Thursday, August 25, 2011

Day 477: Post-Cancer Exercise Modifications (And Other Life Lessons, Because I Can)

Now that I’m more than a year “cancer-free,” I often find myself questioning the purpose of this blog. Is it to leave my children a reminder of who their mother was if this shit comes back to haunt me and I don’t make it? Is it a platform for ranting? Is it just an excuse for me to write somewhat creatively every once in a while? Is it to tell something of my absurd little story so that some other young woman going through similar things doesn’t have to search the internet in vain for advice?

On the off-chance that the answer is anything approaching the latter, I’ve decided to do my own completely un-scientific, not based on any knowledge of sports medicine, list of modifications for working out during and after breast cancer treatment. You are supposed to stay active to save your life, lower the risk of recurrence, etc. etc. For those of us who were extremely active BEFORE finding out we had breast cancer, we might be somewhat skeptical of this. This doesn’t mean we won’t continue to exercise, even manically, under the assumption that we are doing what we can with what we’ve got to fight something no one really understands. It just means we wonder sometimes.

Before I got pregnant with Augie, and hell, during most of the pregnancy itself, I exercised for about three hours most days. That was partly because I was annoyed at how hard it was to lose weight after Lenny was born (out of whack hormones, related to breast cancer, perhaps?), and it was partly because I was frustrated at being unable to get pregnant for a while (again, with the hormone imbalance). I figured, if I’m not going to get pregnant, I’m going to get skinny, damnit. But mostly it was because I learned years ago that if I don’t get a lot of exercise, I can’t sleep. And when you are a chronic insomniac because your body is begging you to move move move! all the time, it gets tiring, literally and figuratively. Exercising compulsively is good for me; hell, it probably saved my marriage. When people remark on how Gabe must be really understanding because I get up super early all the time to work out and he is in charge of getting the kids up, I think on the one hand, well, they’re his kids too, and on the other I think, you have no idea. If I go early enough, the entire family hardly knows I'm gone. Besides, Gabe is all about me exercising. If I get four or five hours of sleep a night, I’m actually fun to be around. He’s my biggest workout supporter.

So I exercised like a nut for years and got breast cancer anyway. I don’t know that exercise will do anything to save me from cancer, but it doesn’t matter, because I like to do it anyway. Besides, I have a lot of very small clothes in my closets (yes, I use up a lot of the closet real estate in our house) and I don’t want to get new ones. Anyway, I continued to exercise to the extent that I could after two surgeries, and during and after chemo and radiation. I started new routines, took up new activities. My co-workers who saw me waddling into the gym 8 months pregnant saw me slowly walking into the gym when I was straight-up bald and going through chemo fatigue just a little over a year later.

Though I kept at it, I got frustrated by what I couldn’t do, and truth be told I am still frustrated. My left pec still hurts, making chest exercises difficult. My breast hurts as well, 14 months post-surgeries. I have an insane amount of scar tissue, and today I left the gym early because my boob was just killing me beneath the scar and I didn’t think it would be advisable to sit there holding myself in pain in the co-ed class. Mostly, I still have issues with the extension of my left arm. I can extend it all the way above my head when my hand is empty. However, I cannot easily bear weight on that arm when it’s extended, either with free weights or the weight of my own body. Doing this leads to chronic and sometimes scary pain in my pec, breast, and arm. I’m half-convinced that overdoing it with my arm and chest is part of what led to that awful mastitis I had over the winter, though the docs all said that's not true.

So I’ve learned a few things through trial and error, and though those things are specific to me, I’ve decided to share in case anyone finds them useful. I will insert a caveat though: If you have had breast cancer and you try these things and you injure yourself, don’t blame me. I’m a business economist, not a personal trainer, so listening to me is probably not that advisable. I’m just a really opinionated business economist, so here goes Katy’s list of “if you have breast cancer and would like to exercise, but you can’t do this, do this other thing instead:”

Can’t do:

1. Push-ups. Do planks instead. You might be weaker in the chest, but somewhere underneath it all you will get a core of steel. (I like to eat, so there won’t be any 6-pack on this body anytime soon, but I know those muscles under there are strong!) I have accepted that I might never be able to do push-ups. This is ok—it’s not a necessary condition for a happy life, after all. The main issue in a classroom setting is to not distract anyone else by standing or lying on your back, bringing attention to the fact that you are being a smart-ass and not doing push-ups. So plank it as long as you can hold it.

2. Overhead tricep extensions: Easiest modification of them all: just do kickbacks instead. Same benefit, much less pain.

3. Lat pull-downs: do these straight in front of your chest rather than with arms overhead. This works different muscles, but it still works. You are not sitting there with your sorry ass on the couch, so go ahead. Today the gym intern made a general comment, knowingly directed at me, while we were doing this: “Make sure your arms are ALL THE WAY OVER YOUR HEAD.” The gym manager glanced over at me quickly. I gave her a reassuring look. No need to bring breast cancer into this 22 year old girl’s state of consciousness; I can take the criticism in stride. Now in general, I have finally graduated to being able to do normal lat pull-downs overhead, but I have to use smaller weights or a tube with less resistance. Today my breast hurt, so I just modified and held my arms straight out. Follow your instincts.

