Grief and Gratitude

I am tired of writing about grief because I am tired of grieving. I have been here before, teetering at a crossroads. I have learned some things over the years, like the importance of letting myself feel whatever it is I am feeling. I have learned the difference between honoring my feelings and wallowing inside of them. I have learned (though I don’t claim to be perfect at it) to notice when it is time to make a conscious shift in perspective—when doing so doesn’t mean pushing away feelings that need to be felt, but rather, slowly shedding what is ready to fall away.

More than one person has reflected my experience back to me, describing my emotional state like that of a wounded animal. I have been battered, shell-shocked, shaking with fear, and hence too timid—and far too exhausted—to leave my den. But I have begun to sniff the outdoors; to circle the perimeter before crawling back inside.

I still carry my grief with me: somedays, like today, I carry it on my chest like a ten-ton weight; but yesterday I carried it in my back pocket and laughed like I haven’t laughed in weeks.

I know healing, like life, is not a straight trajectory. I know not to get too attached when the days feel easier, just like I know not to give up when the days feel unbearable. I carry a strength that I have built, one challenge at a time, brick by brick by brick, and it will get me through anything.

I carry fear and rage, but I also carry joy. These days, it mostly lives in my back pocket like yesterday’s grief, but I know it’s there. I can feel it like a seed, precious, with an entire garden living inside its shell.

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I want to water it with gratitude and watch it bloom:

I am grateful to be running again, slow and heavy, but running nonetheless.

I am grateful for all the women who, because they have been through what I have been through—are going through what I am going through—understand even when I don’t have the energy to explain.

I am grateful for this week’s sun, hot and bright and luring me out of my skin.

I am grateful for the people who have never waned in their presence and support; and for the people who have shown up unexpectedly with their presence and support.

I am grateful for my family’s tree-planting ceremony; and for our new tree (a
sweetly-sad looking specimen that will blossom into a beautiful weeping cherry); and for our meditating frog that makes me smile every time I look at him. (I’m not sure why I think it’s a him, since I usually go with “her,” but I do.)
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I am grateful that my children love each other the way that I always wanted a sibling to love.

I am grateful for my home, which wraps its walls around me like a cocoon.

I am grateful for Josh, my love, for loving me still. For loving me more than ever.

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A Conversation with my Son

…Which I am sharing as a way to share what happened with my surgery last Wednesday, October 14:

“How’d it go today?” Harrison asked, somewhat tentatively. He’d spent the afternoon at a friend’s and was now lying next to me in bed.

Big breath. “It was hard,” I answered, just as tentatively. And then, worried that he would take that to mean there was a new medical concern, I said more. “It’s nothing at all for you to worry about. But they couldn’t make me a new breast, so now I don’t have one. I wasn’t prepared for that. I’m very sad.”

“Does that mean you’ll never have breasts?”

 “Well, I still have one. I’ll need to decide whether to have another surgery to make me another. But if I don’t have another surgery, no, I’ll never have a breast.”

 “Oh. I’m really sorry, Mama.”

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I can’t muster much more than that, other than to say that I am grieving and I am angry and I am rather shut down from the world.

Asymmetry, Grief and Love

When I look at my naked body in the mirror, I cry.

For days, I’ve been trying to write this post, but I can’t seem to get past that first line. Where do I start? How do I attempt to unravel the layers of emotion that have formed over these past couple of weeks since my second surgery?

Let me start with some facts: The surgery successfully addressed what turned out to be a seroma, not a hematoma. (As far as I understand, the main difference between the two is that a seroma is essentially a collection of clear fluid whereas a hematoma involves blood. Both can apparently lead to Dolly Parton sized breasts.)

Recovery was, as expected, quicker and easier with this surgery than with my mastectomy. I was up and about after the first week. Unfortunately, because of the seroma, I needed a drain. If you’ve never had a drain, trust me, you don’t want one. I forgot to take a picture of my own drain, so I scrolled the internet to give those who’ve never seen one an image of what I walked around with for the last couple of weeks (and for three weeks after my first surgery).

drainMy drain was attached to my bra with a safety pin not this nifty looking eyelet. The long tube that disappears under the bra is inserted into the skin. Then, every day, I (and by “I” I mean Josh, because he usually did it) got to empty and measure the fluid like this (though my fluid was less blood red and more serus):

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Today was a good day because, after two weeks, I finally got the damn thing out, which means I no longer have to walk around with a plastic tube and container attached to my body, collecting fluid from my wound. Bulky and gross and a great way to feel like a sick person.

