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the whipped cream conundrum

"would you like whipped cream with that? hell yeah!"

A [Puppy] Mother’s Love

Poor Sadie.  A few days ago my little pup was bitten by another dog at doggy day care.  She never cried or barked or signaled in any way that something was wrong.  She just trudged along through the snow, taking care of business, and going about her life.

Upon noticing a blood spot on her crate pad, I saw the welt on her leg – it looked painful, but when I touched it she did not react.  So, we went on a trip to the vet.  Without complaint, she allowed the vet to examine her and poke around; she didn’t even flinch when she was injected with the rabies shot.  “She doesn’t feel pain,” said the vet.  fullsizeoutput_80f

She may not feel pain, but I was feeling it for her.  When they put the cone of shame on her, I thought I was going to burst into tears.  I kept trying to convince them, “No, Sadie isn’t going to lick the wound.  She’ll be fine.”  But as I said it, little miss pup starts to lick!   “She’s going to have to get used to it,” the vet informed me.

I don’t want her to get used to it; I want this to not have happened to her and for everything to be normal.  I want her to run around and snuggle up with me on the couch.  I want her to eat and poop and sleep comfortably.  My heart is breaking for her.  I cannot believe the feelings I am having.  It is as if I am feeling the pain for her.  I feel like her mother.

I am getting a glimpse into what life must have been like for my mother for the past seven years.  She had to watch me go through the most frightening of moments, not knowing how to help, or even if she could.  I do hear myself, and, yes, it does sound kind of ridiculous – how can a dog bite compare to years dealing with cancer.  It’s not the incident or the disease, but the power of loving something more than yourself.  That is how I feel about my dog.

Sadie sits by my side as I write this.  I run my hand over her back, telling her “It’s going to be ok,” and hoping that she is somehow soothed.  I am brought back to memories of my own mother’s hand, soothing me, telling me everything is going to be ok.  She was right.

 

2017: A Love Letter

Dear 2017,

Thank you for being an amazing year.  You are the first year in the last seven years of my life that I spent the entire year cancer-free.  Seven years I have lived with cancer.  Whether in my body or not, I have lived with the ups and downs from diagnosis to remission, from relapse to remission, from a new diagnosis to…well, I’m not ready to use the “R” word just yet.  But, every year, except you, 2017, there was cancer in my body.

2017, you swept away the crazy cells that wreaked havoc on my body, and you successfully kept them at bay.  During your year, I had clear scans and unremarkable blood work.  My body was, and continues to be, cancer-free.  So, thank you for a good year.

2017, I learned a lot from you this cancer-free year.  I learned gratitude – for friends, family, and strangers.  I experienced love – not romantic love, but the kind of deep love you feel when someone has your back.  I moved from the land of the dying to the land of the living.  I moved from patient to person.  I let go of fear and anxiety (ok, not completely!) and chose to move forward, taking a new path instead of playing it safe.

2017, did you know one of my favorite songs is Seven Days by Sting?  Yep, seven again…Seven Days is a love song where, as I interpret it, Sting has seven days to decide on love, and he keeps putting it off.  He sings:

Monday, I could wait till Tuesday
If I make up my mind
Wednesday would be fine, Thursday’s on my mind
Friday’d give me time, Saturday could wait
But Sunday’d be too late

2017, you taught me not to wait.

2017, you haven’t always been easy.  You see, during the other six years, I lived from crisis to crisis and never really took hold of reality.  This year I learned that life truly lived is hard…you have to make your bed, you have to tell people how you feel, you have to face challenges unrelated to illness, you have to make choices (or, as I like to think, you get to make choices), you have to walk the dog in -10 degree weather.  But, that’s life, and I’ll take it.

2017, I will miss you.  I have no idea what 2018 will be like, but, to paraphrase the end of Sting’s dilemma,  Seven [years] will quickly go…Seven [years], so many ways…But I can’t run away…I can’t run away.

All my love,

Lisa

xoxoxo

Starbucks Does it Again

It’s that time of year…yes, the White Chocolate Mocha with whipped cream is prominently displayed on the Starbuck’s holiday menu.  There’s even the option to add a shot of peppermint with peppermint sprinkles.  I should be thrilled, right?  But to my surprise there’s a new drink on the menu – the Maple Pecan Latte (with whipped cream and maple sprinkles).  I do love maple.  Thus, I am faced with yet another beverage-related conundrum.

