There was something mystical about 2015. It was a year of personal growth and discovery, but a year of hardship. As my oncology nurse likes to say, “everyone needs a benchmark year”, a year so challenging that no matter what’s thrown your way, you’ll know that you have the strength to overcome.
And so that was my 2015 – a benchmark. I’ve written about my struggles with cancer. But there were other trying moments too; so many that I decided to keep them to myself. At best I feared that in telling them, the stories might perceived as gory and unnecessary; at worst they’d sound like the ramblings of a woman clutched in the grip of Munchausen Syndrome.
I tell them now to memorialize. Soon they’ll be hidden away in the blog’s archives, accessible by a few basic keywords. But I’ll know where to find them, and I’m sure that I’ll be reading them down the road when I need a reminder of where I’ve been. We’re a tough bunch and I see that in retrospect. Amidst each hurdle, we still made room for laughter. Just ask “Grease Witherspoon”, my alter ego, the woman with the oily skin and matted hair who cared less about showering and more about the simple act of getting through each new day.
At the outset, I didn’t intend to hijack the blog’s usual content and replace it with a year of illness talk. But part of having a personal blog – food or otherwise – involves having to own up to life’s struggles. Not the minutia, but the bigger issues, the ones that impact your life in a meaningful way.
We all have good years and bad years. I wanted to paint a picture of emotions that aren’t always discussed: grief, fear, anxiety, isolation. In the process of talking about these difficult subjects, I’ve lost some readers. Not everyone wants to hear about cancer when they’re looking for recipe inspiration. But I was proud to write these posts. I didn’t intend to be so explicit, but the words kept coming, and in honoring them, it felt good to be vulnerable. As my favorite sociologist Brené Brown says, vulnerability plants the seed of true connection.
I’d be lying if I said that publishing these last few posts wasn’t hard. Part of me cringed when I thought about people reading about my intimate and unfiltered moments over their morning cup of coffee. But life isn’t about achieving perfection; it’s about accepting that our roads will travel from sun-strewn peaks to darkened valleys. The internet loves to celebrate the climb, but there’s a place for the other accounts too.
And that was my 2015. A valley so dark that I could barely see the sunlight from above. It filtered through the trees on occasion, but, almost as if I’d been blindfolded, I’d lost my ability to navigate. In June as many of you know, I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma and underwent lung surgery and six months of treatment. Nothing was immune – my ability to breathe comfortably, eat, and sleep. My mental health took as nosedive as I struggled with anxiety and depression, fearing the most likely outcome: that my cancer would come back. And it did for a time, spreading to my spine where it stayed for several months and then disappeared as quietly as it came.
During this time, other challenges presented themselves.
In late June, a mass was found on one of my ovaries. When my CA-125 tumor marker came back looking like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, my doctor told me that we we were dealing with ovarian cancer or late stage endometriosis. I could barely function post-lung surgery and had to sort through the logistics of how I would handle two types of cancer at once. I have a tendency to race online and figure things out for myself and spent the next few weeks jumping down Internet rabbit holes from Teal ribbon campaigns to sites like the HysterSisters and OvarianCancer.org. “Can you even have two cancers at once?” I asked. According to Google you can. By mid-July I was cleared of both diseases.
August was no easier. Lauren came to me with an unusual problem: she’d found lumps in her neck. I felt the base of her skull and my heart sank when my fingers moved over the chains of hard and swollen lymph nodes. She’d had no fever, no illness, no pain. It’s one thing to worry about your own health, but it’s quite another to face the possibility that your child might be seriously ill. After a series of bloodwork panels, ultrasounds, and X-rays, Rodney and I found ourselves leading our daughter past a set of bald children on the second floor of the Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer & Blood disorders. The doctors reviewed her files, a nurse took her into another room, and we sat down to have the discussion that every parent dreads: “it’s likely lymphoma, we’re looking at six months of chemo, maybe more”. She had surgery the following week.
A full week after her surgery, we got the results. Against the odds of her presenting symptoms, the biopsies had, for the second time this summer, ruled out cancer. It wasn’t until late October though, with swollen nodes that refused to heal, that we got our final diagnosis – an uncommon but benign condition, dermatopathic lymphadenopathy. Which, to absolve the doctors from the raging and undue stress that we endured, looks exactly like lymphoma.
