Varmin, vacuuming and vexations (Or, the week I did five thousand loads of laundry.)

My blood just ran cold for a moment. The bag. I forgot to change the bag. Ooooh. All the dread.

It all began when I noticed my youngest doing a similar dance to that of a flea-infested dog who’s just eaten chocolate. While my inner dialogue was finding god and begging whoever was listening to please, please, please not let me find what I thought I was going to find, my outer mama was doing the STOP EVERYTHING thing. Get a flashlight. And Come. Here.

Ah, shit. With the same urgency one would employ whilst dealing with the impending apocalypse, my focus narrowed. A couple of phone calls, texts and one very manic trip to the drug store later, both of my boys were shorn and very much free of the unspeakable bugs I spent far too much time studiously combing out of eldest’s head. Divide and conquer was the only way to deal with this particular crisis. One at Dad’s, one at Mom’s. The big boy wasn’t super cool with having his head shorn. And so, although I am fairly confident I could have lived out the rest of my days without it, I now have a deep and profound understanding of the expressions ‘nitpick’ and ‘Go through it with a fine-toothed comb’. Oh yes. That little clicking sound the comb made every time it encountered one of these little passengers is imprinted in my memory now, I’ll have you know. Right up there with the desperate statement made by my eldest during said nit-picking session: ‘Umm…Mom? I think there’s one on my face. ….Yep.’

Inner voice: ‘$%$##$ hell. ohmygodohchristhelpmeplease.’

Calm, outer mama-voice: You know what honey? I really think it would be best for you just to shave it. Really. Okay? Okay.

Itchy yet? Yep. I get it.

Both kids shorn. Then there’s time to really freak out. Then it’s time to head down to the local laundromat, where I must say there really is a hugely disproportionate amount of ass-crack compared to pretty much everywhere else I’ve ever been (and not the pretty kind), and utter something utterly foreign to me: ‘I’d like 40 dollars in change please.’

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I have never cleaned with such gusto in my life. I thought of keeping a running list of how many times I washed-the-bedding-cleaned-the-pillows-vacuumed-the-mattresses-stripped-the-beds-laundered-clothing-sanitized-towels-clorox-wiped-every-surface, but I was too busy checking my own scalp in the mirror. It’s been two weeks, and I’m still carefully combing through my own hair with that magic purple comb at least once a day. Today when I spied a piece of lint on the box-spring while I was vacuuming it (yep, still doing it) I actually let the mattress fall on me while I pounced on it with WHAT ARE YOU???? screaming inside my very fragile brain. A friend of mine likes to scratch his head while he story-tells. That’s been banned. Any head-scratching performed in my presence from this day forward will result in a thorough going-over by me, seasoned nit-picker. You’ve been warned.

So that was enough crazy for one week, right? Nah. Not even a week later, Child #1 is spied head-down, listless and very much not hungry during the lunch hour by the supervisor. One mama-hand to the forehead sends a chill down my spine. He’s hot. Like drop-everything hot. Sick. One day later, I’m down. The next, little man is feeling pretty crappy as well. There is a curse upon our house.

Pull out all the stops. No. More. Bugs.

Pull out all the stops. No. More. Bugs.

So, half a bottle of Adult extra-strength Tylenol, one box of Emergen-C, two boxes of tea, half a jar of honey, several good doses of Nyquil, one bag of Epsom salts, 21 loads of laundry, one humiliating visit to the medical clinic (because we had to wear masks, not because of Isaac’s delirious fever-induced hallucinations of people racing all around him), …

Nobody wants to be this guy in the waiting room.

Nobody wants to be this guy in the waiting room.

Oh well. We owned it.

Oh well. We owned it.

countless coughing jags – two of which ended with us laying on the floor, daily vitamins, and 12 combined lost pounds, I think we are finally coming out of it. Little one back to school yesterday, only to just about put me over the edge by jumping, screaming, out of his seat at dinner last night looking hysterical – I couldn’t tell whether he was laughing or crying.

Me: WHAT HAPPENED???

Him: I BIT MY FINGER!!! (Crying)

Him: I THOUGHT IT WAS MEAT!!! (Hysterical laughter mixed with tears)

Me: I give up. Well. At least you’re eating. I’ll get a bandaid.

