Putting my house in order.
It may not seem like much to most people, but the photo on the left represents part of a symbolic personal triumph. Three-and-a-half years ago, my life was beset by cancer-interruptus. The day I was told I had breast cancer was one of the most shocking days of my life, no question. But I could never have conceived then that, in many ways, the worst part of being treated for cancer was not acute treatment, but the unending aftermath of fatigue, pain, brain fog, frustration and isolation that would characterize my life ever after. In the months and years that have followed that day, I have felt as though an invisible net was dropped over me, big enough to allow me to get from one day to the next, but drawn too tightly to let me break out of it.
Normalcy became a remembered but irrelevant concept. My life, my energy, my ability to think beyond the next hour, were enormously circumscribed. Before I could even begin to fight my way out of the net, I had to figure out what it was, with almost no help from my cancer docs. After all, I was ‘lucky.’ I had ‘early’ breast cancer, the ‘good’ kind of breast cancer. I didn’t have to have intravenous chemo. The fact that I had to endure every other kind of slashing, burning and poisoning was apparently insignificant. What was my problem anyway?
An expensive problem.
Gradually, I found out that my ‘problem’ was comprised of the sneaky, myriad, long and late-term side effects of treatment, none of which I had been warned about before treatment began. In spite of being ‘lucky,’ I developed body-slamming fatigue, axillary cording that made it sometimes impossible to raise my arm, a depressed immune system, brain fog, chronic adhesive capsulitis in my shoulder, acute asthma, endless sinus infections. I returned to work full-time after acute treatment was finished, only to have to cut my hours in half six months later. Meanwhile, I still had full-time bills to pay. Fortunately, I was allowed to be considered as partially disabled, so I could use what accumulated time-off hours I had to pad my shrinking paycheck. That meant, however, that I couldn’t take a paid vacation, during a time when I most needed a periodic break from it all. Eventually, with physical therapy, and drugs, and nutritional supplements, and cussed perseverence, I clawed my way back to working 80% of my full-time hours, and changed my pay status to permanent partial disability, so that I could accumulate vacation time again. This meant, however, that I had to pay my full-time bills with 20% less income. But at least I still had a job, and health insurance, and benefits. I still had fatigue and pain and brain fog, but I also still had a roof over my head. Like feeling ‘normal,’ feeling ‘lucky’ was a relative term.
One of the truly wretched after-effects of cancer is the strain it can place on marriages and primary relationships. Break-ups and divorces are sadly not uncommon in the wake of cancer. I can’t imagine how stressful it is to endure such an upheaval alongside the upheaval of cancer itself. But I can tell you that being a single woman with cancer is no picnic either. I was fortunate to have good friends who could pick up some of the slack. But at the end — and even the beginning — of every day, the mortgage, the heating bill, the car payment, the laundry and grocery shopping, the housework and yard work, everything about staying alive and trying to cope with daily life still fell squarely and exclusively on my beleaguered shoulders. Even with a reduced work schedule, getting up in the morning to do my job was a constant struggle. But I had no choice. I was ever conscious that it was a blessing to have a job at all, and to have one that was deeply satisfying as well. But in my job, as well as in every other area of my life, I had to learn to live with functioning as though I were moving through wet cement, when I was able to move at all. For months and years, I’ve put up with daily indignities, constant reminders of my inadequacies. My job’s constant paperwork that was never finished, the dishes that always seemed to pile up in the sink, the unwashed laundry, the dust kitties that grew into panthers, the social plans I was too tired or too broke to keep, all of it reminded me of how far from normal my life had become. At least I had a working washer and dryer. But I didn’t have a dishwasher. It had never been an issue before, but now, when I got home from work and barely had the energy to feed myself, when my right shoulder ached, when my back insisted that I lie down, when I couldn’t think my way through another minute, I yearned for a magic wand to instantly conjure a dishwasher — if not a full-time housekeeper — in my kitchen.
A year ago, I managed to save up the money to buy one on sale. It would take me another year to scrape together the money and the wherewithal to pay a contractor to remove a cabinet and prepare a space for it, to pay the plumber and the electrician to install it. But as of a few weeks ago, I have a working dishwasher. It’s not world peace, but I’m immensely grateful to have it at all.
A work in progress.
Four years ago, I had planned to fix up a few things around the house. I had old cabinets, solid wood, but outdated. The original kitchen sink and faucets leaked, the bathroom toilet didn’t flush properly, the bathroom vanity was old, battered and so low, I had to crouch every morning to brush my teeth. I began to work out a plan that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. I was pretty handy, so I thought what I could do is strip the old shellac off the cabinets and refurbish them with new shiny hardware and a simple pickling wash to give them a brighter finish. Cancer interruptus put my plans on hold. Until a few months ago. Now, finally, I have a new, taller bathroom vanity, with a beautiful ceramic sink. The plumbers installed the vanity, but I attached the sink to it myself. I have a taller, working toilet now that flushes every time. I have a new kitchen sink and faucets that don’t leak. And although it’s still a slow process, I am working my way through brightening up the kitchen cabinets. Three cabinets and four of their doors are done now. Thirteen cabinets, eighteen doors, and nine drawer fronts remain to be done. I don’t know when I’ll get them all finished, but I don’t even care now. I’ve become adept at expecting any plans I make to be stalled by contingencies like fatigue and pain. I’ve learned to be an opportunist with my own energy. If I can cope with being vertical instead of horizontal, even if only for a half hour or so, I use it to get some small task accomplished. I am grateful that I can make plans at all. The word ‘plan’ has become a sacred one, both noun and verb. I’m making progress, a phrase I now cherish.
For the first time in several years, I will be making Thanksgiving dinner at home this Thursday. It will be a small gathering, but a special one, that will include two of my oldest and dearest friends, two women who were among the first people I called the day I was diagnosed with cancer. One of them had lost her sister to breast cancer a few years before. Telling her about my own diagnosis was one of the most poignant, awful moments in our friendship. “I’m not going to die,” I told her then, “I promise. I’m too stubborn.”
Cancer has forced me to break so many of the promises and plans I made for myself, for my friends, for life itself. But not all of them. They may not have been big plans in the global scheme of things, but they were important to me, important to my ability to feel like I was making a difference in this life, that I wasn’t just taking up space.
I remember going to the wedding of two friends several years ago. The ceremony took place in a lovely Episcopal church in Massachusetts. The minister spoke of how all of us who were in attendance played an important role in this occasion, beyond our mere presence. We were there, he told us, to help our two friends succeed, not just in marriage, but in life. Because if they could succeed in marriage, then they could succeed as citizens of the world. If their daily lives could remain strong and fulfilling, then they could extend their contribution to life beyond their home and marriage, to fulfill their promise as individuals, to help others, to do meaningful work, to attain the promise of their talents and spiritual beliefs. I was very moved by his words. He articulated what I’d believed for years, that the small tasks of daily life are not insignificant, that having a solid, restful, functioning home life is the springboard that allows each one of us to be more than we are, to dream new dreams, to achieve larger goals, to make a difference in the world by making and keeping our promises.
This year, I’m more grateful than I can say that I can finally keep a few of mine. And even make some new ones.
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