As I stand in the line waiting to make the ultimate decision – which overpriced caffeinated delight will be going home with me – I think about choices.  I struggle with choices.  I am a sucky decider.  Do not ask me to choose the restaurant or the movie.  You certainly don’t want to be the salesperson waiting on me when choosing between the boots in black or brown…but these are little choices that aren’t necessarily going to change the trajectory of my life.  They are small conundrums.

When it comes to those life-altering choices, I haven’t exactly had the opportunity to make those in the last several years.  For so long, I didn’t feel like I had options. There was really only one kind of coffee, one restaurant, one pair of boots – and each was for survival.  Things have changed.  One year in remission.  Tests and scans are clear – every three weeks I get the #merckmiracle, and I go about my scheduled programming.

The thought of having to make decisions scares the crap out of me – it’s like turning on the tv with 1,000 channels and you end up watching the home shopping show (what, that doesn’t happen to you?), or, in Whipped Cream Conundrum speak, you go to Starbucks and walk out with a bottle of water.  Now I have the opportunity to make real choices.  I’m not sure what they are, but I know I have them.  Some may surprise me,  like the Maple Pecan Latte, others may be self-initiated.   Some may require courage, while others could come with ease.  Whatever the option, it still comes with whipped cream.

 

 

 

Use Your Time Wisely

WARNING: Under no circumstances should you say “yes” to coffee at 8:30 pm, especially when the cable is out. It seemed like a good idea at the time, the taste of a strong cup of coffee to cap off a delightful Asian-fusion meal with good company.  It looked appealing in the glass carafe, brewed to order just for me.   It was a superb cup of coffee, but now at 12:20 am on a school night, I am regretting every last drop.

I generally don’t suffer from insomnia, and if I can’t fall asleep from time to time, I find watching mindless television lulls me into slumber.  So filled with caffeine and without cable, I have “found time”  –  a concept new to me. Honestly, it makes me a little uncomfortable.  I have things I need time to do, but I don’t think moving my bedroom furniture around is the smartest idea.  Then I have things I want time to do, like writing, which is a perfectly appropriate post-midnight activity.

It is challenging to discern my needs and wants when it comes to time.  After all, I have a complicated relationship with time – I am grateful to have it, while at the same time I mourn the loss of it. I always seem to want more of it, but there just never seems to be enough.  But when it comes to needs and wants, I struggle to find a balance.

While my cancer is in remission, I am still in treatment.  This means I suffer from immunotherapy-induced fatigue, along with the general fatigue that comes from everyday life.  As a result, I need to get sleep and make time for rest.  I am very conscientious about time, and try to hold fast to a 5:30 am wake up and 7:30 pm lights out.

Yes, I often go to bed earlier than a 5th grader, but this is what I need to do to maintain my rigorous schedule.  I wake up, turn on Morning Joe, grab a cup of coffee, walk Sadie, and prepare for the day.  My “school day” kicks off around 7:30 am and runs until late afternoon. I then enter the twilight zone when I begin to wind down – make dinner, prep for the next day of classes, take Sadie out, and hop in bed between 7:30-8:00 pm. I’m very conscientious about time; I need to make every minute count so my stamina stays in check.

But, I want to have fun.  “Use your time wisely,” isn’t that what your teacher told you?  That means I make choices, and sometimes the wisest use of my time is for fun, contentment, relaxation…sometimes it’s dinner with friends, a movie night, getting caught up in a good book, writing, even a concert here or there.  I let go of my rigid, self-imposed schedule, and indeed use my time in the wisest of ways by finding joy.

The clock keeps ticking…12:45 am now…I wonder what tomorrow will bring without my usual nine to ten hours of sleep – a hot mess is the likely result. But, I think I’ve used my time wisely because writing brings me joy, and so did that cup of coffee.

 

 

You Say It’s Your Birthday…

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It’s my birthday, too!  Today I am 5 years old.  Well, put a 4 before the 5 and it’s a little closer.  But seriously…

5 years ago today I received a stem cell transplant for a recurrence of Hodgkins lymphoma. Upon completing a treacherous chemotherapy regimen which killed my immune system, I was confined to a hospital bed for three weeks wherein the doctors pumped stem cells that were weeks prior literally extracted from my body back in.  Scientifically, I was reborn.