So, half of my sick days for the year are gone, and it’s still September. But hey – it’s not cancer, right? Could be worse!

Pencils, passports and paranoia (Or, I bought a heavy-duty pencil sharpener the other day.)

The catalyst.

The catalyst.

I bought a heavy-duty pencil sharpener the other day. This may seem like an act that should be ranked right up there with I grabbed a newspaper, or I watered the plants, but for me it was far from trivial. There were four to choose from, ranking from the very-cheap-may-last-the-year version to the mediocre battery-operated type, and then there were two heavy-duty sharpeners, with bigger price tags but which came equipped with heavy cords and big promises. Mine promises to last beyond my far-off retirement, in high-traffic areas such as classrooms or large offices. I considered it an investment. And a huge leap of faith.

Some of you are no doubt scratching your heads at my chatter about pencil sharpeners, and others, who have been forced to see life in a way that forces them to hesitate to plan for their futures, may be getting it.

I haven’t renewed my license for more than one year at a time since I got sick. When I renewed my passport, I went for the five year renewal rather than the ten, because, well – that part’s probably pretty obvious. When someone tells you you have cancer, and when that delicious luxury of being able to blissfully utter phrases like ‘when I retire’, or ‘in ten years or so’ is removed, you stop making assumptions about longevity. And, if you’re like me, you stop daring to look forward to things that are really far off. You say things like ‘if I get to get old’ instead of ‘when I’m older’. And, if you’re like me, when you go to your oncology appointments and they tell you everything looks good and your blood work is great and they’ll see you in three months, there is still a small, slightly irrational red-faced Tanya inside your head shaking the lovely pink-shirt-sporting doctor and yelling I DON’T BELIEVE YOU. Because you’ve had the bad appointment too. You want proof.

On my last appointment, which very nearly coincided with my two years past-chemo anniversary, I brought in a little sticky paper that my lymphedema specialist (so yeah. That’s happening.) had written on. Four possible causes for my very sore, slightly swollen arm. This is kind of a synopsis of how that appointment went.

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The physiotherapist announced that she was just going to jot a few things down for me to show my oncologist at my appointment.

  1. Cellulitis: Bad sunburn, Very high anxiety/stress, lots of massage in left armpit.
  2. Blood clot: Venous doppler?
  3. “It could be your cancer coming back. But I’m not going to write that down.”
  4. *Lymphedema: add sleeve.

Wait – what??

So I hyperventilated my way through the two hours leading up to my oncology appointment with a couple of friends and presented that lovely little sticky to my oncologist, who lifted my arm up, showed me how the veins in my hand flattened when it was held above my head and filled when I put my arm back down again, assuring me that I wasn’t going to drop dead of a blood clot letting loose and filling my lungs in the next ten seconds. Whew. Well then what about this cancer thing?? (If I could somehow make the words build into a panic-filled-hysterical crescendo for you, I would.)

Poke. Prod. poke-prod. Inhale. Exhale. WELL???

“I don’t feel anything going on in there. You’re fine. There’s nothing happening. Go have fun.”

So this is when I peer into his eyes to see if he’s trying to trick me. I make him double-check my blood work. It’s when I get a hug from my friend who’s just seen me through this appointment, and my whole body exhales, my shoulders come down about two inches, and I desperately want a burger. (That’s traditionally how these appointments go. I panic and have no appetite leading up to them, and then generally by the time I open the exit door to the parking lot of the hospital, I am ravenous and want a burger.)

Post-appointment relief.

Post-appointment relief.

So back to the pencil sharpener. Believing that I’m going to be around long enough to really get my money’s worth out of this pencil sharpener is a leap of faith. It’s not, to be clear, about the sharpener. I mean it’s pretty and everything, but it’s not that that excites me. It’s the hope. The tentative belief. It’s something I’ve decided to do more often. When I renew my licence plates again, which I am usually very bad at, it will be for two years, not one. And when I renew my passport, I am going to take the ten year option, dammit.

Because it’s nice to have something to look forward to.

Namaste, mutha*&^%as!

It’s been so, so long.

