My favorite month
In late August of 1994, my mom died. Today is her birthday. It’s also the birthday of my cousin Suzann, who is the daughter of my mom’s sister Mary, who was my godmother. Since Suzann was born on my mom’s birthday, the four of us, Mom, Auntie Mary, Suzann and I, have always had this lovely interconnectedness, something that remains to this day. Naturally, Suzann had a special place in Mom’s heart for arriving on her birthday, and Mary was always my favorite aunt, and probably would have been even if she wasn’t my godmother. Earlier this year, I went to my Auntie Mary’s funeral. Suzann and I have a lot of remembering to do today.
After I buried my mom in September of 1994, awash in grief, I had to face the heartbreaking details of dealing with her estate. I spent her birthday and the October that followed flying to Florida to arrange for the renovation and sale of her condo, closing her bank accounts, talking to her lawyer, crying, and dealing with being a newly-minted physical therapist in my first PT job. Thanks to my mom, who gave me an enormous check to help pay for graduate school, it wasn’t going to take me as long as it might have to pay off my student loans. Thanks to my wonderful new boss, I didn’t have to worry about taking time off to deal with all this, even though I’d only been working for her for a few months.
When I got back from Florida that October, one of my best friends from grad school was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma. For the second time in her life. The first time was when she was 16, twenty years earlier. I was gobsmacked. She was gobsmacked. Her oncologist was gobsmacked. After twenty years in remission, it was practically unheard of for HL to return. Her only recourse was chemo, because she’d already been fried by radiation the first time around. Thus began my first up-close and personal experience with the realities of chemotherapy and cancer treatment. I’m astonished and grateful that my friend actually survived, and her cancer is still in remission to this day. But you never know with the Beast. So, she continues to watch out for the ever-looming Mets Monster.
All in all, it was a pretty shitty October that year. But at least it was October, an indisputably beautiful month in New England, and if I occasionally resented the colorfully poignant symbols of death and winter that were fluttering down from the trees and popping up in pumpkin patches, most of the time, it was oddly comforting that my favorite month so aptly represented life’s contradictions and ambiguities. It’s hard to be completely miserable around so much orange. I grieved for my mom and feared for my friend, but October was still October, glorious, messy, rife with incongruous beauty and uncanny lessons.
Three years ago this October, I had just finished acute treatment for breast cancer. And fell into the post-treatment fatigue pit that would impact my life every day thereafter. And experienced the ubiquitous evidence of corporate merchandising I came to dub the Pink Peril. Once again, my favorite month kinda sucked. I did my best. I was relieved to be alive, to have a job and a home and friends and health insurance and paid sick leave. But just when I most needed to revel in the color orange, this other color threatened to saturate my consciousness. And I didn’t like it, not one bit.
P is for Pumpkin
Since then, a lot of ordinary things in my life have been on hold. My yard and flowerbeds have been neglected. My lawn is overdue for another haircut. And while my house does not, at least, look like it’s been laid waste by lunatics searching for a microchip, it does look like some kind of hurricane hit it, a Category One hurricane perhaps, but still a hurricane. I’ve never exactly been a neatfreak, but at any given time, most of the rooms in my house were at least presentable most of the time, and I usually didn’t have to wonder if I had enough clean underwear. Since cancer and cancer fatigue, all bets have been off. When you spend every work day wondering whether you need to take your neurostim drugs to get past ten o’clock in the morning, and collapse in a heap as soon as you get home at the end of the day, housework just isn’t the priority it once might have been. When you can’t lift your right arm without pain from treatment scar tissue, you don’t rush to grab the vacuum cleaner. When you spend most of your days off being unable to get out of bed from soul-sucking, all-consuming fatigue, you let a lot of things go. Thank goodness I have automatic bill-paying set up with my bank, or I might never get around to paying the electric bill either. Whatever. That’s life in the aftermath of the Big C.
Finally, this autumn, there are some days when I have some energy. Not the ol’ ball-of-fire stuff I used to take for granted three years ago, but some. Enough to move a few of the items I’d shoved to the bottom of my To-do list closer to the top. This morning, the first day of a two-week vacation, I had my plumber in to figure out the specs to replace my kitchen sink, and install the dishwasher, and replace the bathroom sink and vanity, and put in a new toilet. Six months ago, I couldn’t have even contemplated dealing with all this. Three months ago, I started to do a little planning, but it still seemed like a long-shot to see it through. Now, somehow, I’m going to get it done. It’s still a slow process, and when the plumber was here earlier, I had to keep my focus on the purpose of his visit, and not fret about how badly the floor needs washing, and how much crap is spread out on the kitchen table, and how much laundry I still need to catch up on now that I fixed my dryer, and how I need to mow the lawn tomorrow while the sun is out, and how I simply have to run the vacuum cleaner over the rugs now that I’ve cleaned out the wad of cat fur that was clogging up the cleaner head. Once again, I had to forgive myself for not feeling normal anymore, for not feeling equal to so many of life’s maintenance tasks, for not being able to live like ‘other people.’
Meanwhile, the onslaught of Pinktober lurks on the horizon. And if there is a color that represents metastatic breast cancer — hell, metastatic cancer in general — I haven’t heard what that is. But some of my friends are afflicted with it, newly diagnosed with it, trying to deal with it, trying to live in spite of it, looking for answers that aren’t there. And too many have already died of it. Yeah, yeah, some of the pink shit raises money for research — and a whopping 2% of that research money goes to researching mets. Two percent. And out of the thirty-one days in October, only one of them is specifically devoted to metastatic breast cancer.
So, forgive me if I’m having a hard time getting worked up about Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I’m tired of swimming against the pink tide. I’m tired of having arguments with people who think all the pink merchandise, and all the misinformation, and all the trivialization and sexualizing of the boob disease, and all the trite mythology of brave She-ro-ism, is accomplishing what needs to be accomplished. I’m tired of effing breast cancer, tired, aggrieved, overwhelmed, and disheartened. I’m tired of trying to get some semblance of normal life back. After having ‘early’ breast cancer, the putative ‘good’ kind of breast cancer. After three years of long and late-term treatment side affects. After too many people I know have been newly diagnosed or have developed mets or have died.
This October, my own awareness campaign is far too personal to be represented by a ribbon. My personal awareness campaign is about getting my life back, supporting my friends, remembering those I have lost, reclaiming what used to be my favorite month, finding some joy and fulfillment in the ordinary. It’s about choosing a path that is not saturated in a color that never looked good on me anyway, but one that is strewn with autumn leaves, and bursting with chrysanthemums and goldenrod and ripe pumpkins. And I’m taking it one step at a time. And pink is going to have to get the hell out of my way.
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