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I hadn’t really thought anything about the transplant today until I went to my mailbox and saw a letter with an unfamiliar name and return address.  As I opened the small envelope and pulled out the folded paper, I burst into tears.  It was a letter written by an older woman, Noreen, in response to my recent article in the Boston Globe.  In this moment, the past seven years of my life flashed before my eyes.  It was a feeling I cannot explain; a rush of some kind that at once I felt elated and sad, embraced and alone.

I sat quietly outside in the unseasonably hot late-September sun and read her letter.  She shared with me stories of her life – immigrating from Ireland, joining the National Guard, and meeting Elvis Presley.  She described her family including her husband of 52 years, two daughters, and one son.  Without knowing who she was writing to, she explained about her daughter with special needs and how times were not always easy.  She wrote to me, “Don’t be a slave to anger and sadness for lost time … you are a wonderful human being.”

A message from a stranger, who with just my name and the name of my workplace scribbled on an envelope, took the time to write me a two-page letter to tell me the words I needed to hear on the exact day I needed to hear them.

So, in celebration of my “rebirth” and in honor of Noreen, I live my life with a deeper sense of hope and gratitude, and the knowledge that I’m not in this alone.

The Downward Black Dog

My dog is depressed; she is literally a downward dog – she’s mopey, likes to sleep all the time, and she shows little interest in the usual things that give her pleasure, including her beloved peanut butter-filled bone.  She’d rather laze about on the big red couch.FullSizeRender (1) The unfortunate result is that perhaps her depression has rubbed off on me, or vice versa.

Many of us suffer from bouts of depression, some more frequently and intensely than others.  Indeed, the wartime genius Winston Churchill suffered from major bouts of depression.  In the book, First-Rate Madness, author Nassir Ghaemi writes that “Churchill’s severe recurrent depressive episodes heightened his ability to realistically assess the threat that Germany posed (57).” Some would say thank goodness for his struggle with the depression that Churchill coined his “Black Dog.”  The irony is not lost on me.

My “Black Dog,” along with Sadie’s,  reared its ugly head this summer.  In some ways, the mood “heightened” my intellectual abilities, but more than anything it has heightened my self-awareness, and compelled me to ask essential questions about my life.

After the school year ended and I took some time to decompress, I got a smack in the face  – despite the #merckmiracle, I plowed through the year re-integrating into my professional and personal life while ignoring some of the deeper feelings I had surrounding the turmoil and trauma of the last several years.  BAM!  Time off = time to think = acknowledging the post-trauma sadness.

Life certainly did not work out the way I planned; I am mourning lost time and lost opportunities.  Sometimes I feel as though I have to say things like “I’m feeling great” or “I’m so grateful.”  I’m not lying when I say these things, and the sentiments are true under most circumstances, but they often times mask my true feelings of anger and sadness.  What if I say, “Well, physically I feel good, but I’m pretty fucking angry.”

In many ways, neither Sadie nor I have much to be depressed about – we’re both healthy (kenahurah, which in Yiddish means essentially “knock on wood”) and finally have a sense of stability and home.  Under these circumstances, it feels almost indulgent to say I’m depressed.  BUT, yet again, life has not exactly dealt me the luckiest hand.  As a result, I often get sucked into self-pity; that doesn’t make me weak, it makes me human.

I so want to wrap up this post in a pretty bow, telling you that all is well in my world, that I’ve worked through the “Downward Black Dog.”  Instead, the emotional backlash of cancer rears it’s ugly head more often than not.  And, while I don’t think Sadie nor I will shape the future of world peace like Churchill, we persist.

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I’m Just Like Everyone Else

People keep asking me, “When’s your next blog post coming out?” “Talk to my agent,” I tell them.  But seriously…

I feel a tremendous amount of pride and gratitude that people want to read what I write, but I have a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach every time I hit the publish button.  Doubts swirl through my mind – will they be thinking, “Here she goes again!  More of her cancer ‘conundrum’ and cutesy thoughts on sprinkles.”  I suppose most writers feel this way; they wonder if what they are saying is relevant and how is something that is so personal to them going to be received in the world (I wonder if my students think this when they turn in a writing assignment?  I’ll have to ask.).  Admittedly, I am my own toughest critic and I think more about the reader who doesn’t care and wonder why, than the reader who does care and write for them.  I assume if you’re still reading this, you care, so I write this for you.

Last week I had the flu.  Everyone gets the flu; it’s a normal human experience, a miserable one, but normal.  I work at a boarding school, which means I live in a petri dish of disease in the middle of winter, so it’s expected that one would contract whatever nuisance is making its way around campus.  But for me, these ordinary ailments can be far from normal in my world.