I went back and edited the ‘About Me’ section of this blog the other night, and almost took out trail running and hot yoga, because it’s been such a long time since I’ve done either. But I left them, because I do love those two activities, for very different reasons but also for similar ones. Trail running. Finding a rhythm, inhaling three steps, exhaling three steps, navigating rocks and roots and mud and snow, ducking under branches and jumping over streams. It’s a primal connection with instinct and endurance, with the woods and the landscape. I haven’t completely put trail running on the back burner, and I’ve definitely been to the woods quite a bit over the past couple of years, but hot yoga was actually forbidden until at least the fall, and frankly I have put it off since because I was anxious about being able to get through a class, and I couldn’t find a shirt that I could be comfortable in in all those bendy, bent-over, folded up positions in a room crammed full of sweaty, cleavage-y, fit, long-haired women. (Have you seen some of the women who do hot yoga? It’s kind of inspiring. Or enraging. Or maybe both.) Also, my hair was a concern because there is no escaping a good full body sweat in hot yoga, and the last time I attempted a good workout it was at the trampoline park and my hair curled so tightly to my head because of my efforts that I had no choice but to cover my head with a toque for the remainder of the evening, and there really is no toque option in hot yoga. So I’ve been putting it off.

Last week I woke up having dreamed about yoga. And running. And I decided it was a sign of some sort of readiness, and so I went shopping, in the hopes of finding a shirt that, unlike the lovely breast-revealing variety that is à la mode in hot yoga, covered me enough to allow me to move freely without being distracted by the possibility of  inadvertently flashing my scars while warrior-child-or-downward-dog-posing. That variety of yoga shirt is actually pretty tough to find, in case you were in the market.

This shirt actually made me miserable when I put it on and fitted it with its 'accoutrements', which are, unfortunately, rather heavy for a shirt of this fabric, and kind of settled somewhere in the middle of my chest in one mushy lump. I wore a t-shirt instead. But I thank this shirt for being a catalyst. I will put it away for post-reconstruction hot yoga.

This shirt actually made me miserable when I put it on and fitted it with its ‘accoutrements’, which are, unfortunately, rather heavy for a shirt of this fabric, and, also unfortunately, kind of settled somewhere in the middle of my chest in one mushy lump. I wore a t-shirt instead. But I thank this shirt for being a catalyst. I will put it away for post-reconstruction hot yoga.

So. I booked a spot for today’s hot flow class, and started the pre-yoga panic. Upon arrival there, as is always the case in these classes, we are encouraged to focus inward, to let go of any nagging thoughts or worries. Yep. Almost burst into laughter then, and had to refocus, because they take their silence very, very seriously in hot yoga. Okay. Breathed in through my nose. Out through my mouth. Then both through my nose. ‘Focus on your breathing.’

My inner dialogue went something like this from that point forward.

Right. Try not to focus on the fact that we are packed in like sardines, and I am very aware of the reality that the proximity of the woman to my right will make it almost impossible, unless she is very crafty, for her not to sweat on me. We will have to work together. Okay. Refocus.

Inhale. Exhale.

‘Sometimes our minds find it hard to quiet.’ Internal burst of laughter again. No. Shit. Okay. Refocus. Why the HELL did I decide to lay down beside the mirror?! One glance confirms everything I feel about my body as of late. I used to be comfortable in front of the mirror in hot yoga. I felt strong. Balanced. Beautiful. I open my eyes, roll my head to my left and see the rapidly frizzing hair, the red face, the extra few inches packed onto my usually very flat stomach, the visual reminder of cancer (shit. This shirt doesn’t cover my lymph node scar – STOP. Let that shit go, Gouthro.

Breathe in. Out.

‘As you focus on your breathing, try to think about what you want out of your practise today.’

First: To make it through to the end of the class without vomiting, passing out, falling down,  punching someone with beautiful breasts, or crying.

Inhale. Exhale. (They really do give you enough time at the beginning of class to find that focus, to chill the hell out and remember why you’re there.)

Then: A reconnect. Something. Anything. Please let me find, today, in this next hour, that my body still has strength. Flexibility. Please, for this hour, let me recognize myself. Let me feel at peace in and connected to my body.

And that was when I was able to dig deep enough to focus on that goal, to forget about everyone else in that room. To push aside thoughts about my extra inches, about my scars, about having the wrong shirt and hair that’s too curly, to forget about trauma and cancer for an hour, and work my body out like it hasn’t been worked out since April, 2013.

