Twenty-three down, 12 to go.

The guilt is lifting. I met with my grief therapist yesterday and she helped with the ongoing struggle with the damn drill sergeant in my head.

I have trouble letting myself be human. An A isn’t good enough. What happened to the A plus? Whenever I was on stage on anchoring on TV, I had almost crippling stage fright. I had to be perfect. I had to mask how scared I was.

Vulnerability is unacceptable.

“Let yourself be human,” the therapist said. “You don’t have to achieve right now. Your friends will understand if you want to retreat right now. You have to get well, and, all of this has happened in the space of one year. You’re finally catching your breath enough to grieve.”

She’s right. The grief at losing Dennis washes over me to the point where I’m doubled over and gulping for air. I miss him. I miss him so much. His 56th birthday would have been Sunday.

So, I’m vulnerable. I’m human. I’m finding the radiation treatments kind of brutal. (Caveat: Many women sail through this. My experience may not be your experience. End of public service announcement.)

My underarm is ablaze. There are open, weeping areas that hurt with every movement. I take ibuprofen and it subsides, but it hurts. My chest is red and it itches. I want to claw it into shreds. My breast is red, swollen and it is about 104 degrees.

I’m sleepy. I nap. I love my friends but I don’t really want to see anybody right now because it takes too much energy. I have bursts of energy now and then (I went to book club and just loved seeing everybody), but it dissipates.

I want to curl up with Jackie and Winston and Stinkee and sleep and read and be quiet.

One pastime that has really helped has been the community boards at http://www.breastcancer.org. I am encouraged when I  hear from other women going through the same thing. I’m not the only one having trouble with the radiation treatments.

Here’s a post from one woman who responded when I talked about feeling weepy and vulnerable and weird having male doctors and radio techs drawing on my breast with Sharpies:

“Hi Kim I’m having rads at the moment too and understand a little about how you are feeling. Totally relate to your feelings about being exposed and drawn on. I hate being on the gantry waiting for the radio people to come in and line me up on the machine again and maybe draw on me too again. It makes me feel very exposed and vulnerable – and forces me to accept what has happened to me in 2012. I always ask for women radiotherapy people, even when men have been put on my schedule, and so far I have been lucky enough to get my wish…I don’t like the idea of young men staring at my breast and mastectomy either. Although it may sound strange to some of you, I do not look at myself without a boob in the mirror very often – only when I’m dressed with the prothesis in.

The changing room at the hospital I go to has a mirror on the wall and I inadvertently caught sight of myself with only one boob – it was a painful reminder. When the machine started buzzing and I knew the radiotherapy beams were coming out, I felt very sad…. I get it. Really do. Have felt teary and weepy too… Good luck to us all .”

This post  helped, too:

“I had to stop for a week after treatment #10 due to alot of swelling, redness and pain…. I’ve had 2 more treatments and my breast is right back where it was…large, painful, and red. Emotionally I am a basket case. My poor husband thinks i want to leave him. It’s not that. I want to just stop treatment. It’s so damn hard. I hate it. Thank God you ladies are here, and understand. People seem to think since i’m a nurse i should just “get it” and be ok? No, I don’t get it. When it comes to my own health it seems I turn off my smart brain and turn into a big baby. I just want it to be done. I can’t take this pain.”

This from a nurse. I felt much better about being human….

Twelve to go.

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Be

Any mother knows that the urge to fix things for your kid never goes away.

My mom’s kid is being treated for breast cancer and she wants to make it better and doesn’t know how.

So today she asked her minister how she could help me, what she could do. She felt so helpless, she said.

“What about if you just ‘be,’?” he said.

When she told me this story, I jumped on it. Exactly. He nailed it. I don’t need everyone to DO as much as I need them to BE.

I need everybody to be exactly who they are. I know who to call for a laugh, a cry, a thought, a meal, a drink or a walk.

Those of us who have had jury duty know how it feels to loll around all day reading or counting ceiling tiles, never getting called into a courtroom. I know the feeling that I’m not doing anything to move the wheels of justice. But what the court clerk says is true. The fact that a jury is ready and waiting to be empaneled is helping to settle trial after trial behind the courtroom doors.

You all may feel as if you’re not doing anything to help me, but your very presence is helping me get through this trial.

Just be.

What I need

I’m still struggling to help people help me.

I so appreciate offers to socialize. I know I am so lucky to have so many friends who care. And I’m trying hard to figure out what I need, so today I got input from a therapist on what to say to people so I don’t hurt anybody’s feelings.

