Visiting Joanne

Last week, members of my post-cancer group rendezvoused at the Denny’s parking lot on Ocean Street, piled into Marianne’s car, and drove over the hill to visit a member of our group whose cancer has come back. Joanne had been sick from chemo and radiation and we all wanted to see her.

Joanne was thinner and her face was beautiful, wide open. She sat tall in her chair and told us her story. She let down in way you just can’t do with people who don’t know cancer from the inside out. She cried. We all did.

While we were there, I could feel my own defenses crumble. Next month will be my two-year anniversary of the end of treatment. Two years isn’t that long, but in the past few months, the specter of cancer has faded from my life. While I live with the impact of cancer every day—mostly in the form of a brain filled with vast and gaping holes—being a cancer patient has shifted from being a contemporary identity, the headline in the forefront of my life, to something in the background, just one part of my rich and textured history. I’ve found other more immediate things to fret about. And fret, I do.

The Zero Hour on Health Care

I’m holed up in my room at the Land of Medicine Buddha. It’s the long afternoon break between the morning session of the Memory to Memoir retreat and dinner time. There are a fabulous group of women here with me, ready and willing to dig deep for the truth in their writing. I’m moved by their stories, but vastly distracted. I spent much of the afternoon, not getting a massage, not hiking, not writing personal stories, but watching the C-SPAN coverage of the health insurance debate.

Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow is the vote. And for me this vote isn’t about someone else’s health coverage. It’s about mine.

Another Turn in the Wheel of Life

Years ago, I had my chart done by a wonderful astrologer named Tom Brady from Santa Fe. I’ve never met Tom in person, but have had several readings with him over the phone. He records these calls and sends me a CD so I can listen to them over nad over again. Each of Tom’s readings has contained pearls of wisdom and insight that I’ve chewed on for years.

In the first one he did for me, Tom told me that my whole chart reinforced, over and over again, the message that my life path was to “shine out into the world.” He said I would be an “agent of change” in the arena of communication. This is something I have done consistently throughout my life-as a radio producer, a talk show host, an inspirational speaker, an author, a blogger, a columnist, and now, as a writing teacher and group leader. Inspiring others toward healing, through my gifts with language, has been a thread I have followed my whole life.

Tom also told me that these cycles of shining out into the world would always be followed by periods of retreat and holing up. And this, too, has been true.

The five years I was on the road speaking and leading workshops on healing from sexual abuse, starting in 1988, when The Courage to Heal was published, were very public years. I was a guest on Oprah. I appeared on hundreds of radio shows, dozens of TV programs. I filled bookstores and auditoriums. I spoke in theaters with my name up on the marquis, standing alone on a stage with no props, just a water glass and a spot following me, speaking heart-to-heart to 900 people at a time. I had a taste of fame in my own little niche. It was a powerful, humbling and challenging to be constantly in the public eye. To some of my fans, I was God; to my detractors, the anti-Christ. Those first years after Courage was published was very much a roller coaster ride. And for me, it was especially hard to be up on a pedestal because I had “gracefully survived” trauma and lived to tell about it.

I Don’t Remember

The other day, I carved out an oasis in a week that had far too much in it. I made a date with my friend Karen to meet for an hour and a half in the middle of the afternoon. Karen and I have been friends for 30 years. Our friendship has had many incarnations in that time, but one consistent aspect of our relationship has been playing games—Backgammon, canasta, boggle, all kinds of cards, and our mainstay, Scrabble. We’re well matched which makes for a good contest—our combined total is often 700 or more, and depending on the year and the time, who wins flips one way and the other. We share life over the Scrabble board.

In the years since I became a mother, I’ve never gotten enough Scrabble. It takes an hour to play a game and playing one game just whets your appetite and warms your word brain up so you just have to play two. And if you play two, why not be sated with three? And who has three or four spare hours to play Scrabble with a friend when you have kids and a home and a mother in town, a business to run, classes to prepare? I’ve been Scrabble starved for much of the last 17 years.

So I was delighted on our intergenerational family cruise to be introduced to a new word game called “Quiddler.” It’s played with a tall, beautiful deck of cards with gorgeous letters on them; it’s easily learned and it’s fast; the ten rounds that make up a game can be played in 20 minutes. You don’t have to concentrate either. You can talk about life or watch a movie or be interrupted and the game continues easily. It’s brain candy and it stretches all your neural pathways, demanding flexible thinking as you reform the words into different combinations in your hand.

The Wake-Up Call

Tonight I went to the last formal meeting of my post-treatment cancer support group. Unfortunately in our case, the term “post-treatment” is a misnomer. Two of our seven members have been re-diagnosed during our year together and one woman died. Tonight I learned that a third member of our group just found out that her …

The Wake-Up Call Read More »

Where’s the Passion?

Last week, I bought the memoir, Over My Head: A Doctor’s Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out, by Claudia Obsorne, for a friend who’d suffered a serious head injury. I thought it might be good for her to read about someone who understood what it was like to suffer a TBI (traumatic brain injury), who could describe what it felt like from the inside.

