Sarah and I sat together on the couch looking at her computer, trying to make sense of things. At the moment, she was in a place of clarity, somewhere between waves of a morphine-induced fog and cancer-induced exhaustion.
“Can I help?” I asked. “What other subjects would you like to write about? You said you had more to write.”
Sentences were shorter now. Not always coming as full thoughts. But this one was clear: “Things I don’t have to worry about anymore.” Her words were dry. I helped her take a sip from her glass of water.
“Okay, I understand.” We had talked about this before, and I knew what she meant.
Her body was weak. Her focus waxed and waned. She couldn’t hold anything up without help. She couldn’t type. But she was still Sarah, with big, beautiful smile and brilliant blue eyes looking out at all of us, surveying what, to her, must have been such an amazing picture of life. Thinking to herself…things I don’t have to worry about.
It was Monday, May 2nd. We knew what was coming. There was no stopping it. There were no more doctors. Just family and friends for support and love. And of course those helpful, pain relieving drugs. None of us wanted this, but we all knew it was reality. As Sarah and I would often say, “It is what it is.” It was as simple as that. And she had come to accept this.
Tuesday, May 3rd. Sarah died. All worries were gone.
Over the years, Sarah and I discussed, sometimes argued, about the things we worry about. Our therapist often helped us with these things. Bringing us to a better place. Better as a couple. Better as lovers. Better as parents. Better as friends.
We talked about worry and stress. What if we just didn’t have to worry? Is this what happens when you die? Worries just disappear? Maybe. Or, maybe we come to a place of peace, knowing that all those things we worry about in life will simply work themselves out – one way or another.
Is this what she meant when she said “I know I’m getting the easy way out?” Since she wouldn’t have to be concerned anymore? Worry would no longer exist?
Sarah may have been a cynic (and who wouldn’t be after five years of ups and downs from cancer, surgeries and chemo?), but I believe she became an optimist toward the end – seeing there really is no reason to worry. That our energy is put to better use in other ways.
So, what does Sarah NOT have to worry about?
1. Cancer and all its crap.
Say it with me: CRAP! CRAP! CRAP!
No more cancer. No more surgery. No more port. No more drugs. No more chemo. No more side effects. No more scans. No more waiting for results. No more wondering about the next treatment or trial – or if there will be a next treatment. No more wigs. No more hair falling out. No more hair growing back in. No more trips to the hospital during the day, nor in the middle of the night. No more oxygen tanks. No more possibility of further organ failures. No more catheters of any kind. No more injections. No more feeling like crap.
For the rest of us, cancer IS still here. Some of our friends are battling now. Some will win. Some may not. But, let’s keep hope alive. Sarah had hope. We can ALL have hope. Let’s not worry. Instead, look for cures. Look for ways to stay healthy. The Feathers will continue to send love and healing thoughts to all friends of The Carcinista who are waging their own war. Please stay well and know that love and caring is all around you.
2. Early Detection of Ovarian Cancer
Clearly NOT something Sarah worried about for herself. She caught it, but late. Really late. And this gave her more and more reason to want others to know the signs. Ovarian cancer is much more treatable in early stages. So, to help Sarah not worry, please spread the word.
Here are the symptoms:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
3. Getting a tan
From an early age, Sarah loved the sun. She loved the beach. Loved the pool. Loved being in her bikini. She called this her “happy place.” And she was the sun goddess – flipping regularly and adjusting straps so not have an uneven tan. When young – before the sunscreen craze – she always had the perfect tan during the summer. More recently, she tanned just enough – but careful about burns. And of course, making sure to get a good dose of Vitamin D.
4. Her daily Diet Coke
Sarah’s favorite drink. Loved it cold. Some said she shouldn’t drink it for a variety of reasons. Her response, “Damn it! If I’m going to cut out everything else “bad” for me, I have to have at least one vice. And so she did.
5. Global Warming
One of Sarah’s many sarcastic comments a few months ago while discussing possible directions for this post: “Since I’m probably going to Hell anyway, global warming doesn’t sound so bad.” Sarah cared a great deal about the environment and global warming. She worried about the future and what will be left for our kids. At least she doesn’t have to worry about it.