I was winded. I’d been dealing with treatment-induced colitis for weeks, and the stress from the summer had been enormous. My yoga teacher once told me that injuries are common when you’re not rested – “listen to your body” she said, if you hurt yourself, you needed the break.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise then, when the day after my third round of treatment, I slipped and fell at home, fracturing my ribs and herniating a disc, injuries that weren’t apparent until scar tissue appeared on last week’s CT scans. I lived with the pain for months thinking that it was somehow in my head. That I was overreacting, that I should suck it up, stretch out the muscles, go for a walk. But to give myself some credit, the pain would have been unbearable in the prime of health, let alone while undergoing inflammatory cancer treatments.
For the next few months I drifted in and out of a narcotics haze, subsisting on my colitis-mandated white bread diet, reaching far too often for the orange pill bottles that littered my nightstand – Hyrdomorphone; Xanax; Cyclobenzaprine; Meloxicam; Prednisone; Omeprazole.
I hinted at having some broader issues in my last post, but the retreat in British Columbia was essential to my recovery – not just from cancer, but from everything; the whole year; an entity that my friend so eloquently referred to as my “shit storm” of an existence. More accurate words have never been spoken.
I came back from the retreat feeling happy and energized, the first time that I’d felt this way since May. I was optimistic, feeling that life had to get easier. I wrote endlessly in an effort to capture the details from the past year so that I’d never forget what I’d gone through.
But one last hurdle awaited: before the year’s end, I’d lose my beloved and loyal companion Jackson.
Jackson came into my life when I was searching for meaning. Although my cancer diagnosis in 2001 had spurred me to discover a passion for food and cooking, coming out of business school, I was still confused about what I wanted from life. I’d found a job that I liked well enough, but my behavior suggested that I wasn’t content. I drank too much, and spent every weekend wildly hungover, heading into work each Monday morning feeling dejected and critical of my decisions.
When we brought our 8-week-old puppy Jackson home, the changes were immediate. I was forced to mature and take responsibility for his care. I walked him and groomed him, played with him, bought him salmon jerky treats, and more than anything, I loved him. It was an adjustment since I’d never had to look after anyone but myself, and in some ways I’d fallen short there too. But over the months, I learned to adore this little creature who needed me and loved me back with every ounce of his being. Above all, the relationship primed me for the important role that I’d take on before his second birthday: I’d become a mother. First to a baby girl born days before Christmas, and then to two more, a boy and a girl, who came like clockwork, 22 months apart.
Although Jack was our family dog, he and I shared a special bond. It was a relationship forged on our many quiet walks along the Hudson River and cold nights spent curled up next to each other, the blankets covering his head completely. He was my hot water bottle, my velvet soul mate. He was the only being who could console me in the way that I craved this year – silently and without pity. I’d sob into his chest and he’d lick the tears from my face, or put a gentle paw in my lap. We’d escape to the lake and hike aimlessly through the woods. Content to be together in nature, far away from fears and uncertainties, our wanderings witnessed only by the squirrels, the swallows, and the hawks.
I was back from retreat just a week when, the day before Thanksgiving, we found out that Jackson had developed an abdominal cancer, hemangiosarcoma. After an emergency surgery to remove his tumors, he was given months to live.
He was with us for four more weeks.
I’m not a religious person, but his death feels symbolic. That he passed away so quickly from the same disease that he’d supported me through – just after I’d begun to feel healthy again – is too uncanny to ignore.
“He was your guardian angel” friends have said, and I believe it.
I think of pathetic fallacy as a literary tool only, but as Jackson’s health declined on Lauren’s birthday, a thick fog settled on the lake. I knew that the end was near. The next day, the fog still hung low and Jackson’s health hadn’t improved. It was December 22, the solstice, the darkest day of the year.
I looked out at the lake and the air felt heavy and sorrowful. I led Jackson down to the dock where we’d spent so many carefree days, and captured what I knew would be one of our final moments; just the two of us: the mist, the silence, me wearing the bright yellow rain jacket that I’d worn on our many walks; him, with an arched back that signaled his discomfort, letting me know that it was time for him to go.
I called the vet and booked an appointment for that evening. The kids and I spent our last day with him, smothering him with attention: we took him for a walk through the neighborhood where he could sniff the grass and say goodbye to the ducks. Then we took him back home, lifted him to the couch, covered him with blankets and kissed him, held him, and said our tearful goodbyes.
