Origin Story

The kitchen, sketched out in its inglorious glory.

Truth be told, this was not my first rodeo. I had emergency surgery twice to complete my pregnancies. Those boys always wanted to do things the hard way. And then, a dozen-plus years later, I had six pins put in my ankle to ensure it didn’t hang at a bad angle after my free fall.

Perhaps the first two didn’t count. Both of those were epidurals. I did have general anesthesia for the orthopedic surgery. I had been knocked out for oral surgery before, but it wasn’t general. The ankle doctor warned me that I would be intubated.

This translated to waking up in a a new place with the worst case of cotton mouth that I have ever experienced. And then they gave me crackers!?! I guess to get my system back in flow. I took a nibble. I had absolutely zero moisture in my mouth so the slightly salty cracker dust sat between my cheek and my gum like a very dry and very heavy sand. I tried to float it away with apple juice, but instead the sakrete expanded and solidified into an immobile brick. I had to work it out with more juice and my pinky finger. And then all I wanted was a toothbrush–except dry mouth and toothpaste was almost worse.

This time, I was going under to get a tattoo (if you want, you can catch up with this part of the story here). I was there, cheerily in the morning. I was cheery because I needed to be. It made the entire process better for the surgical team, and being a frightened mess served no purpose.

The Spouse and I were called into pre-op, which was an eight or nine square feet space delineated by a bed in the center and a surrounding set of curtains that made a metal swoosh sound as they were drawn aside. I stepped into my bay, was given a not-cute outfit and a set of instructions. I placed my street clothes into the clear plastic bags with drawstring tops and snuggled my feet into the surgical socks with gripper bottoms likely required by the risk manager wishing to avoid unnecessary patient falls on the cold slick floors.

I wasn’t walking around, though. I was on my cot with my jacquard hospital blanket tucked under my elbows. I had my surgical gown on, but didn’t need to wear my green mesh hat until later.

Pretty much everyone in the hospital verbally verified my name and birthdate as they spied the data printed on the plastic bracelet around my wrist. The first year resident put in my IV. He totally blew it and got blood all over my bed and uncleverly hid it under my hand. He then had me apply direct pressure to stem the flow until the weary nurse fixed his mess. She did make him clean the floor.

There were additional residents and medical students, nurses and nurse anesthesiologists, techs and transporters, my doctor and his assistant and the anesthesiologist herself. They all name-checked and proofed me.

Everyone was very polite and, more importantly, kind. I teased the youngins and joked with the pros. The Spouse shuffled between the single guest chair and the space just outside the curtains, depending on the staff directions. I liked it when he was closer. I think the staff did, too.

We did our schtick–where we trick everyone into thinking that we had deep affection for each other via our cruel and cutting banter. There really wasn’t reason to be too worried about this procedure, but it was the start of a series of procedures with more worry. But today, we were keeping it light.

It was close to showtime. My gurney was flanked by the transporter, a pair of nurses and the anesthesiologist who stood at my right. She patted her breast pocket.

“This is the good stuff,” she smiled. I didn’t know there was any “good stuff.”

Turns out they give you some pre-juice before wheeling you into the operating room. She explained that the syringes in her pocket didn’t completely knock you out, but relaxed the patient. I would be awake but wouldn’t remember anything.

I was a bit suspicious. “Is this like some kind of truth serum?” Everyone laughed, the nurses, the transporter, the Spouse and me.

“Naw. We won’t quiz you.” She pumped the happy juice into my IV and I woke up two seconds later in the recovery room. Well, it wasn’t two seconds in a literal sense, but that was all I knew.

I had my apple juice and skipped the snack. While I avoided the dry crackers, I did have real moisture in my mouth. After a short stint, I was unhooked from the monitors. I changed back into my civilian clothes. Not long after, I was dropped off at home for an uneventful day, and the Spouse was able to squeeze in a half-day at work.

That evening, when we sat down for dinner, we went through notable moments that day–the funny socks, the charming nurse, the failed resident and the happy juice.

