Well here we are and it’s 2014. And of course with another new year comes another list of new year’s resolutions. I was reading the paper today and — say this with a heavy Boston accent — as per (that’s “pah”) usual, persons trying to be funny have written all about new year’s resolutions and their utility/futility depending on his or her particular point of view.

I haven’t made any. Unless you count the typical half-hearted pledge I always make to myself to try and get my shit together (for real) this year. After my somewhat less than absolutely fantastic 2012 and my slightly better but still not all wonderful 2013, however, I see no reason to write a laundry list of resolutions. Holy crap — you know what? It just occurred to me that the second anniversary of my diagnosis just came and went and I didn’t think about it at all. Hot damn. Anyhow, as I was saying, I don’t need a new year to resolve to do shit. I just get it done when I set my mind to it if it means that much to me.

But there is something cleansing about that flip of the calendar that makes me want to purge, cleanse and sanitize. Except for my own person, I guess, since I am sitting here at 18:18 GMT still unshowered in my pyjamas while my children, also still in pyjamas (and not the freshest), sit at the dining table addressing notes. We are jet lagged and have failed to avail ourselves of fresh air and exercise, two things which are sure-fire ways to get over jet lag quicker, or so the experts say. Well oops. See, I’m failing already to be all that I can be.

So rather than draft a list of my inadequacies or come up with a brilliant haiku summarising my goals for the year, I thought I would find new uses for January and all it has to offer.

For starters, my husband announced in December that he was going to have a dry January, meaning that he would not drink any alcoholic beverages for the entire month. I heckled him and rolled my eyes and pronounced such to be stupid. Until the night I had a few drinks and vowed, in front of other people, to do it with him myself. Oops again. So around 22:15 on 31 December 2013, I sipped my last bit of Cabernet and ushered in the New Year, without even raising a glass at midnight. Might as well get started, I figured. The next day at the BA airport lounge I looked longingly at the wine offered at the drinks bar and thought: “Why the hell am I doing this? I don’t have to do this. I said I would but really what’s to stop me from just changing my mind? And not going through with it.” But I pushed these thoughts aside and got on the plane, having consumed only sparkling water with my chicken curry. The English are into curry and things that are like curry — no doubt due to all their colonising of India and other places where curries and such abound. But I digress.

Anyhow I got on the plane and sat down and waited for them to pass the pre-take-off champagne, which I have never, and I mean never refused. Even if I have a raging head cold and it is 10:00am I take the champagne. Because, like, it’s champagne and shit. You know? But I asked for a glass of water and told the flight attendant I was doing the Dryathlon. He seemed slightly irritated and furrowed his brow in a sort of “who farted” look coupled with a good dose of “you dumb asshole why do I need to know this or indeed care?” However, he did remember not to offer me any wine or booze for the rest of the flight, so that was a bonus.

After I turned down the champagne and while we were still sitting on the runway, waiting for some dumbass passenger whose luggage was aboard but whose person had gone MIA (not cool to do that – especially post 9-11), I pondered again the stupidity of agreeing to this self-inflicted deprivation of something that I enjoy and for no good reason. And that’s when it dawned on me — I needed a reason. It would be one thing if I had a drinking problem or needed to lose a lot of weight or something but I do not, so there really wasn’t that much in it for me, except pain and agony and the knowledge that my friends wouldn’t invite me to any dinner parties for a month once they found out. So while I casually noodled about whether there was a bomb on the abandoned suitcase aboard our 777 and why I had committed myself to a month of no fun at all, I googled “Dryathlon” and came up with a goal. And instantly I felt better.

We will raise money for Cancer Research UK, which is a charitable organisation (I won’t tell you what the charity does because if the name doesn’t spell it out for you then you have serious problems). So using my iPhone, moments before the technology ban, I formed a team — with Bill as team leader — called the boozeless billionaires. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t really make sense, but my nine-year-old came up with it and it has nice alliteration so we went with it. I just wish the second part of it were true. Anyhow you can donate to a good cause and watch us pretend to enjoy nonalcoholic beer and become fat gorging ourselves on chocolate as a substitute for what we really want. No pressure at all but here is the link in case you are interested: http://www.justgiving.com/teams/the-boozeless-billionaires

I’ve already had one friend offer to send money if we agree to stop doing it. But at this point I’ve gone too far and I’m sticking to it. We are four days in and after my initial doubts and shakiness on January 1, I am going long and strong. People do a lot of things to raise money for charity, generally involving racing either on foot or by bike. That requires training and a lot of self-discipline. It is undoubtedly different from what we are doing, which although it involves self-discipline does not involve a physical challenge other than stopping that motion of tipping that glass back and repouring. But what the hell, it’s for a good cause and it has led to some interesting benefits.

It will give our livers a rest, which is good. Might it make us look younger? I don’t know. Time will tell (plus I plan to do one of those before and after deals where I deliberately look crap in the first pic by being all hunched over and pale and wrinkly plus bad hair and then slathering myself with self-tanner and make-up and use a soft lens on the after pic so people will ooh and aah at the results and ask what face cream I’ve been using). But more interesting and perhaps less obvious, it makes you think about when you want a drink and what happens when you just don’t have it. And all the things that are associated with it, such as going out, socializing, unwinding, partying, overeating, dealing with stress, doing what’s easy, giving in, I could go on… I mean there are a lot of times when the natural thing has become to have a glass of wine or a beer, and then another. And another. And I do enjoy it — I really do. But this month I will enjoy just not doing it. And exploring how not doing it makes me feel.

For all you naysayers out there who think it is lame — I hear you. I remember last year one of our friends did it (not even for charity but just because) and I thought that is sooooo stuuupid. But why is it stupid? Especially given that I am prone to wild dancing, weirdness, fits of song and being obnoxious, catty and overly critical of myself and others (behind their backs, usually, but not always) even without having a single drink. Oh did I mention, foul language, odd dressing and general irreverence? Yes well I will still be me. I will just see everything more clearly as I sip my fizzy water and lime (out of a stemmed wine glass, so I can feel glamorous). I may have to draw the line, however, at the mocktail. Why even pretend, really? Because perhaps the only thing lamer than not drinking is drinking a fruit cocktail made with tropical juice at a party and pretending to have a good time.


