Like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain.
Like a storm in the desert, like a sleepy blue ocean,
You fill up my senses. Come fill me again.
Come, let me love you. Let me give my life to you.
Let me drown in your laughter, let me die in your arms.
Let me lay down beside you, let me always be with you.
Come, let me love you. Come love me again.
–“Annie’s Song,” by John Denver
Steve and I celebrated 0ur first wedding anniversary this past Monday. We returned for a day to the site of our honeymoon, Grove Park Inn in Asheville, where we danced again to our “first dance” song from the wedding, John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” The song still captures our love for the beautiful world around us, and our love for one other.
This year has held incredible joys, as well as some challenges we didn’t anticipate. But we’re still holding fast, dancing and laughing together. I am so grateful to have found this love, to have this wonderful man and partner beside me.
Friends and readers, I hope you will consider visiting and following my new blog, Still Life, With Cancer. Because even (especially) after a cancer diagnosis, life—with all its joys, challenges, beauty and absurdities—still goes on.
We’re still newlyweds, and he still loves me. Love wins. ♥
Like so many newlywed brides (and husbands, too), I got married, and then I gained weight. “Happy fat,” I’ve often heard those extra pounds called. I prefer “change chub.” Not because I’m not happy; I am! But I think the weight gain is less a result of the sudden onset of matrimonial bliss than it is the multitude of changes in daily routines that come with combining two adults’ lives: new foods and meal times, different sleep and waking routines, shifts in exercise habits.
Whatever the cause, I gained somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds those first 8 months of marriage. Not enough to qualify as “obese,” maybe not even “heavy,” but I’ve disliked feeling stiff and sedentary, not like myself, certainly not like the self that a few years ago was working out and running 5Ks.
I’m embarrassed to admit to being even more bothered by the appearance of my expanding silhouette in the mirror and the fact my clothes don’t fit right. I got so self-conscious about my newly rounded belly, which pudged out no matter how much I sucked it in, I was almost relieved when a day with friends at the lake was cancelled. Maybe I’ll have time to get back in shape before I go public in a bathing suit! I thought. I signed up for yoga and a running program and hit the Y a few times, my motivation definitely less health, more vanity. With a beach trip fast approaching, I began to worry over other perceived faults, like my winter white legs: all the better to show off the emerging spider veins, my dear. I contemplated scheduling a spray tan and went online to buy a couple new tankini tops to disguise my belly roll.
Then, a few weeks before our scheduled vacation, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was a surprise; perhaps such things always are. I went in for an annual mammogram and was given a clean bill of health. I returned ten days later to have a couple fluid-filled cysts drained—routine for me, as I’ve had benign cysts since my thirties. Whenever they grow large enough to be annoying or painful, I have them aspirated. The doctor used, per usual, the ultrasound to locate the cysts. As he rolled the wand over my left breast, I noticed something odd on the monitor. There was a dark mass, but it was missing a key characteristic of the manifold cysts I’d seen on the screen over the years.
“That doesn’t have the defined outline that a cyst usually does,” I said.
The doctor kept rolling the wand back and forth, back and forth. “No, that doesn’t look like a cyst,” he said quietly. “I think we’re going to need to turn this into a biopsy.”
I would say the timing, as a newlywed, is awful, but when would it ever be good?
The cancer is treatable, survivable, thank god, though it’s going to be a long haul and an intense trip: 8 treatments over 16 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by surgery, then radiation.
Suddenly, it seemed pretty silly to worry over white legs and blue veins, or a few extra inches on my belly and hips.
My body is about to undergo a radical transformation. Chemotherapy will bring fatigue, and I will lose my hair. I may lose or gain weight, depending on how I respond to treatment. Surgery is a given, most likely a full mastectomy of one breast, possibly both. Mastectomy most always takes the nipple, and though reconstruction is a marvel these days, there will be scars. I have two small new ones already, from the biopsy and the port. And if my new breast or breasts are rebuilt from my own tissue, as my surgeon has recommended, harvesting it from my belly or back will make additional scars. (But, hey, maybe that “happy fat” will be useful!) Chemo can have permanent side effects as well, including early onset menopause. Pudgy belly and jiggly thighs notwithstanding, my current body may well be the closest it ever will be again to fitting the stringent beauty standards of smooth lines and seamless symmetry we too often impose on women.
