Crowds and Loneliness and Passive Social Wandering

I love airports. I loved them long before I went to work for the airlines, back when an airport drop-off meant getting to sit in the terminal and watch the planes load and embark. I loved them when driving to nearby Chicago meant seeing planes ascending and descending amid the cityscape of red morning skies. I love them now, even when they mean lines and delays and probable hassles.

Airports have this magical feel to them. Even after all the bureaucracy and commercialization of the aviation industry, an airport, to me, is this epicenter of action and excitement, this gateway to endless possibility. I love the screens that broadcast arrivals and departures, and when it storms, I love watching them flicker and change before my eyes, black and then red.

Chicago’s O’hare airport has a special place in my heart. I lived there for so many years, sometimes literally, with nights spent sleeping on a recliner in a crowded airline crew lounge. It was the place, for almost a decade, where I spent each Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was the place where I became myself and where I felt most comfortable. The blue-grey pillars and columns with expansive windows and noise were part of me, and I suppose when I was in uniform, I was probably part of them.

O’hare gave me an appreciation for early mornings. 4am at O’hare airport is a quiet,sleepy peaceful I often long for these days. As a mother of two young children and an admitted workaholic, quiet-sleepy-peaceful is often accompanied by exhaustion. The ambient moving walkway at the United Terminal, illuminated with spiral wraps of neon light welcomes one passenger after the next, and when it’s so early, the day has typically yet to bring the panicked family hauling suitcases and crying babies as they run to inevitably miss their connecting flight. Everything is still clean and new.

It’s about crowds and loneliness and passive social wandering.

Sometimes I like a crowd. This is never true when I have my children at a festival or event and every anxious minute is spent in fear as I frequently turn them to see their faces and ensure the little blonde heads trailing beside me belong to them. No, there’s something comforting about being alone in a crowd. As much as I love the tranquil mornings of a near empty O’Hare, I have an even greater appreciation for the crowded terminals.

Comfort, in itself, is an interesting concept. I’ve been told I am impossible to comfort, to the point now, where I might even feign resolution or relief to end the process of someone attempting to console me. I hate pity. I hate to be hugged when I’m upset. I don’t “want to talk about it.”

I want to be alone.

There have been times in my life, so many within O’hare airport, and really one moment in particular, when the worst heartache of my life seemed to cripple me with emptiness. As someone who abhors commiseration, I would keep it to myself and somehow find relief in the people around me, hustling and bustling from one gate to the next. Even a phone call, a chilling conversation,  all behind the little wall that supports the gate agent’s work station, was just feet away from the masses. I remember it clearly and, while desiring to be by myself, I never felt alone.

How is it to feel pain or joy or love, alone but surrounded by others? For me, it is the freedom to feel without justification or sympathy, and yet a reminder of perspective and humanity.

When my friend Brian died, I went to his funeral, which was standing room only, and afterward, I went to a favorite haunt of his, one of mine too. I ordered a pint of the darkest stout. It had been raining much of the day, and I thought the milky-brown cloud of beer was the absolute best fit for the occasion. I ordered a bread pudding, chocolate, and I sat at the bar alone, entirely secure in myself, the word around me but not on top of me.

A conversation this week took me back to these places, the scene always O’hare airport, always in or around those dark blue chairs with arm rests that sit too tall for me, or the moving walkway with it’s ethereal lighting. As I thought about comfort and crowds and passive social wandering, I came to feel there is a difference between being “among” others and being “with” others. It’s the reconciliation of the introspective dignity and the masses.

For me, it is comfort. It is knowing that people are there, even when you don’t need them… a social construct safety net. It is the opportunity of being one of many, while preserving the one. It is navigating the crowd, towing baggage, like everyone else, and arriving to the next gate.

 

Happy 37th Birthday to me… and the year I thought I might die

Life, to me, is a series of details. I remember the subtle nuances that make up every day and gradually these touches become cataloged into years.

The color I painted the living room in my first home was called “Moonscape.” It was the closest to yellow I could get my partner at the time to agree to, this sanitary shade of manila. Today, when I drive by the place, on the cutest little brick street in the most working class neighborhood one could imagine, I wonder what color the new owners chose. Were they careful to paint around the old fireplace? Did they keep the  crown molding white?

I wanted yellow, a bright golden hue to bring in light. Sunflowers. They’re my favorite. When I was younger I remember a painting hanging in my grandmother’s living room, an abstract picture of orange and yellow sunflowers in a vase, framed in shiny gilded wood. Her walls were a far cry from “Moonscape.” That little apartment she had on the boulevard near the river was the happiest place in my childhood and when I see sunflowers I think of her. I remember making my grandfather’s coffee with her early mornings and I remember a large tin box on a old decoupaged dresser in a room off her kitchen, adorned with folk art and the word “BREAD.”