In case you are wondering about the photo of my husband pouring beer down the sink, no we did not go through the house and pour out all of our alcoholic beverages. That would be a time-consuming, idiotic, expensive proposition. No, instead he cleaned out the basement and discovered some expired beers, and he is a purist and refuses to drink other-than-superfresh brew. He also needs more empty bottles because tomorrow he plans to bottle a batch of beer he brewed a couple of months ago. Hey, the ban is on drinking not brewing or bottling. Out with the old in with the new — goes for years and beers. And it is for one month only. Four days down and 27 to go. If I falter I can always remind myself: sure beats chemo.


I started writing this the day before Hallowe’en but now of course Hallowe’en has passed and I am not as timely as I would have liked to be. Oh well. Give a girl a break. Just roll with it and if you please transport yourself back to October 30, 2013…

It’s that time of year again, folks. Sneaks up on me every year and used to be my favorite — wait why is that red-underlined?  STOP IT!!!! — holiday as a child. Because we are talking Hallowe’en I am doing American spelling in this post and my British spellcheck will just have to chillax. Anyhow, as I was saying, Hallow’s Eve is upon us. Like, tomorrow.

And naturally I don’t have my act together, haven’t finalized costumes, haven’t decorated the house, haven’t bought pumpkins. Typical. But at least this year it is because I have been flat out for the past two weeks doing a project for my interior design course and not because I was schlepping around to doctors appointments undergoing unpleasant draconian treatments to stay on this side of the dirt. So that’s an improvement.

Luckily my children are classy and have not asked whether I will buy them some slut outfit that isn’t even appropriate for much older kids. I mean, seriously, one year my husband’s friend’s daughter asked him if he would purchase, online, a costume called “Pocahottie.” WTF. And um, NO.

Yes we have a black cat for the nine-year-old (she likes classic, old-school costumes.  Last year she was pleased as punch being a red devil and the prior year a ghost with a simple white sheet with holes for eyes) and we have the six-year-old in a Red Riding Hood get-up. I was thinking that because we have our nanny, my husband and myself kicking around we should all get into the fairy tale spirit. So I am going to be the wolf, and we are planning to dress Agnieszka up as the grandmother. But we are having a hard time finding a granny nightie (Marks & Spencers didn’t even have one) so we are hitting the thrift shops today to deal with that situation. My husband can be the hunter although it would probably be ill-advised for him to walk around northwest London armed — I mean not even the cops here carry guns much less an axe (though some of the rioters reportedly had machetes) — so we are still working on that one.

But let me get to the point, which is, that one of the things I enjoy so about Hallowe’en, aside from the occasional mini Twix (but where oh WHERE are my Reese’s?), is the memories it stirs up of Hallowe’ens past.  Like the time we dressed our infant (Isabel) up as  peas in a pod even though she was clearly pissed to be zipped into what probably felt like a green polyester straight jacket.

Or the time I decided to dress myself up as a ballerina and wore a leotard and tutu even though I was about five months pregnant. It really is hard to embarrass me, I guess.

But my most favorite Hallowe’en memory is from four years ago. We were living in Wellesley, MA at the time and it was October (duh). Bill and I found ourselves out shopping on Route 9 (think long, unattractive strip mall in suburbia, if you aren’t familiar with that neck of the woods) with the girls, then five and two-and-a-half.

We wandered into Sleepy’s to look at mattresses. There is always some fucking weirdo working at Sleepy’s. I am sorry, but in my experience it’s the truth. If you work at Sleepy’s and are offended then I am sorry but send me a selfie and I will decide whether you have a leg to stand on. Chances are you don’t and therefore you won’t. Once we went into a Sleepy’s in a basement shop in Manhattan and the salesman (who was alone in there, underground and breathing heavily) scared us so much we hightailed it right out of there. And we didn’t even have kids at the time.

Well anyhow this Sleepy’s was manned by a very tall, very big man with a mustache. And when I say big, I mean VERY big. Like 400 pounds at least. And I am not exaggerating. That he could walk was impressive. So we entered the shop and the girls were thrilled because of course it was a large square room full of mattresses. They immediately went mental and started running around and jumping on all the mattresses to test them out. The man said this was fine, which was pretty cool of him, and didn’t seem phased by it at all.

So, while the kids tried to break their necks, Bill and I tried out various mattresses. We even underwent some stupid test where you lie on this thing and it tells you what kind of firmness you need and such. Of course we were told we each needed different support. And I was not about to leave and order a Sleep by Numbers or a Craftmatic Adjustable Bed for crying out loud. So we started arguing (albeit not heatedly) about which kind of mattress could work for both of us. Meanwhile the kids engaged the very big man in conversation. Or was it vice versa. I don’t remember. The gist is that he asked Isabel what she was going to be for Hallowe’en and confessed that he, himself had not yet decided what his costume would be.

Isabel ran off and explored more mattresses with her younger sister, who ran around yelling “hoissss!” (that’s hoist, if you didn’t figure that one out), because she still had trouble climbing up onto some of the higher ones. Then Isabel did a 180 and ran back to the man, stopped in front of him, looked up at him, eyes wide and brimming with excitement and said, “I know what you can be for Hallowe’en!” The man listened intently. “A pumpkin! A BIG. FAT. PUMPKIN!” She looked at him with a completely earnest expression.

At this point I was grateful that I wasn’t eating or drinking anything because I would have either choked to death or spewed it all over the Tempurpedic mattress I was rolling around on. Bill and I looked at each other, clearly at a loss for words in trying to mitigate this innocent yet potentially highly offensive suggestion from our child.

We didn’t want to scold her too badly and make it even worse, plus because she didn’t mean anything by it, it would not have been fair. Also, it was absotively fucking hilarious. There was just no denying that. But there was no way we could allow ourselves to burst into laughter either.

So we did what any good parents would do, and we purchased the Tempurpedic mattress and a Tempurpedic pillow to boot. You might think we were just trying to make the best of a bad situation but we really did like the mattress (we still have it today).

And you know what, the very big man was a totally excellent sport. He did not appear in the least offended. He laughed and poked some fun at himself, and mentioned that his size had certainly turned quite a few heads and elicited a number of comments in his day. But still, we did feel bad about it and were relieved that it had blown over rather painlessly.

After we’d wrapped up our purchase and were ambling toward the door, kids and new pillow in tow, Isabel turned to waive and exclaimed, loudly, “BYE, MR. BIG FAT PUMPKIN MAN!”

