Art and Life, Intertwined

Book Crossed Lovers, 1997

I have always measured my life in books in the same way we categorize events by the song we were listening to at the time.

1990 – Riding around Badger Lake on my dirtbike with Robin, my best friend, hanging off the back balancing a ghetto blaster, while my dog Midnight tore up the road behind us? It could only be John Cougar Mellencamp ringing out loud in that memory. And what was I reading at the time? Cynthia Voigt, Norma Klein, Stephen King, and as many weird and dark accounts of para-psychological misfits as I could get my hands on. I liked strange, oppressive, scary or sad things in my art. I still do.

The other day, Deanne, a friend and book club buddy, nominated me for a book challenge, which involves posting a picture of a book you love every day for seven days on facebook. What fun! I started scanning my bookshelves and digging through old boxes. I had dozens of books I wanted to share, but in the end I picked mostly recent loves and one old childhood favourite – The Secret Garden. I read it 18 times if I read it once.

As I dug about in my pile of books, I came across a forgotten pair.

Literary Criticism, 1996

This pair of books were purchased separately in early September, 1996 by myself and Asher. When we bought our books at the Acadia Bookstore we did not know one another. But this particular novel was one of many on the list for the Literary Criticism course that Asher and I were both enrolled in as a requirement for our English degrees.

We met on the first day of class. I was walking up Linden Street, carting a backpack full of groceries. He was jogging lightly down the street in boxer shorts and a t-shirt, on the way to the corner store to get a newspaper.

When I saw him I did a double take, and not just because he was running down the street in his underwear. He just had an aura. He was happy, he was comfortable. I just knew he was a good soul. Of course, as we neared one another, I was faced with the unnerving prospect of running into him head on. I felt very Meg Ryan as I swerved one way on the sidewalk. He, true to script, swerved the same way. Our eyes met, we giggled, and then we both swerved the other way. We stopped, laughing, and he hopped aside while performing a gallant sweep of his arm, indicating the direction I should take.

I went home and told my roommates about this interesting young man I had met on the sidewalk. I still remember them laughing as I told the story.

Two hours later, I walked into Literary Criticism. Guess who walked in behind me? We looked at each other and grinned and both said, “You’re the girl/guy I ran into on the sidewalk earlier!” He sat next to me and the rest, as they say, is history.

But back to the pair of books. We were assigned certain books to critique and given approximate dates to be prepared to present on. We never quite knew when our professor would call on us. It was a very serious seminar class and there were so many smart people there. They were always ready to present. Asher and I, getting to know one another, were not so interested in the class. We were probably really annoying to the other students. And, as the term went on, we got a little lazy. Or, at least, Asher did.

I will never forget the day Asher was called on to critique Loitering with Intent by Muriel Sparks. He ambled up to the podium and held up the book. “Flirting with Intent,” he said, “was a very interesting read.”

I felt my face grow bright red as his freudian slip registered with the rest of the class and a few people tried to suppress giggles. Asher, either not noticing or caring, continued to rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10. I felt myself slipping lower in my seat. But, Asher, always cool and calm and unconcerned with impressing others, continued by soliciting the class as to their opinions of the book. He ran a nice little discussion, thanked everyone and returned to his seat. “Well,” he whispered to me as our professor glowered at him over his glasses. “I think that went pretty well.”

He never did read the book first nor last. I did read it, and I honestly remember nothing about it. Yet, when I came across this pair of books, unenjoyed and uncelebrated yet kept for many years, the sight of them brought me right back to that fateful class. Asher and I sat there that year, getting to know one another, and we had no idea what was ahead of us.

Asher cooked fajitas and played Buddy Holly on the guitar on our first date. I wanted to impress him so I called my friend, Jude, and said, “what do I pick up to go with Fajitas?” to which she replied, “Corona, of course!” Oh, she was so much more worldly than I was! I could always, can still always, count on Jude.

We are 18 years into our marriage now. We have been busy. At one point, in the span of five years, we had three babies, moved three times, changed jobs four times, and completed two masters degrees. We have also spent a lot of time building traditions, some of them as simple as our morning coffee and chat. We spend time with our kids and our friends and families. We work hard, but we have fun together.

We never thought we would be dealing with a cancer diagnosis this early on in our lives. But, as hard as this must be for him, Asher doesn’t step back any more than he stepped back from that long ago book critique. He just does what he has to do. He doesn’t agonize over things, or wonder, “why.” That carefree, boxer-wearing, newspaper reading, comfortable-in-his-own-skin guy, he just takes life as it comes.

