Sunday, July 18, 2010

Shopping the Aisles of My Life

Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom."
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
There are moments of grace and moments of clarity which are all part of the CancerLand journey. Sometimes these moments of grace take the form of people; sometimes they are memories which come roaring back to remind of who I am and what I really want; other times they are simply quiet moments that reassure me that as unlikely as it seems, I will move forward from this experience.

I am already a different person from this experience. But as I live each day, I go through my life as if I'm pushing a shopping cart down the aisles of my life -- making important decisions about what I want in my life and what needs to change. Mentally, I put items in the cart that I know are essential to me – my lovely son, my family, my good friends, writing, being active, being from New York, laughing (“I’ll have a case of laughing, please.”) and many other things which define who I am and who I want to be “ABC” (After Breast Cancer).

I suppose the part of this journey I am still discovering – back to the shopping cart analogy – is finding the aisle in the store labeled: “Future State Essentials: Life, Love, Soul, Being." In some ways, it is the last aisle in the store and the most important one. Something about this aisle makes you feel that your shopping time is precious and limited. And choices are important. At least that's the way it feels to me right now.

I suppose this is not a big surprise. When you are denied some of the basic expectations of your life such as feeling good, being in control of your life, being able to work, and owning your own body and choosing what you want to happen to it, you start to make a mental list of all those things you either want to get back, or want to change when you are strong enough. It goes without saying that you re-evaluate decisions you have made, paths you’ve taken or stumbled onto or maybe you just have more time to think about the personal inertia that got you to certain “locations” in your life.

I am happy to say that I am generally happy with many, many things in my life. But it goes without saying that there are a few choices I’ve made that in hindsight, seem like doozies to me now. I can’t say that I have any real regret in these doozies because they were choices I made at a different point in time with a different set of expectations. But it does make me thankful (in a very odd, ironic way) for the clarity which living with a major illness has provided me.

So here is a random list of things that I want to make room for “ABC”. You will see from the list that some of these are easy, some more complicated, but I see them all as possible if I really want them. Maybe this is my first attempt to kind of “put them out there in the universe” as a way of attracting and committing to things I’ve decided are important to me.

1. I want to find a wonderful man who wants to spend the rest of his life with me. No more well-intentioned but dead-end relationships for this gal. Just like when I was in my 30’s and single and I felt the clock ticking, I feel it ticking in a different way now. Life is short. So much more to do and see and live and experience. If I have a choice, I’d like to do that with a man who feels the same way. Using the “shopping” analogy: No more “relationship clean-up in Aisle Three”. Been there, done that. I want the real thing now.

2. I need to go back to New York City for a “fix” soon. Very soon. I decided some months ago that I was homesick for New York. It started slowly with strange cravings to see the New York City Ballet and culminated in a major heartsickness when I watched the Tony Awards a few weeks back. I haven’t been to New York in about five years. The last time I was there I remember walking down Madison Avenue and looking down and thinking “these are my sidewalks.” I just feel so at home in New York. I love the crazy pace and the crazy mix of people; I take great pride in knowing my way around the city and several of the boroughs. Most of all, I miss Broadway and Lincoln Center. There was something about the great expanse of Lincoln Center and that part of the West Side that always made me feel like it was the center of the universe. As soon as I have recuperated from all this (“ABC”) and I actually have vacation time that I can use for vacation (instead of for having poison pumped through my veins…) I am going to New York for a few days where I plan to hoist a few glasses of champagne with my friends and go see enough plays, ballets and operas to send me into a coma.

3. I want to have another try at running. This being said, I will also need to get in better shape than I am now. However, now that they have reduced the amount of mandatory steroids they give you for chemo, I feel this may be a real option. I’m not sure I have another marathon in me, but I have always wanted to do one of the Disney World running events they hold in January. I’m hoping that maybe one of these days I’ll get there. Hell, even if I do a 5K, it’s worth it to get out of Minnesota in January and end up in Florida. Even if I have to run there.

4. I will do the MS150 next year! Call it “making a comeback” or whatever. I really missed participating this year and now that my company has a team, they can count me in.

5. I want to have a good reason to brush up my Italian. I spent six months on a semester abroad program in Italy when I was in college and I haven’t been back to Europe since. I would love to go back to Italy, but would gladly settle for just about any one of the many countries I have not yet traveled to. Life is short and the list is long.

Maybe if #1 happens, I could travel with The Man of My Dreams to (#2) New York for a few days. We could hop down to Florida for a quick 5K (#3), and then end up doing a bike Tour de Tuscany (#4, #5). A tour through the wine country of France would also work. From my lips to God’s ears. But hey -- I'm open to other adventures I haven't thought of yet as well.

