Down from the mountaintop

West Lawn - Descent, by Justus Hayes on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons
West Lawn – Descent, by Justus Hayes on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

We arrived home from Colorado last night. The kids were awake enough to eat pizza at 10 pm (because it felt like 8 to them). They didn’t get out of bed today until almost 9. It’s going to be a struggle to get them on the bus to camp tomorrow at 8:20 a.m.

The new app on Facebook that offers to tell you what happened on this day in your personal history helpfully reminded me today that last year at this time I was in the exact same shape after our vacation – sick as a dog. I’m coughing up stuff, it hurts to cough, and I’ve already drunk about a gallon of Throat Coat tea today. I’ve barely left my bed, in part because it is so far superior to any bed I slept in on vacation.

Because I’m not feeling well enough to talk to a resident today, I’ll wait until Dr P’s office opens tomorrow to see whether they think this is dabrafenib-related or just shitty luck. If the latter, I’ll need to go see my primary doctor, Dr S, whose office is nearby but where the wait times are ridiculous. She also gets a little bent out of shape when I show up after a few months and she hasn’t heard from Dr P and I have to tell her what’s been going on. And what a doozy of a tale I have to tell. “Oh, since I saw you last? Not much, just a touch of brain tumors. A sprinkling. Okay, a dozen. And some laser surgery and the medication that may be making me cough my lungs out right now. But hey! Good news! My lungs are clear now! At least, they were in mid-April. I have another scan in a couple of weeks…”  (Dr. S will be too busy furiously typing all this in to the computer system to scowl or look shocked, of course.)

So yeah. Another scan in a couple of weeks. There are those couple of weeks to get through. In the meantime, my fruitless search for employment is ongoing. I just got a “passive rejection” (my coinage), meaning via a departmental listserv from the place I work very part-time during the academic year, I learned the name of the person they hired for the job I applied for months ago without hearing anything. So that’s settled, then. Maybe I’m done with library work. It may be done with me. If that’s the case, maybe I wish I hadn’t had the brief reminder earlier this year of how good I was at it. That would just make it suck even more.

Absent the steroids, the air has gone out of my sails (or maybe it’s just the post-vacation malady/exhaustion talking). I need to return to a few writing projects, but I’ll probably fall asleep in the middle of working on them. Now that the steroids have faded I have been checking into the side effects of the other drugs, and for one of them it’s fatigue, for the other it’s “weight changes” (in my case, gain). Awesome. So as long as I’m on dabrafenib, I’ll stay on these two other drugs, which make me fat and sleepy. Good thing it isn’t summer and I don’t need to be seen in a bathing suit! No, wait – I mean, good thing it’s summer and the bathing suit I now have to wear may as well be a burqa!

It was simpler up in the Rocky Mountains. There wasn’t much wifi. There were lots of horses. I couldn’t look for news on how screwed up the world is at the moment. I’m happy for gay people who want to get married and now can. I’m happy someone went and took down the Confederate flag. But I’m afraid of weaponized crazy people, both at home and abroad. And I’m worried this is pneumonia (an affliction with me that even predates cancer) and I’ll have to rest for a whole month. I want to start moving again.

The boys learned to ride horses this week. We saw parts of the national park you can’t get to by car (and we didn’t see hikers either). It’s yet another thing we can do now, when we go to places where it’s possible.

Our last night in Estes Park, we walked over to the pasture where the horses were grazing, to say goodbye. I was lagging behind as usual (medication-induced foot problems, damn you!), but J told me that as soon as the horses heard the boys’ voices, every single horse’s head raised and turned in the direction of the sound. A moment of perfect beauty I may have missed witnessing myself, but just its description fills my heart with peace and other good things.

Horses, peaks, strange dreams

Happy horsey family.

Greetings from Estes Park, Colorado! Above, the way we started our day. J, Young J, and Young A (the latter two being total novices at horseback riding beyond guided pony rides) did great. I sat tall in the saddle and had to suppress whooping for joy because I didn’t want to scare my gentle old horse, Sarge, whose primary interest was bending down to munch on grass whenever we stopped.

I made it. We made it. It has been ten weeks since my brain was found full of lesions, since my language was scrambled, since the unthinkable was happening – good news about clear lungs followed immediately by very bad news. There is no way I could have gotten here so quickly without Dr P, Nurse Practitioners R & K, and my neurosurgeon, Dr K, and his team.

Today, I spent an hour on horseback, my heart bursting with pride seeing my kids take their first real ride and not be afraid at all (though perhaps a bit cautious at first). We climbed higher and higher, and got closer to the snowcapped peaks we hope to see even closer today by car.

