40 Wonder Years

40 years ago I ran into my childhood friend on the playground.  I broke her glasses and formed a rainbow colored goose egg on my forehead.  We’ve been friends ever since.  Today she’s flying back home after a brief BFF retreat with me in my humble new home.  Its been a grand adventure.  She got in her Maryland scrapple and crab fix.  She treated me to that famous Wisconsin cheese.  We got to chat away the miles and the years over the fire pit while roasting marshmallows.  We spent an afternoon with her family and it felt like home.  Just as it always does and just as I know she feels when she is with my family.

My intent as I was driving her to Dulles was to take the scenic route through DC.  It was scenic but not quite what I was aiming for.  More like a roll up the windows, where are we, scenic route.  We rolled into the terminal and within seconds she was on the curb, purple suitcase in tow, and I pulled away to head back home.  And what was this?  I felt this strange punch to the stomach, and the tears came, and I was baffled.  Confused by such a reaction to the end of this quiet little retreat.  And swimming into my head, rose Billy’s eulogy at Keith’s memorial service.  I couldn’t remember all the words but I could feel the emotions of it.  Billy and Keith became friends when they were 4 years old, at an ice skating rink.  Keith collided with Billy and knocked out one of his teeth, which landed Billy in the doctor’s office.  A tale very reminiscent of how Karen and I met.  50 years later, there was Billy standing vigil next to Keith’s hospital bed, with his wife and children and then standing before a packed synagogue recounting a 50 year friendship.  Showing us the essence of Keith from the age of innocence and simplicity through the years to the man he had become.  There was the source of my ache, as the miles moved Karen and I away from each other and back to our daily routines.  It was the first time that I had ever felt any true understanding of what it must have been like for Billy.  Yet I still found myself confused as to, why now, would something like that hit me.  Through the tears I had managed to miss my turn and landed right in the heart of the Mall in DC.  Exactly where I wanted to take Karen on the ride in.  Looping around the Washington Monument and past the World War II Memorial, I snapped out of the tears.  Some times, you are meant to be in the moment with a true friend and some times you are meant to sight see.

There was something about my conjuring of Billy’s eulogy and replaying Karen and I talking about how we wished we were better about staying in touch. How life just has a way of busying us up and squeezing out those connections to people who are a part of our lives yet not part of our daily happenings.  And how hard it is to tell people we love what they really mean to us.  But if Billy could do it, why couldn’t I?  Why wait for the eulogy?  What is there to be afraid of when speaking your heart to someone who knew you before the training wheels came off your bike or before you worn a training bra? Was there for you when you discovered that there was no Santa Claus, or when you kissed your first boy, got into your first mischief, passed the driving test, failed the math quiz?

For me, it is because I must visit a time in my life when I was truly an ugly person.  My second year of college.  I had let the ills of others who had wronged me taint me like a dark cancer of my spirit. All through Freshman year, it was building and growing.  I could no longer distinguish truth from fiction.  I was only capable of building shallow superficial friendships under the guise of party buddies.  There was little self esteem going into my higher education and there was little I did to regain it.  Meanwhile, Karen and I would stay in touch, sending each other postcards from the sides of wine cooler 4 packs.  I went to visit her, she came to visit me.  We spent the summer between our freshman and sophomore years, working together at a local restaurant down in St. Michaels.  We had met a couple of guys and all 4 of us hung out after hours.  When we returned to our studies in the Fall, I continued to see one of those two guys.  And he was no good for me.  As the fall rolled into spring, my cancer of the spirit had grown to the point where my roommate, Cathy, moved out between semesters.  I started to blow off visits to Karen, driving right past her to get to him.  I partied more and more.  I alienated more and more people.  I skipped Karen’s debut as the lead in one of her college theater productions.  I became so mired in lies, I no longer knew my own truth.  And Karen was angry with me.  I was hurting her again and again with my betrayal of our friendship.  And I was so ugly, I didn’t care.