I learned I’m not as weird as I thought. I’ve had two major life upheavals in a relatively short period of time. (I feel like New Orleans. First Katrina. Now Isaac. Really? Really?)

I’m not feeling safe enough to be in catharsis mode where I do stuff with my friends and just relax and have fun. I couldn’t relax and have fun if my life depended on it. And to think I’m dragging somebody else down would make me feel worse.

I’m not in the right space for drinks, spa days, walks on the beach, lunch, dinner, travel, visitors, getting food delivered, my house cleaned, or getting driven to doctor’s appointments.

I’m like an athlete running toward a hurtle I’m not sure I can clear. I’m focused and single-minded, pumping my legs and my heart with every bit of energy I’ve got.  Damn you fate for putting that hurtle there and please let me gather enough momentum to leap over it.

What you can do is really simple. If I want to meet for lunch or a drink, I’ll call you. I will. And if I do, all you need to do is listen. Or tell me some good story to distract me.

Please don’t ask me when my next appointment or treatment is because that makes my stomach hurt. I don’t know. I have them all written down. I just show up and let them stab me and scare me. Then I go home and scare myself with Dr. Google.

Finally… even though I need to be alone for now, let me know I am anything but alone.

That is how you can help.

 

 

 

Science and stardust.

A radiologist once explained to me how radiation works to kill cancer.

When I lie down and expose my chest to those tightly-focused beams, they will kill the cells in the area, both cancer cells and Kim cells.

The beauty in this scary, deadly process is what happens next. After the 10 minutes of death rays, my own cells will begin to regenerate. The cancer cells cannot.

The next day, I will get 10 more minutes of radiation. Then 10 more the next, the next and the next. And my Kim cells will regenerate, and regenerate, and regenerate. They will not give up.

What is it that tells the Kim cells to thrive and survive but will give no such permission to the cancer cells? What divinity is that? What miracle?

My mother theorize it’s the energy in the cell telling it to rebuild. Energy created from atoms that my dad and I discussed one night when we were having one of our talks out on the balcony in Puerto Vallarta. We were talking about Dennis’ spirit and how the atoms creating the energy within our cells never dies.

Those atoms within us are billions of years old, he told me, and could only be formed from the force created by the bursting of a star. Stardust.

That’s not a fairy tale. That’s science.

Science and stardust.

What I can control

My first bout with cancer in 1990 taught me you can’t control the quantity of days you have left, but you can control the quality.

This bout with cancer is teaching me about one more thing I can control. How I handle it.

The last time cancer visited me, I was sick with fear and even ran out of the hospital and back into the parking lot to go home. I was not letting anybody cut into my neck.

I cried and shook. I hyperventilated. The anesthesiologist had to knock me out early.

Not this time.

This time I will handle every aspect of the surgery with courage. I will not be whining and sobbing and throwing fits about how unfair this is. Other people have trials, too. This is mine.

Not only can I do this, I can do this with dignity.

It’s only cancer

My angry “why me?” snit made me realize I’ve been looking in the wrong direction. Just as I was when Dennis died.

Life doesn’t let a single one of us get away without problems. Why should I be different?

What life does offer is a wealth of love, science, comfort, fun and meaning to get us through those problems.

My life is rich with those things.

The first time I had cancer—thyroid cancer—in 1990, I remember it being the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. I need to remember that.

It helped me define what was truly important to me. It strengthened my bond with my friends. And taught me I was marrying a devoted man.

I have cancer again, but, just like the first time, I have been given more than I need to get through it.

I have love.

Both my parents are alive and healthy at 83. My dad married a wonderful woman with three adult kids I love. I have a constellation of fascinating, brilliant, hilarious, genuine, articulate friends–chosen family.

There’s hardly a one of them I couldn’t call in the middle of the night for anything. I have two brothers I love. One of them, Jim, came out to help me and we rekindled a real friendship. My brothers will be the longest relationship I will have on this earth. They are precious to me.

I have a job that I still enjoy. And I believe it’s important. I have fun every single day with the people I work with. Every day. The job has meaning to me.

I love my fiction writing. It lets me stretch and breathe with my imagination. I can fling away the facts and make stuff up. Love that.

I have medical science. I have a team of health professionals with decades of education and skill.

I believe in my surgeon. I chose him and after i met him, I was glad I did. Every instinct I had told me I am getting a surgeon who loves and takes pride in what he does. He treats me with dignity and tells me the truth.

