true heroes

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When I was a senior in high school, I was blessed with an instructor who would become a mentor and lifelong friend.  Richard Enemark, my English teacher and college advisor extraordinaire, didn’t just push me to be a better reader, writer, listener, speaker; he didn’t just convince me that there were institutions out there that might consider me a worthy candidate for my writing ability, if not my test scores. He began by giving me the most remarkable gift one human being can give another.  Which was, quite simply, this: Richard, bless his heart, believed in me.  He was sure I had a story that deserved to be told, and a voice that deserved to tell it.  When I was frightened and timid and not at all inclined to draw attention to myself, Richard helped me find the tools I needed to succeed, in academics and beyond.

 

And in that lucky fashion that only the passage of time permits, I eventually realized that my remarkable teacher wasn’t so far ahead of me on the road to adulthood.  Our lives just happened to intersect at the exact moment when he was launching himself into what would become his life’s work, and while I was on that youthful cusp, back when the concept of being a certifiable grownup was still light-years beyond anything I could fathom.  As a seventeen-year-old, I presumed that someone old enough to be an authority figure in my life must also have been a generation ahead of me.  It barely occurred to me that this teacher might one day be both the mentor who pointed me in directions I didn’t dare dream of, and a friend I would treasure forever. 

 

Four years later, when I was about to graduate from college, Richard came to visit, and introduced me to Nancy, the new love of his life.  They were both aglow when I met them at my door.  It was the most stunning example of two people being meant for one another that I’ve ever encountered, then or since.  At Richard’s insistence, Nancy set out a portfolio of her recent drawings before us, each image more extraordinary than the last.  Richard stood behind her, offering his delighted impressions where Nancy demurred, too modest to make such declarations about her own work.  It was the first time I witnessed what would become their long and loving stretch as each other’s greatest supporter and champion. 

 

Years passed.  Richard and Nancy were married in their back yard, as my beloved and I watched on.  We all changed jobs, became parents, and moved on in our lives.   We never lived in the same area code, but we remained fast friends despite the distances.  Back before the advent of cell phones, I devised a shorthand indicator of couples’ companionability, which went something like this: if you called a fellow husband and wife at home, and you are truly delighted to speak to whichever one of them picks up, that’s a gift from the gods. The Enemarks epitomized this concept in spades. 

 

I grew to love Nancy as I had long adored Richard.  We all looked forward to getting together on special occasions, braving the Cape Cod surf, taking in the New Year’s fireworks with plenty of bubbly, lingering over meals until way past our bedtimes, then picking over the celebratory leftovers the next morning at breakfast, with the coffeemaker on perma-brew. 

 

And then, without warning, Nancy got what we all fear: the mammogram call-back.  Then the follow up.  The tests.  The treatment.  The side effects.  And sadly, in Nancy’s case, bad news upon bad news, over and over.

 

Needless to say, what Nancy had was a zillion times worse than what I’ve been dealing with, even though it has the same first name.  She was visited by the nastiest sorts of carcinomas, the mean, wild, relentless, take-no-prisoners kind. Hers never went away, just kept wheedling its way back, uninvited. And in the end, decades ahead of what should have been the length of her days, it took Nancy away from us, and with it, took her amazing talents and her amazing kindness and her amazing fortitude, and left us all bereft.

 

So now, when people want to put that “hero” label on me, or even the “survivor” tag, for making it through the past six months with a modicum of cheerfulness, it’s Nancy I think of—Nancy, and Richard, and their extraordinary life together.  What they encountered, what their family has endured—that was a battle.  My experience has been the tiniest of skirmishes, a mere bump in the road.  The worst of it is behind me.  I have no malignant outlier cells, no fights looming to be fought anon.  I’m no hero. 

 

I think of Nancy often, particularly around Mother’s day, and commencement days.  I thought of her again when I posted that photo of myself, in my combat-duty straw hat.  Nancy could wear hats like nobody’s business, pre- and post-chemo.  She’d have liked my take on headwear, wigs and otherwise.  She was amazing.  She was a hero.

 

As is Richard: teacher, mentor, and the best and kindest of friends.  For helping me, when I needed his help the most, and for being there for his loved ones, at every step along the way. 

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my last walk home

IMG-20130530-00946One Big Tree.

I meant to post some photos from that last day of radiation, what now feels like ages ago.  It was a glorious day, commencement day, an A-one, O happy day.  But it was also steamy hot, and me being me, I ended up meandering my way home via whatever bits of shade I could find.  Which took me on a curious wiggle-waggle, worth memorializing here.  Good things come to those seeking shade, it turns out.

IMG-20130530-00950This is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s spreading chestnut tree.  His personal one, not the one his village smithy worked beneath, the one Longfellow waxed poetic about.  The blacksmith also worked on Brattle Street, not far from this homestead, which is now a national historic site.  It’s hard to believe this glorious specimen, which towers over everything it surveys, wasn’t part of HWL’s artistic inspiration.

