What Dreams May Come

It was not long after I had lost him that Keith came to me in a dream.  He was his normal healthy self, twinkle in the eye, remote in hand, kicked back on the couch with an arm reaching across the back in both directions.  The rain was pouring down and we were in the sun room, so all I could hear was the deafening pounding on the almost tin like roof.  He was talking to me.  From the look on his face, it was idle chatter.  A casual conversation.  Yet I couldn’t understand anything.  I couldn’t make out any of the words he was forming.  I could only hear the cadence and intonation, nothing more.  I could not shake the feeling that he was trying to tell me something important despite his casual demeanor.  I leaned in to understand and only felt more lost in what he wanted me to know.

He was not the first specter to visit me after leaving behind the land of the living.  My grandmother did as well. 22 years earlier.  She had a mastectomy when she was 48, just 3 years older than I am now.  As a young girl, I remember her letting me put her prosthetic breast in my little training bra.  We both giggled at the large bulge and I was fascinated by the realistic feel and look of it.  10 years later, her breast cancer had metastasized.  She died in the spring, shortly after I had discovered I was pregnant.   When my mother called to give me the news, I crumbled against the living room wall, crying and sobbing and fearful that feelings that strong may harm the new life growing inside.

And then she came to me in a dream.  She sat at her quilting frame, dressed perfectly in a bright red vest with a gold pin, healthy again, with her crown of dark curls framing her face as she leaned over, thimbled finger pushing her needle up and back.  She was chatting to me but never looked up, focused on the stitches.   I strained to hear her.  I couldn’t.  I knew it was important.  Something about my baby? Words of wisdom to get me through life?  She looked over at me and smiled, then returned to the quilt frame and the task at hand.

This Friday, I take a major step towards my transition from breast cancer patient to breast cancer survivor.  I will undergo my own mastectomy followed by reconstruction.  Gary and my mom will physically be there.  So many people I love will be there in spirit.   I will have two top surgeons working on this body to remove the poison and replace it with the healthy parts of me.  All I have to do is sleep.  Perhaps dream.  Will I finally hear what Keith and my grandmother tried to tell me before?  Will they visit me again?  Chat for a while?  I hope so.

Through all of Keith’s illness, my grief in his absense, my recovery, my rebirth, my new love, my new life, my career, my cancer, I try to remember one thing.  I am still me.  I’ve always been Cherish, despite each bump in the road and each twist to the plans.  Come Friday, my body will be changed and yet, there is this little part of me that knows what Keith and Grandma Blades were saying – you’ll be ok.  You have always been ok.  You will always be ok.  You have it in you to do this.  To do anything.  And we are here.  We have always been here.  Don’t look to our cancer for the answers.  This is your cancer.  This is your journey.  We will be there in your dreams and when you wake, you’ll be with those you love.

I am still scared.  But I am in the best hands.  Both in the operating room and at home.  I will heal.  I will survive.  I’ll meet all of you on the other side of this like the bionic woman.  Better and stronger than before, yet still just plain ol’ Cherish.




“Now is the Winter of Our Discontent” . . .

. . . to quote Shakespeare, the master of  words that often define our modern day human experiences.  A pretty impressive feat considering he hasn’t written a thing in over 400 years.  Its fitting that I would have this particular quote in my gray matter since our first snow blanketed cold snap almost two months ago.  It seems to have taken up permanent residence in my mind while watching the mercury fall and the electric bill rise.  I have gone into mental hibernation in the spirit of those smart woodland creatures who know that if you truly want to survive the cold, sleep through it.  Even my creative writing juices seem to have been iced over in the north wind.  At each moment of feeling inspired, seeing that poetic phrase just within reach, it would melt away like window pane frost under the hot breath of a child straining to see out into the bright winter night.

It was 3 years ago this month when Keith’s body started to betray him and it seemed so much warmer than today.  The start of a battle against the enemy within.  His own cells mutating and altering and shifting into violent soldiers, hell bent to take him down at the cost of their own existance.  All I could do was patch up his spirits and send him back to the front.  And yet, he found ways to laugh at it all.  After his colonoscopy, he drove the nurses crazy because he kept putting his oxygen reader on his nose.  He looked over at me as they rolled him into recover and told me that they had to go back in because the doctor left his watch in there.  We looked forward to the day that he could have the port removed so he could go shooting again.  He’d sit in the chemo chair, blaring Led Zepplin, toes tapping on the foot rest, chatting it up with his neighbors in their chairs as they were getting their treatments, a wee bit loud over Robert Plant belting out lyrics about squeezing lemons.  But no matter how loud you crank the Zepplin, some battles are destined to be lost.

