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Guest Posts, cancer

You Can’t Make That Up

April 26, 2022
breast cancer

How do you know your dog is dead?

My mother was concerned and texting me about her elderly dog. I asked if he was breathing and no, Wilbur was not breathing. He had collapsed soon after peeing. I told my mother to put a towel over him and I would be there as soon as possible. It was already a busy day. My novel was coming out in two months and I needed to respond to emails before picking up the kids from a local park. But trouble worships at the altar of inconvenience.

Later that night, after transporting the corpse to the vet, I found the lump in my breast.

I am now being treated for breast cancer. According to my oncologist, one in eight women gets this disease. More women get breast cancer than floss regularly. This makes my diagnosis somewhat run-of-the-mill, which is both reassuring and frightening. As I write this, I am sitting up in bed leaning against something called a wedge pillow. I am between surgeries and chemotherapy, considering a buzz cut and reading about the likelihood of mouth sores. I want to write, but as it turns out, cancer is time consuming. It’s infuriating. It won’t let me make stuff up.

Like parenting, cancer is something you do while you do all the other things. “Breast cancer is the one you want,” said my friend with lung cancer who manages a fitness center. Another friend, upon learning of my diagnosis, said, “At least it’s under a Biden Administration.” And then she promised to knit me a boob and would I mind merino wool if they were out of cashmere.

The day after I dropped off the dog corpse, I scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound. As the Russian woman with the blue mascara and N95 mask maneuvered my breast into a plastic tray while explaining that, due to my age (47), half of my breasts had migrated to my armpits, I stared at the daffodil mural and wondered why women needed to be reminded of flowers while they’re standing topless in front of a big white machine. One week later, I was back for a biopsy and, this time, a field of bright orange poppies. As I perched on the table awaiting the technician, I jotted down some notes for a story about a Russian woman with blue mascara.

Soon after, on my way to pick up my daughter from physical therapy, I got the call. “It’s not the news we were hoping for,” is how the nurse began. As I pulled the car over, she declared matter-of-factly, “You will get through this. But we should act quickly.” There were other words: fast-growing tumor, surgery, chemotherapy. I interrupted her. “I need to find parking. Can you email me what you just said?” She said she would. I found a spot around the corner.

In the car, I told my 13-year-old the news. “I’ll be ok,” I said, crying, “But I have breast cancer.” She was quiet and stared out the window. Back at home, she made me a cup of mint tea and suggested we watch Gilmore Girls. It was the episode where Paris gets bossy about the school newspaper. We stared at the screen and waited for the rest of the family to come home. My husband had taken the older one to the DMV to test for her learner’s permit. When they walked into the kitchen, permit in hand, I restated something I would later say one hundred more times to my extended family. “I’ll be ok. But I have breast cancer.” As I described what I understood about my disease so far, my older daughter cried, and my husband nodded slowly, as if drawing an invisible line between his brain and his body. We ordered Thai food and read the pathology report. After dinner I excused myself to listen to a sample of my audio book.

“The good news is that you can keep the top skin and nipples,” the plastic surgeon informed me, after drawing a diagram of my breast showing the location of the tumor. He depicted my breast as a perfectly round circle with the nipple as a tiny donut, smack dab in the middle. I told the surgical team my first novel was coming out in a few weeks. “How exciting,” one of the residents said. “We can schedule around that.”

I spoke to a stranger who, eight years ago, had a double mastectomy and reconstruction with the same surgical team. She told me to buy this wedge pillow, and to request an anti-nausea drug to get me through general anesthesia. She encouraged me to take the pain medication, and to wear a button-down blouse to the hospital because I wouldn’t be able to pull shirts over my head for several weeks. She assured me I was doing the right thing, and what my new breasts would lack in sensation, they would make up for in symmetry and perkiness. She sent me a photo of her cleavage and offered to meet me somewhere so I could see and touch her silicon breasts. “It’s just what we do for each other,” she said, when I marveled at her invitation and politely declined. Then I put on lipstick and attended a virtual event for debut novelists.

Between blood tests, Zoom book events, and doctors drawing on my breasts with Sharpies, it began to hit me. Rocking back and forth on the floor of my bedroom, I fantasized about running away. I could fly to an island, swim in warm water, and order drinks from someone who thinks I’m healthy.

On a Friday in March, I woke up at dawn and showered with antiseptic body wash. After removing my jewelry, I pulled on sweatpants and my mother’s button-down shirt. My husband drove me to the hospital and held my hand in the waiting room. When the woman with the hoop earrings asked if he was my next of kin in the event I couldn’t make health decisions for myself, I started crying. My surgeon visited and asked if I was writing another book. “I think so,” I told her. “I’ve been busy.”

The nurse with the mole on his forehead had to put the IV in my foot. The veins on my hands are “tricky,” he said. I surrendered to him my merino wool knit boob, and he promised everyone would take good care of me. Then he put a mask over my mouth and told me to take several deep breaths.

Six hours later, I woke up woozy with a large bandage across my chest. I felt an incredible weight which made normal breathing difficult. Below the bandage, under my skin and pectoral muscles, were two expanders that would hold the place for future implants. Drains to collect excess fluid hung down from my body like extra intestines. My husband kissed the top of my head. His lips were soft. “You did it,” he said, looking proud and relieved. We ordered chicken teriyaki from the hospital menu, and I sipped apple juice through a straw. That night I requested that the nurses leave the shades open so I could watch the lights flicker in the skyscraper next door. I half-watched Crazy Rich Asians and a corset movie with Keira Knightley while I drifted in and out of sleep. I first saw Crazy Rich Asians on a plane two years ago. I had cancer then but didn’t know it.