IMG-20130530-00955Not sure why they need a fake coyote here, perhaps to keep the Canada geese away?  Whatever, it serves here as a useful scale.  That is one massive trunk.  Easily fifteen feet in circumference.

IMG-20130530-00956The view from below, looking up.  It is its own ecosystem, this glorious tree.

IMG-20130530-00954 IMG-20130530-00954Behind the house, these gardens. Another grand example of our tax dollars at work.

IMG-20130530-00953There really is a grand plan at work here.  I found this garden sketch and handbook on a bench, in the shade.

IMG-20130530-00957Can you say bucolic?  Of course there would be a bunny seeking refuge in such a lovely spot.

IMG-20130530-00958A few more wiggle waggles under more obliging greenery got me to this historic marker–one that, remarkably, I’d never read.  How can it be that Oliver Wendell Holmes was born just down the street from my house, and I didn’t know?  I pride myself on this sort of information.  My book group recently read David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, about the Americans who traveled to Paris when America was a brand new idea.  Holmes was part of that grand tradition.  Talk about your renaissance men–OWH was a poet, a physician, a professor, and the guy who coined the word anesthesia and named The Atlantic Monthly.  I already knew were he was buried; it’s nice to know that his life began close by as well.

IMG-20130530-00959Almost home, and for this, I forsook the shade.  Too grand a photo op to skip.  Not sure what sort of bird chose this lion’s mouth for nesting, but honestly, isn’t this the best?

IMG-20130530-00967Last image from a great day.  BostonOne concert.  Soundtrack of my youth.  Boston, J.Geils, Jimmy Buffett, on and on they came.  Any time you get to be in the same room with Carol King and James Taylor is a good night in my book.  I was home and in bed long before Steven Tyler led the assembled talent in a Dirty Water sing-off.  Boston, you’re my home! Thanks for rallying us to this epic event, Joanie and Scott.

about that wig…

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A curious thing happened along the way, somewhere between my January chemo appointments and those June commencements.  I lost a lot of my hair, but not all of it.  Like the velveteen rabbit, it didn’t exactly fall out.  More like, it got rubbed off, worn off, perhaps a little bit loved off.   But mostly, it just let go.  And no amount of knowing you’re about to lose your hair can truly prepare you for that first sad shower-drainful.  It really is like losing a bit of armor.  With hair, you look like a normal person, and no one seeing you would know otherwise.  Without it, you’re a marked woman, and you can practically read the thought bubbles over perfect strangers’ heads.  Oh. You. Poor. Thing.  A woman without hair, or with an odd lack thereof, is to be pitied, whatever the cause may be.

Sometime after the ski-hat season was over, I came to the abrupt realization that I’d drifted into the zone of needing to keep my head covered when I went out in the world, or expect to court unwanted concern for my well-being.  It happened on a warm spring day, on one of my reservoir walks.  The thing about walking on a designated loop is that, if you run into someone along the way, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see that same person, somewhere on the other side.  Which gave my acquaintance half a lap to figure out what to say, when she ran into me again.   Here’s what she decided on:

“Are you okay?”

Which, honestly, wasn’t half bad, so far as concerned salutations go.  It was a greeting that she had 20 minutes to let percolate, and I suspect she ran through all the possible scenarios: is she sick, is it cancer or is it some other non-chemo hair loss, should I say anything, or is it weirder if I don’t say anything?   But, being my first “Oh You Poor Woman” moment, it felt like a sucker punch, intended or not.  Ah.  So that’s what I look like.  The Donald Trump-ish comb-over is not fooling anyone.  Time to find some warm-weather headwear.

I now have a designated baseball cap for all my outdoor adventures.  I wear it when I run errands, stand in line at Starbucks, etc.  I bought a whole stash of more lady-like summer hats, straw and otherwise, for such things as, oh, yeah, that commencement that I was so hoping to have grown back a headful of hair for.  Truthfully, only one of my girly hats works for me, the same way that my pile of fleece and wool winter hats boiled down to the one I kept wearing.  That seems to be how it always goes: find the solution that works, and stick with it.

Back to that wig I posted about, oh so long ago.  It’s a very nice wig, it really is.  But it’s just not me.  I mean, it looks like the me I used to look like, but it’s too much trouble to keep up that facade.  It’s hot, it’s heavy, and it wants to frame my face without letting me push the hair behind my ears, which drives me nuts.  I cannot even imagine being in some situation, formal or otherwise, and having a hot flash, and not wanting more than anything to tear that wig off my head.  The funny thing is, I thought I’d care so much about my appearance that wearing a wig would be a no-brainer.  Turned out, I guess I both didn’t lose enough hair fast enough to make it an obligation from the start, and then slowly, over time, found that I didn’t care enough about how I’ve been looking to reconsider my “Nope, not going there” decision.

