From My Fingers to Your Ears

From My Fingers to Your Ears

June 16, 2009 the radiologist turned his head from the film to me. I can’t tell you the date of the formal breast cancer diagnosis, but June 16th is the day I knew. I went back to Casey’s to pick up Liam. They had gone for a walk, so I plopped down on her hammock on the porch, put my feet up and looking up past my red toenails said, “So this is it, huh? You’re putting this in my lap?” That was my first icy conversation with the Man who can take anything.

June 16, 2010 is in three days. Putting Liam to bed the last few nights, he rubs my curly head and says, “Mom, your hair is so soft and beautiful. Your lips are beautiful. Your whole body is beautiful.” There are few obstacles or filters between this child’s heart and what moves over his lips.

Symptoms and Side Effects

As I said I would, I called the oncologist and talked to a nurse practitioner. The tinkling (I can’t type tinGling for some reason…) in my arms is probably a side effect of chemo – neuropathy. The joint pain is probably a side effect of the drug I’m taking in the study – Exemestane (very similar to Tamoxifin).

“Do you have any neck or back pain?”

“Yes, but I had back pain before all of this and during a massage this week, the therapist said my left shoulder, upper back and chest is full of knots, very tight.” My natural stance has been to hold my shoulder forward to protect my left side. Yoga and a massage this week have made that side sore, in a good way, stretching those muscles and releasing my shoulder from my breast.

“Hmmm. I’m a little concerned about your neck and back pain, but it does sound muscular, especially since it was bothering you before. Let me look at your chart. Estrogen positive is good. Only in one lymph node is good. Since you have numbness in both arms, that probably means neuropathy. If this was something going on with your bones, numbness would probably be in just one arm.”

“What are the symptoms? Let’s just say it: for bone cancer.”

“Yes, the symptoms are very similar to the side effects of chemo and the medications. Just for peace of mind, we could do a bone scan. I think that’s the thing to do, just to be sure.”

So, for peace of mind, Monday morning I’m going in for a bone scan. I have a dye injected at 9:30 a.m.; then I have 2 ½ hours of free time while the dye makes its way to my bones; then I go back and lie perfectly still for an hour while the scan is done. She sounded apologetic for me having to lie still for an hour in the middle of the day. Couldn’t we all use an hour of lying still in the middle of the day?

A year ago I had the mammogram that found the starburst in my breast. I had my first follow-up mammogram Tuesday, no results yet. I visit my surgeon next Thursday for a follow-up. I have a follow-up visit with my oncologist next week for the study I’m in. I also have my monthly injection to shut down hormones. I’ll be ready for the long weekend.

While I’m guiding my brain to think this is all precautionary, there are moments I’m spinning. For me, the anniversary of the start of all this, and this coming week of doctor’s appointments is reminiscent of past weeks. And for others. Hearing about the Stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis of a young mother this week. Waiting to hear when and where my 2-year-old niece will have a small non-cancerous tumor removed from her pituitary gland. Waiting to see if a new medicine will help release the pressure in Dad’s eye so he will regain clear vision. Knowing a good friend is recovering from a stroke.

Anticipation. Glorious when planning a trip, a special day out, a visit with friends. Agonizing when the plan is out of your immediate control, and even more so when you want to help someone else, but don’t know what you can do.

Staying strong and adding to my pocketful of prayer,


In a Vein of Honesty

Well, I’ve been reading through old posts, and in the continued vein of honesty – shocking myself on occasion – today I’ll tell you that most days parts of my body hurt like heck. Throughout the night my arms fall asleep. This morning I had ten fat, swollen, aching, tingling sausages connected to the palms of my hands. Two months ago, I twisted and turned my wedding ring and college ring off, seriously wondering if I would have to have my wedding band cut off because my knuckles were so big.

Every morning, I feel like I’m lugging the body of an old woman out of bed. And it’s been like this since the end of February. Now, most noticeably, it’s just my hands and feet. The first ten steps of every day are hobbles. It’s best if I start moving in the morning and keep moving until bed time. At 6 a.m. I still enjoy a cup of coffee first thing, but I can’t hold a pen, especially a nice heavy pen. The curl of my fingers hurts and my fingers immediately fall asleep. Later in the day when I loosen up, it’s better. When I write then, my forearm and hand fall asleep within a couple minutes, but I don’t have as much joint pain. Typing is easier. They still numb up, but it doesn’t hurt like holding a pen.

Last week I ran into a friend who went through chemo a few years ago. After the “you look great”s, I asked, “Do you ever hurt?” “Oh my God, every day.” We have the same thing going on with tingling and joint ache. It feels like a combination of carpal tunnel and arthritis. And we are both happy to be alive. And we just pretty much get on with it. But this afternoon, I’m confessing to my oncologist in Boston. After a brief chat a few weeks ago, my radiation doctor thinks this is a result of chemo. Probably neuropathy: nerve damage. I’ll see what my oncologist thinks.

To regain some strength in mind and body, I started yoga on Friday which feels great, and I hope to do it a couple times a week. I’ve stretched muscles that have been sleeping for many months. I can hold the weight of my body with my arms – down-dog for you yogis. And I can pretend I’m a pigeon – putting one leg out straight behind me, folding the other own cross-legged in front of me, and putting my head on the ground, or as the instructor says, “moving your head towards the floor,” not truly thinking it will reach the floor for most of us. It’s an ugly pigeon, but it’s a pigeon.

My hair is growing but it’s hard to tell how long it is because it is growing back in curls! From the back my hair is just like Mom’s. If you’ve ever tried to grow out bangs, that in-between stage is a cake walk compared to trying to tame hair all over your head. Yesterday I cleaned the garage and the porch. Working up a sweat, the curls turned straight up. This wouldn’t be a haircut of my choice. I’ve thought about creating a little broche to wear on my shirt every day: a little piece of write on/wipe off ceramic with sea glass dangling from it, just to make it look a little bit more like jewelry. Today I would write: Curls in Process – Chemo Ended in February – Cancer’s Gone. While it shouldn’t and doesn’t matter, I kind of want people here at the tire store and yesterday at the grocery store and tonight at T-Ball to know. To know this look isn’t what I consider normal. To know my identity is somewhere floating elusively just out of my grasp. To know that when I walk by a mirror I still don’t see me, but a person recovering from chemo, trying to hurry it up a bit, but having to go with the natural speed.

Enough of that.

The breeze-through Iowa was wonderful. I saw all my immediate family, except my sister’s husband. Coincidentally, I had chats with four cancer survivors, friends and family. I approximated how many survivor years there are in total between the four of them: over 100 years. Now that is exhilarating!

Staying strong,


Sharp Blades Spinning in Dark Places

When I started college, I went in knowing I would have a big loan to pay when I came out. As part of my financial aid package, I was able to do “work study” – work at the college and sign over the check to help with my tuition. My first job: 6 a.m. shift in the cafeteria scraping dirty dishes before they went into the dishwasher. Farm girl meets garbage disposal.