As for what else I hoped to accomplish with this unexpected surgery—symmetry and a regained level of comfort in my body—that did not come to fruition. My reconstructed breast (and nipple) is now noticeably smaller than my healthy breast. That, coupled with the physical scars, makes me… well, it makes me cry. I feel ravaged, ugly, older than my years (the post-chemo gray hair isn’t helping); and every time I look in the mirror, I am reminded of what I’ve lost and what I’ve been through and what lurks on the horizon as my new, biggest fear (recurrence, metastasis, telling my children I have a cancer again, missing out on all the things I don’t want to miss in their lives).

But here is the amazing thing: Despite all this— the disappointment, the self-consciousness, the crying, the fear—I generally feel happy.

Growing up, when I was having a hard time about something, my mom would say, “Go somewhere else on the canvas.” Meaning life is like a giant canvas, with, say, one group of friends in one little corner, an aspect of work in another, a particular family member somewhere else, an aching back up top, cancer down below; and that whatever the pieces of our lives might be, there are, for most of us, many of them. When one piece of the canvas bogs us down, it doesn’t mean the entire canvas has to go down with it; we can move our attention elsewhere. For the most part, this is easier said then done for me, but by some miracle, the grief I feel these days in my moments of crying is confined to those moments of crying.

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This morning, I crawled into bed after my follow-up with my surgeon and had another tear-fest. I cried for all the reasons I’ve shared, and because I now need to decide whether I’m going to have yet another surgery, purely elective this time, to achieve some symmetry. There is no rush to this decision, but it weighs on me with the same guilt and shame that weighed on me when I had to decide about reconstruction. I feel ashamed by the thought of choosing a surgery I don’t need to “fix” something I don’t like about my body. Why stop with my reconstructed breast? Why not suck some of the fat out of the saddlebags I’ve always wished away? Why not erase the bags under my eyes? Tighten up my knees, which I’ve always found a bit saggy? Certainly these are choices that many people make, but they are not choices I ever thought I would make. Yet here I am considering what feels like a similar kind of choice, and it weighs on me. I would never, ever begrudge another woman for choosing reconstruction after enduring the traumatic loss of a breast, but I am struggling to find that same compassion and understanding for myself.

Time to go somewhere else on the canvas. I think I’ll linger for awhile in the fact that I am more in love with Josh than ever before, and that to feel that way after 15 years is incredible. Josh, who lies down with me in the middle of the day and tells me, while I cry, that he wants me to feel whatever I’m feeling, but then to remind myself that we will get through this, one foot in front of the next, just like we’ve gotten through everything else. Josh who sings to me, “You are beautiful, in every single way;” and who, after this latest surgery, wouldn’t let me off the couch for days after I felt like I could once again help with the kids and the house; and who is patiently waiting for me to watch Big Love and then read side-by-side in bed like the wonderfully old married couple we are.

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How My 9-Year-Old Is Dealing with My Breast Cancer

I was really looking forward to snuggling with Harrison tonight. Was hopeful that he might open up to me during that quiet alone time as he sometimes does at night. But when I told him it was time to put his reading away, he turned angry and rude. Perhaps he would have anyway, but these days, it’s hard not to think that any emotional outburst is because my babies are carrying around the fact that their mother has breast cancer.

After we both cooled off, I went back into his room and told him that sometimes feelings about my breast cancer might come out in other ways. I asked if there was anything he wanted to say or ask. When he said no, I said I would be checking in with him on occasion and he said with frustration, “I don’t want you to keep bringing it up, that’s too much pressure!” I wanted to shout and to hold him close, all at the same time. Instead, I simply said that I wouldn’t bring it up a lot, but it was important that he didn’t keep everything inside, and so I would be checking in with him now and again.

Harrison’s (also wonderful) teacher approached him at school on Tuesday, just to tell him that she knew, and that she was thinking about him and his family, and that he could talk with her anytime if he wanted.

Then on Saturday, Maggie and Barry (our closest of friends and Harrison’s godparents) took him out for their annual birthday lunch tradition, and when they brought up the topic, he said, “Everyone keeps bringing it up, my mom, Ms. Gerould, Amma!” But when Maggie shared that as a kid, she wrote things on a slip of paper and put it under her mom’s pillow, Harrison said that sounded like a good idea. (When Barry said they could get him a notebook, he said, “But I could just use paper, we have a lot of that around.” Smile. How very practical of him.)

What a slippery line, trying to give my son space without giving him too much; trying to acknowledge his feelings without projecting my own onto him.

What a strange reality, having to deal with any of this at all.