“Shatter”

July 8, 2013
Prompt: 15 min “Shatter”

Shatter
Shatter. Shatter the glass ceiling, we women were offered, encouraged to do when we were mere girls living in a man’s world. The 1960’s, ’70’s, a time when, every now and then, a brave soul would rise up to shatter the glass ceiling previously owned, dominated by men, our patriarchal society. We watched the first female astronaut, CEO, swimmer crossing some large body of water.
Ginny interviewing Geraldo Rivera 1977
Blacks, now called African-Americans, knew about shattering glass ceilings, too. We punched those white male dominated worlds together. Raised to fight for civil rights, to support the underdog, my mama identified glass ceilings, pointed out inequality, applauded the shattering. The shattering. Not with violence, glass shards flying everywhere. No, with firmness, sticking to your guns in the face of resistance, obeying the laws, but standing up to the systems she deemed unfair.

Little Rock Central High

Little Rock Central High


I thought I might be one to shatter some ceilings. Little Rock Central High honors poising me to shoot out into the world with gusto, a degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill preparing me for greatness. But I became a stay-at-home mom with two little girls to raise. Determined to stretch beyond the confines of homemaking, this undervalued, traditional role, I started my own PR and marketing consulting business on the side, working nights and weekends so I wouldn’t shirk my maternal duties. Superwoman, I became, my People Pleasing tendencies pushing, pushing, pushing me to do more, be more, give more.

Shatter. And then my world shattered. Slammed me down into the bed, the deep, dark cavern of ill-health I never expected, didn’t see coming, thought I was immune to, actually never even considered.

Now, twenty-three years later, my immune system weakened and so much of my life spent in medical appointments, not shattering any big, bad glass ceilings, my perspective changed, I can only strive to shatter what I perceive as small victories — performing normal daily chores with both shame and a sense of accomplishment: the dishwasher unloaded, the bills paid, the bank statement off by the same amount as last month and the month before, dare I add back in the $537 the bank says I have that my checkbook disagrees with? Combing back through the statements, the checkbook is just too much, just too much. It’ll be all right. I don’t think the world will shatter if I don’t find my error.

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“Older”

Prompt: 40 minutes: “Older”
June 17, 2013

Older

Older is a loaded word, a plant growing out of its pot, roots bound together in a clump of experience seeking desperately fresh soil, nutrients, water — that life-giving, liquid oxygen.

Older is not for sissies. No, it takes a bit of bravery, or at least the show of “a stiff upper lip” as my dad would say. “Everything’s super,” he says, when I know he must have aches and pains, feelings of grief and loss somewhere down inside that aging body, now a size small.

Older is watching your parents age, Dad shrinking, Mom getting shorter, rounder. Older is watching myself get rounder, wrinklier, heavier, more tired, less patient inside but more patient in front of youth.

Mom and me at Holden Beach 2011

Mom and me at Holden Beach 2011

Older is the home around me — walls needing paint touch-ups, cobwebs stretching from chair legs to corners, not having moved for months, years.

Older is the dog lying contentedly beside me, an occasional sigh sounding full of resignation perhaps. Or maybe it is just sheer acceptance.

Acceptance. That’s what older requires. Acceptance — of life, people, days gone by, limitations. Really? Or am I just too sleepy this morning to be more upbeat? Maybe older is needing more leisure time to wake up, or maybe it’s having so much leisure time that I don’t “wake up” until the day is well on its way.photo-22

Older is sighing when I don’t feel like making the effort to open my eyes, get out of bed, put the pen down, and go on with my day.

Older is knowing you have surgery in less than four days to remove cancer from your body. Older is looking around the house at the accumulation of a lifetime and just not knowing where to begin to sort it all out. I don’t want those I’ll leave behind to have to do it, yet I’m not ready to burn it, shred it, dispose of it just yet — I might live many more years and wish I could find those notes I took when I was in my 30’s, trying to sort through life. I might want to get inside that young woman’s mind again sometime. Words can take me there.

For now, I think I’ll just close my eyes and rest a bit.

Breast Surgery, Ducks and Pillows

Breast Surgery, Ducks and Pillows

Her warm dark eyes smiled at me through the wispy remains of the anesthesia.

“Hi. My name is Sandy and this pillow was made by some volunteers here for you to take home with you to help with the pain during your recovery.”

pillow from Duke RaleighSandy handed me a black pillow with bright colorful figures on it, about eight by twelve inches and rather light and thin, not stuffed too full.
“You can hold it under your arm, kind of supporting your breast and it should help with the pain,” she explained.