But then that no good boy dumped me.  With no self esteem and no true friends, I fell apart.  My cancer had eaten its way straight through me and had turned me into a dark mad hatter who had poisoned the tea.  I can’t remember all the details.  I don’t remember calling Karen, but I think my ex roommate did.  Cathy had talked me into seeing the campus psychologist and actually set up an appointment for me.  At the appointment, Karen showed up.  She drove the 5 hours from her campus to mine.  She was there and the look on her face scared me because in that moment I could see all that I had injured her with in those last couple of years.  I suddenly cared.  And we went through that session, and she made me speak the truth and never let up on me.  She didn’t cut me any slack.  She never wavered and never flinched with each confession I made of all the things I had become.  And if I spoke one false word, she brought me back around to honesty.  And she saved me that day.  And for a long time, I hid from her.  I could not look at her and yet at the same time, the cancer slowly lost its grip.  Loosened its tendrils from around my heart and allowed me to love myself.  I was free to be honest again.

At Karen’s wedding is when I first truly understood what she did for me.  As I stood up there reading a poem during the ceremony, I was shaking and nervous with stage fright but determined to not let her down.  She still trusted me with this important task even when I had damaged our relationship.  I have often thought of that day in the Spring of my Sophomore year, when she appeared on my doorstep, angry and hurt from my actions, solely to save me.  The selfless act of a childhood friend.  She was there to be my witness to that innocent child that still lived inside me.  The protector of that part of me that still believed in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and of course, magic.  Karen taught me how to be a true friend again.  And for that, I would drive lost through DC at any hour of the day or night, recounting eulogies in my head until I am smiling through the tears.





Well Behaved Cancer

It’s hard to believe that eight weeks ago, I was in Mercy hospital, hooked up to monitors and IV’s, struggling to take my first journey from bed to chair.  The task requiring a nurse and my mother and every bit of will power I had to make the half hour trip of 5 steps.  I was victorious.  I lasted maybe 30 minutes and then took the half hour trip back to bed.


My First 5 Steps

That was the half way point.  That short hour and half.  Eight weeks before that, I received my diagnosis.  Here we are eight weeks later, on a course of tamoxifen and continuing my journey into all the tomorrows I have, a minute at a time.  Last night, Gary and I stopped by one of our favorite watering holes, Tall Tales Brewery, for what we thought would be a quick bite.  We were treated to an evening of entertainment as a musical duo performed everything from Johny Cash to Phil Collins with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, a set of bongo drums and harmonizing passionate vocals.  We sat outside, feeling the unusually cool breeze for a July 4th evening roll across us as their very special arrangement of Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” started up.  Guitar licks effortlessly drifted and swirled around the bongo rhythms, building in intensity until they erupted into goose bumps across the surface of our skin.  One more minute of my tomorrow flowing into memories faster than those five steps I took in that hospital in another life time.

And then they played Led Zepplin.  And there was Keith with me once again, my Led head as Gary put it. I rested my chin on Gary’s shoulder, the scars that cover my abdomen and breast leaned against his back.  We drank in the music and all seemed right in the world.  I treated myself to mango sorbet while our band wrapped up the evening with an acoustic spin on Hendricks’ Star Spangled Banner.  And there was Keith, at Woodstock, witness to that original performance.


On the Road to Recovery

My medical oncologist is the one and only, Dr. David Smith.  He was Keith’s oncologist.  I will never forget his red rimmed eyes as he told me the morning Keith passed away that we had lost the battle.  I could think of no one else that I wanted to take care of me for this portion of my treatment.  During my first meeting with him, he explained my cancer in just a few simple words.  Its well behaved.  My breast cancer is following doctor’s orders.  Dr. Friedman who performed the mastectomy knows this.  Dr. Collins who performed the reconstruction knows this.  Dr. Smith knows this.  And now I do too.  All part of this journey that started with hearing the news, followed by surgery, followed by recovery, followed by treatment.  But unlike Friedman and Collins, Dr. Smith and I share something.  We know what it means to have well behaved cancer.  It means we’ll win this one.  I could think of no better way to thank the doctor who lost the battle along side us to Keith’s badly behaved cancer than to be his next Nielsen patient.  That and to enjoy every moment I have here on this earth.  Each and every one.

Moments like stepping into a musical treat last night.  After I type this I’ll meet my son, so we can join Gary at his friend’s annual Saturday fireworks show.  Gary is busy right now, helping Bill cook up the chicken.  I’ll be on the road in just a few moments to get Zach.  Soon enough, we’ll all be at the party, eating and laughing and being in the warm company of friends in the unseasonable cool air of this summer.  Then we’ll watch as Bill lights up the sky with fireworks.  Tonight, they will be even more special to me than ever before.  Tonight they will go off about the same time I was taking my first five steps in that hospital room eight weeks ago.  A celebration of my half way point.  A display of moments yet to happen.  A joyous noise for a well behaved cancer.