At home we didn’t throw any food waste in the garbage, nor did we have a garbage disposal. Table scraps went to the dogs and cats waiting outside the door. Vegetable peels and corn husks either went “out back” or to pigs or to cows. Today, I imagine a turkey carcass goes into the field where hopefully a bald eagle swoops down for a snack.

Blades spinning non-stop waiting for remnants to be shoved down the hole through rubbery black teeth. What could be good about blades spinning in a dark place?

At college, I was facing this dark place three days a week. Seeing a bowl of oatmeal come through on the conveyor belts… ugh, the worst. The commercial grade garbage disposal tried to refuse cold, gloppy oatmeal. It threw it back through the rubber flaps toward my face. After a few hits, I made a screen with my hands to stop it from landing in my eyes. I served one tour of duty. I couldn’t face it a second semester, even if it meant paying back a few more hundred dollars when I graduated. I begged to type and to do research for professors my second semester. I was promoted to a gopher for the Political Science department. A cleaner job and more interesting discussions.

Each house we’ve owned has had a garbage disposal. For some reason, it takes me a while to get acclimated to garbage disposals in a new house. How do I know what had passed through there? Are any remnants remaining? At one point my GD phobia was so strong I would recruit Bill to dig stuff out. “There’s something in the garbage disposal,” my voice small, horror show-esque. I can get spoons out easily. We have teaspoons like England, shorter handled than the American version. They can disappear completely into the dark hole. Over the last twenty years, at least 10 – 12 have met there death in there. I hesitate to add that I’ve killed three of those spoons in the last two months. The nylon scrubbers don’t fair too well either.

A few years ago, a friend remodeling his kitchen put in a turbo-charged disposal. After a fish dinner one night, he said, “It can even do fish heads.” Yup, there they go, feeding my fear of putting my hand down there to fish something out. After meeting the turbo disposal, I needed new tools: a flashlight and a knife to use as a kind of tongue depressor to open the black rubber flaps and peer inside.

The angst. Give me a farm dog and a pig.


In Living Color

Journal entry from Thursday, April 15th (Day before last radiation treatment)

Raw Sienna – The color of the dead skin rolling off under my arm and under my breast. Since radiation is now concentrated only to a 4-inch oval, the peeling doesn’t sting as much. The “pain” was more of a twinging annoyance, partly because I still have very little feeling under my arm from the surgeries of late last summer.

Light Olive Green – The color of my half-dollar size bruise on my right chest, where the port used to be. It’s bordered on the top by a 1 ½ inch Light Pink incision scar. After about 10 days, still a bit sensitive to bear hugs.

Tumbleweed – The color of my post-chemo hair.

Burnt Sienna – The color of my Summer 2009 hair.

Cornflower – The color of the Florida sky I’m envisioning. We leave Monday the 19th and will be back Sunday the 25th.

Black and white – The color of the space shuttles that we hope to see. Discovery: scheduled to land April 18th; Atlantis: rolling out to the pad the same day. Only three more missions left.

Journal entry from Friday, April 16th (Day of last radiation treatment)

10:45 a.m. Breast Cancer Blonde – The true color of my hair in the sunlit rearview mirror, as I wait in the car to go in for my last radiation blast.

10:47 a.m. Breast Cancer Blonde – The color of my hair as I call my hair stylist to schedule a hair color appointment.

11:15 a.m. White – The color of the three radiation techs’ lab coats, with their arms wrapped around me as they wish me well.

Hospital gown blue – The color of my 33rd, and final, radiation “johnny” that I throw in the dirty laundry.

1:00 p.m. Level 7 ½ Gold – The color working on my hair.

Pink – The color of my fingernail beds. While having my hair done, I realize the white Taxol specks have just now grown completely out.

2:00 p.m. Breast Cancer Blonde is gone. Burnt Sienna is back.

Staying strong,


Little Miss Forgetful

After a long streak of reading Little Mr. Men books, I've been dubbed Little Miss Forgetful by Will. On Wednesday, I made lunches for both boys but only got them to the floor outside the office at school. Will, wise to my ways of weeks ago, found his. I discovered Liam’s when I got to school, just where I left it. He only takes his lunch a couple days so doesn’t know where to look for it if it isn’t in the fridge. Will took me on as if I had planted arsenic in his lunch: “Why did you put ham and butter on MY sandwich?” I didn’t. I made him a peanut butter and jelly – then put it in Liam’s bag.

And that’s the kind of week it’s been.

The port came out fine on Tuesday. I did take an Atavan. In the operating room, as the doctor did his thing, a nurse again established I was from Iowa, had milked cows by hand, have two sons adopted from Korea, and a husband from England. At first I thought, “Not again!” but I didn’t cry this time. One of the nurses, from Texas, had also milked cows. “I’m from Texas! That’s what we do there!” A nurse asked the doctor if he had, unsurprisingly, he had not. “You know,” I said as he maneuvered the stitches, “as long as you do the best you possibly can at your job today, it doesn’t matter to me if you have ever milked a cow!” I could hear him chuckle over the Irish music he had playing in the operating room.

They still use the orange stuff. I came home with one side of my chest orange complimented by the other side that is now the deepest red it will be, or so I hope since the last full blast of radiation was this morning. In the Crayola crayon spectrum, the shade is close to Brick Red. Not Red. Not Wild Strawberry. Not Violet Red. Yes, the boys and I have been coloring this week. Aunt Tina and crew sent a brand new box of 64 crayons to the boys for Easter. Wednesday afternoon after I picked Will up, perhaps knowing I needed coloring therapy, he said I could use his new crayons if I wanted to color with him. What an invitation! I love new crayons!

After getting the port out, well, I’m tired. Stressing over this procedure took a lot of energy. I am moving about as fast as a hot air balloon that’s lost all of its hot air. I’ve not been very productive, other than coloring. I know. That’s OK. I purposely took a day off yesterday, just to be still and to be by myself for a while. Didn’t look at or think about the to-do lists.

As for the immediate future: Taking the boys and friends to the Museum of Science in Boston this afternoon. Finishing taxes this weekend. And going to a good friend’s birthday party Sunday. Next week: the last five “boosts” of radiation, just to the ex-tumor site. One more week. Midnight Red, a shade richer than Brick Red, could be a new Crayola name.

Staying strong,


Every Ending is a New Beginning

I’m having my port removed next Tuesday, April 6th. I’ve put it off, held back by continuous reflecting on the experience and the day (the Warrior Princess Day) that it was put in. I could have had it out in February. March. Now it’s April. My nurse practitioner in the oncologist’s office encouraged me just to get it done. Stop dwelling on it. I told her the day I had it put in was one of the worst in this whole process. Let them know that, she said.