Maybe if I’d gone bald, all in a flash, I’d have gone the wig route. As it is, perhaps I’ve been like one of those theoretical frogs, dropped in the pot before the water was put to boil, and I just haven’t noticed the outcome.  Oh, that’s what I look like?  Well, huh.  Okay.  Fine.  Where’s my hat?

What it comes down to is this:  I really don’t know what I look like.  I mean, I see myself in the mirror every morning, but I get to steel myself for that view.  I see my silly bedhead hair, standing on end, and I think of my boys when they were babies.  I wet it down, I comb it back, I ruffle it up a bit, I plant a pair of reading glasses on top of my head, and I go on with my day.  I truthfully don’t have a clue what the back of my head looks like (though the fact that my beloved has offered to give me a trim speaks volumes.) Occasionally I catch a view of myself, and trust me, it only happens by mistake.  I mostly avoid my reflection, wherever it may appear.

As for my long-ago concern for how I’d look in those obligatory family photos on Ian’s commencement day, well, I’m the one in the hat.

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once more, with feeling

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Where do the days go? The weeks, the months, the years?  There’s the eight days that have passed since I last posted something here, vanished into thin air.  Hmm…I had those days in my back pocket  just a minute ago, then poof, gone.  And then there’s the two decades, fast-forwarded from the morning we brought our firstborn baby boy home from the hospital, so small he fit inside John’s fleece vest for safekeeping when we went out for a walk…well. Just yesterday, that little fellow, no longer small by any measure, graduated from college.  How did that happen?  How does this keep happening?

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We descended upon the Hanover plain on Sunday morning, armed with our sunblock and binoculars and an array of traveling chairs, the better to set up our own cheering section off to the side, where we could get up and move around at our leisure, and pop out for coffee and donuts when required.  We’re getting to be graduate students of graduations, in our family.  My lucky boys have aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins who are devoted to the notion of being present for these passages, so everyone rallies to these festival rites, wherever they may be.  It’s what we do.

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Yesterday was no different.   We all know the drill.  Mostly, it’s show up—be present to witness the grand moment. Sing the alma mater. Hoot and holler, ring the cowbell, take pictures and forward them around, give and receive hugs at every coming and going, every hello and goodbye.  We did it up but good.  There will be group photos circulated, which will pronounce the event well-attended.  A good time was had by all.

* * * * *

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Meanwhile, speaking of decades, tomorrow is our 30th wedding anniversary.  30 years!  Apparently they let babies get married, back in 1983.  Or maybe it’s just that what once seemed old enough, now seems so young.  Yesterday’s 22-year-olds, marching to pick up their college diplomas, look like proto-adults at best; children, still.   Or the sea of 18-year-olds that I ran into last week, heading off to the high school gymnasium, clad in caps and gowns, with parents and grandparents in tow—they all seem so very, very young.  I hit that cheerful traffic jam while walking home from the grocery store, and was delighted to find myself in the midst of one more rite of passage, one more opportunity to tip over to that teary-happy place during this season of endings and beginnings. I looked at their fresh faces and could only see so much more for them to come, such a tiny slice of life lived so far.  I see it every autumn when the college freshmen pull into town—except that now, what we most notice is how young the parents are.  And on and on it goes.

Remember The Circle Game?  As I recently told a friend, that Joni Mitchell song of my youth has such different resonance now.  I remember vividly being at that point in the circle game, sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone, back when cartwheels were turning to car wheels.  It was the next-to-last stop on the song’s carousel of time, just ahead of hitting twenty, when your dreams start losing some grandeur coming true.  Here’s what I didn’t realize back then: before you know it, while you’re still in the middle of dreaming your own new dreams, living your own promises, it happens.  There you are, parent to a child who is full of wonder, anxious to grow up, impatient for the promises of some day….

What I’ve grown to realize is this: There’s so much more to the circle. Most remarkably, there’s the part where your children’s dreams stop being the childish ones, and start being the dreams of what they will become, who they are growing up to be.  Whole new circle.  Whole new world.

IMG-20130610-01009The traditional 30th anniversary gift, in case you were wondering, is pearls.  Or in this case, one orb of a pearl, on one thin circle of gold.  Seems appropriate.

a book review I wrote and then forgot all about

File under, I am my own worst publicist.  The book review I wrote six weeks ago was finally posted, here:

http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/the-interestings

Truthfully, I’d forgotten I’d even written it.  It’s curious, how that works; I read, I re-read, I turn down pages, I underline passages, I mull over what it is I think I’m going to have to say, I obsess for a little bit, I start writing, and after many fits and starts, I figure out what I actually think.  WIRoB likes their reviews short and snappy, under 950 words max.  Which means I write about 2,000 words and then pare away what matters least, until I get to the nugget of what becomes my truth.  And then, apparently, once I’ve clicked on Send, I put it out of my mind. Or perhaps I just hide it in the part of my memory bank reserved for non-essential items.  I suspect this review got superseded by:  Is It Garbage Day?  If So, Clean The Catbox!  That’s about the depth of my attention span right now.