Have you seen what the celebrities are doing to themselves these days? Botox and all sorts of other weird things. Sarah was not keen of the idea of wrinkles, but I think she would have taking them, and worn them with pride.
7. Finding the perfect outfit
Being the fashionista she was, Sarah always cared about how she looked. She even dressed up for Chemo. And why not? It made her feel good. I have to wonder what the fashion is in Heaven these days. If togas are in vogue, I’m sure she’ll be sorely disappointed (she already did that in college).
8. Being cold
Sarah was ALWAYS cold. Well, except in the middle of the summer, or on the beach in the Caribbean. But, there was a silver lining. She used to say, in stark contract to her chili side, I was more like a furnace. And this called for lots of snuggling. We kind of balanced each other out – keeping just the right warm.
9. Nap time
The afternoon nap was a cherished time. When we were younger, both working full time, Sarah enjoyed them on weekends. When she began working at home, afternoon naps were an enjoyable part of her day. After having kids, almost essential.
Then, cancer came. Naps were no longer just a “nice” part of the day, they were a necessity. And Sarah did worry about not getting enough. If the kids were anxious and made too much noise, or the dog was being a pain – sleep didn’t happen. If I called from the car on my way home and got a short answer, I knew her sleep had been restless.
But now, I’m sure she’s resting when she wants to, on her favorite beach. It’s warm. There’s a nice breeze. She’s got a great tan. Eyes closed. Sweet dreams dancing in her head.
10. A replacement
Sarah often talked about my “next wife” and how I should find someone just right. She even wanted to help. But, I’m glad this is something she won’t be worrying about. I’m not. If it’s meant to be, I’m sure it’ll happen. If not, that’s fine too. When I met Sarah, I knew she was “the one” just three days after meeting her. And while our relationship was not always perfect (who’s is?), I’d take our 18 years together and enjoy them again in a heartbeat.
PS. If and when I do find someone, there is no possibility of a replacement. Sarah will always be one of a kind.
11. Her three boys
She worried, and she didn’t. She knew we were well prepared and have a great support system. I remember the first time I heard her say something about a support system. It was before our oldest son was born. She wanted to stay on the East Coast because it was close to her family, her support system. This was a foreign term to me at the time, but have grown to love it and all that it means. Our friends and family are truly amazing. I know Sarah is not worried at all.
12. Dust bunnies
There are many parts of life that are just that, life. Dust bunnies and all. So, stop worrying. Make sure you live each day. Take some time to enjoy the little things – and the big things, too.
We miss you Sarah. Thank you for helping us see and know what is important in life.
– Mr. Wonderful
Last week when I met with my therapist, I landed on a theme that keeps coming up for me:
I feel guilty that I’m putting my family and friends through the stress of having to deal with my illness. I feel guilty when my mom drops everything and comes to town to run my life for a few days when I’m having tough treatments or procedures. I feel guilty asking people to stop at the store for me because I know how busy everyone is already, without having to do my stuff, too. I feel guilty when my husband gets home from a busy day at work and then cleans up the kitchen and does two loads of laundry while writing business emails and presentations and I sit on the couch watching Hoarders. (Those people are nuts — look how normal my life is by comparison!)
I know, I know. It’s ridiculous. There’s nothing I did to bring on this disease or its side-effects; guilt is useless. My life “is what it is”, and everyone does what they need to do to live with it and help us all get through it. No one feels that I’m taking advantage of them, or being lazy so I can lie around with the cat and nap all day. Why am I so wrapped up in the guilt?
I’ll break it down a little: I feel guilty because I feel like I’m not pulling my weight. I feel guilty that my disease is making other people make changes in their lives that, if I weren’t sick, they wouldn’t have to make. I feel guilty when, for example, they shower me with Christmas cards and mad money, because “normal” people don’t have that happen to them, and why should I deserve it any more than any other stay-at-home Mom who’s working part-time and keeping a household running? (Which I’m not even really doing much anymore.)
