Thursday), and then with the CT and bone scans (on a Friday). And on those days, I end up feeling pretty bad, but I can't help thinking that without the added stress and physical effort required for those procedures, I wouldn't end up crashing so hard on those days of the week. But I digress.) So for the past two weekends, I've actually been able to function relatively normally. The weekend after Treatment #1, Love Tank and I functioned as our "normal" RIDICULOUS selves and drove to Omaha, NE and back (three hours each way) in a single day, because several weeks prior, he'd discovered that a movie theater up there was going to be showing Grease 2 on Sunday, 8/21. And he loved me enough to not only TELL me about it (he could have taken that shit to his grave), but to buy us tickets. So off we went, and it was GLORIOUS. (No, no, not GREASE. Grease TWOOOOO, baby, Reproduction, Cool Rider, and Who's That Guy? all the way! The summer I was 13, I came down with a HORRIBLE case of chicken pox while I was in Texas visiting my grandparents, and was stuck inside for a substantial amount of time. During that time, I watched Grease 2 FOURTEEN times on HBO, and Michael Carrington retains a special chunk of my heart (even though he can't sing for shit). THIS time, however, was my first time seeing it on the big screen, and it was (somehow!) even MORE magical! Love Tank (and a larger-than-life Adrian Zmed sliding down a bowling lane on his knees and belting out high falsetto) is the gift that keeps on givin'.) This past weekend, we eschewed the ridiculous-variety "normal" in favor of some NORMAL-normal: our older son had a friend sleep over, which has become sadly rare as we've been trying to adjust to life as it is now, and prepare for life to come. He's been a real trooper, and hasn't even really asked to have any sleepovers at our house in forever (he used to ask damn near every weekend). But this weekend, he did, and I was feeling pretty good, so I said "Sure!" And being able to give him that little slice of "normal" in the midst of all this made me feel even better.
As always, if you’re still reading, you’re BANANAS, but I can’t thank you enough for staying on this train. I can’t seem to figure out a way to respond directly to each of your comments on this blog (there used to be one, but it doesn’t seem to work for me anymore?), but I see, read, and love ALL of them . . . and you!
(Special shout out to those of youâ€”you know who you are (and yes, there are more than one of you, which I love)â€”who’ve been thoughtful enough to ask if I need edibles, and to let me know you can get me the “good ones.” I will keep you on speed dial.)
OK, technically, it’s been more than a week; my plan was to work on updates over the weekends, and post them on Sunday or Mondayâ€”but here it is Wednesday, and I’m just getting started, which means by the time I post this, it’ll be damn near time to make another update, according to my carefully-laid plans. In addition, since I’m behind schedule, I have even more to babble about than usual. So strap in, y’all. Be sure to take a potty break first. This sucker’s gonna be a long one.
BUT! Before I get too far in, here are the nitty-gritty updates for anyone who nerds out on details, or just likes having stuff to Google:
- I was mistaken about the chemo drug I mentioned in the last post; the day after I posted last, I received a letter from my insurance company that the following drugs had been approved for my treatment, at my physician’s request:
- Keytruda (immunotherapy drug; all the rest are chemo drugs)
- I was also kind of confused about the frequency of treatments. Initially, I was told (by Dr. Get-It-Done, at my initial post-diagnosis consult) that I’d get treatments every three weeks; then, I was told by Dr. Cool-and-Calm that my treatments would be weekly. Finally, at my “chemo education” meeting with Nurse Practitioner Patience-and-Grace (see box below), I learned that neither of those statements was a lie: for the first 12 weeks of treatment, I’ll go weeklyâ€”and for the second 12 weeks, I’ll go every three weeks, and receive a different series of meds. So here’s the (even nittier, grittier) breakdown:
- First-round meds: Keytruda / Carboplatin / Taxol
- Second-round meds: Keytruda / Cytoxan / Doxorubicin
And here are the treatment-tastic events (now with jump links!) that have occurred since my last post:
- Monday, 8/8 – Genetics consult
- Tuesday, 8/9 – Echocardiogram
- Thursday, 8/11 – Procedurepalooza: MRI + Port placement
- Tuesday, 8/16 – First chemo treatment
- Thursday, 8/18 – Second biopsy
This Week's New Characters: Nurse Practitioner Patience-and-Grace: The NP responsible for sitting with me and my husband to give us the down-and-dirty details about my treatment plan, what to expect, etc. Princess Erudite: The genetic counselor. Dr. Eagle-Eye: The radiologist on my care team. Nurse Poke-n-Prod: The kind and friendly, but ham-handed anesthesiology nurse who unfortunately had to insert my IV for port placement surgery. Love Tank: My husband. And OK, he's not new (had him for two decades), but the nickname is.
The Genetics consult
Subtitle: Blood vs. spit: the great internal skeeviness debate
Two Mondays ago, I had a phone consult with a very kind genetics counselor. I’m not sure how heavily she’ll feature in future posts, so I’m not sure if she needs a name or not, but she was able to explain quite a bit about the kinds of factors she considers during a genetic consult, to determine a patient’s likelihood of inheriting a specific health-related gene, so I’ll call her Princess Erudite. At any rate, there are only a couple of key takeaways from that conversation:
- Yes, based on the aforementioned factors, I should be tested to determine if I’ve inherited the BRCA gene.
- Yes, I am ridiculous, because once she told me about the testing options, I realized that both of them were going to be problematic for me: the first option is a blood draw, and needles (particularly when they’re sucking something out of me as opposed to putting something in) make me cry; the second is spitting into a tube, and saliva makes me puke.
True story: a few years ago, my mom decided to learn more about her heritage with one of those Ancestry kits. I happened to be in her apartment when she was filling the tube with saliva, but she was in a different room, so I was just FIIIIIINE. Until she suddenly and unexpectedly appeared before me, wielding her little tube-o-drool and asking, “Do you think this is enough?”
And before you ask, YES, I have taken, and taken my elder son to get, a series of drive-thru COVID tests, and I made it through those incidents without puking, but GAH, it was hard. (And when I had to take my son, I legit stepped OUT of the car and walked around until he’d filled his tube and returned it to the attendant. The struggle is real.)
I was already leaning toward a blood test, because throughout this whole process, I’ve been tolerably poked and prodded enough to think maybe my “needle skeeves” were coming to an end (they are NOT, it turns outâ€”but more on that later); however, when Princess Erudite asked if I had any blood draws coming up (suggesting that they could just slurp out an extra vial for genetic testing while they’re at it), I became determined to orchestrate a two-for-one blood draw. (Meanwhile, my husband was listening to my conversation, shaking his head, and asking, “Why don’t you just do the spit?” But y’all know I own my weirdness.)
Subtitle: Taking the little wins where I can
The echocardiogram procedure was largely uneventful; it went smoothly, and I had the nicest conversation with the tech, who happens to live where I live, and who ALSO has a child starting high school this year. (She’s a little concerned about her kid socially, as 8th grade was apparently really hardâ€”but we had a great chat about how middle school sucks for 92% of us, and high school is where you really hit your stride: find your people, find your fun, make your moves . . . And yes, I did wonder how she was managing to do her job and have such an in-depth conversation with me at the same time, but overall, I trusted her, and actually had kind of a great time talking to her.)
The most important bit of news about the echocardiogram is that it showed I have good heart functionâ€”which, if you know my family history, is nothing short of a small miracle. I’ve told easily 70% of the medical professionals to whom I’ve spoken during this whole show so far that for most of my adult life, I’ve been worried about my HEART, not my breasts! I’ve always thought that if I should develop a serious health issue, my heart would be the problem. So my fear was that the echocardiogram results would show an issue that would (a) be . . . well, an ISSUE, aside from all that’s already going on, and (b) prevent me from getting the most effective treatment to kick little c out of my boob.
BUT THAT DID NOT HAPPEN.
And just like when I learned that my cancer was at Stage 2 (rather than at Stage 4 like I feared), this news made me want to kiss all the people.
Procedurepalooza: MRI and port placement surgery
Subtitle: A naptastic day
Thursday was a doozy. As you may recall, my initial MRI was denied by my insurance carrier, and Nurse Navigator Peppy scrambled to get me in for one at an insurance-approved independent facility. Well, the new-location MRI just happened to get scheduled for the morning of the same day when I’d be having port placement surgery in the afternoon. (Honestly, I can’t recall which was scheduled first, but as eager as I was to get this treatment party started, it’s not like I was going to postpone either one.)
The key news that came out of the MRI procedure is that MRIs have not lost their allure for me. I LOVE THEM, yes, I do. They are pure sleepytime magic for me. You know those weird babies who can only be lulled to sleep if their parents put them in their car seats on top of running clothes dryers filled with sneakers and footballs? I would, apparently, have been one of those babies (except for the fact that there WERE no car seats when I was a baby), because I can snooze through an MRI like a Disney princess under a curse. I had doubts about this one, however, because when I told Dr. Get-it-Done at our initial consult how much I love MRIs, she warned me that a breast MRI required weird positioning that may not provide me the sweet slumber I anticipated.
As it turns out, though, Mama got one helluva nap in that bad boy, even like this:
After my MRI nap, I headed straight to the hospital for the port placement. The procedure was scheduled for 3 p.m., but I was told to arrive at 1, in order to undergo all the prep. As it turned out, the prep time was condensed, because my port surgery got moved up on the docket (due to another surgery that had to be postponed). So pretty much as soon as I was taken back and gowned up, I was bombarded by people asking questions: the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, a couple of nurses, and a student. There was some confusion about what was happening, because people on the downstream end of the surgery-prep process had been told to come and do their thangâ€”but then they’d arrive behind my little curtain and see that some of the upstream parts of the process still hadn’t been done. So there were a lot of apologies to me about the confusion (and about the fact that Love Tank would no longer have time to come and be with me before the surgery), but honestly, I wasn’t pissed; I was just glad to be able to get the whole thing over with a little sooner.
The only thing I was kinda maddaboutâ€”as I hinted at earlierâ€”was that JUUUUUUST when I had begun to think I was getting over my abhorrence of needles (having had a number of blood draws since climbing aboard this train, and an IV insertion earlier that day for the MRI dye) . . . JUST when I’d started to think that dammit, when this was all over, I might just start donating blood . . . I underwent a horrid IV insertion by Nurse Poke-n-Prod who, upon learning about my issues with needles, promised, “If you let me do this, I will give you really good drugs.” I told him he had a deal, again thinking I was getting over this needle thing, anyway, so really, “letting [him] do this” would be a small price to pay.
I was wrong.
He made two prolonged and PAIIIIIIIIINFUL attempts to insert the IV into my right arm, at one point even speaking directly to my vein (“Come ONNNN,” he pleaded, “don’t play me like this!”), then cursing (“Dammit!”) and finally huffing, “It popped!” before withdrawing the needle, scrubbing my right arm rather roughly to wipe up the blood (at least I assume that’s what he was doingâ€”hell if I was going to look) and trying again (successfully, thank Jesus) in my left arm.
For THAT I could have used an apology.
But he did keep his end of the bargain! As I was wheeled down the hall toward the OR for the port placement, I remember Nurse Poke-n-Prod walking alongside me, saying, “You’re going to feel the anesthesia start to kick in . . . ”
And the very last thing I remember was staring up at the ceiling as it whizzed past, and responding, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, I DO feel that . . . ”
Next thing I knew, I was waking up in a room full of snoozing patients, there was vague pain near my right clavicle, and someone was offering me ice chips.
Within about an hour, I was dressed and leaving the hospital with Love Tank. I’d actually planned to attend the Back to School night at my elder kid’s high school that night after arriving home; I’d even asked the anesthesiologistâ€”after she told me that I’d be “legally intoxicated” from the anesthesia for 24 hours following the procedureâ€”if it would be possible, and she said it likely would. However, I woke up from the procedure in enough pain that I accepted the prescription pain pill I was offered before being released . . . and that was all she wrote. I arrived home, apparently said some things to my children that they didn’t understand (all the while convinced I was presenting as logical, articulate and clever) and then shuffled straight up to my bed, where Love Tank brought me some Arby’s chicken fingers (I did not get a Jamocha shake) and then headed off to the high school as a solo parent. (This probably worked in my high school freshman’s favor, given the impression I’d likely have made on the parents of his future friends at that point.)
On Friday morning, I woke bright and early (having passed out at roughly 6 p.m. the night before, the chicken finger trash still next to me in bed), and was having coffee when my elder dude came downstairs.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Better,” I replied, referring primarily to the port location pain.
“You sound a lot better,” he respondedâ€”and then, in response to my quizzical look, proceeded to entertain me with a one-man imitation of my homecoming the night before. Apparently, in addition to saying a bunch of things that were not actually words, I was also walking like a drunken, geriatric hunchback with a bad knee.
I spent most of Friday hanging out at home, riding out my 24 hours of legal intoxication, and then went to get my hair blown out in the late afternoon (I mean, as long as I’ve got it, right?). Overall, not a bad way to spend a Friday.
