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.”

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.