Sunday, November 20, 2011

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Seventeen months ago, I moved to San Francisco. Every day when I look out my wall of windows at the Pacific Ocean, the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the Marin headlands, Golden Gate Park and the tops of both towers of the most famous bridge in the world, I am overcome with joy that I live here.

Everything is here: Extraordinary natural beauty, pounding waves accessible by bus, gusty winds that pull the curl from my hair, striking architecture, scenic views in unexpected spots, much soul-satisfying theater, a ballpark with views of container ships in transit, world-class museums, quirky galleries, a dozen or more independent book stores, restaurants offering savory dishes at all prices, two coffee shops per block, adorable boutiques, upscale consignment stores and yes, a massive Macy’s with a plus-size department that can take an hour or more to scour. 

Everything is here: A mass transit system that takes me anywhere I want to go (as long as I plan in advance) and guarantees colorful characters on almost every ride. On the bus to the dentist two weeks ago, I sat across from a woman reading her AARP magazine – aloud. It was like listening to a book on tape, but she also interjected comments. I’ve seen people get on buses with surfboards, bulky strollers and three bags bulging with balloon animals. I’ve shared a bus with 18 fifth grade boys – we talked baseball. Once, a woman boarded with a wooden kitchen chair. She placed the chair next to her seat, right in the aisle.

Everything is here: A refreshing "live and let live" attitude that pervades every neighborhood, allowing for people in costume, people in the buff and everyone else as well. I have met kind and giving people of all sorts, people who wave at me, call me by name and ask me what’s up. The man who owns the insurance company on the corner (and Earl, the wonderful dog who works there) even offered to go with me to the vet the day I had to say goodbye to my cat. I always look forward to encounters with a gifted artist friend in Bolinas, my massage therapist, my hair stylist, the receptionists at my gym, the grocer in Cole Valley, the barista at CafĂ© Reverie and the owner of the auto body shop. My neighbors in my building are wonderful people, people who last night got a delivery from the Pumpkin Bread Fairy – and yes, I made a loaf for my kind landlord as well.    

Everything is here: Especially my beloved son and daughter-in-law! I moved here to be closer to Patricia and Joel, and that was exactly the right thing to do at exactly the right time. As a bonus, I got a whole new family! Susan (Patricia’s mom) and I have become great friends. I always look forward to seeing Michael and Martia (P’s brother and sister-in-law) and their smart, adorable daughters, Catherine and Elizabeth. Marylou and Mario (Martia’s parents) also have warmly welcomed me into the family circle, and I have enjoyed getting to know Marylou’s sisters and their children.

Wait – not quite everything is here. My dearest friends are not here.

Susan generously shares her friends, and I am grateful for that. It’s been great fun getting to know Denise (see you at Christmas and at Full Moon Cocktails in January!) and all the others. At get-togethers, we swap the stories women of a certain age all tell, we explore what else we have in common – and always, we laugh.  

Still, after 17 months in San Francisco, I miss my friends. Some of them have come to visit, among them Gerry, Tom, Judy, Scott, Beth, Gail, Susan, Denny, Deb, Bill, Ken, Nancy, Laurie, Karen, Pat, Charlie, Michael, Donna and Doug. When Cheri came to visit her son and daughter-in-law, we reconnected after decades of minimal contact – but then, it’s easy to enjoy hanging out with someone you met when you were 12 and roomed with in college. Other friends plan to visit soon -- or say they will -- and I look forward to that.  

We bridge the distance between us with Skype, Facebook, email, on-line Scrabble games and occasional cards. Clearly, no matter how far apart we are, we still feel close, in touch, there for moral support or to share a good laugh. It’s not the same as being together in person, but all these wonderful people (you know who you are) love me still and include me in their circle of friends. I am grateful for that.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cancer Sucks, But Also Brings Unexpected Gifts

“Cancer Sucks.”

That’s what the button said. I laughed out loud. It was a big button, available in many colors. I bought a lime green one for a friend who just reached her first year anniversary past diagnosis. I hope the button makes her laugh, and I hope she wears it.

I found the button at the gift shop in the UCSF Medical Center’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, where I had just met with a social worker. Back story: My oncologist wants to see me every six months for follow-up appointments. I think once a year is plenty now that I am two years past the most recent diagnosis.

Who wants to spend time – or money – at the doctor’s office?

At my appointment last week, I whined about the high cost of seeing the oncologist. A follow-up visit runs $391, and six months from now I will be on the hook for the entire amount as I will not have met my insurance deductible. “Go see our social worker,” said my doctor. “You may qualify for some assistance programs.”

“I am sure I won't qualify,” I said.     

She replied, “Go anyway. Ask.”

That’s logical, so I went.

Guess what? Based on my freelance income and my teensy pension, I do qualify for several programs that help breast cancer survivors pay medical expenses. The social worker -- my new best friend -- filled out some forms and submitted them electronically for me, and she gave me information about other agencies to contact.

I walked out of the medical center in a daze. I boarded a bus, hopped off at Laurel Village and meandered into Chico's, where I bought a $100 sweater on sale for $50. Immediately I felt guilty about spending money just after signing up for help with medical expenses, so I may return the sweater.

When I first sat down with the social worker, I told her I do not want any money that could be used to help people far needier than I am. She said the funds I qualify for are set up by people who have lost family members to breast cancer, and that no one in dire need will lose out on any money just because I happen to be in the program. “You qualify,” she said. “It’s okay.”

After cancer the first time, I got the opportunity to write "Chemotherapy and Radiation for Dummies," which is also available in French and German. Only 5 percent of all book authors make a living at it, but I did collect a few royalty checks and I would like to think that what I wrote in that book from a patient’s point of view has helped other people going through cancer treatments. Now it seems that cancer has delivered another gift.

Back home later in the afternoon, I got a note from a former neighbor, a woman I treasure as a friend. From her I received the gift of laughter. Her note begins: “Today I am paying bills. The most important one is to the Humane Society of Missouri. Perhaps they can spay or neuter some of the Republicans. Such a sad bunch!”

The moral of this story is this: Go anyway. Ask! And no matter what answer you get, remember to appreciate the sunset.