BONUS CONTENT: A surprise weekend trip to the coast! Although this may sound like some spontaneous, romantic venture, it was not. Well. It WAS spontaneous, but otherwise very stressful and sad. On Friday evening, just before dinner, I got a call from a long-distance friend who'd found herself in crisis. And while I am 94.2% sure I'd have done the same thing if my own life were going along "normally" right now, the fact that it's NOT made me take that whole "Do it now, while I can" philosophy to a whole new level. So I booked a hotel a few miles from her house, and booked a red-eye flight for Saturday morning to get there. It should be noted at this point that I did ask my friend, when she called, if she wanted me to come out there, and she said NO, that's she'd be OK (for now). So for a hot minute, I cooled my jets and decided not to go. But Love Tank pointed out (correctly) that I might regret it if I didn't do all I could to be there for her, and suggested that I book a hotel, fly out there, and then just text her and say, "I'm here if you need me, but if not, that's fine, too." So that was my planâ€”but then, as my plane was taxiing to the gate in her state, I turned on my phone to let Love Tank know I'd landed safely . . . and my friend called me. "I figure it's OK to call you early," she began, "since I know you have kids, so you're probably up early." "Ummmm," I replied, preparing for her to tell me to go straight to hell, "I'm up early because I just landed at your airport." My plan had been to Uber to my hotel, drop my bags, and maybe get a pedicure or something until check-in time, and THEN text her once I'd gotten settled in my room. Instead, I ended up Ubering from the airport straight to her house, where I got to spend most of the day with her. Ultimately, my visit did end up being a little intrusive for her, because she needed time alone to process and be a mess and take care of some stuff on her ownâ€”which I totally understood (nobody EVER has to explain to me the need to be alone). And it was really hard for her to look at me with fresh port surgery bandages on my neck without getting even more upset, which I also understood. So aside from that one day, I didn't see her, but honestly, I went there fully prepared to not see her at ALL, so getting to see her face and hug her (after literal YEARS) did my soul some good . . . . . . as did my last evening in the hotel, which was an embarrassment of gifts from the universe: DINNER, which I walked to pick up nearby; and the hotel BED, which was where I ate the dinner ALONE, which meant there was nobody there to prevent me from watching the movie TWISTER on the hotel television. Turned out I needed that more than I knew. (I think Dusty may very well be my favorite fictional character in the world.) I can only hope my surprise visit did my friend's soul more good than harm. I arrived home on Monday evening, in time to get a decent night's sleep before the beginning of treatment on Tuesday morning.
First chemo treatment
Subtitle: More naptasm and a pee-pee-palooza
On Tuesday, I arrived for my first treatment like I was moving into the place. Love Tank bought me the best bag EVER (I’d hinted about it for Christmas, but he surprised me with it a few days ago):
. . . and I stuffed it with all the goodies I thought might possibly come in handy for a 4.5-hour stint in a recliner:
- two blankets
- an iPad, which included a stack of Kindle books
- a notebook and pen
- a 32-oz bottle filled with water
- a PB&J (I’d planned to pick up fancier snacks over the weekend, but instead I skipped town)
- extra socks
- a sweater
- my purse (hey, it’s a big bag), which included my phone
- chargers for all the things
. . . and most importantly, my laptop, because I had this grand idea that I was going to work on my next blog post during the treatment.
THAAAAAAT didn’t happen. First of all, I slept through most of it, because of the Benadryl they gave me as part of the cocktail of pre-meds before the chemo. Second of all, even through my sweet, sweet Benadryl snooze, I had to visit the loo approximately 7,412 times, due to the combination of that 32 oz. of water I drank and the bags of saline getting pumped through me between medicationsâ€”and I was required to call a nurse for assistance getting out of the recliner each time, because of the effects of the Benadryl (by the end of the treatment, I felt like I should leave a tip).
So next time, although I’ll probably still bring the bag (because come onâ€”it’s AWESOME), I’m going to just go ahead and plan for the nap and the peeing.
The big news from that visit was that while I was still getting the pre-meds (and before I got the Benadryl, so unfortunately, I know it wasn’t a dream), I got a visit from Nurse Navigator Peppy, to tell me that although the imaging center that had performed my MRI had reported no concerning “spots” anywhere outside the breast tumor we already know and hate, the radiologist on my care team (Dr. Eagle-eye) spotted a suspicious lymph node during the team’s review of the images at my “breast conference” (which I’m sure sounds more fun than it is, but I wasn’t invited, so what do I know?). So I would need to return to the hospital on Thursday (before I got too far into the chemo treatment) for an ultrasound of my left armpit, possibly followed by a biopsy of that lymph node, depending on what the ultrasound showed. None of this, she said, would affect my chemo treatment, but the outcome of these tests could affect what Dr. Get-It-Done would do for the post-chemo surgery, because she might choose to remove that lymph node, if it proved to be problematic.
She told me I had a 10 a.m. ultrasound appointment set for Thursday, and that if, based on the ultrasound, a biopsy was deemed necessary, it would be performed immediately following the ultrasound.
Subtitle: Well, shit.
So I’ll cut to the chase (especially since I’ve basically already let loose the spoiler): contrary to my fervent hopes, I ended up having a lymph node biopsy on Thursday. But I kind of had some hints that I would, even during the ultrasound beforehand, because that procedure was being observed by a student, so the ultrasound tech was doing more talking than they typically do, for the purposes of instruction. As the tech began sliding the warm-gelled wand over my armpit, she’d say, “Here’s a normal lymph node . . . another normal one . . . ” and then she reached a point where she stopped saying that. At that point, she expressed some confusion about whether the node in question was a single node, or two snuggled up together, but she spent a LOT of time in that area, and basically let it slip that this was the rogue node. At that point, my hope that I wouldn’t need a biopsy was already fadingâ€”but it disappeared altogether when she said, “Doctor’s going to wantâ€”” before remembering that there was a patient attached to that armpit, and techs aren’t supposed to share any type of diagnostic info with patients, and correcting herself: “He MAY want to biopsy this one.”
But of course I knew. There was no “may.” I was gettin’ some tissue sucked out.
So I braced for another biopsy, and focused on the positive: it was a single lymph node; the radiologist on my care team is evidently fantastic, since he caught it on the MRI when the imaging place didn’t; and above all, warm blankets. (Honestly, the highlight of all these medical procedures is the availability and generous offering of warm blankets. My advice? Never turn down a warm blanket.)
The biopsy itself was quick, but this time it kinda hurt! Dr. Eagle-Eye numbed the area with local anesthesia, of course (and based on previous experience, I expected that part to hurt), but when he started taking tissue samples (five in all), I discovered I could feel it happening (which was not the case during the previous biopsy on the breast). I spoke up after he took the third sample, and said, “Was I supposed to feel that? Because I did.” The tech assisting him asked if it hurt, and I said no, but unlike last time, I felt . . . something. She said I WOULD feel pressure, but shouldn’t be feeling sharp pain, which I wasn’t. Even with the final two sample extractions becoming increasingly uncomfortable, I reasoned that (a) they didn’t hurt nearly as much as another numbing injection would, and (b) I sure as hell didn’t want to stop the show this close to the end . . . so I endured. Walked out a little sore (and shaky, just like before, BUT thanks to this team of practitioners, who told me that I was being injected with lidocaine and epinephrine to numb the area, I now suspect it’s the epinephrine injectionâ€”not my charred and crackling nervesâ€”that’s making me shaky after these procedures), but nothing a little time and Tylenol couldn’t fix.
I was told when I left that I could expect a call with results early next week . . . but in breaking news, I got the call earlier today: the biopsy “showed tumor in that lymph node.”
Obviously not what I was hoping to hear, but right now, I’m clinging to the positives listed above, in addition to the fact that though this news does move the stage of my cancer from 2a to 2b (since there is now a lymph node involved), I’m still within Stage 2.
So that’s where we are as of right now. If you’re still reading, OMG, you’re NUTS, but I love you for it. I had more I’d planned to talk about for this post, but I have blabbled enough, so I will save it for next time. Before I go, however, I will address a couple of things you may be wondering about:
- How am I feeling? Pretty good, actually; it’s Friday night, and the days between Tuesday’s treatment and now have been somewhat of a rollercoasterâ€”but like, a kiddie rollercoaster, so no huge rises or dips. I’ve been feeling slightly left-of-center, which I’ve managed to muddle through by trying to stay hydrated and moving. I’ve been joining Love Tank to walk our littler dude to school each morning, and that kinda wipes me, but getting up and doing little things (dishes, laundry, etc.) during the day (plus indulging in a short nap or two) helps keep the mild fatigue and vague nausea mostly at bay.
- Um . . . why “Love Tank”? I suppose you could think of it in a couple of ways, regarding what my husband has been for me over the past month or so: a tank full of love and patience that hasn’t yet run out through the gazillion medical appointments he’s attended (serving as the dutiful note-taker each time, and missing a shit ton of work)â€”or, the way I see him: as a giant, armored vehicle-o-love, protecting me, a tiny, freaked-out kitten in the road, from all the potential danger coming at me. I can’t express how much safety I feel throughout this whole thing, knowing he’s rolling along beside me with his big gun out (not THAT oneâ€”clean your mind). My other advice, besides always accepting the warm blankets, is to get yourself a Love Tank for moments like this.
As always, y’all are rockstars for riding this train with me.
Hoo-wee, y’all, A LOT has gone down in the week since I shared my news. So let’s start at the very beginning (a very . . . OK, well, not “a very fine place to start”â€”how about “a semi-shitty place to start”?)
As promised, before I go down a rabbit hole or two, here’s the pertinent news that came out of this week:
- I will receive both chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments.
- The chemo will be administered weekly, in two rounds totaling 12 weeks each (so yepâ€”24 weeks of this business).
- For the first round, I’ll be given Cabazitaxel (I think).
- For the second round, I’ll be given a different drug, but which drug I’m given will depend on the results of an echocardiogram to determine the health of my heart toward the end of the first round.
- The immunotherapy drug, Keytruda, will be administered once every three weeks, throughout both chemo cycles, and will last 27 weeks total.
- Surgery will not take place until 30 days after the last chemo treatment.
- I may, in fact, be a candidate for radiation even if I have a mastectomy, because of the size of the tumor (it measured at 4.3 centimeters; the “possible radiation” zone is 4-5 cm, and the “whoa, Nelly, that’s a big’unâ€”we gotta burn that mutha out” zone begins at 5+ cm). The other factor that makes radiation a possibility even with a mastectomy is whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (the biopsy indicated this was NOT the case, but the MRI will tell us more).
And here’s the timeline of treatment-tastic events that I’ve either completed or have scheduled in the upcoming week:
- Monday, 8/1: First meeting with the oncologist
- Tuesday, 8/2: Failed MRI attempt / Creatinine blood test
- Monday, 8/8: Echocardiogram
- Tuesday, 8/9: Phone consult with genetic counselor
- Thursday, 8/11: MRI , second try / Port placement
And here’s where the long-story-made-longer begins . . .
Note: for those of you who've been following along since the last post, I've made some (retroactive) changes; specifically, I've made an attempt to anonymize the professionals on my care team, so as not to put ALLLLLLLLLLLLL of my business out in the wind. SO in an effort to avoid confusion: Dr. Get-It-Done = the surgeon I met with initially, who performed my biopsy, gave me my diagnosis, and walked me through it (the stage, etc)â€”and who will perform my port placement AND my eventual post-chemo surgery. Peppy McPerks = The nurse navigator assigned to my case, who may in fact be Secret Jesus. Dr. Cool-and-Calm = The oncologist who's building my treatment regimen.
Monday, 8/1: Onward to the oncologist
I received a call on Monday morning from Peppy McPerks, the nurse navigator assigned to my case. She’d been on a mission trip to Colombia when I first met with Dr. Get-It-Doneâ€”a meeting she’d normally have attendedâ€”so she was calling to introduce herself and touch base. She asked if I had an MRI scheduled yet (yes), and whether I’d met with an oncologist (no). She said she’d get to work scheduling the oncologist visit and call me back. She asked tentatively if I might be able to meet with the oncologist TODAY (which surprised me, as I thought the oncologist visit wouldn’t happen until there were MRI results), or whether I had something else going on. I told her I didn’t have ANYTHING going on that was more important than THIS, so she should rock on with her bad self (OK, I didn’t actually say that, but I might have said, “do your thang”) and I’d make it work. About 20 minutes later, she called back and said she’d gotten me an appointment with the oncologist, Dr. Cool-and-Calm, for that very afternoon.
My husband and I arrived at my 1 p.m. appointment, and as I sat in the waiting area filling out paperwork, a breathless Peppy McPerks arrived from another floor (where she’d bounced out of a new patient consult with Dr. Get-It-Done) to meet me and accompany me to the meeting with Dr. Cool-and-Calm. Although I liked Dr. Cool-and-Calm, and have been happy overall with the care I’m getting, HOO CHILE. Talk about a ball of confusion (” . . . that’s what the world [was that day] . . . HEY hey . . . “); I was smacked every which way by a TON of information and walked out of that meeting with my head whirling. Luckily, my husband took notes like a bawss (hence my ability to coherently give y’all any useful information in this blog post).