Sunflowers are vibrant. They grow tall and proud. They’re naturally deigned to withstand the harsh winds and violent thunderstorms that christen their prairie homelands. Beaten-down and leaves a little torn, they still reach high.

Moonscape, on the other hand, is safe. It is the sterile risk taken by the blank page. A color of accommodation and compliance.

I think of these details, paint dried onto the metal rims of old brown brushes, and the box marked “BREAD” today, as I celebrate my 37th birthday. The calls and messages tumble in. I drank my favorite Americano from my favorite coffee shop and treated myself to the darkest chocolate, and I simply thought of yellow versus moonscape.

I considered that I might have died.

A month into the scan results showing remission of breast cancer and I am still working to catch my breath. When I got the call I was in my office, and before I could share the news, I simply needed to sit outside on the little landscaped wall next to our old building and breath. I cried.

I thought about the many phases of cancer, the series of feelings I felt the past few months, and where I am at now. I don’t think I was ever moonscape. The color betrays me to the core. How could I have painted my walls with this compromise? It’s life. I think. We may want to let the light in but we worry about how others view brightness.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I made about 100 meatballs and stored them in my freezer. I baked a quiche and wrapped it in foil for some morning down the line. I located important paperwork; my birth certificate, marriage certificate, my social security card, insurance policies. I thought about how quiche seemed like funeral food and meatballs could go with anything. I thought about who my family would need to call if I died.

It was entirely morbid, and yet, the practice made me feel as though I had control of what was the most impotent position of my life. In the past, even on a plane 40,000 feet in the air, piloted by two guys in suits and ferrying 300 passengers, I still maintained this sense of control as a flight attendant. I still felt responsible for my own destiny. Cancer was the first time in my life that I felt powerless. Making sure my family had food to eat in the event of my untimely demise- was just the ultimate organizing experience.

Now I am in remission. Once I am in remission for five years, I am cancer-free. So, I’m not cancer-free yet, but I managed to turn 37, and no moonscape for me, I am yellow paint on walls with bright orange petals reaching for the sky. Those details I remember, the hues of gold that mark my childhood and life, burn radiant for me now.

My leaves are a little torn, but I stand brighter and taller, a storm subsided and 37 years on which to grow.

On “Missing”

What is missing?

Before bedtime my four year old and I sit and talk about the existential aspects of this life, a little light-hearted habit we’ve developed. She asks about love, about sadness and happiness. She asks about death. I pretend she is a tourist here, studying me and gathering information to bring back to her home planet.

“Love is when you’re in a thunderstorm and you think it’s beautiful.”

She came up with that one on her own one night.

“When you’re dead you can’t breath and you never wake up.”

“When you’re happy you want to run and smile.”

Her people will be pleased with her assessment of this human life. Still, she asked me to define ‘missing’ and I was at a loss. Suddenly I came to believe that defining ‘missing’ was more complicated than the simple thunderstorm definition of love, more involved than dancing joy and more final than breathless death.

Missing is the most tangled of human experiences. It means love. It means sadness. It means some tumultuous inner conversation regarding ourselves and our realities. It means the utter haunting of connection. It’s longing. It’s remorseful memories and regretful thoughts. It’s reminiscence.

Missing, is all of it.

I tie missing with love as I tie my ability to love and be loved with my capacity to miss and be missed. They are the same. For what is adoration without longing? And this is not merely a function of romantic ideals. Missing in death and missing in distance are part of it too. It’s the simple act of wishing someone or even some thing, were as it was before.

Last week I completed 3.5 weeks of radiation treatment for breast cancer. It was easy, I felt. I was tired in the afternoons. I was anxious, but for the most part, I made every attempt to host the front of a person who tackled it in jest and strength.

I returned to normal life quickly. I worked. I took on everything I could at home and I made resolutions. I would do better after all this. I filled my calendar, professionally and socially, and went about life as I waited for the follow up appointment in which we would learn my prognosis. It was no big deal, and I handled it.

Then, one day, I was in the car alone, driving to visit a friend. Suddenly, out of nowhere really, it occurred to me that I had just finished treatment for cancer. For the first time since I was diagnosed, I cried. Sure, I had moments before then, but each time my tears were displaced. I cried because I felt like a burden to my family and friends. I cried because, to me, the worst part of being in treatment was not being able to be there for people I loved.

This was different. These were tears of exhaustion and release. It felt like a near miss. It felt like driving and swerving to avoid another car but nearly going over a bridge. It was adrenaline and relief. A near miss.