So I confirmed it Friday. I’ll have radiation at 7:45 a.m., about 10 minutes north of our house; then I have to be in Boston at 10 a.m., 30 minutes south of our house. Only a local is used to remove the port, so I can drive myself. After confirming the appointment, I asked to talk to a nurse. Debbie was very kind. She seemed to be able to understand my words through my broken voice, complimented with tears reminiscent of Warrior Princess Day. Good news: They don’t use the orange stuff any more. (Although I saw a woman sitting outside the infusion suite on Friday who had it all over her…) Debbie couldn’t believe that it had been used in October. Guess they were just finishing off the last bottle on me? She suggested they could give me an Atavan before the procedure if I was anxious about it. Atavan is the 21st century’s version of valium. I may take her up on that. In that case, I better have Bill with me. I certainly don’t want to be detained in the interventive radiology department. Again.

It’s spring. “What you see is the clear warm light of April. And it means we can begin a whole new year together, Toad. Think of it. We will skip through the meadows and run through the woods and swim in the river. In the evenings we will sit right here on this front porch and count the stars.” Ahhhh. Little robin red breasts are looking for worms, while Linda red breast is counting down the last few days of radiation. One more week left of the full dose. After that, the last five days I just get boosts: one quick 30 second burst focused on just the area where the tumor was. April 16th, done with radiation.

The beginning of a new story. We celebrate Easter today. The freshness of new possibilities, new starts. A heap of thankfulness. Regardless of what you celebrate this spring, I hope your spirits are stirred by all that lies ahead. Even if filled with challenges or sprinkled with unpleasant moments, “ahead” is a good thing to have.

Staying strong,


F is for Florida

And full-length mirrors. Every time I turned around, there I was. All of me. From all different angles. More of me than ever before. So now the work really begins on making less of me. Because there really was a lot of me in all those mirrors and windows. I recommended on the time-share evaluation that the apartments be upgraded, including the removal of the 1980’s mirrored walls and doors.

All colors on me have normalized. Theoretically, if we visited a nude beach this summer, my left breast is a step ahead with a great square, sun-tanned area. But my tattoos are not impressive. I actually forgot I had them until last week. As the burn subsided, I could just make out the tiny green specks.

Black and white shuttles in Florida were elusive: missed the Discovery landing and the Atlantis shuttle was rolled out to the launch pad while we were in Florida but was being bear-hugged by rigging. So we didn’t see much of Atlantis on the bus tour at NASA. However, we did see an incredible sunset launch of an Atlas rocket, which apparently made the national news, and we met an astronaut, Wendy Lawrence, who has flown on four shuttle missions, including the first one after the Columbia tragedy. We’re strategizing on how to make it back to Florida to see one of the final shuttle launches.

Despite colds, the boys had a great time. We were busier than I had anticipated: NASA three days and Disney two days. Will thought Animal Kingdom was better the Magic Kingdom because the animals were real – not dressed up characters. Bill and Will had many late night swims, returning between nine and eleven each evening. Liam and I were usually in bed by the time they returned. I smothered myself with Aqua-phor and went into the pool one evening. Doing a few strokes with my arms, I could feel the pull of unused muscles in both arms and my chest.

I is for Iowa.

The boys and I are flying to Iowa next Thursday for Mother’s Day weekend. It’s been over a year since we’ve been there. Just a quiet visit with family, including time to visit Grandma Mills and Marge, who are both in nursing homes. Mom and my sister Leslie are planning an open house for us when we go back in June/July.

E is for Europe.

Bill leaves this Sunday for business in Europe, capping off his trip the following weekend in England to see his family. Then he’s off to China the end of May.

A is for all-go, making August 2009 through April 16, 2010 seem like a century ago. Did it really happen? My very short, but right-colored hair, says “yes,” as does my reflection of mass.

Staying strong…big and strong,



From September 2008…

In all that’s different between my sister and me, we have so many bizarre similarities for living over 1,600 miles apart. We both use Aveda’s Hang Straight on our hair. Occasionally we have the same Liz Clairborne purse. And a few Sundays ago, we both discovered linens from Grandma Murphy’s house in our own homes. We did the same thing: Hoped. And lifted them to our noses. I knew the purple satin pajamas would not smell like Grandma’s. I’ve had them a long time and had sniffed them before. Leslie’s was a surprise bag – a big black garbage bag full of miscellaneous towels and clothes. She smelled a turtleneck and there it was. She wrapped it up and put it back into the bag quickly. We talked three days later and were a little freaked out when we realized we had been “sniffin’” on the same day. Leslie promised I could smell the turtleneck when I visited.

Later at her house, she opened the bag quickly. Took a deep sniff and gave the turtleneck to me. It was there. We quickly shuffled through the bag looking for more. A finger towel I had given to Grandma years ago was still fragrant. Not wanting the smell to evaporate, Leslie quickly wrapped it in a third towel and put the bundle in a Ziploc bag. The third towel was a protective armor against the smell of the baggy. I carried it in my hand luggage from Mitchellville to Cedar Rapids to Chicago to Boston. Worried that I would lose it, I continually checked on it enroute: It was still there when I got home.

Breathing it in sends me time traveling. I’m home visiting, staying with my brother and his family in town, about five minutes from Grandma’s apartment. I call Dad the night before and say, “I’ll go see Grandma in the morning.” The next morning, I roll out of bed, put clothes on, and go to Grandma’s. The door is unlocked, which means she’s awake – probably dressed in the dark and wheeled herself to the living room at 3 a.m. Then I’m sitting in Grandpa’s old recliner, Portmerion Botanic Garden coffee mug in hand, immersed in the smell of her apartment. “I thought your dad would be here by now.” I reply, “I told him you and I were going to visit this morning.” “Oh,” a hint of disappointment glazed with gratitude for my being there. I don’t feel under-appreciated. She wants what she wants when she wants it. Always had, always would.

I hesitate to call it a smell or to say I sniffed it. It’s more of a living remnant from a life that left earth nearly four years ago. A breath of life that is gone. A haunting. One that I daren’t visit too often, after all, how many sniffs are in there? I don’t want to use all of them up. Don’t want to breathe it in too greedily.

The gift of my nose. If I’m ever bed-ridden, I’ve thought about what I want under my nose as I take my last breaths: lilacs, cilantro, Johnson’s baby soap, and now, those finger towels.

Written November 2009...

Day 10 of chemo round #2, 4:30 a.m., I’m enjoying a cup of coffee in my Portmerion Botanic Garden coffee mug. Hand-washed daily, it hasn’t met its demise. When we have house guests, I put it away in the china hutch. When it breaks, I will cry. I don’t want someone else to break it and think they are the cause of my tears.

My sister’s turtleneck was accidentally washed. I offered her half of my sniffs when she came out in October, but she declined as she held the towel to her nose, saying there wasn’t enough left to share.


Liam's Tree

Spring briefly hit the Northeast a little over a week ago. On that particular Friday it was 60 degrees.

“I want to play Wii!” “I want my DS!” Demands from the resident electronic tyrant. Liam. Stove kicking and wall bashing back up his claim, topped with a raspberry. Spitting, I call it.

“The sun is shining, so we are going outside.”

