Monday, September 20, 2021

Bonus Days

I bid goodbye to my oncologist this week.

It was an oddly bittersweet appointment. I like Dr. Sheehan; I chose her because, if my cancer came back, I knew she would carry her compassion and empathy along as she walked the path with me, wherever it led. Well, my cancer hasn't come back (yet. I can't even think the previous sentence without adding a qualifier.), and since I'm not going to go back on any hormone therapies, we are done.

She gave me a hug at the end of the appointment. I left feeling like someone had just rudely yanked my security blanket away. It's been comforting to know she had my back. Now, I'm on my own???

I am fully aware of how ridiculous my reaction is. My primary care doc will continue to check the cancer markers with my yearly blood work. My OBGYN will make sure there are no lumps growing on my chest. And, if something does come up, it's not like I can't call her up and get back in the patient rotation.

So, I'm working to get past it.

I have seen a lot of positive changes in my health since stopping the aromatase inhibitors some ten months ago. Just in the last two months, I've had to cut my fingernails TWICE because they were getting too long. That hadn't happened in a decade - one of the side effects of the assorted treatments was to weaken the nails. For years, the minute they grew at all, they would rip and tear. Forget about using them to try to pry up the edge of a sticker - the sticker generally won, which says a lot about the formerly sad state of my nails.

My energy levels are better, my weight is easier to control. No small gifts, these.

Some side effects will probably never go away. I'm pretty sure the balls of my feet will be numb-ish for the rest of my life. 

I still miss my breasts. these plastic replacements might look good, as long as I have clothes on, but I'd take my old saggy originals any day. Those gals had sensitive nerve endings, which makes the current dead zone across my chest hard to live with, even now, almost a decade later.

Back when I was first diagnosed, I frankly never thought I'd be alive even five years later. I've started to think of the days I am living now as bonus days.

I don't have to work, I'm healthy enough. I have a pile of things I want to (re-)learn, to see, to do. It's been almost two years since I retired, and I am still working on the top levels of  the pile, which I consider to be a good thing. I'm still struggling with trying to figure out how my days look, but am ever so grateful I am here for the struggle to exist.

I am starting to plan, however tentatively, for days more than six months out. I am gaining some confidence, though COVID-19 is NOT helping, that those plans might even come to fruition. Who'd'a thunk it?

Good Is.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Holding On, Letting Go

I thought I'd managed to control my yearly bout of sadness over Mom's death quite well this year, thank you very much. The beginning of September approached, and I was just fine.

Then, just before I left California, I felt an ominous bump arise on my lip. I've been getting cold sores since I was a young girl; as an adult, there's a direct correlation between unacknowledged stress and the appearance of one of the yucky lesions. This time, I couldn't figure out why it had chosen to make an appearance. I wasn't stressed; I was having a great visit. Surely, the latent virus had made a mistake.

Then, I looked at the calendar. Probably, it was not a coincidence that the sore arrived on the anniversary of the date of her death. Probably, it was not a coincidence that the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was just a few days later.

Sure enough, as I dug inside for insight, grief began to bubble - my personal sadness amplified by memories of a bright blue sky on a perfect September day; the day I watched in disbelief as I turned on the TV just in time to watch the second plane impact the World Trade Center, my mind struggling to make sense of the images on the screen.

I remember stepping outside. I looked at the perfect sky, free of jet trails. Tears flowed freely as I cried for all those killed in the attacks. My heart skipped a beat or three as I tried to imagine the many ways our world had just abruptly changed course. I was frightened, and rightly so. 

This poem surfaced for me on Instagram this week (W.S. Merwin):

There is no reason 
for me to keep counting
how long it has been 
since you were here
alive one morning

as though I were 
letting out the string of a kite
one day at a time
over my finger 
when there is no string

The words brought me to tears. No string? No string.

The connection I long for, still, was severed 44 years ago. The course of history was changed by angry men with boxcutters 20 years ago. There is no reason to keep counting.

Yet, as evidenced by the cold sore, count my heart does, whether I will it or no.