Ah, well.

Happy (belated) Hallowe’en to all you pumpkins out there, whatever shape or size you may be. xoxo



Attack of the Killer Tits

It isn’t what you think. I am not talking about mine here, people. You see I was on the tube the other day contemplating the meaning of life (which is what I almost always do when I ride the tube alone for any period of time) when a big — very big — middle-aged woman dressed in a large-print floral blouse and tan trousers bustled into my car and grabbed the pole just above my seat.

I looked up at her. She was about six feet tall and had an enormous bosom. In fact, her boobs resembled loaded weapons and they were pointed right at me. That’s right, classic torpedo tits. It was somewhat disconcerting and then the thought popped into my mind that it would be funny to take a picture of the enormous pointy bosoms with my iPhone.

I spent a short amount of time trying to position the phone so that it would not be obvious that I was attempting to capture an image of this lady’s gazongas and then, naturally, I came to my senses and didn’t do it. I mean it would have been pretty hard to pull it off and make it look like I was just fucking around with my email or something. I was worried that if she noticed she might sit on me or knock me over with one of those mamas.

Then I had a second thought (I often have two or more in the same day!) and that was how I wished to hell all the people who have ever told me to just not think about boobs, cancer or boob cancer could have been there to see these suckers bearing down on me. Oh sure, I thought. I just won’t think about tits, even when there are two boulders hanging over me that would have impressed even Sisyphus.

I thought again about taking a picture just so I could post it (with the face hidden of course, I am not a mean person — well I am not that mean and I don’t want to get sued or beaten up) just so I could post it on my blog and show people why it is sometimes hard not to be reminded of breast-related issues. But then a seat opened up across the way and she heaved herself, along with her bosoms, into it. And that was that, so…

I have many times revisited the question whether I miss my old boobs. When I wrote Boob Retrospective over one year ago, the honest and immediate answer was that no, I did not. This, because foremost in my mind was that my old boobs were planning to kill me off and they had therefore ventured over to the Dark Side.

But now that I have more perspective on my retrospective, I must admit that I have been missing them quite a bit (well, their precancerous iterations, anyhow) indeed. Sometimes I look at old pictures of myself and focus longingly on the more generous, soft shape that once graced my torso. And I admire bosoms on other people, for instance when they are bouncing around in the gym or jiggling down the street.

These are not thoughts that keep me up at night. I will get on without them. (What choice do I have anyway?) But it is too bad that they were taken away so soon. It has caused me to see myself differently. Angelina Jolie may have written that she doesn’t feel like any less of a woman with her new bionic tits. But I don’t know. Boobs are so symbolic of both motherhood and sexuality. And I definitely feel like less of myself to some extent. Perhaps this is because I never was and am still not an A-list Hollywood movie star married to another A-list Hollywood movie star and didn’t have the luxury, if you can call it that, of sparing the bits on the outside that make boobs look like real boobs.

I think I have noticed that men don’t check me out as much as they used to. And it does make it easier to deal with that I am not on the market and that my long-suffering husband is both present and understanding. But it must be hard for him, as well. I am sure he misses the things that I miss.

Perhaps some day they will figure out how to grow fat cells in a petri dish and can cultivate a couple of real doozies for me. Or I could eat a lot of chips and get a fat tummy so that we can upgrade with an autologous tissue procedure (which is where they make a boob out of a chunk of fat and/or muscle taken from elsewhere on your body).

But I figure I’ll just settle for the memories. It’s like being forty and longing for your twenties. You can look back and remember fondly, but you will never be twenty again, no matter what. That’s life.

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Just when you thought I was finally going to shut up about everything, here I go again.

The other night at a party I ran into a woman who within the last few months completed her treatment for breast cancer. Good Lord. I almost wrote “who went through what I went through” and then I stopped and nearly slapped myself at the ridiculousness of that thought. If I have learned anything it is that no two people go through the same thing even when they are both diagnosed with and treated for a disease bearing the same name. Anyhow, you get the gist. She had breast cancer. She endured chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. And now she is sporting a very becoming, if I may say so, and somewhat familiar cropped ‘do.

She confided in me that life after treatment has proven difficult and that it is hard to know how to deal with it and what to do with the cacophony of emotions with which one is assaulted once the new, cancer-free you is unleashed on the world. It is indeed a hard time. When the hand-holding stops and you are pushed off the boat you have to rely on yourself and those around you, and if you are religious, whatever god or entity you worship, to get through your day. And you often don’t feel quite as strong as you were for some period of time, which is frustrating, albeit for most of us, at least temporary.

I have observed that people — not all people, mind you, but most people — don’t really “get” this. When it isn’t your problem and it hasn’t happened to you, the instinct once treatment is over is to cross it off the list and move on (and hope to hell that the cancer survivor has moved or will soon move on as well so you don’t have to hear about it anymore). We cannot begrudge people for feeling this way or for wanting this. Closure. Over. Onward. I want that too. I’d love to wake up tomorrow and not think about any of it for one nanosecond. But I know that’s never going to happen because there are too many reminders, both emotional and physical. And not all of them are negative, which is something I won’t delve into now but suffice it to say that this has been a learning experience and a journey into heightened awareness of self and others. Jesus that sounds corny but sorry I couldn’t think of a decent synonym for “journey.”

In some ways this is annoying. There are things that I would rather not contemplate very much, such as the inevitable fleeting thought that at some point in the future, the little fuckers could come back. That I would have to undergo those draconian treatments all over again and maybe even undergo dying, which would really suck. I am not being flip. I have thought about these things a lot. It does NOT mean that I am negative or that I am being negative. I am being human. Recognise the difference.

Strangely, you might find, I am now able to consider my own mortality without freaking out and getting all weepy (well, the great majority of the time). I mean, something’s going to get all of us — I should really say each of us, since unless a really large meteor hits it won’t be at the same time for everyone. Allowing myself to think about this has been helpful. In the beginning, in the days leading to my diagnosis, particularly, the thought of it was terrifying and I felt completely out of control. I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel very positive about the future. But I am not delusional and I will not pretend things. My mind wouldn’t allow it, anyhow. I don’t let myself get away with anything.

