Just One More

My mood is as black as my favorite jellybeans, so I’m hiding out. I explained to dear friend Emily that hearing “just one more time” during the throes of chemo is like hearing “just one more house fire.” Once is one too many and damaging enough. It’s “just” one more chance that side effects could seriously harm or hospitalize me, “just” one more heartbreaking Q&A with scared small boys, “just” another 10 pounds to gain in eye-blurring, fat-fingered edema, and “just” a lifetime of never knowing if this cancer is coming back. Thanks ever so much for the chipper tally… I’d nearly lost count. Mean, huh?

Brodie was in his own foul mood last night and I may have aggressively dropped (thrown) an armload of books, effectively hurting my wrist and scaring the crap out of him. Emotionally exhausted, I literally hurled the Cancer Card at (well not “at” and not even very “near”) my own child last night… but HOW DARE HE? His little 8 year old needs are met and exceeded, and I’m doing my cheery best to hide the fact that I’m tired, achy, and annoyed. Write your sentences and be cute and agreeable or I’ll GIVE you something to be pissy about… AAARRGGHHH! But fear not. Although I have morphed into Cancer bitch, all of my mean dialogues are entirely internal, where they are funnier and don’t inspire calls to Child Protective Services. Brodie got lots of extra hugs, fell asleep with me rubbing his back, and woke up early of his own accord to finish the homework… and all without any fear of being assaulted by a crazy bald lady.

Scary Aunt Paige (with God in total agreement, as prayer has become interrupted with inappropriate hilarity that can only be Divine) reassures me that this is expected and forgivable. Even without tiresome chemo side-effects, small children will annoy and probably won’t be eternally damaged from watching Lunatic Mommy violently organize the Magic Treehouses. But lately, all sorts of things irritate me… even phone and house calls to inquire if I’m OK. After a third round of poison, it would be good sense to assume I’m not OK and too pooped to pretend in real time (it’s easier to be The Queen of Upbeat via text and email). I successfully resisted the urge to verbally skewer my landscaper for ringing the bell at 9am, and wondered what the hell my mother was thinking letting him in. I’m sure I don’t know how I’ve gotten through any of this without having a heart to heart with the goddamn gardener. Mean, huh?

Honestly, until Round 3, I’ve been either too scared or grateful or drugged to be angry about all of this. But today, I am. And not in a why-oh-why-woe-is-me way, but in a not-fit-for-mixed-company way. This is a mood that goes better with scotch and accompanied by people who might have suspected I’m not always as cheery as I seem. I’m sending a fair number of bitter, venting texts to complain about teeny things in my teeny, self-absorbed life. However, I know this as temporary as anyone’s interest in a Pissed Off Cancer Mom. I’ve already turned the corner on the really bad side effects. And in ten minutes my little boys will come home from the bus stop so pink-cheeked and cute it won’t even occur to me to launch paperbacks at them. Then, instead of counting chemo sessions (hey, there’s JUST one more), I’ll be once again counting blessings.

The Uncle Herb Effect

No sleep for me. Dreading Round 3, I quit all attempts to calm myself into any sort of slumber and spared Bernie my tossing, turning, and sighing. Brodie needed extra hugs tonight. He gets nervous about the chemo but reminded me, “Mommy, you feel really great NOW, right?” And with a hug and a happy twirl I convinced us both that he’s absolutely correct.

This whole thing ought to be either harder or easier. If I’m going to need all of this help, I should be shrouded in blankets and coughing consumptively into hankies. Instead, I’m just tired and bald. Because I am normally efficient and unfailingly vain, this is difficult enough. I also fear I’ve become a source of unsolicited boring or horrifying information. Recently asked if my implant surgery has been scheduled, I may have given a tutorial on tissue expanders with embarrassing, helpful hand gestures. Also, “chemo brain” has robbed me of good conversation skills and I am repeating anecdotes that didn’t require airplay the first time around. I knew this crap would take a toll on my charm; I just never dreamed Cancer would turn me into Uncle Herb*. Luckily the steroids are beginning to kick in, along with the Stockton family habit to more than occasionally eschew couth for the sake of comedy.

For a bit of fun, I’ve been playing my Cancer Card. This week I got a pretty good deal on my roof replacement, a steal on house painting, an advance appointment to open the pond (and happily swimming fishies to watch), and a next-day dryer vent repair. Although home maintenance doesn’t stop for pesky health woes, I’m finding that Cancer is a bit of a Groupon. After years of loyal patronage, muffins, and referrals, I feel no guilt. Tacky it may be, confessing my medical condition to these handy men, but so is posting my weekly over-share to 194 of you at 5am.

