Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Paging Dr. Haller

“Embrace asymmetry.”

That’s what Ken Haller said some years ago as he helped me rearrange my living room furniture.

Brought up under the influence of such straight-laced shows as “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show” before being thrust into the turbulent freedom of the late ‘60s, I hesitated before agreeing to give the new set-up a try.

Today, as I ponder the rearrangement of my body after a mastectomy, Ken’s pithy directive is remarkably on target.

Living rooms are personal spaces; bodies even more so. Accepting change takes time, whether we’re talking a new hairstyle or color (on females), the addition or subtraction of facial hair (on males) or a dramatic scar (both genders).

When we look different, we feel different. When we feel different, we imagine everyone notices. They don’t.

A natural self-absorption keeps all of us from picking up on minor adjustments in the personal landscapes of others. Teenagers don’t get that, but what a relief as the years go by to discover that signs of aging -- natural and un -- go unnoticed by people who look at us every day.

And if they do notice, they don’t care, because they love us anyway.

“I’m not drawing on eyebrows during my recuperation,” I announced to a visitor yesterday. She replied that I looked just fine with pale eyebrows. Later, I wondered why I would fret about indiscernible eyebrows when I am obviously missing an entire breast.

I miss it only in the abstract. Where there was something, there is nothing. I had read that after surgery I might experience a sense of loss. Losing a small body part, especially one that can easily be replicated, has not caused me to experience loss so much as an awareness that something familiar is absent.

Along with it, the cancer is gone.

"Embrace asymmetry." That's what Ken said.

P.S. You can see Ken Haller’s outstanding cabaret show “Putting It Together: The Music of Stephen Sondheim” at 8 p.m. this Wednesday and Thursday at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Give him an asymmetrical hug for me.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Goodbye, Old Friend

I was supposed to pack for a trip to San Francisco. Instead, I am packing for a trip to the hospital.

The good news is that I’ll be at the hospital for just a few hours, so a small tote will do it, with no $25 fee for checked luggage. However, that remarkable view of Yosemite Valley from the air will not be a perk of this journey.

More good news: Seventy-twelve generous people who care about me are hovering, scheduling “sitting with Pat” sessions, holding me when I cry, cooking, transporting me to pre-op and post-op tests, sending me “hang-in-there” notes and making me laugh.

Prepare to laugh.

My friend Jenny, 19, an accomplished knitter, found a pattern on line for Tit Bits -- handcrafted breast prostheses. What a concept! What vibrant colors! What whimsical styles! Check it out: www.knitty.com/ISSUEfall05/PATTbits.html.

Jenny also directed me to www.titbits.ca/, the related site created by a woman in Toronto. Read the stories, look at the pictures and be reminded that so much of life is funny, even when you are scared or annoyed or angry.

Maybe especially so.

Jenny plans to knit several prostheses for me -- one for daily wear, one for dress-up, one just for flashing. She is a sophomore at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where she studies organ – oh, and geology. She is a lovely young woman, a gifted musician and writer, intrigued with the natural world, a good cook and absolutely one of my favorite people.

(Note to Jenny’s parents: I am encouraging this new knitting project, but I’ve made her promise not to spend all her time at it. I treasure your friendship.)

Lying in bed this morning, thinking this was the last day I would spend with my left breast, I realized saying goodbye to this body part is sort of like saying goodbye to a beloved older pet. All these years, I’ve cared for it, had fun with it, respected it and expected it to be there in the morning when I woke up.

And now it is going away.

“It’s my California makeover,” I quipped the other day. Then, “Wait – does California let in people who don’t have perfect bodies?” Then I remembered I want to move to Northern California. There is a difference, as the saying goes, between Silicon Valley and Silicone Valley.

In the past eight days, I have cycled (no, that’s wrong word, because I sold the bike and bought a ticket to Opera Theatre, where I was less likely to be run over by cars) – I have moved through the five stages of grief several times a day, in sequence and in random order. They are:

• Denial
• Anger
• Bargaining
• Depression
• Acceptance

Yesterday, after a glorious one-hour massage at the J and meaningful time spent with dear friends, I settled in with acceptance. It was time. I had to. After all, I can’t go to the hospital and return home peaceful until I embrace acceptance.

And I am determined to go – and return – peaceful.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Vincerò! Vincerò, Vincerò!

The condo is off the market for the first time since May 22.

Here is what that means:

No more air drying -- I can use my fluffy towels after I shower.

No more picking up after myself immediately when I abandon an empty glass or an apple core.

No more making the bed the fancy way every morning, using every pillow I own.

After just a matter of hours, I already feel once again as though I LIVE here, and am not just maintaining it while waiting for a would-be buyer. I’m not usually a messy person, but I may just throw around some dirty socks, scatter papers across the desk, leave a jacket crumpled on the cedar chest.

Does it sound as though I became a paranoid crazy person while the condo was available for lookers?

Oh yes – that happened right after the phone call from an agent who informed me that a potential buyer was in my parking lot and wondered if he could come in -- that very moment. I dutifully shoved my wet bathing suit back in the gym bag, walked down to the garage and then lurked in a parking lot across from my building.

