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.

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.



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.”

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.