He has socks on. I just need to get shoes on him. He strikes out in the familiar “run from Mom” circle. Kitchen, dining room, toy room, living room, kitchen, dining room… I grab his shoes in my left hand, prop open the kitchen door, lock open the screen door, and wait. This reminds me all too much of corralling kicking young calves in the barnyard and getting them through a narrowing funnel created by gates onto the ramp up to a livestock trailer.

Moving my thoughts from the barnyard to the kitchen, I wait. But he detours onto the couch in the living room. “I’m not going!”

From a class I had taken the night before, I take the hint to let a child huff and puff without responding. I’ve already established the goal of going outside. Now we just need to move in that direction.

No words, I wrangle my calf bare-handed, and we edge closer to the open kitchen door, giving the stove one last kick. “I want my DS!”

“Sun’s shining.” I say this as if meaning that as long as the sun is shining the battery in the DS is dead.

Breaking the barrier of the four walls is all it took for the tirade to stop. “What a beautiful day, Mom!” he proclaimed as we put his shoes on while sitting on the top step. He was off. I closed the screen door. Mission accomplished.

I picked up sticks from our four-day wind and rain storm. Liam came over admiring a little evergreen branch he had found. “Mom, I’m going to help him grow!”

“That’s a great idea, Liam!”

He took it to the swing set and propped it against the leg with rocks. Then he disappeared into the house and reappeared with a cup of water. Trip after trip he watered the branch. Then we met on the steps and he said, “I’m giving it some juice.” Yes, indeed there was a squeezed apple juice box on the counter. I can live without one juice box. I went back to raking, still eyeing the trips back and forth.

Then the traffic stopped. Funny how noise and constant motion is OK. Silence, not so much.

I got to the screen door just in time to hear a big splash and “Oh man!” A pretty significant orange juice spill covered the counter, the cupboard doors, and the floor, nearly floating the cup and spoon on the floor. Amidst a perplexing array of evidence on the floor – a little jar of Mom’s homemade strawberry jam and the liquid soap dispenser – I casually asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m making food for my tree.”

“Wow, it should grow really well with this. Do you know who made it? Grandma.”

“Oh,” as he pumped another bit of soap into the plant food mixture in his glass: OJ, strawberry jam & hand soap.

No way, no how could I get upset. As messy as it may seem, there was much more creativity in making plant food than in pushing buttons on electronic gizmos. And we had accomplished the goal: The sun was shining, and we weren’t playing Wii.

I’m still contemplating the order of ingredients in the plant food. Was the spoon in the soap concoction before or after it was dipped into this precious little jam jar? Mentally counting the few jars of homemade jam left it the basement, driven out last summer by my family, I put the lid on and put it back in the fridge. I’ll test it another day. Or, just proclaim the remainder as plant food, another day.

Enjoying spring.


Hair Moments

Chapters could be written about the hair adventure. I’ve just picked up the highlights of the last few months and written cliff notes to that novel.

December 26, 2010 I wore my wig out yesterday to Jess and Randy’s for Christmas dinner. When we got back to our house, I took it off. Will saw me and said, “Mom, I like you the way you look with your wig on… but I like the way you look with it off too. I just love you, Mom, however you look.” :)

The wig is funny. I wear it out, mostly to school, so that I look normal. However to me when I have it on, I feel like I’m in disguise, but then I pass a mirror and think, “Yeah, that’s more like me.” By sight. By feel, it’s so fake. At home when I have it off, it feels better. The new normal in my house. In general, I’ve given up putting a hat or the wig on when someone rings the doorbell. I’ve found my crotchety old mail man is nicer to me bald than when I have hair.

Facial hair may have thinned, included my eyelashes, but didn’t fall completely out. Now what? Vaniqua? A cream to slow hair growth. But if chemo can’t make it fall out, what the heck does Vaniqua have that slows it down? My hesitancy in putting that on my face: anhydrous. Listed as an ingredient on the tube. Crazy. Of course I know it’s some derived meek strain, but still, anhydrous? That’s the spray that kills weeds in fields. When that was sprayed on the ground was one of the few times on the farm us kids were pulled into the house. It’s poisonous. Now I’m given something with a mutated version of anhydrous to dab on my face? Can’t get my mind around that one.

January 5, 2010 Hats. Packing to go out for the day. My warm floppy knitted hat – plausible that there may be hair underneath. Sleeping hat – doesn’t fall of in bed and adds an extra layer of insulation under the floppy. The gingerbread fleece hat – it floats on my head, obvious that I don’t have hair. Indoors: Any hat becomes a grab’n’go to take the chill off.

March 1, 2010 I’m sitting waiting for labs to be drawn – one last check before starting radiation. Sitting her cap-less – because I have hair. Well, to Zazu, my friend the Papillion puppy, who cocks his head and looks at me hard as if to say, “My goodness, that woman is bald!” And except everyone else here who didn’t see me without this grown-back crew cut. To them I still don’t have hair. But it’s there. More color and chicken fuzz soft.

March 21, 2010 I ran into a friend a couple weeks ago who went through chemo two years ago. She’s one of those women I have in my ring of strong and formidable. While it was great to see her, it was fantastic to see her eyebrows and eyelashes! They outlined her sparkling eyes. When we went to Bill’s holiday dinner in December, I had eyebrows. I clearly remember darkening them just a bit with an eyebrow pencil.

Then a month later, getting ready for another evening out, I got my eyebrow pencil out and took off my glasses. Then I leaned in close to the mirror. And closer still. Four inches from the mirror. Where the hell did my eyebrows go? There was nothing to add a little color to. I could have drawn in any shape eyebrows I wanted. I opted for chemo camouflage and just put my glasses back on. I thought my eyebrows were going to stay with me.

This followed a memorable, happy occasion: I woke up in January one night sleeping on my stomach! I hadn’t been able to do that since June. Did my eyebrows get rubbed off on my pillow with renewed stomach sleeping?

Last Thursday I met another of my strong and formidable friends. She was about a month ahead of me in the same chemo treatment. Sporting the same haircut as me, she looked great. But I was enamored by her eyebrows. “Your eyebrows are beautiful!” They were completely grown in, lush and full of color. They capped off her sparkling eyes.

Bill and I took the boys to Lion King last night and there was just enough little eyebrow seedlings to give a touch of color to. And eyelashes, although they are growing straight out, reminding me of a pointer dog.

Getting up to leave my writing spot at Panera’s this morning, a woman stopped me. “Excuse me, I love your hair and I’ve been thinking about going with that style. Can I just ask you how often you cut it to keep it that style?” I thought this would happen; I didn’t think it would be this soon. Have I crossed the line from being a chemo patient to a hip woman confident in a half-inch hair style? I grinned as I explained I was recovering from chemo to her horrified face. Still smiling, I reaffirmed that I was fine and thanked her for the compliment.

