Birthday Toaster

Tuesday was my birthday. And of the forty-one years I’ve been tooling around this planet, I’d say at least 39-and-a-half have been pretty fabulous. From oft told stories of my colicky youth, I was a pill of a baby… and you all know how crappy 40 turned out to be. Apparently, my hardest days have been the ones I spent unintentionally bald. Maybe it wasn’t reflux and teething after all; I was just a ridiculously vain infant whose wailing could have been waylaid with a wiglet.

But even with supershort man hair, I had a banner birthday. Lovely Susie (former ballerina, inch long eyelashes, unplaceable European accent, Prada beach bag… I feel prettier just being near her) treated me to an afternoon at her pool where we tanned our legs and gossiped around happily splashing children. Later, we accompanied them to seaside bingo and toasted 41 years (and Teddy’s big win!) with bubbles. Bernie arrived and we ate birthday cake with sleepy boys, and then went out for tapas and Prosecco without them. Little dresses, blossoms, and sweet somethings continue to arrive by post. And from Grandma Sharon, lovely and generous Grandma Sharon… a toaster.

I’m sure nothing says 41-and-Cancer-Free quite like the capacity to crisp two bagels at once. I know she’ll forgive a bit of teasing for sending every bride’s least favorite gift, because it’s my mom I’m going to throw under the bus here. I’m sure that it was Grandma Karen who insisted our kitchens were woefully deficient in bread-browning ability. And a Happy Birthday Toaster is just really, really funny. It’s funny because I already own two perfectly usable toasters. It’s funny because my mother hasn’t eaten carbs since that Atkins guy convinced everyone to eat slabs of bacon and bun-less burgers. It’s funny because the Teeny Twin Grandmas talk to each other a minimum of two times a day, often a full score of calls a week, and from these discussions between the two most elegant women I know, somehow the Toaster Notion landed and stuck.

I have a few theories about how the Birthday Toaster idea was launched. The first is the question of what-do-you-get-Britt-who-has-everything-because-Bernie-has-Amazon-Prime? It’s quite flattering to think that after six months of Living with Lees, the only thing my mother finds wanting in our life is a (better) toaster. Apparently our shower curtain rings, eggbeaters, snow scrapers, and napkin holders are up to snuff. The second theory is that the toaster was featured on QVC. My mother is a home shopping network devotee and has the costume jewelry and featured caller bragging rights to prove it. But as the return receipt is from Macy’s, this theory is debunked. The final possibility is that mom noticed that our Cape House toaster appears to work by heating itself to sun-surface temperatures, necessitating another Grandma Karen gadget obsession, toast tongs, to rescue an inexplicably still-limp breakfast. So I suppose I should admit to the likely inspiration for this particular birthday appliance. My toaster sucks. And so does this thank you note. Um… thanks, Aunt Sharon! Sending sweet cinnamon toasty thanks from all of us.

Next week the entire Stockton clan will convene on the Cape for post-Cancer fun. Little Brother Patrick, Grandma Karen and Pop Pop, and Zealot Sister’s Family including her two lovely children (but not her less lovely dogs) will join us for a reunion that has never been this complete. I can’t wait to hear the giggles of pajammied, bunk-bedded cousins, for Uncle Bob to teach everyone The Coffee Song, for Uncle Patrick to take the boys golfing (and endure the umpteenth query about his smoking habit), for Scary Aunt Paige to whip my boys into table-clearing, yes-ma’am-ing shape, and to fill the recycling containers with an embarrassment of bottles. With this many people in the house, Paige is already concerned that I’ll be working too hard chopping, peeling, pouring, and grilling for everyone, but she doesn’t realize how wonderful it is to feel finally up to the task. She also doesn’t realize that I won’t be doing any of that. We’re having toast.

Photoshoppy Birthday card from little boys


A few people have asked if I’m going to stop writing now that it’s “all over.” Sure. Will somebody please let me know when it’s “all over?” Unfortunately (for me, and for those who find incessant blogging tiresome), this crap sorority demands lifetime membership. Heaven help you if you don’t like pink, or blabby, sweaty women with fake boobs. Even our quieter, more elegant members can still get dragged into the secret handshake: a hug from a bald stranger. Just last month, a “sister” stopped me at the florist. I was otherwise minding my own, hatted business when she sidled up to me and shared:

“I was diagnosed two years ago. Look at my hair! When I was bald, a woman came up to me and showed me her long hair two years after treatment. I wanted to do the same for you.”

Very quickly I went from sniffing peonies to sniffly gratitude. So as the patina of chemo remains on my visage, it’s not “over.” Unless I can stifle the need to reassure some future, hairless lady with my own chin-length proof of survival, it’s not “over.” And until some miraculous drug is invented that reduces breast cancer recurrence to zero, it’s not “over.” For the one-in-eight of us, it’s never “over.”

Truthfully, I’m a bit surprised that I still have so much to say. I’m all at once anxious, irritated, and grateful about all sorts of things that don’t include my still-too-short hair. In order to make sense of this post-treatment period, I read Hester Hill Schnipper’s “After Cancer” cover-to-cover and have been roosting in self-satisfied, snarky, you-just-don’t-get-it peace ever since. Beware Women Beyond Treatment. With our post-traumatic stress, and Joan-of-Arc hair, we’re a b*tchy bunch of tamoxifen-toting veterans who can find fault with almost anything you say (and nearly everything uttered by A-Ma). Yes I’m happy to have hair. No, I would never choose this haircut voluntarily. No, I’m not going to keep it gray (I’m 40, not 80), or THIS short. And no, I don’t care if alcohol/non-organic food/the microwave/white pasta/sugar/negative energy causes Cancer. I’m exempt. Just today I found a whole slew of blogging women who one, five, ten years after The Diagnosis are still writing travelogues about Life in Cancerland. And although right now I can relate to their frustrations and fears, I hope that a decade from now I’m less annoyed by people who don’t follow the fragile rules of etiquette in this godforsaken town.

