what now?

The last three years have taken me to places of sorrow, joy, desperation, fear, and love in ways so unexpected I may never make sense of them. Almost three years ago, I married Sam. Then I got breast cancer. Then I found out my fertility was ruined. Then I finished my Ph.D. Then I had twins by way of surrogate. Then I moved home to California.

None of these things were in my life plan, and tonight I find myself sitting in a hanging chair in the living room, staring up at three breast casts I made when I was in treatment as my baby falls asleep in my arms. I am staring at them, thinking about the life I thought I had, about the professor I thought I’d be, about the kind of family I envisioned and the sorts of things I imagined I would do for fun. I wish I had a control group for my life, so I could know how it might have been- but the fact of the matter is, I don’t have any of those things I thought I’d have.

I did not have my twins in my uterus, I do not have a professor job, and the life I am living does not even begin to reflect the life I always thought I’d have. That’s not to say its all bad, but it certainly isn’t what I planned for.

So I am staring up at these breast casts. They are sitting atop my bookshelf in a row. The first one is of my breasts before the mastectomy, and it was made by my friend CJ on the night of my Boob Going Away Party. Actually she made the third one in the row that night too, but the one on the left is the first one we made. I painted it blueish silverish whitish, and I pasted lines of my dissertation over the right breast and lines of my pathology reports on the left breast, and then I painted a human heart in the middle, with spidery veins that reach up and over the top of the bust.

The second breast cast, the one in the middle, was made while I still had an expander in, and you can really see the difference between my boobs. When you have a mastectomy, the doctor must remove a good portion of the skin, so the expander stretches what is left so there will be enough room for the implant. That one is painted purplish whitish greyish. I glued yards of purple yarn in swirly patterns around the expander boob, and that fake boob looks protected and taken care of and warm underneath all that yarn. There was a time right after my treatment was done, but before I finished all my surgeries, during which I was better at taking care of myself, better at being gentle with myself, and better at packing my day with warmth. This bust is from that time period.

And then there’s the third bust, which CJ made at that Boob Going Away Party. It was the really good one- she smoothed all the wrinkles and got the edges just right. I never painted that one because I wanted it to be perfect, and I was afraid of messing it up. It sits awkwardly at the end, as though I might return what once was if I can just muddle through the middle stages. It sits there unpainted, undone, a blank slate- some kind of representation of the girl I could have been.

Instead I sit in this swing, and I try to figure out what happened. My professional life is slowly disintegrating in front of me- so much so that I think often of what else I could do, how else I might be gainfully employed, other ways to make enough money to live the life I want to live. Though I have a Ph.D., it doesn’t seem as though I’ll be joining the tenure track anytime soon, despite the utter shock professors and administrators express upon hearing that I “haven’t been snapped up” as a leader in my field put it the other day. Then again, another said to me about the academic job market “it’s a mirage, and I wish I could fix it.” I smiled, because I’ve myself used those exact words to describe life after the day my Ph.D. was conferred.

I can only wonder, if I hadn’t gotten cancer…

Or maybe the universe has a divine plan for us all, and Professor isn’t mine. Do you believe that? Is there something we are each meant to do, and the world closes door after window after door, until there is nothing left, and you must walk the path you were meant for?

I applied to an art therapy graduate program the other day. Maybe I could do that. Everyone raises their eyebrows, asks me why I need another degree, tells me I have so much to offer, I should just use what I’ve got and do something artsy and beautiful and hopeful. But the thing is, I just don’t know how to do that and also make enough money to buy my babies formula. Maybe I missed the memo. How does one live a creative and enriching life, without insane stress related to money?

Maybe if I could be a therapist, and make art with people, then this life would be easier. But its all full of maybes, you know. Maybe this, maybe that. How badly I want a promise, something I can count on and be sure of, an absolute. Maybe I should go back to non-profit work, but I can barely swallow the thought of that many hours of heart-labour for such a whimsy salary. Of course, it would probably be more than I’m making now, but there wouldn’t be so much flexibility and it would mean saying goodbye forever to the academic pipe dream. This child sleeps on my chest, and I know I must figure this out soon, for she will have so many things she needs, and I expect myself to be able to be present for her and her sister without feeling tortured over my professional situation. And the question hangs, what now? What now, what now, what now?