Over the summer one of my close friends told me that she had stopped reading my blog. The topic came up and she looked away from me, paused and said quickly and firmly “I stopped reading it.” In saying this she was conveying her feeling that this chapter was officially over. I totally respect that decision. And I imagine many other people stopped reading at that point as well. But the thing is, for me it’s never really over. Lots of folks might be finished with it or they might find it annoying or upsetting or [insert another negative adjective] or they just might not need it or want it anymore. That is all fine and dandy. I, however, am not finished with it. I like to write. And it won’t even always be about cancer. I promise.

I imagine that what I write about will evolve. In fact, if you look at early posts versus what I write now, I think it already has evolved. The tone is not the same because I am no longer in honey badger mode. I’m chilling. I’ve entered a new phase. In a few years’ time, who knows, Killing It Blog may have morphed into an interior decorating blog about how to vamp up your kid’s bedroom. But no matter what I write about I will always be affected by what has happened and that experience may inform some of my writing even if I don’t write about it specifically or explicitly.

In other news I placed myself on the wait list for that course in interior decoration I was supposed to embark on over a year and a half ago right before my unwelcome news. Lo and behold, over the summer a spot opened up so I am going to be a student again. The really great news is that I have enough hair not to look like GI Jane on my student ID photo (the same cannot be said for my passport photo which I have to carry around for ten years — oh joy). Hot spit.

I’m going to dust off the drafting board, see if my markers have dried out and buy some new school supplies. I am excited and a little nervous about the workload (and — eek — the competition). But you know one of the most exciting things about it is that I am about to meet a whole new group of individuals who don’t know me from Adam (at least hardly any of them will, I imagine) and to them I will just be me. I will not be that lady who had breast cancer. People will not comment on my hair with a knowing look. They will not ask me “how are you?” in that way people ask. I will just be Emily, the American expat former lawyer mother of two who decided to do a career change before whatever is left of her right brain dries up forever.

Yes in that group it won’t exactly be over, but it won’t ever even have started. It’s a rather refreshing thought, really.

American Summer

It’s been a month since my last blog post. Every time I write something like that (or even think it) I feel like I’m in confession… although not being a Catholic I have never been in confession so I’m just guessing what it feels like based on TV and movies.

Here I am in the United States of America in the final week of our vacation. In three days the girls and I (Bill has already gone back) fly back to London, which seems a world away. Actually, it is a world away. I have not spent a great deal of time reflecting on our life there since we have been Stateside because that life resides in a discrete department of my brain. When I’m here I use the American part of my brain. When I’m back in London then I’ll switch back to the European side. It’s sort of like partitioning your internal hard drive. Just select restart and hold down the appropriate button… Easier to allow the two to coexist peacefully in their own compartments than to try to marry them. That might cause… complete system failure.

It had been nearly a year since the girls and I had been in our home country. And let me tell you — I needed a good dose.

Since we’ve been in America we have immersed ourselves in things American, including beginning our trip with a stint in New York City, my home on separate occasions for a number of years. We did touristy things like visit the Empire State Building. I took our nanny, Agnieszka, who is from Poland and had never been to the US (or outside of Europe for that matter) on a Circle Line Liberty cruise to see the Statue of Liberty and the developing downtown skyline featuring the Freedom Tower with its newly erected spire. Gazing at the new skyscraper as the boat circled I was transported to an alternate reality. I remember the old skyline so well both with and without the twin towers. I need time to digest this new, rather sexy, angular structure, so different from the rectilinear monoliths that preceded it. There is still much empty space to be filled downtown where other buildings will be erected. But it’s a start. It’s different but it works. I decided I like it.

Some combination of the five of us also visited FAO Schwartz (I turned and looked at the people entering the store and every one of them, without fail, cracked a big grin — how could you not?), briefly traipsed through Central Park, waded through crowds in Times Square in the sticky heat (I have to admit to missing, slightly, the sleaze of years past), waited forever on the subway platform for the N train, inhaling that distinct, gritty, stale, heavy New York Subway air (I loved every minute of it even though I was sweating like a pig), did a fly by at the MOMA where my kids and I had lunch with my cherished friend, Susan, following which my older daughter had the pleasure of viewing — in person – Starry Night, by Van Gogh. “This is my favorite painting!” She exclaimed, as we came around the corner. Jackpot, I thought, since I hadn’t known it was her favorite painting and she hadn’t known that we were about to see it.

We stayed at the Carlyle (well, they were having a stay two nights get the third night free special which made it fit neatly into the hotel budget I was given so how could we have passed that up?). I loved it. We all did, really. I almost thought I might run into Marilyn or JFK waiting for the elevator (but not together, of course). The place just reeks of old New York and is at once both intimate and grand. I knew we had arrived in New York City when we walked in the door and there was a rather quirky lady sitting in the lobby with her Maltese in a stroller. She started chatting with the girls, as New Yorkers do. And when she wasn’t talking to someone else she was talking to her dog.

The night we landed I cabbed it across the park to the West Side and had dinner at the little Italian place in the New York Historical Society with my wonderful friend Kath, who was at HLS ahead of me. Bill and I were able to sneak off for grown-ups’ dinner on not one but two nights. I had a variation on a Manhattan (with a foofy name like Mannahatta or something) at Gotham Bar & Grill, which was delicious. I have the recipe. I’ll give it to you later. If you’re nice. We hit one of our favorite little brunch spots in the West Village (“good” — and it was, still) where we were assured to see many of the old standbys on the menu (try the homemade doughnuts and pear pecan coffee cake and the breakfast burrito is tasty as well). We ended our NY trip with a visit to Serendipity on East 60th to take in some Tiffany lamps and have their famous frozen hot chocolate (it’s still yummy, overcrowded, loud, bursting with ice cream sundaes drenched in chocolate and butterscotch spilling over the sides of glass dishes, but they don’t serve those fat sesame bread sticks in a glass anymore). Good Lord. Rereading this I guess I have to face the fact that my life always seems to revolve around my next meal. I can live with that.

After three nights Bill took Amtrak to Boston for a week in the home office and we girls, laden with luggage, piled into a Suburban (muy americano, no?) and headed to Hamden, Connecticut to visit my mother in the house I grew up in. The heat wave started that day but I didn’t really mind because it was American summer heat. The girls drew on the driveway with chubby pieces of chalk they had remembered were stashed in the garage and dipped toes and fingers into the little fish pond at the edge of the patio. We had lunch outdoors with family and neighbors shaded by a now well-established Star Magnolia tree (I remember when we got that tree). We defied the blazing sun by swimming in my stepsister’s pool nearby where we met an Italian woman with her grown daughter (also Italian, as it turned out) and a man from Taiwan. Who knew Hamden was so international?