A friend had reminded me of the pillow trick the day before, but I hadn’t looked for the little one I’d used five years ago after my first breast cancer surgery. I tend to block out the negative and only remember the positive. I hadn’t wanted to give thought to how miserable I might be post op, so I hadn’t read up or prepared much this time. Instead, I’d paid bills, wrapped and delivered birthday and graduation gifts and cards, stocked the panty, the refrigerator, the freezer. I’d returned clothing items I’d had sitting around for a while, made phone calls and scheduled appointments, stitched up holes in Roosevelt’s Mr. Bear and Squeeky Chick, and bought fabric for window treatments I had put off for years, keeping busy until the day of the surgery.

“Thanks,” I replied with heartfelt appreciation, looking intentionally into Sandy’s liquid chocolate eyes.

All morning I’d noticed the kindness of the staff at the hospital as they dealt with a gurney that was hard to keep going in a straight line through the corridors, a temperamental mammogram machine, my questioning the wording on the consent form before I signed, wanting to make sure “partial mastectomy” was the same thing as “lumpectomy.” Who knew what was going on in each of their own personal lives? But here they were at work, me just another patient in a string for the day, the week, their career, and they were offering me such individual compassion and attention. How refreshing and reassuring to experience great care despite the fallout of Obamacare swirling all around.

The most difficult hour that day was spent with Dianne and Jennifer in radiology. They ended up taking another ten mammogram images (I’d had 25 the previous week). Because my tumor was vey small and located so close to the chest wall, it was difficult to image.

“Ok, let’s try this,” Jennifer decided. “Stick your butt out like a duck and lean into the machine. I’ll just reposition your breast … I’m really sorry I’ve got to pull on it so, but I’ve got to get as much of your body into the machine as I can.”

At one point the machine malfunctioned, while I was uncomfortably pressed into it.

“What can I do?” Jennifer asked Dianne. “Sometimes if we stop and start over and spin the arm all the way around, it will start working again. Why don’t we try that?”

“Because I don’t want her to have to keep doing this any longer than necessary,” Dianne said as she began turning the tight knob by hand with her own brute force. She made a joke about getting her workout for the day, but kept a smile on her face. “I’m sorry this is so uncomfortable, but we’ve got to get a good image. You’re going to be bruised and sore tomorrow. I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay, you’re just doing your job. I’ll have to tell you my duck joke later,” I said good-naturedly. “It’s actually a joke my grandmother used to tell.”

“Okay! We like a good joke, but we need you to be still while we try to get these images. I wish we could give you something to take the edge off, but we need you standing and able to follow directions. As soon as we’re done here, you’ll be getting some sedation.”

The two ladies retreated behind the safety screen and snapped another x-ray.

“Yes! We’ve got it!” Ok, don’t move a muscle! Just keep leaning in with all your weight and keep sticking your butt out like a duck. I’ll go get Dr. Campbell.”

Dr. Campbell, a male, came in and introduced himself and described what he would be doing. I would need to stay standing in the awkward position without moving while he injected lidocaine into my breast, then inserted a guide wire, marking the area to be surgically removed. I would need to stay in that position until more mammogram images confirmed the wire was in the right place.

He got down on the floor, literally squatting or lying (I couldn’t tell which from my vantage point), reaching up through the opening in the panel of the machine and started the stinging injections of lidocaine. When my breast was numb, he began inserting the guide wire into my abused left breast.

They lightened the tone for me and for one another, peppering the stale, dark room with casual, upbeat comments. When the doc was finished, they took one last image.

“Perfect!” he pronounced. “That is perfect!”

Dianne and Jennifer came back over to me and released the compression, but kept me still while they covered the wire in gauze and bandaged it to my skin for the surgery. I was glad I wasn’t able to see the wire sticking out of my body.

Before they escorted me back onto the gurney, I told them about the mama and papa ducks and the little baby duck getting lost and how they tried to find their way back home. “So, the father duck stuck his beak under his wing, ruffled around in his feathers, popped his head up and said, ‘My instincts say go north.’ I imitated the duck movements with my own nose bending down near my right armpit, then popping up to deliver the next line of the joke. “The mother duck stuck her beak under her wing, popped her head up, and said, “My instincts say go south.” So the baby duck stuck his head under his wing, then popped his little head up and squeaked, “My end stinks too, but it doesn’t tell me which way to go!”

They laughed as they got me back onto the gurney and began maneuvering me through the doorway. I hoped maybe they would remember it to tell the joke to other ladies poised so uncomfortably in the restricted position — maybe take the edge off another woman’s nervousness in the future.