Back at home in bed, propped up against the wedge pillow, I checked my email. Many people had enjoyed my novel. One reviewer called it “strange and beautiful,” and another said, “This book will haunt me for a while; maybe forever and not in a bad way.” I smiled and swallowed more pills. I could barely move. Sharp pains shot through my chest like lightning bolts. My left armpit felt like it was on fire. I had no appetite for anything other than ice water. And more frightening than the physical pain, was the psychosis. I was scared to be alone. I was worried I might rip the drains out of my sides and pick open the incisions to tear the expanders out of my chest. I didn’t want to hurt myself, but I wanted, no – I needed – the foreign objects out of my body. The next day I picked up a prescription for an anti-anxiety med.

A few days later, I went to a bookstore for a signing. I wore a black hoodie with inside pockets to hold the drains. It was designed for women who had had their breasts removed. It also came in pink but that seemed too upbeat. I sat in a folding chair and signed 30 copies of my novel. A customer asked me what it was about. “Secret-keeping,” I replied.

My oncologist’s assistant called today, interrupting a short story I was working on. Next week I will start chemo. This will involve 16 infusions over the course of five months. The story is about a policeman who is concerned about his aging body. I can’t decide how to end it. The strongest of the drugs, Adriamycin, is bright red and can cause burning sensations in the body, which is why it is referred to as The Red Devil. You can’t make that up.

Rebecca Handler is a writer who lives and works in San Francisco. Rebecca’s stories have been published and awarded in several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at www.onewomanparty.com. Edie Richter is Not Alone, her debut novel, was published by Unnamed Press in March 2021, received a Kirkus Starred Review, and was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Rebecca was recently awarded a MacDowell fellowship and looks forward to spending April 2022 in the woods in New Hampshire, writing her second novel.

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If you liked this essay you will love this book:

“A tragicomic exploration of the collateral damage of Alzheimer’s disease… Handler gets it right from the title on out. Edie is definitely not alone. Her plight is one many readers will respond to deeply and perhaps even be soothed by… Profound yet often quite funny, keenly observed, and deeply affecting.” ―Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

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Guest Posts, cancer, Starting Over

27 Stitches

July 27, 2021
surgery

by Lauren Gobell

I got skin cancer for the first time when I was 28. Basal cell carcinoma, right temple, one freeze and burn surgery required. I’ll wear lots of sunscreen, and this won’t happen again. This is my health scare, and now it’s done, I reassured myself. But a year later, at twenty-nine, my white scar that I was painfully self-conscious of became suspiciously pink around the edges. My insides churned in that way that only happens when you know something bigger than you is brewing beneath the surface.

By then, I was four-and-a-half years into my marriage, and it’d been touch and go the entire time. After the diagnosis, I brought my then-husband to a consultation, so a doctor could explain that “basal” is not to be confused with “benign.” This was in fact, cancer, and therefore, it needed to be removed for medical reasons. After confirmation from a medical professional, my then-husband felt reassured that I was not just being dramatic about the whole skin cancer bit. By the time my surgery came in December, we’d separated, but I knew we were most likely headed for a divorce.

Prior to my surgery, I noticed another spot on my center forehead, near the hairline. I call this a, “For Fuck’s Sake” moment. As humans, we’re  all guaranteed 2-3 “For Fuck’s Sake” moments in our lifetime. These are the moments that bring us to our knees. They sometimes make us more resilient in the long run, but, let me abundantly clear, the interim period is extremely unpleasant, and if not handled properly, can really get the better of you.

Two weeks later, that biopsy from my For Fuck’s Sake moment came back positive as well. My one surgery in December would now be a “two for one” surgery. I spent hours bracing for impact before the operation. I scoured the internet for pictures of MOHs surgeries, telling myself it would make it easier post surgery to deal with my own recovery.

I was mistaken.

On December 15, 2016, I had an eight-hour surgery to remove both basal cells which left me with two facial scars. There were twenty-seven external stitches total, and I simply didn’t recognize myself every time I accidentally caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The pale, terrified, stitched-together girl that gazed warily back at me seemed like an imposter. How could this be my life? How did this happen? It was the first time I’ve ever truly felt unlovable, and that feeling lingered for longer than I care to admit.

I wish I could tell you that going through skin cancer quickly made me realize I was a badass. I wish I could tell you that when I caught people looking at my scars, I came back with some fabulous fictitious tale about a skiing excursion gone awry. I wish I could tell you that I left my toxic marriage right then and there.

But I didn’t feel like a badass; I felt broken. But I couldn’t make a clever joke; I was mortified by my own appearance. As women, we’re told by society both directly and indirectly to be hairless, poreless, blemishless. Most days, I was haunted by an inner voice that hissed,Who would ever want you now?”

Fortunately, as the months crept by, my scars went from bright red, to medium red, to an aggravated pink, and finally a subdued white.

And then, five months after my surgery, my husband did the smartest thing he could have possibly done.

He called me dumb.

He called me dumb one last time.