But with my taxes-paid-up citizenship here in Pink Ribbonville, I feel qualified to share a few guidelines to prevent riling up the natives. Obviously, attempting to convince any woman without hair and breasts that “it’s over” doesn’t fly. And I’m not using “chemo-brain” as an excuse. I used to be smarter and more remember-y. Now I’m forgetful and distracted (and sad about it). Although exposure to life threatening illness has made me even less tolerant of pettiness, I’m not less willing to commiserate with you over the difficulty of finding a good plumber. Don’t spare me opportunities to be a friend (even if chemo brain will occasionally make me forget to return your call). And I want to hear any Cancer story that ends well. But maybe don’t compare me to your Auntie Mable who found her lump at age 75. Although it’s sucky bad luck for all of us, Auntie Mable got to live an extra 35 years without this hanging over her. I reserve the right to my own amount of incomparable unfairness.

All of this “is it over?” stuff recently bit me in the face like a Barry Family Dog (too soon?). April and her brood came over for our neighborhood’s Fourth of July fireworks. We let our kids run amok, stuffing themselves with all sorts of otherwise forbidden junk, while we accompanied our people watching with gossip and white wine. All of the sudden I spied Steve Tordone, arguably one of the cutest boys in high school, and someone I haven’t seen in 25 years. Wouldn’t it be fun to go say “hi?” April pushed pause on my friendly zeal, reminding me that any sort of catch up would probably necessitate an explanation for my half-inch of hair. Not that April thinks I don’t look fabulous (I do!), but because I actually, temporarily forgot about my life story, she wanted to make certain I really wanted, in that very moment, to share it. I didn’t. It was because I was having so much carefree, wigless fun that all thoughts of hairless survival had slipped my mind. I’m so glad I didn’t ignorantly walk into an unplanned re-hashing that couldn’t possibly have improved the evening for any of us. April, ever the well-prepared traveler and friend, already read all of the brochures for Cancerland, at times navigating it even better than someone who lives there year-round.

Although those of us in this alternate world of “survival” are forever changed, I don’t actually plan to blog about it for the next decade. And once I have a more reasonable amount of hair, I can go say hello any Steve Tordone in my path without conversation-stopping tales of woe. For me, this will be a bit of an “it’s over” moment for me—when strangers (or cute boys from high school) don’t wonder, and I don’t tell. In the meantime, I could take a cue from little Teddy, who wondered: “Why are you reading about breast cancer? You don’t have breast cancer anymore!”

Fourth of July

It was probably just an error of habit, a meaningless gaffe, when the CVS pharmacist asked, “How can I help you, sir?” But you won’t find me without my dangly floral earrings for the remainder of the summer. It’s just so wonderful to go out into the world without a matching hat, and I’ve grown so accustomed to it already, that until I get a double-take (or “sir”), I forget how shockingly modish I look. A lovely woman at the pool, ignorant of my life story, commended me for braving a little boy hairstyle. Bravery, indeed. Courage is my best accessory to a bathing suit and a half-inch of (colorless) hair.

This week is Birthday Week for Bernie and me. Because our 40th birthdays were last year, with their attendant big-time gifts, old friend reunions, (mammogram, biopsies, mastectomies, chemo), and whatnot, this year will be a bit more subdued. Here to celebrate our Yankee Doodle Bernie, A-Ma and A-Gong arrived at their typical late-night hour, toting the entire produce inventory from Flushing, NY and all of the chatty energy derived from six hours of green-tea infused travel. Hungry for dinner and news, I provided both as Bernie donned his professional pajamas and headed back into Boston for a patient with a small emergency. Awake at the wee hours with Asians rifling through my ‘fridge bursting with hairy fruits and bean curd… it’s like old times over here. But poor Bernie had to ring in the start of his 42nd year with a resident who probably hasn’t finished unpacking her UHaul, much less know where the operating room is located… or what to do there.

For anyone in the medical field, Independence Day is met with a bit of trepidation. Every Fourth, A-Ma recounts in startling detail her experience with this fateful holiday, as she delivered her first child into the hands of the most inexperienced staff of the year. An attending pediatrician borrowed Baby Bernie to demonstrate the proper examination of a newborn to green residents… without the permission of the new parents. A-Gong’s panicked, accented insistence that their child was missing from the nursery landed on unsympathetic ears, and they remember their scary search through the ward like it was yesterday. I cringe at the thought of their treatment in 1971 Texas, regardless of the holiday, and then because all ended well, kind of giggle at the idea of A-Ma in a backless gown screaming “Bernie!!!!” (r’s still a pronunciation challenge) through the halls of the hospital.

So you can imagine my horror at the news that Kensley (daughter of Zealot Sister) landed in the emergency room THIS of all mornings. Inexplicably, her dog repaid an indulgent belly rubbing session by biting her in the face. Sweet Kensley called me from her ER stretcher, stifling tears to ask me first of all things if I’m better. I assured her that I am, that stitches don’t hurt (but that lidocaine does), and that there will be an obscene amount of Aunt Britt-sponsored shopping after this ordeal. She will be fine, and remain my beautiful 11 year old niece, only now with a teeny, storied scar and her own tale of bravery in the hospital on the Fourth of July. Today my selfish prayers for faster hair growth to foil further gender misapprehensions are swapped for those that the resident on call knows what he’s doing. For unless it all goes swimmingly, there will be recrimination from both (Scary Aunt) Paige, as well as this Dude (Looks Like A Lady).

My adorable niece