“Hey, did I say anything after I got that shot?”

The Spouse looked at me for a second before he answered. “Why, yes, you did.” The way he said it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up a little.

“I did? What did I say?”

He paused again. “Well, as they were wheeling you away, you pointed your finger at me and said, ‘You will not stop me from redoing the kitchen this time!’ And all the women around your bed [there were only women] looked at me in horror and said that I better get you that new kitchen.”

Whoa and WHAT? I had no idea where that came from. Really and truly, I didn’t. This hadn’t been a major point of discussion or contention. That morning, I was going to have a procedure to mark the tumor in my mouth. I had this cancer shit on my mind, and of all things, I talk about a stupid kitchen remodel?

And, Loyal Reader, three years later, that’s how we got here.

Tastes Like Metal

Leeks, garlic, parsley, yams, sweet potato and parsley, beautifully photographed still life.

There were many many many many and many ingredients in the Magick Mineral Broth. Of course there were carrots, onions, celery and potatoes. But that would not be very magic.

The recipe calls for leeks and garlic, too. Not only that, but sweet potatoes (preferably Japanese) and garnet yams. The spice mix included the standard bay leaf and peppercorns plus the flavor and medicinal value add of juniper berries–just don’t substitute gin. Added to the boil, just so you really had to go a fancy grocery, was kombu–also known as seaweed sheets. It adds a bit of fullness of flavor, like saltwater with fish.

You can drink it warm for breakfast. You can add noodles and an egg and eat a bowl full of soup. You can use it as a base for another soup. You can put it on your cereal.

Seriously, I might as well have.

The technique is simple enough, throw everything in a big pot of water, boil the hell out of it and add salt to taste.

I got this recipe from a cancer cookbook I ordered. The idea was to use this combo of beautiful, healthy, colorful foods to prep my body for chemo and to make myself less unwell after treatment. To be honest, I think that the real purpose was to give myself a mindless yet mindful project. Distraction from the unknown. You’ve heard about an idle mind?

You don’t know what chemo does. And different combos have different impacts. And those impacts will be different for different folks. Will you be puking? Hair falling out? Just generally feeling gross? Will your feet and hands feel like sand? Will you hurt? Get sores in your mouth? Will you be cold? Hot? Exhausted? Couch or bed bound? And, behind all those unknowns is the real question, the one you don’t want to ask. Will this poison cocktail work?

Preparing the broth, the rich golden elixir full of antioxidants and magical minerals, was a step into something knowable. I could cut and cook. I could control that part. I could calm–or at least distract–my active imagination.

So, I chopped and I boiled and I added salt. It topped off my 12 quart stock pot. I disposed of the spent vegetables. Then I strained it into a many large jars. The magical mystery broth makes a ton of soup.

Later, I used a cup or so and made the noodle bowl. It tasted very good that day. I think I tweeted about how awesome it was.

And then I never touched it again. The jars sat in the fridge for a while until I made the Spouse spill out the contents into the sink and wash it away.

To this day, three years later, when I think of that magical broth, the smell, the taste, even the color, I feel a little sick. As I’m typing the words that described me eating it, that described pouring it into tall Mason jars, my stomach is getting queasy and I’m swallowing thickening saliva.

That liquid that extracted all the flavor and benefits from the ingredients tastes like chemo to me. The drugs are pumped into a port in your chest, but the scent and the taste get in the back of your mouth and violate the tastebuds at the back of your tongue. I think of the golden soup and I think of drinking something made from cheap metals that would turn your finger green. The minerals tasted more like slate and pencil shavings and solder.

So I had it that one day and I couldn’t take it again. I decided that I hated that book, too. The Cancer Cookbook or some stupid name. It did have some great advice–to avoid eating your favorite foods on the days surrounding treatment. They said that chemo could ruin them for you. Forever.