4. Squats/lunges with weights for strength: When I first told my gym instructor that I had cancer, she said she would work with me on modifications. She said, some things you won’t be able to do, but other things you’ll always be able to do, like lunges. This is true. Breast cancer does not affect your legs (unless chemo makes you too weak or gives you extreme neuropathy or spreads to the bone, of course). My issue was that I always held two 10 pound weights for extra strength. Post-breast cancer, until very recently, I could not hold the weight straight down at my left side without hurting my arm. So I used ten pounds on the right, five on the left for a while, and totally destroyed my back due to the imbalance. Then, for months I used a lighter (12 pound) medicine ball instead, holding it right out by my belly so my arms were bent. That way I got the benefit of the weight-bearing exercise but I didn’t wreck my arm. I have recently graduated to using weights again, albeit 8-pounders.

5. Rows: Here the modification depends on your injury. If my general chest/breast issue was the problem, I would just do something else entirely, like crunches. If my chest was feeling ok but the arm was giving me trouble, I’d do the row, but with less weight/resistance, and alternate. Today I can usually do them normally.

6. Chest-flys: This is just not advisable soon after surgery. Your breast will feel like it’s on fire. It ain’t worth it. If your class is doing this while lying on the ground or a ball, do regular chest presses but with lighter weights than usual. If that still hurts, sit on the ball, or kneel on the ground (again, try to be less distracting to folks) and do hammer curls instead. I always default to planks or bicep exercises when I can’t do something else. All is not lost; you will at least have those Michelle Obama arms going on. (Here’s a shout out to my husband, one of the few men in America who really likes and cares about women’s arms. I live with comments like “Damn your arms are looking hot baby!” Is this normal?)

7. Side planks: Again, not very advisable on the affected side. If you’re up to it, do the plank on that side on your forearm (I always do side planks on my forearms, not extended arms—these are really hard for me on either side, cancer or no) but rest your weight on your knees rather than extending your legs out and up. You will still work your obliques. If that doesn’t work, do a regular plank.

8. V-ups: Don’t do it. This is just kind of unnecessary if you ask me.

9. Shoulder raises: do these exercises—I think it actually really helps with range of motion after lymph nodes are removed. Just use tiny weights if it’s close to post-surgery. Or don’t use any weights at all—the motion of moving your arms straight ahead or straight to the sides is good for you. If anyone looks at you weird because you’re doing a side raise with invisible weights, just give them that death stare with your big eyes that look scary underneath that bald head. That’s what I did, and believe me, it works.

10. Dead lifts: This seems obvious, but if it hurts your affected arm too much to hold your arms "dead," just bend at the elbows and hold the weight by your chest. You will still work your hamstrings and stabilizers.

11. General weight-bearing exercises or arm exercises: If your arm bugs you, use less weight. This is common sense; don’t do what I did and use the same, higher weight on the “good” side because you think you have something to prove. You will get strong muscles on that side and then your back and shoulders will kill you. So use less on both sides. This is not a contest.

12. Running: I have no advice here. I hate running. I even had trouble walking right after surgery because any motion or bounce was excruciating in my breast, though I’m small-breasted. I still took long walks every day, however, and suffered through it. Sometimes that’s the best advice, I suppose. Just suffer. It won’t last forever, probably, or at least theoretically.

13. Swimming: don’t listen to me, listen to your doctor and his or her advice on getting wounds wet, contracting germs, etc. I stopped swimming and doing water aerobics during the latter half of chemo and for all of radiation (it was forbidden during radiation). And no, I didn’t get fat.

14. Pilates or yoga: do these, especially during chemo and radiation. Now those who know me know I hate yoga. I need to be doing something faster or else I get bored, so I did pilates several times a week during treatment. The point is, your joints will hurt at different points during chemo, and your skin will feel tight and painful during radiation. You will be crazy tired, not tired even—fatigued in a way you didn’t know was possible. The overall body work and stretching with pilates and yoga will help. Trust me. If you need to bow out of certain exercises or poses, do it. Just pick a studio or class where people aren’t judgmental jerks and you’ll be fine.

15. Lifting heavy things: don’t be an idiot. If the heavy thing is not your child about to be hit by a bus, it probably doesn’t need to be lifted by you while you’re still recovering. Not today, maybe not ever. Just flirt with some guy and he’ll do it for you.

16. Getting out of bed: hey, if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Your muscles won’t atrophy in a day. Let your husband/mom/neighbor/friend/cousin take care of the kids or the chores, and get up tomorrow, or later tonight. Watch some stupid shit on tv. You have cancer. You don’t have to follow the normal rules.

Wow, it felt kind of good to get all that down. This makes me think that I should write down some other general-life breast cancer modifications:

• Underwire bras: Just chuck them. I was the lingerie queen, the girl who wore matching lace bras and panties when I was 14. Breast cancer put the kabosh on all that. Wear soft-cup bras, or nursing bras even. Don’t wear one at all if you don’t have to, but I would say that the more your boob hurts, the more support and compression you actually need, even if it sounds illogical. I know this bra advice doesn’t work for women with mastectomies. Sorry—I didn’t have one, so I have no clue and won’t pretend that I do. My boobs are basically the same size and shape, which makes me think that the large amount of tissue that was removed on the left was just replaced by scar tissue and firmness from radiation. So I can wear cute bras now, but no underwire.