First, the symptoms begin and my mind races:  Why do I feel more tired than normal?  Are my blood counts off?  Do I need a transfusion?  Oh, no is this another blood clot?  What do I do with Sadie?  Another trip to the emergency room with a never ending hospital stay?  I suppose the food isn’t that inedible…

Second, I wake up in cold sweats, the thermometer rises and a call to the doctor is placed.  Yes, you must go to the ER – “Make sure you tell them you’re on chemo,” the nurse tells me.  Well, I’m not exactly on chemo, but this way, you actually get a space separate from the general population because they assume your immune system is compromised.  (Note 1:  My immune system will always be compromised since I received a new one in 2012.  Note 2:  A separate space is valuable real estate at the Mass General Hospital Emergency Room and I will not hesitate to pull the chemo card!)  After pokes and swabs and x-rays, they send me home with some Tamiflu and instructions for rest.  That’s it?  No transfusion?  No scan?  No admittance to Phillips 21 with a view of the Charles?  You’re just sending me home?  What’s going on here?  Aren’t you worried?  “Wait it out,” is what they tell me.  Wait it out?

So, I wait it out.  Sleep…fluids…Tylenol…repeat as necessary.  I feel trapped and helpless – a very familiar feeling.  I start to get flashbacks:  Will I ever leave this room and get back to my big red couch?  Will people think I’m unreliable?   I have so much to do – plan my final exam; do my taxes; prepare for spring break.  Am I really watching the 11th hour of the Today Show AGAIN?!?!?!  Then, as I’m rolling my eyes at Kathie Lee, I start to come back to life and realize that this is normal.  People get the flu, they suffer through it and come out on the other side.

I have been trapped on a medical merry-go-round for the last six years that has never seemed to stop.  I forgot that I can get sick and not be SICK.  Every cough does not equal cancer and feeling extra fatigue does not mean a relapse.  Do I have to take extra precautions?  Yes.  Will my medical dream team overreact from time to time?  Yes.  But, at the end of the day, I can just be like everyone else and get the flu.  The flu sucks, but feeling like a normal person certainly doesn’t.

 

 

In Other News…

The Conundrum has made it to the radio!  This afternoon,  I’ll be on the WBUR 90.9, Boston’s NPR station, on All Things Considered at 4:00 pm (you can listen live at http://www.wbur.org). I had the opportunity to share my story for a special series – This Moment in Cancer. I will have a more specific time later in the day (depending on other news of the day!). I will also post a link to the story after it airs.

http://www.wbur.org/all-things-considered

 

It’s Been a Heck of a Year

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Sadie ponders 2016 at Popham.

It’s been a heck of a year…it seems the general zeitgeist these days is to say goodbye to a long and, for many, challenging year and welcome 2017 with new hope. For me, this has been one of the most profound years of my life.  And, while I am happy to ring in a new year, I am equally grateful for the lessons of 2016.

This afternoon, I took Sadie for a walk on the beach.  Through the overcast day, both Sadie and I took the time to reflect on what this year has meant to us.  Sadie’s year was filled with transition and turmoil, but also play and joy.  She wins the prize for resilience in the Geller family – she was often displaced, sometimes cared for by semi-strangers and tasked with being a caregiver, providing comfort to many when most needed.  She’s still learning her boundaries, but she is one kind and loving pup!

As for me, 2016 taught me many lessons, but most importantly, the year taught me about love.  I recall a post I wrote in June –  “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts,  Can’t Lose.”  Tears still come to my eyes when I think about what I was facing in that moment – I felt so alive, but, at the same time, I felt myself fading away.  I was confronting an uncertainty that I was convinced no one could understand.  And, while they probably did not completely comprehend my experience (I’m not sure I even did), they didn’t hesitate to show me how much they cared for me.  My family, my friends and my medical team all had my back.  A dance with Corey, a burger at Wahlburgers (and a hope to run into at least one Wahlberg!) with Ursula, a trip to Nordstrom with Mom, a walk with Sadie, a political talk with Dad, an afternoon with Adam, and many other moments kept me in the game.  Though modern medicine came to the rescue, I am convinced that the love of the people in my life pulled me through.

So, yes, it’s been a heck of a year, but in 2016,  I was brought back to life and, in 2017, I’ll keep on living.

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