When the doctor had left the room, Peppy McPerks stayed and went over all the “treatment-adjacent” information, like side effects (we should be able to keep the nausea under control, she said, but I would definitely lose my hairâ€”likely ALLLLL of it (if you know what I meanâ€”I joked that it would be like getting a free Brazilian), and I’d likely suffer more and more fatigue as the treatments progressed), and talking to our kids about it (which we’d already done), before carefully outlining the next steps in the treatment plan:
- I’d undergo the MRI I already had scheduled for August 2.
- I’d meet with a genetic counselor to find out if I’m the lucky winner of the BRCA gene (which would inform the type of surgery that would be recommended for me post-chemo).
- Once the chemo regimen had been approved by my insurance, I’d be set up with an appointment for chemo education.
- I’d undergo a port placement procedure.
- Let the games begin.
Later that afternoon, Peppy McPerks messaged me that I’d been set up for a port placement procedure at 3 p.m. on Thursday, August 11â€”the hope being that I can begin chemo treatments the week of August 15.
Tuesday, 8/2: Insurance irritation
On Tuesday morning, I walked into the hospital for my MRI appointment, only to learnâ€”at check-inâ€”that my insurance had denied the procedure. The nice lady who delivered the news handed me a sheet of paper with all the pertinent info (physician, procedure codes, etc.) and advised me to get in touch with Dr. Get-It-Done’s office to see if I could get more information about why the claim was denied, and then call the insurance company. After a twirly few minutes looking for my car on the wrong level of the hospital parking garage, I made it back home, and called Dr. Get-It-Done’s office.
The nice lady THERE told me that my particular insurance agency was notorious for taking awhile to approve procedures. She encouraged me to “call us back in a few days” to see if the procedure had been approved, and said she’d work with me at that point to re-schedule the MRI.
When I hung up, I called trusty Nurse Navigator Peppy, to explain the situation and ask how a delay in getting the MRI would affect the treatment plan she’d laid out for us the day before. She said it wouldn’t affect most of the steps, EXCEPT, of course, for the most important oneâ€”the chemoâ€”because they needed the MRI before the start of chemo, to get a baseline assessment from which they’d later be able to determine if the chemo was actually WORKING.
She also said that my insurance agency often declined MRI procedures scheduled at hospitals (as mine was), preferring instead that they be done at independent facilities. The trouble with THAT, she said, was that independent facilities were often booked up for weeks or months, and cancer patients didn’t have the luxury of that kinda time to wait.
BUT! She told me (and here came the glory) I was NOT going to deal with this myself; she was taking over from here. She’d call around to independent imaging facilities and see if she could get me in soonâ€”and if not, we’d file an appeal with the insurance agency and get this business done. I should try not to worry, she said, and she’d get to work and call me back within a day or two with news.
She did not lie. Within half an hour, I received a text from an imaging facility, saying, “Thank you for scheduling an appointment!” I texted Peppy to thank her, and she texted back that she hadn’t had a chance to call me yet, but confirmed that yes, I was set up for an appointment on August 11 for an MRI at an independent joint.
I’ve never had occasion to know this beforeâ€”FORTUNATELYâ€”but I now understand that nurse navigators are pure magic.
By early afternoon, when that was all over, my stress (and concomitant urge to sleepâ€”y’all know how I do) was elevated, so I went upstairs to crash for a little bit. My nap was cut short, however, by a call from a nice lady at Dr. Cool-and-Calm’s office, who said my insurance company was refusing to approve my chemo regimen until the doctor sent them results from a creatinine blood test. Typically, she said, they’d do this test later in the process, but since my insurance required it in order to approve the treatment, she wondered if I’d be available to come in THAT AFTERNOON to have a blood draw.
So off I went to take care of that. The only interesting thing about that was that it gave me a little taste of the chemo experience. I was led from Dr. Cool-and-Calm’s waiting area to a recliner at one end of a semicircle of recliners, in which were seated a handful of bald women, reading, knitting, and chatting amongst themselves. And even though I still had my hair, and was getting something sucked out of me rather than pumped in, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of My Future People.
After the blood test, I drove to CVS to keep my previously scheduled appointment for my second COVID boosterâ€”I was overdue for it, but this situation lit a fire to get it done before I started feeling like crap on a cracker.
As I sat surrounded by displays of fluorescently lit canes, reading glasses, and socks, filling out the intake form, I was stopped cold: for most of my adult life, I’ve been able to quickly and blithely check NO on the extensive list of health issues listed on medical intake forms . . . but as I quickly moved down the list, doing my usual thing (nope! nope! nope! what even is that? nope!), I realized that I now had one big fat YES to check:
Other than that, though, the process went quickly and smoothly, and look at me, needle-phobe extraordinaire, surviving a two-needle afternoon!
Thursday, 8/4: Echocardiogram, Ahoy / Insurance Intrigue
After all the twirliness that occurred on Monday and Tuesday of this past week, it was nice to get a little reprieve for the rest of the week. The only health-related things that happened after Tuesday were two Thursday phone calls: one to inform me I’d been scheduled for an ECG on Monday, August 8, and the other from a lady at my insurance company (I must confess that when I heard who was calling, I thought, “What these mufuggaz about to deny NOW?”), to inform me of my eligibility for a special program offered by the company, whereby my oncologist would have the opportunity to consult 1:1 with oncologists from national cancer centers. She whizzed, in typical salesperson-y fast talk, through a bunch of details I missedâ€”because I was simultaneously trying to log onto a Zoom call for work, and once I realized I wasn’t going to have to jump from my chair and dive through another hoop to get approval on a medical procedure, I tuned out a littleâ€”and then she asked, “Does that sound good to you?”
“I . . . uh . . . I’m not sure,” I responded haltingly. I told her I hadn’t been able to catch all the details, and asked if she had information she could email me. She said she did, and would send it immediately. Then, while I futzed with the Zoom settings on the work call to make sure I was muted before speaking with her further (which, OK, is only a click of an icon, but ever since the day I took a meeting lying supine in bed with my laptop on my chest, and accidentally TURNED ON MY CAMERA in an attempt to unmute and say helloâ€”revealing a visage slightly reminiscent of a bullfrog, encircled as it was by about half a dozen each of both pillows and chinsâ€”I focus HARD on making sure I’m clicking the right icon), she said something about how when I received the email, I was going to have to click “Accept” to view the information, but would not be signed up for anything until I signed it and clicked “Submit.”
At the time, that little tidbit went in one ear and out the other, but when I received the email in the form of a DocuSign document, it started to make more senseâ€”and make me less comfortable with the whole thing. I mean, by the time I saw the email, I was already feeling skeptical about this “opportunity.” First of all, an insurance company’s primary concern is its own bottom line, right? So would signing up for this insurance-sponsored service mean these physician “consultants” were basically there to convince MY oncologist to go with procedures that would cost the insurance company less money? (And I mean, y’all know meâ€”I love a good discountâ€”but in this case, a clearance sale ain’t what I’m lookin’ fer.) Plus, I wondered, would my oncologist be annoyed by my shoving more cooks into his kitchen (potentially tying his hands or resulting in slower approval of the procedures he recommended, if the “consultant” disagreed) and just be like, “Eff this bitchâ€”let her ass die”?
(OK, that last bit is a little extreme, but again, I make no apologies for being this much of a weirdo.)
So the email still sits unopened in my inbox. I do plan to talk to my care team about it next week, but at this point, I’m not feeling inclined to sign on the dotted line.
And in non-medical (well, medically-adjacent, but not specifically involving doctors) news . . .
Now that things are getting hella real, this has been the week of “do it now, while I can.” This isn’t the morbid “I should have had more Jamocha shakes” moment I experienced the day of the diagnosis; it’s just that since I’m not sure how I’m going to feel once the chemo startsâ€”I only know that I’m gonna be feeling that way for an awfully long timeâ€”I’m trying to do ALL THE THINGS NOW. I mean, not like bungee jumping or feasting on monkey brains, but I’m pretty much trying to spend a little more quality time with my people. To that end, I’ve accepted more invitations this week than I’d normally be inclined to, from both my friends and my (literal) homies. For example, during my second night out to dinner and drinks with friends THIS WEEK (I know, I am OFF THE CHAIN, yo), I got an adorable text from my husband, inviting me out on a milkshake date when I got back home. Although I was already stuffed chock full of wings, queso, beans, rice, and fish tacos (oh, did I mention I’m also trying to EAT all the things now, before nothing tastes good anymore?), plus perhaps one margarita too many, I happily accepted and steeled myself, as my sweet friend (who’d generously sprung for my gluttony) drove me home, to make a way out of no way and FIT THAT GODDAMN SHAKE IN MAH BELLEH.
Luckily, when I walked in the door to my house, girded to dump some ice cream on top of my food baby, my husband saw the look of overconsumption-spawned misery on my face (or maybe just the protrusion of the food baby), and kindly suggested we take a raincheck. So we watched a movie until I slipped peacefully into a food-and-booze-induced coma on the couch. The next day, he took me out to lunch at a place we learned about last weekendâ€”an unassuming but delicious Thai/BBQ fusion joint called Buck Tui (10/10 would recommend, but if you decide to check it out, beware of the dead pig on the website)â€”and then suggested we walk to get shakes, as a family, later that evening.
Which, again, we didn’t do, because at 8 p.m., it was still 91 degrees, with a heat index of 102. And the closest shake place is Sonic, which doesn’t even have malts. If I’m going to walk 5 miles round trip in a heatwave, I deserve a little malt powder, dammit.
So hopefully, we can make time in the coming (cooler) week to take that walk.
And finally, today (Sunday, August 7) was the long-awaited celebration of my little one’s half-birthday.
We’ve been planning to do something to honor the day for months, because his actual birthday is in February (so any celebration thereof basically necessitates an indoor cootie fest of some sort), and COVID has robbed him of two birthdays’ worth of celebrations. So this particular event was not fueled by the cancer diagnosis, per se . . . but the fact that what I initially conceived as a handful of kids coming to the house for a couple of hours of sprinkler-and-sidewalk-chalk fun turned into me renting out an entire movie theater and paying out the ass for the kids to have bare-minimum snacks (the movie theater strictly forbids bringing one’s own food, and my purse isn’t big enough to smuggle goodies for ten kids)? Oh, and letting the half-birthday boy talk me into goody bags (each of which contained gifts he’d handpicked: a Hot Wheels car, a self-inking zoo animal stamp, a set of markers, a blank book to use them on, and ten colored dice)?
Yyyyyeah. That may have had a LITTLE to do with the diagnosis.
At any rate, it worked out OK, and the little dude seemed happy (and he got to spend one last bit of quality time with his next-door bestie, who is literally moving out of town TODAY, and yet took the time to show up for him and a mediocre animated film). Now onward to the start of school for both boys this week, and the start of a new normal for me the week after that.
To help me along that road, however, I’m discovering I have the most amazing friends a soon-to-be bald gal could ask for. Although NONE of it is necessary (because I also have a pretty amazing husband), the little tangible treats-o-love have already started rolling in:
An out-of-state coworker sent THEEEEEE most amazing pastries I’ve ever tasted, all the way from Wolferman’s Bakery (it took serious self control to NOT eat the whole box; instead, I ate 50% of it and offered some up to my older son . . . then harbored secret resentment when he gobbled down the other 50%. But I’m past that now.
A sweet longtime friend, who has been on this train with me since I found the lump (because again, I was SO sure it would be nothing that I told her about it one day over lunchâ€”and then she was dogged in her pursuit of updates, so she was among the first to know the worst) sent me three tubs of Queasy Drops, which are still sitting on my desk as a daily reminder to send her a note of thanks. So one thing that doesn’t look like it’s going to change is my failure to send thank-you notes.
Another kick-ass friend, whom I’ve known since Kindergarten, has already started the “giant earrings” train rollin’, by sending me two pairs of pearl-studded, bracelet-sized hoops (again with no bleepin’ thanks).
And a third beautiful soul is gifting me with yummeh satin PJ pants I chose myself (in a size larger than I need, because my size was sold outâ€”but hey, this allows me to keep eating all the things with impunity if I so choose).
ETA: And OMG, y’all, the hits keep coming: literally two minutes after I finished and published this blog post, my doorbell rang with the delivery of a soft, fuzzy throw from two former coworkers (from two different employers), who happen to be married to each other!
Add to that an avalanche of calls, texts, good vibes and offers of help in all varietiesâ€”not to mention the most delicious chocolate chip cookies brought to the theater for me today by my cousin (do my people know me, or what?)â€”and I am full-on overwhelmed in the best possible way by all the love oozing my way. And although I have pretty much always had it this good (not to brag, but my people are FUCKING AMAZING), I am humbled and fortified by this outpouring.
Lezz do this shit.
So in an effort to avoid what my journalist friends call ‘burying the lede,’ I’ll come out with it:
I have breast cancer.