The specifics of that conversation don’t really matter. My hungover husband who had driven home blitzed the night before, who was so hung over we missed therapy with the Christian marriagie counselor he insisted on seeing, called me dumb because I refused to agree that the Hulu show we were watching at the time was “liberal propaganda.”

Dear reader, sometimes specifics do matter.

Because those lovely specifics converged at just the right moment and created a crescendo, a tidal wave of clarity if you will. And when that wave broke, it allowed me to have another “For Fuck’s Sake” moment when I needed it most.

Dear reader, my hungover, drove-home-drunk husband called me dumb, and suddenly everything within me realigned. All the nuts and bolts came together with a resounding internal click.

This was not, is not, could no longer be my life.

The beauty of a For Fuck’s Sake  moment is that it brings about clarity whiplash. Meaning, the truth comes at you so fast, you’re forced to examine it head-on. And since I’d just dealt with a FFS moments months earlier with my two-for-one basal cell diagnosis, I had a better inkling of how to handle a FFS this time around. That skin cancer FFS had been overwhelming, but this FFS ended up being the compelling kind.

The best way to handle an FFS moment is by taking action while doing everything possible to maintain your sense of humor. I had just handled double skin cancer surgery. Surely, I could handle divorce.

And so, I did it. I finally walked away from a dysfunctional nine-year relationship that frankly, never should have made it past a year. I found a mediator. I filed for divorce. And since I was a teacher at the time, my summer job became “Getting Divorced.”

It turns out, that if you have the luxury of making “Getting Divorced” your sole job, you can actually expedite the whole thing rather quickly. I made a “Getting Divorced” playlist. I did more cardio than most doctors would recommend in a fiscal quarter. I went through a brief, albeit dedicated, house music phase. Please be advised, A For Fuck’s Sake moment requires outside-the-box coping strategies. Green smoothies and an FFS don’t pair well.

Nine weeks after uttering the words, “I want a divorce,” I walked out of the courthouse with my marriage dissolved. Sometimes we have to leave.

I left a marriage having been brought up in a very strict, conservative household, having been told my whole life that nothing was more important, nothing was more sacred than marriage.

And yet, I was still able to rebuild my life. I was able to regain financial security and independence. I was able to make a career change. I was able to date and form healthyish, (just being honest, some things really take time) romantic relationships again. And so it turns out, there are things more important, more sacred than marriage. Self-worth being one of them.

27 stitches broke my soul, but they forced me to become whole.

Most days, I still wish skin cancer wasn’t part of my vocabulary, but in a strange way it saved me from myself. Because for fuck’s sake, it gave me my moment.

Please Note: In a bizarre twist of fate, I heard from my ex-husband a couple years after I walked out of that courthouse. He got skin cancer. Life is simultaneously strange and simple.

Lauren Gobell is a former middle school English teacher and now works for a digital media company. She is probably running, reading a thriller, or reapplying sunscreen.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

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Guest Posts, cancer, motherhood

Malfunctioned Muliebrity

July 31, 2020
never

By Jessica M Granger

The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past.
-Virginia Woolf

I remember feeling guilt the first time I met my daughter. I was told I could never have children and that was true until a medical procedure to treat my endometriosis while I was stationed in Texas left me pregnant by a man I had grown to hate. I decided to keep her, gave him control over my body when I decided to keep the fetus I never thought I would have and refused to give up. I was tentative when they placed my daughter in my arms. Then she opened her eyes as if she knew exactly what was going on and stared up at me with the will of a fighter. I was locked in that aged wisdom she carried in the most beautiful brown eyes I had ever seen.

*

I was headed into Kroger grocery center today and saw a man, anger in his balled fists, his body swelling, his face contorted to fit the fear he was trying to instill in a woman. He stormed away from her as she stood in the middle of the street, palms up in a questioning gesture of his unprecedented eruption, and it made me think of you. I could see myself in her and turned away, huddled deeper into my winter coat, my shoulders caving in toward my center, arms hugging my chest, and I wondered if the approaching car would hit her. Then I realized it didn’t matter.

*

My stepfather is a heavy drinker. He had been drinking at Thanksgiving dinner last year when he thought it was a good platform to inject the recent political campaign into our family discussion. He was reeling from excitement that a man who refused to be politically correct would finally put women in their place. He slammed his fists into the table in a thumping sound that enhanced every syllable of his speech. “I’m sorry, but no woman could pull me from a burning building,” he told me. “Dad, I can pull you from a burning building and I am a woman.” “Well, you’re different. You’re a veteran and you save lives every day,” he shouted, spittle flying from the corner of his mouth. I explained many women are braver and strong than I am, that there are women across the globe just like me, women willing to face danger head on and overcome it. His eyes held mine for a minute when I was done. He lingered in my words as he swayed in the oak dining room chair. When he finally spoke, he said, “You win,” but I don’t feel like I’ve won anything.

*

I think part of why I chose a male heavy career is to prove everyone wrong.

*

One day, on a walk in the cold, bitter nowhere of Eastern Europe, a stranger put his hand on my shoulder, right above the stitched American flag on my Army uniform, and recited a practiced statement I asked my interpreter to translate. He said, “I won’t walk down the street behind a woman.”

*

A woman once told me I could never be a mother and a writer.

*

Without my glasses on, I must lean in close to the mirror and see the real me in clarity. The one who smiles on the outside, who checks every blemish and tells herself it’s going to  be okay, the woman who traces the lines of her aging face back to the beginning of who she once was before the plastic surgery to repair the injuries to her broken nose after a car accident with a friend.