• Food and nutrition: When the kind nutrition specialist meets with you during chemo, listen politely and then laugh when she walks out the door. When all of your well-meaning friends tell you what you should eat to maintain energy, smile and nod. Your job is to eat whatever the hell you can so that your weight doesn’t get too low and your body can safely absorb the poison. If that means you eat only pudding, or you eat weird things like Frosted Flakes and fresh spinach (my chemo dinner of champions), so be it. When I got down to 110 pounds after my first round of chemo, from 117, and everyone worried about me, I listened to them tell me I needed to ingest more calories, that I needed to eat more than fruit and rice. I secretly thought, screw you. I have CANCER. I’m doing CHEMO. I’m not going to starve to death; eating is the least of my problems. I will eat what I can stomach and worry about the right diet later. Your body helps you with this process. I actually craved goat cheese and spinach all the time on chemo. These things are mild and have protein and if you eat them, you will be fine. Your body isn’t stupid. Whenever I complain about the little pooch I have on my stomach, Gabe first scoffs and asks what the hell I’m talking about. Then he says women are supposed to have some softness, that’s supposed to be there, if you have nothing what would protect you from famine? (Can you tell this line of argument comes from a guy who was often hungry as a kid?) At 110 pounds, I went back to that thought. I said well shit, here it is. This is my chemo famine. My body will protect me. And it did. I got weaker, but not too weak. I made it through.

• Sex: do this as often as you want, as vigorously as you can, if and when you are able. If you are in the nadir portion of chemo, you might want to abstain for a few days, lest you get motion sickness from the act itself (don’t laugh, ya’ll know that happened to me). If you go through early menopause due to chemo or surgery, use silicone-based lube. All the other stuff just doesn’t compare, and no one will tell you this. If you don’t have an understanding partner, dump him or her. It is that person’s job to modify and figure out what works for you so you can enjoy sex again. If you are lucky like me and you completely come out of menopause to be a woman with monthly (if irregular) cycles and a surprisingly high sex drive, say hallelujah and have fun! When doctors and friends tell you that sexual problems are the least of your concerns, that at least your husband still wants you, or some other bullshit, realize that at that moment in time, those people are assholes. Maybe not all the time, but right then, they just suck. It’s important—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Nothing—not having cancer, not weaning my son, not being bald, not mentally preparing my own memorial service—made me feel as old and depressed as the sexual changes I went through from chemo-induced menopause. The fact that I came out of it is something that I revel in every day, or at least every other day, depending on how tired Gabe and I are that week.

• Parenting: don’t try to be superwoman, or the parent who protects her child from all things cancer-related, or the one who is saintly in the face of tragedy. Don’t be a martyr. No matter what you do, you will never protect your kids from knowing you have cancer, or from knowing that cancer is very very bad. So just be the parent you were before, to the extent that it’s possible. If you didn’t do crafts with your kids before cancer, by God don’t start doing them now. Your kids will really think you’re dying (at least that’s what mine would think). Modify your expectations of yourself and what you can do as a parent on a daily, or even momentary, basis. I received so much conflicting advice about what to tell Lenny; no one could have suggested that I just tell her the whole thing, kit and caboodle, in the middle of dinner, starting with, are you wondering why the phone is always ringing? No one could have predicted our collective relief when it was out in the open. Similarly, no one could have prepared me for the moment when my hand was shaking too much to feed Augie his lunch last July. I was utterly shocked that I couldn’t do it. But shit, the child needed to eat. So I put my elbow on the highchair tray, steadied that arm with the other hand, and fed him. He’s a crazy little bruiser now, so no harm, no foul. All I'm saying is, if luck is in your corner you will live a while after this, at which point all the other things are but minor considerations that your kids will one day forgive.

• Moods: Do not expect to keep everything together all the time. Cancer taught me to carry Kleenex in my purse. If my body wasn’t too bone-dry on chemo to physically cry, I just wept all the time, for months. It was like an alien being had invaded my stoic little body. This might manifest differently for you. You might feel angry, or hollow, or manic, or terrified, and all these things might come out of nowhere. Don’t begrudge yourself this new aspect of your personality. The rest is still in there, but you just got buried under some massive bullshit and you need some different tools to find your way out. So again, cut yourself some slack.

• Hair: Let it go. Literally. Being bald isn’t that bad. If you do decide to wear a wig or a scarf, make it a point to learn to study your face. You will see it with more clarity when there’s no hair to distract you.

• Friends: keep some. It’s important. Maybe they’re old friends you haven’t seen in years, maybe there are only a few you can really count on when the shit hits the fan, maybe there’s only one person who still treats you the same. It doesn’t matter, just keep those folks close.