I laughed at myself. How could I cry now, when it’s all over?

I realized it was the fear of “missing.”

We live with ghosts, the palest reflections of the palest versions of ourselves, walking through walls, haunting memories of the things we can’t let go. Missing is remembering. How we long is an interpretation of our own worth in this world. To miss. To be missed. All else is just a derivative. Love. Death. Happiness. Familiarity. All of it is really missing.

How do I explain this to the four year old child who believes that love is a thunderstorm? I gave her a few ideas:

Missing is when you want to be near someone, and you cannot. Missing is wishing they were close to you.

Missing is when you had something, but then you lost it.

Missing is when you are not complete.

Missing is when you are lost.

Missing is when you hear a thunderstorm and you think it’s beautiful, and you want to hear it again, over and over.

Missing is when something makes you so happy, and you worry it will end.

I sat and explained. She sat and she listened. With soft eyes she looked up at me and said “I’ll miss you when you go.”

A hand on my heart.

“I’ll miss you too.”

There’s A Fart Trapped in My Pillow

mEverything in my life features some photo of Anna and Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. From my preschool-age daughter’s clothing, to string cheese, to band-aids… pretty much 1 out of every 5 things I touch on any given day features at least one of the sister’s smiling faces. I’m half certain when I had radiation a few weeks ago I looked over at the beam they used and saw an Olaf decal. Though I couldn’t be sure. My Sven pillow might have been blocking the view.

If you don’t know who these characters are, me on my best behavior will tell you to go home and watch the movie. Me, on a good day, will tell you it’s filled with inspiring messages, great music, and adorable “inside jokes” over which you and your partner will simply laugh and laugh.

That’s me, on a good day.

Me, at 6:00am on a Monday will tell you, the childless Frozen novice, to walk, nay, run, to the most debaucherous place you can fathom and drink, no… eat, no… swear, no… punch someone in the face, until you’re so tired you can’t stand, and then, when you’ve drank/eaten/punched enough, sleep.

Sleep!

Sleep the restful sleep of a person  who will not wake to the news that someone has pooped/peed/punched (again with the punching) themselves awake. Sleep like a person who is not startled by the preschooler, who somehow manages to be sticky in the day’s first minutes of wakefulness, declaring “there’s a fart trapped in my pillow.”

But that’s me on a Monday.

I love my children. I would not trade them for anything. I’ve been on, (almost- fingers crossed for the last one) every continent in this world. I’ve seen some things… and I would trade all of it to have these littles. They are my world.

I always feel the need to make the disclaimer. As if any negative comment in my life contains the asterisk of a statement “I love my children but…”

I suppose it doesn’t simply apply to the negative comments either. When I’m enjoying anything outside of my children I hold the inner monologue. “I loved work today, but I also love my children.” I love both.

Which leads me to the night of the fart and the pillow.

I gave the children a bath when something confusing happened. I had looked down and suddenly noticed several broken up grapes floating in the water. We didn’t have grapes for dinner. Where could they have possibly obtained grapes? How could they have smuggled them into the bathtub? One by one the blackish-purple bobbers popped to the surface of the water.

Finally, after squinting and analyzing these little round mysteries, I realized, those were not grapes. They used to be grapes. Then they became raisins. Then my son ate them. Then he took a bath and relaxed just enough to… you get the idea. Grapes. Toast may never be bread again, but apparently raisins can return to grapes.

Word of advice: if your child ever poops in the bathtub, try not to freak-out. Try not to startle and say “oh my God, it’s poop.”

Your panic makes them panic.

Realizing that she was floating in a stew of her brother’s former lunch, my daughter did what only every sensible person would do and barricaded herself into her half of the bathtub, surrounding herself with every half-empty shampoo bottle she could find. She did this, while I attempted to pick up the baby and get him out of the tub as he swatted and batted away at the floating poop nuggets, which seemed to be multiplying.

I set the baby to stand on a towel to drip dry for a second while I grabbed toilet paper and wipes to clean the horrific pez dispenser that his little rear-end had become, popping out one little grape or another with factory-like automation.

He stood there and when I looked to the bathtub again I saw the four year old on the absolute verge of a meltdown. The lip quiver… the hyperventilating silence that only means screaming is not far away. We’ve come to look at her tantrums like lightening before thunder. When we see the flash of a bolt in her eyes we start counting. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. The longer we count, the louder we can expect the clap of thunder to be.

Four Mississippis. She began screaming, tears running down her face. What happened? What’s wrong? I reach to her and she turns around, pointing at a log floating in the tub. You know how when someone yawns, you pick up on the cue and you yawn too? Bathtub pooping apparently brings about the same phenomenon.