*

It was very early in one of my pregnancies that I discovered a second line accompanying the first, like the world’s most positive equal. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband so we could share the joy we’d been hoping for and anticipating for months, which turned into years, which turned into a crimson swirl as it left my womb to mix with the water of the shower floor a few days later.

*

The Army is a lot like miscarriage.

*

There is hope at the beginning of any pregnancy. There is happiness and love. Your expectations are high and you have dreams for the future. You picture the baby and question whose eyes will grace its face. Then suddenly it’s gone and you’re left to mourn what you never had, the miscarriage process irreversible. You can’t catch the bits of blood clot and reform it into a child, push it back into your vagina as if your life had never come apart in the first place.  Neither can an Army contract.

*

My defenses have morphed into a gilded cage around me that quivers at the proximity of a man.

*

One day, out of nowhere, I decided I’d had enough. Saying “out of nowhere” seemed to appease everyone who felt uncomfortable walking through a home riddled with holes in the drywall, pretending not to listen to the berating, to the words he truly meant when he was drunk. They said maybe I deserved it, the idea alleviating the pressure within them.

*

Being a single mother was a true test of my feministic ideology.

*

My mother allowed my biological father to go free when she petitioned the court to release him from past and future child support payments as she filed for bankruptcy due to her inability to both feed us and pay her bills. The bill collectors would be calling as I entered the house after school. They’d ask for my mom, but I kept telling them she was at work. “She won’t be home until after six o’clock,” I’d say, but they kept calling. I’d unplug the phone when my mom got home. I knew she was tired, because I could see her swollen feet stretching the nylon of her stockings when she’d finally sit on the couch. She would never eat until my brother and I had finished our meals. I remember being so angry with her then, because I imagined she was suffering in some way, but she only said, “I’m free,” when I asked why she did it.

*

I struggle with my obligation to be there for my children and my obligation to leave them at a moment’s notice to be there for my patients.

*

When something goes wrong in brain surgery and they ask me to call one of the guys to fix it.

*

I was stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when I went into labor with my daughter. I was walking the hospital halls, timing my contractions with my ex-husband’s watch. They were three minutes apart. I Googled contractions and read a few articles about them. I called the Nation Naval Medical Center’s maternity ward, where I was supposed to deliver. I told them about my contractions. “Should I come in?” I asked. I was so confused; I had never been in labor before. The lady asked for my pain level, “On a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being no pain, with 10 being excruciating pain, how do you rate your pain?” I stopped walking and turned inward. I could feel my daughter shifting around, her small body rotating low in my pelvis. There was bile rising in my throat and I felt nauseous, but I wasn’t really in any pain. “Maybe a four ma’am,” I said. She laughed at me in a good-natured manner. “Oh sweetie,” she said, “you are definitely not in labor if your pain is a 4.”

*

I hate the person I pretended to be with you.

*

I was six years old when I discovered Santa Claus was the figment of a dream I could never keep. I’d begged my mother for a toy kitchen. My brother and I were dressed in our blue snowman pajamas and eager to get to bed so we could open presents in the morning, but we never actually fell asleep. A few minutes later, alone, my mother began assembling the kitchen for us as we listened under the covers. I was devastated that Santa wasn’t real, but I remember she wanted us to be happy. The next morning I can remember wishing she would be happy too.

*

My drill sergeant had my graduation certificate from basic training in his hands. He looked down at my name, then at me. He asked the crowd who crazy belonged to. The crowd was silent, no one wanted to claim me, and no one understood who I was. As I turned red, my mother caught on and stood proudly. “Jessica, is that you? Are you crazy? I’m crazy’s mom!” she kept repeating as she took her place at my side and accepted my accomplishment on the brittle certificate. It was a day no one would ever forget, September 12, 2001. I was seventeen-years-old. The World Trade Center back home had just been hit by two planes and the buildings collapsed, taking lives and our will to live without the lost with them.

*

I remember the day my daughter Marleigh apologized for the pain I’ve endured. I became upset with myself because she wasn’t supposed to found out. I should have been more discrete, should have lowered the pitch of my late-night sobbing to a dull roar.

*

I took a day off from work to run errands. I went to the courthouse to file for divorce and I had a yearly appointment at my OB-GYN. It was a few days before my 27th birthday. My doctor came in and grabbed my hand, my tiny one being engulfed by his much larger hand. I looked up at him, waited for him to speak. He kept my hand, but rolled a short stool over with his foot and sat in front of me. “How are you feeling?” he asked me. “I’m going through a lot, but I feel better than I have in months.” “How are things at home?” he asked. “I’m doing much better now that I asked my husband to leave,” I said. I knew something was wrong by my doctor’s posture, the way he worked to seem smaller than his 6’7” frame, but I couldn’t get my mouth to form the words to ask. I leaned in toward him, kept eye contact, and lingered in this final moment of reprieve. “We found some irregular cells on your cervix, but they’re not anything we’ve seen before,” he said.

*

The words possible cancer written on the front of my chart.

*

By the time I was sixteen years old, my family was already talking about my children. I knew that I would want them one day, but I also knew I was too young to worry about it. I consoled myself with this to cover the stigmatization of being a Hispanic American woman and a mother. In the end, it took me eight years after having Marleigh to garner the courage to have my son Cameron, because I worried what people would think of me, the breeding machine.