I've cried a lot this week; my sleep has been unrestful. I have been overwhelmed by the legacy of darkness stemming from the 9/11 attacks, the ways the world has hardened and become less kind in response to the terror.

But. And yet.

I went to a neighborhood picnic on Saturday, and fell in love, as we waited in line for ice cream, with a three year-old pixie. Her bright smile, framed by the sparkly orange and green ninja turtle mask painted on her face, was impossible for me to resist.

I went to a jazz concert in the rose garden in the park on Sunday. The air was warm, the breeze was cool, and carried on its breath the perfume of the flowers all around us. The (properly socially distanced) people were relaxed and enjoying the evening. The live music filled some empty spaces in my soul; spaces recordings, however good they are, rarely reach.

Beauty Is.

Today, I have a renewed resolve to do what I can to be on its side. It's a selfish resolve - I do so like my days better when I see the Beauty that's always there when I remember to look for it.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Beach Days

Back in the olden days, before COVID-19 came to upend the world as we knew it, I had had plans when I went to visit Kate in California. I had just retired, and I wasn't sure how I would spend my days there since she would be at work and Lexi at school. She (memorably) put her figurative hands on her figurative hips and said, "I work in Malibu. You've heard of Malibu. They have a coffee shop, a library and a beach. If you can't keep yourself busy there, I can't help you."

She had a point, and I was planning to give it a try, but I arrived for that visit just in time for the state to lock down in response to the virus. Instead of going to the beach, I spent my time helping Lexi begin to adjust to the abrupt shift to home schooling, and on a hunt for toilet paper. (Kate had been caught short as the great toilet paper hoarding event of 2020 played out.)

Forward eighteen months.

I went out for another visit last week. With the state open for (masked) business, I was able to give the day-in-Malibu thing a try. It went well, I never even made it to the library.

She dropped me off at the coffee shop on her way to work - a touching role reversal, which brought back memories of all the days I dropped her at school on my way into the office. I sat there for an hour or so, people watching and crossword puzzle solving, easily passing the time until the temp rose just a bit and the marine layer started to lift.

I then meandered the mile or so down the road and around the marsh to the beach, where I dropped my towel on the sand, sat down, and tried to relax. Turns out, I am a lot out of practice on the relaxing thing. I fidgeted. I scooted the sand around under my butt to make a more comfortable seat. I sat up, I laid back. I watched the birds and the surfers. I became aware of every tight muscle and latent ache in my body. I worried. I fretted. 

Finally, I got myself to stop. I eased down, leaning back against my backpack, eyes half closed and fixed on the water, hat shading my eyes. I managed to begin to shut down my mental chatter and to listen. After a few minutes, the roar of the surf began to work its magic. My breathing slowed as I tapped into the connection between the beating of my heart and the rhythm of the waves.

The waves have been crashing on the shore for eons. They care not for climate change, viruses, wars, or peace. I have been taught that all life on earth started in the sea, and lying there, it was easy to believe. I slipped into a meditative state. My aches disappeared and time was suspended as I let go.

*pause* *breathe* *be*

I came back to myself at lunchtime, my bladder and stomach competing for attention as my awareness returned to my body. I headed back up the walk to town where I enjoyed a delicious lunch and indulged in some more people watching. When the time was right, I returned to the water's edge for a reprise of my morning meditation.

Stop.  Breathe.  Relax.

Ahhhhhh.....  Yes.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Grand Marais

It's been too long since I got off my beaten path, so after Uncle Dennis' funeral, I took advantage of my status of a lady of leisure (sounds just a little decadent, no?) and went on up to Grand Marais for a bit of rest before returning to the heat of Missouri.

I was born and raised in Minnesota, but my family didn't travel much. While I'd heard the north shore was beautiful, I'd never seen it with my own eyes. I have a good friend who moved there a couple of years ago, so with the problem of lodging a moot point (rooms to rent can be hard to find during August up there, where typical summer daytime highs are in the seventies, lows in the sixties - go figure!), I headed north.