There isn’t a right way to say goodbye to a loved one but I didn’t have many options given that Rodney was traveling. The kids came with me to the vet where we sat with Jackson one more time as the doctor came in, administered two shots, and he slowly drifted away. Looking back, I’m glad that we were there together. We told him how much we loved him as we held his beautiful paws, trying to stretch out our last few minutes together. I stroked his body, imprinting to memory the defining features that I knew would soon begin to fade: the scar on his ear that looked like a smile, the white patch on his knee, his faint doggy smell, his copper-toned eyes, the feel of his fur on my cheek. And then he was gone, free of pain, preserved in the many photos that I took of him over the years. He gave us nothing but love, and I feel great comfort in knowing that we did the same in return.
I can’t explain my grief. It’s an emotion that in all of my 39 years, I’ve never felt before.
I couldn’t sleep that night and stayed up until the morning hours, researching breeders with upcoming litters that were related to his bloodline. I sent desperate emails all along the East Coast and as far as Arizona and Texas. I mentioned their upcoming litters…our dog had passed away, what could I do to get on their waitlist.
I didn’t want to replace Jackson. But it was the only solution that I could find to manage my sadness which seemed to be insurmountable. And therein lies the only difference between losing a beloved animal and losing a family member – finding another animal to love and care for, is, as the crow flies, the shortest distance from inconsolable grief to new beginnings.
I nodded off at dawn, and awoke hours later to more fog, which clung to the lake like thick cotton batting. But my spirits brightened as I read through the email responses – yes we can help, yes we have a litter coming up, and one email that took me by surprise – a breeder in Bedford, NY had decided to give up one of the two females that she’d kept from her recent litter. Furthermore, Jackson and the puppy would share not distant DNA, but the very same paternal lineage: the puppy is Jackson’s niece. We scheduled our visit for Christmas Day.
When your luck runs sour for a straight year, it’s hard to believe it when it starts to shift. Never mind the long list of people who were hoping to adopt that very puppy – the breeder had chosen us, taken pity on our situation (maybe pity has its merits) and had bumped us up in priority. It was luck, it was fate, it was all of the above. And as I looked outside, the clouds, murky throughout our period of sadness, finally began to clear. I don’t know why I felt the need for a physical sign, but I suppose that I was in search of reassurance; some indication that my boy was at peace and would stay with me forever, protecting me from afar.
Rodney came home that night, and with the weather an unseasonably warm 70 degrees, we sat outside and watched the sun set, sharing a bottle of wine. I told him about my need for a sign.
“Look over there” he said and I turned. The sky was crimson, but unlike anything we’d seen before, the setting sun spilled white light, like rays of the moon, over the Appalachian Trail. “There’s your sign” he said as we watched without words, feeling Jackson’s presence, moved by the transcendent beauty and the heavenly spirit who smiled at us from above.
Our new family member is full of spunk and, like Jackson, is affectionate to a fault. The kids, unaware of the significance of their choice, have given her the name “Happy”.
I feel strength and confidence as we head into this year. Last week I had a set of CT scans and for the first time since May, they were clear. Clear even of the spinal lesion that’s plagued me for months. It feels bold to put it out there because I may be wrong; I may be putting too much weight into these seemingly coincidental events: the melanoma recurrence; the cancer scares; my meandering self-led path to Callanish in British Columbia – the healing retreat run by the very same therapist who’d been counseling me since June; Jackson’s cancer diagnosis and rapid decline right after my return from Vancouver; the fog; the light; my remission. And our new beginning, a dog named Happy who came into our lives on Christmas Day.
But…something tells me that these events happened for a reason.
So, for the new readers and the people who stuck around, thank you for supporting me. I grappled with weighty issues; issues that you could have easily tuned out in favor of chocolate orange bundt cake. But you didn’t, and your empathetic comments lifted me on the darkest of days.
My best to all of you for a wonderful 2016. I look forward to writing some upbeat posts down the road. Posts where I can once again talk about watermelon radishes, smoked salts, and all of the other weightless things that I’ve wanted to boldly recapture.
And if my prediction is wrong – if more challenges leap out from unforgiving places, so be it. In my heart, I have a guardian angel looking out for me. I have a dog named Happy in my arms. And I know that if I can get through a year like the one we just experienced, my benchmark year, I can get through anything.
Happy New Year.