And, I found tonight that sometimes there are good surprises, which is something I haven’t had the courage to believe for some time now. I reached my goal. For an hour, I found my rhythm again. I made demands of my body, and it listened. It obediently flexed, planked, cobra’d, flowed and it sweated. It hurt; that has to be said. But not enough to stop me, not enough to make me vomit, pass out, fall down, punch someone with beautiful breasts, or cry.

What a beautiful release, to be fully present in my body – this flawed, damaged body, and find joy and strength in it again. What a beautiful, much-needed release.

Namaste.

Flip or flop, front or back (Or, making the reconstruction decision)

Last week I got the call I’ve been waiting for (and maybe dreading in equal measure). The local plastic surgeon, who had had my referral in since early November, and whose answering service clearly stated that if your referral was less than four months old basically don’t bother leaving a message, was ready to see me. Like soon. Like today.

My hope for reconstruction was that I would have the Diep flap surgery, an abdominal surgery that involves taking the skin and fat from your abdomen (I’ve been growing mine since August) and moves it to your chest, covering mastectomy scars and forming lovely plump breasts made from your own flesh. Dreamy, right? No muscle removal necessary, minimizing the risk of hernia and other various sundry annoyances. My surgeons from Winnipeg encouraged me to gain 10-15 lbs and come back when my skin was nice and strong and they would fix me up. Yeah. Not going back there. That decision was made about two months after being diagnosed with PTSD, following my two-in-a-week wide-awake surgeries there, when my implants were summarily removed in front of a team of residents and I was lucky enough (please, please hear my sarcasm here) to be very much awake and present for all of it.

I was very excited to hear about the new surgeon in town. I knew he had done the Diep flap surgery, with much success, many times before.

Well. It turns out he doesn’t do it here. There just isn’t a big enough team. And I get it. They need a specific kind of plastics team to do this surgery. There’s micro-surgery involved. It’s pretty complicated. Blood supplies being transferred from groin to chest and such.

What he does do is the latissimus dorsi flap surgery. He takes a flap of skin AND MUSCLE from the back, tunnels it under the skin under the armpit onto the chest, so that it actually never leaves your body. Reattaches it and forms, again, a lovely breast. Not so plump though. Tissue expander (again), swapped out for implants later (again), but with much less risk, because the skin he’ll be working with has not suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous radiation. That skin, apparently, is simply no longer viable. Whatever that means. The surgeries are not without their risks, for sure.

There is a very intimidating booklet on all the risks involved: scarring, bleeding, infection, wound problems, bruising and swelling, damage to local structures, nerve injury, anaesthetic related complications, systemic complications, mood changes, cosmetic complications. The list is long.

There is a very intimidating booklet on all the risks involved: scarring, bleeding, infection, wound problems, bruising and swelling, damage to local structures, nerve injury, anaesthetic related complications, systemic complications, mood changes, cosmetic complications. The list is long.

What all of this means is that I have a decision to make. Do I stay close to home, to family, far away from planes I have to travel with drains hanging off of me, and go with the loss of a muscle from my back, apparently a ‘climbing’ muscle which I won’t miss very much, even in yoga, or do I embark on the endless back-forth-back-forth consultations, pre-op, operation and post-op appointments in another town, far from home, so that I can have the cadillac of breast reconstructions? Do I want my scars in the front or the back (the new ones, I mean)? Is it more acceptable for me to sport a new, hip-to-hip scar above my C-section scars, or to sketch out some new ones, armpit to armpit across my back, that can be neatly hidden by a bra strap that I may not even need with my new stand-on-their-own breasts?

I have four weeks to decide. Well. I have all the time I want to decide. But it would be in my best interests, I think, to figure it out soon. Because this is starting to feel like the never-ending breast saga. Surgery can’t happen until at least July. Likely not until the fall. Which is about 5 months later than I had hoped.

I’m going to weigh the pros and cons. Think about my family, my kids. I’m going to cross my fingers and hope I make the right decision for me, one that will allow me to look at myself in the mirror and see something other than the punishing scars of cancer. One that will allow for full recovery, supported by surgeons I trust and people I count on.

Fingers crossed. And all good vibes appreciated!