This winter, my son was hit with an emotional blizzard.  My steadfast and stoic child was snowed into his own mind, overwelmed with stress, grief, regrets, and unable to sleep.  I tried desparately to blow on the window pane, to be able to glimps past the frost, to see him in the bright winter night, happy again.  Maybe even more so, to see him at peace.  Again, another fight against the enemy within.  This one hiding right behind the eyes, in the thin delicate eletrical connections that guide our senses and sensibilities.  I spent the evening with ageless friends Saturday night and Zach was with me.  I could almost connect to him again.  He’s always been poker faced and I’ll never truly know what cards he’s holding.  But I can see under the disguise enough to know that his demons are starting to waive the white flag.  Maybe because they know that Spring is right around the corner and you can never win the fight with daffodils blooming through the snow.

It was 29 years ago that I first encountered my enemy within.  It was in the summer so receiving the news that I had questionable pap test results was never upsetting.  As a recently minted driver, I was able to drive myself to the doctor to have my cervix frozen in an effort to remove the questionable cells.  All I could think of was how cool is that I can drive to the doctor’s?  I paid no mind to the possible seriousness of any of it.  As I started college, my breast started to develop those pesky cysts.  On the advice of my doctor, I cut back the caffeine and lightened up on the deodorant, much to the dismay of my roommates.  No one likes to bunk with a grumpy stinky person with lumpy breast.  Shortly after Zach was born, there were more questionable pap test results and I had a biopsy done on my cervix, which came back negative. While breast feeding him, only the right side worked.  Desparate to be a good mom, I reached out to Leleich and spent a fortune on these fancy plastic cones to help express the milk.  The only success I had with them was a Madonna (the singer, not the saint) appearance to my bust line.  Zach decided that he’d let me off the hook by letting his teeth come in at the tender age of 3 months.

As I got into my 30’s those pesky cyst came back with a vengance, so I cut out the caffiene and we were right as rain again.  I proudly and painfully squished the girls for my first mammogram in 2010 and was told they were dense but otherwise normal.  Figures that my chest would mimic my occasional lapses in intelligence.  Then in the winter of 2011, I could feel a lump in the one breast that never failed to provide nurishment to my growing baby.  In the mist of Keith’s treatments, I got the girls squished again and followed up with a sonogram on Ms. Right.  The doctor reported back that they were harmless little ol’ cysts.  The following year, from down below, another questionable pap test rolled in the door and another biopsy was done and the results again came back negative.  At least the breasts were unchanged although still lumpy.

And now we reach the Winter of my discontent.  As you can imagine, with all my girlie parts in a constant state of flux, I’ve gotten really good at sensing changes.  Or maybe I’m really sensitive to changes.  Ms. Right has been complaining the loudest in this cold weather.  I’ve been perfectly happy hibernating on the couch, curled up under a blanket after munching on hot fat comfort food, watching TV with Gary’s feet in my lap.  In fact, I’ve been enjoying it.  But I couldn’t ignore what she was saying any more.  So, a visit to the doctor and pit stop at the mammory mushing machine, followed up by a little sonagramming has lead to the very first biopsy above my waist line.

The nurse and doctor and sonagram technician had me feeling like I was hanging out with the girls at the most unusual luncheon.  The Mad Hatter in me could almost see the tea cups set on the table. For those of you who don’t have the need to wear a bra or who have never undergone a breast biopsy, I’ll fill you in.  You’re awake, they cover you in orange antiseptic and then they numb your breast.  Then you’re asked to shuffle over that way, turn this way, and put your arm over your head like this, all without disturbing the drape and staring at your bright orange breast peaking out.  While the technician leans over your head with the wand, the doctor pokes away asking “Can you feel this?  Can you feel that?”.  Then a few samples are taken, one of the bigger cysts is drained, and then the nurse gives you a little styrophoam cup full of diet Pepsi, those little ice cubes I’ve only seen in hospitals, and my favorite part – a bendy straw.  The whole process was akin to being at the dentist except I didn’t have to wrap my mouth around that sucky tool and I got to watch them drain the cyst on the sonagram.  The upside to a biopsy is the swelling makes you look really chesty afterwards so to go with my Madonna left, I have a Dolly Parton right.