Eight Weeks Later

Eight Weeks Later

Choose Your Own Adventure

My brother and I spent endless hours reading these mesmerizing little game books known as the Choose Your Own Adventure
series. It started with the Cave of Time, and it didn’t take long before it was weathered, worn and filled with wrinkled, dog eared pages. Pretty soon, we had them all and read, swapped, reread, and swapped them until they were all worn and creased, some of them needing to have the pages taped back in. The premise was simple – read along until you have to make a decision – the entrance to the cave collapses and you are trapped. Do you wait quietly in the dark until help arrives? Turn to page 10. Do you keep moving deeper into the cave to find another way out? Turn to page 20. We had gotten to the point where we started to challenge each other – who could make choices that would keep you reading the longest, who would manage to read those books enough to discover every possible ending, which one of us could make choices that would loop us back to a section we had already read.

I think I could write my own choose your own adventure book. Just from the past 3 years. Call it “When Cancer Comes Calling” or “Finding Love, Health, and Prosperity Again”. And what an adventure it’s been, wrought with endless decisions, taking me to every new page with baited breath, asking “am I making the right choice?” Through Keith’s cancer and death, Dad’s illness, losing one job and finding a career, taking a leap into loving again with Gary, moving from the family home to a new warm abode, and this latest chapter of breast cancer and recovery, the adventure is still being written, still being read. There are still choices that need to be made.

I have discovered a common thread with all my choices though. One guiding principle that gives me confidence in all my choices. I continue to get stronger and better after my surgery performed by Mercy hospital. A place staffed by the best team of medical professionals I have ever encounter. I can clearly see where my decision to put my health in their hands has given me a happy bright future full of new chapters to write in my own adventure story. But I can write that book right now, in its entirety. It goes like this:

When a door closes, a window opens. There you are, faced with your closed door. Do you A) wait for a window to open or B) jimmie the lock on the door?

B) Jimmie the lock. Never wait for the window. We may have to accept what fate throws at us, but we never have to resign ourselves to it. We have it in us to fight back, take control, choose our own adventure until our pages are weathered and worn.

A Week Later

I had my first grand day out today.  I slipped an old maxie skirt up to my rib cage, carefully tucking the tubes that lead to my drains into the folds of it,  pulled Gary’s Hawaiian shirt over the top of my special post surgical camisole, and covered my face in a heavy layer of sunscreen.  Stepping out in to the day,  wearing sunglasses for the first time in a week, there was this rush of joy wrapped around my lumpy getup as I climbed into the car.  We went through the bank drive through.  We stopped at a store and Gary handed me the car keys while he ran in.  I had to chuckle as I sat there.  We are such creatures of habit.  Handing the keys to our passenger as we run in is almost a universal act.  The sun reached in through the sunroof.  Its warm tendrils touching my checks.  Me in the passenger seat with my empty pain ball in a pouch with its tubes still neatly sewn into my abdomen, as useless as an appendix but still permanently attached until I visit the doctor on Tuesday.  The clock ticks down on the need for the three drains tidily clipped to my clothing.  Ever mindful of keeping my right arm low and rested, I stared at those keys in my hand.  I could do nothing with them.  I couldn’t even open the car door.  And yet they whispered of what is to be.  That soon, I will be able to do all of that.  Open the door, drive the car, look at my body without seeing all the medical accoutrements hanging off it.  But right at that moment, none of that mattered as much as the simple pleasure of me sitting in a car on a cool sunny morning.

When I moved to Salisbury, there was a shrine in the form of a recliner that belonged to Gary’s father in the corner of the living room.  I added to it the quilt that laid over Keith’s bed for his last days.  Thursday at 4:00 am, I woke up to the first real experience of pain I have ever had in my life.  Real pain.  The kind that stops you from wanting to move or breath or talk.  That pain ball had run out at the same time that I chose to cut back on the Oxycontin I was taking before bed.  So that afternoon, Gary moved the recliner out front and center of the living room.  I climbed in and rested. My head pressed into Keith’s quilt.  My feet propped up where his father’s once did.  Swallowed the pills and closed my eyes until the pain finally faded away.