Invasive ductal carcinoma. Triple negative. Stage 2a.
This is literally about all I know right now, except for a few other things:
- I will undergo chemo, surgery, and possibly (depending on what type of surgery I choose) radiation.
- In a couple of days, I’ll have an MRI to help determine if there are “spots” anywhere other than the lump I found, which will help determine the course of treatment.
- At the moment, however, it appears the cancer is localized to my left breast.
- Assuming the MRI confirms #3, I’ll have the option (after the chemo) to go with a lumpectomy (removal of the lump and surrounding tissues), or a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast).
- If I end up going the lumpectomy route, I will also have radiation (see item #1), and I may or may not choose reconstruction.
- If I end up going the mastectomy route, I will likely choose reconstruction (via the DIEP flap method, which mines one’s own fat (I mean, how awesome is that?) to reconstruct the breast, rather than using an implant).
- However, if I go bald from the chemo, I will likely NOT choose to wear a wig. Asymmetry makes my eyeball twitch (so walking around with one boob is likely to cause me a world of grief), but baldness doesn’t bother meâ€”I grew up Black in the 70s, baby, and thanks to Isaac Hayes and The Ohio Players, the Pat Evans aesthetic runs deep in my soul:
Mind you, I am not in any way under the delusion that I will look NEARLY this bad-ass with no hair; but knowing it’s possible somehow alleviates most of the fears I have about hair loss (which is kind of huge for a Black womanâ€”but that’s a discussion for another day), leaving only a couple of small concerns about whether I’m going to discover a weird dent in my head, and what I’m going to do about the giant mole that’s currently buried in my hair, about three inches above my right temple. But dammit, if there were ever a time to lean into giant earrings and hope for the best, it’s now.
But I digress.
The point is that big changes are afoot for me, and I hope to use this space to tell you about them, in a kinda-CaringBridge, kinda-stream-of-consciousness rambling way. But tell you what: since we all know my rambling can get a little out of control, I’ll make an effort to begin each blog post with the most recent medical news I have, so you won’t have to pick through a 6,000-word babble-fest to find out what’s going on with me health-wise (i.e., dig up the lede). Then you can decide for yourself if you want to stay for the rambling.
To that end, this is the point in THIS blog post where THAT part (which will also likely include some TMI) begins.
How It Started
At some point in early- to mid-June, I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, putting on deodorant, when I paused in wonder: why the heck did I have a DENT in my left breast? I reached my right hand over to touch it, and felt a rather large, oblong lump beneath the surface.
I wasn’t INCREDIBLY worried; in my early 30s, I’d undergone a series of imaging procedures on my breasts, because the new gynecologist I’d started seeing had some concerns about lumps she felt while palpating them during a routine exam. In the end, there turned out to be no cause for alarm (my boobs were just fibrous), so I skipped on my merry way. Cut to 20 years later, and I’m assuming this lump is just a matter of my girls being who they are, and perhaps partying a little harder in this, The Age of Perimenopause.
Plus, based on a few Google searches, this didn’t seem to have the characteristics of a cancerous lump: it didn’t “feel like a frozen pea” (it was much bigger and softer), it didn’t seem to be immobile, and it did, occasionally, feel slightly tender (which, I’d read, malignant tumors generally don’t). Still, in an effort to err on the side of caution, I booked a June 13 appointment with (again) a new gynecologist, mainly in order to get a referral for a mammogram and put this whole thing to bed.
(The gyno visit turned out to be a whole ‘nother thing; based on questions I answered about my periods during intake, I ended up feet-up and cooch-out, deep breathing and clenching my toes while the doctor plucked out some of my uterine lining (OUUUUUUCH!) for a biopsy of that tissue. And y’all know me and my love for a good story (and good irony), so I was already crafting a tome in my head about how I went in because of a lump in my breast, but ended up discovering cancer in my uterus. (I make no apologies for being this much of a weirdo.) The endometrial biopsy showed no malignancy, however, so I put my (figurative) pen down, cooled my (also figurative) jets, and followed the gynecologist’s referral to follow up on the breast lump.)
On June 27, I walked into the appointment the gynecologist had set up for me at a place called Midwest Breast Care, thinking I was there to have a mammogram. Instead, the visit was short and sweet; a nice nurse practitioner named Kelli felt me up for like three minutes, and then set me up with an appointment at Diagnostic Imaging Center for a mammogram and ultrasound. Because of the 4th of July holiday and a planned trip to Texas to visit some family people with my offspring, THAT appointment didn’t take place until July 15â€”but things started moving pretty quickly at that point, because before the end of that day, I’d been given the first piece of concerning news: the lump they’d examined via mammogram and ultrasound had earned a rating of BI-RADS 5â€”which indicated a 95% chance of malignancy. I was going to have to have a biopsy.
That’s when the “Oh, shit” began.
The biopsy took place at a different placeâ€”The Women’s Imaging Center (where the doctor from Midwest Breast Care could perform the procedure herself)â€”on July 19; it, too, was relatively short and sweet. The worst parts were:
- The injection of local anesthesia to numb the area
- The play-by-play details the doctor was kindly sharing with me as she worked (I know some people are probably comforted by knowing EXACTLY what’s happening when they can’t feel or see what’s going on, but me, I prefer ignorant bliss), and
- The fact that my husband, who’d accompanied me on this appointment, wasn’t allowed to come into the procedure room with me and hold my hand, so instead I clutched the edge of the mattress where I lay, took deep breaths, and tried to pretend the doctor was reading me a book, because I never pay attention when people read shit aloud to me.
I walked out of the biopsy a little shaky from nerves, but fineâ€”and then began the wait for results, which I’d been told would take 2-3 days.
Two days later, on Thursday, July 21, as I wrapped up a Zoom meeting at work, the phone rang.
The woman on the other end introduced herself as a nurse with Midwest Breast Care, and after the initial pleasantries (“Fine, thanks, how are YOU?”), said she was calling to share my biopsy results with me. I said, “OK” . . .
. . . and then she paused. Paused for a full, deep breath. That pause told me everything I needed to know.
And, of course, a couple of seconds later, she confirmed the worst. Aside from telling me the mass was malignant, however, she was unable to share any more information. I would, she said, learn more when I met with Dr. Get-It-Done (who’d performed the biopsy) in nearly a week, on July 27.
How It Went After That
In the moments following the news, I felt mainly numbness and sudden exhaustion (I joke that whereas sudden stress triggers a “fight or flight” response in other people, it triggers a “fall asleep” response in me). I immediately called my husband at work, and he said he’d come home right awayâ€”which I tried feebly to discourage, because I didn’t feel so much like I needed a good cry in someone else’s chest, but rather a good nap. But he came home anyway, and after we talked for a little while, I went upstairs and crashed.
After I woke up, he drove me on a couple of errands (I was due to pick up groceries for, and deliver them to, my mom, and then pick up our younger kid from day camp, so we did both of those things, and then made a run to Costco), and as we drove around town, my inner Maudlin Maude came ALL the way out to play.
The whole world became more vivid: the grass so verdant it practically hummed, the sky suddenly Simpsons-intro perfect. Looking out the window from the passenger seat of the car, I suddenly felt, deep in my bones, the inherent magic in all the things: Trees! Why had I never taken the time to appreciate the miracle of trees? Their different shapes, textures, colors? And how had I ignored the simple fact that the clouds not only bathed us in rain, but actually engaged with us by occasionally arranging themselves into shapes we recognizedâ€”dinosaurs, penises, Winnie the Poohâ€”to keep us entertained? And OMG, Arby’s! I was going to miss Arby’s so much . . . how many more Jamocha shakes would I be able to experience in my life? I should have had more Jamocha shakes!
Every song we heard in the car during our three-hour tour spawned a This-Is-Your-Life-type mental vignette of some small moment from my pastâ€”and, it’s worth noting, we keep our Sirius XM firmly planted on the 70s on 7, 80s on 8, and Yacht Rock stations, so there was no shortage of nostalgic mind movies.
Every person at whom I glanced at a stop light, in line at a cash register, or out the window of the car as they stopped to pick up their dog’s poop became a fascinating and complex creature whose stories, stresses, and triumphs I suddenly wished I could know.
It got DRAMATIC, y’all.
For the six days between the initial diagnosis and the follow-up discussion with Dr. Get-It-Done at Midwest Breast Care, I wavered between sadness, numbness, exhaustion, and that first-day maudlin-yet-stoner-like fascination with the world and everything in it.
But the kicker was that I couldn’t tell anyone. I mean, come onâ€”y’all know I like to fling my business ALL UP INTO THE WIND. But this time, I had to slow the blow.
I mean, of course my husband knew, and he was amazing support. In fact, the day we found out, the speed and unequivocality with which he said YES to my every request made for a little silver lining:
“Hey, can we have pizza for din-“
“Would you please put the little one to bed toni-“
Shoulda gone big and asked him for an Airstream.
But I digress again. The point is that without ANY more information than “I have cancer,” there was NO WAY I could share the news with the other people closest to me: my older kid (who was away at camp when we got the news, anyway), my mom, my sister. And I have this weird hang up about Order of Operations with big news like this (good OR bad): ya gotta tell your inner circle first; you can’t let your sister find out on Facebook!
So I kept mum.
The day after we got the news, we shoved our littler dude in the car and drove up to Minnesota to fetch the bigger dude from camp. Our little dude is only 6, and although he’s more perceptive than I’m ready for sometimes, we were able to process the news a little bitâ€”speaking in quiet, parentally-coded sentencesâ€”during the 8 hours on the road.
Once we picked up the 14-year-old, however, we had to mum ourselves back upâ€”which proved unfortunate when, sometime in the middle of our drive back home, I received an email with my official lab results from the biopsy. From that report, I learned that in addition to the BI-RADS 5 rating it had earned from the mammogram/ultrasound, my little overachiever of a lump had also been categorized as “high grade.” So I silently Googled THAT as we tooled down the highway, and . . . it wasn’t good. But I couldn’t SAY anything about it with both kids in the car, so I texted my husband, who was in the driver’s seat right in front of me (my 14-year-old is taller than I am, so I graciously offered him the roomier front seat for the ride home, and sat in back with the little dude, play-acting arguments between his two identical Thor figurines about which one of them was more handsome).
My husband read my text (and the report) during a bathroom stop, and then once we got back into the car, we had to turn off Dan Fogelberg (damn that deep-feelings-melody man) for fear he’d make us both start bawlingâ€”which would likely make the kids more than a little suspicious. But at that point, I really started to feel like I was in for some REALLY bad news once I was able to talk to the doctor.
Once we arrived back home, I had to deep breathe and fake chill my way through a regularly-scheduled weekly visit with my mom (which also included my children), and peppily vague my way through a couple of check-in texts from friends who wondered whatever became of that issue with my breast (back when I was SUUUUUUUUUUURE the lump was going to turn out to be just an angry, atrophied milk duct or somethingâ€”and that the worst possible news I’d get would be that even though it was benign, I was going to have to have it removed anywayâ€”I’d told a couple of friends about it, mostly to complain about the pitfalls of middle age).
All the while, faced with what I believed was my imminent doom, I began to see/feel signs that confirmed as much: a slight back ache from scrubbing down the shower became certainty that the cancer had spread to my spine. Each moment of forgetfulness or ding-dong decision-making (both of which, we all know, are regular occurrences for me) became irrefutable proof that it had spread to my brain. Gastrointestinal distress brought on by questionable Mexican food . . . ? Well. You get the picture.
But finally . . . FINALLY . . . the follow-up consultation came.
The appointment was at 1:30 in the afternoon, and for the whole morning, I was so freaked out, I felt vaguely nauseated and couldn’t concentrate on ANYTHING. When I arrived for the appointment, and was undergoing the initial vitals check, the nurse who took my blood pressure didn’t TELL me what it was, but instead said, “You need to STOP STRESSING.”
Easy for YOU to say, lady! You’re not the one about to find out your chances of having another Christmas with your kids!
At last, we were ushered into a conference room, where Dr. Get-It-Done sat with us, went over the pathology results in detail, and answered all of our questions.
And while it wasn’t ALL good news (the triple-negative nature of the cancer means a slightly less desirable prognosis, and more limited treatment options), let me tell you what: when you’re sitting there, prepared to hear that your cancer is at Stage 4 (and that shit, forget Christmas, you may not make it to Halloween)â€”and then you hear “Stage 2,” which means the cancer hasn’t spreadâ€”the urge to kiss EVERYONE within a three-mile radius takes over your entire soul.
How It’s Going
So since then, things have been . . . dare I say GOOD? I know that sounds jacked up, but between learning that I’m at Stage 2, AND being able to share the news (and thus the emotional load) more widely, I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my psyche.
(Well. The one chunk of weight that still remains is telling a childhood friend whose husband is battling colon cancer. When she first shared that news with me, I signed on to be one of the people she could call in the middle of the night if she needed to vent, to be a friend who’d haul ass onto a plane at a moment’s notice. In short, I signed on to do what I could to help her feel BETTER.