But however it all turns out, these things are on my list. As I begin to get my energy back and I can actually see the light at the end of the aisle, I think of more things for “the shopping list”. Or maybe I should say, I can start to see my life “ABC” – or at least the life I want to create/recreate “ABC”.

I still have a long way to go, but it’s very comforting to me to have dreams, and to focus on the future. One of the things that helps me the most is the knowledge that I’m not pushing the cart toward my dreams alone, and that I am so lucky to have so many friends and family to help me get there.
God Bless The Goalie

CAUTION: This blog was written about two weeks ago the night before my last “butt kicking” chemo treatment. It’s not the most uplifting blog, but it does tell it like it is. Since then, I’ve switched over to a less virulent form of chemo and the side effects so far have been much, much less (Score!) By virtue of the fact that I’m posting a “caution” on this post, you can tell that I’m not that comfortable being “Not-So-Optimistic” Denine. But I want to try to be as honest as I can in this journey, for those whom it may help.

When I was young and single and living in New York about a million years ago, my brother got me interested in hockey. He took me to Madison Square Garden, the home of the New York Rangers, and sat me down in one of his two season-ticket holder seats in the red zone. We were close enough to feel like we were practically on the ice and in the game. I loved hockey. It was fast-paced, rough and tumble and in the Ron Duguay years that I remember, the players were very, very easy on the eyes.

One of the things I remember learning from my brother was the unique role of the goalie on the team. “Think about it,” he said. “When a projectile is speeding at your head at 100 mph, your first instinctive reaction is to get the hell away from it. But a goalie’s job is to throw his body in front of it. To attract it, and just take it in the chin.” Or the pads, or the grill, or any other place but in “the crease” or the net. I think this is what he was trying to say:

"Any discussion on hockey goaltenders must begin with the assumption that they are about three sandwiches shy of a picnic. I can prove this. From the moment Primitive Man first lurched erect, he and those who came after him survived on the principle that when something hard and potentially painful comes at you at great velocity, you get the hell out of its path. Goalkeepers throw themselves into its path. I rest my case."

I thought of this wee bit of hockey learning a lot this week because that’s what I’ve felt like: chemo goalie. Exactly a week ago, I had to sit in a leather recliner and take a friggin’ puck in the chest for 3 ½ hours. I dreaded going. I dreaded being there. I cried as the chemo went into me. And I tried to think of any excuse or escape that I could to just not have to go. It was agonizing. Like the goalie who is waiting to get hit, or the stupid teenager in the fifth remake of the horror movie where you know she’s going to end up strapped to the chainsaw table, it’s just so inevitable and awful.

I have to admit that I have a really bad habit of being optimistic, but this week was really a test for me. It still continues to be a test. I am mightily struggling with this journey right now. I am upset by how bad I feel and how much I’ve had to struggle just to get by in the past week. I hate feeling like this. And the truth is, as much as I am trying to take care of myself right now, there just is not enough Prozac in the world to make a difference. It is really a mean kind of endurance that you need to build up in order to survive. It is a take-no-prisoners and get-the-hell-out-of-the-way kind of survival.

In honor of my goaltending status and all the goalies that have gone before me, here are a few thoughts:

"There is no position in sport as noble as goaltending"
- Vladislav Tretiak, former great Russian goaltender

"We are the sort of people who make health insurance popular"
- Terry Sawchuk, former Red Wing goaltender

"In Biblical times, I stoned people to death. Now they are repaying me by hurling pucks at my head"
- Giles Gratton, former netminder

“Goaltender is a normal job. Sure. How would you like it if at your job, every time you made the slightest mistake a little red light went on over your head and 18,000 people stood up and screamed at you?"
- Jaques Plante, goalie

"Playing goal is like being shot at"
- Jaques Plante, yet again

I know that my chemo beatings are going to get easier from here on out, but I have NO IDEA how I am going to be able to do this until October 1st. Lately, I have been raging on a daily basis at the idea that I must continue this treatment for 12 more weeks. I must have transitioned from that stage of denial and bargaining to anger and maybe that’s a good thing. I think I will need to use this anger to get really pissed off and keep fighting as hard as I can. That’s about the best thing I can think of or the most positive way I can think of to funnel this anger into something constructive.

Post Script – This past week, I had the good fortune to have an honest talk (e.g., mini-nervous breakdown) with my wonderful doctor and the wonderful nurse who runs the cancer support group. I think this may be a great time to talk to other women going through this and I plan to attend the next support group. The other realization that came out of their great care and good listening skills was the word “commitment” and how much commitment it takes to go through this process and keep coming back for more. (I suppose that’s another thing that cancer patients have in common with goalies.) That stuck with me and it was comforting to think about this in the context of my commitment to my health – even when it clearly sucks to do that – and to just do my best to keep showing up and getting it done. Onward and upward...