Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.

IMG_3857Over the past year I have been asked if E’s cancer changed anything.  What a preposterous question.  Of course it changed things.  It changed everything. But that’s not the question really being asked is it?  You’re all too polite and kind to ask the big messy Q. Fear of intruding. Or opening wounds.  Being considered nosey.  But this is me you’re asking. I’ve been an open book since I started this blog in 2011.  Poured my heart out. Spilled my guts. Let the cat out of the bag.  Shared my deep dark dreary thoughts in this diary.  So it’s perfectly okay to ask the real question on your mind. 

HOW has cancer changed things?

If you were to peek into our house this Christmas, you’d probably smile, possibly sigh with relief, that everything appears the same.  Sa-sa-sa-sa-same.  Same family gathering. Same festivities. Same decorations and ornaments hung on the tree.  It all looks very much like it did last year.  And the year before.  And the one before that.  Right back to when E and I shared our first Christmas together.  There have been a few different houses.  We’ve all grown older.  The kids are all now adults. There’s a grand daughter.  A daughter-in-law.  But the mood in the room is unchanged. Family jokes. Teasing. Cheerful banter.  Laughter.  Misty eyes.  Magnanimous grateful hearts.  Goodwill, and all that jolly ho-ho-ho.

Because of this ostensible normality it’s difficult at times to imagine that E is a cancer survivor.  Sometimes I can’t even believe he had cancer at all.  I think, did we really go through that?  His 23 days in the hospital, now a distant memory slowly fading to black.  I have to look at the photos that documented his stay there to bring clarity to my recollections.  Fill in the gap between fact and fiction.  Did this really happen?  And sadly, have I diminished this life-altering experience to just another story that I tell?

Yet it was real.  It did happen.  Truth is, it changed everything.

There’s the obvious things.  The loftier higher-self transformative stuff.  Gratitude for a life being spared, given a second chance.  Awareness of the fragility of our earth walk.  Delight in the small precious things.  Refined appreciation for all those we hold dear.  Joy in the everyday and the mundane.  Concern for all living creatures.  Reverence for the fleeting passage of time.  Appreciation of all that is good, for I am steadfast in my belief that there is more good than not.  Awe and wonder at the sheer miracle of being here at all.

I thank God for this metamorphosis of the spirit. For giving my caterpillar heart butterfly wings.

But there’s more to this story.  There’s the underbelly.  The ugly shit that is difficult to admit.  Even to myself.  There’s the stuff I think I’ve kicked out the door and sent slithering down the road, only to turn around to find the ugliness standing in front of my kitchen sink doing dishes.  Oh the shameful cowardly resentful thoughts I’ve had there.  The devil’s face reflected in the white porcelain dinner plate.  The monster in the bottom of the silver pot.  The creep in the cast iron frying pan. All me.

There’s the fear that grips my gut and tears at my bowels. The anger that erupts and gasps and flares out of nowhere. The sudden and unforeseen tears that sting my cheeks.  The frustration with a life interrupted.  The impatience with everything, including E.

A foul tenacious undercurrent of dread flows through my nervous system. Silently terrified that cancer will return. It’s the uninvited guest in the room. The one that has outstayed its welcome.  Can’t take a hint and leave. It’s the disturbing uneasiness beneath my flesh. The choking, suffocating, stifling vice grip. And at the heart of all this maelstrom, one thought prevails.  Will this sinister beast return and snatch E in it’s Godzilla grip forever?

At times, often when I least expect it, I’m angry. Pissed off that a year later E is still in recovery. My impatient unkind inside-voice says, ‘get over this already.’  I want things to move according to my agenda, spoiled child that I am. Not E’s natural healing process.  At the risk of sounding like Gilda Radner, ‘there’s always something.’  Rogue aches and pains throughout his body that seem to have nothing to do with cancer.  Yet in some way they do.  The hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, after all.