So since the first “Oh, shit” moment, I’ve struggled with how on earth to tell her this newsâ€”and when. I mean, if I told her before I knew anything for sure, and then it turned out I was fine, I’d get her all freaked out for nothing (when she already has enough to freak out about). On the other hand, if I WASN’T fine, and then suddenly sprung this on her, she might do the math and be like, “Waitâ€”I just talked to you six days ago, and you didn’t say ANYTHING about this!”
Ultimately, I took the gamble that it would all turn out to be nothing, and she’d never even need to know any of it had happened.
I lost that bet.
So there’s a hurdle I have yet to jump (therefore I’ve excluded her and her husband from the Facebook post linking to this blog post until I make that leap)â€”but compared to the period of time when I couldn’t tell ANYONE, I’m still psychologically lighter.)
Hard days ahead, yesâ€”LAWD, yesâ€”and of course things won’t be the same, but my closest people now know (and are taking the news better than I expected), and at this point, in the lull between diagnosis and treatment, things feel . . . normal.
The surprising thing, so far (other thanâ€”for realâ€”the Stage 2 status, because I was already writing my obituary in my head) has been the fact that I always assumed a diagnosis like this would, for me, bring great clarity and perspective, a take-no-prisoners, tolerate-no-bullshit certainty about how I wanted my life to be . . . and that didn’t really happen, not like I thought. Mostly things still feel the same. I still take a little bit of bullshit (mostly from my kids), and I still care way too much about things like dusting and vacuuming and making sure my bathrooms get cleaned once a week. Is this who I really am? Not sure.
But the one thing I AM sure about is whoâ€”per the title of this blog postâ€”gets to be the “Big C” and what punk-ass interloper gets relegated to “Little C.”
I am OWNING this capitalization. Chandra. THAT’s what begins with (capital) C.
Take THAT, cancer. Ya lowercase motherfucker.
Welp. After about a year of being cooped up at home with all the children in the world, SkipFitz and I made a big decision . . .
We bought scooters.
Well. We ORDERED them, anyway, about a month ago; they won’t be here until early July. And as much as that news jacked with my need for instant gratification, it did give me time to suck my act together and get licensed to ride mine (whom I’ve already named Shirley).
So I got busy and signed myself up for a beginners’ motorcycle safety course at the local community college. With the sacrifice of a single weekend (6-10 p.m. on Friday night, and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday), I could walk away with greater knowledge about motorcycle safety, several hours of hands-on (and butt-on) motorcycle riding practice under my belt and, most importantly, a certificate that would allow me to walk into the DMV and get an M slapped onto my driver’s license (which SkipFitz already has, having taken the class years ago).
The class took place a couple of weekends ago; I joined two other women and seven men for an evening of classroom instruction, followed by two more mornings of classroom work and two afternoons spent practicing motorcycle skills out on “the range” (i.e., a designated parking lot).
The classroom work was a piece of cake; mostly workbook exercises, done en masse and peppered with anecdotes from our instructorsâ€”and also from one guy in the class who already had his license, but was taking the class with his 30-something son, with the plan that soon they’d be hitting the road Easy Rider-style on a coupla phat hawgs.
But I digress.
The point is, the actual riding part was, erm . . . more challenging.
Oh, I started out strong; the initial exercises on the range were simple enough (owing in part to my ability to drive a manual transmission car, which gives you a leg up on learning to shift motorcycle gears) that I immediately started thinking maybe I wanted a motorcycle instead of a scooterâ€”an inclination (complete with overconfidence) unwittingly supported by one of the instructors. On the first night of class, each of us had shared, by way of introduction, what kind of motorcycles we had or were getting, so I told the class about the little red scooter in my near future; the next day, as I finished one of the riding exercises and rolled up to the instructor for feedback, he said, “So you’re going to forget the scooter and get a MOTORCYCLE, right?”
Awwwwww, yehhhhh, baby. I had this shit DOWN. Mama was HOT Stuff . . .
. . . and then Mama wiped the [BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEP] OUT during an exercise toward the end of Saturday’s practice. I know exactly what happened: I’d been having some trouble shifting from first to second gear (I kept kicking it into neutral instead), so during one of the exercises, as I attempted to build speed, I kicked up HARD on the gear shift to make sure I bypassed neutralâ€”and accidentally sent the engine from first to THIRD gear. As the bike started to sputter and the engine threatened to stall, I panicked, and grabbed what I (in my twirliness) INTENDED TO BE the clutch lever on the left handlebar, to quickly downshift . . . but was in reality the lever on the RIGHT handlebarâ€”aka the FRONT BRAKE.
Next thing I knew, my entire field of vision had rotated by 90 degrees, my head hurt (thank God for helmets!), and people were running toward me.
Several minutes later, I was bandaged up (once I’d assured everyone I was fine, one of the instructors pointed out a brand new hole in my brand new jeans, complemented by a big fat raspberry on my kneeâ€”and once I’d gone to the Ladies’ to drop trou and slap a giant Band-Aid on that sucker, I discovered a roughly five-inch bruise blooming up my right thigh to go with it) and back on the bike. I wasn’t even that afraid, really (although the achy stiffness that took up residence in my neck and shoulders later that night revealed some residual anxiety . . . my body rats me out like a toddler on the phone with Grandma EVERY TIME), and for the rest of that day’s class, I rode high (and upright, hallelujah) on the fact that the father/son duo in the class had cut out during our second riding exercise, because the son noped tf out (Dennis Hopper dreams be damned) once he got a taste of actually RIDING a motorcycleâ€”and here I was, back on that bad boy after having dropped it on my own leg!
But Hot Stuff was gone, and in her place was the sudden realization that in this scenario, I was THAT LADY.
You know the one: the kind middle-aged lady (in fact the oldest person in the class in this case, due to the father/son departure) wedged in amongst the young’uns, who all like her and are rooting for her, but who also secretly feel a little bit sorry for her.
I have encountered That Lady at least twice in my own life:
In my late teens/early 20s, I worked at Old Spaghetti Factory (aww, yehhh, baby, mizithra cheese FOREVAHHH), and one of our semi-regular customers (an apparent Lady of Leisure) decided to apply for a job there as a hostess, “just for something fun to do.” Although I questioned her idea of FUN, she was right about one thing (which she declared matter-of-factly to me just before she quit): she didn’t need the job. But it’s not like I didn’t already know that; she and her husband rolled up all bougie in their BMW about once every couple of weeks, dressed to the nines, ordered wine, joked with the servers, and (rumor had it) tipped extremely well. Everything about them (except, perhaps, for their taste in Date Night fare) oozed money. To boot, they were just really lovely people (who, for some reason, really dug a relatively cheap pasta dinner that included spumoni for dessert).
But I digress.
The point is, Fancy Nancy got the jobâ€”but she fit in with us broke-ass college kids, working for rent and beer, about as well as a t-rex in a pteranodon nest. (I mean, sure, Buddy’s family thinks he’s great now, but once he hits puberty . . . .) She showed up to work in her ritzy car, wearing posh, expensive evening wear she’d bought especially for the gig (the dress code called for black or khaki pants/skirt and a white blouse or button-down top), and lasted about 3/4 of a shift before she came to resent criticism from a trainer half her age (who was not evil, but who took her job very seriouslyâ€”and who’d commented politely but pointedly on Fancy’s failure to adhere to the dress code). She hugged me sweetly and thanked me before departing mid-shift, and we were all a little sad to see her go . . . but really, what was she thinking? Although we’d all liked her OK, nearly everything about her whole endeavor became mildly pitiable, from thinking Old Spaghetti Factory seemed like a fun place to work, to dressing up for a minimum-wage job, toâ€”and this was really the crux of itâ€”choosing to work at all, when she could already afford all the beer she could possibly drink.
In my mid-20s, I started grad school. Because my mother had used the entirety of the four years I spent working in restaurants and bookstores between undergrad and grad school to express her profound disapproval of this little “break”â€”every moment of which was apparently doubling the probability that I’d end up living in a van by the riverâ€”I was convinced that I was WAYYY late to this party, and that I’D be the older outsider in my Master’s program.
But as it turned out, most of my peers were pretty much exactly my age . . .
. . . aside from that one (even older) lady enrolled in my Cultural Criticism class. Again, she was kindâ€”parlaying her extra years of life experience into a maternal role, advising us on the importance of proper nutrition (in those days, “fat-free” ruled the diets du jour, and she reminded us that we needed some fat, for the sake of our hair), making sure we had safe ways to get back home when the evening class was over, etc.
And we liked her. But she . . . didn’t quite “get it”â€”not like we, replete with the spry intellect of youth, did.
During our unit on blues legend Robert Johnson (complete with Faustian narrative), we were assigned a CD of his works for our aural edification. When we showed up for the class following our listening homework, she unabashedly declared that she didn’t see what the big deal wasâ€”she didn’t find Johnson’s music to be impressive at all. In fact, she thought it sounded pretty horrible.
I mean, HELLOâ€”what advanced scholar worth a grain of salt disparages Robert Johnson?
(Now, at this point, if I’m being completely honest, I should admit that much of my horror at her declaration was due to the fact that I’d been assigned to lead that evening’s class discussion, and I was afraid it had just become MY responsibility to convince her of Johnson’s talent. As it turns out, the professor was a guitar player, and so was able to demonstrate the technical difficulty of some of those chords Johnson managed to pull off (with Satan’s help). I still don’t think she was convincedâ€”but the important thing was that her dismissal of Johnson’s work didn’t become MY failure to effectively articulate his greatness.)
Because we liked her, we simply sat silently, giving one another secret “YIKES” looks on the DL. But we all felt mildly embarrassed for her in her unenlightened state.
Anyway. You see what I mean: THAT LADY.
And now, in this motorcycle class, I was THAT LADY.
I was the lady who’d shown up on that first Friday night of class as a walking homage to my own youth (now decades in my rearview mirror), in an extremely oversized sweatshirt (emblazoned with the name of my undergrad alma mater), capri-length leggings, and brand new sparkly Doc Martens (which I could never afford during my actual youth) purchased especially for the occasion (sound familiar?).
I was the lady who, that same night, was the only one NOT getting a bad-ass motorcycle, but rather a scooter that would see no highway miles.
I was the lady getting the sincere-yet-still-kinda-patronizing high-fives from the rest of the class for getting back on the bike that day I fell.
And the next day, when a rumbling and raging morning storm resulted in a practice range replete with standing water, I was the lady who damn near quit.
Like the day before, we started the day with classroom instruction. But because the storm hadn’t let up during the time we spent taking our written tests, our practice on the range was postponed by almost an hour. When we finally got a break in the downpour, we geared up and straddled our bikes . . .
. . . but the mojo with which I’d begun the previous day’s riding practice was gone, replaced by a vicious snowball of doom: the fear of wiping out again (I mean, I’d managed to do a pretty good job of it on dry pavement, so imagine what I could do in this puddle of a parking lot) caused me to fail miserably at the first few exercises (especially those involving tighter turning maneuvers at higher speeds), which in turn caused me to become twirly with frustration, thereby failing harder at each subsequent attempt. Finally, my hands shaking like two young Tina Turners decked out in fringe, I steered my bike toward the “staging area” (i.e., where we returned our bikes between exercises), parked it, dismounted, removed my helmet, and told the teacher (who approached with a look of confusion and concern), “I think I’m going to have to go.”
She didn’t argue, but in the process of answering my questions about what this meant (yes, I’d have to start the class over from the very beginning if I wanted to take it again; yes, it was possible to forego another class and do written and driving tests at the DMV (possibly even on my own scooter, but I’d have to ask); etc), she told me I was welcome to sit out for awhile, then rejoin the class if I wanted to, just to get some more practice in.
After a couple more minutes, my hands stopped Rollin’ on the River, so I opted to get back on the bike and see how it went (I mean, at that point, I’d already quit, so the pressure was low). When she saw me climbing back on the bike to rejoin the class, she stopped the class and sent me through the current exercise on my own a couple of times (this was an exercise where everyone was riding follow-the-leader style in a giant oval), while everyone cheered for me (see? THAT LADY). In the end, I stayed for the rest of the day and passed the driving test, all with copious high-fives and encouragement from my classmatesâ€”which I went on ahead and leaned into, because by that point I’d fully accepted my That Lady role.
And y’know what I’ve learned about That Lady? She doesn’t need anyone’s pity. Or, perhaps more accurately, she doesn’t really care; she’s hit the age where both her feet are firmly planted in the No Fucks zone, so she will rock the clothing that makes her feel good (whether it’s sequins in an Old Spaghetti Factory or sparkly Doc Martens on a motorcycle). She will walk away from the job (or the motorcycle class) if she doesn’t feel like it’s working out for her. She will say what she feels (whether it’s that Robert Johnson sucks, or “Hell, yeah, I’m scared shitless to fall off this bike; these bones are more brittle now!”) without needing you to agree that she’s right to feel that way. SHE IS NOT EMBARRASSED (which doesn’t mean she’s incapable of embarrassment, I mean nobody wants their skirt to blow up into the air when they’re wearing their laundry-day underwear (or none at all)â€”but rather, she’s not embarrassed by who she is, so nobody else needs to be embarrassed for her when she’s expressing exactly that . . . but if you want to be, you do you; no fucks given).