I believe in the medicine. I believe in the technology.

I get yearly mammograms. I pester my friends to get yearly mammograms. One friend is ready to strangle me. They save lives. Period. False positives? Who cares. A little short-term anxiety is a small price to pay.

I will get radiation. If I must, I will endure chemotherapy. I am so grateful to live in a century in which these things are available.

I am thankful for whatever these difficulties are building inside of me. Losing Dennis, nearly losing my home and now this.

It’s all O.K., because I will reap the benefits of that strength for a lifetime.

A long, long lifetime.

Lyrics

People seem puzzled that I usually don’t want company when I have a crisis—of which I have had far too many over the last year.

For example, I have an MRI tomorrow that will show if there is anything else to worry about in the left breast or the right breast, which has so far behaved itself. I’m scared to death, but I don’t want anybody to come with me to the hospital.

I was the same way right after I was widowed. I had my devoted friends offer to come over, bring food, listen, run errands, you name it. Sometimes I wanted to be with people, but I instead I was surprised to find a great hunger for solitude.

The only way I know how to describe it is to compare it to times I’ve performed on stage. I always memorize the lyrics, even if I have a music stand onstage where I can lay open the sheet music and read from it if I have to.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that whenever the sheet music was there, lying open, I would rely on it. Something inside me shifted from being internally focused to being externally focused. I would forget my lyrics and stumble, scanning the sheet music in a lost panic.

From then on, I never took the sheet music with me onstage. I learned I must get my strength from the inside, not from the outside.

I’m all set for tomorrow. I’ve got my lyrics memorized.

July 20

I woke up on the morning of July 20 to learn so many others in Colorado will dread that day as much as I do.

They, too, lost a person they loved in seconds. They lost young people, mothers, fathers, babies, students, to a deranged gunman’s whim.

The rage must be unfathomable.

My grief is different. I don’t pretend to know what these people are feeling in the first days after the senseless violence.

But here is what I know after a year without Dennis. I already see it happening in Colorado. All around the nation.

Loss is change. Always.

Every single family has changed. Every life. Our sense of safety as a nation.

But there is good change, too. The governor of Colorado spoke about the change he sees already. The resilience no one realized they had. The act of one person throwing his body over a girlfriend or a baby. Of someone pulling another out of the movie theater  through a hail of gunfire.

We will scuffle and fight over change in gun laws. We will bloody each other over what to do. But there will be change.

I won’t pretend to compare my grief to theirs, but I can talk about my own change over my first year without Dennis.

I can say I haven’t felt safe enough to grieve.

This blog was the only place where I could step out of time for a moment and feel the loss.

July 20 was endurable for me because every single day is July 20. Time had no power over that.

Even so, I structured July 20 carefully .I went to see my therapist, I got a massage and facial, and I saw two of my friends for a drink. I did not go to work.

In the morning I attended a mass said in Dennis’ name. It was arranged by my dear friend Colleen. I’m not catholic, but Dennis was born catholic and it was such a lovely gesture, I wanted to be there.

I was all right until the music played. Always the music. I cried. Colleen put her arm around me and teared up, too.

Then, during communion, I saw an old man pull himself up from the pew, then grasp the hand of an old woman, her hair white. They struggled to their feet. One of his hips was cocked and looked painful. She was a little bent over. They helped each other shuffle down the aisle to take communion together.

I watched them and the tears returned.

I thought that would be Dennis and me. I thought we would be old together. I thought we would be lucky enough to endure all of those losses and all of that change together.

Skin that shadows and lines. Passion now infused with deep understanding. Friends, children, pets, work, money, triumph, disappointment. Now they know their time is short.

And what is time, really?

That moment when I saw Dennis’ lifeless face has lasted a year and will probably last my entire life. That will not change. Other moments speed by like sleep speeds by. I wonder what time is like for Dennis. This person who was so close to me and is now gone. It was the greatest loss of my life and I  must embrace it.

There must be loss because there must be change. They are constant as love is constant, even after loss. Even after death. Even though I have no hope at all of ever seeing or speaking to him ever again.

I love you, dear Dennis. I will always, always love you.

 

 

 

Death

A new friend of mine has written a book about death. For more than a year, she followed the partipants in a class about death that  is so popular, there is a three-year waiting list.

Like most in our culture, I was always afraid of death. It’s scary and depressing and I don’t want to think about it except at Halloween when we wrestle it into submission with cartoons and costumes.