It was strange to wake up to such an amazing experience, because last night I had a dream which I remembered, for a change, and it was very bad. I was walking in some city and saw a van take take a corner too quickly and skid on slick pavement and crash through the wall of a construction site. I rushed to the other side of the site, heard a construction worker with a German accent calling 911, and then I saw the woman who had been driving. She was African-American, wearing a bandanna over her hair. How can we see faces in dreams of people we don’t know? I didn’t know her. But here she was, convulsing and dying right in front of me.

It wasn’t until just this moment, writing the dream down, that I had the slightest clue what the dream might mean. I’ve been thinking a lot about the massacre in Charleston. We’re staying at a place here in Colorado that draws a lot of white guests from the South. I can’t speak to them without wondering whether they fly the Confederate flag outside their houses, or display it on their cars. This dream is some kind of allegory.

I woke up after it happened. It was about 2 a.m. J was awake – he hadn’t been sleeping at all. Perhaps the altitude affects us in these strange ways. It took a long time for us to fall asleep again. I closed my eyes and tried to change the direction of the dream. I willed the woman to live, to survive this unsurvivable accident. I don’t know if I succeeded, even though the entire premise was born of my own brain. (My own, hopefully no longer diseased brain.)

I am grateful to be feeling this well. But I am in great spiritual pain for our country, for the ease with which guns, ammunition, empty or inflammatory rhetoric, and racism, flow, violently.

Last night we sat by the very engorged Big Thompson River, after eating s’mores. The boys threw rocks and pebbles into the torrents with glee. When Young A asked what would happen if he put his arms in, “just” his arms, we knew it was time to leave the river bank. Retreat. (Still no clue what the German construction worker represented. Open to guesses.)

Safe passage

BOOKENDS, by Darkroom Daze on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

The school year ended. It’s only when it ends that you let yourself perceive how much of a weight it has become by the end. The kids’ disappearance from the house in the morning accelerates into something that feels like it’s only a half-hour long, and their restlessness is palpable. I’m sure no one becomes a teacher because of the last week or two of school, when they are forced into roles more akin to cat herder… or prison warden.

We made it. We all did. It wasn’t long after the year began that my lung metastasis showed up. And then the brain stuff in mid-April. So in a way, my metastatic cancer experience has sort of bookended the school year.

It was a banner year for both Young J and Young A. Last night as we ate Indian food for our Shabbat dinner, I asked them each what had been their favorite thing about the year. (Some of their teachers may be reading so I won’t report on their findings. Let’s just recall that kids can sometimes have much better short-term than long-term memories!)

Then I wanted them to know what I was most proud of. Young A began reading this year, and became quite a role model and official reader in his class. It was easy to praise that.

Young J’s greatest accomplishment, in my opinion, was not academic at all. This year, Young J learned how to be a friend, and found good friends, three of them. Going through his school notebooks yesterday (always a dodgy prospect when you have a kid with ADHD), I found one of his math notebooks had been repurposed into a notebook for listing out how the school could be made better. It has about five chapters worth of ideas, and it seems clear that Young J was the official recorder – some of the candy suggestions, for example, were things he’s never tried and I’ve never heard of.

And then, not willing to leave well enough alone, I told them that my favorite thing about the school year was that I was still around by the end of it. Of course, I did not phrase it that way, and I’m hoping my kids don’t learn for a very long time how serious my illness was (is?). I told them I was happy to be feeling better at last.

I’m strapped in an airplane seat right now. We’re heading to Colorado for a week before the kids start camp. We’ll be in Denver visiting J’s aunt, and then go with her to Rocky Mountain National Park. I was in Colorado once before, at age 14, when my brother U played in the Aspen Music Festival. I’m looking forward to sharing the majesty of the mountains with the kids. I hope neither of them is afraid of heights  (what a time to discover it). And we’ll also do a lot of railroad-related activities. And maybe some horseback riding, which I was cleared to do during my last call with Nurse Practitioner R.

Mainly, though, I want to shout from the mountaintops that science has allowed me to survive (thus far) the tests of the past months, and I have a community that has supported me and sustained me and cared about and for the kids and J, and also patiently listened when I was a raving lunatic on steroids. Turns out we didn’t need that trip insurance after all. I’m glad the fee went to waste.

I’m feeling good enough to ride a horse. Nothing else really matters right now.