Like Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes, she’s older and has more insurance.
I kind of love her.
And I especially love her scooter.
So part of the reason I’m returning to this blog (aside from having been inspired by my friend Paige’s blog; check out Paige in the Shed (I wonder if she realizes the acronym there is PITS . . . a huge irony, because both she and her blog are friggin’ awesome . . . but I digress) when you have a minute) is because I kinda left y’all hangin’ right? I mean, five years ago, I went and told the world (or at least the seven people who read this blog sometimes) that I was a middle-aged woman about to have a BABY, and then . . . crickets.
Sorry about that. I’ve been busy raising a child. A child who is now five, and ohhhhh, ya gotta meet him. He’s a real butthole, but he is worth every bit of pain in my old ass.
But more on him (and my other pain in the ass, who is now 13) later, because my third impetus for returning to this blog is that earlier this week, I found out that my best friend from 5th grade (and part of 6th) passed away last month. After I got the news, I spent the afternoon feeling sadder than I had any right to be, given that, aside from the occasional thumb or emoji or birthday wish (her birthdayâ€”November 18â€”has remained emblazoned in my brain) on Facebook, I was not really in touch with her (although I really wanted to be better at that, because based on her Facebook presence and a couple of private messages, she seemed like she’d somehow become an even better person than she was before we had armpit hairâ€”and the two years (TWO YEARS; how did I miss this?) of Caring Bridge posts she wrote during her epic battle with cancer (which I spent an evening reading) support this theory; she is going to leave a huge gap in the good around here).
But I remember her. I remember so many things about her that fall into the category of Why do I remember THIS so clearly, but routinely forget that my poor dogs are outside in the rain??? that my spouse suggested I compile some of those memories, in case someday her husband might want to share them with their four perfect-faced children.
So I’m gonna do that here. You’re welcome to come along for the ride (I’ll drive and deejay). Here goes . . .
“Four days later, floatin’ down the Delaware, chewin’ on his underwear, lookin’ for another pair . . . “
I remember, before we were friends, seeing her with her best friend at the timeâ€”a spindly, petite girl named Diana. When I left school to walk the single block home to my house, they’d be walking to the bus together; sometimes she carried Diana piggy-back, and they’d be singing scandalous kid versions of “Row Row Row Your Boat” and cracking up. I was so jealous of a friendship that seemed like so much fun (and of kids who got to ride the bus, but that was just my own weirdness).
“Shinin’, gleamin’, streamin’, flaxen, waxen . . . “
Also, she had amazing hair. She wore it daily parted down the middle, and held back on either side with those little metal barrettesâ€”the kind some girls (including Yours Truly) wove ribbon through, and attached beads to the dangling ribbon ends, which resulted in an attention-grabbing, beaded-curtain-type clacking sound at the flip of a head; but this girl kept it humble and simple, and let her lovely, thick, long hair do the talking. Sometimes, she’d bump it up a notch and do a side part with a single barrette on the more voluminous side, which I always thought made her look amazing, like a stewardess or a waitress (occupations which, in my little 10-year-old mind, were about as glamorous as you could get if you lacked the chops to become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader). But laterâ€”after we’d become friendsâ€”when she got a haircut and got it FEATHERED?
Done. I was done. I would never have hair that amazing.
“I feel like bustin’ loose, bustin’ loose . . . “
What really made me want to be a part of her life though, was that she had boobs. I mean, not that I could see, exactlyâ€”but I took her word for it. I remember being a part of a circle of girls, huddled together in conversation on our classroom floor (our school was incredibly groovy; 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classrooms were all together in what was called “The Big Room”: one huge, orange-carpeted open space that had pillows, beanbags, and three-dimensional x-shaped nooks strewn about in common areas for reading and hanging out, and what basically amounted to a sunken living roomâ€”called the Drama Pitâ€”in one corner (there was no furniture, but it boasted a few levels of steps for sitting and lounging) . . . but I digress). The topic of discussion (on which not one of us was anything even close to an expert) was bras and bra sizes. I remember her complaining that her parents wouldn’t get her a bra, but declaring that she needed one; gesturing towards the western-style brown plaid shirt she wore that day, she insisted: “I have boobs! You just can’t see them, because this material is pressing down on them.”
I mean. Undercover boobs, y’all. That right there was enough for me to think she was pure magic.
“Up like a rosebud, high on the vine . . . “
At lastâ€”I no longer recall how, but I may have found my foothold when I somehow became a part of the talent show act she and Diana conceived (a group of 4 or 5 girls performing a dance to Hey, Look Me Over; and although Diana (being the only one of us who took dance lessons) was responsible for the choreography, it turned out that it was my future BFF who executed the best leprechaun kicks . . . but I digress again)â€”I finally worked my way up to inviting her and Diana to my house after school. I wasn’t looking to wreck this girl’s most cherished friendship; rather, just to get a piece of her orbit. As it turned out, though, the two of them got into an argument at my house and, well . . . maybe I used that to my advantage a little.
“Fightin’ the system like two modern-day Robin Hoods . . . “
At some point after that, Diana scooted out of the picture, and I. WAS. IN.
I was now the bestie (a privilege I’d later abuse, but at this point, all was good). What I remember most about those halcyon days are her favorite things:
The Dukes of Hazzard. More than a few sleepover nights at her houseâ€”far preferable to sleepovers at my own house, because her room had the coolest feature I’d ever seen: she and her dad had hung her bed from the ceiling of her room (against one wall, with thick ropes run through holes they’d drilled in a wooden base); I had never known such ingenuity in a person my age (but she had it to spare, at one point even making her own braces out of wire, although she got the real deal a couple of years later . . . but again, such digression)â€”were spent in her basement with the Duke boys*.
The song “Centerfold” by the J.Geils band which, on the occasions when she slept over at my house and my parents took us to the pizza joint I loved, we always played on the jukebox and waited with bated breath for the “ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!” after the second bridge. Once, we missed it because we’d been playing video games. That was a tough moment for both of us.
Horseback riding, which scares me a little now, but back then, with my preteen sense of invincibility, I was totally game to tag along for the adventure when her parents bought her a horse (what I specifically remember about that, so very clearly, is how she approached me at first recessâ€”with a grin so wide it’s a wonder she made it through the door to get outsideâ€”and said, simply and quietly, her eyes lit up like a Christmas display, “I GOT HIM”). I remember his name (but I may butcher the spelling): Prince Charlie Quodiyaque. And I remember how pretty he was, but mostly I remember how in awe I was of her ease with these FLIPPIN’ GIGANTIC CREATURES THAT COULD REALLY JUST FLATTEN YOU IF THEY WANTED TO; she showed me the proper way to walk around the back of a horse in order to avoid getting kicked . . . but in my mind, touching anyone (a horse included) on the butt seemed MORE likely to get you kicked, so instead I just allowed like a city block’s worth of berth each time I had to walk in the vicinity of a horse’s behind. She also tried to teach me how to post, but I sucked at it, so I typically wound up with a sore toot by the time the ride was over (which maybe explained my sensitivity to butt-touching).
* I actually thought of her, years after high school (which was really the last time I ever talked to her until the advent of the interwebs) and before Facebook (which is how I found her again), when I was working as a waitress in Atlanta (funny . . . I enjoyed my job, but waiting tables did not turn out to be nearly as glamorous as I’d anticipated it would, decades earlier) and John Schneider walked in for dinner. I wasn’t his server, but happened to overhear a conversation in the kitchen amongst my coworkers, who were trying to figure out whether he’d played Bo or Luke Duke.
HOW DID NOBODY KNOW THIS? This is Early ’80s Television 101, people! I thought, giving silent props to my 5th grade bestie as I put a definitive end to the mystery . . . which resulted in Mr. Schneider’s server writing “BO” in sour cream atop his dinner. So I may have some regrets about sharing that wisdom, but I’ll never regret how I came to have it.
“Wake up, all the teachers, time to teach a new way . . . “
I also remember a few things she taught me (aside from how to do a good leprechaun kick):
What a peppernut was. In the years of worldly wisdom I’d amassed by 5th grade, I’d never heard of them until I met her. As part of a school assignment to write instructional copy, she wrote instructions for making these cookies (which her family did at holidays)â€”and brought a batch to share with the class. I remember when she received her paper back, the teacher had written “I tried itâ€”it works!” so perhaps she educated him, too.
What a sequoia was. I believe this was in 4th grade, before we were really friends, but I recall our teacher telling us about huge trees that grew on the west coast, and asked if anyone knew what they were called. As she’d recently moved to Kansas from California, her hand shot up. And, well. How amazing of a new word was “sequoia”? I immediately integrated it into the stage name I had concocted for myself. Now, when I grew up and became famous, I wasn’t just going to change my first name to Raquelle; I was going to change my WHOLE name to Raquelle Sequoia (a plan which is not entirely off the table; watch out!). So really, this lesson wasn’t just about California dendrology; it was also about the beauty of words (which I’ve kinda carried with me since). And on that same note, she also taught me . . .
The classy way to pronounce “Hallelujah.” At Girl Scout camp, we sang “Thank You Lord for Giving Us Food” as grace before a meal. Only we born-and-bred Kansas girls put a midwest twang on that sucker the likes of which her tender west coast ears had probably never heard:
Thaaaaaaaaank yew Lord, for givin’ us fewd,
Thaaaaaaaa-AANK yew Lord, for givin’ us fewd . . .
But it was the “Hallelujahs” that really did her in:
Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaah-luh-lew-yuh, praise thuh Lord,
Haaaaaa-AAAAAAAH-luh-lew-yuh, praise thuh Lord . . .
“It’s ALL-eluia,” she insisted in a whisper, and (I swear) with a slight shudder.
And whoa. That kinda blew my mind. ALLELUIA. So new. So classy. So much more invocational, so much closer to divine than our hick little Hallelujahs.
(She brought the same kind of class to calling people out for saying, “Oh, my God.” Whereas another girl in our class would spit, “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” (actually slapping someone for it once), she chastened gently and with humor: she’d drop her voice an octave and pretend to be The Big Guy himself, asking, “Were you calling me?” At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but now it occurs to me as a pretty clever way to call people out without making enemies in the cut-throat world of preteen girls. At any rate, it beats a slap across the face.)
“A present from you . . . strawberry letter 22 . . . “
Because we were in two different classes for at least part of our closest friendship, we were unable to pair up on projects, critique one another’s artwork, or even just sit next to one another and bask in the glow of our friendship. But we were at least able to communicate, because remember how ALL the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classes were in that one giant open room? That stroke of 70s progressivism was a great facilitator of our note-passing.
That and the brass-monkey audacity we both had, because I recall that we’d legit just get up and blatantly walk over to one another’s classrooms/desks to deliver notes (a subsequent bestie, who arrived new to the town and the school sometime during 6th grade, told me years later that she’d been shocked by our chutzpah).
At one point, I do recall both of us being called on the (literal) carpet about our note passing. By that time, however, we’d become so devoted to the art that we (well, SHE, being the brains of the operation) had developed a special, coded alphabet, to prevent nosy would-be interlopers from knowing our deepest thoughts. (I daresay I could still write it today, although I’m less confident in my ability to read it.) And though ultimately we weren’t able to communicate with quite as much impunity as we initially enjoyed, we continued our correspondenceâ€”sporadic though it was in later yearsâ€”through middle and high school.
I’m suddenly stricken by another memory: I was sitting immediately to her left in Mrs. North’s middle school classroom (by then we each had a different best friend, but as I said, we never didn’t get along, due largely to her huge capacity for forgiving asshole behavior . . . but as usual, I digress), and we were passing a note back and forth. I have absolutely NO recollection of what we were writing about (a skinny, awkward boy or two, perhaps), but I remember that as she replied to whatever message I’d just passed her way, she paused mid-written-sentence, looked up at me with a puzzled expression and, when I turned to meet her gaze, asked:
“How do you spellâ€”” and then she puckered up and made a kissing sound.
It took a bit of (written) discussion, but eventually, we agreed that it was spelled, M-B-W-U.
Again: sometimes I accidentally leave the dogs out for HOURS, and I routinely forget to give my 5-year-old a bath, but damn if I don’t distinctly recall the moment I figured out how to spell a kissing sound.
“Right smack dab in the middle of town, I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof . . . “
So although I didn’t have a bed that hung from the ceiling, one of the cool features of my house was the back patio. My dad had poured the concrete, added a roof over it, and adorned it with a barbecue pit he built out of bricks. And WOO-WEE, his ribs were mama-slappin’ good. But that’s not the point; what really made the back patio cool was that once you got tall enough, you could hoist your way up onto its roof by standing on an adjacent retaining wall that separated the patio from the rest of the back yard.