So I seem to have gone from the ultimate pain to the ultimate pleasure in just 3 days.  How do I explain how I feel any more?  This once emotionally unflappable woman finds herself drifting from one moment of joy, or laughter, or lighthearted spirits to the next one full of fear, or anger, or sorrow.  My mother stayed with me in the hospital.  It was one of my greatest comforts and yet, I was like her toddler daughter all over again.  NO! I would say – I can do that myself! as I mentally stomped my feet and crossed my arms.  I couldn’t of course.  And when my son stopped in to visit, I tried so hard to make light of the state I was in and all I really wanted to do was pull him to me as if he was still my baby and hold him, for my own comfort.  Then when I arrived home, Gary found himself stuck with a girlfriend encouraging him to go out and have fun only to get hit with her whiny complaints about being home alone a short time later.

But in a strange way, I have walked this path before.  I’m just seeing it through my husband’s eyes now.  So many times, he’d do just as I am doing now.  Enjoying the rare warm winter daylight flowing into the sunroom as he rested on the couch.  Telling me to go out and catch that band I wanted to see only to text me with his complaints.  Refusing to let me cook dinner until I pulled a chair into the kitchen so he could sit there and instruct me.  Over and over again, Keith would ask our friends if I knew how much he loved me.  Yes, I always knew.  I know even more now.  I know it with every stroke of mom brushing my hair and each wash cloth she ran across my face.  I know it with each time I looked at Zach quietly strolling into the room.  I know it with each time Gary reaches out his arm to help me stand up, with each meal he cooks for me, each time he reminds me to rest that arm, take my medicine, take a nap.  It is a reciprocal unconditional love.  Its the kind of love you feel when someone hands you the car keys while they run in the store.



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.




We humans have a tendency to stumble through our emotional lives, staggering between our selfish desires and our longing to guard the soft vulnerabilities of the people we love.  Sure, there are monsters among us.  The Hitlers, the Bundys, the Khans.  But they are not us.  Their dark souls will never know what it is to carry guilt.  Their hearts will never feel the pain they press upon others.  We do, sometimes intensely.  It is what give us the power to forgive.  We are more empathetic than we give ourselves credit for.

I was promoted at work.  This week I jumped in with both feet.  People have come and gone, interviewed for the job, and along the way – they all let me glimpse into their lives.  I’m full of stories now.  A grandparent who fought in WWII, a mother who had to bury her son, a man soothing his toddler by playing a Boss Scaggs CD in the car.  And a woman who shyly shared with me that she did a foolish thing in her youth.  I told her there was nothing to be ashamed of.  I had my share of youthful foolishness too.  I just never got caught.  She thanked me for not judging her.  How could I judge her?  Not passing judgement is our way of sending forgiveness to a stranger.

Thrown into the middle of my glimpses sat two apologies.  One last night from my far past.  He had no idea I had long ago forgiven him but he still needed to hear that.  He didn’t know that the damage was now a scar neatly knitted closed over the course of my life.  Then came another apology this morning from someone so deeply close to me, and it came so quickly that I was still in shock and holding the wound tight to stop the bleeding.  But it didn’t stop me from forgiving him.  Right there, on the spot.  Time to move on.

It doesn’t matter what the wrongs were.  It doesn’t matter when they happened or how.  We all find ourselves occasionally knocking on that door to selfish acts.  If it opens, If we dare to go in,  we run the risk of calaterial damage – to ourselves and to the people we love.  It’s ok.  We are human. As long as we remember that when we drink in the forgiveness offered us, we need to forgive ourselves.

Voted Most Optimistic

I was voted most optimistic by my senior class in high school.  None of you who have come to know me in my adult form would even bat an eye at the nomination.  In fact, most would say that it was a given.  Once the glass is half full, it’s always half full.  Right?  But truth is a far stranger tale than fiction.  Not only did my 17-year-old self see the glass half empty, I saw that glass precariously balanced on some slick surface seconds away from crashing to the floor, shattering into razor-sharp bits and pieces with its half empty contents running away from its protective vessel.  If I ever did see it as half full, I was convinced that it was poison.  I was the queen of emo before emo’s existed.  I was the harbinger of ill tidings with a dash of poor me. Chicken Little and Eeyore all rolled into one cubby, ocular challenged, morose square peg.  Always looking for a passive-aggressive fight, I was notorious for deciding it was down when someone said it was up.  It didn’t even sway me when they presented the flow chart confirming the facts and statistical analysis in support of “up”.