Steroid nostalgia

Credit: Wellcome Images, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I’m glad to be rid of them. Really I am. It’s another step towards wellness. I’ve been sleeping so well at night, we almost all overslept this morning, waking at close to 8.

But they are making their absence known. I’m – as you may have noticed – a less prolific writer than I was. Also, I woke up yesterday morning with a pain in my wrist as though I’d broken it, or slept on it wrong. By today, it was even worse. I called my primary doctor, but she wasn’t going to be able to fit me in before I needed to pick up the kids from school. I considered going to urgent care, but that threatened to eat up my day. A day to spend in pain, granted, but a day all the same, not to be wasted in pursuit of healthcare.

I went to the gym and managed to get through class with no pain, except when putting away my equipment. I even managed to do fifty squat jumps over a Bosu ball, something I certainly hadn’t tried since my little brain problem showed up. And it was fine! I didn’t fall over!

After gym class, I placed a call to Dr P’s office to consult with Nurse Practitioner R about my predicament. I figured it might be related to the steroids. When she called back, she confirmed my suspicion. The steroids were anti-inflammatory and therefore masking the joint pain that can be a hallmark side effect of dabrafenib.  I’m glad I called, as always. And glad I looked up the list of side effects once again, because I’ve been experiencing hair loss too. I have very thick hair, so it’s noticeable only to myself. I hope I’ll get to avoid the other symptoms, but at least now I am prepared. Thickening of the skin can also be a side effect, as I discovered at the podiatrist the other day, when he shaved off about three inches of calluses from the balls of my feet.

The highlight of my day, though, was the arrival of cousin R in town. We see each other usually once a year, because she lives in North Carolina. But she wasn’t at Thanksgiving last year. We’ve bonded lately over illness and science dorkdom (although she is actually studying for a degree in biology, where I am a mere dilettante in oncology). Also, what she has been through medically in her young life (she is 24) kind of makes me feel like a dilettante too – she had a kidney transplant at age 13. She’s a tremendously accomplished and smart person and I’m so excited to see what her next move is. Go R!

I’m back in the doldrums again now though, heating pad wrapped around my bum wrist, while J makes dinner before going to play basketball. (The kids won’t get baths tonight, by executive order of Mama.)


keyboard shortcut bulletin board, by arvind grover on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons
keyboard shortcut bulletin board, by arvind grover on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Whoa. Several days of silence here. I’ll eke this out right before I crash for the night. Thank you for not worrying about me. I mean, I hope you haven’t been. This is much more like me, not on steroids – letting a few days slip past before posting or replying to emails or getting things done. I have some pages in the printer that I sent to print three days ago. I haven’t looked at them yet. Meantime, today I somehow crammed in about three things I needed to do, right before picking up the kids from school at 3. If I hadn’t spent two hours in bed with the AC cranked, recovering from my grocery shopping trip on a very humid day, I might not have had to hurry.

J and Young J returned from the school camping trip today, happy and unscathed and unrained on and not a tick on them. Young J lost neither his good hat nor his water bottle. (But I was glad J was there to keep tabs on this stuff. And the teachers appreciated his help, too.)

Next week is the last week of school. Then we leave immediately for a trip to see some very tall peaks. There is a strong possibility of horseback riding, so today I placed a call to Nurse Practitioner R to see whether the proscription on my doing any activity involving bouncing is lifted yet. After she ascertained that it was horseback riding, not skydiving, I was planning to do (I guess they rule nothing out with me, ever since I made the bold move of eating avocado when I was about to develop a rip-roaring case of colitis), she said to do what I like if I’m feeling up to it.

I’m hoping this time around I get a super mellow horse, but prior experience tells me it may not happen. I’ve been horseback riding about seven or eight times, maybe ten, tops. So I’m not a maven, but not totally new at it. I’ve in the past managed to: get the horse who’s rearing back on its hind legs in the stall and is named “Feisty”; get the horse who knows a shortcut none of the other horses would dare take, which maybe pins my leg between its body and a tree for a short while; have my stirrup somehow come undone, halting the whole group, on a steep descent in Simi Valley; or get the horse who gets a little too close to the edge of a cliff on a very sandy trail, while we descend from a mesa in Chile. I wish I were making all this up. It’s extreme sports kind of stuff, and I am decidedly not an extreme sports person. Maybe it’s a vibe I give off to horses. Maybe they see me approach and know I am a  person to mess with. Anyhow, I’m hoping the hypothetical Colorado horses are not in on this vibe. The horse in 2001 who escorted me across a lava field in Iceland in February’s freezing rain did not misbehave. (Maybe it was too cold to?)