On July 17th I drove my mother to the hospital to have her second hip replacement. It was nice that the timing coincided with our visit, nice that I could be there with her as she was with me and us when I had my surgeries in London. But all of that is locked in my other partition and I’m not going to think about it right now. I remain firmly in the American side of my brain. So much so I am even ignoring — no rejecting — the UK spell check that keeps trying to change my “z’s” to “s’s” and my “ors” to “ours.”

After being assured that my mother’s surgery was successful and spending a little time with her in her room, I hijacked her station wagon and drove to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where we lived for seven years prior to our international move. We arrived at my in-laws’ house in time for a casual supper on the relative cool of the screened-in front porch with its ceiling fan, because the heat wave hadn’t yet relented. I did a drive-by of our old house, which is across the street from the public school Isabel attended from kindergarten through second grade. Felt kind of surreal. The second day I met my dad for lunch at The Cottage in Linden Square where I encouraged him to try the tortilla soup and fish tacos (he did) and brought him back to the in-laws’ so he could see the grand kids and listen to Isabel play the piano.

Friday morning I played tour guide while Agnieszka and the girls and I drove around Boston and Cambridge and walked around Harvard Yard (for about ten minutes because we were melting). After seeing the sites we headed to Legal Sea Foods near the Harbor for lunch after which I deposited the trio at the revamped New England Aquarium while I went for a doctor’s check-up.

The girls enjoyed some time with old (I use the term very loosely) playmates and we had a  poolside barbecue with friends where we drank good rosé and ate barbecue-flavored potato chips in wet bathing suits.

Saturday the 20th the five of us squeezed ourselves and our luggage into the Jetta wagon (seriously, successfully packing the back was comical and took several attempts) and drove to Bill’s folks’ Cape house in East Orleans. I had the pleasure of sitting in between the girls’ and their booster seats in the back because I have an unusually small ass. What? I do. It’s okay to be honest about these things. Anyhow, small it may be but I could still barely stand up once we got there I was so stiff. But I didn’t care. We were greeted by Bill’s parents and by some biting green head flies, whose purpose in nature is a mystery to me, unless they are tiny incarnations of the devil. “What did we ever do to them?” Isabel kept asking. I told her that’s not how things work in nature. Or at least not always. Luckily, they find Bill’s blood a great deal sweeter than mine (actually it has to do with how much CO2 you “respire” and I like to say he has a larger carbon footprint than I do) so I didn’t get many bites because they were all on him, of course.

On the way to (well and from as well to be technical) the private part of Nauset Beach where we go there is a sand road you have to cross at the end of the wooden walkway and for some reason there seems to be a rather large number of those biting flies and various other flying insects that sting or bite in this area. One day toward the beginning of our time on the Cape we were heading back from the beach with Bill leading the charge, in characteristic fashion, having been relentlessly attacked by green heads. I watched as he got to the sand road up ahead. As he crossed, his lengthy arms began to flail violently about his head and the next thing he was running back and forth up and down the road (with arms still a-flailing). I couldn’t see from where I was standing what was after him but whatever it was stung him on the index finger which he held up for my inspection after the incident was over. That’ll teach you to flail, I thought. “I’m never coming to the beach again,” he proclaimed. Of course we went back the next day and every other day except for maybe one or two cloudy days. But I admired his conviction because I am sure he meant it at the time. My only regret is that I failed for the second time in a row (this has happened before, although the first time the sting-y thing chasing him was as large as a small bird and visible from a nautical mile) to capture it on video. Alas.

You may think I am mean but really I am laughing with him, not at him.

In addition to beach-going and arm-flailing we did a good deal of cooking, including charcoal grilling, and of course, eating. We visited Yarmouth and spent a glorious lazy afternoon with our very close friends the Roosevelt-Churchill clan (no I did not make that up) and everyone picked up right where they had left off, parents and kids alike. I have long believed that this is a true test of friendship. The ability to pick right up and have it feel natural and easy after much time between visits has elapsed and much life has been lived. If you find yourself hemming and hawing you know you have grown apart or that you never really had much to begin with.

The kids stood on the dock and scooped up moon jellyfish while the grown-ups chatted and moved boats around and that night for dinner we had spaghetti squash with pesto topped with diver scallops (who knew such a combination existed or could be so tasty?). Isabel spent the night and then the next day demanded to spend the night again which she did because why not, after all? It’s summer vacay.

Agnieszka returned to London on Wednesday the 24th with one more suitcase than she came with (compliments of my mom) packed with her stateside purchases (these included American jeans, New York and Boston Starbucks mugs and a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt from the restaurant in Times Square). Then Friday Bill’s parents, who had gone to Wellesley for the week, returned to the Cape, and Bill’s brother, Phil (yes, Bill and Phil) arrived from DC. Friday night we had a dinner party with the aforementioned persons, Bill and me and the girls, of course, and then Bill’s work colleague, Brian and his wife Alison, who drove in from Boston in traffic so bad that we plied them with drinks and demanded they spend the night, which they did. To round things out, my best childhood friend, Beth, drove up from Connecticut to spend the weekend on the Cape at a nearby resort and she made it in time for dinner too.

Following a tasty meal of chillied flank steak, sweet and regular potato “fries,” chipotle mayonnaise (all recipes stolen from the Roosevelt-Churchill annual New Year’s Eve blow-out) and salad, and a strawberry-rhubarb crisp for dessert, which I made because Carol had never liked rhubarb having been forced to eat it “plain” by her mother and I wanted to see if she would like it in a baked dessert with other ingredients, I discovered that our six-year-old daughter, Charlotte, apparently has the makings of a go-go dancer. Seriously we are going to have to keep an eye on that girl.

Char started DJ’ing and rocking out, and Isabel joined in, with a hula-hoop. I have to say that they both have some pretty fierce moves. And no one broke a lamp even though there was leaping (while hula-hooping) involved. What really would have made the night would have been an indoor slip-n-slide lubricated with mojitos but you have to draw the line somewhere.

Sunday morning Bill’s parents left for Wellesley and that evening Phil made phenomenal fish tacos (Martha Stewart) and then headed back as well because he had to return to work on Monday.