And (here’s the really ugly part) I feel guilty that my husband and kids are going to have to deal with life after me. Not this month, hopefully not for a few more years, but they WILL have to deal with it. And I know they’re resilient, and we’ve laid good groundwork for sharing emotions and feeling strong and loving themselves and coping with bad stuff, but every time I think about “my mom/wife died of cancer” it makes me crazy. Like, life is hard enough to be a kid/tween/teen without that baggage added to your cart. (At least they’ll have something to write about for their college application essays.)
What’s the solution? I know (and hear from others repeatedly) that my guilt is wasted. No one places any of this responsibility on my shoulders. No one thinks I’m being a manipulative slug. And life is like this: just when you think you’ve got everything under control, something goes all catty-wumpus and you have to readjust. Do I just “get over it”? But I’m a mom, guilt is my JOB.
I think it has to go back to my last post: change the guilt to GRATITUDE. Gratitude that I’m still here, despite the odds. Gratitude that I have such a supportive and energetic family. Gratitude that my friends aren’t sick of hearing about Sarah’s Cancer after nearly five years. Gratitude that I still have such a good relationship with my mother that we don’t kill each other after 48 hours (and Mr. W does, too!). Gratitude that we have thoughtful neighbors with snowplows and -blowers. Gratitude that I can still put on every stitch of clothing that I own and take the dog for a walk in the freezing, snowy, beautiful woods. Gratitude that I live in Boston and have access to the most cutting-edge treatments that have been saving my life for months now. (I’m such a proponent of dump-anything-that-is-a-waste-of-energy (i.e., “Why ME????”) that this should be easy.)
Gratitude that anyone out there is still listening!
Last week we had a mini-vacation and went to stay with friends on Martha’s Vineyard. We slept in, ate too much, had beers with lunch, napped on the beach (my favorite four-word phrase in the English language), went out one night without the kids and finished conversations. Ate s’mores. You get the idea.
I had succeeded in mentally reminding myself for three mornings not to forget to carry with us or administer my delightful meds (which must, you remember, be kept under refrigeration below 46˚). Since there were coolers all around, going to the beach, etc., I was able to dump them in and choke them down in the vacation-short space between breakfast and lunch.
Reluctantly, on Saturday we packed up our bags, double-checking under beds, nearly forgetting swimsuits and towels drying on the deck rail. I loaded my bottle of iced tea and the boys’ water bottles into the freezer to cool down before packing the cooler for the trip home.
The horde of us descended on a fish shack in Vineyard Haven to grab some lunch before catching our 2:30 ferry. As we waited with the hordes of other hungry people for our lunches, though, we realized we wouldn’t have enough time to eat and still make the boat. We grabbed our bag of sandwiches, said goodbye to the wife and kids of the family we stayed with, and the dad drove us the rest of the way to the ferry dock. Hugs all around, double-check the back of the car for our stuff, and bundle ourselves into the growing line of passengers waiting to climb aboard.
Son #2 dropped his Gatorade bottle for the seven-hundred-and-forty-third time, and I told him, “One of these times, that bottle’s going to split open, and then you won’t have anything…to…drink…but…water…until…” ::Crickets::
“Mr. W, did you grab the cooler?”
Crap. “Left my damn drugs at the house!”
I turned and started running (wearing a 35-lb backpack, no less) out to the street where I could see our friend had just been waved into heavy Saturday August Vineyard traffic by the cop trying to keep order. Thank heaven his window was open.
“MARK! MARK!” He turned to look at me.
“I LEFT MY DRUGS AT YOUR HOUSE!!!” (In hindsight, not the best sentence to shout across a crowded intersection in front of a policeman.)
Revision: “I left my meds in your fridge!”
He pulled back into the parking lot, and my three gentlemen shuffled over and got back in the Jeep. I started in browbeating myself about my forgetfulness. “Jeez, I can’t believe I forgot it. I’m so sorry to make you have to come back. I can’t believe I didn’t remember that stuff! How many times did I remind myself that I had to get the cooler? What an eejit.”
This went on for about five minutes. Then I stopped for a second, and realized that I was the only one beating me up about it. Not even any teasing (unusual). And in a flash of maturity, I quit. No one seemed to be upset about having to miss the 2:30 but me. And on second thought, what the hell did I care? Why was I getting all jacked up?