After my surgery, back in Bed #5, Lois, the tall nurse dressed in dark blue, explained my post op instructions. It was hard to take it all in — the bright lights, tight quarters, people in and out, voices beyond the curtain, still groggy. Lois explained that I couldn’t shower until the next day, needed to wear a bra like the surgical one I found myself in upon coming out of anesthesia, and that Dr. Tolnitch would call with the path report and to set up my follow up appointment in a few days. I had no memory of anyone putting a bra on me (“free” surgical bra, woo hoo! Or maybe it will be an outrageously expensive line item on my hospital bill!). I wondered how in the world someone had managed to accomplish that if I was a limp dishrag. Or maybe I wasn’t. I was glad I couldn’t remember. I’m all for good anesthesia.

I vaguely remembered the large male anesthetist giving me multiple shots in the upper chest on my left side to complete the nerve block. I recalled some nice nurses before that — maybe Sandy, too? — stooping down in front of me as I sat on the side of the gurney, the large man behind me injecting stuff in my upper spine and shoulder area. Later, Michael said they had had some difficulty getting me numb. Thankfully I can’t remember this very clearly. Let’s hear it for sedation!

Back at home, days later, I still cradle the black pillow with its bold cactus, animal, Southwestern hunting motif, positioning the cold gel pack wrapped in a pillowcase between it and myself. I lie back and close my eyes. I see Sandy’s lovely deep brown eyes looking kindly into mine. I’m glad it is done.

This Time

June 10, 2013
Prompt: 10 minutes: “this time”

This Time
This time I am braver. I haven’t even sent out an email yet, put it on Facebook, keeping the cancer private, more or less, for the past week. This time it feels so much more manageable — almost routine. I mean I know it’s surgery and I don’t like pain or recovery exercises, but this time I don’t have a fear of death — I truly believe it’s just a little left over from five years ago, a remnant. But we’re going to get it good this time, and hopefully I won’t have to deal with this again for a long time, if ever.

This time I’m taking it in stride. Getting my ducks in a row, practically speaking, but the emotional component either hasn’t hit me yet, or it’s really just not a big deal the second time around. I guess if the docs were more worried, maybe I would be, but …

Eight Weeks

Prompt Writing: 15 minutes: “Eight Weeks”

Eight Weeks

In eight weeks, I will have breast surgery behind me. For good. I hope. Know, I believe. (Ha – I meant “No, I believe,” but how much better is “Know, I believe!”) For GOOD, I tell you! Knock cancer cells on their butt! Excise them out and banish them from my life forever.

In eight weeks I will be packing for my dream trip — a writing workshop with Elizabeth Berg in Chicago! She is my all time favorite author and I devour her books as soon as they are published. She writes so cleanly, simply, yet touches my heart, my soul, my mind — silky strips of pastel fabrics flowing over my body, feeling so poignant, so delicious I want to savor every word, reread every paragraph, every book. And I get to meet her! In person! In a smallish group of women writers! It’s only money (and you can’t take that with you!).

Berg Books

My awesome husband agreed the moment I asked him about spending such a large sum on myself, taking off and leaving him with Roosevelt, who whines whenever I’m away. He knows how much I love Elizabeth Berg. From the first book of hers I read, tears leaking from my eyes as I tried to explain to him why Pull of the Moon grabbed me so, poolside where he was attending a dental conference — us not married yet and in that getting-to-know-each other phase, me still grieving the loss of my first marriage. Not yet 50, but well into identification with Nan’s feelings of confusion, needing solitude and adventure all at once. Yes. In eight weeks I will have just that.

Perspective

How bizarre it is to know there are malignant cancer cells inside of you, just waiting, waiting, waiting for an MRI to provide more information so you can decide how to proceed. “Simple” lumpectomy, again, no nodes this time? That would be awesome!

Awesome. Really? isn’t awesome a relative term now! I guess most of life IS relative, dependent on your experiences in the past, your hopes for the future, your interpretation of the present.

Interpretation. A choice as to how to view your life. Perspective.

Bring on the day.

“This book”

Prompt: 25 minutes: “this book”

This Book

This book I’ve tried to finish, publish, get out there for so very long, still sits on my cluttered desk, pulled, wrinkled, from the bag I took with me to the fall writer’s conference this past weekend with high hopes of making headway in a seemingly never-ending process, like this sentence that can’t seem to find its ending. Period. Not. There’s more. There’s always more to edit, reword, rewrite, rethink. “Is it good enough yet?”

Ahh.. the real question: “Am I good enough yet?”

There’s the pit of the peach, the core of the apple, the stabbing, tingly feeling in my heart when I dare to release this baby into the world for other eyes to see. Will they like it? Will I be embarrassed or proud as I timidly show it to my writer friends to evaluate, judge, critique?