Fingers crossed. And all good vibes appreciated!

Ready or not. (Or, the return of the teacher formerly known as Madame Gouthro)

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Ironically, Madame is allergic to apples. But maybe if she gives one a day to the students, the doctor will still stay away.

 

You can never go back. (I know this, and yet I have repeatedly made attempts to do so over the course of my life, never with any good result.) So when I say I am going back to work, well, it doesn’t mean what I think it means. Or what it’s supposed to mean. Or something.

Permission to go back to work. What it really means is permission to attempt to return to some sort of routine. To go back to a familiar place, be surrounded by familiar people, and perform a very familiar job, all as a person with whom I’m not yet really familiar. To leave sick behind, and try to be normal. Or, my favourite, get back to my old self. It means changing my purpose from healing (on a good day) or surviving (on a not-so-good day) to heading a classroom full of spirited, hormone-riddled students and helping them get through this school year and emerge better than they were at the start. These kids very much need for me to be okay. And I will be.

It’s just that when they crowd in for a hug, and say ‘T’es retournée!’ or You’re back!, they don’t necessarily know that it’s not entirely true. The Madame Gouthro they knew is changed. She’s never coming back. There’s a new one, but what’s strange is that I haven’t met her yet. I’ll meet the new Madame when the kids do, and we’ll have to figure it out together.

I practised sitting here today. I found myself holding my breath a lot. Tomorrow, I'll go in and practise breathing at that desk.

I practised sitting here today. I found myself holding my breath a lot. Tomorrow, I’ll go in and practise breathing at that desk.

I have spent time in her space every day this week, and I’ve started to try to make it just the way I think she’d like it. I’ve put out bowls of apples for the students (old Madame did that; they liked it.), cleaned out cupboards and drawers and organized resources for her. I brought a few talismans from home and put them on her desk, because I think she might need a few of these with her in the first few weeks. I’ve tried to choose natural fabrics and calm colours, and I’ve bought her some plants, because I know she’ll want as much green around her as possible. I still have a lot of work to do to get the room ready for her, but it will be done for Tuesday.

I found some great quotes to inspire both her and the students.

I found some great quotes to inspire both her and the students.

 

Twine, burlap and wood. And green. Lots of green.

Twine, burlap and wood. And green. Lots of green.

And then, Wednesday morning, after I leave my house and turn the key in my lock and after I drive to work, after I put my lunch in the fridge, check my mailbox and head upstairs, only when I turn the knob to my classroom and meet all those expectant smiles, will I meet Madame Gouthro.

I think she’ll be okay.

Road-trips, revisits and revelations (Or, how I made up for last summer)

It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. It’s just that I’ve been too busy doing the things I want to write about to write about them. Now, summer is coming to a close (the days always seem to speed up at this time of August, don’t they?) and I can sit down, close my eyes and think about how lucky I’ve been, and enjoy that for awhile before launching myself back into the routine of work.

Last summer was spent on the couch, watching everyone else around me hit the road, pitch tents, wander away to far-away places and generally enjoy life while I sat, very much not enjoying life, although that’s not to say I wasn’t grateful for it. I shipped my kids off to day camps so that they’d be occupied, and although I’m sure they were mildly entertained it didn’t touch how we usually spend our summers. I vowed this summer would be different. And it sure has been, although it hasn’t been what I would have expected. I guess, as a friend pointed out, I decided to say yes. To all of the questions to which my answer was no last year, I have tried to answer yes. To the little thoughts that could become big ideas that could become actions, I have also tried to say yes.

Like this, Mom! (I don't ever, ever need to do that again. But that was an amazing moment.)

Like this, Mom! (I don’t ever, ever need to do that again. But that was an amazing moment.)

Let’s start with the little thought that occurred to me a few months ago: I’d like to photograph the desert. Normally, that thought would have been followed by oh yes wouldn’t that be nice, or maybe someday. This time, my next thought was who can I convince to come with me, which prompted a series of phone calls, two refusals, one yes, and then another yes, which followed a bottle of wine and my finger hovering tantalizingly over the purchase ticket button on my air miles site. Two takers, two airline tickets, one very packed truck courtesy of my very well-equipped gear-happy friend in the prairies, and we were off. We said yes.