So, belatedly, here you go, if you’re interested.  And, to give you a chance to judge this book by its cover,  here’s what it looks like, in a bookstore, cyber or otherwise, near you:

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Good cover.  Good book, too.

endings and beginnings, graduations and commencements

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 By random luck, my last radiation appointment coincided with a certifiable red letter day on my hometown calendar.  It happened to be the date when once, long ago, I was was awoken by the wail of bagpipes on my very last day of college.

 The fact that I picked up my diploma and then forgot to leave town means I get to enjoy commencement every year as a nearby observer, if not an official attendee. I love that even though I’m not always part of the alumni pilgrimage, I can almost always catch a bit of the hoopla by simply looking out my front window around breakfast time.  There’s nothing that says “Ta Da!” quite like a newly-minted PhD candidate, scurrying by at 7AM in a crimson-y pink robe and black velvet cap.  Unless it’s a street vendor, pulling a red wagon that’s laden with cellophane-wrapped roses and buoyed by “Class of 2013” balloons.  I’ve always loved the impromptu parade that is this day, just outside my door.  The whole assemblage of graduates and families makes me weepy-happy, every year.

 But much as I love the pomp and pageantry, I also know one thing for sure: there will be no getting my car out of my driveway on commencement morning, at least not until the thousands of attendees have collectively found their seats amongst those acres of folding chairs.  I knew this would be a day to perambulate my way to my final radiation treatment, hobbled heel or no.  So off I set, taking in the festival rites along the way.

 On a morning that would seem to have been entirely predictable, I was met with a small surprise in the radiation suite.  It turned out that this would not be the same as all those other Groundhog Day-ish mornings.  Because, unbeknownst to me, the memo had been circulated, and lots of people knew that this was my last day.  The lady who checks me in, the kindly nurse who has given me my wonderful Thursday massages, and yes, those efficient radiation techs who wiggle me around and get me all aligned and always, always, tell me that everything’s perfect before they scoot out of radiation range—they all were in on it.  Huzzah!  Here you go! How exciting, this is it!

 Well, okay, not everyone knew.  The other patients I sit with in the waiting area, in our doubled-up hospital johnnies, didn’t know.  How could they?  While we all have our own radiation finish dates etched into our mental datebooks, it’s hard to hold more than a vague sense around which of our cohorts were already at this gig when we started, and which started showing up after we’d been at it for awhile.

 Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure which of the regulars I’d see in the waiting area on this particular morning.  But I knew I wanted to share the day, somehow, with whoever might be there.   And a few days before my final treatment, I found myself trying to come up with a good idea for something, some little gesture, to share this milestone with my fellow members of the radiation waiting room tribe.

IMG-20130531-00970Ah, chocolate.  Works ever time!

It was my pure delight, to hand out little boxes of bonbons all around.  It felt like a way to confirm to each recipient that she, too, would soon be putting this chapter of her life in the “been there, done that” bucket.  It was also a chance to acknowledge my fellow passengers in our daily do-si-do from dressing room to waiting area to radiation and back again, every weekday morning.  There was the elderly woman who spoke lovely Creole to her husband or her son, whichever one accompanied her, always one or the other.  There was the stylish woman in impossibly high heels, who I finally figured out works right upstairs.  There was the newest member of the 9:30-ish club, a woman younger than me who always looked like she’d come from a rowing session.  Confusing as my offering might have first seemed, “Today’s my last day, so everyone gets a prize!” were words that everyone understood, and which made everyone happy.  Me most of all.

 Just as I was heading out, one of my tech gals handed me a manila envelope.  I assumed it was some paperwork that I might need down the road, so I stuck it in my bag and didn’t look at it until I got out the door.  Turns out, it was a certificate of completion.  Congrats for showing up!  Hurrah for making it to the finish line!

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 A piece of paper, my name magic-markered in.  So inadequate an expression of what this day meant to me.  I’m done, with all but the hormone therapy that will be part of my morning regiment of vitamins and supplements from here on out.  Done with the part where someone with a medical degree thinks there might be any remaining malignant cells lurking around.  Done with the day in-week out appointments.  Odds being tricky little devils, no one was willing to say, “Congratulations, you’re cured,” but to me, that’s what the day felt like. I have no cancer.  Cancer doesn’t have me.  We’re back were we started from, back where I thought I was, before I got that follow-up phone call.

 Graduations, and commencements.  Endings, and beginnings.  World without end, amen, amen.