I cry. Like a baby some days. These crying jags are erratic. Out of the blue. Unpredictable. Indiscriminate and downright impolite. They take me by surprise. But then so did the diagnosis of cancer a year ago.

E’s personal mantra is that he “comes from good stock.”  Hardy.  Resilient. Tough as nails. It’s his Grizzly Adams fortitude and true grit that gets me through the hour of the wolf.  It’s the call in the wilderness that keeps me going. One baby-step at a time.

Fuck cancer anyway.  We don’t give up. That much hasn’t changed.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Unfinished Business.

IMG_0676It was inevitable. Bound to happen. I’d reach a certain age and life stage.  Then bam. Smack. Thump. I’d start thinking about unfinished business.

Well here I am. Signed. Sealed. Delivered. Right on track.

On the one hand I think, ‘Yay for me. Look at all I’ve done. Little Miss Smarty Pants.’  Then the grim reality sets in. The ugly truth. The road ahead is shorter than the road behind.  Then I think, ‘I’m just getting started. I haven’t done anything yet.  Shit.’

Age and stage notwithstanding, two things over the past year triggered this obsessive unfinished thinking.  E’s cancer diagnosis.  And a painting of Ma’s that I pulled out of storage.

Dealing with E’s cancer has brought me to my knees on more than one occasion.  I’ve felt a rainbow of emotions.  From fear to anger to sadness to joy.  And now gratitude.  This experience has reminded me of the fragile and fleeting nature of life.  How quick it all passes.  The cliche is true. Time flies.  Especially the older you get.  I can barely catch my breath on some days. I just want to scream, ‘slow down!’  I want to freeze frame the good stuff.  Fortunately, the older I get the more I realize it’s all good stuff.  Regardless of how it may appear on the surface.  I want to hold on tight.  Squeeze the life out of every last thing.

I’m overwhelmed at times by the immensity of this thing called life.  The fact that we’re here at all is utterly astonishing when you think about it.  Big bangs and creation debates aside, it’s mind blowing.

Then there’s the insignificance of my little life in the grand scheme of things. My humble place in this mysterious cosmic eternal universe.  We are all less than a blip on the radar of time.  Practically nothing.  Or perhaps not?  Why are we here anyway?  I don’t know.  But I want to know.  This, and the answers to about a million other philosophical and spiritual questions.  I’m a seeker.

I’m pretty sure that this pursuit will be the biggest business I’ll leave unfinished.

Then there’s Ma’s painting.  The unfinished one.  I found it in the attic at 204 after she died.  Vibrant yellow and orange color streaks across the canvas with etherial wisps and airy brushstrokes.  From a distance it looks finished.  A bit abstract for Ma’s typical style, but done. It’s only when you get up close that you see that it isn’t finished at all.  Not by a long stretch.  You can see that the yellow and orange were just the beginning.  The first few layers.  The background for the real painting.  Up close you can see the pencil marks where she had sketched in the foreground images.  The Sleeping Giant on the horizon.  Sail boats reflected in the water.  I don’t know for sure.  I only know that this painting was intended to be so much more than what was left behind.

Over the past year, I have spent time contemplating this painting.  I have struggled with the desire to finish it.  Complete this one little piece of her work here on earth.  But I won’t.  This is her unfinished business.  Not mine.  And quite frankly, none of my business.

But this painting is a gentle reminder of all the things that are my business to finish.  Truth is, I know I will go to my grave with tons of things left undone.  Not sure I’m okay with that.

Ironically, I love lists but I’m not a bucket list person.  At least not in the formal sense, with an actual physical list.  Like the one I make at work every day. I think I’m too lazy to sit down and compile such a thing.  Or maybe mine would be too long.  Endless.  From here to eternity.  It would take me forever.  When people talk about checking something off their bucket list, I’m perplexed.  Where do they find the time to both make the list and do all that shit on it?

Having said all that, I do have things I still want to do.  I also have things I wish I had done when I was younger.  These are the things that require a much more youthful body and brain.  C’est la vie.

So I focus on what I can still do.