Enter cousins Abigail (five) and Lydia (two going on three) and Bill’s sister, Lib. Grammy Carol and Lib and her girls pulled in Monday afternoon after not so great traffic during which they were saved from hysteria and boredom by the serendipitous presence of the Sound of Music CD in the car, which kept the girls entertained for hours. The cousins reunited, and we quickly became aware that both Charlotte and Abigail knew most of the lyrics to the songs, so the next days were sprinkled with performances, sometimes in falsetto, of songs the words to which I confess I never fully learned (until now).

There was more cooking and eating and beach going and then a week ago today, I left the gang at the Cape and headed back across the Sagamore Bridge to take my father out to dinner. Caffè Bella is a great little Italian restaurant in Randolph that’s been there for many years and to which we’ve been meaning to go for a few years ever since my dad moved to Massachusetts but we never managed to get there. He had fresh figs stuffed with blue cheese on prosciutto and capellini with fresh lobster meat. I had sautéed soft shell crab and a delicious capellini with capers and fresh vegetables. And we shared a chocolate cake and a piece of blueberry cheesecake for dessert. There was so much food I sent my dad home with my leftovers and he was able to have “a whole ‘nother” meal out of it. I also made him try my soft shell crab thinking that being a Southern boy he might never have tried such. When I explained why the shell was soft he said he wasn’t sure he had wanted to know that, but at least he had already swallowed the bite.

After dinner I drove to Wellesley to spend one night and then headed to Sudbury for the memorial service of Kate’s father, Jonathan Roosevelt. Again, I felt lucky to be present in person on this occasion so that I could support my generous and treasured friend. I drove back to the Cape the next day and we spent another lovely few days at the beach. Did I mention that the heat wave did finally break? It was so lovely. Isabel taught herself to boogie board (I’m a loser and don’t know how so she had no choice but to teach herself) and enjoyed body surfing with her cousin, Abigail. Charlotte and Lydia played in the water some and dug in the sand building sand castles or mounds of sand that were supposed to be sand castles and burying body parts (still attached) and random objects.

I stood on the beach, feeling small but not necessarily insignificant, taking in the beauty of this favorite place. This stretch of sand and open ocean, this feeling of being one with the earth. I embraced my ability, here, to let all things momentarily fall away, to relax and simply be in the moment. I inhaled it, tasted it. It’s where I will go in my mind when I feel the stresses of life pushing in on me, or whenever I get that feeling that I should be stressing about something because I’m done stressing about whatever I was stressing about. I’ll use it to clear the mechanism. In fact I think I’ll give it its own partition. So that I can reboot and be there if I want to.

Monday I drove the wagon back to Hamden and visited my mother, who is recovering well from her hip replacement and walking better than before the surgery. The weather was gorgeous, perfect, bottle it and keep it kind of weather. Dry and not too hot. The summer insects intermittently humming, the birds chirping and there were other familiar sounds… Someone mowing the lawn. The tic-toc of the grandfather clock in the living room. The soft whoosh of cars driving by on the street where I grew up. The deck was peppered with tiny acorns that have already begun to fall from the big old oak. And the temperature dipped pleasantly in the evening making it excellent sleeping weather. I like to turn on the window fan and pull up the quilt. Each morning when I opened my door I was greeted by a friendly meow from one of my mother’s two cats who jumped up on the bed, rolled over and displayed his soft tummy. And the other one sat and watched me do yoga for forty minutes.

Last night we went to L’Orcio in New Haven and ate on the patio. We had burrata with roasted tomatoes and arugula and then my mom had filet mignon with gorgonzola sauce and I, linguine alle vongole and a side of spinach. No room for dessert. It was the best steak I have tasted in years. And my clams were divine.

This morning I took a cab to the train station and was standing on the platform waiting for the Acela which was ten minutes late. I looked around and noticed signs and vending machines. Trash and recycling containers. Things I never paid much attention to. Vending machines stocked with every imaginable American treat. Pop Tarts and Doritos, Smartfood and Reese’s. Snickers and Utz. And I found this, this glass and metal box full of junk food, somehow beautiful and comforting. I felt the same way staring at the pristine white rows of Pepperidge Farm cookies at the grocery store. It’s just so… American. Familiar.

Now I am on the Acela, speeding from New Haven to Boston on another glorious day. The ocean is glittering and the grass and plants are bright and lush. People on the beach wave as the train hurdles past. I am passing Noank, where I spent time as a child because my grandfather lived there, right on the water. It makes me think of docks and lobster rolls and Boston Whalers. Slippery rocks and barnacles. The slightly mildewed, musty yet not entirely unpleasant smell of old life vests. Playing in the crab water. Watching Isabel take her first steps in his house after she played in that same crab water eight years ago.

And my summer vacation is drawing to a close but not yet over. I have a little more to do, a bit more traveling. Time to be alone with my thoughts on the train and in the car. More time with family and friends. A few more precious moments to enjoy this partition. To really remember that this is who I am. I am an American. This is my country.

Oh how I love it so.

It Does Matter

It’s so easy to hear about someone else’s problem and to make an immediate pronouncement about it. How they should feel, what will happen, what matters and what doesn’t (or at least what should matter and what shouldn’t) in the grand scheme of life. The thing is, sometimes you have to bite your tongue.

Let’s face reality. People do not generally like to hear about other people’s problems because most of the time they don’t really give a shit and other people’s problems are boring, annoying, uncomfortable or some combination thereof. I think that we often lob back a not-so-well-thought-out response because we feel that we have to respond to achieve some sort of closure or resolution. Or just to fill the awkward space after someone pulls back the curtain.

But there is something to be said for the American Indian approach to conversation. A long reflective pause can come in handy. It allows one to collect one’s thoughts and assess the new information. Listening is almost always a good thing. Responding without thinking is often not.

What exactly, you might ask, am I getting at? Well, I’ve been noodling about conversations I’ve had and people’s reactions to things I have shared with them. Most of the time I am blissfully upbeat and am able to cope cheerfully and with a good deal of humour. But I, like everyone else on the planet, have my moments of negativity and frustration. And I often feel that whenever I gripe about something I get that rapid-fire response. Shut-down before the conversation really even starts. Sort of like “well you’ve had your cancer and beaten it so really you should not complain about something as trivial as the way you look.”