• Ridiculously insensitive or just plain weird comments: Let them slide. People are clueless in general. When it comes to something like cancer, especially if a young person has cancer, the whole of the world seems to take leave of its senses. You must modify your reactions to these people, mostly by acting as if they are not even there. “Hell no, you’re bald!” “All of my aunts died from breast cancer.” “Your head isn't shaped funny, at least.” “You look great! I wish I could lose weight that fast!” “You have breast cancer? Your boobs look nice. And symmetrical.” “Oh. That must run in your family.” I mean seriously. If you have to physically shut your own mouth to stop that witty reply from coming out, do it. Unless that reply is my personal favorite, in which case I give you permission to respond to a compliment on your looks with “Thanks, but I don’t have cancer of the face.” It’s great to still feel beautiful while going through this crap, but as the last picture here attests (taken a few days after my first surgery), breast cancer is one hell of an ugly disease.

And finally, don’t modify too much. You have cancer, or you are recovering from cancer and its treatment. You’re not dead, not yet, at least. Keep exercising, eating, sleeping, hanging out with your kids, talking, having sex, working, bitching in cyberspace, all to the extent that you can for as long as you can. If nothing else, you’ll get some of that weight of the world off of your chest. Even if said chest is bruised, or scarred, or burned, or tattooed, or lopsided, you can get some of that weight off just by being yourself. That’s why I’m glad I’m not a Pollyannish, sunshiny, cheerleader type now that I’m supposedly recovered from cancer. If that were the case, cancer would’ve won. People would say, where in the world is Katy Jacob? Right here, son. Now shut up and stop asking me questions!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Day 473: KatyDid 36

OK, I'm jumping the gun a bit, but assuming I don't get hit by the proverbial bus, I will turn 36 tomorrow, and tomorrow will actually probably come before I finish writing this blog. So I've reached another birthday. I've always felt that it was appropriate for my birthday to last about a week, but somewhere down the line, as an adult, you kind of lose the privilege of excessive birthday celebrations. Unless, of course, you have cancer at a young age, in which case you get to have whatever the hell kind of celebration you want. Last year I joked that we would have a huge party for my birthday, because no one would feel like they could say no to the cancer girl, at least not when she was in the middle of chemo.

I was right.

My mom had to put up with at least 50 people at her house last year. Gabe and I made the decision years ago that we would always dress up for our parties, no matter what other people did, so there I was in my little black dress, fancy shoes, with my bald head shining. I turned 35 four days after I finished my last round of AC chemo, and my best friend from high school was in town to help for that chemo round. People still made food for us three times a week, and the chemo gods smiled on me for my birthday party, and actually allowed me to stomach some pizza and cake. The party was great, and then there were impromptu fireworks right outside the window after most people had gone home. I felt loved, and lucky to have gotten to 35. I also felt like complete shit, physically, and had just come out of one of my short-lived cancer-related depressions; it's hard for me to remember why I was so down, but it seems like there were enough reasons, so let's just leave it at that.

I realize that by saying what I just said, I've proved that while I might have aged another year, I'm still Katy, keeping it real in cyberspace. But that's the truth. And damn, what a difference a year makes. This year I guess we just didn't want to be bored, since we decided to throw a party three days after we moved into our new house. I will have you know that it is one of my superpowers to make a home look lived in within 48 hours of moving. And with my mom's help, that's exactly what happened. Gabe came home from work on Friday with the kids in tow and was completely shocked at how everything was put together. I warned people there would be boxes everywhere; I think the three boxes (outside of some stuff in the basement) I didn't unpack were all in our unfinished master bathroom. I had even put stuff back on the walls.

I feel like our family situation is so different from a year ago, and it's not just that we live in this big sprawling house that is so far removed from Gabe and my understanding of reality. Gabe was out mowing our huge front yard yesterday morning with his nerdy battery-powered environmental mower, figuring out the best strategy to get down the sloping hill, and I wondered how many people just assumed he was the lawn guy. I think about how this house has so many things I've always wanted--a huge front porch to sit out on, with enough space for a swing; a room I could turn into my own personal library (that's where I'm sitting right now, writing this blog, listening to these incredibly loud crickets); a landing where I can sit and read a book underneath some huge windows that cast so much light down that it's hard to see; a second floor laundry room (we just had this constructed, along with the bathroom--what an absolutely frigging brilliant idea, I swear); a breakfast nook with a window seat. What a great house.

And I made it ours very quickly, but that's not the only thing. We didn't even move Augie's crib to the new house; he got to a new room, with a new big boy bed. I decided to put it in the middle of the room and I didn't give him a bed rail. He has been fine--sleeping well, doing funny things like "cuddling" a ceramic picture frame holding a picture of himself when he was a baby. And Lenny loves her new room, complete with her own mommy-style reading area. Gabe gets the whole basement to himself, and I honestly plan to never venture down there if I can help it.

So here is this house, which now is the Jacob-Sterritt house, the place where there's a party a few days after we move in. And people came, though not as many--maybe 40, including kids--which isn't surprising given the late notice and the amount of hair on my head, and general health I can claim. And after last night, I feel like we might be those people, the ones who have parties, where people go to hang out. That was a nice overall thought, but I was also excited about other things: I could eat, and drink even, and wear tall shoes and give tours and go through the whole night without any "moments" and generally feel like a normal hostess.