Instead of attempting to accomplish, achieve, attain or actualize, I focus on what really matters.

When do I start?  Here.  This place.  This present moment.  As much as possible, I try to stay in the now.

What can I do right this minute to have a more meaningful life?  It doesn’t matter.  Meaning can be found in anything. And everything.  Doing the laundry.  Mowing the lawn.  Climbing a rock.  Soaring from the top of a mountain.  Lying on my back gazing at the sky. Kissing my love goodnight.  Holding the hand of the broken hearted.  Eating spaghetti. Writing a song. Running barefoot through the grass. Standing still.  The list is endless.  And very personal.  That’s the supreme beauty of it.

Who can I surround myself with?  Who are my people?  My tribe?  My dear ones?  They’re already here. Every last one of them.  And more will come.  Some will leave when our business together is done.

Where do I need to be to make a difference in the world?  Make it a better place than when I arrived?  Improve someone’s life, even in the smallest way?  Everywhere. Anywhere. People need help all over the place.  In my own home.  At work.  Down the road.  Across the street.  The country.  The ocean.  The earth.

How do I get it done? One baby step at a time. Occasional giant leaps.   Little tiptoes.  One foot in front of the other.  Maybe I’ll strap on a cape or sprout a pair of wings.  I don’t know.  I just know I’m going to die trying.

Why bother with all of this hullabaloo? Why not?  Just because.  That’s all I got.

I’ll take a crack at some dreams.  Hatch a few more schemes.  Make a new plan or two.  Write another story.  Wish upon a star.  Cause a ruckus.  Blow out a few more candles on the cake.  And keep going down the road.  For as long as I’ve got.

Will I die with some business left unfinished?  Most undoubtably so.  I am a work in progress, after all.

Just like Ma’s painting.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: 1 Million Likes and My Dad will Quit Smoking.

IMG_1700In an earlier post I shared some of the things I was angry about since this dance with the Big C began last fall.  Mostly bat-shit crazy, Mad Hatter things that have been overwhelming and downright mystifying.  The bubbling brew of oozing gooey undisguised and unrestrained emotions.  My psychological backpack is already jam-packed, yet I continue to gather more of these sour candies with each passing day.  It’s been a real slice and I am grateful to everyone who is on the road with me.  I’m especially grateful to those with large hearts and even larger compassionate muscles who haven’t judged.  Just walked the mile in my moccasins.

One of the big things I have wrestled with in this messy muddy life I lead is that there is just no way to sanitize these emotions. I wish I could.  But the truth is, they are there.  Maybe they always were and E’s cancer just brought them roaring to the surface. Demanding that I take note.  So I have.  And the thing is, I can’t paint a pretty picture.  Won’t even try.  All my life I have been referred to as “such a nice person.”  Well, there isn’t anything nice about this.  None of it.  So if you will indulge me one last purge, one final rage, one more dump about anger, then I think I’m done here.

Warning: Some of you may want to quit reading at this point.  No hard feelings. This isn’t for everyone.  I get that. You can move on and read the blogs about flour-free recipes or how to make a tee shirt from toilet paper.

There is one colossal thing that I’ve been livid about for years.  It trumps all those other things I’ve been mad about.  Makes them seem almost trivial.  Not even deep enough to be superficial. It’s the Big Kahuna of piss-offs.  I intentionally left it out of my first rant because it’s been such a sensitive thorn in my side.  And believe it or not, I was still trying to play nice in that post.  But since this is the final puke-up, here goes.

E smoked.

Not casually.  Not after dinner.  Nor while on vacation.  Not like those rare birds who bum smokes at parties but never indulge otherwise. It wasn’t a bad habit he picked up late at night while playing in bands.  E was a hard-core smoker from the time his was nine years old.  He chain smoked. Tons. It was the first thing he did when he got up in the morning and the last thing at night.  If he couldn’t sleep he got up and had a cigarette. It comforted him in ways I never could.  It was his best friend. An extension of his yellow nicotine stained fingers.