*

Marleigh approached me recently about a problem she was having with a boy in school who was bullying her. I told her the reason he’s messing with her is because deep down he really likes her. I ignored what I’ve lived for repeating what I’ve heard all my life.

*

I teach my children values I don’t believe in.

*

At each delivery they’d ask for my birthing plan when I never took the time to make one. The hospital staff would smile and tell me I was doing great. They’d ask if I wanted to watch my children breech with the use of mirrors. Each time my answer was a resounding no.

*

I remember the first time I felt around in the dark for you and you weren’t there. I’d had a nightmare and realized it was you.

*

From the time I was full of angst, a defiant teenager, I knew I wanted to donate my organs and save someone even while I was dying. My only condition was that my eyes be left in my body so no one ever had to witness what I had.

*

I called my mom during my cancer testing. I sat in a Sonic parking lot and mustered up the courage to finally press the number programmed on speed dial. My mom was upset that I hadn’t told her sooner, but she’s sensitive, and I went back and forth on waiting to tell her until I knew for sure. If I received a clean bill of health, I would have stressed her for no reason, but I needed her to understand the situation and why I was making certain decisions for the future. “I’m getting married,” I blurted. I was so afraid to tell her, to disappoint her again, because I had already done it so much throughout my life. She scoffed at my outburst and told me I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to explain myself. “Mom,” I started, “I want to try and have another baby before they have to remove my cervix.” Cervical cancer is a slow progressing cancer, the replicating cells destroying the organ in a lumbering manner. My team of physicians agreed to let it go untreated while I had another baby if the test results came back positive. I called Granger, my best friend at the time, to ask him if he would have a baby with me. “Of course I want to have a baby with you,” he said, “but I want to do it the right way and get married.”

*

Last October, Marleigh’s boxer Loki, passed away after eleven years together. She had lost thirty pounds in six months, the dog’s ribs standing starkly through her brown fur. She began to have seizures, her body locking up as her eyes shifted rapidly when her brain began to depreciate from the pressure of the tumor. I took her to the veterinarian, but she was too old to treat a serious ailment so the veterinarian gave me his best guess. “With her symptoms, it’s most likely a brain tumor,” he said. I went home and called my parents, asked them to help soothe Marleigh in the days after we made the decision to put Loki to sleep. My daughter was devastated to lose her lifelong companion, the dog that cuddled her in bed while I left for work in the middle of the night.

*

The moment one of your children is grieving and you have no idea how to console them because you are already grieving what you once were.

*

I once witnessed my father drag my mother from the bank she worked in all the way to our house down the street. He had one hand fisted tightly in her hair as her skin tore on the concrete of the inner city street, but he kept on going. I sat pressed to the window, but I didn’t try to help her. Her eyes bulged as she begged him to stop, but he never heard her.

*

I am a fatherless daughter.

*

When I was pregnant with Marleigh, the doctors gave me the option to abort her at thirty-two weeks due to abnormalities in her growth. No one could explain what was wrong. Her long bones were being calculated at two percent of a normal child’s, they said she would be a dwarf, but there was no history of it in my family or her father’s. She was killing me from the inside. I had lost thirty-five pounds due to a diagnosis of hyperemesis gravidarum that kept me in and out of the hospital. I was weak, I needed relief. Begged for it and felt selfish afterward. In that moment, when they all sat staring at me in pressed, white coats, with ambiguous expressions on their faces, I remember being at peace with my own death if only she would live. I just wanted it to end.

*

My eyesight is failing.

*

Before I ended that call with my mother, before the results of the biopsy came back as irregular cervical cells, non-malignant, before I knew the struggle with my cervix would follow me as I aged, I knew that what I needed in my life was a stable relationship and that stability was Granger, the person who knew and accepted me more than I accepted myself at times, the person who would never raise his voice to a woman with my past. I told my mom I was sorry I upset her, but she needed me to know she just didn’t understand. “Why don’t you wait for love?” she asked me. “I do love him and he loves me,” I said, “It’s just time I saved me from myself.”

Jessica M Granger holds a bilingual MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas El Paso. She is an Army veteran, divemaster, writer, and mother who seeks to understand life by writing about it. Her work can be found in TheNewVerse.News, SHANTIH Journal, The Molotov Cocktail Magazine, As You Were, and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She currently resides in Columbus, Ohio.

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cancer, Family, Guest Posts

A Walk in the Park

November 20, 2019
bother

By K.C. Pedersen

Six months after my ex-husband died, his brother left a message on my voicemail. He was going to blow my fucking head off, Luke said. While Tim was alive, Luke often showed up unannounced at our remote rural property. He was also apt to appear at the local café/bar and seat himself at my table as I visited with friends. Yet despite Luke’s history of violence, felony convictions, and easy access to guns, I was not particularly panicked. As a counselor, educator, and deputy sheriff, I considered myself skilled at soothing agitated men. I choreographed elaborate scenarios for how I’d rescue my students should a gunman appear in my classroom.

Besides, I’d known Luke since his birth; it was difficult to fear someone you’d first seen in diapers.

“Tim’s bothering me,” Luke’s message said. “If he doesn’t stop, I’m going to blow his fucking head off.”

I called Luke back. “I know about Tim bothering you. He bothers me too. But I thought I should point out that Tim is dead.”

So Luke threatened to blow my head off instead.

