On EyelashesToday, a friend at work chimed in to a lively, intelligent conversation about last night's episode of The Bachelor. He mentioned that one of the ladies who got sent home had insane eye lashes; I believe he called them caterpillars. He's right. We laughed for a sec, made a few more wise insights about helicopters and roses and back tattoos, and then got back to work.
The discussion of eyelashes, however brief, reminded me of something. I couldn't remember what, until I got home. And it's this: I've written about eyelashes before. I know it was a piece that I liked, and I know it was a piece about having them and then losing them. I remember it felt a little melodramatic to me, but at the same time very real.
Home in my chair, Fergus snuggled up too close against my left arm (so much so that I have to keep pressing delete to retype words that require me to use my left hand--which are surprisingly many), I sat down to answer the day's emails, finish a letter I've been working on, read the LostAngeles Blog I so adore . . . but I found myself distracted by eyelashes.
So I peeked into my electronic file cabinet, and there, deep within the heart of my Mac, was an essay I had originally called "Surprise in the Shadows." I'm fairly certain I posted it on my Caring Bridge page way back when, because someone told me recently they think of me every day when they put on their mascara. And now I think of them thinking of me. And now I'll think of Ashley from the Bachelor. . . . and so on.
For old time's sake, I'm going to post it here. It felt strange to re-read it. Like I was reading someone else's journal, or, rather, watching an old home movie. The part that got me the most was remembering the fatigue--that feeling of not wanting to move an inch. No, scratch that. The sentence that got me the most was when I mentioned the feeling of my girls' little fingers on my bare head. That, I remember perfectly. Literally, perfect-ly.
Here it is. So I'm kinda cheating by posting something I already wrote, right? Maybe you'll forgive me since the above poetic masterpiece paragraphs are original and fresh. I'm glad I kept track of a few thoughts from a grody time, because they keep me grounded, appreciative, super-duper happy to be here.
Surprise in the Shadows (written in fall 2009)
The official word came on May 27. Today is October 8, and at times, I am still surprised. It makes sense, I suppose. Do you ever really expect to hear you have cancer? Even now, months later, without all of the tests, without my hair, and without my breasts, I still find myself thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening. This isn’t me.” The moment passes, as reflective moments tend to do, and I get back to whatever it is I have to do at the real-life, pressing-needs moment. Mostly, that means taking care of my two girls. These days, it includes taking care of me.
Reflective moments are a luxury, after all. Especially for moms. But diving into these luxurious moments head-first helps me to slow down time and decipher what all of “this” could possibly mean. Like many folks living with cancer, too afraid to yet call ourselves “survivors,” finding the larger purpose, the life lessons, becomes somewhat of a past-time. We discover much about our selves. Besides, that's what just about everyone seems to want me to do: Slow down. Breathe. Relax. Heal. Thinking (and then more thinking) comes organically.
This much I know: My family has embarked on quite a little adventure these past few months. That much is for sure. To say that the journey we've been on is a lesson in self-discovery is to say we've learned only one small bit of what this journey can teach us. Because there is oh-so-much to learn about life and love and everything that fills each day, only a fraction of which have we been blessed enough to know so far. I certainly don't know everything I'm guessing I'm supposed to know. I'm left, between rounds of chemo when I actually feel like thinking again, with that nagging feeling like I'm supposed to be learning a larger lesson here.
And for me, left alone with my thoughts more than I probably ever have, that objective--self-discovery--is certainly the most powerful. I'm guessing its effects will be the most lasting. The urge follows me around like a shadow so that even when I laugh, I can hear it whispering, reminding me that I have much to learn about myself before I ever again take anything for granted. I sense it lurking when I am in the open air, breathing deeply on a sunny rock or praying quietly beneath a particularly beautiful sunset.
There are times when its presence is much more obvious, its lessons more acute. My third grader is learning about geography. “What is a symbol?” I quizzed her the other day, while I lounged in my recliner, still woozy from last week’s chemo. “Something small that stands for something greater,” she paraphrased, and I nodded, giving her credit for virtually nailing the definition. I liked the way she said it. Confident. Natural. And I liked the definition, too. It made me want to do something with all of this thinking, with the quest to learn something larger, so I decided to write about a few symbols of my own. Tiny moments of self-discovery that will, I have no doubt, lead to more and more as the weeks, months, and years of survivorship that I pray for come into focus.
First, I no longer wear mascara. True, this may be in part because I am running a little thin on the eyelashes these days. But lately, even when I'm officially dressed up (i.e., wearing my wig) and have something other than my Levi's on, I can't bring myself to wear any, no matter how much of a wardrobe staple it was for me mere months ago. The truth is, I'm afraid. I've become superstitious to a fault, and I realized something this spring: the more mascara I wore, the more I cried it off. I cried it off because I was given something to cry about, seemingly over and over. The diagnosis of my daughter's diabetes in February was only the first of it, and the months following seemed to bring bits of bad news after bits of bad news. When the heavy hitters started coming in--the doctors' visits, the tests, the biopsy results, The News of the C-Word . . . well, I just didn't know I had that amount of tears in me. Nor the need for that amount of tissues.