No one knows with 100 percent certainty that smoking was the cause of his disease. Even the doctors who treated him, and the nurses who cared for him, left the door open for other possible explanations.  Cancer does strike randomly.  Nonsmokers get lung cancer.  Health nuts, who only eat organic foods and run ten miles a day, get stomach cancer.  People who wear big floppy hats and cover themselves in gobs of suntan lotion get skin cancer.  We know this to be true.  Stress and inflammation are often at the heart of many diseases, from head to heel.  I get this.

But here’s the two thousand pound elephant in the room.  E stuck a carcinogenic substance in his mouth for 45 years, every day, all day.  He has mouth cancer. Mathematical equations aside, odds are cigarette smoking most likely caused this thing.

And I’m mad as hell about that.

Before our daughter was born I begged and pleaded with E to quit.  Once M was here, I tried every manipulative trick in the book.  Of course, intellectually I knew this had to be his decision. He had to hold his own come to Jesus meeting.  I had no control over this.  I understood addiction. Having grown up with an alcoholic father and personally battled with uncontrollable sugar cravings my entire life, I knew what misery looked like.  I’d grovel and drag myself through the mud just for an O’Henry Bar. I know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night needing to feed.  I will always be a sugar addict, whether I eat the stuff or not.  I’ve also smoked.  I know how hard it is to quit. I bawled like a baby for two weeks solid the last, and final, time I quit.  It was pathetic.  Not one of my more graceful and exemplary times.

Because I knew intimately how difficult quitting smoking could be, I exercised as much compassion and understanding as was possible with E. But I’m only human after all.  And I have my own crap to deal with. There was always this underlying resentment about him not quitting.  I often viewed it as defiance.  Not something he couldn’t do.  But wouldn’t.

There were a couple of occasions over the past 20 years where E attempted to quit.  His longest smoke-free period was about four months.  Most of his efforts were futile though.  When it came to quitting, the best he could commit to was “someday.”

Over time, my protests and admonishments ebbed and flowed in volume and frequency.  I also had a comrade, a buddy, a conscientious objector who shared my concerns.  I went from wanting to shield my daughter from a swath of cigarette fumes to having her join me on the protest line.  M and I were a united front on this issue.

At times we were passive aggressive in our objections and disapproval.  Never really coming out and saying, “You’re an asshole for treating this so lightly,” but implying it just the same, in our offhanded comments.  These ran the gambit from the descriptive, “The garage looks like a butt factory” to the succinct, “you reek.”  His habit was bringing out the worst in us.  We were evil twins.

But once E’s mouth cancer was confirmed, no one dared to say, “I told you so.”  We knew there was a good possibility something like this could happen. He was playing a risky game with much at stake.  Sad thing is, E knew it too.  That was the frustrating part.  Just like quitting  might happen “someday” so could getting cancer.

It’s a peculiar thing how love supersedes everything at times like these. Instead of thinking, “I knew this was going to happen.” All I could think about was losing him.  Nothing else mattered.  The cause was irrelevant.

Having said all that, I’m still angry.  At E for not quitting before it came to this.  At his doctor, for not ever suggesting he should quit.  At myself, for not being more persuasive, not fighting hard enough.  At God, for not answering all those millions of prayers.

Pointless self-flagellation.  I know.

One last thing.  All over social media sites, but Facebook in particular, there have been these images of kids holding signs that read something like, “My dad says that if I get 1 million ‘likes’ he’ll quit smoking.”  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry the first time I saw one of these posts.  For the most part these are scams called “Like Farming”, which can generate tons of money for the owners of those phony pages.  Scams or the real deal aside, I found them disturbing.  Because M and I know the truth.  It will take more than 1 million “likes” to make someone’s dad quit smoking. No matter how much they love you. It just doesn’t work that way. Nothing’s that simple.

I’m angry about that too.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter. Mad as Hell.