And now for the Upbeat Final Paragraph… today (yesterday?) was lovely and I’m thrilled that Brodie saw how OK I am. I watched my little boys pass footballs in the back yard, discussing what professional teams they’ll play for someday. I grilled steaks and veggies and tucked my soaped and scrubbed kids into clean sheets. I will not be able to repeat a day like this for a bit, but I’m starting to believe the brave ladies who have been down this road. They promise that by summertime this will be just a memory jogged by my chic-short hair. I’m also hoping that sparkling social graces are revived with my follicles. But by then I’ll be holding the stem of bubbly spirits instead of a mug of antioxidant tea… and even Uncle Herb can be hilarious after 14 beers.


Uncle Herb


*A necessary I love Uncle Herb disclaimer. We all love Uncle Herb. But I’m certain I’m not the only relative who listened to an itemized list of the new microwave functions or a lecture on the frivolous luxury of automobile air conditioning (on the same day… I was 8 years old). But my old-school, country judge and lawyer Uncle from Terre Haute, Indiana unexpectedly and graciously accepted my Taiwanese husband with open arms, and I’ll never forget it.

Wardrobe Optimism

At this stage in the chemo cycle, I’m nearly normal. Food tastes dusty, but I am just not sick at all. What I do feel is pathetic and selfish having nearly constant, full time help in the house. Then I look in the mirror and remember why everyone is being so nice to me. Sadly, my hairless head is absurdly small and decidedly not beautiful. I have already grown tired of matching hats to outfits. I’m not feeling so “whoo-hoo half way done!” but rather, “ugh, two more times.”

I look very much the Cancer Mom, all decked out in flowy cardigans, scarves, caps, and self-pity. I’m missing Spring Break in Florida with my kids, and every picture of the moments I’m missing is a little dagger. My mom has been distracting me quite well with good meals, shopping, and two seasons of Downton Abbey. But because it seems I have entered the Shameless Wallowing Phase, I’m irritated that I must endure this less than pretty.

Back in college, after an all-nighter completing some twenty-page tome on the History of This or That, my darling friend Ran would come to the dining hall in shirt, tie (usually of the bow variety), and blazer. His theory was that by dressing inversely proportional to his energy level, mere appearances could boost his mood, or at the very least, fool others. I still remember it fondly: Ran, fully dressed for dinner at the country club, but absolutely gaunt from a sleepless, two day diet of Hydrox cookies and Cokes. It was a tradition too quaint not to adopt. And though I may not have eeked out a few more correct answers by examining cadavers in a pencil skirt and pearls, at least I felt like I was showing up for the exam more fully awake, prepared, and respectful of the task ahead. These past few months feel like a test, and even if on some days I am ill prepared, the least I can do is apply Ran’s theory of wardrobe optimism.

Every morning I talk myself out of a jammie-all-day-day. I haven’t been required to move anything into or out of the dishwasher since Christmas, and avoid the bus stop, outings, most chores, and any sort of social life in the name of immunosuppression. It’s tempting to morph into a completely useless blob that remains in bed past noon. Instead I’m getting up and dressing for The Fight of My Life, which in the day-to-day isn’t against Cancer at all, but depression. Sometimes Bloomingdale’s seems almost as necessary as prayer and Purell. But so far I’ve found that Ran’s theory works. With a little Lancome and Burberry I can transform myself into Passably Pretty Girl Having Bad Hair Day. And although that fashion is strikingly similar to Cancer Mom, it’s an entirely different outfit that makes everything seem funnier and fleeting. So excuse me now as I face the day in something fabulous (maybe my homemade superhero cape from Ginny!) and write an essay about Taiwanese Grandparenting in Disney World or Ridiculously Bad Things to Say to Bald People.

Spring Break

How many adults does it take to replace one mommy for Spring Break? Apparently it takes four. For a few years, Bernie and I have been taking advantage of A-Ma and A-Gong’s time share in Orlando and spirit little boys to warmer climes for theme park adventures. All of the books and my advice-givers tell me to keep things as close to business as usual for our boys; so even though I cannot accompany them to Florida for Spring Break, the annual trip is still a go. Poor Bernie. Traveling with small children is hard enough. Now he has to do it without me commiserating with him about how much we actually loathe traveling, how hours of video games are undoing years of overpriced education, and how next year we’ll plan earlier and do something other than travel to Florida for theme park adventures.

My darling husband, reluctant to leave me alone with Tatum for more than a few days, will deliver the boys into the capable hands of his parents, who will then do a grandparent hand-off mid-week. My parents will chaperone the kids back to Boston at the end of this ten day “vacation” that perhaps no one except for little boys will feel is any sort of “vacation” at all. All of this is very complicated and expensive and required hours on the phone with unsympathetic airline employees who reminded me over and over again about penalties and un-refundability as if the word “unfair” hasn’t really crossed my mind lately.