One day, when she was over, my brother (13 years my senior) took us to the public library and checked out books for us. Once we returned home, Iâ€”in the vain hope that I and my house could offer her even a shred of the amazement she offered me at her houseâ€”showed her how to get up on the patio roof. She hadn’t had as much practice as I had, so I had to give her a boost, but once we got up there with our library books, we huddled up (I remember it was cold and overcast) in the wedge-shaped nook where the roof over the middle level of our side-to-side split met the upper level roof, and tucked into an afternoon of reading.
I remember that I had chosen And This is Laura from the library, and she was reading The Pistachio Prescription. (Seriously, don’t ever tell my dogs about this.)
Eventually, we got cold, or hungry, or maybe had to pee, and so decided to climb down and go inside. Again, lacking the experience I had at getting onto and off of the roof swiftly, she got stuck trying to get down; her feet couldn’t find the retaining wall, and she clung, frightened, to the edge of the patio roof, the gutter digging into her gut. And my mom just happened to peer out the kitchen window at the PERFECT moment to see our guest’s legs dangling helplessly in the air.
I pretty much caught pure hell after she left. But it was worth it for what I remember as just the most glorious afternoon.
It just so happens that my childhood home has been on the market recently, with concomitant real estate photos; and although the patio roof and the barbecue pit are long gone, and the patio is now a deck, I can still offer a visual of where we huddled with our books that day 40 years ago. I remember it as delightfully cozy, but boy, does it look uncomfortable now:
“Now, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend . . . when people can be so cold?”
So I’ve hinted a couple of times that I wasn’t the kindest BFF a gal could have had in my younger years (or hell, even now, although these days it’s more a function of forgetfulness and time (or lack thereof) than of pre-teen hormones and the thrill of cruelty and drama). And really, it’s the same boring story that has played out in multiple 6th grade classrooms, between countless girls (and a buncha boys, too) forever: I met her openness, kindness, authenticity, and generosity with insecurity, pettiness, and power plays. Sometimes I hurt her feelings just because I could. Eventually, she sought greener pastures in a fellow horseback rider named Elizabeth (they got matching Sasson t-shirts and jeans, AND a set of those heart-puzzle “Best Friends” necklaces . . . this was the real deal), and I became part of a friendship trio with The New Girl at school and another girl I’d envied for years on account of her role as Suzy Snowflake in our 2nd grade Christmas program. I mean, that costume . . .
BUT. The point is that my sweet 5th grade bestie was unfailingly kind and forgiving, and continued to be a friend to me until we both ran off to college.
We didn’t hang out or talk a whole lot in high school, but despite that, she was more than willing to help out when my mom charged me with corralling volunteers among my friends to sell toffee at a pop-up booth in the mall to raise money for a non-profit my family staunchly supported.
I also remember that she led our high school’s Christian club . . . and although I attended her church (where her dad was the pastor) regularly as a kid (I was agog that people wore JEANS to her church . . . so flippin’ cool, as the women at my own church wouldn’t even wear PANTS in the house of the Lord), I never took part in the high school Christian club (having started inching down the path toward agnosticism); however, I somehow remember that the meetings were held at 7:17 p.m. And to this day, I consider it a little wink from the universe if I happen to glance at a clock that reads 7:17. Hey, agnosticism doesn’t preclude the HOPE for the existence of a little magic . . .
And I can’t think of better magic than the fact that I saved my first draft of this blog post at 7:17 p.m. That little sparkle, of course, has been slightly squandered by the hours of obsessive editing and such . . . but I kinda think there’s still a little wink in there.
(Re)starting Things Off With a
Bang Back-dated Post
OK, this is kind of cheating, since I originally posted this story on Facebook, lacking (at the time) access to my blog (until my fancy IT husband got me back in). But I figure posting it here is a good way to dip my toes back into this blog . . .
[Cue Wayne’s World Flashback Doodle-oodle-oos]
So a few weeks ago, Auggy and I took a little road trip a deux (given the choice of taking the trip with the entire family, or with just me, he chose a brother-free escape, go figure).
Poor kid had a rough summer: sleepaway camp cancelled, no pool visits (in previous years, he went almost daily), no visit to the Texas cousins (which we try to do every summer), and very few friends (limited as he was by social distancing restrictions), since during the hotter days, nobody really wanted to stay outside for any length of time just to hang out with him. So about a week and a half before the start of school, he and I headed off for a few days of R&R in an Arkansas AirBnB.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I wasn’t entirely sure I wouldn’t cancel it; and after the trip (which caused my mother to stop speaking to me, because she thought it was a bad decision), we launched into two weeks of post-trip quarantine, and simultaneously into figuring out what preparations to make for the beginning of the Most Bizarre School Year Ever (TM). In the meantime, I told my sister over the phone about the trip, and she told me I should commit the story to writing. This morning, I finally found the time.
Settle in and read away if you’d like. If not, the TLDR version is this: If you’re not accustomed to spending time in a curtainless house surrounded by woods, maybe skip the scary movies.
The three-hour drive down to Northwest Arkansas (apparently commonly abbreviated as NWA, but that just makes me think of Easy E) was:
- uneventful (aside from the SUV we passed somewhere in the Missouri boonies, that had stuff like â€œNo more masksâ€ and â€œMasks are stupidâ€ written in white shoe polish on all the rear windows)
- quicker than we thought, and
- not actually pretty in the least until about 20 minutes before we reached our destination in the late afternoon.
The house, though, was awesome! Nestled into a twisty-roaded, heavily-wooded neighborhood, it wasnâ€™t TOO remote (there were neighbors), but still seemed very secluded (the folks were far outnumbered by the firs). Lots of light inside (a wall of curtainless windows and sliding glass doors at the back of the house looked out on trees forever) and gorgeous mid-century furniture (which is my jam). Two bedrooms upstairs and, to Auggyâ€™s delight, a small, shotgun-esque basement area (accessible via spiral staircase) with a queen-sized bed, a twin day bed, a couch, a small game table, and a TV.
â€œIâ€™m sleeping down here!â€ he declared, and although there was no bathroom down there, and it wasnâ€™t nearly as posh as upstairs (the owners had certainly made an effort, but they were working with a cement floor, cinderblock walls, and only a couple of small windows), I figured that at his age, Iâ€™d have probably dug the idea of having my own little â€œsuite,â€ too. So I shrugged and went back upstairs to call Skip Fitz and tell him weâ€™d arrived.
(There had been some concern about the timing of our trip, as it coincided with the threat of hurricanes/tropical storms affecting parts of Arkansas; we consulted a weather map right before we left, and saw that our destination was outside the path, so we decided to chance it, and just head home if at any point it started to seem like a bad idea. Once we got to the house, and Skip mentioned the possibility of strong winds even in our area, I reasoned that hey, I could always sleep in the basement with Auggy if stuff started whipping around upstairs. But I digress.)
As I talked to Skip, Auggy went about lugging ALLLL of his stuff downstairs (suitcase, pillow, books, and the roughly 5,112 electronic devices heâ€™d brought). When I got off the phone, he called, â€œHey, Mom! Come check this out!â€
Right next to the queen-sized basement bed, it turned out, was a dead-bolted door. A night stand had been shoved against it, but a curious 12-year-old ainâ€™t gonna be discouraged by no stinkinâ€™ nightstand.
He had, of course, moved the nightstand, and unlocked and opened the door. Behind it was the hugely expansive but not-even-close-to-finished rest of the basement. Even with our phone flashlights, we couldnâ€™t really see where it ended, but didnâ€™t go into it, because it didnâ€™t even have a floorâ€”just a bunch of rubble with tarp over it. Plus there were copious cobwebs, and my elder son does NOT do spiders. Aside from the cobwebs, the only indication of any type of residency in there was a mattress propped against a wall.
For a minute or two, I feigned more interest in the â€œsecret roomâ€ than I actually feltâ€”then I walked away, leaving him to close the door and replace the nightstand before coming upstairs to discuss dinner.
Because of COVID, Iâ€™d pre-planned (and brought stuff to make) most of our meals for the 4-day trip; Iâ€™d planned for our first dinner to be one of two take-out meals, but Auggy decided instead on the chicken salad sandwiches Iâ€™d slotted for the next dayâ€™s lunch, so I got my mouth and mind all set for an evening in.
But that didnâ€™t end up happening.
You see, I had ALSO pre-planned (and purchased) our snacks, but I did that thing where I decided we were going to be HEALTHY on this trip (hiking every day! healthy food! nature! air! glory!), so all Iâ€™d brought for snacks was fruit (*YAWN*) . . . and then once weâ€™d settled down after dinner to watch a thriller movie (as has become our custom these past couple of months), I found myself yearning for more satisfying (read: bad-for-you) snacks than plums and nectarines.
Auggy got up and ran downstairs, reappearing with a small bag of candy heâ€™d brought from home (a little goodie from our friend Rachael, who loves sending us candy and cute gifts; Iâ€™d stashed the candy away to hide it from my children, but Auggy found it right before our trip and, because it contained a few pieces of his favorite kind of candy (those little strawberry candies that are hard on the outside and chewy on the inside, with the wrappers that look like strawberries), he begged to bring it with us on our trip), and dumped it out on the coffee table as an offering.
â€œYou can have a strawberry candy,â€ he offered, in a grand show of generosity. â€œWe have three of them, so that still leaves two for me.â€
â€œAww, thanks, Babe,â€ I said, â€œbut thatâ€™s OK, Iâ€™ll let you have all thoseâ€”I know theyâ€™re your favorites.â€
Besides, while I appreciated his generosity, I wasnâ€™t really feeling the strawberry candies, OR the chocolate coins that came with them; rather, I wanted something chippy/dippy/salty/crunchy. Looking outside, I surmised it would be dark soon, and given the twisty, woodsy neighborhood roads and the fact that I didnâ€™t know the area, I figured weâ€™d better jump on it if I was going to find my way back after procuring Pirateâ€™s Booty, so we paused the movie, popped our shoes on, gathered our masks, and headed out to a nearby grocery store.
By the time we arrived back at the house, it WAS darkâ€”and as we fumbled to figure out the electronic lock on the door (having only unlocked it once before), we discovered that we had actually failed to lock it when we left, so the house had been unlocked for about half an hour.
After a quick check to make sure nothing was amiss or missing in the house, we opened a bag of chips and a tub of dip, tossed them onto the coffee table between us, and settled back in to watch Mira Sorvino hunt down an escaped serial killer, who was himself busy hunting down men heâ€™d kidnapped and tortured as boys (who had managed to escape from HIMâ€”so meta), in order to finish the business of killing them.
When the movie was over, Auggy quietly declared that he was no longer sure he wanted to sleep in the basement.
Secretly glad that I wouldnâ€™t have to sleep upstairs alone (remember those curtainless windows? Yeah, theyâ€™re great in the daytime when you can see OUT, but ULTRA CREEPY at night, after youâ€™ve watched a scary movie and canâ€™t see whoâ€™s possibly out there peeking IN), I offered to help him haul all his stuff back upstairs, AND offered him the master bedroom (since part of the appeal of sleeping downstairs was that he wanted â€œa big bedâ€), taking the second bedroom, with two twin beds, for myself.
As we lugged his stuff up the narrow winding staircase from the basement, he continued to justify his decision: â€œI mean, itâ€™s a little creepier down here at night, and thereâ€™s that door into the weird part of the basement . . .â€
â€œWell,â€ I countered, feeling the need, in Skipâ€™s absence, to appear to be a logical, non-alarmist parent, â€œthat door has a deadbolt on it, so as long as itâ€™s locked . . . â€
â€œOh, thereâ€™s a key on the other side,â€ Auggy replied matter-of-factly.
Cue the alarm bells in my psyche (which suddenly ramped up my interest in the secret room): Oh, shit. That is NOT COOL.
On the outside, though, *I* tried to play it cool, and set about the business of relocating my stuff from the master bedroom to the second bedroom, folding up our couch throws, and moving the leftover chips and dip from the coffee table back into the kitchen, etc.. As I headed toward my bedroom to call it a night, Auggy (whoâ€™d been getting his stuff all set up in the master bedroom) came back into the living room to say goodnight.
â€œOh,â€ he remarked casually. â€œYou decided to have a strawberry candy after all, huh?â€
â€œNo, I didnâ€™t. I told you you could have them all.â€ I looked at him.
He was looking down at the coffee table, where the candy was still strewn.â€œThen why are there only two left?â€ he asked warily. â€œWe had THREE of them, and I haven’t eaten any.â€
We stared at one another in silence.
The house left unlocked. The secret room. The mattress. The key in the door. The woods. The windows. The darkness. Serial killers.
By then, the alarm bells were jangling in both of our psyches (like mother, like son . . . ).
Then, of apparently one mind, and with zero words, we both instantly started looking around the coffee table for the missing candy. Eventually, unable to find it, we dropped to our knees, peering and patting under the couch.
Once again, I tried to take a rational approach: I mean, whatâ€”the killer whoâ€™s now hiding in the basement and giddily anticipating the warm splatter of our blood on his face as he takes a hatchet to us in our sleep has a SWEET TOOTH?