March 22, 2010 I stopped wearing my wig last week. After affirmations from friends that kids at school would be OK with it, one morning last week, I just couldn’t put it on before going to school. Drop-off and pick-up at school were the only times I donned the thing. “Will, I think I’m done wearing the wig to school. Are you OK with that?” “Sure, Mom.” It’s a well-known fact that Liam prefers me with “Casey hair.” The first day I wore my big floppy sun hat. Good for the beach but felt a bit silly at school. The second day I went as me, still with the camouflaged triangle of glasses, earrings, and a hint of lipstick. All was OK. To any shocked kids' comments of “You got your hair cut!” I simply responded, “It’s really short now, isn’t it?” And left it at that. Most let it go at that. Some conferred with their moms about what the heck was going on with my hair.

March 23, 2010 I took Will to get his passport renewed this afternoon. And I had to provide ID. My chemo camouflaged face looked nothing like the mom’s face on my driver’s license. Thankfully, the woman helping me with the application discreetly held on to my license to compare my signature on the paperwork to that on the license.

March 28, 2010 Booting up the computer at Panera’s this morning, I saw a brief but solid outline of my eyebrows in the dark reflection of the monitor before the blue welcome screen popped up.

Staying strong and holding out for a ponytail,


Calling Grandmas

Over a month ago, my grandma fell and shattered her femur. After a surgery to place a rod, she’s now in a skilled nursing facility, regularly having physical therapy. Every time I talk to her, she sounds strong. Maybe a little tired, but her voice is strong.

I called Grandma Friday, and she answered after a few rings. A pause, for her to turn down her hearing aid, then, “Hello?”

“Hi Grandma!”

“Hello!” She always recognizes my voice.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, I was just getting back to my chair.”

“Have you had physical therapy today?”

She cleared her throat and said, “No. I only do that twice a week.” The spunk that she answered with dissolved.

“Oh really?” Shocked, I didn’t believe this was true.

“Who is this?” she asks this occasionally during my phone calls, just to be sure. But she normally asks a bit sooner in the conversation.

“It’s Linda.”

“Well, I thought so,” what Grandma always says during this indentifying interchange.

“Have you had any company today?”

She mumbled names I didn’t understand or know.

Our pitter patter continued for a few minutes. Then we were running out of things to say. She just didn’t sound like herself.

“Sis called last night. She always calls at night.” Her voice was quietly wandering off while I was thinking, who is Sis?

From all accounts, I’ve heard Grandma is really doing well. This voice wasn’t what I expected. Grandma is still sharp. Her voice is loud and clear on the phone. I started to get panicky. I hadn’t talked to her in three weeks. Am I being protected from anything? I really don’t like that idea… But still, who is Sis? Maybe I misunderstood the name.

Suddenly, flooded with relief, it clicked.

“Who is this?” I asked. She mumbled something I couldn't understand.

Finally I said, “Is this Elsa?” A confused silence. “You know, I think I’m talking to someone else and you think you are talking to someone else! It’s been a nice chat. Take care!”

I redialed Grandma’s number that rings to the main desk first. “I just talked to a Grandma for ten minutes, but it wasn’t MY grandma!”

“Oh, did that Eleanor picked up Elsa’s phone? Let me see if Elsa is in her room.” I envisioned her walking down the hall and peeking around a corner. “Elsa isn’t in her room. She’s playing dominoes.”

A little overly excited about a grandma playing dominoes, I answered, “That is wonderful! That is soooo good to hear! Thank you!”

Thank God.

An Eleanor and an Elsa as roommates. Most confusing.


Golfing with Frank

Last Wednesday was beautiful: approaching 50 degrees and full sunshine. I pick Will up at 12:30 on Wednesdays, thinking with next year being mandatory all-day first grade, we’ll have an afternoon a week together this spring. The day’s plan with Will had been to play Monopoly. He still has bragging rights to bankrupting me in January when Bill and Liam were in England. He tells complete strangers about the upset. No ‘did you know my mom had chemo and that’s why her hair is so short?’ But rather ‘You know, I bankrupted my mom in Monopoly!’

With not a cloud in the sky, I couldn’t put a game board on the dining room table. I went for gold-star status: I loaded my golf clubs and Will’s in the van and called the professional gold-star golfing Dad to see where he suggested I take Will for nine holes. Bill gave me some other pointers: make sure to get a golf cart and to play off my ball so as not to create a bottleneck on the course. I got a little nervous about the speed we would play at – but onward. I had already committed to it mentally. After a short guessing game with Will about where we were going, I couldn’t hold back: “I have golf clubs in the back.” “Are we going mini-putting?” No. “To a driving range?” No. “Are we going to a real course?!?!” Yes! “YES!!”

The owner of the course rang us up and went over basic etiquette and rules, which I appreciated the brush-up. Let people play through and only drive the cart in the rough. I put a big floppy hat on to protect my wig-less head. “Are you wearing that?” (That was nearly capitalized the way a pre-teen would say it.) He was OK with it when I explained its practicality. I saw myself in the reflection of the office window. Poor kid.

We loaded our clubs on the cart. “Do you know how to drive this, Mom?” I haven’t broken out my baby blue golf bag in years. Will didn’t know the full extent of my prowess at this silly game of chasing little white – or in my case, hot pink – balls over acres and acres of land. “Yes, I do.” But the real question, I thought, was can I even come close to making contact with a ball? We approached the first tee and were up after a five-some.

Then Frank joined us. I immediately thought that we had just ruined this poor guy’s first day out. What was he thinking? Something like, “Great, a floppy-hatted mom and a chatty little boy”? After introductions, Frank asked us where we wanted to tee off. I had forgotten there were two sets of tees. We took the ones closest to the flag. Frank started farther back. Despite his reserved confidence in his abilities, Frank could crank that ball. “Wow, that’s pretty good for the first time out!” I lauded as I set up for my first worm burner of the day.

At nearly 78 years old, Frank gave Will pointers and listened intently as Will told him about bankrupting me at Monopoly while we waited on a hole to tee-off. And he seemed genuinely interested in what ball color Will was using, and he learned quickly that collecting tees was a side hobby on the course for Will. Then they began collecting balls that had been deserted in the water-logged areas of the course. “Yeah, you can cross that tape and get that ball, Will. Go ahead!” Will’s sure that Frank’s advice to “take gentle swings” helped him hit the ball 200 to 400 yards. Fish stories and golf stories are in a genre all their own.

Will would hit the ball and ask, “Did you see that one, Frank?” Then Will would skip to his ball 10 feet or 50 yards away. He fell into this course-chat very easily. To hear him say “Frank” you would’ve thought they went out on the course every week. As for me, I picked up my ball many more times than Will did. I had to back track and get the golf cart, so often times I dropped my ball next to his and took a shot. Yes, often we were playing best ball with Will’s ball.