On the other hand, there's always something to remind me in the middle of it all, some second when I find myself clutching my boob because it hurts like hell out of nowhere (lifting boxes, maybe?) or when I'm telling what I still contend is a funny story about wanting to strangle Gabe for his illogical choices of where to move certain things, so I had to move them all again. Some of this was pedestrian: why are there child gates for the third floor the basement? Why is there bathroom stuff in the living room? And by God, what were you thinking when you looked above our refrigerator, where we've placed our wine rack (we now have 19 bottles of wine, I believe, since most people brought a bottle, so I guess we have to have a wine tasting party sometime) and decided to put next to wig boxes?

Seriously. Hundreds of dollars worth of synthetic hair--plus my real hair to boot-- sitting on top of our damn refrigerator. I was about to lose my mind. But I didn't, for the most part--I just gave Gabe a tremendous amount of shit about that one. I was feeling well enough to give him shit, to stay up, to eat, to see my birthday in the more traditional context, where I think I am getting old at this point. Don't get me wrong--I don't think 36 is actually old, I just think a lot about how much time has passed, and how half a lifetime ago I was still an adult, and how strange that is. I see all these kids starting high school, or going away to college, and I think about how time just seemed to be looming ahead of me at those points in my life, how everything was such a promise, even when everything was always kind of hard, because my life was always a real life, filled with difficult things, even then. But time, that seemed to always be there.

And now...who knows? I feel like it's utterly impossible that I could die from breast cancer, I feel that it is entirely surreal that I ever had breast cancer at all. Who is that lady smiling over her birthday candles, with her bald head? Well, that's me, that looks just like me, what of it? What's funny is that I think that all tragedy must manifest itself in some kind of dreamlike way, because when I think about other terrible things that have happened, that's how they all play out in my mind: my car accident and the subsequent realization that I could no longer walk; the viscous process of being robbed at gunpoint on the green line; the party I attended when I was 15, when I learned the hard way how to fight off three boys who were much bigger than me; the day my daughter had an allergic reaction to rice cereal when she was four months old and we were in the middle of the north woods and I thought she would stop breathing; and so many others, of which this whole damn cancer thing is just a piece. To me, it is all surreal. It seems obvious that I would get out of these situations, that I would live through them and come back to myself. It doesn't even occur to me that other options were really possible, not REALLY, not me, right--not me?

And yet, these moments, or months, depending on the circumstances, are surreal because they actually did happen, and the outcome absolutely could have been horrific, and yet...I'm still me, I'm still here. And some others aren't, or they are here, but their lives have inexorably changed, for the worse, due to the experience. What about me? Have I changed, will 36 bring in a different Katy? Is cancer just that thing that led to a chic haircut, or will I be looking back at all of this when I'm 37 thinking, whoa, that's surreal, that was back when I thought my cancer was gone?

Who knows. I appreciate birthdays these days, but like I said, I always did. I always assumed that my husband or boyfriend would indulge me during my whole birthday week. We just kept it to ourselves. Now I get to give myself a shout out, tell other people about it, and throw a crazy chaotic party right in the midst of all these changes with my house, my career, my life.

I just think about things a little differently now. When people talk about being afraid of turning 40, my first thought goes like this: 40! That would be a trip! My kids would be 10 and 7...that's better! I think about 50: the kids would have reached their maturity, Gabe and I would've been together for almost half of our lives...that would be better, it would be ok to go then. I think about getting old and I still hope I get to do it. But these thoughts are not at all macabre, they just are. Things happen, you roll it into your life, make it a part of the pontification rotation. When October 11, 2009 rolled around, other people posted on facebook about their daily activities and I wrote: 25 years later, still walkin. People who knew me as a child knew exactly what I meant.

And those who have been regular readers of this blog know what I mean. You say 36, I say 16 months out. You say happy birthday, I say hallelujah. You say what a beautiful home, I say, yeah, I know, I'm glad they have this to fall back on. You say this is good cake, I say Jesus Christ it is good, I can taste every bit of it, there's not a part of me that feels sick, that is defying me right now. That's what I say in the end I guess--right now, that's what I've got, right now.

Where are you right now, those who are still reading this? Happy with your place, I hope, content. Here's where I am: I'm looking at all these books around me about urban studies, racial politics, genocide, and poetry, wondering how I ever had a date in my life, and there's a picture on the desk of my daughter with her Magnum PI poster, one of me with a paper crown on my bald head, holding my deviously-smiling son on my last birthday, another of me at the dawn of my professional life when I could wear a suit, hold an orange juice, and still look glamorous, and there are way too many shoes in the closet, and I'm writing a blog while my husband falls asleep on the guest bed in this room because he wanted to be near me while I was writing, and it all seems to fit, this puzzle that's my life. You say happy 36, I say why not? It might as well be. Good night.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Day 466: Waiting on the World to Change...or Not

As I look around my completely disastrous house, filled with boxes, in a state of utter chaos as we wait to move, I find myself wondering if at some point in the last year we just completely lost our minds. I mean, really--at what point did we take leave of our senses, and decide to buy this new house with no clue when, or if, we could sell the other one?