“Does he have a gun?” the 911 operator asked. After Tim and I separated, and he took to showing up outside my window in the middle of the night, they asked the same question.

“I have no idea,” I said then. “Should I go out and ask?”

Tim often told me, “There are things about me you’ll never know,” and despite our fourteen years together, I had no idea whether he had guns. Prior to our marriage, he’d been a Buddhist monk, so firearms seemed unlikely, at least to someone as much in denial as I was.

I found out the guns were real the day before Tim’s death. His young daughter told me he visited the shooting range daily to perfect his aim. When he tried to force her to hold one of the guns, she called me, sobbing

“I don’t know if Luke’s armed,” I told the dispatcher. She took my name, and an officer called me back.

“Did you record the message?” he said. “If so, we have a crime.”

“I did,” I said. But when I tried to retrieve Luke’s message, it had disappeared. “I must have messed up somehow,” I said. The officer started the recitation: “no crime has been committed, no witnesses, no blood, get a restraining order.”

“I am a deputy sheriff,” I said. “At your office. Look it up.” For eighteen months, I’d coordinated a drug and alcohol program. “I’m quite familiar with the danger of having one’s head blown off, whether I recorded the call or not. I’d like you to do something now.”

Within the hour, Luke was arrested. The following day, someone called from the prosecutor’s office. Would I be willing to drop the charges? “It’s a lot of paperwork for us,” she said. I requested they proceed. From working in law enforcement over the years, I knew that if charges aren’t brought, the crime never happened. You need a paper trail.

I was glad I insisted, because a few days before Luke threatened me, he’d stopped taking his antipsychotics. When his case went to court, he was let off for thirty days served, with instructions to take his meds. I’m presuming Tim stopped bothering him, although my own nightmares continued for years.

Tim was one of the first American males ordained as a Chinese Buddhist Monk. When I met him, though, he was in an alcohol rehab center. As was I. We were married almost a decade before I knew he’d written a book. He probably realized that if I read it, I would have horrified at how he treated his assistant, because it was the same way he treated me.

Though many Buddhist teachings are about preparing for death, when Tim was diagnosed with cancer early in our marriage, he refused to acknowledge he was going to die. Although his oncologist explained that there was no known cure, he insisted he was going to beat this thing. However, she added, it was a “good cancer.”

“What’s a good cancer?” I asked.

“The average life expectancy is seven years,” she explained.

About six years in, Tim’s symptoms flared, and he volunteered for an experimental protocol, “the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“A walk in the park.” He handed me the document that authorized the treatment. I was chilled to the bone.

“Nobody’s survived this,” I said. “Not even the beagles they tested it on. The longest even a dog lasted was eleven months. If you do nothing, who knows how long you might live?”

One seeks to understand unhappiness or grief in various ways. Tim’s parents found sanctuary in the Mother Church, as Tim called the Catholic faith in which he was raised. For ten years, monk’s robes provided sanctuary for Tim. But his alcoholism lurked just outside the monastery gates. One afternoon, he stopped into a tavern and ended up roaring drunk. Ashamed, he left the monastery and found work as an orderly at a managed care facility. On what was intended to be a one-night stand with the night nurse, he conceived a child.

That’s what he told me, anyway. When I met him, he was still in inpatient rehab and still married to that nurse. After he died, I found passionate love poems he and the child’s mother exchanged early on. Whatever flame they had, though, did not last. As co-dependent partners do, I devoted myself to analyzing my husband. Through the Enneagram, for example: Tim was a One. Per the Enneagram, he could be a great leader. Or he could be a despot. My delusion was such that when his oncologist told us his cancer was incurable, I wrote in my journal that I would find a way to save him.

Tim’s parents lived an hour’s drive down Hood Canal from us, and in the early years, his young daughter and I accompanied him to holiday gatherings there. Each time, halfway there, Tim would go into a rage. “You don’t really want to go,” he might accuse us. Or he might scold his daughter because she didn’t finish her homework. Eventually, in the death throes of our marriage, I refused to go. Tim went alone, and on the way back, just as when he fled the monastery, he stopped in at one tavern, and then the next. When he finally arrived home, he apologized for his relapse and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. But of course it did, and eventually I asked him to leave.

Tim’s ex-wife told me that the teaching brother Tim most trusted had molested him, but he never shared that with me. Instead, he repeatedly hinted that the teaching nuns and monks in the Catholic schools he attended from kindergarten until he was kicked out, had “done things.” He described inappropriate contact, but said it happened to a friend. He recounted physical abuse and beatings, but these anecdotes always implied he deserved it. The only part he did say, telling the same story again and again, was that he managed to get himself kicked out by hiding a bomb in the nuns’ car. And then he always laughed hysterically.

I listened to his stories until I stopped listening, and that is my loss. As reports of priestly abuse proliferated in the press, including at the schools he attended, I felt guilty. Surely, if I had pried forth Tim’s secrets, I could have healed him. Placing smoke bombs in the nuns’ car was his only cry for help, and in its way, it worked.

But to me, Tim’s descriptions of his father throwing shoes as his young son as he stood against a wall or dressing in a bear costume to scare him for leaving his bedroom at night seemed worse. I had little doubt that if young Tim had tried to say anything, his parents would have suggested he burn in hell. Even as he lay dying, helpless at last, they had him, a Buddhist, anointed with last rites.