No one likes a complainer. But people do need to be allowed to express negative feelings sometimes and just because you are on the receiving end of such does not mean you are responsible for “fixing it.” Nor is it your job to dismiss a person’s complaint with a one-liner, although I am 100% certain that I have been guilty of both trying to fix things and dismissing negative observations with an immediate response on numerous occasions. So this is directed at me just as much as anyone else. I should practice what I preach, after all.

I’m looking back, trying to reconstruct (no pun intended) the past eighteen months of my life. How I was then, how I am now. And how my thoughts and feelings have evolved with the passage of time.

I’ve boiled the whole breast cancer ordeal down to two phases. Phase One: kill the enemy. Take no prisoners. This was the honey badger phase. If you don’t know what I am talking about read some of my early blog entries and you will find that the honey badger became my mascot early on in the process, primarily because it’s one naaaaaasty lean, mean killing machine (and secondarily because Randall’s ridiculously effeminate narration on YouTube makes me giggle my ass off).

The goal of Phase One was to eradicate the disease. It felt urgent and critical and it was not difficult for me to be single-minded about the process. The mission was to do whatever necessary to maximise my chances of beating this fucker. So basically I got down to bidness PDQ and that was that.

Throughout treatment I remained hyper-focused on my mission and had only one speed: full steam ahead. I did what I did because I had to do it so I didn’t waste a lot of time being sad about the process. I just pushed through it and tried to amuse myself and others by, among other things, wearing absurd outfits to chemo and walking around London in a pink wig, because I had no choice and I knew it would be over eventually.

At the same time, however, I did spend time considering Phase Two. Phase Two would involve my eventual cosmetic appearance. As my plastic surgeon friend pointed out, once the cancer is a distant memory what you are left with is your reconstruction. It might not seem that important in Phase One but it could later so it needs to be considered carefully from the beginning.

As one relative aptly put it while we were awaiting a diagnosis, “well it’s really going to suck if you have to cut off your boobs, because you have nice boobs.” Yes, I thought. It will suck. And in fact it did and does suck.

Knowing that I had to do it didn’t make it suck less; it merely made wallowing over the suckiness somewhat futile. But still, sometimes I allow myself to wallow just a little bit. Mostly by myself in the privacy of my own home, like while I am curled up on the couch at 11:00pm having just finished another episode of Mad Men courtesy of Apple TV. What? Oh I am only on Season 2 and yes I know I am about the only American left who hasn’t watched every season. Sue me.

Sometimes I do feel that it would be awfully nice to have real breasts again. Something soft that bounces when I run and something with nerves that might notice if I inadvertently walked into a wall. Sometimes I do feel that I am missing something. Something feminine. Something womanly.

In her Op-Ed in the New York Times, Angelina Jolie wrote about her decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer for which she is a BRCA gene carrier. Ms. Jolie lost her mother to ovarian cancer and very recently, her aunt to  breast cancer.

Ms. Jolie’s doctors estimated that she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% chance of getting ovarian cancer. So she decided to be proactive. She underwent radical surgery so that she would significantly reduce her risk of enduring a Phase One. She went right to Phase Two. It was her choice and in my opinion it was a good choice, a choice I would have made under similar circumstances.

As it turns out, I did not have the “luxury” of foresight with my disease (btw I am not a BRCA gene carrier). So for me Phase Two was not something that I chose but rather something that I had to do. It had no choice but to remove my right breast, although I could have kept the left breast. My thinking was logical. I sort of felt like I might as well just be rid of both if I had to lose the one. That way at least I would be symmetrical, make the plastic surgeon’s job easier and not have to get screening on the left side all the time wondering if disease would develop in that breast.

The decision to remove one or both breasts preventively is controversial. Some believe that doing so is a “psychological” choice rather than a medical one. Meaning that what could arguably be adequately monitored with screening tests and physical exams needn’t be surgically removed simply out of “fear.” That sounds pretty judgmental, don’t you think? Reading such things caused me to revisit my decision. And I can safely say that if faced with the dilemma today I would do the exact same thing I decided to do eighteen months ago.

For me, the decision to remove both breasts was practical. It turns out that my breast surgeon agreed. After telling him that my inclination was to do a “double” I asked him what he would advise his sister to do under the circumstances and he didn’t even hesitate. After all, I was relatively young, at 39. I have a lot of life to live yet. I, like Ms. Jolie, have small children.

Unfortunately for me, unlike Ms. Jolie, I lacked information that would have enabled me to take action before Phase One became necessary. Therefore, Phase One interfered somewhat with Phase Two because I had to (rather unexpectedly) undergo radiation which can cause a host of problems, including affecting the blood supply to the treated area, increasing the risk of infection and of developing a hard scar capsule around the implant. Furthermore, I was not able to keep my right nipple because one of the tumours was too close to the nipple. Again I decided to just take them both off, because they can do pretty groovy nipple reconstructions by cutting a bit of skin from the top of the breast, shaping and suturing it and then eventually adding a tattoo.

Nipple-sparing mastectomies are possible but the nipples do not behave the same way as before and they may lack sensation. And of course there is always that small risk that cancer will develop in the nipple.

So, here we are five months following my implant exchange surgery. My new boobs have softened and settled. But there are a few issues. The incision on the right side (the side that was radiated) is a bit hard and therefore slightly distorts the shape of the implant from a certain angle. Also, the skin over parts of the implant is so thin that I can sometimes feel rippling (sort of like wrinkles) of the implant beneath the surface.

Despite these issues, the overall result is good. Especially considering that I had radiation. Both implants remain soft and in a bra or bathing suit things generally look pretty okay.

But still, sometimes I do feel odd. I look at my reflection and I am confused by the change. The girl with long hair and big boobs has been replaced by a slimmer, smaller- and higher(!)-chested version with short curly hair.

Thanks to an infection in March, which gave me and my plastic surgeon a scare, I have not had my nipple reconstruction yet, so I sort of feel like Barbie (well, maybe a brunette Skipper Barbie because I am nowhere near voluptuous enough to be real Barbie). And I am bothered by the “seam” that the scar on the right has created. We might be able to improve the distortion with some fat grafting (during which some fat would be sucked out of my stomach — bonus — and injected in the small space between skin and silicone implant).

I know that I cannot expect perfection and I do not, particularly with an implant-based reconstruction following radiation, which is known to be problematic. I know that beating the cancer was more important than my cosmetic appearance and I accept that.

