Transcribing my work responsibilities from last year’s date book to a brand new one was a satisfying job for the first day of school. Each entry looked neat and clear-cut, written in blue ink with my favorite Bic fine point pen. It was a startling reminder, however, to note the doctors’ appointments squeezed in last September between my routine tasks. On one day, highlighted in bright yellow, I’d written: “11:00 – infectious disease specialist, 1:30 – plastic surgeon, 6:00 – home infusion nurse” interspersed among “Arrange meetings with the potluck supper chairs, write thank you notes to welcome committee members, and prepare for wrapping paper sale.”
When school opened last fall, concealed beneath a blousy shirt, I wore a contraption affixed to my chest that enabled me to administer home IV infusions for a breast infection. My hair was lank and thinning. Most of it fell out by mid-month. Now, it is short, gray and curly. Curly! But for a few years in the eighties when I paid big bucks for a look that my husband said made me look like a poodle, my hair has been straight. I’ve been told my locks will return to normal, but it’s fun to glimpse this very different, apparently self-assured and sassy woman, in the mirror when I pass.
The self-assurance is an illusion and the gray hair gives me pause because I do look older. Photographs of brunette, ponytail-Lea make me wistful because that girl had no idea what lay ahead. And while I know that life was not always smooth before cancer, still, I realize I believed that in living right, I carried a shield; now I know I’m unarmed.
Dave argues me on that. He says in being tested, I discovered a strength, resilience and courage I’d not known I possessed, which is true. And while the Universe failed to sweep away those invading cells, it did mobilize my Dave, kids, friends and family to surge to my defense with fortifying love and care. Dave would say that is how the universe works.
This weekend, as has become tradition, Dave and I went to Block Island for the Race Around the Block. Need I say that I was not running? Dave’s brother Steve was the token racer and we went with the usual band of dear friends to cheer him on from the hill above Champlin’s dock while sipping mudslides, a delicious concoction of ice cream and rum.
Last year, I was bald and chemo-weak on race weekend. Dave had pulled a muscle in his back and walking was painful. It was cold and rainy, empathetic weather. I did not want to go, could not imagine the energy it would require to walk up the ramp to the ferry, much less ride a bike to the Narragansett Inn once the boat docked. But our friends were a powerful draw, so scarf-bedecked and limping, we went. It makes me teary even now to remember our arrival and the sight of those smiling, encouraging faces lined up at the wharf to greet us.
The year of cancer had another unexpected benefit: focus. As a student, if I’d given it any thought, my purpose was evident: to perform well in class and on tests. As a mother of young children, it was to provide healthy meals, tub times, cozy stories and plenty of snuggles. Since my kids left home, however, my purpose has been a puzzle producing a pit in my stomach, as I wonder if I’m on the right path. Cancer provided temporary clarity: I had to do what was needed to be healthy. Eat well. Exercise. Maintain my spirits. Avoid stress where possible. It was a relief to have a goal so clear.
I would like to say the disease taught me perspective, that I no longer waste worry on piddling concerns. Not the case. Intellectually, I have a better grasp on what is worth the twist in my gut, but I’d need a new personality to banish the butterflies and middle of the night mind rush.
The other evening, however, I sat at the top of the stairs and listened while Dave played his new electric piano. He did not know I was there. I was wearing a pair of olive green hand-me-down shorts from my daughter, Casey, plus a long-sleeved brown sweater. My feet were bare, toenails painted “Cherry Crush,” my favorite shade. On the white stucco wall beside me were two family photographs. In one, a wild-west tourist shot taken in Jackson Hole, Wyoming seven years ago, Dave wore a black hat and overcoat like Maverick in the old TV series. My son, Tucker, looked handsome and dangerous as a gunslinger, and Casey and I were gun-toting barmaids in lacy camisoles and feathers. The other picture, vintage 1975, was a portrait of Dave, me, Steve and his wife, Debby, plus my nephew, Christopher, at age two or so. All of us had long hair.
As Dave experimented with the new piano’s functions, adding a brass section and strings, the music swelled and soared. I could feel the house absorbing the sound, absorbing the moment, storing it in its annals, just as those photos held onto the people we were in ’75 and ’03.
Dave at the piano, me listening, unseen, on the steps. Both of us healthy, strong, loving each other, safe. Tears rolled down my cheeks because that inconsequential moment was so poignant.
And that’s what I’ve learned. Life is precious and I want to pay attention, with every sense open, as much as I can.