I left her brother to the towel and rushed to pick her up as I pondered how we would go about getting a Hazmat team to our house on a Sunday evening. I cleaned her up and wiped the tears away. She’s still potty-training and she needs tenderness. We talked about how accidents happen. “Even  when accidents happen you still love me.”

It was really a beautiful moment. I was proud. I was being a mother. I had cleaned the four year old, patched up her damaged ego and basically, saved the world.

But wait, where’s the baby?

With the bathroom door cracked open just enough for a small human being to sneak through,  I hear laughter coming from his room. The four-year-old and I look at each other. We got this. Let’s go see what he’s doing.

Now, I’m not much for horror movies. I can’t watch them. I feel too much empathy for the characters as they run and hide from ghosts and serial killers, and then, of course, I feel way too much empathy for the ghosts and serial killers. It’s a whole thing. Watching a horror movie becomes too much of an emotional experience for me. That aside, I’m pretty sure what my daughter and I saw in the hallway that night, mirrors any Wes Craven out there.

There was the cat. She looked at us as if to say “you know, I used to live alone…”

She walked the length of the upstairs hallway, a trail of brownish footprints leading the length from one room to the next, growing more faint with each step. We watched in silence. She circled back to where the footprints were complete, where they were the definitive mark a cat’s paw, in brown, on my hardwood floors, where my Son’s bedroom door was ajar.

We pushed open the door and found my 18 month old son, naked, with a pile of books to his left, a stuffed Elmo doll in his lap, and a pile of what was likely the remainder of his lunch, to his right. He laughed. We laughed. I cleaned up the cat before she ran to my laptop and listed herself in the classifieds. “Free cat to childless home.”

Bleach and mops and a million paper towels into the evening it was finally time to put the children to bed.

The baby is easy right now. I set him down in his crib. He smiles and waves. He blows me a kiss. I leave his room feeling like the best mom in the best diaper commercial.

The four year old, on the other hand, always chooses the last hour of any given day  to reach any emotional/intellectual milestone. She wants to talk about life, about death, about concepts like loneliness or evolution, about Taylor Swift, you know, complicated matters.

It’s also in this hour, I have learned, that she reaches her highest level of sensory perception. Suddenly, this miniature person who needs me to repeat “put your shoes on” twelve times in a half-hour, can hear the cricket chirping and rustling through leaves outside her window, two stories down. Suddenly, this little individual whose attention will not be held by a song longer than four minutes, can recite (and must have an audience to do so) the entire length of the movie Frozen, orchestral overtures included.

Reasons she would not rest on this, the night of the bathtub poops:

Her socks did not match. Where is the matching sock? I think it’s downstairs. we have to go downstairs and find the matching sock or this sock will be lonely. Maybe I left it at Grandma’s house? We better call Grandma.

That shadow moved. I’m certain of it. I looked one way and then the other and the shadow keeps moving. It has long hair and a nose and whenever I move, the shadow moves.

I think I want to learn Karate. Tell me all about Karate. Now. Tonight. This instant. I saw a girl at the YMCA doing karate last week and it’s almost ten o’clock at night on a Sunday and I need to know everything there is to know about karate.

My physical needs are not being met. I’m hungry, but not for any food we have or any food that ever existed. I’m thirsty but only for water at a particular temperature, the measurement of which I cannot disclose to anyone.

Remember when we went to the park and we saw that giant dog? That was pretty cool. Let’s reminisce about that time right now.

There’s a fart trapped in my pillow. 

She always falls asleep. She’s never not slept. There have been those nights full of tears and the ache and wonder that comes with just hoping I’m doing it right. That part of me, the one that on a good day would tell  you to buy the actual Frozen DVD, the one with the extras and credits where the giant snow monster tap dances, that part of me… she wouldn’t tell you how exhausting Sundays are. She wouldn’t share the doubts that sit and fester over every little decision. She wouldn’t tell you about the blind spot in the kitchen where you can secretly eat a cookie while the children watch television in the playroom and cannot see you.

She wouldn’t share the humor found in owning an Elsa doll representing every phase of life- baby Elsa, toddler Elsa, adult Elsa, and geriatric do-they-still-have-medicare-in-Arendale Elsa.

Still, I think the version of me who misses sleep is the better mother. The me who was able to laugh off the fecal trail to bedtime drama is more complete. Parts of you go away for a little bit, the aspects that you used to think defined you and made you who you are recede dormant into the past. Then, growing every day are the parts of you that were planted deep within yourself. There’s a new you, not better, not worse. New. Tired and new.