Anyhow, this week I trained for being outside my comfort zone when I went to Young J’s last day of soccer class festivities. There were four or five moms there, two little brothers (including Young A, who sat clutching his backpack and refused to participate). We played “Clean Your Room,” which involves making sure all the balls wind up on the opposite side of the room to where you are. We played three rounds of tug of war (moms vs. sons, we let them win). And finally, we played a game of soccer. I am not a sporty person. Never have been. I managed to make a goal for the moms’ team because the ball rebounded off my shin into the goal, and we were playing in a very small space. Did I mention I’d had a pretty bad headache going into all this? That there was pop music playing to pump us up? And that the way the sound bounces off the walls of the gym made me feel like my very head was melting off? It was 77 degrees in the gym, according to the thermostat, which I lowered in the hopes some unseen source of ventilation might kick in. I truly felt like I survived that hour, way more than I feel like I survived brain surgery. (Brain surgery was actually way more relaxing, and the musical accompaniment was Satie.) Young J was so happy to have me there, so for his sake, I was glad to suffer. A horse in Colorado should be no problem, compared to that. As long as its name is not “Feisty.”

I met my new shrink this week. I really liked her, but she doesn’t take our insurance. According to my calculations, I’ll have to see her 21 times before our out of network deductible is met and I see any kind of reimbursement at all. So I’ll have to see how this works out. On the plus side, she had me fill out two forms, one screening for depression (I decidedly don’t have) and one screening for bipolar disorder (I definitely do have… when I’m on Decadron!). I filled out the bipolar questionnaire with my recent steroid experience, and then quickly explained as she looked through it that none of what I had marked is true for me normally. She did tell me I seemed like I had things together, which is so nice to hear from someone officially certified to tell you so. Still, I think I can still benefit from talking with her – there are a number of things in her background which make it a good fit. I hope to find some work soon to finance the head shrinkage. I’m not looking super aggressively, and certainly not looking for a daily commute type job just yet. It sure would be nice to have some more translation work fall in my lap. It’s all about where you place your lap, I suppose.

I’m looking forward to a classic summer weekend – swimming pool, picnic, BBQ. The only thing is, I’ll be stuck in the shade the whole time, unless the elusive gift of cloud cover without rain lets me emerge from the shadows. I’m feeling lucky. It could happen.

Enter the lists

From "Frog and Toad Together," by Arnold Lobel (HarperCollins, 1979).
From “Frog and Toad Together,” by Arnold Lobel (HarperCollins, 1979).

This was how my life was before. Before getting cancer for the third time. Before going back to work for about five minutes before cancer struck again. Before getting cancer for the second time. I used to make myself a list the night before of things to do the next day. Sometimes I would even figure out what time blocks I’d use and put things in chronological order.

Even with a list I still probably only got 35% of each list done each day. I didn’t know steroids could help with that. When I was high on Decadron, I never dropped a single ball. And I never made lists. Everything was clear in my head. laid out, almost a choreography of what needed to happen when. Do I miss that? Do I miss not letting things slip? Maybe a little. But I don’t miss it enough to go back to sleepless nights (or knockout drugs for sleep), or the manic, uncharacteristic gregariousness that I couldn’t control if I wanted to. Now, when I ride the subway, I’m no longer worried I’m going to talk to strangers. I’m not worried about starting conversations with people I usually avoid.

Last night was my most successful night of sleep since kicking the nightly Ativan habit. I did wake up at 5 a.m., but somehow coaxed myself back asleep. I think it was putting the pillow over my face to block the light that helped. Why is it so light out at 5 a.m.? Who needs that? And why do the birds have to make such a racket then? Some respect, please, birds. Sleep is still very hard work for me.

I wonder how much of the sleeplessness is part of my general anxiety. I placed a call to Nurse Practitioner K today, to check in and to find out exactly how I’m supposed to keep taking dabrafenib, the wonder drug, if it can elevate my liver function and I wouldn’t know it without a weekly blood draw. She said that I need to stay attentive to my general well-being, and that if I start feeling more tired than usual (hah – I will have to work very hard to figure out what my normal baseline is there), I should come in. This means tuning in to myself at a whole new level.

I feel like I am pretty aware of what’s going on with my body, generally. I can tell that my system has gotten over the worst of the steroid withdrawal. I didn’t spend the entire day in bed today, just a couple of hours. And I made it through a solo evening with the boys tonight without coming close to freaking out. (Even when Young A peed all over the just-cleaned bathroom floor due to bad aim.)