Chemo sucked, but it didn’t ruin my taste for dark chocolate with hazelnuts–or dark chocolate anything. It did, however, turn me against that awful veggie broth. Oh, and two months ago I left the cancer cookbook in my local Little Free Library. I hadn’t opened it again. Not since I cooked up that nasty broth three years ago. Maybe someone else can use the distraction. Me? Not looking back.

Secret Passage

This is a stylized view of a sunflower napkin ring on a paisley tablecloth. It is an image that makes you think of something else. I bet people treating cancer patients think of something else all the time.

The doctor walked out into the hall. He looked tired. He was tired.

The offices and treatment rooms were laid out in a way that he could escape. Escape from those he treated.

He didn’t just treat the sick. He treated the well. The well that were sometimes more terrified than his actual patients. The well who were worried that their beloved sicks would be neglected.

The doctor didn’t neglect anyone. He just couldn’t save them all. When they met him, they were already diagnosed. He was an oncologist. So their illness was cancer.

Cancer isn’t a death sentence. He explained that to those who were referred to him. That said, sometimes people with cancer die. People look to him for their stage. Staging is important. If you’re Stage 1, you feel okay. If you’re Stage 4, you think you’re dead. You might be. Or maybe not.

But the Doctor sees you no matter your stage. And does their best to keep you in the “not dead” category. But it’s their best. And as good as they may be, some will move to the dead category.

But not today. The Doctor was very tired. There was a ten-day medical education thingie that he was still feeling. He’s not a resident anymore!

But, today he saw you, with your biggest, winning smile cemented by yesterday’s tooth polishing at the dentist. Your hair was growing beyond it’s style, sticking out at the back and around your ears like a 70’s Keith Partridge.

You were bronzed from a week at the beach and the last MRI was clean. He told the fourth-year medical student how you helped develop a new treatment protocol. They talked coded doctor talk a bit. Not to be rude, but because they were excited.

But the oncologist still looked tired. You saw him before he was excited. When he left via the back entrance. The secret staff exit from the chemo bar. You were late. You sheepishly signed in and then met up with the money taker. Next:  your blood work. Then you surreptitiously snuck to the restroom–the one behind the elevators–before you got your blood pressure (117/70), temp (98.4°) and weight (none of your fcuking business) took.

When you got to the bathroom, it was occupied. So you stood, legs crossed, and waited.

You looked up when you heard a rustle at the far end of the hallway. You thought someone had found the stairwell that was invisible to you. Oncology was only a single floor up, but the corridor to the steps was like the room of requirements, only there if you knew it.

When you looked up, you saw a rumpled man with a stethoscope snaked around his neck. He was leaving from the secret staff exit. He looked up to see you doing the pee-pee dance. You gave a broad, silent wave. He gave a half wave from around his belt just before he opened the door across from the stairwell and disappeared. Into his retreat. Where he could collect himself. Away from the hope(lessness) of the chemo bar.

He’s a good doc. He needs a break. You don’t want him to break. He’s doing god’s work.

Postcards

A triangle, a pool cue and a few balls inside the triangle and a few balls outside the triangle. The table is green. The balls in the triange are 3, 5 and 9. Nine is striped.

There was this joint a few blocks away. It was tiny. There were two rooms, not including the johns. It was on the far corner of Colorado Avenue, and you had to walk a few steps down to reach the entrance. Not many. Maybe two. Max was three.

The door wasn’t the sturdiest, but the bar was solid. When you walked in you’d see a few dozen coffee mugs hanging from the wall. And, when you walked in, it was as a bell heralded your entrance. There wasn’t a bell, but you still felt a chime. As you crossed the threshold, Becky would come from behind the doorway to greet you.

She was a slight woman. She had thick bangs that topped big, thick plastic glasses. She wore her hair pulled back in a pony tail. It wasn’t long and luxurious. It was thinnish and a dull blonde. The rubber band was functional. This was her joint and she had work to do.