I think I will enjoy this respite from being on public display.

I will not enjoy the circumstances that led to the respite. But Barbara Ehrenreich says in her new book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” (Metropolitan Books, Oct. 2009) that I don’t have to be cheery as I muddle through this new cancer diagnosis and deal with the treatments.

So far I have been numb with despair, pleased at the favorable aspects of the situation, furious at having to deal with this again and grateful that I have such great docs and great friends to help me. All those emotions coursed through me in a 20-minute period, and they loop back through as the day goes on.

It’s exhausting.

Tonight I skipped book club (and I love my book club) in favor of climbing into my big soaking tub, where I cried for a bit and then read a New Yorker from two weeks ago, when I was still under the delusion that I was healthy.

Next I headed for the kitchen, where I devoured my 23rd honey crisp apple of the season. Then I spent the rest of the evening watching “Luciano Pavarotti: A Life in Seven Arias,” a DVD from the BBC that I bought last Christmas but had never unwrapped.

That did it!

In the car, I let Luciano sing to me all the time -- and this was even better. The astonishing beauty of this man’s voice transports me. Though I’m not going to California any time soon, I do plan to spend more time (courtesy of the DVD) strolling the streets of Modena and sitting in the great opera houses of the world, listening to my favorite of The Three Tenors.

And isn't that last line to "Nessun Dorma" an inspiring slogan to carry with me into surgery?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Road Work Ahead

Two days ago, early in the afternoon, I was paging through the November issue of “O” Magazine. As I sat reading, I dunked homemade chocolate chip cookies in milk -- admittedly aberrant behavior, but justified under the circumstances.

In an essay by Uwem Akpan (the author of “Say You’re One of Them”), I came to this sentence:

“It’s like what Rilke says: ‘Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.’ ”

I went to the computer to see how Rainer Maria Rilke followed that amazing line. Here it is:

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.”

What a welcome reminder.

In 1995, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Since then I have faithfully kept my annual mammogram appointment. A week ago, a smudge appeared on the mammogram, a “distortion,” indicating a change in the tissue of my left breast. I had a biopsy.

Just after 2 p.m. on Wednesday, my radiation oncologist called to say I have cancer again. The doctor described it as a “favorable” cancer. The lump is small – much smaller than last time. It is a low-grade cancer. It is not a recurrence, but a new cancer. I have met with a surgeon and scheduled a mastectomy.

Terror is back. Surely beauty will follow.

This is a detour on my journey to San Francisco, where the Pacific Ocean waits for me. After some road repairs, I will keep going.

Friday, October 9, 2009

How Fast Can We Make This Happen?

“Slowly, slowly. That’s the way. The Chinese say it all the time. Slowly, slowly,” says Michael Max, the man behind the needle at Yong Kang Chinese Medicine Clinic, which recently opened across from the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market.

Michael tells me this at Starbucks, where we’re having coffee on a recent Tuesday. The theme may or may not be a spin-off from this Chinese saying: “Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”

The effort to sell the condo is not standing still. Sunday morning, you can watch – if you don’t blink – a quick ad for it on the Coldwell-Banker Gundaker show at 10 a.m. on KMOV-TV. Three hours later, we’re holding an open house.

At the last open house, a couple suggested that I trade my condo for their home in Maplewood. We need to do better than that.

So slowly, slowly, I’m waiting for Sunday to arrive as I ponder Michael’s words. We met at a party held at the home of my massage therapist, the incomparable Yue Ma. Now Michael and I get together once in a while to talk about writing, about selling the condo (Michael grew up in Creve Coeur) and about the acupuncture business.

Michael graduated in 1998 from the Seattle Institute of Oriental Medicine, where he earned a Master's of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. He holds NCCAOM national certifications in both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. After practicing for a few years in Seattle, Michael went to Asia for five years, where he studied medicine at Beijing TCM University and worked with doctors in the hospitals of Beijing.

While there, Michael studied acupuncture with Dr. Wang, a richly experienced scholar/doctor, and in Taiwan, he sat with Dr. Jiang Tong, a 95-year-old practitioner who taught Michael his signature approach to using Chinese herbs. When he returned to the U.S., Michael opened the Yong Kang Chinese Medicine Clinic in downtown Seattle. He moved here earlier this year.

Michael offers plenty of health tips on his web site, but he also shares general wisdom. For example:

“They say you can never step in the same river twice. That the slipstream of life with its constant movement, its ever swirl of variable change, is always and continuously presenting us with something new. Change, while it may be imperceptible when viewed through the lenses of habit and assumption, is in fact the only constant in our world.

“Simply look at how we feel about our partners ten years into a relationship, or how the work we do today differs from that we did even just five years ago. Notice how your preference for food has shifted over the course of years, or music for that matter!

“Ever go back and try to relive what was a pleasant memory? Attempt to gain nourishment from something that sustained you at a different moment in life, only to find dust and broken stone? Or, discover much to your surprise that what was once held in disdain can hold the keys to a solution we had given up on?”

Read more at www.yongkangclinic.com.

Slowly, slowly. One day at a time. Half day, if a whole day seems too long.