But I think the sneak attack of the brain tumors has probably changed me forever. I had headaches – just headaches – and I didn’t know what was happening to me until I had trouble talking. I wasn’t scared last fall, when cancer made a move on my lungs. I was pissed off, but not particularly scared. Now that my brain is involved, maybe I am a little scared.

In a couple days, I’m going to do something I haven’t done since junior high – go see a therapist, one who works with cancer patients. I’ve gotten pretty far for years with the self-talk I’ve done in journals or other writing (like this blog), but I think I may be at a loss for how to cope with the anxiety that builds up in between scans. My next scan is July 13. That’s not very soon. The lack of information concerns me. Maybe I’ll learn some new ways to cope with it. Maybe I should make a list of topics to cover, so I don’t misspend my hour.

Perfect Day

All I ever really wanted out of the experience of living in New York City was what you see above. That was imprinted on my cortex pretty early (and until second grade, via a black-and-white TV). When I first moved to the city, my housing situation had a company town feel to it (it was subsidized by my job), and then when I moved in with J to a hundred-year-old building two doors down, there was the gritty griminess of old NYC without much of the charm. (Except for our formal dining room. Ah, that room. It was almost enough to make you forget the mice and roaches.)

When we moved to Brooklyn, and particularly when we had a kid, and then two kids, in Brooklyn, Sesame Street began to happen. It became easier to stop and talk to neighbors, particularly the ones who tended to park themselves on the sidewalk anyway. One of our neighbors is essentially ageless, and we lose track of each other for months at a time. When I see her re-emerge from her building once the weather is good, our reunion is always joyful. When Young J was about two and a half, they ran a race against each other – she pushing her walker and Young J with his doll stroller. (I am pretty sure she won.) She likes to talk about her childhood in Alexandria, Egypt (and then sigh at how much the world has changed for the worse).

My experience of cancer in Brooklyn has also been a bit Sesame Street-like, though I don’t know that they’ve covered that topic on the show. The conversations I’ve had recently, the magic realism of my life here – in this seemingly dire circumstance, yet surrounded by loving and caring neighbors and neighborhood fixtures, practically feels like a ready-made episode… brought to you by the letters M and Q, and also the number 8.

A few weeks ago I tried to insert myself into the planning process of our block’s annual block party. I showed up at a meeting, and was very hopped up on steroids, and thought I could actually get shit done. I didn’t realize how difficult that would be. There was an unbelievable set of competing priorities and people talking over each other and frankly, unchecked discussion of hip surgeries. It was not going to happen. I tried to be helpful via email – also difficult. After designing one flyer that simply disappeared into the ether because I needed an email addresss to put on it, I gave up. One positive change over last year was that the NO PARKING signs went up much earlier in the week. As if by magic, by today we had nearly no cars on the block. So, even if nothing else happened, the kids were going to have a ball, biking and scooting and running amok with no traffic.

Today was the big day. It started rainy, but as the hours went past, the weather improved until it was the most perfect day ever. No humidity, sunlight filtered by the tall trees on our end of the block.

We took the kids for pizza, and discovered another block party happening one block away. They had a bouncy house. We took the kids over there to bounce. It was a little feral in there. And then we let ourselves be distracted by conversation with other parents we knew, and suddenly I saw Young A take a nosedive to the asphalt. After ascertaining that his head had not broken his fall (despite a couple scrapes on it) we left the premises immediately. I was instantly thrilled that our block hadn’t managed to scrape together the money for a bouncy house. Who wants that kind of liability? I was excited for our block’s non-event!

We got back to the block and Young J’s lifelong friend S and her mom came over (they used to live upstairs). After Young A recovered from his fall (with an hour of Netflix) they all went out to take possession of the street. This, to me, is the greatest luxury a parent of a young child in New York City can enjoy – the ability to lose track of your kid for many minutes at a time, and know they are at one end of the block or the other, and they’ll come zooming back by you presently. I know we could move to the country and enjoy this on a regular basis. But I can easily settle for once or twice a year. There were also stoop sales, a little girl selling jumps on her jump rope for a dollar, lemonade stands and bowls of free candy and chips – everything you’d want out of a day like this.

J, in the meantime, got his guitar and joined some guys from the next building over, who he’d found jamming on the sidewalk on Memorial Day. They set things up nicely today, with mics and everything. And they played this Dylan tune that just made my afternoon. (J tells me this isn’t the best version but it’s what I could find.)

Thank you, Sesame Street. Thank you, neighbors. And thank you, cancer, for hopefully buggering off for a while, so I could enjoy it all.