During Tim’s final weeks of life, his daughter seized my hand. “No more blonde,” she said. I glanced at her. That week, her hair was the color of eggplant.

“What are you talking about, no more blonde? This is my natural color.”

“Not anymore it’s not.” She narrowed her eyes. The child I’d met at four, scared and mousy, had transformed into a striking beauty. “Brown, I think. Dark brown.”

After Tim and I separated, I dated a younger man, although we too soon split up. “Our love-making makes me insane,” he texted me. “I can’t do this without a traditional committed relationship. I feel empty and lost.” When I called to tell him Tim was dead, he wept. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Not for him,” the young man said. “For you. For how much he destroyed you.”

“You don’t ever have to be afraid again,” my friend Carla said. Still, I sobbed and screamed.

“You abandoned a dying man,” my father said.

Eleven months after the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants, Tim died. Two weeks later, I landed flat in the New Year, widowed yet not widowed, with dark brown hair. I inhaled the scent of seaweed and salt from the bay outside what had been our dream home. I exhaled in cries like the call of the loons that gathered just offshore. The first day one pair arrived. The next day five pairs paddled in a loose cluster. By the end of the week, dozens of the arched spotted backs trolled up and down, up and down, on their quest for the Pacific herring that spawn here.

And startlingly, Tim’s walk in the park had killed him, and I was free. I walked with my dog in Northwest fog and rain, and to keep from shaking to pieces, I filled the bathtub with as much hot water as I could bear—a lot—and sat for hours. Water embraced me. Water was my solace. I descended into the tunnel of winter, days that rarely saw light, only changed from one kind of darkness to another. What about death, I wondered. What about suicide? Maybe I should just commit suicide slowly, one breath at a time. From the time of Tim’s diagnosis, I felt he wanted me to throw myself upon his funeral pyre. “When people grow ill,” his ex-wife said, “They become more of what they are. Nice people become nicer. Mean people get meaner.” M.F.K. Fisher says as we age, we revert to whatever we were like at birth and as toddlers. The final day of his life, in the ICU, Tim’s body bloated, and his skin stretched as far as skin can stretch, and it seemed he were drowning in his own fluids. Blood oozed from every pore.

My hands and arms went numb. Pens, notebooks, cups and forks dropped from my hands and crashed to the floor. “Definitely MS,” his ex-wife told me. “No doubt about it. You’ll be immobilized by the end of the year.” She seemed pretty excited by the idea. The symptoms worsened. I’d hold a cup of coffee to my lips, and then the cup would fall and shatter, the coffee scalding my chest. At other times, my hands balled up into tight fists, and I had to manually unlock them.

Just as I lacked a handbook for navigating Tim’s cancer, when I became a stepparent at thirty, I was equally clueless. Before Tim’s cancer was diagnosed and he was pronounced infertile, I pored through books on every stage of pregnancy, birth, and the developmental phases of a child’s life. When I became a stepparent, the pickings were sparse. Several books asserted never to allow the child to call me “Mom.” This would confuse everyone. My stepdaughter concocted elaborate stories about how I was actually her real mom. “Are you sure you were never pregnant?” she once asked. “Maybe when you were in rehab?” When I said I was sure, she said, “Maybe your mother had another baby she forgot about?”

As for cancer, the patient fought the courageous battle. And he never died. He passed.

After Tim died, his daughter asked repeatedly, “What are we to each other now?” She told me that everyone asked why she bothered to speak with me at all. As when she was little and asked to call me Mom, I remained obtuse.

“I am here for you no matter what,” I said. But I wasn’t. We were both on our own, stumbling through the forest without light or path, gauging where we were by the space between the trees.

K.C. Pedersen holds an M.A. in fiction writing and literature, studying with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. Stories and essays appear in numerous journals and have been nominated for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. Pedersen lives above a saltwater fjord in Washington State.

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cancer, Guest Posts, The Hard Stuff

An Irreverent Cancer Primer—Help Can Be a Four-Letter Word

January 10, 2019
cancer

By Mara Buck

“Nothing succeeds like excess.” Oscar Wilde
“Less is more.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
“Nobody survives like a smart-ass.” Mara Buck

Life is a combination of infinite causes and incalculable effects, each effect becoming the compilation and accumulation of its own unique history, yet stubbornly we continue to seek out the potential “easy-way-out-one-size-fits-all” solution. Unfortunately this seldom works—or works for long. We humans are tribal, invariably depending on the collective wisdom of the tribe to care for us, but no single answer proves the best answer for everyone.

There are no easy answers for dealing with cancer either—no rules. Cancer is as individualistic as the person whose cells are multiplying out of control, as distinctive as a smile across a luncheon table, as personal as a phone call in the night, as alienating as a closing door. Continue Reading…

cancer, beauty, Guest Posts

Accessorizing

July 11, 2018
chemo

By Annarose F. Steinke

At first the jewelry takes me by surprise: chandelier earrings, layered necklaces, sequined infinity scarves that have no business in a room where store-brand cans of pineapple and orange juice are the only drinks served. A big show is made of giving these things ample space on tiny end tables alongside Dixie cups of Tylenol. Companions are ordered to remember these silver hooks and spirals once the session ends, and in the meantime, to keep an eye on the table should the items’ owners need to use the toilet. Simply standing up while making sure to lift the arm so that the wrist retains the IV and the IV stays attached to the machine that must be wheeled into the bathroom while managing the door lock with the free hand, all while the first dizzy spell begins (no, thank you, I can manage) is such an all-consuming task that asking after your Alex and Ani bangles set in that moment is out of the question.