I was so looking forward to driving that trip. Unfortunately, when my turn came to drive, I learned what one of my triggers is for this anxiety beast I’m currently wrestling (I do think I’m winning, most of the time. But he’s tough.) The unexpected. Being surprised. Blindsided. Something as simple as a phone call I wasn’t expecting was, at the beginning of this summer, leaving me shaking and ‘zappy’ for several hours afterward. On the road trip day in question, the combination of getting very scary news about a dear friend, driving someone else’s vehicle, and those sneaky mountains that spring up around corners when you’re driving through Wyoming woke that anxiety monster up and rattled it, resulting in me trying to drive, and feeling like there were electrical currents (somewhat ironic, given the nature of the emergency concerning the very dear friend) shooting through my body. I tried to breathe my way around turns and up hills, and I gripped the steering wheel with sweat-drenched hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, as one should, but after about two hours of fighting agoraphobia and vertigo and suffering through full-body sweats and yoga-breathing, I had to admit defeat. Which meant that, until we returned to the very-flat landscape of Montana on the last day of our trip, until I had received good news about my friend, and until I had done enough little scary things to make my confidence a bit stronger, my two fellow road-trippers did all of the driving. They did so without judgement, and without complaint, and for that I am eternally grateful. It meant that I got to watch all of the unapologetic beauty that frames the (very long) drive to Goblin Valley State Park, where we were lucky enough to stay for our time in the desert. We set up camp there in the dark, as we had the night before on top of a very high, very cold mountain (it’s very difficult to light a fire when you’re up over 7500 feet!), and woke up to this.

This was right beside our campsite - completely invisible in the desert dark night. This kind of sandstone surrounded us for three glorious, very hot days.

This was right beside our campsite – completely invisible in the desert dark night. This kind of sandstone surrounded us for three glorious, very hot days.

Saying yes. Should I climb the rocks? Yes. Should I risk the road-trip I can’t afford? Yes. Should I zip-line, and let go with arms and legs open wide so that I can see that joy in my kids’ faces? Yes. Should I go swimming? Yes. Should I wander down to the shore in the dark just to look at the moon by myself? Yes. Should I introduce myself to the homeless man I recognize and whose story I’ve always wanted to know, and buy him a beer? Yes. Should I drive the extra six hours to revisit the place where I learned French, and share that place with my kids? Yes. Should I send maple syrup to the man who wrote about honey? Yes. Should I change flights last-minute to sit with the friend whose accident terrified me? Yes. Oh. And should I try driving again before the road-trip ends? Yes. Because I’ll be fine.

 

Should I stop amongst the goblins and do the handstand over and over again, until I get it right? Yes.

Should I stop amongst the goblins and do the handstand over and over again, until I get it right? Yes.

Saying yes this summer is helping me to shake that monster that’s been haunting me since March. He’s not gone; he’s sneaky and he’s very tricky. But he’s learning to keep his distance. Yes scares him off just a little bit. 

You just never know how many opportunities you’re going to get to say yes. My two cents? Say yes now. Don’t wait. 

Insult to Injury, Illustrated.

Let’s call this blog a word to the wise, from the not-so-wise.

My incision sites are over three months old. I thought, just before my trip, that I was ready to try to loosen up some scar tissue. The adhesion was pretty intense on my left side, and although massage and stretching are very helpful, I know eventually those scars need to loosen up. I used a very light touch, and a very soft brush that I normally use for washing my face, and started at the incision site and brushed, very gently, downward.

The result was gradual, very intense bruising, admonishment from my lymphedema specialist and a visit to the Cancer Centre, who made room for me only because I told them I was headed to the emergency room if they couldn’t. Also, round ten of antibiotics this year. Do I want to put this out there? Nope. I’ve spent the past week or so kind of hiding out, and shopping for very soft bras with no wires whatsoever, because it would appear that even the gentlest pressure is going to wreak havoc on my torso. I do, however, want to make sure this little lesson gets out there somehow. So here you go.

Lesson learned. I am not as healed as I would like to be. If any of you are thinking of rushing things, don’t. This shit takes time. That is all.

About two weeks after brushing, the bruising seems to be settling down a little bit.

About two weeks after brushing, the bruising seems to be settling down a little bit.