We rode back to the restaurant to finish lunch (the best lobster roll I’ve had in years) with our friends. There was another ferry at 3:45, which meant we’d get home to pick up our dog a little later. No harm, no foul – it’s not like we had an appointment or something waiting back on the mainland.
This verbal self-flagellation is a lifetime habit for me, and I suspect for many others. Does it come from my desire to cut on myself before anyone else gets a chance to? Or am I so concerned about inconveniencing others (and possibly having them speak disparagingly about me after I leave) that I am trying to make sure they know I’m not really that inconsiderate? Whatever the reason, it’s stupid, and a waste of energy.
It’s time to adopt the Dr. Seuss quote I heard recently and have come to adore: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” I’m a good person, my friends know it, and my life is way too short to spend time browbeating myself for mistakes. Everyone makes ’em, and we’re all doing the best we can. Move on.
I got to meet Kelly Corrigan today. You know, she wrote The Middle Place. (If you haven’t read it yet, do so. Quickly – I’ll wait. Well, maybe not.) She grew up in the same place I did, and we have a mutual friend, Lisa, who was plugging Kelly’s new book on FB yesterday and hooked me up with the reading today at a local library. The moment she walked into the room, I felt like I had met her before, or knew her from somewhere. (I’m sure I wasn’t alone.)
Kelly was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. She was 37, and her daughters were 2 and not-yet-4. (Sounds strangely familiar, right?) Anyway, I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t read it, but I will tell you that when I read The Middle Place the first time, it certainly relieved me of the pressure of having to write my own cancer memoir. Sure, the tumors were in different parts of our bodies, we live on opposite coasts, and her tale takes a different course than mine, but aside from that she pretty much wrote down every thought that was running through my head that first summer of treatment. My knee-jerk impulse to careen home and curl up in my mom’s lap. My realization that the world was not nearly as forgiving a place as my life to that point had led me to believe. My constant search for the best words to use in mass emails to strike the balance between accuracy and upbeat optimism, so as not to get anyone down (and ensure plenty of replies). My awe at the way my husband stepped up to the plate to maintain some semblance of order over chaos. My fear of how every moment of my illness was affecting my kids.
Kelly read from The Middle Place and her new book, Lift, a small but laser-sharp review of her daughters’ little-girl years, which she wrote so they would remember more than Kelly had of her own early youth. She explores so many of the hidden joys and pains of parenthood, and made me want to write down more of my own boys’ moments, knowing my own terrible memory and feeling the need to share their trials and triumphs with them when they’re older.
Quick-witted and smart, the more Kelly spoke, the more I understood why her books and her essays are so well received. She said herself that she “walks a fine line” of not-having-really-bad-stuff-happen-to-her (no plane crashes, alcoholism, crushing poverty) but still speaking to everyone in common sentiments. Her humorous take keeps the mood light enough that you want to read more, but the love that is so evident in all of her stories, whether about her own daughters or just dear friends, carried all of us in the room right into her lap.
So of course I had to say hello, and our mutual friend had given me a name to drop. I told her how she had written the book that I was going to write, and she laughed graciously. I’m sure I gibbered on, unable to get across how truly aligned I had felt with her own reactions, making my career as a wordsmith seem a bit misguided. I only hope that I didn’t embarrass Lisa too much.
Maybe when I get to meet Jude Law some day I won’t sound like quite so much of a starstruck schoolgirl. Then again, he hasn’t read my mind. Yet.
Cancer giveth, and cancer taketh away. The giving part is another post for another day. Today, we gripe.
Actually, it’s sort of a meta-gripe. I had a lousy day earlier this week, I won’t bore you with the details, but the thing that really cheesed me the most was this overarching feeling I had that I ought to just stop grousing and be thankful that I had a life to live. And that made me madder.
Not only has cancer taken away the innocence of my assumption that I’ll live to be a hundred like my grandmother, that I’ll be around to annoy and embarrass my teenage sons, that I’ll get a chance to spend some of the (admittedly smaller than previously) IRA my tax refund funnels into every spring, among other countless losses. Now I can’t even have a lousy day, sink into a funk, eat too much chocolate and ignore my vacuuming without feeling guilty? I have to be so THANKful that I’ve surVIVEd long enough to be having this day at all? That just sucks.