I used to wonder why they won’t leave these things at home, but now I know why all of it must be worn, even if only in the lobby. I recognize the sigh from the woman two seats down as she uncoils ropes of translucent orange beads from her neck: it matches my tone when telling the scheduling coordinator to hold as I shake out receipts and crumbs and broken pens from three different purses when I could just as easily store the Medical Record Number card in my wallet with my driver’s license and the other items anchoring my everyday. Now I understand that “fighting cancer” does not mean doing certain tasks with gusto but refusing to grant others the time and care they’re supposed to deserve.

As for me, I wear my great-grandmother’s rose gold chain, its sharp rectangles falling just below my collarbone and exactly where a chest port would be if I needed one. My grandmother’s accompanying note reads “I want you to wear her things. NOW!” and I honor her demand. Wearing this chain, I grasp the concept of a “statement” necklace: this piece states that I’m not here long enough for a chest port, this searing jab to my wrist is truly a perk of this good-kind lymphoma, and the nurse is visibly annoyed at the extra work so my demeanor had better be accomodating since my small veins are not. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, cancer

Humane Treatment

December 11, 2017
humane

By Kimberly Maier

It’s either a cruel or humane twist of fate that I would end up with a sexy oncologist, I can’t decide which. He’s a fancy big-shot internist from the Mayo Clinic who moved to Oregon because he likes the outdoors or something. He has this absurdly charming strip of silver in the part of his hair. His voice is square, clinical. His mind seems to wander off while he’s talking, probably because he repeats the same boring death script to his patients every day. “The Oxaliplatin does tend to cause nausea, but I’ll prescribe something to alleviate that.” There’s a slight accent that I can’t place. He employs a strange downward intonation at the end of his questions.

He half-sits behind me, causing the sheet on the exam table to crinkle before tearing a v-shape in the paper between us. When I feel his breath on my neck my thoughts instantly liquify, spinning around the way soapy water in a coffee pot does when you rinse it. I clear my throat then open my bathrobe. At 26 years of age I am by far the youngest patient in the clinic and the only one who wears a robe, slippers and pajamas to each treatment. I can’t tell if everyone stares at me because of what I’m wearing or because I’m younger than the other patients by about 40 years.

The sexy oncologist puts his fingers in my armpits to see if my lymph nodes are swollen. They’re not. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, cancer, depression

Where Are All The Silver Linings?

June 30, 2017

CW: This essay discusses depression and suicide. If you or someone you know needs helps now, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.

By Melissa McAllister

Even before cancer, I was intimately acquainted with depression and anxiety.  We shared more than one dance together.  We fight.  We makeup.  We fight.  We breakup.  That’s just the way it’s always been.  On and Off.  I managed this relationship with an assortment of tricks.  There are the therapists I would purge all my thoughts and feelings onto weekly.  There is the pharmacy where I routinely picked up the latest antidepressant and anti anxiety pills I was prescribed.  Sometimes they even tossed  in a mood stabilizer or an antipsychotic for good measure.  And then there was the doctor who I checked in with on a regular basis to make certain all was going as planned.

As a person so prone to depression and anxiety, believe me when I tell you – keeping that many appointments and having that many interactions in order to procure those tiny little things that are going to hopefully help you feel better is fucking hard to do.  If you suffer from depression and/or anxiety, you know exactly what I mean.  But I managed, mostly. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, cancer

Marked

February 24, 2017
tattoo

By Jude Walsh

I was nine when I saw my first tattoo. It was July in northeastern Pennsylvania and the first week of Saint Aloysius’ annual two-week church summer bazar. I was with my dad in the beer garden, a lattice work section decorated with swags of plastic greenery and potted plastic plants, located just a few steps away from the food tent. It was sheltered by a large tarp and had long counters set much higher than normal booths because their sole purpose was a place to rest your elbows while you stood while having a beer or two or three or ten.  This section was for drinkers but in the early 1960’s there was no problem with a little girl being there with her dad.

The art I spied was on a man who in my memory had big arms, what I now might call bulging biceps but then just thought of as big arms. It was deep blue and in the shape of an anchor. I could not stop looking at it.  Dad noticed me staring and said, “That’s a navy anchor.” I knew it was an anchor and now I knew it was a navy anchor. What I did not know was how it got on his skin.

“Who drew it there?”

My dad laughed out loud, “It’s not drawn on his arm, that’s a tattoo.” Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, cancer

Uterus Of My Discontent

July 10, 2016
cancer

By Lillian McTernan

The first night in a new apartment is almost always weird for me: leftover adrenaline, my fanatical desire to get unpacked, and the disorientation of being in an unfamiliar environment usually join forces to give me serious insomnia. Given this long-standing trend, my first night in the apartment I moved into in 2010 with my then-boyfriend — the man who quickly became my fiancé and is now my husband — stands out as a huge anomaly.

That night, I quickly fell into a deep sleep. I dreamed that I was walking into the kitchen of our new apartment to get some water, only to run into a little boy. Startled, I asked who he was. “I’m your son!” He said happily.

“Oh,” I replied in bewilderment. “What’s your name?” (I felt like a jerk for not recognizing my own kid, but I also wondered where, exactly, he came from.) Continue Reading…