I don’t know that anyone else worked there. She must have changed her own kegs. She made the sandwiches–my favs were the turkey and the roast beef. I really really liked her ice cream scoop of potato salad. It was a big scoop. I don’t think she made it herself, but it was standout in freshness and flavor. The food wasn’t cooked. It was fixed–in the kitchen behind the bar. The only thing served hot was the coffee.

There was a great story about the robbery at Becky’s joint. A guy walked down the steps where he knew a small, fortyish woman tended bar, and he had a gun. He very nervously pointed it at the proprietor and demanded her money. She looked at him and said she would bring it from the back. As she stepped through the open doorway to the kitchen, the sweaty guy heard the click, click, click, click, click, click,  click, click, click, click of  ten guns being drawn. A heavily mustached man sitting at the far end of the bar spoke. His eyes were facing the shelves at the back of the bar. He didn’t move his head.

“Man. You done went ahead and fucked up. See all those coffee mugs on the wall. This is where we come to get a coffee. During our patrol shifts. Why don’t you put that gun down now, son. And I will have the police officers behind you lower their weapons.”

It was a cop bar. The would-be robber fell to the ground, was cuffed and taken away. Then Becky came out of the kitchen. She refilled the mug of the man with the mustache. Nothing else was said.

Just to the right of the bar was another open doorway, to the second room. That room was mostly for darts. There were leagues that played there some nights. Other nights people would pull their flights from their pockets and throw. It was fun.

There was also a misshapen pool table. You’d ask Becky for the balls if they weren’t on the table. If she didn’t know you, you might need to leave a driver’s license. But if she didn’t know you, why would you be playing pool there?

We were drinking Miller, the champagne of beers, from longnecks. We met up with some union brothers of The Spouse (when we were dating and not married, but let’s not confuse things by giving The Spouse a new identifier). Five of us were at the pool table playing a very unskilled game of eight ball. Slop counted. Someone brought another pair of handfuls of Miller.

She was a bit aloof, but not for any reason other than she didn’t know everyone. She was tall and had a quick smile and a throaty laugh. Her eyes were big and expressive, especially when she was making or parrying a point. Her layered dark blonde hair was heavy enough to stop it from flying all over the place. Still, her bangs danced just above her brows and cascaded along her cheeks and down her back.

I knew her husband, but she wasn’t with her husband. She was with a different union brother. I liked the one she was with better than the husband anyway. The crowd were mostly members of the local, except for me, her and her future her sister-in-law. Then there were four of us at playing pool.

In those next minutes, which were less than ninety, I became friends with my best friend that I ever had in Washington. The most regular person I knew here. She mostly grew up around D.C., versus the transplanted folks that were the majority of my colleagues, acquaintances and friends.

She had both a kindness and a take-no-prisoners air. I think that any prisoners would have been glad to spend time with her, though. Even if she upbraided them, she would relate to their experiences while demanding better. They would try harder.

She was an artist. She had huge feelings. She was the best mother I knew. She honestly and lovingly challenged my own failures in a way that pushed me to fail less. I want to be more like her.

Today would have been her birthday. Facebook told me. I found my head in my hands and cried again at losing her. Every year I cry a few times because I miss her.  I wish she was here to slap me upside the head and tell me the truths that I am too dumb to see. And I remain grateful, so very, very, very grateful, that she was my friend.

Dearest Kris, having a wonderful time and so wish you were here. xoxo

Eau de Toilette

Mint tea. And a sprig of mint.

So before, when I was having chemo, some days–some days at a time, to be honest–I would feel like I had to throw up. They call it a “side-effect.”

Now, let me be super clear. Feeling like you are going to puke, even for hours, even for days, is much better than being dead. So, my statement above is just conveying a fact. I am NOT complaining. [Please note if there are any cancer gods reading this, I am super grateful. This is not a post about tweaking you all. You did great by me!]

So that clarified, feeling like the contents of your stomach will soon be leaving via an overpass from your mouth is not great. It stops you from eating. It stops you from talking. It encourages you to roll up in as little a ball as you can, and to sit very, very quietly because you believe that if you move it would cause the volcano inside you to erupt.