So now I wait.  As I have waited three times before.  As I have been waiting for 29 years.  My enemy within has been hiding away in the recesses of my molecules, sneaking around and attacking once in a while like terrorist.  They sit back and build little cell shoe bombs and microscopic back pack bombs and wake up their sleeper cells to call them to active duty whenever it seems my body has dropped the red alert.  All I can do is stand guard and push back.  Proactively fight the fight.  I’ll have the results on Tuesday.  And in the spirit of that 16 year old girl who drove herself to the doctors, I’m maybe not as worried about any of this as I should be.  

Because sooner or later, its going to hit.  I know its shocking to hear little Miss Sunshine say that.  It seems so fatalistic somehow but I’ve had too many abnormal test to deny what my possible medical future may be.  If my micro-terrorist have chosen to go malignant, then I fight back.  If they choose to remain benign, I continue to stand guard.  Its what I’ve been doing for almost 30 years.  I imagine that I will be doing it for 30 more.  Getting through this brutal winter, seeing my son step back from the edge of his sorrowful cliff, carving out a happy space for Gary and I to live in, reaching out to those that love me so that I can love them back – these are my joys and challenges for today.  And tomorrow. And after the results get back.  In the meantime, let me listen to some Led Zepplin, wear the oxygen reader on my nose and press my breath againt the window pane.  It sure to melt the frost.

The Brackets Wrapped Around Life

It was spaghetti sauce making day in my house.  An age old tradition dating back to the days of Chef Keith banging around the pots and pans, chopping the onions, browning the meat, and simmering a laundry list of ingredients together all day on the stove.  He’d sample it over and over again, sharing each taste test with everyone in the house until when it was time to actually accompany the sauce with pasta, we were already full.  Then we’d pull out the freezer bags and load them up for later dinners.  Strange how some things can change and still remain the same.  I’m the one fusing over the sauce, stuffing the house with it until they are full.  Everything else about the ritual remains the same. 

One thing that has changed and still remains the same?  Keith’s birthday.  It still rolls around every January 12, regardless of the fact that he is not here to celebrate.  He would have been 57 today.  He will forever be 54.  So it seems fitting that it was spaghetti sauce day today.  There was a part of me that also wanted to rush out and buy one of those Carvel ice cream cakes.  It is what we did for every birthday under the Nielsen roof.  But of all the markers that tick by from the moment he left, this one is the hardest.  The cake would have felt so wrong.  How do you smile through the one event that started a life that no longer exists?  I’ve survived holidays, our anniversary, and the anniversary of his death with only brief moments of the darkness that rushes into the void he left behind.  Not so with his birthday.

Birth and Death are the brackets wrapped around our life.  My Pop-Pop’s birthday was Friday.  The same day as my sister-in-law, Chrissie’s.  His brackets written in cold hard dates on a tomb stone and her story still being written.  Still a dot, dot, dot after her birthday.  Yesterday, a friend also turned 57.  Born just one day before Keith – dot, dot, dot – the days and years still ahead of him, unwritten.  We breath our first as a question and we breath our last with the answer.  Everything in between is who we are, where we go, what we do, who we touch, what we dream of.  The story between the brackets.  As hard as it is to think of Keith’s would-have-been 57, as often as I think about brackets only spanning 54 years, I also remind myself that 57 years ago today, Keith breathed his first question.  The answer he breathed at his last can only be shared in bits and pieces.  By all of us telling the tale of a man that lived life the way we all should between those brackets.  He never compromised, he did everything full tilt and in technocolor, and he loved and gave unconditionally to so many.  A man who managed to sneak a Carvel cake into the house for every birthday and who would proclaim after each batch of spaghetti sauce that this is the best one he ever made.  For all of us who still have dot, dot, dot – a moment of silence – no wait – a moment of singing happy birthday.  Somewhere, out there, there’s someone who knows we miss them that can hear it. 



