I received a letter in the mail. A letter! In the mail! As quaint as a corded telephone, this correspondence was sent by the brilliant, venerated, often feared, but fiercely loved Professor John Simmons. Among other gems in this beautifully composed missive was the sweet wish that we’d known each other better back in my decapitate-rats-for-honors college days. In our rekindled friendship, long after graduation, I was delighted to learn that this elegant, eloquent, manner-minding man is not only deeply spiritual, but also charmingly quick to giggle. And even though I spent many pre-med hours in his intimidating classroom and bloody laboratory, he generously affirmed my life choices (quitting medicine to great happiness and effect). But back ‘neath the elms in the early nineties, he certainly wasn’t missing out on anything. Like a smelly cheese, I was unformed and unpalatable young, only improving with the deep blue vein of Life Amongst Asians, (and probably cracker barreling toward a moldering end of self-involved Cancer drivel). Had we shared a bottle of Sancerre twenty years ago, the great Professor would have found me quite dull in my single-minded pursuit of science, degrees, job security, and everything else the expensive education promised. These days, especially with the tongue-loosening effect of chemical menopause, I’m a lot more interesting.
While possibly life-saving, this tamoxifen is one hot little pill. I now understand why my own mother prefers her coffee iced, shirts sleeveless, and thermostat fixed at the same temperature as the produce drawer. As a fair-skinned (former) blonde, I’ve always been quick to flush, or blush, or even break out in nervous hives. Now this happens even when I’m not embarrassing myself. I’m assembling an arsenal of snarky retorts for strangers who helpfully remind me that I should have used sunblock. Bernie combed the internet for tricks to combat side effects which read like advice from an old, warty crone. And feeling quite tapped out regarding sacrifice and fortitude, I’m not forsaking my beloved coffee or taking disgusting oil supplements. I’d rather endure the oscillating temperatures in this edematous fat suit, and resist asking you for the tenth time if it’s hot in here.
My latest writing assignment is to compose a book proposal. So naturally, I’m feeling undue pressure to be extraordinary in the re-telling of this journey from the quaking fear of diagnosis to its sweltering aftermath. I have warm, fuzzy, married-the-right-guy-Holy-Spirit-is-everywhere feelings about the whole thing now, so I’m worried that it will all sound (forgive the appalling, recurrent conceit) cheesy. I need a good argument that this story hasn’t already been told, and begs to be shared. Reviewing the statistics, I’ve got the unique part clinched. Young(ish) people are much less likely to get breast cancer; and although you’d never know it cruising past bus stops in my neighborhood, inter-racial marriage is still uncommon. Whittling down the numbers to women who get this bummer news while being married to a Taiwanese, published-in-breast-cancer-journals plastic surgeon… well, I’m probably the only one with that bumper sticker. Because I’m chatty, and the Family Lee provides a rather constant stream of entertaining material, I occasionally think just recording life as it happens around here might suffice for a diverting, paperback beach read. But at the very least my story is one where the cancer-addled protagonist doesn’t die. I’ve grown quite fond of those.
As I struggle to convince some far-away editor that I’m fabulous, this unsolicited ego-boosting letter from Dr. Simmons was well timed. All writers (and especially fake, bloggy ones like me) need unsolicited ego boosting. Also, it was a reminder of how far I’ve traveled since my undergraduate rat-murdering days when I thought there would be some nirvana career endpoint to all of that assertive schooling. Yet here I sit, bald and unemployed (20 year old me would be horrified), as a much better lunch date than that clever college girl. An aborted career, cute children, helpfully hilarious in-laws, and rediscovered Faith have brought me more joy than the pursuit of academic greatness. Writing these little essays helps me make sense of this life I didn’t plan, or just temporarily deflects the nagging, ever-present question, “Why me?” And as my East Meets Breast story continues to unfold (Bernie’s sister is coming soon… stay tuned) I hope that interest in this survival story endures my recounting of it. In short, (last one) I hope my cheese is peaking.
Just today, beautiful Susan asked me if it’s too soon for cancer walks and other bald-girl bonding. Honestly, because most (normal) people find Cancer sad and terrifying, their stories are inevitably sad and terrifying; add in tedious reporting of cell counts, yellowing fingernails, and nausea remedies, and they’re also a bit boring. Of course I am profoundly indebted to those women who know what it’s like to wonder if their wig (or breasts) are sitting properly, and are not only too willing to share the funny moments, but the very fact that Cancer no longer defines them. But I’m also deeply inspired by the messages of love and support on these Pages, or the casual comments from my cute kids (“Mommy did you become Chinese when you married Daddy?”), or in a real letter from a man too proper to blog, but darling enough to encourage me to continue.