Wow, someone needs a nap.
It snowed here overnight and most of the morning. While I hate being cold, I love snow. Hey, if it’s gotta be freezing, it might as well be pretty. (See, there I go, form over function again.) It felt cathartic, restorative, like wiping last week’s (uuuuugly) slate clean. No more self-recrimination, just quiet and softness.
Spent the morning going to Boston for brunch with my three favorite guys. (Culinary luxury is always a good mood-booster.) Watched the snow blowing up Boylston Street and stuffed myself with eggs benedict and too many carbs. But no guilt. Got the kids set up with some wholesome on-line activities and retired to My Office for a nap while Mr. Wonderful wrapped up the Christmas shopping. Coasted through dinner and took the dog for a walk in the winter wonderland.
Yes, the house still needs vacuuming. Yes, I still need to finish the Christmas cards (cranked out about thirty yesterday) and get more stamps. Yes, I still need to wrap everything. But NO, the self-flagellation for my supposed shortcomings has not continued. I thank the snow.
For three-and-a-half years, I said “no”. No volunteering, no Class Mother position, no field-trip chaperoning, no personal projects, minimal cooking, no homemade Christmas presents. I’ve focused on the four people and two pets in the little brown house, and on holding myself together enough for my kids to keep speaking to me and my husband to be able to hold most of the weight of running the household.
Fast-forward to December, 2009. Finally feeling like a human being again, like my brain is firing on all cylinders. Able to keep track of the location of my sunglasses while simultaneously talking on the phone and switching the wet laundry to the dryer, I am getting a little full of myself. So I start saying “yes” – yes, I’d love to edit the school newsletter. Yes, I’d love to bring in a dish to contribute to the second grade’s Country of Origin feast three days before Christmas. Yes, I’d be happy to give the neighbor a ride home from the hospital on a Wednesday night after a support-group meeting and a whirlwind trip to a very crowded Target. Yes, I’d love to make six pounds of spiced walnuts to give as gifts to the teachers and service personnel in our lives. Why sure, I’d love to go to a fundraising dinner on December 17. In formalwear. The evening after a chemo treatment.
And thus a few of the juggled balls have hit the deck. Had to pass off the newsletter to the previous editor because my software skills were exceeded by the amount of work that needed doing. Failed to check with my seven-year-old on the due date of his research project and had to pull him out of bed at 7:50 on a school night to help him finish it. Got all the stuff I needed at Target and the neighbor home from the hospital but then blew parking my land barge in my teeny garage and dented the fender on the support column. Remembered to buy a present for the birthday party but forgot to make a playdate for the other kid for the same afternoon. Made it to the fancy party but blew off my boys all afternoon because I had so much to do before the sitter came that I couldn’t take ten minutes to read a book. Haven’t had time to call my dad back from a call he made to me three weeks ago.
Now I’m realizing that perhaps I’ve bitten off a little more than I can chew. Remembering that even before I got sick, I was maybe not the best multi-tasker on the planet (raging hyperbole). Remembering that this mom thing leaves little room for personal activities and ambitions, and that getting to the gym four times a week might be the pinnacle of my independent activity. Realizing that in my rush to fulfill what I though of as my neglected community obligations I had to put my homefront responsibilities on the back burner.
So I’m making no one happy right now. Family resents the fact that I’m busy. Kids are calling me a grouch. Dog hasn’t been on a real walk in four days. Laundry piling up, dust bunnies multiplying. Christmas spirit cowering in the back of a closet. Wherever I’m focusing, I’m feeling guilty that I’m not working on something else. And I’m afraid that this isn’t going to change as I get healthier; this is the standard modern mom’s dilemma. Crap.
The first thing to do is spend the day with my family NOT stressing about the projects that haven’t gotten done yet. The second thing to do is trim the fat from my obligations list. Or maybe I’ll leave that for the New Year – I really need to finish the Christmas cards. Okay, start the Christmas cards. And call my dad.