Dad practices piano everyday, and sometimes I like to relax and listen.

I was telling Asher over our coffee this morning that I am starting to feel this difficult time peeling away from me like the skin of an onion. The first, toughest layer is shedding off. I will get there.

But I will be looking back on this time and remembering my dad playing piano to me while I lay on his couch hooked up to my chemo pump while my mom makes me tea. I will remember how Dad and Mom and I shared books together, and these books will go in my collection and I hope I will run my hands over them in 20 or 30 years and think of this.

Minimalists would like me to toss these books, but I never will. I will never toss any of my books. I am doomed to forever carry these books around and someday, hopefully a long time in the future, my loved ones will be forced to sift through them and get rid of them, or decide what to keep. They will not know the stories of all of my books, any more than I know all of the thoughts and memories etched in their hearts, but they will know some.

Like any work of art, each book tells more than one story – there is the story the author laboured over, and the story of the life of the reader.

Why do writers write? Why do writers share their innermost thoughts, their perspectives, their observations? Even a work of fiction reveals so much about the way the author sees the world, or moves in the world.

Why do I share things in a blog? I have asked myself this question many times, and I’m sure people wonder why I put this out there. But, for some reason, I am compelled to. Mostly it is because I hear from others who have experienced similar things or who simply enjoy reading it. This connection feels so right. It is humbling and empowering at the same time.

When you write for an audience, you share ideas and experiences. You start a dialogue. You leave something outside of yourself in the world and you hope it will resonate with just one other person. Your onion skin sheds off, and you become lighter. Awareness can be raised, and changes can come about.

Deanne, the same friend who nominated me for the book challenge, gave me a book about writing through trauma just before my surgery. It was a catalyst for me. It was one of the many perfect gifts I have received lately, not the least of which is your time, dear reader.

I want to thank you. Your time is precious, and I am so glad you lingered here with me and my ramblings for a little while.

Powerports, Chemo and Bambi, Oh My!

One of these things is not like the other… Asher had a good chuckle when he discovered this visual reminder of my “chemo brain.”

I spent most of last week wobbly and confused. For some reason I generally refused to give in to my fatigue and nausea and just lie down. Mom always said I was too nosy for my own good and, as usual, she’s right.

Motherhood makes it hard to let go. When you have three kids and a husband all doing different things at different times and the phone is ringing, well, what do you do? Even though your family has told you to go relax, you get up and answer the phone, and trundle into the kitchen to wash some dishes, and wander around vacantly with half an armload of laundry, and eventually find yourself at the grocery store quietly retching because you looked at the bloody ground beef. While there, you try not to touch anyone or anything because you have almost ZERO immunity and have been warned that a single infection will land you in the hospital. This is also why all of a sudden you practically bathe in hand sanitizer, a chemical soup you haughtily bypassed up until very recently in favour of natural soap.

Yes, you green-cleaned your home for years, but now? You are at the grocery store and bleach and lestoil are the first items on your list.

There is a lot to get used to when you start chemo.

There was a trip to Corner Brook for the insertion of a power port. Asher joking that powerport sounds like a tiny speedboat. We were both thinking about our carefree rides on the lake last summer. We didn’t say it. A stop at the gas station by the Springdale exit, the bathroom break, the wisps of fear clouding my vision, a weak smile for the attendant. Sitting in the parking lot of the hospital. Asher on a work call. Me, breathing deep.

The powerport is a portacath – a device implanted in the chest which allows the nurses to access a central line. They can then give chemo without burning up and collapsing the other veins in the body.

I knew I would be awake for the procedure. I wanted to be asleep.

Three burning needles in the chest. Insert the port, access the vena cava with a little tube, suture everything closed. Through it, I spoke with the nurses and doctor about healthcare, their jobs, my job, the experiences of cancer patients, the meaning of life. Their kindness like a blanket as my arms shook. The need to be social overcoming the mushrooming desire to yell “stop.”

We went out for lunch after. On the way into the restaurant I fell up the stairs and startled a workman. He ran over, looking concerned. “It’s ok,” I chirped, “I just had a procedure. See?” Childishly proud of my bandages, I stroked them like a new pet.

Asher whisked me into the restaurant, where I made a concerted effort to be more dignified.