There are times I ask myself “is this my life?” Eight years ago today I was hiking in the Badlands, writing and planning a trip to Amsterdam. I was waking up at ten in the morning, and running for fun (as opposed to out of fear or poop). Now I find myself negotiating with a little person who seems to be more intelligent than most of the  people I’ve ever met. The contrast is stark and neither image loses value when placed next to the other.

I went into her bedroom for what felt like the hundredth time. She sat up as I took her pillow out of it’s pink and purple princess pillow case and shook it for, let’s count… one Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.

Only three Mississippis to free the fart trapped in her pillow. There will be more noises and light reflecting restless fears and possibility but, for now, there will be rest.

Goodnight Anna. Goodnight Elsa. Goodnight Cricket. Goodnight Shadow.

Goodnight me.

 

 

 

 

 

Donuts, Plates, and Perfection

June 2 was National Donut Day. Everyone I know wished me a Happy Donut Day. I’m pretty sure more people wished me a Happy Donut Day than calls or messages I received on Mother’s Day. It wasn’t my day. I hadn’t previously celebrated it or made plans. Yet, friends and family alike messaged me and called me and wished me a Happy Donut Day.

It was all well placed because, you know what? I love donuts. I love them. It’s not simply that I love the fried, glazed, sweet pastry possibly filled with ethereal cream or decadent jelly. I love the box they come in with its’ folded corners, translucent plastic top, scribbles on the side and some franchise label holding the entire thin cardboard enclosure together. It’s the coffee that accompanies. It’s the lady working the retro orange-rust colored counter at 3am selling crullers and long johns. It’s the whole thing. Donuts are an experience.

I brought donuts to my office for patschke day. I ate most of them, but my friend Karen humored me with a photo before this one was devoured (by me).

When I was nineteen I dated a guy who had the metabolism of a giraffe (which I assume to be like this huge metabolism.) We went on a date at a park once, where we sat on a hill and polished off a dozen donuts from the local place down the street. Basically, I was pretty sure we were in love.

Donuts are simple. With them comes this implied sense of community as in “These are cheap and these are easy. These don’t complain and complicate.” They sit on the table in denominations of 12 and they wait, no questions asked, for you to take a few amid conversation.

It’s about perfection really. Donuts. Seems insane I guess. We all have idiosyncrasies and if donuts are mine I’ll reconcile the powdered sugar with myself.

It’s not ever really donuts though. It’s perfectionism.

I think back to my years with the airlines and the things I most loved. While I’d like to list the extensive travel and opportunities as the benefits I miss most, the truly honest answer for me is the perfection. The thrill for me was always the perfection.

Sometimes I miss the first class galley on the Boeing 747, and the service we prepared for international flights. There was a plate for bread. There was a cup for coffee. There was a fork for salad. There was a knife for butter. Each item had a purpose and each purpose had a place, both in time and tangible setting. Because this all happened on a plane, 40,000 feet in the air, every single item had to fit somewhere. It all had to come out, but eventually, it all had to be put away.

I miss the aircraft like I miss my favorite versions of myself. Everything was in order. I miss the fine lines of overhead bins, closed and latched. I miss plain white china adorned simply with a small grey logo, an aircraft or company name. I miss compartments, so many, where everything packed away neat and tidy, a door clasped shut, the weathered manila facade of general acceptance.

As I’ve worked through this pesky breast cancer thing, I’ve come to terms with the concept of perfection, this driving consumption that pushes and pulls. I struggle to define it. Do I refer to it as my battle with breast cancer?

I hardly think of my minimal efforts in this as fighting a battle. My idea of a battle is Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker jousting on the edge of the Deathstar reactor core. A battle is Verdun. A battle is some epic struggle of good versus evil. I didn’t struggle. I simply went to the hospital every day and had high doses of radiation beamed directly to a tumor in my breast. I even got to lay down on a special pillow while I did it. Total diva. No battle here.

Except, maybe there was a little bit of fighting? Maybe it wasn’t quite Luke dangling on the edge of the galactic abyss, but maybe there was a little bit of a scuffle? I know I felt tired. I still feel tired, now, even after treatment has ended. I push myself to continue life as usual, with my children, with home and with work. Still, there have been days when I’ve sat, head in my hands at the quiet kitchen table, when my house is sound asleep. I rub tired eyes and I think for a moment, “maybe I can’t do this.”

So, there’s been tired, and there’s also been this general lack of appetite, this nuisance telling me that I am not yet whole. I don’t want donuts. I love donuts and now I do not want them. Those perfect little circles of inclusive joy sit, packaged in rows of four on the table and I will not eat them, and to me, this is the hurtful thought that tells me I am not perfect. I am not columns of white china stacked away in preparation for turbulence. I am not pastry packed tight into consolatory presence. I am imperfection.