Scary FaceThis post comes with a WARNING.  What you’re about to read may make you uncomfortable.  Or mad.

I’m mad.  Mad as hell.  What do I do with all this seething anger?  I could hold it in.  Suppress it like an unpleasant sneeze.  I could let it fester, bubble and boil for the rest of my life. Or I could just dump it here.

Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes this Big C walk with E is way more than I signed up for.  I want to be the Good Wife.  The benevolent devoted soul mate.  I do.  But I’m not.  Don’t get me wrong, I am kind, compassionate and caring.  But there are times when the fire breathing dragon and the monster under the bed emerge.

What am I angry about?  That’s the thing.  I don’t even know half the time.  Everything and anything.

Am I surprised by the anger?  Absolutely.  I didn’t expect this.

It hasn’t simply been a steady build. Or slow burn. A crescendo ending with a crashing forte of rage.  Random acts of anger.  Unexpected outbursts.  Irrational displays of irritability.  Non-stop wrath or fury.  Annoyance or aggravation.  It has been all of these things. Thankfully not all at the same time.  But there are days where I simply move from one crappy angry emotion to the other.

Quite frankly, I can’t pinpoint what has my dander up and caused my blood to boil.  Why I see red.  And often black.

Some of the things I’m angry about make perfect sense.  At least to me.  Like the slowness of the medical process.  A year ago, at his annual check-up, E mentioned this irritation he had in his mouth.  Possibly it was a canker sore or a benign lesion.  Or possibly it was something bigger.  More sinister.  Who knew.  Certainly not us.  We’re not the experts.  This initial ‘mention’ to the doctor was followed by several trips to the neighborhood walk-in clinic where E was given cream to rub on the sore.  Months would pass before a biopsy was performed and a diagnosis given.  That was just the beginning.  More months would pass before his surgery.  A year later and the road ahead is long.  And winding.  Exhausting.  Draped in weary.  I’m angry about this.

Then there are the list of irrational things.  These cover the gambit, the full spectrum of the rainbow, the various degrees and levels of my anger.  Everything from the petty and trivial to the foolish and inconsequential.  The paltry, piddling and pettifogging.  All those shabby emotions that once expressed, or even thought, leave me feeling small, spiteful, mean, and just downright unkind.

Everything bugs me. Going right back to the early days. Until this present moment.

The botched biopsy.  Inconceivable. The breathtaking beauty of the Oncologist. Distracting. The daily crosstown trips to the hospital. Tedious.  The smell on the seventh floor.  Sickening. E’s feeding tube dangling from his nose.  Disgusting. The color blue of his hospital regulation issued PJs. Unfashionable. The ear-to-ear scar on E’s neck.  Frightening.  The size of his tongue.  Unfathomable. The disruption to our daily lives.  Unwanted.  The long lonely nights where sleep was a stranger.  Disturbing.  The lousy meals, fast food and frozen dinners.  Repulsive. The sound of the blender.  Irritating. The clutter, mess, dust and dog fur in E’s man cave.  Infuriating. The smell of soup in the microwave. Revolting. The way E speaks.  Incomprehensible.  The flowers and plants that need planting.  Frustrating. Taking out the garbage and doing the recycling. Enraging. Doing chores that E used to do. Exasperating. Being nice.  Impossible.

How could I think, feel, say such nasty things?  I don’t know.

I wish I could be more like Mother Theresa. All saintly and good.  But I’m not.  I’m Helen Keller before Anne Sullivan came into her life.  Groping in the dark. Punching the air. Kicking and screaming at anything unfortunate enough to cross my path. I stumble carelessly into the abyss.  I hiss and curse unapologetically. I breathe fire.  Rant and rave like a freaking lunatic.

I do all that. Then I have the audacity to shed my skin like a snake.

And start anew.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Demon in the Dark.

The Bass Man and Boo in our garden.

The Bass Man and Boo in our garden.

