#42b Framing the now: a cancer survivor's perspective

September 22, 2010


Dena

I met Dena a couple of years ago while working on The Beckoning of Lovely project.  Since then we have gotten to know each other quite well.  (That's Dena and her daughter front and center in our Mission Amy K.R. Train Mission). When she recently shared this short essay with me, my first thought was holy moly that is some seriously good writing.  My second thought was, holy moly that sure fits in with this week's now/Now Ledge theme.  My third thought has not yet occurred.

Please give a warm welcome to Dena Tarlin. (More about Dena-- plus a handy web link-- at the bottom of this post.)

Happy Birthday To Me

(I wrote this on September 9. As my friend Marianne likes to say, please to enjoy.)

As framing devices go, a window will do nicely. In January of 2004 I looked out my kitchen window and watched Bill leave for work in blankets of snow. We had taken Stella out of preschool because we could no longer afford it, so she was at home with me and we were snowbound. When I looked out my window, I could not appreciate the spectacle of snowfall, the altered vision of a monochromatic suburban street, nor could I feel the comforts of a warm home full of cool stuff or the company of my daughter. I was too wrapped up in my own sense of despair and hardship to see any further than my own trifling existential woes. Then my doctor called, interrupting my pity party to tell me that lump in my right breast was a carcinoma, Stage IIB, invasive, ductal. These are not words that anyone ever wants to hear, let alone over the phone in the dead of winter.

I’m not going to spend my birthday revisiting 2004 and early 2005, nosirree. The short version is that I was cut, then repeatedly poisoned for several months, then burned 30 times, all at Loyola in the dead of winter. I used to work as a chemical dependency counselor, but I never truly understood the concept of “One day at a time” until my cancer year.

Fast-forward to spring of 2005 and another framing device, namely the fat mirror in my mother’s bedroom in Peoria. It’s not that the mirror itself is fat, but it’s one of those mirrors that does no one any favors. It did me a solid, though, because I saw myself and had a flash of enlightenment in this most unlikely location. The person in the mirror could not possibly be The Dena. She was bloated beyond recognition, could not fit in her clothes, and no longer took any pleasure in her body. How could she, when she could not walk more than a few blocks without burning pain in her calves and lower back?

Faced with the insurmountable task of getting myself back and the undeniable option of surrender, I chose to remember my Camus. As a radical expression of my newly rekindled existentialism, I exercised my unbounded freedom by refusing donuts the next morning. I felt more like Sissypuss than Sisyphus when I gingerly started Pilates, because things had to get worse before they could get better. For a terrifying week or so I thought maybe it was all over for me and cancer had won. The thought made me so mad that I just kept trying, because I’m obstinate like that.

Before long, I started getting stronger. Five years later and I’m still getting stronger. I can walk as far as I want to; I run up and down my stairs countless times a day; and I can do things with my hoop that your mama never dreamed of. Most importantly, I’m still here. I still feel tired and overwhelmed sometimes, but even on the crappy days I take a moment to reflect. Hot damn, how awesome it is that I’m still here to experience this crappy day!! That reflection is inevitably accompanied by thoughts of women diagnosed with breast cancer who were not so lucky. This, my friends, is called perspective.

My birthday falls in late summer, which means when I look out my kitchen window I see the following: squirrels, particularly the one that leaped onto the outside windowsill and startled me the other day; rabbits, nonchalantly chewing grass until a banged door or a car horn startles them and they dash away, and maybe even a cardinal or a flock of geese if I’m lucky. I can check out cats in my neighbors’ windows from at least two different angles, and there’s a boxer across the street who likes to bark at everything that walks by and is occasionally accompanied by a small visiting child who likes to look out her grandmother’s window because it’s lower than the one at home. I see neighborhood families going back and forth to the playground, sometimes in convoys of sidewalk vehicles of all shapes and sizes. I observe people walking their dogs, walking for exercise, biking, mowing lawns, and blowing leaves.

The leaves will be falling soon, followed by snow. As much as I don’t necessarily look forward to the inevitable loss of freedoms that accompanies such weather, it is framed so nicely when I take in the scene from my kitchen window. Crappy days and petty grievances encompassed, I am grateful indeed to be surrounded by such warmth and privileged to still be a part of this world in which there is never enough time to do everything I want to do or spend with my outstanding friends. Never enough sleep or money either, but let’s take another moment to be grateful for the privilege of kvetching.

Tomorrow is my mammogram, which I never miss. Had I not delayed a mammogram in 2003 because I was so weary of doctors and hospitals, I might not have had to undergo eight cycles of chemotherapy in 2004. Lady friends, heed my example and just get the damn thing over, because a little titty-twisting is nothing compared to several rounds of poisoning that leave you incapacitated and cause your hair to fall out in clumps. You have no idea how much eyebrows and eyelashes contribute to your self-conception until they are gone, so have that dammogram and be done with it, mmkay?

On my 51st journey ‘round the calendar, I give you this somewhat rushed but nonetheless sincere rendition of my personal transformation from a self-induced hell to a relatively beatific perspective that occasionally approximates nirvana. May it be of some use, if only to remind you that there is almost always something outside your window worth perceiving if you but make the effort to see and appreciate. Right now I appreciate the messages accumulating on my Facebook wall from my lovely friends and the freedom to do what I want this moment, which is to stretch my body in a few directions to which it has not been subjected lately. Huzzah!

Dena Tarlin is delighted to be here, wherever "here" might be. A mother, wordsmith, online entrepreneur (as denalynn2001), and mover of information, she strives to manifest the notion that there is no time like the present and there is no present like time. Her occasional musings can be found here.

(Read and contribute to our continuing mission to collect the now, here.)