There’s magic in the art of embracing the thoughts in which we question our own strength. It’s human definition at it’s core. We’re not perfect. We get sick. We get tired. We can’t be neatly stored somewhere. We’re here, in all our faults and deficits.

So, maybe it is a battle, but maybe not on any level I ever might have anticipated. I know there will continue to be those inner conversations, the aching product of fatigue and weakness, but there will also be those moments, the ones when I feel a sense of order and completeness, the ones when the coffee cups and plates are set away, the ones when I am powerful and I am whole.

And donuts.

There will also be donuts.

 

 

A little piece about heaven

There is an overhang in Kellogg, Idaho. It’s where my heart goes when my mind is tired and my body is weak. Every day, during the very few minutes I am in radiation treatment, I close my eyes and I am there.

I stand at the top and beneath me is a depth of fog that always deceives me into thinking I’m standing on clouds. Trees, the most evergreen of greens peak to touch blue skies. I reach down and feel rocks and earth around my feet. They’re smooth granite sandy, a brown sediment trace along my palms. There’s a cool breeze and I wrap myself in my own arms and watch warm golden sun peak over the distance

I go there and I feel alive.

I am alive.

I remember when I first found this place. I was driving to Washington from Illinois and there was a lookout off the side of a mountain pass, a place where gondolas ran the length of the wooded valleys. I sat and finished a cup of coffee on a stone ledge while watching the sun rise. It occurred to me that when I die, I would like my ashes spread there. I don’t know if I believe in heaven, but I at least believe in northern Idaho.

I guess you could call them relaxation techniques? I’ve tried it all lately. Someone gave me a candle. I lit it and nothing happened. Maybe I wasn’t using it right? Was I supposed to throw it at something? I remember when I was in labor with my daughter a few years ago. I held off on pain meds and an epidural before the nurse came to me during contractions and said “here, smell this stick.” Aromatherapy. It stunk.

The incredible anxiety that comes with waiting during this treatment is excruciating. I asked my Oncologist for a hint. Does he think my breast cancer went away? She’s seen so much. In cases like mine, does this seem right? Wait and see. It’s always wait and see.

So I wait, and I see.

I close my eyes and I see the places of perfection that I imagine to be the best places in the world, quiet spots where I can think. I stand on a cliff in Idaho or I sit and look out over the Atlantic on a cold, clear night, only ocean waves around me, stars above me.

Sometimes I think about the plane. In my former life as a flight attendant, I appreciated the perfection that came with the overall uniformity of a Boeing 747. Everything had it’s place. Compartments close neat and tidy. Rows line up. Sometimes, hours into international flights, the aircraft would be tranquil and still. In radiation, when I close my eyes I pretend to hear the subtle sound of recycled air, and see the night sky from an oval porthole style window, the occasional glowing city below me.

It’s not even about escape. Who escapes to a crowded plane for stress relief? It’s about my life. I want to live. I will, I know. I feel like a super hero waving my fist in the air “ha ha you didn’t get me this time! I’ll be back.” Of course, I think that’s more of what the villain would say.

I lay and think about the places I’ve been, the experiences, and how they are uniquely mine. I want them. I saw my 18 month old son running through my yard this past weekend and it occurred to me that I want this life. I want grass stains and smiles. I’ll take tears and tired. We spend so much time lamenting where we are, that we forget to be somewhere.

So life is hectic with radiation, and stressful and exhausting and strange. My new home decor can only best be described as “there appears to have been a struggle” with a bedroom theme of “medical claims and paperwork” but I’m here, and when I go away it is to these places seeded in my loft of memory. It is to my version of heaven, and fascinating enough, is the realization that my heaven is here on earth.

 

My Dad’s Brother

My Dad’s brother died yesterday morning.

 When I was younger, maybe 12,  I spent a month one summer living with him and my aunt and cousins in Idaho. My cousins and I spent our days going to the nearby pond and playing in the lake that was formed from the rinsing of the trees that were cut down for lumber. I remember we had to wash off afterward because our bodies would be covered in a layer of green/brown sediment and silt.

 I also remember hot dog eating contests with my cousin David. I won sometimes but does anyone ever really “win” a hot dog eating contest? Whenever I’m sick I think “yep, summer of 1991 is catching up with me.”

A chronic insomniac, even then, I would wake up and go downstairs to find my uncle Mike pouring a pot of coffee. He always had coffee on. In fact, to this day, when I find myself wandering the house in the middle of the night, I will think of him and his midnight coffees.