A Simple Life

All I’ve wanted is a simple life.  It seems like another life time ago that I had it.  But then I lost it.  The moment we knew Keith was sick, life suddenly became complicated, or more precisely, complex.  Yet our reaction was just as simple as our lives had been before.  Doctors appointments, organizing pills, keeping the germs away, paying the bills, keeping the household running – all simple actions in a complex situation.  Then Keith slipped away, creating a simple void that I filled with complicated thoughts.   Once you’ve lived a simple life, you become addicted.  A maddening craving that never goes away.  So, just like an addict, I’ve spent over a year running after it – running from the thoughts, running to adventure and travel, running into an overloaded schedule of work and then more work, and actually flat out running across the finish line of a half marathon.  I even ran away from home.  Moved just a handful of precious chattel down the road 50 miles from the town I thought I would grow old in.

But you can only run so far and fast.  On the day I moved the last of my things out of Easton, there could be no more running.  I had it again.  By every technical definition, I was once again living a simple life.  I had a quiet house in the country. I found a new career in a beautiful little office right around the corner.  A handyman and his family became my tenants and take better care of the house than I ever could.  And yet – what was this rumbling?  This sound in my head and the pound in my heart?  I was so focused on running towards that shiny dream of simplicity that I never saw the wave of pain, confusion, grief, doubts, fears, and shaken faith that had built up so slowly at my heels.  Built to a monstrous level that could do nothing other than crest and crash over me at that precise moment that I had stopped the chase.

I had everything.  My life was better than good.  I lost it all.  And yet, I found it all over again.  It should have been glorious.  I wanted to sing and not cry.  Instead, I spent a month of sleepless nights and started to find myself wide awake and restless long before the birds would sing to the rising sun.  I would wander the house like a ghost, my stomach knotted up and leaving no room for sustenance.  On October 18 I couldn’t sleep at all.  That morning, I stood before Gary in the kitchen – a simple man willing to share a simple life with me – and I disintegrated right there in front of him.  Imploded and melted into that blinding love for Keith, sobbing madly, with every inch of my body and soul.  I couldn’t stop it.  I couldn’t calm it.  The crest of that dreaded wave of loss and pain and grief.  And I’ve been riding it ever since – until last night.

I’ve only heard of moments of clarity, brought on by meditation, prayer, drinking through stupid and into numbness.  And yet, here I was – sitting on the front step of Anita’s house last night while her daughter handed out candy to trick-or-treaters.  The guys were hanging out in the kitchen dining on chicken and dumplings.  We idly chatted about our own trick-or-treat adventure growing up while sipping on our lime-o-ritas.  The night so delightfully warm for Halloween.  A bee and a cookie monster paid us a visit.  Two Cleopatras enchanted us.  One visitor couldn’t see through his head-to-toe tied-dyed body suit so he had his sister escort him from house to house.  Every time Stella handed out candy, she’d fluff my already, as she called it, “poofy hair”.

And I wasn’t thinking about all I’ve lost, all that’s changed, what the future holds, my job, what I needed to do tomorrow.  The only past conjured up in that moment was my childhood memories.  I wasn’t running.  I wasn’t filling a void with complicated thoughts.  I wasn’t looking over my shoulder at the deadly wave.  There was only the calm waters of my soul.  Peace.  Everything changed in the blink of an eye.  I left the ghosts that have haunted me on that doorstep in the dark of night on all hallows eve.  This morning, I woke at my usual 4:45 AM.  Kissed Gary on the neck and slipped out of bed at 5:00 AM so I could start the coffee, started slicing venison for jerky by 5:15 AM while infused with the spirit of my early rising love, my beloved Keith.  Infused – yes – not haunted – by that infectious Tigger that would bound into the bedroom to bother this night owl’s restful sleep because he had already been up for hours.  He is here.  He always has been.  Are you proud of me, Keith?  This is all we ever wanted for each other – a simple life.  I will live it for both of us.