I have to believe that at least the boys will have fun. Being commissioned to Florida in March may not sound like punishment, but these generous grandparents have had ample grandson quality time, and now we’re asking them to log more hours waiting for Applebee’s beepers, racing to flipping water mammal shows, enduring inevitable meltdowns, and giving piggy-backs. Also, because they’ve spent a lot of time with the grandparents lately, the boys are maybe a bit too comfortable with them. Recently, after A-Ma prepared one of her incredible four-course meals, Brodie mused loudly, “I wish we could have anything NOT Chinese for dinner…” Excellent. Obviously, I’m worried that sending four grandparents to manage Spring Break in my stead isn’t the best thank-you for all of the time they’ve spent here doing laundry and cooking for my (occasionally jerky) children. I only have four more days to knock some good manners into them, but this chemo round has me too pooped to remind them to brush their teeth, much less summon my best mean mommy. At this point, I’m just hoping for good weather.

Grandma and Pop Pop, and A-Ma and A-Gong keep reminding me that this is just another way for them to help, that it will be manageable, that they will have fun. And it’s very possible that everyone could benefit from a bit of sunshine away from The House of Cancer where I live all of the time. I’m looking forward to that for all of them. In spite of my worried ramblings here about ill-behaved children abusing exhausted grandparents, I am really looking forward to ten days without children. TEN DAYS! Bernie and I will be deliciously alone for the first time since The Diagnosis. We’ll probably spend some time discussing how life as we know it has changed, how it takes four adults to manage what we could do last year, and how lucky (and unlucky) we are. But we’ll also gratefully whoo-hoo through our own homespun Spring Break free of Disney lines and spoiled children. Tatum has even traveled from the box to the stand with the hope that being denied a trip to Florida means at least one expensive meal at a proper restaurant. It’s the least we can do; we’re not inviting her next year, either.


Tatum on the stand, and all of the accoutrements of chemo


Dr. Charming

I had a really chatty nurse today administering my poisons. Oh hello hello hello how many kids oh aren’t you nice and lovely and who is this charming husband? I told her charming husband is Bernie Lee. On the 9th floor where every other patient is a bald woman with breast cancer, Bernie’s name gets around. There was a flurry of compliments, calls to other nurses to come over and meet Dr. Lee in person, and blah blah blah isn’t he just tops? And he is. But all of this happened before the IV went in, and now super chatty nice nurse is a bundle of nerves who is worried about jacking up the veins of Mrs. Dr. Lee. Forty-five minutes later, reinforcements were called and I finally got the cancer death juice infusion. I blamed the whole thing on Bernie for being Dr. Charming. He threw it right back at me saying I let the cat out of the bag… no one expects Bernie is even drinking age, much less the provider of new and improved breasts for every other woman on the 9th floor.

These are good problems to have. I’ll happily endure a few cc’s of interstitial saline because my husband is fantastic. This whole cancer thing has me all grateful and hugging bald strangers. And I am only able to be this way because of the circle of people who are praying, cooking, standing at bus stops, and shaving my head for me. Bernie is reading the cancer sites, and distilling all of the good things, so I don’t have to read the scary stuff. So many of you knew how hard this hairless thing has been, and sent packages and really funny messages of love and support. So today when I saw a twenty-something kid across the aisle on the 9th floor, all alone, I wanted to share a bit of what I have with him. (Good thing the Benadryl kicked in fast, sparing him an unwanted hug from a 40 year-old woman in a knit cap.)

So Round 2 is finished and I returned home in my steroid-fueled euphoria to find Nicole had delivered a Half Way Done cake from Donna’s. Only a really, really good friend knows when you need icing. Although eating that slice with my boys (who will now be expecting future chemo cakes) was probably not the best choice after an afternoon of harsh chemicals, I loved every bit of it: the sentiment, the thoughtfulness, and the generous smattering of icing flowers.

Yummy cake sampled and approved… and also soon to be halfway done


In spite of my blessed position at the receiving end of so much love, new friendships, cake, deepened faith, and more funny moments than would have been expected, make no mistake: this is awful. I’m bald and by Monday won’t be able to find a comfortable position to sit in for more than 5 minutes. And my boys ask me more often than any child should if their cough or stomach flu could kill me. But with Him, all things are better (if not possible). With prayer, I get really kind answers. With your prayers, I feel calmer. When I say I’m lucky because I have all of you and Dr. Charming, I know all of that stems from a faith in God that I’m not really sure I had a few months ago. When I saw that young kid, all alone, I was really hoping he had this… this other medicine that is Faith and Truth and Love, has none of the nasty side effects of life saving chemicals, and is administered by the Only One who can’t be flummoxed by my handsome doctor husband.

Me and Dr. Charming