There’s a difference between feeling like you have to barf when you’re hungover, for example, and feeling like you have to barf because of chemo. If you’re hungover and you let it go, you almost always feel better. Nausea gone. Eat a hotdog and drink a fountain coke and be on with your day. With chemo-induced queasiness, there is no such relief. You just feel like crap. Always. Seriously, so much better to have had too much whiskey last night. And for those of you keeping score at home, I can’t tell you how this compares to pregnancy-induced nausea. I feel quite blessed by that ignorance, thank you very much.

So here I am, curled up like my own little Poké Ball, giving a whole new meaning to Squirtle. Someone gifted me a handfull of a fluffy white bear. Let me tell you, new fluffy stuffed animals are amazing and surprisingly comforting. Anyway, holding that bear close, next to my chest,  under my chin and not moving a single muscle seemed to help keep the upchuck at bay.

I couldn’t drink it, but the smell of peppermint tea improved my stomach roils by orders of magnitude. I soon recognized that making tea that I couldn’t drink was less effective than just holding the peppermint tea bag directly in my nostrils. That was crazy effective. Summing up, if I didn’t move a muscle, held the fluffy stuffed bear under my chin and breathed in the tea bag, I was fine. I could fall asleep, which despite the chemo-exhaustion was blocked by feeling wretched or that I might just retch.

I could reuse that teabag for a few pre-snoozing sessions, but I manhandled my way through the box of Twinings Peppermint Tea. Gah!

“Doc,” said the boys, “you need anything?” Normally, there wasn’t much that they could do, but today, but today! I had a mission.

Almost before I could say, “Can you go up to the drugstore and get me some peppermint tea bags?” they were off.

I sat waiting with my legs tucked underneath me, perched on the arm of the couch. The dog-beast assumed his nurse’s position just on top of my feet. I was vewy vewy still, keeping the bear pressed to my breastbone awaiting their return.

They had gone to the drugstore to find no peppermint tea. Undaunted, they braved the late December cold five more blocks to the organic market. Surely there would be peppermint tea in the hippie-haven. They found many organic options including loose tea by the scoop. Pushing on, they rifled through boxes and boxes of rosehips, camomile, zingers–red and yellow, sleepytime, berry, ginger latte, revive, pomegranate pizazz, I<3Lemon, grateful heart, peach tranquility and citrus lavender sage herbal tea. There might have been more. There were more.

The voila! moment came when they ferreted the Candy Cane. It wasn’t pure mint, but, it seemed to them close to mission fulfilling.

They brought the tea home in a bag and with the story of their explore. When they took the plastic wrap off the box and handed me a fresh bag, I can tell you honestly that nothing ever before was that effective in quelling my quease. I propped the bag under my nose, squeezed the bear and sniffed deeply.

What nice boys. What a fluffy bear. What a scent. What a relief.

I had been told to not eat my favorite foods during chemotherapy. The association of those foods with nausea ruins a good relationship. I skipped some of my comfort foods so that they could comfort me into the future. Fortunately dark chocolate with hazelnuts was not spoiled. And, fortunately, I can still enjoy peppermint tea. Like I did tonight when it delivered this memory via it’s perfumed aroma.

 

Recursive Storm

bunches of beautiful green spearming

You look across the blue cloudless sky. There’s a bit of heaviness in the air, as you’d expect for this time of year.

It’s a pretty blue, both deep and true sky. There’s just a whisper of a breeze. Not a relief from the heavy, but as you’d expect.

Something feels a little off. The hair on your arms becomes attentive. Maybe there’s a murmur of an echo of that broken ankle or a low drone in your right ear.

You shake it off but empty the overfull ashtray on the porch. You don’t put the ashtray back on the table in the middle of the porch.  You put it on the shelf next to the house. You grab the rake and walk it back to the garage, picking up a few empty flower pots on the way. You stack them just inside the garage and put the rake up.