I wasnâ€™t entirely convincing myself, but for the sake of my kid, I put on . . . well not a brave face as much as an apathetic one.
I stood up. â€œOK, well, weâ€™ll have to find it in the morning,â€ I declared as casually as possible given my impending murder. â€œIâ€™m exhausted.â€
â€œYeah, me too,â€ Auggy said, apparently feeling obligated to roll with this â€œwhateverâ€ vibe.
â€œAre you gonna be OK?â€ I asked, still feigning lack of abject fear, while hoping he felt enough of it to take me up on the offer I was about to make: â€œI mean, if you want to sleep in my room tonight, thatâ€™s totally fine.â€
â€œNah,â€ he said, stubbornly holding his own in this (for real) game of chicken. â€œI think Iâ€™ll be fine. But if YOU want to sleep in MY room, you can.â€
Both soundly defeated, we retreated to our respective rooms . . .. . . where Yours Truly lay awake ALLLLLLLLLL. NIGHT. LONG.
No joke; when I last looked at the clock before FINALLY drifting off, it was 4:41 a.m.
I woke again around 7:30 and, knowing Auggy to be a relatively early riser, I forced myself out of bed, figuring heâ€™d be up soon, and not wanting to disappoint him by spending the whole day crashed out.
I shuffled to the kitchen to make coffee . . .
. . . and what to my bleary eyes should appear but the previous nightâ€™s bag of chips, propped dutifully next to the coffee makerâ€”and adorned with one wrapped strawberry candy, which was stuck to the side of it (and also with about 20,000 ants, swarming both the candy outside the bag, and the chips inside . . . but again, I digress; the point here isâ€”)
OH. MY. GOD.
I crumpled to the floor, cracking the hell up.I couldnâ€™t wait to tell Auggy when he woke up, and in fact left the whole mise en scene exactly as Iâ€™d found it, ants and all, to give him the full effect.
More than three hours later, I was still waiting.
I spent most of that time reading (which was a GLORIOUS treat, given that my home life is replete with Interrupting Toddler), but then when he still hadnâ€™t made an appearance by 11:00, I started to think, “What if Iâ€™m sitting here happily chilling with my book, while heâ€™s in there floating in a pool of his own blood?”
I went to his bedroom, knocked, then opened the door. He sat up, rubbing his eyes.
â€œJust checking to make sure youâ€™re OK,â€ I said. â€œYouâ€™re sleeping really late.â€
After inquiring as to the time, he confessed: â€œI couldnâ€™t sleep all night; I was up until FIVE IN THE MORNING.â€
Like mother, like son.
For the remaining days of our trip, we were able to sleep just fine, but without actually discussing it, we mutually agreed not to watch any more thrillers until we got back home, and not to go back into the basement, even during the daytime. And we triple-checked the locks any time we left the house.
Overall, it was a good trip, but because of COVID, I had told Auggy to manage his expectations and bring a lot of books, as there would be no shopping, no restaurants (except take-out), no museums, nothinâ€™. Basically just hiking, eating, sleeping, and reading (with a sprinkling of TV and board games). And for the most part he got it, but he was still pretty bored by the end of itâ€”although once weâ€™d spent a day back home with his brother, he wished aloud that we could have stayed until school started.
And by the way, hurricane-schmurricane; save for about an hour on our third morning, it didnâ€™t even rain.
Iâ€™m rarely one to begin a sentence with, â€œAt the risk of dating myself . . .â€ (There are so many reasons for that, most of which exist at the intersection of ageism, feminism, American standards of beauty and value, and plain old stubbornness. And Iâ€™d love to discuss it, but that kind of digression would take a few years â€“ and at my age, I donâ€™t have that kind of time.) But essentially, thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ll be doing when I begin this story by referencing a 1981 Saturday Night Live sketch featuring George Kennedy, of Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Airport (1970) fame, singing an off-key lament about being â€œ53 at Studio 54.â€
For those who didnâ€™t grow up in the 1970s (or earlier), Studio 54 is the short-lived-yet-long-revered New York City nightclub that opened in 1977 and boasted all-star clientele during its roughly 5-year heyday: the Warhol crowd, Liza Minelli, Baryshnikov, Diana Ross, Elton John, Calvin Klein, Cher . . . pretty much anyone a regular, 70s-era, Kansas-bred schlub like me wanted to be when he or she grew up â€“ including one particular person Iâ€™d venture to say everyone wanted to be (surely it wasnâ€™t just me): the stunningly gorgeous Bianca Jagger, who was famously photographed atop a white horse inside the club. (Despite decades of ensuing lore, Jagger denies having ridden the horse into the club, which is too bad, because if anyone could have pulled off that kind of bad-assery, it would be her; however, whether or not she actually went Lone Ranger that night was of little consequence to those of us who knelt at her proverbial feet â€“ or maybe at her horseâ€™s proverbial hooves.) But again, I risk serious digression.
Back to SNL. Kennedyâ€™s woes, put to music, detail the reasons his age makes him an ill fit for a â€œhip jointâ€ (and of course the SNL writers make use of that double entendre) like Studio 54, including lines like
Once I get down, I can’t get off the floor
It’s no fun to be 53 at Studio 54
It’s no kick to snort and smoke and joke with artists and their models
when you wheeze and cough and only take your drugs from plastic bottlesÂ
Unfortunately, I was unable to locate an online video of the sketch (what gives, YouTube? I can watch a thousand videos of Justin Bieber doing and saying idiotic things, but I canâ€™t get some old-school SNL?), but if your cyber-sleuthing abilities are better than mine, and you can find it, I highly recommend it.
Why, though, do I bring up a 1981 SNL sketch about a nightclub that fizzled out (under new ownership) not long thereafter, you ask? Because Kennedyâ€™s dirge about his â€“ to borrow a quote from Danny Glover as Lethal Weaponâ€™s Roger Murtaugh (which reference dates me once again, I know) â€“ â€œtoo-old-for-this-shitâ€ situation is one of the first things that popped into my head after I, at age 45, huddled awkwardly over my own lap in a Target bathroom stall to hold that famously prophetic white stick in a stream of my urine . . . and read the word â€œPregnantâ€ in the results window.
Let me repeat: Age 45. This is the age where most of my college friends are sending their kids off to college; when maybe some of them are slightly saddened (or perhaps invigorated) by newly empty nests; when a handful of them are even welcoming grandchildren into their arms and hearts and spare bedrooms. And here I am, readying my â€œspareâ€ room (which I recently redecorated and set up as an in-home office for myself, but so much for that) for a child from my own aging loins. Granted, Iâ€™m no stranger to late starts; I gave birth to my first (surprise!), and so far extremely spoiled only child (boy, is he in for a rude awakening) at age 37, when most of my friends were already lamenting the fact that their once sweet, innocent, and loving babies had suddenly reached the infamous eye-rolling age, and were beginning to look upon their parents with more disdain than a Studio 54 doorman on a C-list actor. So Iâ€™m well aware of both the advantages and the pitfalls of what the medical community calls â€œAdvanced Maternal Age.â€
But this time I am beyond â€œadvanced,â€ yâ€™all. And unfortunately, moving beyond â€œadvancedâ€ in this case doesnâ€™t mean Iâ€™ve achieved â€œexpertâ€ level. In fact, it more or less implies Iâ€™ve aged out of the damn contest (the chances of a woman my age conceiving without medical intervention are somewhere around 2%).
At this point, however, Iâ€™m nearly halfway to D-Day, so Iâ€™ve made peace with the whole idea, and â€“ after a slew of nerve-wracking tests to ferret out potential chromosomal abnormalities (which so far have shown none) â€“ have actually come to be a little bit excited about this impending new addition to our little tribe.
But there are still moments. Oh, there are moments. Moments when the reality of all this really sets in â€“ like when I overhear a conversation between my mother (who is exactly 40 years my senior â€“ I was a surprise to her, too) and my best childhood friend, who are busy tsk-ing and tutting with one another about my â€œold eggs.â€ Or like when I toddle precariously on cushioned flats, with aching hips and one hand poised for back support, towards the break room at work . . . and cross paths with another expectant mother, further along in her pregnancy than I am in mine, who struts jauntily by in cute skinny jeans (skinny maternity jeans, which to me is a total oxymoron) and three-inch pumps. Or perhaps most of all when my husband and I make the requisite cutie-booty Facebook pregnancy announcement â€“ which features our 7-year-old son in a â€œBig Brotherâ€ t-shirt, along with a couple of pithy Godfather movie references â€“ and the hundreds of responses range from expressions of excitement and congratulations to those of a couple of bravely honest souls, who reply simply, â€œWHAT???â€ or â€œSTFU.â€
And donâ€™t even get me started about kindergarten. It was what I call the â€œKindergarten Realizationâ€ that nearly knocked me on my ever-widening ass. For you see, when this precious bundle of joy and tears and snot and puke and giggles and wails and love Iâ€™m carrying starts kindergarten, I will be over half a century old. I will be eligible for AARP. The year will be 2021 (frankly, up until this realization, I truly believed any year beyond 2019 only existed in science fiction movies). My child will be five. I will not quite be 53 in Studio 54, but I will be 51 at Kindergarten Roundup â€“ which is, in many ways, the same. I have already begun to imagine the far-hipper-than-me regulars Iâ€™m going to find in this club:
The 7-Months-Pregnant Mom. You know, the one who is wisely and carefully planning her family so that her kids are far enough apart in age that she only has to deal with one daycare bill/diapered butt/2 a.m. wailer at a time â€“ but close enough in age that they donâ€™t end up being virtual strangers when theyâ€™re adults who will be required to share in her and their other parentâ€™s care and feeding. As a bonus, she has managed to hold on to most of the key baby items from her first child, so that she doesnâ€™t have to buy (or beg for) every. single. solitary. thing sheâ€™s going to need for her second baby all over again.
The Barely-Out-of-Her-Teens Mom. This is the mom who has also experienced a â€œsurprise!â€ baby â€“ but at the other (read: teenage) end of the age spectrum, so she is a virtual font of youth and energy. Her child will be whip-smart and full of confidence, because not only has she had the unending adolescent energy to engage with him non-stop, she also has a youthful disdain for conventional parenting advice â€“ which means sheâ€™s talked to him and treated him more as an equal than as a ward. Itâ€™s kind of admirable, really â€“ but still, playdates will be awkward, because she doesnâ€™t get the pop-culture references of the Over-50 crowd (after all, thatâ€™s, like, her parentsâ€™ generation).
The Hot Mom. This is the mom who is a little older, maybe, than the two aforementioned moms, but looks at least 7 years younger than her real age, thanks to daily runs, yoga, and a low-carb diet. (While I may look good as well, I wonâ€™t hold a candle to this mom, because just running across the living room to save my child from concussing him/herself on the fireplace bricks is a likely to be all the workout I can handle at that point.) Sheâ€™ll be extremely warm and friendly, but her deep knowledge of the latest health foods and fads will make every other parent silently insecure about serving hot dogs and store-bought cupcakes (which her kid probably won’t even eat) at birthday parties.
The Cool Dad. Heâ€™ll show up for the first day of school with his ball cap on backwards. He and his kid will arrive in matching sunglasses (or perhaps matching piercings) and engage in whatever the 2021 version of the fist bump is as the kid takes his seat in the classroom. This dad will casually drop the name of whatever video game all the kids LOVE at that moment â€“ with promises to play it with his kid after school. He and his mohawked offspring (will mohawks ever go out of style for cool kindergarteners?) will not hug goodbye, but rather throw horns at one another (again, this particular expression of â€œcoolâ€ seems timeless) before Dad ducks out to rock out on his motorcycle ride home. This dad will like everyone â€“ and everyone will like his kid â€“ but nobody will quite trust him to properly supervise a birthday party.
The Clingy Parents. Bless their hearts. This is their first â€œsending a kid off to schoolâ€ rodeo, and they wonâ€™t be ready to let go. Theyâ€™ll both show up on the first day of school, take 1,000 photographs (kid in front of house, kid from behind as she walks to school, kid in front of school, kid in front of classroom door, kid at desk), and stay long after the other parents have left, just to get in one more hug. (Finally, the teacher will be forced to fake a seizure and, when they run for help, lock the classroom door behind them.) They, too, will be incredibly nice â€“ but it will be obvious that this is the first kid theyâ€™ve sent off to school, because they donâ€™t yet realize what this means in terms of their own freedom. The good news about playdates at their house is that the snacks will border on gourmet, and there will likely be Pinterest-worthy craft projects, for both kids and adults.
OK, I confess: with my first kid, I was the latter type of parent (I mean, I thought he was going to be my only child, right?) â€“ but when the next one heads off to Kindergarten, Iâ€™ll likely fit into this club about as well as poor George Kennedy among the Warhol/Jagger crowd, because Iâ€™ll have at least a good 10 years on the eldest among them. What I hope I will also have, however, is my original set of hips (in good working order), more stories to tell . . . and gratitude for the ride thus far.
Wish me luck.