The book arrived in the mail. I figured I’d glance through it before I wrapped it up and gave it to my friend. I read the first two pages and was totally hooked.

Claudia Osborne was a successful young doctor, with interns following her on rounds, waiting for her to dispense wisdom. She had an excellent job and a huge, promising career ahead of her. Then one day, she was out riding her bike when a 20-year-old driver hit her, flipping her over her handlebars. She landed on her head and was rushed to the hospital, eventually waking to a massive head injury.

Osborne’s book charts her first two years post-injury as she goes through an intensive rehabilitation program. Her task is to come to terms with the extent and nature of her injuries, while developing compensatory strategies so she can succeed at the simplest things. She has to repeatedly learn to put her shoes on after her pants, to shop for dinner in a grocery store without leaving her cart behind. Taking a bus (having the right change, knowing her destination, getting off at the right stop) or even leaving her house without locking her keys inside are major undertakings.

When the Unimpaired Look On With Envy

I came across a poem today, “I Tell You” by Susan Glassmeyer, that described the incredible love a man showed to his wife after her stroke, “one branch of her body a petrified silence.” The poem, written from the point of view of an observer looking on, included the line, “While we the unimpaired looked on with envy…”

I remember this when I was sick. How people liked to come and be with me because I had been lifted out of the mundane world of doing and obligations, schedules and busyness. The trappings of daily life had fallen away and I was living in the underworld, seeing across a vast open plain. Access to that plain only came by passing through the bottleneck of pain and discomfort, isolation and loneliness, nausea and vertigo and taste buds gone bad. Access to that plain came from facing death and opening my hands wide, fingers splayed with lots of space between.  Some people were afraid and stayed away. Others came to visit and sat by my bed. They wanted to drink me in. They wanted to touch the place I was touching and hoped they could do it through me.

A Poem for Those Facing Illness


To everyone who is sick or has ever faced serious illness, here’s a fabulous poem by Irish poet, John O’Donohue:

A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness
Now is the time of dark
beyond a frontier that
you did not expect.
Abruptly your old life
seems distant.
You barely noticed how
each day opened
a path through fields
never questioned
yet expected deep down
to hold treasure.
Now your time on earth
becomes full of threat.
Before your eyes your
future shrinks.
You lived absorbed in
the day to day so continuous
with everything around
you that you could forget
you were separate.
Now this dark companion
has come between you.
Distances have opened in
your eyes.
You feel that against
your will
A stranger has married
your heart.
Nothing before has made
you feel so isolated
and lost.

The Couch Potato Rises From Slumber

The night I signed up for the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk, I knew right away how I’d   advertise to raise the money. I made posters and postcards that featured a color photo of me a couple of months post-chemo and a headline that screamed across the top: Couch Potato Pledges to Walk 60 Miles in 3 Days.

The claim was not an exaggeration. I’ve always leaned toward the sedentary. I’m not a sit around, eat chips, and drink beer in front of the TV couch potato; I am more the high tech variety—the hunch in front of the computer and lose track of time couch potato. Hours can go by while I read articles online, write my blog, create lesson plans, check email or tinker with my website. Did I forget to stretch? To eat? To pee? Oops.

During the past twenty years, I have had periods when I’ve walked to the beach every morning, often before first light, but after consistently walking for weeks or months, something happens and I start staying up late and “sleeping in” (in my house this means getting up at 6:30). Quite easily, I slip back into couch potato mode.

Never having been athletically oriented, training for the Walk was a major challenge, but since I had a concrete goal and a meaningful purpose, I was able to successfully complete my training. Obsessively marching toward a goal is something I’m very good at.

The Sedimentary Layers

It started with my mouthpiece. I dropped it. Or more accurately it fell out of my mouth while I was sleeping. My mouthpiece is a hard piece of clear plastic made from a mold of my teeth. Designed by Dr. Darrick Nordstrom, the Nor-Snor treats sleep apnea and prevents snoring. It was a costly piece of plastic, $500 hundred bucks, but it’s created peace in my bedroom and someday my blood pressure will thank me. I’ve been wearing this device nightly for over a year, ever since I felt recovered enough from cancer treatment to indoctrinate myself into a new health regime. For the most part, I love my Nor-Snor, but sometimes in the middle of the night, it falls out on to my pillow where it waits patiently for me till morning.

A couple of weeks ago, the Nor-Snor fell out the night before our housecleaners was to come, and I failed to find it in its usual hiding places in the few minutes I had before racing off to drive the carpool. I figured it was tangled in the bedding and that I’d find it later. But later, it wasn’t there. I grew worried that one of the animals had chewed it up or carried it out into the yard (they’re drawn to the moist smell of saliva) or that our cleaner has inadvertently thrown it away. Karyn, who is universally known as “The Finder” because she rarely fails to find missing items, did one of her systematic searches, even combing through the garbage, but to no avail.

When I left to go on my big Walk, the search had to be put off. After I returned home triumphant and exhausted, I started looking again. I was even willing to do a major search of the no-man’s-land under our bed. I’ve shoved a whole lot shit under there in the two years since I’ve had cancer.

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