I guess we decided to do it when the opportunity presented itself, cancer and terrible economy aside. I was reading an article in the Tribune today about how the current generation of young people are putting off major life decisions, like planning careers, getting married, and starting families, due to the economy. They are waiting for things to change, biding their time until the sun comes out again.

I was reading this story waiting for the part where it would make sense to me. This seems completely different from what happened to the generation that came of age in the Great Depression, when couples who grew up in the Depression got married after knowing each other for a week before he went off to war, when people continued to have children and try whatever line of work they could get and found out that life was actually really fulfilling anyway. Today, the options seem different--go to graduate school, wait, "turtle," hold out until things get better.

Maybe this makes no sense to me because I have never assumed that things would be better, I have never really had the expectation that life would offer me what I wanted. Shit, I have never really known what I wanted, outside of a general hope of happiness and a willingness to do what I need to do to support myself and those dependent on me. I never thought it made sense to wait, because waiting just means it's later, not necessarily better. So when I was young and single and making hardly any money I put myself through grad school and bought a condo. Why not? The worst that would happen is that I would fail and end up with next to nothing, and that was something I already knew how to do. I got married a year and a half after I met Gabe, which seems like a long time, but people have said things to us like "wow, what did you guys do, just go on a date and then get married?" as if we had some kind of shotgun wedding--at age 29. We bought a house when Gabe was self-employed and I had been at my new job for just a few months. We had our first kid relatively quickly. Now we're doing all of this crazy transitioning, right after going through one of the hardest things we could have gone through as a family--in the midst of that hard thing, actually--in one of the worst economies.

I wish I could tell some of these kids from the article what I didn't realize I already knew at their age. There never is a great job waiting for you, a perfect plan in motion for your family, a soulmate hiding around the corner. Granted, my goals were more basic, much more working class I suppose--I just wanted to graduate college, never having been married or pregnant, and I had no idea what else I should do if I succeeded. I didn't even expect to succeed, even though I had control over all of those things. I half expected for the other shoe to drop and the whole damn plan to go to hell.

But I knew I would work, because I had always worked, ever since I was around 11. I knew I would take an unglamorous job if I had to, because that's the only kind of job I ever really expected to have, even though I wanted to do other things. I had already had many of those types of jobs--including some that I really liked, such as being a secretary or a receptionist. When I actually ended up working at a job that coincided with my personal interests and mission, I was as surprised as I was when I was 14 years old and the boy I had a crush on actually had a crush on me at the same time. Boys had liked me for years, but never the "right" ones. When that finally happened, I thought wow, what a world, how strange is it that the person I noticed would notice me out of all of the other people there are to see! That's how I felt about working in the consumer advocate world I entered when I was 23. This is a job, and it's fun! I'm doing something I enjoy, and I am getting paid, albeit not a whole lot! But I never expected it. That's a different way to view the world.

I'm glad I never put anything off, never waited. If I had, I would never have this marriage, this family, these houses would not have waited for me. We might fail, I suppose, the market might never improve. But why would young people with everything to live for give up the chance of their own futures just because they might not get what they thought they wanted? They might not get that anyway, great recession or no. Some of the best things in life are the things you never planned to have, the dreams you never considered, the paths that just happened when the rest of your luck ran out.

That is some un-Katy, trite sounding shit and I know it. But I worry about how my kids will interpret their lives when they are being brought up in this upper middle class family, where they have everything they need for the most part and thank God they have not suffered much, but for the suffering I brought upon them with my cancer. I feel like everything I am, everything I've learned, has been due to something bad that happened to me, and yet I don't ever want anything bad to happen to my kids. So how will they learn to lean on themselves, to understand that life never had a plan for them, they have to plan something for life, and then be willing to just wing it? I hate all that shit about triumphing through adversity, but maybe that's what's going on with some of these college kids right now--they don't have experience with adversity, so it scares them, and they wait for it to go away.

Dealing with difficult shit is one of the only things I know how to do well. I would never say that I am not scared of things, but rather that fear is also something that I understand. I just feel like neither fear nor suffering should stop you from trying the next thing, since the alternative is not much of one. If there isn't a next thing that will happen in your life, it's because you're dead or in prison or some other inexorably bad thing has happened to you.

One of the things I ask myself when I have these strange motherly concerns or deep thoughts is, is it some kind of cosmic joke that I am someone's mother? Do I really have a clue how to do this? I call them rugrats and swat them on the butt and kick them out of the kitchen. I yell at them when they whine. I walked around bald and made them deal with the consequences of people's reactions to that. I was never really prepared to do this. But I did it anyway, and here we are, and sometimes we get a moment like we had today when I was looking at a picture of myself from a year ago, when I was bald and smiling into the camera though I felt completely inhuman, and Augie ran up to me yelling, picture of mommy! pretty mommy! As if every two year old son had seen such pictures of his mother, as if that was no stranger than the alternate perspectives shown here, mommy with the long legs and proportionate mommy.