And I wonder if I’m pining over a body I don’t have anymore, trying to fit myself into a bust that is not my size anymore, attempting to be someone I was never meant to be. I really am not sure. I have no idea how much is me, and how much is the job market, and how much is the universe, and how much is cancer fucking everything up, and how much is just how it would have turned out anyway. And really, how are we to know?

 

 

Slideshow or no slideshow?

I caused a major traffic jam in the stairway that leads up to yoga after class this week. After class, I let everyone else leave and then I ran downstairs and set up my red and black double wide in the tiny bottom space, and I raced back up to grab my twins. When I had both sleeping babies in my arms, I made my way back to the stairs, and I saw the havoc I’d caused. There were three mamas of babies younger than the twins on the stairs, all trying to get out. My stroller was at the bottom, blocking the door. And I was at the top. There was no way I could fit past all these mamas with eight week old babies and enormous diaper bags (what do they put in there? how do they fill them so full? I’m so confused and often find myself wondering what million critical items I have forgotten). Also, because my arms were filled with thirty pounds of sleeping infant, there was also no way I could reach and move the stroller without making these women topple. Yikes.

They needed so much direction. One couldn’t figure our how to open the door while holding her infant.  In my head I was shouting COME ON DON’T YOU SEE I’M HOLDING TWINS but out of my mouth I was saying, nicely, alright- you come up the stairs, you go down, can you move out the door- ok, just suck your stomach in so I can get by, here I’ll hold your baby (on top of my twins) ok, there you go, thank you…. As I finally got out the door, stroller and all, I thought… MY GAWD GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER YOU ONLY HAVE ONE BABY. In the midst of this crazy stairwell madness during which I was carrying someone else’s infant (basically I could never be octomom but I am capable of managing the absolute madness that triplets would be but only for twenty seconds) my iWatch started buzzing. And buzzing. And buzzing.

But what was I supposed to say– “Take your baby, b*tch, my oncologist is calling?” I mean they already look at me like I’ve got a second head.

So I ignored the call. But when I arrived to the bakery where I’d planned on meeting my two TAs to talk about our students, I regretted that move. I wished I’d said– “Oh, hold on, everybody wait on the stairwell- it’s my oncologist calling about my labs.”

I listened to the message she left instead, and my stomach fell out of my body and I had that weird feeling where it seems like everything is distorted and you’re being floated in a kind of spinny way across time-space, like you’re witnessing your body be in the world in the past and in the future at once, watching yourself try to stir your latte and look cool in real time. She said, “Chelsey, call me. We need to talk about your labs, some of the numbers need a conversation.”

Jeezus.

I called right away, voicemail. I called her nurses’ station. I called her office. I called the hospital. I left messages. I called my other oncologist, Dr. G., who’s supposed to get a copy of everything. She hand’t gotten the results yet and didn’t know what I was talking about. F*ck.

And so I ordered my almond milk latte and the world spun, and I felt that weird out of my body feeling that screamed, YOU MIGHT DIE REALLY SOON, because if she wanted to talk about my labs it could only mean, my cancer is back. And breast cancer that is back has no cure. And now I have twins and they’re going to grow up without a mama and Sam will be so freaked out to be a single dad and what colour should the handouts be at my funeral? 

I always go straight to the funeral programs, which should be printed on high-quality card stock, rainbow. Get all the colours, tops ten prints per colour, of course multiple shades of every colour (don’t try and print them in those boring rainbow primaries, people, we need at least four shades of each colour. Of course. Also glitter. Lotsa glitter).

I texted my cancer (YACN) friends. My safety-net-three, the ones who get it like no one else, the only people who really know that spinny-out-of-body-oh-my-mortality-feeling, the ones who know to remind me to listen to the playlist one of us made of songs we sing at the cancer group we go to (well, they still go, and I always wish I was going even though I’m so far away and so I just imagine myself there and that’s good enough). I said to them, “I was thinking about which order the music should go at my funeral- like should Sam play that maracas piece first or should Kate sing Breast Cancer Pink first? What do you think?”