I know why there is a three-year waiting list for that class. Because the certainty of death and the uncertainty of when it will happen is a godsend. The death class is a class about life.

I’ve always loved being alive, but Dennis’ death connected me with a passion for my own life I’d never felt before.

We don’t decide to be born. We are born. We live. We move from one day to the other. Routine takes over. Dreams are delayed. Feelings frozen.

In the hours after Dennis died, I know part of me went with him, maybe seeing him safely home. Maybe because I couldn’t let go.

I know why some married couples die within weeks or months of each other. Because your soul bleeds out.

I remember the half-alive state.

You wander, glassy-eyed and weak. Pliant, confused. You can’t cry because you, too, are dying. People call it shock, but it’s really your soul standing at a crossroads.

After hours, days, months, it happens. You cry. Like a child fighting for the first gasp of air. The gulping, gut-deep cry. A scream of survival. You thrust yourself back into life.

As much as you love this soul who left, you won’t, by God, join them yet.

The more you cry, the more you grip and pull yourself back.  Friends ask what they can do and they can do nothing but stand on the side of the cliff and will you to crawl back up.

This decision is so primal, that it rocks back and forth for the weeks and months that follow. Half of you remains unsure if you want to go on without him.

 I know I was careless at traffic lights. I tripped a lot. I forgot things. I could have become one of the distracted widows who don’t survive this stage of uncertainty.

I’m so grateful the deepest part of me chose life.

I don’t want to die soon, but I don’t fear death anymore. I don’t know if I will see Dennis when I go,  but oh God, how I want to.  And now I know that the human will may be more powerful than we know.

The war

I am a war widow.

It’s not a war in the conventional sense, but it’s killing and maiming people just as certainly as World War I or II.

I was rushing to get ready this morning, barely listening to the “Today” show,when something made me lower my coffee and mascara wand and pay attention.

I have heard hundreds of warnings about obesity in America, but something about the way this doctor was talking about it really struck me. She was talking about how this will bring our nation to its knees. This is our war.

This war killed my husband. That much I know.

If Dennis had survived this heart attack and gotten a second chance, I like to think he would have stopped delaying his oft-repeated vow:

“I’ve got to lose the weight.”

Dennis put things off. Especially if they involved taking care of the precious soul that was my husband.

I fear the lesson that he could beat the system by rallying at the last minute came when Dennis was in college.

He rarely cracked a book in college throughout his first three years of engineering school. During the last year, the dean told him he’d be kicked out if he didn’t get his act together.

So he rallied. Dennis was so bright, he was able to pull it together and not just graduate, but make the dean’s list during his senior year.

Learning that he could triumph, even when he procrastinated, was one of the best and worst things that could have happened.

Our bodies don’t work that way.

He started hundreds of diets over his lifetime, but as he got older, I could see him procrastinating. His hips hurt. He was heavy. It became more difficult, more painful, and besides, he figured he could make a big push and lose all the weight at the last minute.

In 2003, he developed diabetes. High blood pressure followed.

So many times I would hear Dennis speak about this disease. He was so angry at himself, it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

“I did this to myself,” he said.

I encouraged him to get bariatric surgery, as his doctor had suggested, but he was determined to do it the old-fashioned way. 

I think, at some point, he reached a tipping point where he could no longer save himself. I don’t know when it happened. I wonder if I made it worse by telling him how scared I was that he was going to die.

I know other people who “helped” by letting him know he was overweight did not help.

“I’m fat?” he would say whenever a do-gooder pointed out his weight, “Let me go check.”

He’d run to a mirror, then scurry back and say:

“You’re right!”

I’m also overweight, so I can’t tell you the number of annoying “interventions” we’ve gotten with people who figure we just don’t understand about carbohydrates/fat/calories/exercise/the new colonic treatments.

We understand. We can probably teach the stuff. We know about the mechanics. It’s the brain that’s got to get on board or the rest won’t work.

Dennis continued to neglect himself. His brain kept telling him he could pull it off at the last minute. And there were those tempting bacon double cheeseburgers… 

I watched him lose his ability to walk easily, or even get up from the chair without pain. But he could ride his bike, and that day in July, he had turned over a new leaf. We were going to exercise. He was going to “lose the weight” at last. We would start on vacation in Tahoe.

He lost his life instead.

I swear, I can feel his regret. It’s thick and heavy. I can feel him pleading with others–with me–not to put off a decision as important as taking care of your body.

He didn’t get a second chance. But I’m still here.

And I am listening.