Frank and Will burned up the greens with one- and two-putts. “Will has great strokes on the green!” It sounded natural for Frank to say “Will.” I told Frank that Will and his brother had been practicing at home. After the snow melted, Will and Liam were digging in the yard one day, in the “anything goes” zone. I saw a hole about a foot in diameter and six inches deep form. Then the golf clubs came out and they practiced chipping and putting into this cavern. I put the kibosh on another hole in a part of the lawn where grass actually grows. They had quietly broken ground in pursuit of another golf hole in the course on our property. No gold star for me that day for impeding construction.

My expectations of us slowing play didn’t come to be. Ahead of the five-some in front of us was a six-some. This would’ve been painful to other golfers, but to Will that meant he could hit balls all the way down the fairway without anyone telling him to hurry up. Frank seemed to enjoy the walk, while I worked on getting re-connected to only three clubs: my driver, the 8 iron, and my putter.

After the ninth hole, nearly three hours later, Frank shook my hand and roughed up Will’s hair. I told him it had been a real pleasure golfing with him, and I thanked him for being so patient. “Well, I was a school teacher. I know kids.” Indeed, he did.

An airplane ride, a day at the beach, a scuba diving trip, an afternoon on the golf course. Sometimes you meet the kindest people in fleeting moments. Sometimes it’s hard to say “good-bye” to these gems. But it’s OK, because afternoons like these give me faith that the world is filled with Franks. We just need to be open to finding them. And to letting them find us.


Ritualistic Comfort

Sitting at a table in Panera bread, a bit mystified at my frequent return. It’s a little about convenience, a bit about good food, a lot about having a big table to spread out my stuff. It’s also pretty good for people watching: A Red Hat Society meeting is taking place in the reserved room today.

Why I shouldn’t come here: a couple years ago I had to crawl out of a bathroom stall on my stomach because I couldn’t get the door unlocked. I brushed off, washed, then reported the mishap to the manager on duty. “Yeah, we’ve been having problems with that lately.” Period. No sorry. No free cup of coffee. No sign on the bathroom door. Perhaps it’s that living-on-the-edge part of me that keeps luring me back to this no-remorse establishment with gourmet sandwiches.

This is my stop-off after radiation today. It must be day five because an x-ray is taken every fifth day to make sure the coordinates are OK. Still feeling good. No redness. Slathering on creams twice a day. In the radiation teach, my nurse went over details of treatment, most of which were no surprise. However, she did mention that I shouldn’t take any anti-oxidant supplements during treatment. They create a protective wall around cells and may keep the radiation from penetrating cells. After those cells are broken down they need to be flushed out, so I’m supposed to drink lots of water. After radiation, new cells need energy, so I’m supposed to eat protein-rich foods in my well-balanced diet. Consequently, I carry my water jug in the van to my daily appointments and a can of mixed nuts is by my side for a quick burst of protein when I come out. Every day. Yet another source of power: I need radiation but I can do SOMETHING.

That reminds me of my sister’s comment when her husband came home just before supper to a houseful of four children under five years old. Hers and mine. Toddler antics were keeping three moms – my sister, our mom and me – dancing in the kitchen. He was a wall flower and stayed outside this wildly choreographed scene. Finally, my sister turned to him. “Do SOMETHING for God’s sake!” Come dance with us! A call to action. I need it sometimes. I want to say it sometimes. The struggle can be in finding the SOMETHING.

During chemo, I had to be tagged every visit with a wristband. A reminder that I was handing over the reins. On my left wrist I wear a LIVESTRONG yellow band and an Italian charm bracelet concealing a lymphedema medic alert not to squeeze or to poke my arm. That’s the wrist I would hold out for the wristband. Unsure how it happened, but one day it ended up on my right wrist. After my port was accessed, I headed back to the front desk. It had to be changed. I was edging on frantic that the ritual had been upset. Professional baseball players have their little rituals and I had mine. I cut the bracelet off and said, “I’m sorry but I really need another band printed and put on my left wrist. I don’t know what I was thinking when I held out my right arm.” No blink of the eye. I wasn’t the first. At the end of the day, I stopped at the desk and reached for the black-handled scissors. Then I Purelled; most chemo patients handled those scissors on their way out – over 100 patients a day.

Outside the Museum of Fine Arts last week, Will loved the geese wandering around pecking at the grass. One of them had a wide band around its neck. Will wondered what it was so I explained the tag. Then he asked if it hurt the goose. I immediately said it didn’t, but I wasn’t confident in my answer. Who’s to say if an innocent looking band is painful? Just a new normal for the goose, like it or not. By the way, these were civil geese, unconcerned with humans – no hissing or gawky neck moves.

Staying strong and still using Panera’s bathroom,


Baby Chicks

With yellow downy feathers, chicks are absolutely adorable. In the spring when Mom got around 20 baby chicks, we helped get them settled. We would lift each one out of the crate and gently dip its beak in the water so it would know where to find a drink on its own. Mom would use a foot-high ring from a hog feeder as a fence to keep them in one area of the back part of the old corn crib that we used as a baby chicken house. Mom hung a heat lamp over the top of it to keep them warm. Tiny, tiny, tiny little chirps would fill the air as they made the transition to their new home. Then they nestled together under the heat lamp, looking like a big fuzzy sun. Once cozied up, the chirping started to subside as they felt the warmth from the light and from one another’s little winged bodies.

On cool spring mornings when we went in to feed them, the chirping would start as the first crack of sunlight hit their eyes and they heard the door creaking open. Stepping over the fence, we would take ground corn in to fill the feeders. The chicks would see our toes and start pecking at them, not enough to really hurt, just enough to keep us on edge of that eventual one peck that would make a little red mark. That first strong peck was an indicator that we would need to guard our feet better in the future.

When the chicks feathered out, we would put them in the chicken coop. It had a big fenced outside area attached to it. Their food and water was outside. When they were young, they had only the coop and the fenced area to wander. They needed to learn this was home, where they needed to sleep at night. If they didn’t learn this lesson and decided to find their own roost for the night, they would be open prey for skunks, raccoons, and possums. When they got bigger, we would open the chicken coop doors every morning so they could roam around for the day. Free-range chickens.

Around dusk, their homing mechanism would kick in and they would return to the safety of the chicken coop. Once they were all quietly on roosts, Mom would close the door to the coop, making it secure so that it did not become a midnight meal house for those predators, who if given the chance, could quite possibly wipe out all the birds in one night.

Hens would start laying eggs when they were six to eight months old. Picking up eggs was one of my favorite jobs. The nest stand was made of metal and looked a bit like a honeycomb. It had eight nests total: four across and two high with boards as roosts on the outside of each entrance. Hens would pick a straw-filled hole, lay eggs, and then leave. With the exception of the setters. They were tough chicks, unwilling to freely relinquish their eggs. I would wear gloves to protect my hands from their vicious pecks. From 20 chickens, we would get around 15 to 19 eggs a day.