The drive was all it was advertised to be. Grand Marais is on the north shore of Lake Superior, about 45 minutes from the Canadian border. To get there, you follow I-35 north to where it ends in Duluth, then take Highway 61 on up the coast. The road snakes along the shore of the lake, offering tantalizing glimpses of the water. There wasn't a lot of traffic, so I was able to relax and enjoy the scenery as I moseyed along. Trees to the left, the ribbon of road unspooling in front of me, the lake to the right - I was content.

I was only able to spend a couple of days up there, and followed the advice of my hostess, Christie, on how to spend my time. Her friend Denise was in town, and was a willing guide as we visited the best of the local art galleries and shops, took a walk along the shore near the lighthouse in town, and drove on up the coast the rest of the way to Canada to see Grand Portage Falls. (Canada is on the right side of the river in the photo.)

We took time to go out rock picking one evening after dinner. OK, Christie searched the shore for actual good rocks, while I sat there gazing across the water to where it merged with the horizon. I listened to the whoosh of the waves and played with the rounded stones directly beneath my hands. I made a small pile of the prettier ones, and entertained myself by throwing some of the others at a nearby rock jutting out of the water. Sometimes, if they hit just right, the lava rocks would split into pieces with a satisfying clunk, arcing through the air at seemingly random angles before plopping back into the water. It was a good place to sit and ponder life and death and the meaning of it all.

I slept like a baby while I was there. The air cooled rapidly after sunset, so I was able to snuggle under the covers and breathe the fresh air wafting in through the open window all night long. The morning sun warmed the air perfectly, and I was able to spend a few minutes after opening my eyes just admiring the quality of the light filtering through the trees in the wild area at the back of the house. 

I hadn't seen Christie in a couple of years, so we had a lovely time catching up on each other's lives. Like me, she's gone through a LOT of changes in the past few years. She's clearly started to come to some calmer waters; it shows in her face. Listening to her stories gave me hope I will come to some sort of peaceful cove in the unsettled seas of my own life.

Home again for several weeks now, I am SO grateful I took the time to meander her direction. The trip helped to remind me it's the journey, not the destination, that's the important part of life. I don't need to worry so much about where the road is going. I do need to remember to enjoy the beauty I find along the journey.

Stop. Breathe. Relax.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

It'll Just Take a Coupla Days

On and off this year, as my energy and mood both lean to the positive, I've been giving the rooms in my house a face lift. Nothing major; I've been taking 3-4 days in each room to fill in nail holes, fix a few plaster cracks, and give the space a fresh coat of paint (using the same colors to minimize the work).

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to tackle the last room, the living room. I had a few days open, and though it would feel good to be able to check the project off my to-do list. I moved out a bunch of the furniture, clustered what was left in the middle of the room, and covered it with sheets to protect it from errant paint drops. I still had a little time and energy left when I finished up, and convinced myself to take one more step.

"Just dig out those few cracks", she said.
"It won't take long", she said.
(she = me, talking to myself)

So, I got out my scraper, and started to work on the walls. As I was digging out the first crack, the edge of my scraper slipped under the paint next to where I was working. "huh.  What's that about?" I let the tool slide up and under just a little, then pulled at the corner of the loose paint. A large patch of paint peeled off the wall, like peeling a sticker off its backing. "uh oh. not good"

I stopped there for a moment, trying to convince myself it was just an anomaly. Surely, I could just pretend I hadn't seen what I'd just seen, and move on without pause. Surely, I could just patch over the edge of the patch I'd peeled, and call it good. But good sense prevailed. If I didn't want to be doing it over within the year, I needed to buckle down and do it right. And I HATE doing things over.

*sigh* I gotta admit - I aimed a few choice cuss words in "her" direction as I put the scraper down and called it a night. (I've learned that some tasks are best tackled after a good night's rest.)  "She" never has learned how to properly guesstimate how long any given project will take. *sigh*

The next morning, I set to scraping and peeling in earnest. Within a couple of hours, a good 80% of the paint had come off the walls in good-sized, easy-to-peel sheets. Turns out someone had spent a lot of time doing a pretty darn good job of skim-coating the walls, but then had skipped the step of priming the raw plaster before slapping on a coat of paint. That, and they'd put the skim coat over the old plaster cracks without digging out the soft plaster first, and when I peeled off the paint, the repairs gave way. What a mess!