As I pulled my slenderizing tankini top out of its package, I thought: WTF with these oppressive standards? Why have I—quite literally—bought into them?
A few extra fat cells, a few scars: they aren’t a threat to anything but vanity, a challenge to the ridiculously narrow and damaging ideas about beauty and the female body that women have had pounded into us for so many years. I would gladly accept living the rest of my life with a dimpled booty if I could trade it for my health, trade those fat cells for the cancerous ones growing in my breast that threaten my well-being, my very life.
But since I can’t do that, here’s what I’m going to do.
I am going to wear a bikini with pride. Now, and whenever I feel like it in the future.
I’m going to walk on the beach and search for shells. I’m going to go stand-up paddle-boarding. I’m going to read. Watch the sunrise. Hold my husband’s hand.
I’m going to embrace my body. It is strong, and it is vulnerable. It is normal, and it is exceptional. I will need to adapt, to gentle my body, in the coming months, because what my body, what every body, can do changes, contracts and expands over time. But whatever it can do is what matters. What it can think. What it can feel. It won’t always (ever?) be easy, practicing acceptance. But I am going to celebrate my body, for whatever it allows me to see or hear or feel or experience.
This is the only body I’ve got, and frankly, it’s on loan. Every body is. So right now, while I can, I’m going to watch the pelicans soar and dive. I’m going to frolic in the waves. I’m going to laugh as often as I can and cry when I need to. I’m going to fight, and I’m going to lean on my family and friends.
I’m a lucky woman: My body can still love. It can still know joy. It can delight, despair, heal. It, I, can still chase dreams.
It’s still life, just, for now, with cancer. And I will live it one glorious, difficult, deliberate day at a time.
In the coming weeks I will be debuting a new blog that is currently under construction: Still Life, With Cancer. Once it’s up and running, I will link it back to FsFTB. I may still post occasionally in this space, but I hope you’ll join me on the new site to follow my story there. Until then, thank you and be well.
I’ve been a fan of the show Madam Secretary from the first episode, so when the second season debuted this year, I brought new hubby Steve into the fold. Quickly hooked, he suggested we go back and watch the first season on Netflix. When we finished it and went trolling for something else to watch, we landed on Scandal. Steve was a little less intrigued than I, but we decided to try a couple of episodes before deciding whether to continue.
Soon, I couldn’t stop.
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope
Scandal, like Madam Secretary, is a drama set in and around the White House. In Madam Secretary we follow Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni), former CIA agent turned secretary of state, as she navigates foreign affairs and her family life. In Scandal, the main character is Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Pope is a professional “fixer” who left a position at the White House to put some distance between herself and the President, with whom she began a tumultuous affair during his election campaign. She opens Olivia Pope and Associates, a private consulting firm that specializes in helping high-level clients navigate and mitigate potential scandals. Spoiler alert: she’s a little less than successful at leaving her love affair with the President behind.
Scandal’s take on government is, I hope, pure fantasy, because if it represents what truly goes on behind closed doors in Washington, it’s not a pretty picture. Most of the characters are schemers and rogues: corrupt, manipulative, even murderous. Sex, torture, and intrigue abound. Yet despite (because of?) their flaws, the characters are complex and compelling, and every episode ends with a cliffhanger of one kind or other. It’s addictive storytelling. Still, everyone is so dirty, so seamy, so wretched. I feel guilty watching, like I need a shower afterwards, and not because of the steamy sex scenes.
In fact, the show’s portrayal of romance is one of the things that bothers me most. It gets love completely wrong.