One of my first pets was a little chick that I got for Easter when I was around five years old. Starting off downy yellow, she grew up to have red feathers, so I named her Red. (We also had a dog we called Dog.) I would pull an ear of corn out of the corn crib and walk around the barnyard rolling kernels of corn off the ears while Red and the other chickens followed me around snatching up what I dropped. And that’s about all you can do with a pet chicken. I think she lived for five years. I remember the day I went in and found her in the roost, head down, eyes closed. I so hoped she was just asleep. I tore out of the chicken house in tears. I seem to recall her and my Grandpa Murphy’s passing to be close. At ten years old, it was an emotional overflow of the finality that death brought. Dad buried her out by the corn field, and we put a cement block on her grave with a plastic red rose. Although just a chicken, I imagine the block is still there marking Red’s grave in our little overgrown pet cemetery.

Thinking about baby chicks a lot lately… every time I touch my head: my hair feels like chick fuzz! Only I have a funny Mohawk thing going on on top of my head.

Staying strong,

Linda (Thanks Mom for the fact-checking details!)

Going for the Glow

Monday was the dress rehearsal for radiation. I was positioned on the table and several x-rays were taken to make sure the radiation coordinates were accurate. Tuesday was supposed to be the first day of radiation, but after two hours waiting for the machine to be up and running, the appointment was canceled.

Yesterday, Wednesday, the machine was working again. I was done in 10 minutes, from the time I left the waiting area to when I was dressed and leaving the building. Today was the same. I feel nothing during the treatments, which last for no more than two minutes. My skin looks no different. I cover my left side with aloe and “My Girl’s Radiation Cream” after every treatment. Then put on my non-aluminum deodorant before heading out the door. Tom’s of Maine is the only deodorant the doctor approves of me wearing during treatment. I can only imagine sparks flying off my pits with the regular stuff. Like a metal-edged plate in the microwave.

Talking with other patients in the waiting room and then confirming with my doctor, I discovered that I’m actually having the 33-day plan. I thought it was a six-week plan or 30 days. That three day difference means we won’t be going to Iowa in April for a long weekend. Assuming the machine doesn’t break down again, my last treatment will be April 16th. We had already booked a time share in Florida for the following week. So we are taking a late in the day flight out on Monday the 19th, just in case I need to run in for one last treatment that morning.

Today in the waiting room I met a woman who was a least 65; she told me she was on Medicare. She walked in, looked at me, and point blank said, “When was your last chemo?” To my “end of January” reply, she said, “Holy shit! You have a lot of hair!” Which made me grin: Only another chemo patient would think I have a lot of hair right now. She pulled off her gray wig to show me her bald-on-top head. Her hair is growing quickly on the sides and not so much on top. She’s been bald since August; it’s taking a while for hers to grow back. Mine is growing in evenly. I’m probably back to the crew cut length of Halloween.

As of this week, I’m wearing the wig less and less, mostly to school to pick the boys up. I took Will to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston yesterday without the wig. He looked at me and said, “But Mom, we’re going to be with people. Why aren’t you wearing your wig?” “I just don’t want to, Will.” He has been cataloging when I have something on my head.

An aside: We were looking for Monets in the museum. From the information center, we got a bag with colored pencils and paper in it, then a museum employee took us to the gallery where most of Monet’s paintings are displayed. The woman asked Will what kind of art he liked best. Without hesitation and very seriously, he said, “Monet’s and mine.” We sat on the floor in front of two Water Lily paintings and sketched them for 45 minutes.

I started a Zumba class with Carrie Tuesday night. I can only describe it as a dance class with a Latin feel, so my hips say today. I put in my contacts and didn’t wear my wig. In the mirrored studio, I looked like a dancing turnip. By default, we were in the front row. I wondered if my looks distracted anyone. By the end, I had changed to a glowing beet. With my fair complexion, I have always gotten red in the face quickly. I should have warned the instructor, or at least Carrie, because I looked like I was going to pop. But I didn’t overdo it… I heard some of you gasp at the mention of dance class.

Staying strong,


A Penny from Heaven

At 8 a.m. on the Friday of my post-chemo appointment, I stepped out of the elevator in the Yawkey Building at MGH, and the gleam of a copper penny caught my eye. Out of habit I murmured, “Thanks, Grandma.” I usually hold her accountable for most pennies since they normally appear while shopping or in places that I know she would’ve loved to have seen. And looking over the rooftops of red brick buildings in Boston, with the gold dome of Beacon Hill in the center, this seemed like one of those places.

The early morning sun made the penny sparkle. I looked up and saw the sun bouncing off the dome of Beacon Hill, expecting to see a ray of gold spinning off the dome and landing on the penny. After scooping it up, that incredible shine made me think: That penny was from more than one angel. If my tribe of angels is with me, I’m thankful. They hold no hard feelings toward me for my declaration back in July: “I know they are waiting for me on the other side, but I have too much yet left to do here before I see them!”

That night at home, I emptied my pockets and found the penny. It’s dirty and dull, nothing like the shiny penny from early that morning. My heavenly tribe, those winged warriors danced that day. They fluttered above and around that penny, pumping their wings so hard that bits of gold light dripped down and transformed a dingy penny into a mighty brilliance. Touched by angelic grace. Warm and sweet. Twinged with pain.

Staying strong,


Never Say Never

I said I would never have tattoos: I have tattoos. Miniscule dots that no one else will notice. Five of them, marking me like a 3D grid for the laser light to line-up and make sure the radiation goes where it needs to starting next Monday morning, March 1st, at 7:30 a.m. On Thursday the 4th my daily appointments move to 11 a.m., every weekday for six weeks. I “set-up” well in the planning appointment. During our first meeting the doctor told me that a bit of my lung may have some scarring from radiation; however, after being set-up for radiation, he said there is a thin layer of tissue between the plane of radiation and my lung. My lung shouldn't be affected. A block will protect my heart from the radiation. I don’t know the details but trust the doctor to make that work. He’s the Harvard grad. I’m not.

My lifeboat of pill bottles is transforming. After a ceremonial Royal Flush, I’ve replaced the prescriptions with over-the-counter pure aloe and My Girl’s Radiation Cream. A little hefty at $25 a jar but said to be well worth the expense in treating sensitive skin after radiation. I’m getting a cotton bra for least amount of skin irritation during treatment.

I’m booking flights to Iowa then on to Florida for our family for spring break in April. I asked my radiation doctor to work it so I’m done by April 15th. He gave me the OK to travel, actually he said, “Of course, you can travel!” I have a list of what to avoid and how to protect the radiated area. Sun cream and clothing to protect against the sun. Aquaphor to protect against the chlorine in pools. Avoid massages in the radiated area.

If I lose weight, I may need to be re-tattooed. Decisions, decisions.

Aunt Charlotte, Mom’s sister and a breast cancer survivor, just emailed to let me know I’m now done with the most painful part of radiation treatments: the tattoos.