There was something special about waking up and hanging out with my uncle in the middle of the night, in the quiet of this house in Post Falls, Idaho, with it’s porch- perfect for sitting and my aunt’s rose garden the highlight of the neighborhood.

It’s nice to be awake with people. It makes you less alone.

As I thought about times with Mike, or my own experiences with him, most of my memories are in a kitchen in Idaho, a coffee pot burning all night. He wouldn’t scoot me back to bed or dismiss my wakefulness. He would talk to me. We were all reading books, all the time… John Grisham and Michael Chrighton. We’d talk about that or he’d just tell me some funny story about my Dad growing up.

I can’t pretend to have known him the final years of his life. I remember that Mike was light-hearted and kind. Quick with a joke, he always made you smile. I remember one day we took a surprise last minute drive to a beach with smooth white sand, and he watched and smiled as all of us kids played until sunset. 

Last night I was thinking about this idea that it’s just nice to be awake with someone.  All my life I’d spent countless nights awake, and unlike my departed uncle, I did not keep a pot of coffee going all night. My mom likes to tell me that as a child I wandered the house like a ghost. I’d spend the hours rearranging the furniture in my bedroom or reading or watching late night tv until the Mormon Tabernacle choir sang and the screen was just a row of color bars. (only certain generations of insomniacs know about the color bars)

I used to get bored and try and wake my younger brother. I’d pick up the cat and bring her into his room and toss her onto his bed so she scrambled to get her bearings and wake him up. Then I’d pretend to be  walking by. “Oh, you’re up! Want to play Monopoly?”

Insomniacs love Monopoly. The game never ends and by the time we’ve let you purchase all the red properties and put up a few hotels, you will not have noticed we’ve entrapped you all night. It’s 4am and you either need to land on Free Parking or cash out one of your Railroads, but you will not leave us and go to bed.

I am often accused of being cheerful. I say “accused” because sometimes there is this assumption that maybe I keep a positive outlook out of naivete, as if I simply don’t know to be angry or disenchanted, as if the world looks ok to me because I just don’t know better.

I think I am reminded, as many of us are, and cruelly sometimes, that life is very short. What we do should matter, and because we cannot always do what we want to do, we should make our present state matter. Throughout my days I hear “I’ll be happy when…”

But I think “why can’t you be happy now?”

Life is happening now. It’s not happening when you lose weight or when you get another job or when you have a little more money or when your partner is doing x, y, or z. It’s happening now, when you are awake… when you are awake with someone.

It’s a series of rants, I guess. I didn’t really want this to become my Cancer Death blog. Sounds so intense. Better get back to Matt Damon fan fiction.

When someone dies you consider your own humanity and you remember the past. Life is hard sometimes, to be sure, but every day (or night in my case) is a chance to be awake with someone, and how unique and powerful is that human experience?

I’m happy I knew my Dad’s brother enough to spend a few nights at a kitchen table not alone.

 

The Pieces

“Did your heart get put back together?”

My four-year-old daughter tilted her head, looked at me and cupped her hands to make a heart. She had apologized for calling me stupid, and when I told her that her apology made me feel better, she asked if my heart got put back together. She thought she had broken my heart, literally.

How beautiful. She not only understood that words could hurt a person, but she believed that a broken heart could be mended. It could “get put back together.” In her world, you can make things right. Sadness can be overcome with kindness, and hearts mend.

I’ve had a reoccurring dream lately. I run a hand through my hair and I pull clumps of it out into my clenched fist. As I panic and drop the blonde locks into a pile on the floor more of it falls out around me. I startle awake and I am scared and then I am mad at myself for feeling scared.

All throughout this cancer treatment, and through any trying time really, people have told me that I am strong. “You got this. You’re a fighter.”

I don’t feel strong when I have the dream.

I don’t feel strong when I’m tired, and I don’t feel like a fighter when I momentarily contemplate forgoing radiation or shutting myself away and hiding from the question “is Sara ok?”

Yet, I watch my daughter and she is amazing. She falls and cries and then gets up to brush herself off and go right back to whatever slightly dangerous, probably messy thing she probably should not have been doing in the first place. She’s resilient. As I thought about her today, I thought about how I would never judge her worries as weaknesses.

I have come to believe that strength is not the avoidance or omission of tears and fists and hurt. Strength is feeling what we are, vulnerable and human. Strength is coping.

Even in the most difficult of times, my heart always mended and my heart is no where near broken in this.

Yes. Sara is ok.

Maybe people are right. Maybe I am strong. Maybe I will allow myself to be scared sometimes. I will allow myself to feel tired and I will remember that my heart will always get put back together.