On Thursday, December 6 at 1:00am my world was rocked.  Not by my teenage daughter playing her music too loud.  Nor by the sound of a car stereo blasting its way past our quiet house.  No, this was far more sinister.  And threatening.

I woke up to the disturbing sight of E in the hallway holding his head in his hands like a pumpkin leftover from Halloween.  He must have switched on the light because I could see him so vividly heading towards our darkened bedroom. Like a zombie, one of the characters from The Walking Dead. He was stumbling and mumbling.  I had been sleeping and had no idea what time it was, nor did I comprehend the scene that was unfolding.

Startled, dazed and confused I leapt from our bed.  E stopped and did a 180, then shuffled off into the bathroom.  I followed.  I stood in the doorway and watched as he draped his face over the toilet bowl.  His mouth agape.

“What’s wrong?” I cried. “What’s happening?”

E sounded like he had a mouth full of marbles.  Saliva was pouring like clear corn syrup from his open mouth. A steady viscous stream of treacle. He continued to hold onto his head like it was a bowling ball.  Burdensome, heavy and tiring.  One false move and it could slip from his hands.  Shatter everything.

Terror-struck, I asked again what was wrong.

This is what I heard:

“Biopsy.  Cancer.”

This is the frenzied conversation that followed:

“Cancer!  No-no-no!  What do you mean?  What do we do?”

“Call 811.”

“811? What is that?”

“The nurse.”

“I’m calling a nurse?”

“Yeah.”

So I called the nurses hotline.  I was still dazed and confused.  Still hadn’t registered what was happening. Everything was haywire. A living nightmare.  A million thoughts were exploding in my mind all at once.  I went from zero to the deepest darkest scariest place in no time flat.  I lost it briefly.  And then jumped into action.  It was the only thing I knew how to do well.  Act.

In our retro 40’s home, we have a little alcove in the hall where the phone is hung.  It is directly across from the doorway to the bathroom so I had a clear vantage point to E’s agony.  It was gut-wrenching to witness my love, my brawny man, so vulnerable and in such pain.  Heartbreaking to see his beautiful blue eyes gripped with anxiety and distress.

I began to have this two-way conversation with E and the lovely (and calm) nurse on the other end of the phone.  Her voice was soothing.  Comforting.  Reassuring.

I still didn’t understand fully what was going on at this point.  I just knew it was bad.  In every sense of the word.  I explained to the nurse, as best I could, the symptoms that E was presenting.  I’ve never been adept at understanding people who don’t speak English very well.  I’m embarrassed to admit that accents are my Achilles Heel of communication.  The mumbo jumbo dripping from E’s mouth was way beyond that.  Nothing made sense.  Partly because I was in a state of shock and what he was saying was simply unbelievable.  Mystifying. Inconceivable.  And partly because E was incapable of talking.  It was like his mouth was full of bad food or dirty socks.  Every word labored.  Garbled. Distorted.

If it hadn’t been so terrifying, it would have been quite comical. We were participants in a game of charades where I had to “guess the symptoms.”  I managed to figure out that he was experiencing severe pain in his mouth.  His tongue was swollen.  He couldn’t swallow.  Saliva was pouring by the bucket full into his cupped hands.  But he had no trouble breathing.  The silver lining in the black cloud hanging over his head.

The nurse listened patiently and then offered two options.  Either call an ambulance to take E to the hospital.  Or drive him there.  Since it was E’s life I gave him the choice.

Within minutes E, our daughter M and I were on our way to the hospital.  I drove while E sat next to me in the front of the truck.  M sat in the bumper seat in the back of the cab, her University textbooks in one hand, cell phone in the other.

The nerve-wracking journey across town was long, dark and eerily quiet.  We hit every red light, which only exacerbated my frustration and fear.  It seemed to take forever to get there.

As I drove I took E’s hand and held it tight. I didn’t want to ever let it go.  Tears began to flow. Then anger.

We had a brief conversation that went something like this:

“Why didn’t you tell me you were having a biopsy?”

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

“Worry me?  Look how well that worked out for you.”