Overall I feel pretty good, but I do believe I will feel better once I have my little tweaks. The scars will continue to fade and once I have nipples, provided that goes well, my new twins will more closely approximate the real thing.

But, on occasion I do get pissed off. So let me be pissed off. You do not have to remind me that what’s important is that I don’t have cancer anymore. I know that. And please do not tell me that my cosmetic appearance doesn’t matter. In a world obsessed, and I mean obsessed with breasts and the female form? Please.

It does matter. It matters to me.

The New Normal

Last Friday marked the one-year anniversary of my eighth and final chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Following that I did have five weeks of radiation, five days a week, so my end of treatment was technically July 27 (not including another surgery later on). Radiation, however, was a cake walk compared to everything else up to that point so June 7 just carries more significance for me.

When you embark on chemotherapy they warn you that the medicine — in addition to killing cancer cells, which is sort of the point, duh — will affect you, not only immediately, but also for some time in the future. No one can say exactly how and how long you will enjoy the effects of this venomous intravenous cocktail, because how you react and for how long, like so many things medical, are highly individual.

Of course, a number of “individuals” told me what I was in for, either from personal experience or from what they had heard or observed in others undergoing treatment. Solicited, this is helpful advice, provided you don’t take it as scripture since you don’t really know what you, yourself will experience. Unsolicited, it is, well, not. There are things that you know you will probably have to deal with, such as fatigue, loss of muscle, appetite issues, lowered immunity, hair loss, et cetera. And then there are other things that may or may not strike you, such as oral thrush, loss of finger nails or having a constantly runny nose or watery eyes… I could go on but how long have you got?

The thing is, you just don’t know. What you do know is that you will not feel “normal” for some significant period of time. I was prepared for that, as much as one can be. If I’m honest about it I have not really felt like a normal person ever since I suspected that I might have cancer at age 39, because that in and of itself is not normal and made me feel physically weird.

But what is normal? That’s the question I have been asking myself a great deal lately. Normal is somewhat tricky. It’s a little bit shifty. Elusive.

I am sitting here digesting the last year and a half and thinking about how I felt before, during and after treatment. And how I feel right now. At this very moment.

And I have to admit that I do not know if I feel completely normal, one year out from that final chemo. I am not trying to be cute or philosophical here, people. I don’t mean that mentally I will never be the same because I am “forever changed” by this experience. I am talking physically. I’m talking about how my body feels.

See, about two weeks ago I thought that I felt normal. And then something happened and suddenly I noticed that when I woke up in the morning I had so much more energy. And at the gym I had so much more strength and stamina. And I thought, “gee, I guess my body is still ‘recovering’. I guess the way I felt three weeks ago, although I thought it was pretty good, wasn’t as good as it’s going to get.”

And you know what? A few weeks before that (aside from an unfortunate stint with some unexplained infection which dragged on for weeks and seems to have started with a stomach virus) I thought I felt normal, too. But clearly, if I feel the way I do now, then by comparison, the way I felt then was, if I may borrow a line from Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction, “pretty fucking far from okay.”

I remember chemo. I remember the first time, which I did before I had a port surgically implanted into my chest for treatments two through eight. The nurse pushed the juice into a vein in my left arm. I watched the liquid flow from the huge syringe gripped by her gloved hands through the line and into my arm. I began to feel the effects immediately. My nose tingled, a metallic taste enveloped my tongue, and when I went to the bathroom my piss was pink because the doxorubicin was red in colour. Let me tell you: this was somewhat less festive than rosé champagne and eminently less drinkable. By the time I went home I was rather grey in the face and very tired. And didn’t have much of an appetite. Which for me is not at all normal. I never refuse food unless I have an acute stomach virus. And even then I try to relish the white toast, flat Coke and sliced banana. Oh wait — I lie. There was one time recently when I refused food on a Bangkok Airways flight because the mystery meat was just a little too mysterious even for me. Ew.

I had a dose every two weeks, and by the end of the second week I was always feeling better, more — yup, you got it — normal. And then they would hit me again. Halfway through I was switched to another medicine (part of the original plan) which was easier to take but had other side effects. And then suddenly there I was in my pink wig and feather skirt (see Zero) for my last treatment. And that was it. Dunzo. So when that third week rolled around and they did not hit me again it was fucking magic. I mean I could not believe how much better I started to feel. It was like someone flicked a switch. In fact, you can actually see it on a graph that reflects the data from this exercise circuit I had been doing at the gym. You see a slow decline over the course of my chemo and then the day I worked out in that third week following my final treatment the graph jerks right up into a steep climb.

I remember how I felt that day at the gym. How much easier the exercise was. How much more normal I felt. I thought, “wow, I cannot believe how good I feel.” But now, looking back, I realise how good I didn’t feel. My reconstructive surgeon alluded to something along these lines last year. He said you think you are doing pretty well and only later do you realise you actually felt absolutely crap. I get it now, dude.

And it isn’t always linear. There are ups and downs and setbacks and gains and the whole thing is linked to mood so it’s really very difficult to measure what normal is.

One morning last summer during our visit to the US I waited in a small, sandy parking lot with my husband to meet our dear friends riding the Pan Mass Challenge (a hard core two-day bicycle ride to raise a hellofalotta money for cancer — see http://www.pmc.org). They would do a quick pit stop before making a hard right and continuing on. I remember standing there, chest all beet-red, enraged from radiation, barely any hair on my head, skinny and certainly a little weak. It was so great to see them. But I did not feel normal. I felt like they were riding for me. It was moving, unnerving.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago Saturday when my older daughter (who is eight) and I did a four-mile walk through Regent’s Park to support people fighting cancer at the school by raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. The walk was fun and easy and although our legs were mildly fatigued by the end it was great. And it hit me that throughout the walk and afterward I felt as though we were doing it to support others. Not for me. It wasn’t for me anymore. Because I am that much closer to normal. There is a whole universe between that day and the day I stood in the sun on Cape Cod waiting to spot my friends.

So what now? Well, after aspiring to normal for so long I’ve decided to scrap that, regroup and come up with a new plan. Normal, whatever that is, is no longer my end game. I want to feel amazing. I want to feel awesome. Sometimes, already, I do. But I want it consistently and I’m going to get it. By the way, I know many of my friends and family are chuckling and thinking that I have never been remotely “normal.” Very funny, people, but you know what I mean.