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and it turned out to be not all THAT bad. The plaster repair skills I honed last year at the castle served me well - the plaster repair part went WAY faster than it would have two years ago. And while you know I didn't skip the primer step before I put the two coats of paint on the walls, the job still didn't take as long as I was afraid it was going to, back when I peeled off that first square of paint. (I am certainly grateful I don't charge me by the hour for the work I do - this one would have totally blown the budget!)

I finished putting the room back together last night. After I'd placed the last tchotchke back in its home, I took a step back, admired the clean look of the room, and gave me a pat on the back.

"Good job", she said.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Goodbye, Uncle Dennis

Dennis John 
December 6, 1937 - February 1, 2021

Uncle Dennis was my dad's youngest brother, and I want to be just like him when I grow up.

I know I can't QUITE be like him - it's too late to have a long and loving marriage like the one he had with my Aunt Lou; they were married for 58 1/2 years. I loved it when I got to spend time with the two of them. I enjoyed watching their interplay; they'd long ago settled into a delightful rhythm. They'd found ways to love both because of and despite their differences, and it showed.

But I can work on being a person who looks for the good in life; someone who is a good neighbor. I can stay active and remember to notice the beauty of the world I am passing through. I can work to be a touchstone for my children; someone they can rely on and turn to for advice.

He and Aunt Lou were snowbirds, and stayed in Tucson, AZ each winter. I stopped to see them when I ran away from home for a few weeks after getting diagnosed with cancer nine years ago; a sort of coda to the dream life I'd been living. I loved the few days I was able to spend with them. They wouldn't let me lift a finger; fixed all my meals for me, wouldn't even let me help with the dishes. We went hiking and to yoga. We took naps and shared stories. When I left, I left with a heart full of their love and support. 

And I know that's how he tried to treat all the people he met. He worked hard to change the world for the better. At his funeral, we heard of one of his last accomplishments - he brought the game of pickleball to his home in Amery, WI.

During the eulogy, they told the story of how he'd decided some long-neglected tennis courts would be the perfect place to set up pickleball. He worked with some of his friends and the city to clean up, resurface, and repaint the courts. Got new nets installed, fixed the fencing. His work was appreciated, and at his funeral, they showed us the sign they'd gotten made and planned to install. Yes, the courts are to be officially known as the Dennis John Pickleball Courts.

Not a bad legacy, if you ask me.

Goodbye, Uncle Dennis. The Dennis-sized hole you left behind in the lives of we who loved you will be hard to fill. I will miss you. Rest in God's Peace.

Monday, July 26, 2021

In Due Season

Several years ago, I'd impulsively planted some Caladium bulbs in the raised bed on my patio. The plants came in beautifully, and I enjoyed their cheerful green and pink foliage all summer long. I was quite sad when they didn't come back in the following spring; a few minutes of quick research showed me they are annuals in my part of the country, not perennials, as I had assumed. *sigh*

I moved on, have tried several other somethings in the bed over the past few years; the results have been pretty enough. But part of my brain remembered the lush beauty of the Caladium plants, so this spring, I went ahead and got a new pack of bulbs to plant. At least I could enjoy them for the season.

I diligently read the package instructions and waited until mid-May to plant the bulbs; it's supposed to be warm enough for them by then. I went outside every morning for the next few weeks, eagerly anticipating the sight of the shoots springing from the earth.

I waited in vain. Despite frequent watering, the bed remained barren with no signs of life. I had given up all hope by the end of June. We had a rainy and damp spring - I figured I'd planted too soon, and my flowers had been lost to the vagaries of the weather. Maybe next year.

And then.
And then. 

I was sitting in my porch swing, dolefully looking over the dormant bed, when I spotted a tiny furl of green. Could it be? I hopped off the swing for a closer look. It could be! One of the bulbs had survived the odds, defiantly pushing its way from the earth, reaching for the light. Yay!!! 