Mom and I enjoy a glass of wine on her deck. Note those lovely bandages 🙂

Then, two days later, my first chemo day. My chest was sore from the port insertion. Early morning blood tests, examination by a doctor, lots of prep to do. The cancer center was peaceful and welcoming. The doctor and nurses were friendly and helpful. My mom was with me.

I should’ve sailed through it… but when the chemo drugs were hooked up to my port I panicked. All of the bags of drugs were marked with “hazard” warnings. The nurses handling the bags were clothed in protective garb. I was certain my throat was closing over – that I was having a huge allergic reaction to this poison.

The nurses flew into action and got my breathing under control. Mom smoothed my forehead. I was amazed how calm people could be when I was so obviously on the verge of dying.

A few minutes later I was happily colouring a Bambi picture, Mom and I laughing as she fanned herself dramatically, imitating me in freak-out mode. My friend Krista was texting, telling me to listen to Bobcaygeon.

Crisis averted.

So, I’m in the second week of my first cycle of chemo now, and I’m still learning. I have 12 rounds to complete, which should take 6 months if all goes well. I’m not knowledgeable enough yet to give tips or advice to anyone else about to embark on this experience. I’m keeping track of everything in my journal so that later on I may be able to do so.

I’ve been thinking about responsibility, and trying to be mindful about how I navigate this challenge. Every now and then I find myself sitting on the edge of the tub thinking, “How did this happen?” and the truth is, I’ll never know. No one knows.

But this problem is mine to manage, for better or for worse.

Bambi learned that tragedy was as much a part of his forest world as joy and beauty. We all must learn and grow and grieve and rejoice within the confines of the imperfect nature of our lives. The hardest trials make us the strongest. I keep my Bambi picture on my writing desk now as a reminder of that.

Whether I asked for it, whether I want it or not – for the next six months, chemo is my teacher.

I call it “Bambi, an Interesting Swarm of Grasshoppers, and the Great Prince of the Forest.”

Old Man Cancer, My Ass!!

Look how young my brother and I look! I had no idea I had cancer.

Each year at our local high school the grade-twelve boys and girls are taken in separate groups into the library by the school nurse so that they can learn the steps for completing self-examinations of the breasts or testicles.

Teaching people screening tools such as these that they can use at home has surely saved hundreds of lives.

There has also been a campaign here in Newfoundland and Labrador in recent years encouraging women to get pap smears. I’ve seen the posters all around town and they have certainly reminded me to head to my doctor for my pap test.

But I’ve never seen a poster listing the symptoms of bowel or colorectal cancer. And I’ve never heard anyone say, “Check your poo.”

I think people assume, as I did, that colorectal cancer is an affliction that affects older people, most of whom are male. And we assume that, since screening is in place (usually encouraged in people over 50) the problem is more or less looked after.

But, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada for men and the third leading cause for women. It is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada. Colorectal Cancer Canada notes that colorectal cancer and rectal cancer are on the rise in young people:
“By 2030, colorectal cancer incidence rates will be up 90% in people between ages 20 and 34, and 28% for people between ages 35 and 49.”
https://www.colorectalcancercanada.com/more-young-adults-getting-dying-from-colon-cancer/

The FIT test has been rolled out in Newfoundland and Labrador and this has encouraged increased participation in the colon cancer screening program. According to
Dr. Jehan Siddiqui, clinical chief of the cancer care program, this will “translate into better outcomes for our patients as screening will result in earlier diagnosis and, therefore, more effective treatment of colorectal cancer.”
https://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/new-report-sheds-light-on-newfoundland-and-labradors-cancer-statistics-280694/

I would encourage anyone, regardless of age, to complete a screening if you feel that something isn’t right, or if you have a family history.

I wish I had been educated about the symptoms of colorectal or bowel cancer, or that I had realized that my lifelong bowel issues were a risk factor. I may have been more vigilant and asked for screening earlier. I may have seen my doctor last spring when I started having mild symptoms instead of waiting until after Christmas when they were more advanced. I had no idea that I could be harbouring cancer, and I did not know what to look for.

If you notice blood or mucus in your stool, a feeling of pressure or a feeling of not completely emptying your bowel after a bathroom visit, changes in bowel habits or a change in the size of the stool that lasts more than a couple of days, have pain or cramps in the abdomen, feel tired or lethargic, or lose your appetite / lose weight, you need to see your doctor. Do not be afraid to ask for a rectal exam and a colonoscopy. This is what saved my life, and I am fortunate that my doctor examined me when I went to her office.

So, remember, check your poo! It’s not sexy but it might save your life 😉