Would Have, Could Have, Should Have

Over and over, the scene plays out in my mind. Just beyond my eyes, I see Keith lying on the giant sectional couch, frail and pale. Just a shadow of his former self. The vibrant man with a face that could speak volumes was buried under mountains of blankets. Only the top of his head could be seen peeking out of the covers. I sat at his feet, watching TV as I layered on the nail polish when his soft voice floated out from his resting spot. “I love the smell of nail polish” and he was asleep again. Here we were, me wanting to rub his feet like I used to in his healthy days and knowing I couldn’t because of the pain he would feel so I chose to keep my restless hands busy with painting them. Then he made that small statement in the final days of his life, reveling something about himself that in all the years we were together, I never knew. I though, this is something I should have known. What else do I not know about him? I think that frequently – what else would I have learned about him, had he survived the cancer? What else could we have discovered about each other?

Any one who has walked this path, laid to rest someone they love, can attest to the would have, could have, should have. It infects your brain sometimes. It makes you stare at the ceiling in the late hours of night, desperate to close your eyes and make those questions disintegrate into the inky dark.

The would have, could have, should haves don’t start until they are gone. In the moment, you are just the referee making the call from the field during this sorrowful game. Then you watch the instant replay – almost obsessively – again and again and again, until it becomes its own kind of cancer. Your friends and family watch the replay with you. I am witness to a few friends who are going through the death spiral of their sick loved ones. I was witness to a few who recently paced through those harshly lighted hospital halls, trying to make the calls that would let the game end peacefully. All I can offer to them is this – if the would have, could have, should haves strike – take solace in knowing that they are not whispering in our ear out of regret. They whisper to you that you would have wanted them to stay forever, you could have loved them for that long, and you should have faith in the fact that they are with you always.

Plans are Subject to Change

It’s been two years now since we got the news that Keith had cancer. Right before the Labor Day weekend of 2011. I was such a different person then that when I try to look back, I can’t remember what I was like. I do remember that we had plans, dreams, a bucket list, and that sparkling naive idea that we would be together through our golden years. But plans are subject to change.

And change they have, on a grand scale at a rapid fire pace. By December of 2011, Keith was gone. By February of 2012, my dad was on the road to a full recovery from the gall bladder issues he was going through at the same time Keith was being treated. By May of 2012, the bulk of our financial fallout from Keith’s cancer had been resolved. When summer rolled around, Zach and Brandon were both finally set for college. My parents moved in that November and Christmas found me at the Klinglesmith house just like I used to do years ago.

By March of 2013 I had realized that I was capable of loving again. It’s another leap of faith that I temper with the hope that if he isn’t destined to walk with me together into our golden years, I can once again conjure up the strength to say goodbye. What a strange notion that Keith and Gary could meet on the other side. They could shake their heads at this crazy girl’s maelstrom of thoughts and adventures. There would be endless discussions about politics, the state of the economy, our military men who fight for our country, and the nation’s current status. They’d share their love for their children with each other. Keith would give Gary a tongue lashing for taking his wife on a motorcycle. Gary would chuckle at Keith for his brief run as a guppy farmer. But that day isn’t here yet. So today, in this moment, my heart will hold all the love from both the one who is gone and the one in my here and now. As if I have found an endless treasure in the depths of my grief.

In April, I lost the same job that afforded me the opportunity to work from home to care for Keith. By May, I took on a seasonal job in Ocean City which shook off the cobwebs, got me out of the house, and gave me a diversified caring fun group of coworkers whom I now call my friends. Yesterday was my last day and they sent me off in style with pizza and homemade ice cream cake. I’m going to miss our small talk between phone calls. The way we all ran around at a mad pace on Saturdays to handle all the guests checking in and out, until the pizza showed up and we’d take turns slipping into the conference room to scarf up a slice. We’d play Pandora radio and whenever the station stopped, one of them would turn to me and say “I’m still listening” so I’d go to the website and promptly click the “I’m still listening” button to start it up again. I have an overwhelming urge to call them right now to ask if they are still listening and should we order pizza for lunch.

But like the job that kept me home ended at just the right time, this job ended at a point where I need to have time on my hands. Time to move. It’s this weekend – the two year anniversary of Keith’s diagnosis- that everything leaves the house we once shared. The family homestead where 3 kids grew up. This same house my parents lived in before moving to South Carolina in July. After all of their own moving, they still found the time to move my stuff to Salisbury. Dad and my brother Lance loaded up my washer and bedroom furniture, then the whole Lankford gypsy clan made their way to my new abode. My oldest niece held open the door so we could let all the flies in. My youngest ran around the house counting Gary’s parrots and eating cheezits. When we got down to the heavy furniture, we stood on the brink of defeat. We had already spent the whole morning moving things and now faced with the big heavy dresser and wardrobe, it seemed like an impossible task. Then Lance figured out how to take the drawers out so the frames were light enough to handle. We all laughed at ourselves for not being smart enough to do that when we moved them out of Easton.