Staying strong,


Mouse Trauma

The morning of Paul and Monica’s arrival from England, I was in the basement doing laundry. Movement catches my eye. I see a healthy mouse skidding away from me on the black shiny tile, trying to round a corner. Fate: I was talking to Kay who said mice run around sticky traps but she’s heard peanut butter on the trap works well. She’s very calm on the other end. I’m not so much. I get out four sticky traps as we talk. They are recycled. I saw a mouse a few months ago, never caught him, so I had put the traps back in the box. We end our conversation and, shaking, I go get a big glob of peanut butter. I put a dollop on each trap then return to my laundry. Within five minutes, the mouse is sitting on the trap eating peanut butter. Seeing me, he tries to flee and only his foot is stuck. Apparently, most of the trap had dried up on previous duty.

I ran into the laundry room to find something to shove him in and decided the bucket needed a lid. And I needed gloves. And I wished Bill was home. Bill?!?! I mean Dad. I wish Dad was next door. Or Mom. Or my sister. Or Grandma Murphy and Hazel. Two 85-year-old women, one with one leg, trapping a mouse in a sticky trap. Hazel caught it in her apartment then called Grandma for help. Grandma would get the damn thing with the end of Hazel’s cane. Then the ladies ended up with the cane stuck in the sticky trap – Grandma had missed the mouse. Then they got to laughing… Years ago, Mom had gone out one night to milk cows. My sister Leslie and I spotted a mouse, set a spring trap, and while Mom was still in the barn, crap! Snap! I only remember me standing on a chair screaming in the middle of the kitchen. I’m guessing my sister took care of it. …Then there was the mouse that Dad squished when I was first Dancing with a Foreign City Slicker.

All this playing like an old film reel as I stand paralyzed in the laundry room. No gloves in the basement. I’m gonna have to push the trap into my bucket bare-handed. I go back to find the mouse with one foot stuck to the trap, dragging the trap with him, and escaping under a door to the dank closet where the sump pump lives. I’m screaming at the mouse, holding the far end of the trap, “Don’t go under there! I don’t have time for this! I’ve got to get to the grocery store! I have a doctor’s appointment!” Then pull, pull, pull. He freed himself, but it looks like some of his foot is still on the sticky trap. Crap! I moved the trap. Seeing it up close, no, it’s not mouse toes. It’s a peanut. I used chunky peanut butter. So now I know he’s behind this door, fully intact. I find a wine box in the laundry room, open up the flaps, put a trap in the box and slide it right up to the door. The whole time thinking that I have to get this thing out before our friends arrive in six hours. I have little hope as I head back to the laundry room to finish laundry. With not even one shirt folded, I hear rustling in the box. And I thought Roosters were dumb.

Shaking like mad, I close the flaps on the box, run to the basement door – holding the box as far as possible from my body. I toss the box into the backyard and sit down, trying to quiet the shaking and trying to convince myself I’d read that hypothermia was a relatively painless death.

After tossing the box out the basement door, I race out the kitchen door to get to my appointment with the radiation doctor on time. I’m too hot for the wig. I take my gingerbread hat. At MGH, I meet my nurse who is also breathless and sweating. She explained that she had to get to her daughter’s book fair before work and raced like a mad woman to meet me at 10 a.m. Sweating, I pull off my hat. Life. “Crazy isn’t it? I’ve been chasing a mouse for an hour.”

Three days later, I notice the Kendall Jackson wine box folded up in the garage. Bill and I hadn’t talked about the mouse. I didn’t want three English people thinking I was a heathen for ridding the mouse from our house inhumanely. Bill definitely would’ve said something if he’d found the mouse with the box. I went looking for the trap. Nowhere in the vicinity of the box-landing. Ahh, but it was upside down nearly under the fence – empty. No mouse parts on it. My bachelor mouse had escaped the Malcolm house and property intact.

From a mouseless house,


Chipmunk Cheeks and Eyebrows

I want one but not the other. My most recently posted photos alarm me, mostly because I think they may alarm you.

Starting chemo, I defied it to actually make me unable to eat. I was careful and gentle with the first four rounds, knowing their possible effect on my stomach. But the opposite happened after Day 7 of those first infusions: That’s when I was eating grilled meatloaf sandwiches and four egg omelets. My weight stayed in place. Even with a more than occasional childhood favorite of milk and Oreos. Oreos dunked in a tall glass of milk all at once and eaten with a spoon. Then Christmas came. And by then I had proven to chemo it wasn’t going to stop my love for food. It could sway me away from hot and spicy but not from most other.

Cooking and exploring recipes from other cultures had become a favorite hobby for Bill and me, starting when we first met 21 years ago. While living in Rockford, we belonged to a Cooking Light supper club in Chicago for five years. We cooked regularly with many friends, including a monthly night with Jim and Lynda. In the early 90’s Grandma came to visit us. Up early one morning and intrigued by my cookbook shelves, she started counting. “You have 150 cookbooks.” Hmm. I had never counted. When we travel, I don’t buy sweatshirts or t-shirts. I buy a cookbook. For many years, friends and relatives have given me special cookbooks. For my 30th birthday, I used my birthday money and bought eight new cookbooks. Inside each I wrote: “For my 30th birthday – from Grandma Murphy, Grandpa & Grandma Mills, and Mom & Dad.” When Julie visited last fall while Bill was traveling, she created another very special cookbook for me, gathering loose recipes from the cookbook shelves. It’s now a favorite, titled by Julie: “Every Loose Recipe in the Kitchen: Linda’s Fabulous Conglomeration of Culturally Authentic and Diverse Recipes, Rescued from Eminent Neglect due to Life’s Natural Order of Priorities.” The chapter titles get even better.

So for chemo to march in and say, “I’m going to take this away,” I felt challenged. I did not want to worship a porcelain goddess for four months. I did not want it to take away this part of my life. Admittedly, over the last six years, I’ve made more mac’n’cheese than paella, but cooking is still a part of me that I tend to protect, knowing I will get back to it. And there were evenings mid-chemo, after Day 7, that I celebrated by cooking. I kicked everyone out of the kitchen, cranked up Gloria Estefan, smashed garlic, chopped onions, and watched them dance together in olive oil. Breathing deeply and listening for the sizzle.

My eat-anything metabolism lasted through the first four treatments. Then my metabolism changed, but my eating habits remained the same through the last four treatments, through Christmas cookies and decadent desserts, through holiday cooking. Perhaps encouraged on by a few steroids, I was overjoyed with my ability to eat -- until my jeans were too tight rather than too loose.

So, what you see is not a puffiness entirely related to the medication itself. You are seeing a woman 20 pounds heavier than in October because she loves food, and yes probably found comfort in food after the metabolism fell. In some strange way, I was fighting “chemo” with food.

But this week I’m happily eating salads every night. Not just the odd one, wondering how much dirt I’m consuming, but enjoying those leaves knowing a little dirt will once again build my immunities. Last night rather than Oreos, I had a bowl of fruit: raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. Sweetness missed for a few months as I limited my fruit to the peel-ables: apples, pears and bananas.

My medical experts remind me that they are happy I’ve gained rather than lost weight over the last four months. So this year, like many past, I’m starting the New Year with a few extra pounds to shed.

Staying strong,