If I had waited, that moment with Augie never would have happened. Here's to hoping something similar will come out of this crazy, potentially stupid, house decision. Some moment that makes the chaos worthwhile, because some strange and specific beauty will come out of it. Look, I'm not being sentimental. I will always be a person who had cancer as a young mother, wife, daughter sister and friend, no matter how long I'm around. My kids will always be the kids of that person. Maybe someday, whether or not I'm around to see it, they will dig deep and remember how our family did what we did during this cancer time, how we just kept looking at the next thing. And they will not be afraid, or they will be, but they won't wait to do whatever it is they're afraid to do.

I have no idea why I sat down to write this blog, because I ended up somewhere entirely different. But that's what I hope for my kids, oddly enough, that they don't go through life with expectations, but rather with the opposite of expectations--that their lives are filled with some slightly off-kilter anticipation. I hope they just go ahead, my God I hope they just DO something. I can't expect to be there to see what it is they do, but then again you never know. Maybe I will be, and wouldn't that be a trip? We'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Day 460: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

I've said before in this blog that one of the strange things about writing it is that people think they know what is going on with me because they read these words, when in reality 95% of what's going on with me is never represented here. I said this again when I went out the other night with some girlfriends for a much needed night out. I said that one of the things that I was always reluctant to write about was how tough cancer was, and is, on my marriage. In the popular culture of cancer, the only acceptable thing to say about relationships is that going through this together makes your love stronger, brings you closer together, and makes you appreciate each other every minute of every day.

No one ever talks about having cancer at a young age and wanting to strangle your spouse anyway. If Gabe and I make it through this move without killing each other, we will definitely have reason to celebrate. Owning two houses--one that is being renovated, and one that must be kept pristine in order to be shown to prospective buyers--while working full time and taking care of two little kids has made us both a little crazy. We had a huge fight last week and I started to wonder if we should just keep both houses, and live in them separately. I actually suggested that out loud to Gabe. I left him speechless with that one.

Of course I didn't really want that, and I knew I didn't want that, so I didn't feel too bad laughing about that idea with my friends. They could relate, which made me feel better, and less guilty. The thing is, even when I am shaking my head and thinking, god this man is ridiculous, I don't want to put that out there in cyberspace because I don't want anyone else to think those things. It's ok for me to bitch about my husband, but I don't want other people to think bad things about Gabe or about my marriage, so I can't write about that here. I need to get that stuff off my chest in real life, with real people, who will commiserate with me and tell me their stories about wanting to just give up and go live in a cave somewhere.

We got past that fight, but having it, and talking to other women about all the things that were bugging me made me think about cancer and how it has affected us. The thing is--it hasn't changed our relationship that much, and the problem is that everyone, including me, thinks that it should have changed everything. I have never had much patience, and I hate made-up drama, but all cancer has done is made that worse for me. Now Gabe does something I think is stupid and instead of having some epiphany moment of clarity and Zen-like understanding, I think, did I really survive breast cancer to deal with this shit? He snaps at me and I think, oh hell no, after all the shit I've gone through you're not yelling at me about nothing. Aren't you supposed to realize what you have, what you might have lost?

There's a lot of pressure to be better than we are. We made the decision to do normal-people things, so why the angst over having normal-people reactions to those things? We fight about who's going to deal with contractors, we argue about money, I get pissed when I feel like Gabe is cranky all day long until I change into some outfit like the one I'm wearing in these pictures so I can make dinner and clean and suddenly he's all over me, all nice in anticipation of getting me into bed (I had to include the unflattering faceless shot of us taken right after Gabe came in from a rainstorm and I had just taken a meatloaf out of the oven, because Lenny took these pictures of us, and it made me realize how she sees us most of the time, how tall we must seem to her). Doesn't everyone have these issues? Of course they do, but in the back of my mind I often think, I shouldn't feel like this, this house is a great promise for the future, we both have good jobs, aren't I lucky that after everything my young husband is still so attracted to me? Why do my kids make me nuts sometimes?

I even feel guilt about the new house. I wanted to buy it primarily for its investment value considering my precarious triple negative status, but I also wanted it for a much less selfless reason: The house is big enough to give me a multitude of places to hide. I daydream about when things get loud and obnoxious in the house and instead of shooing everyone out the door and pretending that I live by myself for a few precious moments (that's what I do now), I could just go sit on the landing and read a book and ignore everyone. I could go sit on the porch. I could go exercise in the room dedicated to that purpose. I could escape to my huge bedroom and curl into the reading nook I've created for myself and get away from everyone while knowing they're still there. I actually created one of these nooks for Lenny in her room as well. If she, or Augie, can escape total nerd-dom after being raised by the likes of Gabe and me I will be surprised.

But how is that for a shitty post-cancer mom? Aren't these kids what brought me through, what I am trying to live for, isn't my family my everything? I have to tell myself that they will understand someday, that the strange ways that love works will become clear to them and they will forgive me my trespasses. After all, they love each other to pieces, but a majority of the time they look at each other like they are in this picture, full of disdain and annoyance.