And so it will go this weekend. Christie is driving down in a rental truck tomorrow night. Everything must go. We plan on getting all of the furniture loaded and then off to its new home. That’s the plan as it stands now but the last two years have taught me a few important things. You have to sway and give with whatever the wind brings to you. You have to know that nothing is written in stone. You’ll never cross life’s finish line with a victory smile without adjusting as you go. It isn’t a race – it’s an obstacle course. The only constant we can count on is plans are subject to change.

Moving On

Last week was filled with visits from old friends colliding with my present world.  While catching up with my old high school friend, Karen, my step-daughter was at the house getting geared up for moving her Nana’s things out.  I sat next to Karen as she deftly knitted away on a scarf of lacy yarns while I wore a finished one she had given me in my favorite green and rust colors, wondering how it was going for Christie as she looked over all the things she grew up seeing around her Nana’s house.  While catching up with my old college friend, Dan, my step-son stayed by the side of our old man, Rusty, until the dear old dog had to visit the vet for the last time.  Sitting between Gary and Dan at a comedy show, I laughed just as hard at the two of them heckling away as I did at the comedian’s morose humor.  Somewhere, deep in my brain, I was with Rusty.  Thinking of all the times he made his great escapes from the yard. Keith would hop in the car and coax him into chasing behind it around the neighborhood until his tongue dragged on the ground and he stopped bounding along.  Then Rusty would be content to go home.  I could not shake the thought that he has now made his last great escape. Keith is waiting for him, engine revving, just in case Rusty wants to chase freely behind him.

These are bitter sweet days.  I’ve made the decision to move out of the house so that I can rent it.  It is a fiscal decision, simple as that.  Emotionally, there is nothing simple about it.  All the children are pitching in to clear out everything they ever wanted or think they might need.  I spend my days off, loading up the car and making hauls of stuff to the new place.  Each shift of things from old place to new place brings me joy and sorrow.  As if I’m starting with a clean slate using pieces of my life infused with memories of all that was and gone.  My grandmother’s dishes now rest on a beautiful oak hutch as if they belong there, while images of those same plates sitting on her red counter tops drift into sight.  The sewing machine the Klinglesmith family gave me 20 years ago sits perfectly next to a handsome mahogany leather couch and I think of all the miles of battenburg lace I sewed onto bed sheets with it while working on “As You Like It” at the Shakespeare Theater.  The hutch I managed to sweet talk away from the boss 10 years ago has a new home and the scrapbooks I’ve made over the years will once again live on its majestic mahogany shelves.

Once again, I’m meshing what was with what is already there, in a new abode.  Just as I did when I moved in with Keith 8 years ago.  Today I had my moment.  I had moved a desk without thinking, so I moved it back.  Sitting on the floor under it, hooking up the wires and cables to the computer, I had to stop.  The sobs were too strong to focus on the task at hand.  I couldn’t comprehend why. Tears rolled down my face while sitting under a desk in a little room, wondering if I would ever be able to stop this disjointed life I live.  To move to a place that is not yours that feels like home.  To own a home that feels like it isn’t yours any more.  It occasionally pushes me to madness.  Just as I stand on the cliff, ready to to make that final leap into that dark mad place, a couple of gentlemen show up.  They load up the truck with a mahogany book case, hang curtains, clean the weeds away from the deck where my firepit sits, and allow me to have one little room with a desk I can cry under.

Moving is stressful.  Moving on and moving is, well – I don’t know – strange.  I know the shifting from one place to another will end and I can stop this mind racing project and start a new one that might cure cancer or solve homelessness.  Something a little more productive and constructive.  I think Rusty had it right.  If you have to escape the yard, do it in style.  Run till your tongue drags the ground.  Only chase the cars driven by people you love.  Never look back unless you absolutely have to.  Feel the joy of just moving.  And take a nap when your done.