And it was the tissues that did me in. Or, rather, that forced me to seal up my mascara tube for good. Loving friends looking kindly at me, not knowing what to say; well-meaning, concerned doctors speaking softly to me; my dear family being strong for me to hide their hurting . . . all the while, there I was, pathetically covered in smeared mascara, looking even worse than I felt. The mounds and mounds of black-covered tissues eventually got to be too much. Mounds in my hands. Mounds on the bed. Mounds in the trash can. Reminders everywhere.
So one day, as I went to put on my make up, it hit me. If I didn't put on mascara, I wouldn't have to wipe it off later when I would be, invariably, crying. There wouldn't be the mounds of tissue, the proof of sadness. I'd at least look stronger. Without it, there would be no evidence to the contrary. As days came and went, I found myself picking up the pink and green tube and then dropping it down as though it burned me.
In the hospital after my mastectomies, I didn't wear it for obvious reasons. Those few who saw me there know I didn't even wash my hair for days (much to the dismay of my insistent nurse who made several comments of disgust regarding the matter). But then, out of the hospital, home greeting visitors, and eventually out and about, I neglected my lashes each day. Until one morning I realized something else entirely had happened--a twist of my original intent. I went to apply my mascara and physically could not. My heart started beating a bit too hard, and at that moment I knew, I just knew, that if I put that mascara on, I'd cry it off later. Something bad would happen. Some news would come or some test result would appear and there I'd be, a black smeared, shiny-faced mess again. Without it on, maybe nothing would happen. Maybe things would go well. Just for that day.
Now, I have no eyelashes. Well, I have one or two pathetic stragglers poking around. Who knows when I'll wear it again. But I know I will one day.
A second discovery has come with some shame. It involves my sweet friends and family, folks who are sending me love in the form of letters, notes, gifts, and packages. These arrive at my doorstep or in my mailbox daily, and I am in awe of the support and continued (for months now) outreach from those who just want to show me and my family how much they are thinking of us. But I've discovered my weakness: the emotions that come with opening them.
There lies, on the floor beside me right now, a different mound. Not of tissues, but of love. Packages, letters, cards, and loving notes from loving people await, but I have avoided opening them for weeks. Is that rude? Hell, yes. And if any of the packages contains brownies or other perishables, then it's also considerably unsafe. The list of thank-you-notes-owed is growing at an astounding rate, even if no one really expects one. But I’m a coward when it comes to facing the insane rush of emotions that these gifts will bring out in me. I simply can't do it to myself every day.
So instead, I wait for the mound to get to the point where it endangers my small dog, make myself a cup of coffee in the quiet hours of the morning, and go through each note, card, thought, written prayer, kind deed, and loving moment shared with me. Doing that helps me. It helps me to have an outpouring of love and laughter and occasional tears, while I open each item one by one. In that way, I can wrap myself up in the blanket of prayers and love that is inevitably left lying in my lap. And I love that.
Each day brings another symbol of self-discovery. Among them, the following precious gems: that chemo creates in me the ability to burp more impressively than any drunken sailor. That the sound of ice being crunched will make me either want to vomit or want to punch someone in the face. That I rather miss the sight of my C-cup breasts shoved in a camisole under a sweater, looking like a curvy girl. That I don't know WHAT I would do without reality t.v. That the sound of my daughters' giggles can make me feel better than any medicine possibly could. But that the sound of the kitchen cabinets being slammed can echo like a sledgehammer in my brain. That I can (and will) cry at the drop of a hat and in the most public of places. That losing my hair was by far the hardest part of this journey, for both me and the children. But that being bald oddly liberates me, and nothing beats the feeling of their little fingers rubbing my scalp. And that I will never take for granted again the fact that I can get up and go for a walk or to the gym or have coffee with a friend or lunch with my girls or see my daughter on the field hockey field or my other one singing her heart out on stage.
But perhaps the most vital lesson in self-discovery is also the one that has been the most surprising. That there, in my shadow, following me around where ever I go, is more strength than I ever knew I had. I've never really considered myself a strong person. In fact, if you had asked me last year to divulge the truths of me, I would've called myself "disorganized," "lazy," and "flat-out exhausted," but never "strong." Now, though, I've gotten myself through all of the muck of these days somehow, waking up each morning first to the beautiful ignorance that sleep brings, and then to the drowsy realization that yes, I still have cancer, and yes, today may suck.
On days when it hurts, emotionally or physically, to get out of bed, I do it because I can. I do it because I want to. I do it because thousands of other women who have been faced with this nightmare disease before me have done it and have survived and are living to help others (like me) through it. I do it for my baby girls, and I am bound and determined to do it for them every day until their 80th and 82nd birthdays (at least). I do it for my family and friends and for all the love they are showing me, not just in the mound on the floor, but in the hugs, the kisses, the laughter, and everything else I can't possibly list here.
I do it for my future, the one I deserve to live.
My diagnosis on May 27 surprised the hell out of me. But this strength has been the greatest surprise of all. Did it take The Big C to make me slow down, think, and prioritize? Maybe. Maybe not--maybe I would’ve done it anyway. But the reality is, it may have taken losing pieces of myself, including my eyelashes, to discover what makes me whole.
I'm on my way.