I knew its victory would be short-lived during these hot days of July if I didn't start caring for it, so ran inside for my watering can and gave it a drink. Just for grins, I ran a line of water down the entire front of the bed, hoping despite the odds that perhaps one more of the bulbs had survived.

Odds aren't everything. Over the past three weeks, all but two of the bulbs have poked their heads through the soil to greet the sun. I've made sure to keep them watered; my heart lifts just a little and I smile as I tend to them each morning.

I'm hearing a message for my soul in their presence. I have grown weary of this long season of waiting; of trying to be present in my liminal space. The flowers are a reminder that I am not the boss of the timing of the seasons of my life. There are forces I don't fully understand at work. 

Maybe, just maybe, I'm not JUST waiting. Maybe, all the things I've been trying to do to discern my next best direction haven't fallen on barren soil. Maybe, things are germinating in the darkness during these warm summer days, forming and changing and stirring and beginning to grow. 

I'd like that.

In the meantime, while I wait to see if my metaphor is apt, you know I'm going to be enjoying the beauty of my Caladium plants - all the more welcome because they worked so hard to get here; definitely worth waiting for.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Goodbye, Uncle Rudy

I'd just gotten back from my Uncle Norb's funeral when word came that my Uncle Rudy had died. 

*sad sigh*

Uncle Rudy was one of my dad's younger brothers, I'm sorry to say I never knew him well. There was no bad blood between us, but there was also not much common ground. When I got news of his family at the yearly John reunions, it was usually from his wife, Aunt Marlene (also pictured), who died in 2006.

I do know the two of them made raising seven kids on a shoestring budget into an art form. They came to visit me in Kansas City some twenty years ago; they were driving a car that hadn't been new since Reagan was president. It clearly had a lot of miles on it, and my skepticism regarding its fitness for long distance travel must have shown on my face, because they both quickly assured me they had no doubts they'd make the cross-country trip without trouble - and they were right.

Like my dad, he was good at fixing broken things. He'd take a broken down something, look at it, think a bit, then set to work with the appropriate tools. He rarely faced defeat; was able to fix almost anything.

He and Marlene shared a love of fishing, and spent many a summer day on lakes in northern Minnesota and Canada in pursuit of pike, walleye. I do recall getting in on some of the eating part of their passion a time or two - that was some good fish!

He'd grown frail these past few years, but was able to stay at home because his daughter Darla moved in with him and took care of him. She's been on duty for several years, taking care of his daily needs, keeping the house habitable, schlepping him to his many appointments - bless her.

These past few years can't have been easy for him - he'd always been such an independent sort, outside taking care of the farm and equipment. It had to be tough to not be able to get around well.

I hope they're right when they tell me we get to leave age and illness behind when we leave this world. I like to think he's young and fit again, and that God has a shed full of broken trucks - and the parts and quality tools needed to get them running again. (Along with a stocked lake or three, and boats and fishing equipment, for when he wants to relax.) He'd like that, I think.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Rudy.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Goodbye, Uncle Norb

Norbert Bohr
March 12, 1940 - July 2, 2021

I hadn't seen much of my Uncle Norb and his family in thirty years when I decided to get back in contact with them some fifteen years ago. I hadn't had any sort of a falling out with them, but after Mom died, I'd completely drifted away from her side of our family. I sent them an email out of the blue one day, asking if they'd be willing talk to me some about my mom and their family if I came to town.

The answer came quickly - yes, they'd be happy to see me.

I was a bit apprehensive as I made the long drive up and across rural Iowa to their place in Decorah. Would they really want to talk with me? It had been a long time; perhaps it was too late to try to revive the connection.

My fears were firmly laid to rest as I wearily pulled into the yard. Uncle Norb was standing outside the front door; he'd clearly been watching for me. His arms were stretched open wide, his grin spread from ear to ear. Every part of his stance said, "Welcome home. We've missed you!"

We had a lovely visit. He told me stories of my mom, gave me a glimpse into how his life had been shaped by his place as the second-youngest of fourteen siblings (twelve of whom lived past early childhood). We talked some of my grandmother, who I'd never known well - turns out she was more caring and loving than I'd realized.