I Did My Hair In Case Matt Damon Showed Up to My Lumpectomy

I did my hair in case Matt Damon showed up to my lumpectomy. I did. I woke up and curled each strand, smoothed it out and pinned it back. I did my eyes too- but only eye shadow, not liner. I didn’t know if they would need to put me under anesthesia and if Matt Damon really did show up I didn’t want to look like the Crow, with black streaks running down my face. I looked pretty, I thought, pretty enough for surgery and possibly Matt Damon.

I invite Matt to everything. He’s pro-union and a humanitarian, and basically, my most-favorite-actor-ever. But that’s another blog post, perhaps another blog entirely. I could call it “Things I Invite Matt Damon To.” (Parties, rallies, protests, the births of my children…)

Anyhow, my point is, I prepared for my lumpectomy like anything else. I sat and tried to preempt every possible scenario. I tried to anticipate every feeling both in me and around me. I tried to control the experience.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I made a gigantic batch of meatballs and put them in my freezer. The logic was, if something happened to me, my husband and two young children would have dinner for weeks. This way they could go a while before noticing I was gone. I imagined them looking for the little foil packets one night down the line and suddenly realizing, wait, Mom is dead.

It’s morbid. I know.

I tried to keep the people around me from worrying. I made jokes… awful jokes. People don’t laugh at cancer jokes. It’s like they have no sense of tumor. (Last one, I promise.) I tried to show how very much “ok” with all this I am, how very much on top of it I can be.

Then, yesterday morning, an hour before my procedure, after dropping the kids off at school, it dawned on me that I have cancer. I pulled the car over and thought about it for a minute. All the prepping and downplaying in the world wouldn’t take away the reality as I sat with it alone. For the first time in a month, it occurred to me that maybe it was serious.

Cancer. Yikes. They should really call it something else. Cancer needs a new PR team.

A few months ago, a friend asked me if I was afraid to fly. I was a flight attendant for several years and this question comes up often. I think there is an assumption that when you know more, you have more to fear. As I thought about the question, I had this moment of clarity when I realized that I am actually not afraid of anything. No. I am not afraid to fly. I am not afraid of heights. I am not afraid of life.

This admission, of a life unafraid, made me feel powerful and peaceful. What is there to fear? Will I get sick? Maybe, but if I do, I will be ok. Will I die? Hopefully not, but, hey, there are a ton of meatballs in my freezer, just in case.

Matt Damon did not show up to my lumpectomy, but my hair looked fabulous and had he arrived, he likely would’ve noted my amazing conditioner.  I would’ve told him not to worry, like I have everyone else. I would have made an inappropriate joke, and knowing Matt (which I don’t), he would have laughed uncomfortably. Most of all, I would hope he’d notice me there, in that hospital bed, not able to control what’s next but not afraid to live.

But mostly the conditioner.

 

On Cancer

A couple days ago I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. While I have opted to share my diagnosis, and positive prognosis, I have made a conscious decision to keep my care plan, diagnostics and details to myself. This is not only because one woman suggested to me that perhaps it’s just a gluten allergy (which made me laugh uncontrollably for ten minutes straight) but also because I don’t want this to become who I am. Cancer is not my new hobby.

I’ve come to feel that a cancer diagnosis is the eye of the storm. It is the quiet tunnel through which chaos swirls outward and yet does not disturb. It is the wind knocked out of you. A moment, watching the people around you scramble and rush to your side while you lay breathless, stunned and still.

They panic and I think about bare feet.

I think about bare feet on cold wooden floors, one my favorite feelings, stepping out of bed on winter mornings. I think about bare feet on fresh cut grass, crushed beneath but still cushioning each step from dirt and rock. I think about bare feet in oppressive sun, warm and raw with anticipation of cool water compromise.

I think about bare feet and I think about my humanity, so much more than this mortal coil, and yet the culmination of every touch and sensation I’ve known, all those bare footsteps. Oversteps. Missteps. I am my interpretation and response to my experiences. I am efforts. I am successes. I am mistakes, but I am not defined by a disease.

I will be ok. Everything will be ok.

I will be bare feet on a warm brick path. I will be a hand placed on the small of my back. I will be my son’s head resting on my shoulder. I will be my daughters grasp of fingers. I will be the brush of hair away from my face, tucked behind my ear. I will be the touch and embrace of all my life’s yesterdays.

So, I won’t share a bunch of numbers. If you ask how I’m feeling, I’ll probably say “I’m fine.” I’ll still be myself, and for me, that will be the “win.”

Everything will be ok. Cancer is the eye of the storm but storms subside.