As you walk up the back porch steps, you realize that nobody picked up after that last party. There are beer caps on the table and an empty box that has a deflated bag of ice. Ice gone for months. You put the cover back on the Weber. You moved a chair and see an old crumpled napkin skip across the deck. Looks like the breeze is picking up and the color of the sky is getting deeper. You pull the red and white awning striped umbrella in the house.

Occasional big fat drops bomb the sidewalk and burst on the metal roof. It’s windy now and the sky darkens behind you. You run upstairs and pull the windows shut. Your fingers make sure the latches catch.

You step onto the front porch to welcome the monster storm and as the rain pounds you are sprayed. Flashes of light and crackles of thunder give way to sideways gale and the popcorn of hail.

You see the sky get that sickening color and close the door behind you. Crouch down in a safe place and listen as the freight train tears by above you. As you crawl out, you don’t know what to expect. You peep out to assess the damage. You pause. You’re okay. It’s a mess, but you’re okay. You begin to clean up and move along. It’s over except for the healing, and you beat that storm.

The weatherman tells you that the further you get from the disaster, the less likely it is to recur. It’s been two years, he said. Five is the magic number. See you in six months.

And this is where my analogy breaks down. It doesn’t totally work.

You are disquieted at the reminder that the danger is both random and maybe even brewing.  After you leave, you find yourself scanning the sky again for the portent. You will carefully search the sky for the next few days and then, hopefully, right a few picture frames and plant some mint.

Annonymous

Such a cute mottled working dog.
Cute on the dog, dumb on the girl.

My eyelashes are filling back in. I never lost them all. There were a few that stubbornly stood by and supported me as I vainly (both in conceit and in futility) worked the mascara wand. Now those soldiers have fresh recruits.

I ran in the local market because I needed peppercorns for a recipe and saw a friend picking up a last minute corn-bread mix. She said she didn’t recognize me in my red-head hat, which I pulled off showing my ‘do to her widening-eyes. She remembers me with long blonde locks.

My hair is coming in, too. It’s thick and soft like moss, and dark and light in patches that look really cool close-cropped but may make me look like a crazed Australian shepherd as it grows out.

A colleague walked by me without recognition–three times. Even after I tapped his arm.

I am seeing the world the same as it ever was, but others are not seeing me in the same world.

Am I moving on too fast? Are the people around me trying to tell me something? Am I missing some important meaning?

My hair is showing itself to be curly–and unruly at that. I see some of it sticking up and out. I don’t think that I have any product that can tame it.

Spring has finally broken through. After three miserable weeks of Sunday-Monday snow in a row, it looks like the bad weather is behind us. Today was glorious. Stuff all a-bloom, the sunshine warm and welcome. I decided to go to the driving range rather than watch golf on TV.

ugly golf shoes, crazy shadow and 9 iron

I had a new obnoxiously aqua/turquoise golf-skirt to wear with my bright lime shirt and joker shoes to satisfy my personal rule that golf clothes must be ugly. I went to my urban golf hideout with my 9-iron.

I’m always a lousy golfer, but I wasn’t even sure that I could swing my club. I got a little bucket of balls.

I stood on my little square of green carpet. It was crowded so I had to take the stall without a tee. That seemed good. Less pressure. I just had the one club with me, and I took it in two hands and stretched it over my head and behind my back. Rolled a ball onto my plot and set my feet. Placed the club across my left palm and met it with my right hand. Looked at that white dimpled ball and wondered if everyone was looking at me.

Seriously. I did. Like everyone knew my secret–as if I had a secret.

Why would anyone look? They had their own balls to hit. Their own grips to adjust. Their own club to blame for that slice. What was curbing me?

I thought the strangers could see me and knew that this was my first swing since my treatment.

But they weren’t looking. They didn’t see me either, but they didn’t know who I was before.

People ask me what I am going to do with my hair. Keep it short? Grow it out? I don’t know. I don’t know what it will be like. I don’t need to decide today.

I do know that I am grateful that it is coming back. And for alot of other things, too.