Because obviously if my oncologist CALLS me out of the blue about lab results, my cancer is back. I didn’t even need to say it, they just knew. They knew I knew my cancer was back, they knew because they know if they got that voicemail, they’d know the same thing I knew.

These are literally the only people in the world who could respond, “Well do you really think Sam is gonna wanna play music at your funeral? Honest question.”

They didn’t say, “You’re not gonna die.” They didn’t say, “Don’t think about that.” They didn’t say, “Why are you thinking about that,” or “Stay positive” or even “I can’t go there.” They engaged. They said, “Do you really think he’d do that? Honestly.”

I said, “Huh. Yah I hadn’t really thought about how this could be hard for anyone but me. But maybe, yah. Maybe he wouldn’t want to.”

The hours passed. We texted.

Slideshow or no slideshow? I’m worried about those really cheesy transitions people add in between images. 

Definitely slideshow. Also maybe storytelling, and people writing down stories about me, for my kid. 

Not for me, said another. Just a few choice pics. 

This totally morbid conversation was so effing comforting. It’s hard to explain why it is comforting to talk about funeral details, but I was so relieved to have this group of young women actively engaging me over text message, about what our funerals would be like.

Finally she called.

“We need to talk about your estrogen levels. We thought we had suppressed your ovaries. But its not working. We don’t really know what to do about that. Perhaps we should switch your medication, but without any research evidence, we just need to talk about the options.”

WHAT?!?! WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY THAT ON YOUR VOICEMAIL!

At first all I could stutter out was… I’m so relieved you called, but so, I’m not dying?

I wasn’t dying.

Everything looked a little less sharp, a little lest grainy and high-contrasty. All of the sudden, we were only talking about hormonal therapy. My hormonal therapy isn’t working. Well that’s fine because I hate how my hormonal therapy is making me feel like sh*t.

A bunch of months ago, there was a big study and all of us youngish breast cancer people were changed from a medication that inhibits cancer from bonding with estrogen to a medication that shuts down our ovaries and a medication that is typically given to older women. Except this combination causes lots of pain in young women- pain to the tune of joints hurting too much to open baby bottles in the middle of the night. But it’s better. Except when it’s not, because your ovaries are working so hard the ovarian suppression doesn’t shut ’em down.

So. Now both my oncologists are talking. There’s multiple options, but I think I’ll probably just go back to the drug I used to be on. Because it’s easy. There’s much less pain. It’s the non-surgery option. It’s the “I want one more baby and I want a pregnancy” option. I haven’t heard back from her definitely, but I bet it’s the option my Vancouver oncologist, who I trust enough to follow (almost) blindly, will advise for me.

But this is what it’s like. That spinny-crazy-oh-my-god-my-mortality feeling? It’s what happens when cancer is back. Thankfully, that feeling was only with me for a matter of moments. But for others, for so many others, its permanent.

So tonight, I’m holding tightly to the fact me and my cancer besties are all OK. Five young women, four little girl-children, and more babies to come, I’m sure of it. We are ok. I am ok. I am not dying, and tonight, none of my cancerbesties are dying either.

Wait a sec, don’t speak too soon, one #cancerbestie said. But really, I texted back, you’re OK tonight. I’m OK tonight. Out babies are OK tonight. Yah, she responded. And I guess that’s all we got. 

So? The point is, whether you want a cheesy slideshow or not, or whether you want one but only without those horrible and even cheesier (if that’s possible) transitions, we’ve only got the present. This moment. Tonight. Tomorrow morning, maybe. Right now. And what we know right now, is that we don’t have to instruct our loved ones on the fact that we will turn over in our graves before we’ve even been buried if  we see them use those crappy transitions at our funeral slide-shows.

Slideshow or no slideshow, for now, we’re here. And all we know, is that we are here. Let us be here, let us be happy, let us be texting, let us be well. ❤