So how on earth did I manage to win the vote?  Ah – you see – I fixed the election.  I stuffed the ballot box.  Lacking in optimism never stopped me from being opportunistic.  Now that’s a trait I’ve had my whole life.  From early on, I’ve been very capable of using charm and wit and a big chubby cheeked smile to go after the things I want.  Sometimes with a dash of “be careful what you wish for” – like the time this little toddler poured on the Shirley Temple charm on a train till I was given a Halloween’s worth of treats and an equally painful little belly ache.

In my teen geek-phase, curls and chubby smiles gave way to the power of debate and persuasion.  And so it was the day the ballots were handed out.  It was during my College Prep English class and seated with me were another 20 or so of my fellow classmates, mostly seniors.  I wanted to be voted for something, anything really.  I knew I was way out of the running for most beautiful, smart, athletic, school spirit, cutest couple, likely to succeed . . . as I read down the list I started to see that half empty glass until I heard the whispers.  Those around me saying “Most Optimistic?  Whats that on there for?  Who’s optimistic? That’s silly.  Why bother.  They shouldn’t have that one on there.”  Bingo!  I had my “in”.  I piped up to the whispering masses with my best smile “I’m optimistic.”  There was almost a collective sigh around the room.  As if I were volunteering to be this year’s harvest festival sacrifice.  Yes! they all agreed.  Cherish will save us all from the one title that was not already preordained. I watched as they scribbled my name in the blank, not caring one lick that I was about to carry a title unworthy of popularity advancement.  All I cared about was being voted as Most Something or Most Anything.

So the votes were tallied and all the most beautiful, smart, athletic, school spirit, cutest couple, likely to succeed, and most optimistic seniors were gathered together in front of the school.  It was one of the few moments of my high school life where I was standing shoulder to shoulder with the most popular kids in our class. Each Most, one girl and one boy, were photographed in front of the brick wall under the awning leading into our great halls of learning.  There I was, standing next to our class president who towered over me.  As the camera was raised, he put his arm on my head and I threw two thumbs up in the air with my best cheesy smile.  The kind of smile that charms chocolate out of the pockets of fellow passengers on a train.  In the click of a shutter, for one split second, I was most optimistic, and then I returned to my natural half empty existence.

Somewhere, somehow, over the years I evolved and the glass became half full.  Not only half full, but half full with the promise of being filled to the brim.  When Keith got sick, that never changed.  When Keith died, it never changed.  When Dad was sick, it didn’t waiver.  When I lost my job, not a drop was spilled from that glass.  Sure, I’ve had my stress, my fears, my doubts, my worries.  Who wouldn’t?  But my resolve to remain optimistic never wavered.  And now I have before me my latest truth stranger than fiction.  The breast biopsy results have returned – I have invasive ductal carcinoma – breast cancer. This blog, originally named “Keith’s Updates”, was started to keep everyone we loved informed on Keith’s progress.  So it follows that I have added a new category – “Cherish’s Updates” – and this is the first one.  All I can say right now is to check back again soon.  All the information I have is the diagnosis.  What I can update you on is this – that glass will never be half empty again.  I’ve earned every drop in there.  Struggled and strained to keep it half full, more than half full for three years now.  I can do it till my last breath, if need be.

Sometimes, a camera captures in a split second what’s inside of us all along. Those two thumbs up and that candy smile that sits in my yearbook? Maybe my teen self knew I’d need to see them now.  Maybe, just maybe, she knew something beyond her young age. Maybe she took advantage of her foolish youth to expel all the darkness and negativity from her soul back when that ugly behavior could be chalked up to teen angst. Maybe she knew that if she could add just one drop of opportunity to that glass, tip it over to half full, she would be giving her future self all the strength necessary to move gracefully from one challenge to the next.  That by fixing the vote to snatch up a worthless title in high school, she gave herself the most important one that can be bestowed upon her as an adult.