I still feel like it's wrong though. I mean, why do I still fantasize about the seven years when I lived alone before Gabe moved in with me, before I had kids? I never had a live-in boyfriend, never had a roommate after college. I worked two jobs to avoid having to live with anyone else. I dated the same man for years, and we had keys to each others' places, but we kept house separately. After we broke up, I bought a condo when I was 25 and single, earning about $30k a year. My relationship with Gabe, whom I met at age 27, moved pretty fast, and within six months he was at the condo all the time. By eight months he had asked if he could move in with me. I remember saying, well, I don't really want to move in together if we're not going to get married. It wasn't because I had some high moral standards, but rather because I really loved living by myself, and I didn't want to give that up unless it was for something permanent. I owned my place, didn't really need help with the mortgage, had already put myself through grad school. The furniture was all mine, I knew what I liked to cook, I took care of everything myself...why shack up? As I was thinking all of these not-so romantic thoughts, Gabe said, yeah, that's what I thought too. I thought maybe we could get married. There was no bending down on one knee or anything; I just started to shop around for pearl engagement rings (no blood diamonds, thanks) and a few months later he officially proposed in the ring-in pajama-pocket incident I have already related here. In the meantime, he moved in with me.

And boy did we fight, when we really never had before. It was hard to get used to someone else being there all the time. It's still hard. When I was telling my mom about our fight (yes, guys, women talk to their moms about their fights with you), she said, well, he's had a rough time all his life, think about the things you've been through together, think about him shaving your head and all the things he did during your cancer treatment.

And you know what I thought? Well, how exactly would he not have done those things? The kids were his to raise too, I was suffering and potentially dying and he's obviously not a total jackass so what's he going to say, no, honey, I won't shave your head, screw you? The thing is, of course I appreciated all of those things, of course I think about how much more we've been through than other people our age, but it makes me wonder why we can't just live blissfully like we should be able to do. I get defensive when cancer is supposed to be the reason I'm not mad at him, the reason I'm supposed to forgive him right away, the thing I'm supposed to think about instead of thinking about throwing in the cards. I want to be a normal wife. I want to be myself, and I'm impatient, and extremely independent, and I'm stubborn and difficult and if I've ever been really angry with you, you have never forgotten it. I don't want to be all, hey, I've had cancer, let's concentrate on the love, you know?

Because the love is there. No one can make my son giggle and get cozy and happy before bedtime like I can. It's not lost on me that when Lenny was reciting poetry (from memory) about the rain before bed tonight, she was just acting like a pint-sized version of me. I love having a husband who is so crazy about me, who seems to want to be around me almost all the time, who acts like a teenager around me, all sappy and puppy-dog eyed and horny and obnoxious. It's just that cancer doesn't make me love these things more, and that makes me feel guilty, because everything I've ever seen or read about cancer tells me that it should.

On the flip side, I am coming out of something huge (I am coming out of it, right? this isn't just a dream?), and it's hard to have any tolerance for the bullshit in life, in marriage, in motherhood, after that. It's hard not to think that things won't turn out badly. I want to think about us raising our kids in this new house, growing old together. It's just so hard to picture right now. I would never begrudge Gabe the opportunity to raise the kids and grow old without me, in this house or any other. But when it's difficult for me to see that future for myself, I revert to thinking that the whole thing was just a colossal mistake, because what's the use of trying? You hope, you love, you live well, you get an aggressive form of cancer anyway. My mind only goes there for a moment or two, but I'm going to be the unpopular cancer lady and admit that it goes there. Perhaps my greatest strength, or arguably my greatest weakness, is my ability to ignore all the things that I think about life, good and bad, and just plow ahead anyway, big brown eyes focused straight ahead, staring down fate. Hell if I know.

So what to do? Get out of the ether and into the world, tell people about it when I'm having the proverbial problems at home, remind people that I'm not just cancer girl, a woman with a strangely progressing haircut. I need to remind myself that life is as it was, and that maybe that is what I wanted all along, the right, the chance, to be pissed off and cynical and annoyed just like everyone else. And I know I'm dating myself with this blog title, but truer words were never spoken. I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised Gabe, or the kids, or myself anything other than the fact that I would try my best. My best might be less than some people's, more than others, but it's mine and it's all I have to give. If you want to know more about what that is, you'll have to call me, come see me in person, have a drink with me. Whatever it is that I've got, it isn't here on this screen. This is just what would be left if nothing else of me was left. Since I'm still kicking, I'll leave this blog written on a wonderfully dreary rainy Monday on this note:

When Gabe and I got married, our first dance was to Johnny Cash's Would You Lay With Me in a Field of Stone. He never gets an answer in the song, and I think that's for the best. When you love someone, the right answer is yes, of course I would. The real answer is, well that would be stupid, because we would both be dead, and who then would be singing this song? The real answer is screw the stone field, but I will dance with you. I'll listen to this song about blood and suffering and death and I'll smile at you, put my arms around you, give you a wink. The real answer underneath it all is that sometimes I might cry when it would be better to laugh, but at least I am in on the joke. And I would tell it again.