Fitz and Olivia
I know: it’s television, not reality. But a lot of people’s ideas about love are influenced and shaped by media interpretations. All indications are we’re supposed to empathize with Olivia, the series’ protagonist, but it’s hard to when an otherwise intelligent and compassionate female character throws herself under the bus for “love” repeatedly. President Fitz is controlling and emotionally manipulative. More than once Olivia tells him no, she’s done, good-bye; he refuses to respect her wishes and let her go. That’s not swoon-worthy—it’s stalking. When the President directs his agents to bring Olivia to him, she berates him for treating her like a possession, but makes out with him under a tree before the scene is over. Romanticizing a no-means-yes scenario? Disturbing and dangerous. It’s hard to stomach that this is “true love”—what the show wants us to believe Olivia and the President share—composed as it is of frequent arguments, insistent and usually rough sex (often in public or risky places), lots of agonizing, and fretful tears.
Maybe the show’s creators are counting on us to understand that Olivia gets it wrong, to recognize that her skewed sense of love is, in fact, a fatal flaw. We live in a world that gets moony over the machinations on The Bachelor, though, so I’m guessing the average viewer isn’t that discerning.
I almost threw in the towel in season two, when former suitor Edison returns to Olivia’s life. Spoiler alert: Edison is a genuinely good guy, kind and caring. He knows and brings Olivia’s favorite take out, shows up when she’s in crisis, communicates clearly and honestly. When he proposes, she accepts, then (surprise) agonizes, and finally declares she can’t marry him after all. Why? She doesn’t want the simple, supportive love he has to offer. He tries to tell her that love isn’t supposed to hurt, but she insists she wants—and I quote— “painful, difficult, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary love.”
I wanted to scream.
♥ ♥ ♥
Back in April, on a chilly Saturday morning, two students at the college where I teach got married in a simple backyard ceremony. The bride went barefoot and wore a simple lace dress. Her one-year old daughter walked with down the aisle with her, as the groom smiled and waited, nervously pushing up his glasses. I trembled for them; so young, so many changes and choices ahead.
But I was reassured by their vows, in which they eschewed the idea of soulmates, the concept that another person would complete them or make them whole. “I come to you as a whole person,” the bride declared. They vowed to challenge each other to be and to become their best selves, to support one another as each sought to do so.
That, my friends, shows a much better understanding of true love than a feverish sex scene in a closet. That is a love more Edison than Fitz, a love with the potential to be genuinely life-changing and extraordinary. And that is a love I can root for.
If only the Olivias of the world could be as smart with their hearts.
Today my wonderful parents celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Fifty years together! Choosing your partner again, every day, choosing love through all the highs and lows life brings, requires a level of commitment, patience, and understanding that seems rare these days.
In honor of their anniversary, I’m re-posting some advice they offered on marriage this time last year, when Steve and I were getting ready to take the plunge. Enjoy, and Happy 50th Anniversary, Mom and Dad!
My parents Garry and Margaret met around 50 years ago when my dad was teaching high school in Texas and my mom was a flight attendant for Continental Airlines based in Dallas. In their early twenties when they married, they moved to Georgia within a few years so my father could teach and pursue a graduate degree. My mom worked hard at caring for my older brother and me at home and later returned to school to become a teacher herself.
Now both retired and enjoying grand-parenthood, their church, and the arts of quilting (mom) and beekeeping (dad), they just celebrated their 49th anniversary. I asked them what their secret was to keeping it together. My dad deferred to my mom (hmm…), who, with his input, shared the following remarks and insights. -FsFTB
As spring blooms all around, I’m reminded how quickly, and surprisingly, things change. Two years ago in May, Steve and I got engaged on a moonlit walk on Virginia Beach. One year ago in May, we had meet-and-greet party on a houseboat with long-time Georgia friends, followed a few weeks later by a beautiful backyard bridal shower with local girlfriends—all as we were madly planning and packing for the big move. This May, we’re celebrating one son’s (I now have sons?!) college graduation, I’m teaching the intensive nature writing course I deferred from last year’s über-busy spring, and Steve is winding up his last semester of teaching ever, as he prepares to begin a new job with a forestry research organization.
And yes, we’re still unpacking the house. The more things change, the more some remain the same….
So here’s to spring and the start of a new wedding season, the blossoming of love and mountain laurel. May we all find the generosity in our hearts to embrace change, the kindness to become catalysts for good.