It’s dangerous business, this putting yourself out there on the page, like lying naked on the doctor’s cold examining table, paper crinkling under you, vulnerable, chilled, a bit anxious now that you’re here. New thoughts surface, concerns begin to pop around in your head like microwave popcorn during its last 30 seconds: wondering deep down that maybe they’ll find something you never knew to think about – some strange new diagnosis with a complicated name you’ll have to learn how to pronounce, and spell, to Google it. You arrived for this routine follow-up, not thinking to fear, but now suddenly it occurs to you they might find another suspicious lump or bump or something that needs an MRI, an ultrasound, a biopsy, hopefully just minor editing and not a complete rewrite.

This book I’ve been trying to birth is a pretty book. A coffee table, a gift book. A hopeful book. A book to inspire and uplift. The need to get back to writing it, honing it, word by word, has kept me fighting these last five years. I want to see it published before I die (which could be a very long time, mind you), and so I persevere. In between doctor’s visits, the time-consuming devotion to alternative avenues of healing mixed with traditional allopathic, insurance-covered appointments, tests, labs, imaging, I occasionally pull out The Joy of Shelling and reread, edit a little, research to fill in gaps, imagine it in print.

This book reflects the world I wish I could live in all the time – the pensive, calm, centered, connected place I think we all hunger for, though we often cannot name that restless feeling, that inability to focus, to stop flitting from this to that. A world in which we can just be! For heaven’s sake, the incessant need to do this and that can drive you crazy, really. Take this vitamin, see this specialist, “You don’t have a hematologist? Well, here’s a referral.” I realize the next day that yes, in fact, I do have one – my oncologist is also a hematologist! Whew! I can avoid filling out another long medical history intake form, and maybe write a few words on my book or my blog instead. To slide back into the fluffy, cozy covers of the inner experience – writing, shelling, meditating – it’s all the same: a welcome escape from medical appointments that drain me, suck my time, my life, my writing life. Reaching for my iPhone, Words with Friends and Scramble an easy diversion from the fluorescent, windowless, sterile rooms of answer-seeking, blood draws, IV’s, plastic orange urine collecting containers, saliva-soaked cotton rolls stored in the freezer until I can find a UPS site nearby so I can send them off to some lab in the mountains whose results will offer me new data, a new treatment plan, new hope of returning to a life of normalcy, now 22 years in my past.

Or maybe I should just finish this book.

“After the Storm”

Prompt writing: 20 min: “after the storm” GO!

After the Storm

After the storm, the clouds make way for a little light to peek through. Then a little more. The deep elephant gray morphs into a lighter ashen gray, then a bluish tint that gives the moving sky that cotton candy look. The wind still gusts, bending palm fronds in unison. But you can see beyond the dunes on the horizon, and the sea has calmed. No breakers crashing their powerful see-what-I-can-do white foaminess as they slam down in mighty display.

No, today the magnificent, dreaded Hurricane Sandy is moving north, sparing us here in North Carolina, gathering intensity to smack a mighty blow to the more populated northeast. I feel their pain, their fear, knowing well the all-consuming efforts to gather water, food, flashlights and batteries. Sandbagging, boarding windows, doors, sometimes escaping inland, awaiting your own “after the storm.”

After the storm, the real work begins – picking up the littered pieces of wind-tossed fragments of foreign lives now resting in your yard. Wondering where your own things are – a lawn chair here, a bird feeder there, a soggy library book floating in a muddy puddle. Hopefully not expensive boats smashed, ruined, piled high together on a shore of debris.

And what of other, more personal, less tangible storms? The storms of intertwining lives? Isn’t it just the same?

Shell-shocked at first that it really got that ugly, that crazy. Replaying the angry words over and over in your mind as you wonder what to do next, where to begin the clean up. You thought you were prepared, hell, walked around with some niggling part of you always at the ready, to protect and defend your sensitive heart at a moment’s notice.

Yet sometimes we just can’t anticipate the big ones. They’re temperamental, with a mind of their own sometimes, those life-altering storms. You’re not looking for them – no weather report warning you days in advance. No extra milk and bread and toilet paper security. No, just when you think there’s no need to have the candles and a lighter handy, a storm can just come out of nowhere really.

But there it is – all black and red and spewing hatred like fire from a dragon’s mouth, and you cower, closing down once again, raising the drawbridge to keep the “enemy” out, protecting your heart, or what’s left of it, from further wounds.

Sometimes you might lash out right back, not gonna take this shit anymore, escalating the war of words and painful barbs, as “love” takes some deformed shape you don’t recognize at all and you just keep adding insult to injury, determined not to get backed into a corner. You might throw your shoe, hoping to scare the storm away, force it back, those slippery droplets of venom leaking through anyway, flooding the space between the two of you, until you are both ankle-deep and one of you decides to end the madness.

After the storm? Well, what can you do, really, but pick up the broken pieces and weep.