He told me some about the years he'd worked as a lineman for the power company. We went to watch one of his grandsons play football. I got to ride with him a few turns around the field as the drove the tractor to bring in the corn harvest.

My heart was full by the time I left just a day or so later.

We've stayed in touch since then. His wife, my Aunt Diane, has been wonderful about sending me quick updates with family news; I've sent them my annual Christmas letter. I was able to get back up to Decorah to help them celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary a few years back.

The news has been harder to hear in recent days. His brain was succumbing to the ravages of dementia. When he contracted pneumonia, and it took solid hold of his lungs, his family knew it was time to let him go. They brought in hospice to ease his passing, and the kids took turns standing vigil with Aunt Diane.

I like to think, as he left this world for the next, he was met by the many people in his family who walked that road before him. I hope they were standing at the door with their arms open wide, grinning from ear to ear, saying,

"Welcome Home!  We've missed you!"

Rest in Peace, Uncle Norb. I will miss you.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Austin Visit

Last month, I was talking to my friend Rose, and she mentioned she was planning to drive to Austin to visit her daughter, Tori, at the end of June.  I would find doing the 12-hour drive by myself in a single day to be a bit much, so I offered to go along. Rose was clearly on the same page; she happily accepted my offer on the spot. I've known Tori most of her life, and haven't seen her in years. I figured it would be fun to see her again, and it was!

When we left, a week ago, we got a good start on the day - and needed every minute of it. Between traffic, construction, and rain, the trip took an hour longer than we'd anticipated, but we arrived safely in Austin just before dark. It wasn't an awful drive, just a long one. With COVID, I haven't talked much with Rose this past year, so the hours on the road gave us plenty of time to catch up on each other's lives. Tori, being the good daughter she is, had ice cream waiting for us as a treat when we arrived.

Tori did have to work all week, but we didn't let that get in the way of having fun. She works as the director for a group foster home, and I'll long remember the afternoon we spent with her and her current group of kids. Rose is a teacher, and directed us all in an art project. (There was an empty seat at the table, so I plopped myself down in the middle of the kids to join the painting fun!) Given they're going through a tough spot through no fault of their own, most of the crew was ready for some distracting fun, and the project proved to be just the ticket - they stayed absorbed in their pictures for a good two hours. After we'd finished, I got to spend a little time talking to one of the older girls. She's not been dealt an easy hand, but she's got good goals; I sure hope she gets the help she'll need to reach them. Heartbreaking, rewarding work, Tori does.

The other days, we watched a few movies, did a little sightseeing and shopping. We tried out some new recipes for dinner, took the dogs out for walks - the week passed quickly by.

With rain threatening on Saturday, our one full free day together, we'd planned for a quiet afternoon playing board games. But as noon rolled around, the rain decided to land elsewhere, so we quickly changed plans. There are a number of wineries in the hills around town, and Tori found one fairly close by for us to visit. We stopped on the way to pick up a meat / cheese / bread / fruit spread, and bought a bottle of wine to go with it after we got to our destination - the Flat Creek Winery and Vineyard. We spent the next couple of hours enjoying a leisurely lunch in the pavilion, sharing stories as we lazily looked across the fields of grape vines. The overcast skies kept most of the heat at bay, and the breeze saved us from having to share much of our meal with the flies. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

I wasn't looking forward to the drive home, but we made it in good time; the trip took an hour less than it had taken to drive down. (The rain was mostly elsewhere, the construction sites buttoned down for the weekend, and it turns out the Dallas freeways are pretty wide open on Sunday mornings.) We were quieter; both a bit worn out from having fun all week.

We arrived safely home yesterday, in the late evening. I climbed into bed shortly thereafter, too wired to sleep, too tired to be fully awake. I was content to lie there, reflecting on the week just past, listening to the constant roar of fireworks coming from all sides. 

Good to be free to hit the open road, good to see new places. Good to be home, good to see the kitties. Good to spend time with good friends. Good to live good days.

Life is not easy. Life is not perfect. Life is Good.

Happy 4th of July!