May 2009

Puppy Love

I volunteer at the animal shelter every Wednesday, and I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s the highlight of my week. To be more honest–it’s somewhat of an addiction and I find that I’m in greatest need of a fix when the breast cancer demons come a’knockin’.

I started out in the basic, entry-level position of dog walker. For two hours a week I’d work my way down the seemingly endless row of chain-link and cinder-block kennels. Stopping in front of each cell, I’d lift the latch, crack open the door two inches, and squat down to lasso the head that inevitably came pressing through, its owner starved for the sweet taste of freedom. Droopy-eyed basset hounds, yappy terriers, mastiffs as solid as coffee tables, if it had four legs and a tail, I’d walk it.

I loved the job but the title was a bit misleading since it was the rare inmate who behaved well on the end of a lead. A leash-trained dog meant we were both rewarded with a quiet stroll through the woods behind the shelter. Not too fast. Not too slow. Stop. Sniff. Proceed. But most of the dogs had the manners of baby chimps and it was all I could do to steer them into one of the shelter’s small, enclosed play yards. Once inside and untethered, the dogs pinballed around like kindergartners on a sugar high. When I could grab their attention, I lobbed tennis balls and flung Frisbees. When I couldn’t, I scooped poop and laughed at their sideshow antics. Each yard had a hard, white plastic lawn chair. And, on some days, by the end of my shift, when I was tired, or cold, or covered in some mix of shit and mud, I’d give in and sit down. And, if the dog was particularly shy or nervous, he would climb into my lap and we would contentedly hold one another.

In early January, I was promoted to adoption counselor. While I adored walking dogs, I loved my new gig even more because a) Bloomington’s winter weather had turned the play yards into mud-wrestling pits b) I got to see animals leave the shelter, which was a nice twist, and c) adoption counselors were in short supply, meaning I could show up anytime and work. And that’s what I did, especially in those awful, slow-motion days of early February following my diagnosis. Unfit company for humans (meaning Mary), I’d get in my car and drive to the shelter. With dozens of bellies to scratch, ears to ruffle, and sad eyes to gaze into, moping about my tumor was not an option. Nothing chased gloom-and-doom thoughts away faster than the sound of three dozen dogs barking at once, their sharp staccato voices pleading “look at me, look at me.” 

One cold Saturday in early February when I was feeling particularly despondent and fragile, I fell in love with a puppy named Crandle. He was white with a few shakes of pepper sprinkled across his back. The size of a small clutch, he was content to snuggle in my arms. I flirted with the idea of calling Mary to come in and meet him. Ever since I started at the shelter, I’d been lobbying hard for a second dog, but I knew that a 10-week-old puppy was a horrible match for our aloof, 7-year-old boxer/lab; plus, with surgery looming, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Just for fun, I tried a couple of basic puppy temperament tests on him, holding him aloft in one hand. He passed with flying colors, his droopy little body staying limp, his eyes gazing at me unconcerned. Next I hugged him toward my chest, and gently rolled him over. He started to kick a hind leg in protest, but quickly relinquished his belly. Knowing he would be a great dog–for someone else–I held him, football style, in one arm while going about my business. The next time I arrived at the shelter, he was gone.

He was hardly the first or last dog to steal my heart. I fall in love once a week without fail. After Crandle, I gave my heart to a sad, 110-pound yellow lab named, of course, Marley. Then Franklin, a scrawny black beagle mix who scrambled to occupy any nearby lap. And, one of my favorites, Miner, a golden retriever/shar-pei puppy who bounced along on his front two legs, his haunches atrophied from a birth defect. But love at the shelter is short-lived–the ultimate lesson in nonattachment. The harder you fall for a dog or cat, the more determined you are to find it a good home. And, if you do your job well, chances are you’ll never see that sweet face again. Well, with at least one exception. One day at the shelter, shortly before my surgery, a tabby kitten crawled into my lap and refused to leave. He was so light, so small, so un-chimpanzee-like, I called Mary. The rest is history. But I still think Bindi and Emma would welcome another dog some day, so I’ll keep my eyes peeled…just in case.

“O” My

Wow. How weird was that?

Thanks to everyone here for your support and faithful viewing! 

Overall, I was happy with the show but (I must admit) a bit disappointed with the editing, which made my segment feel a little disjointed. Here’s what I was trying to get across: There were two things Dr. Oz said that stuck with me that fateful day in the surgeon’s office. One was about being the world’s expert on your body. Yes, good. But the second point was about the importance of hearing your doctor say the words “I’m sorry.” I explained how Mary looked the surgeon in the eye and asked  him to say that he was sorry. I explained how the minute he apologized, the energy in the room shifted from confrontational to compassionate. And that hearing him say he was sorry is what allowed me to release my anger and see him as a human being who’d made a mistake. Well, the editors kept point #1 and spliced it together with the tail end of point #2, which didn’t make sense to me. All of a sudden I went from feeling like an expert on my body to releasing my anger. Wha? I know I’m splitting hairs here, but, in a perfect world, I wish there’d been time to get both messages across. But that’s okay…the television experience was a hoot, and we came home  with a suitcase full of neti pots and “O” swag. If anyone missed the show and is feeling left out, check out an awful picture of me and read my sad story here. 

Stranger Than Fiction

Believe it or not, I’m appearing as a guest on The Oprah Show tomorrow, May 12th. The show is a final tribute to Dr. Oz, and I’m on talking (very briefly) about my botched mastectomy. Might as well make lemonade out of that awfulness, right? I know, I know…why the hell haven’t I blogged about this? Especially given that Mary and I flew to Chicago two weeks ago to tape the show!!! Well, because I signed a strongly worded legal document agreeing not to blog, write, or otherwise report on my “O” experience. So, no, you won’t be reading any behind-the-scenes “O” scuttlebutt here. And, hopefully, this post won’t land me in hot water. BUT I wanted to let y’all know in case you wanted to tune in and share in this very surreal experience with me.

Coming Home to Family

Last weekend marked the two-month anniversary of my double mastectomy AND the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby. So, of course, I went to Louisville, to my parents’ house, the house of my adolescence, and the first place that comes to mind when I think of Home. 

Coming home to my family is almost as daunting as coming home to myself. Something about being surrounded by family is both comforting and excruciating. Maybe because, under the lens of their loving scrutiny, there is no place to hide. I eventually relax into their collective embrace but it takes awhile. And, while the end point is freeing, getting there is exhausting.

As the sole homo in a very hetero group, I’ve always felt a bit like the family oddball. Now, I’m not just the homo in the room–I’m the homo with cancer. Great.

I arrive just in time for the annual Derby party. It’s a contained but boisterous gathering of familiar faces, and I’m seduced by the group’s revelry. Wanting to join the fray, I sit in an overstuffed chair next to the television. In less than five minutes I’m back in the kitchen gasping for air. A few minutes later I try again, but this time I stay on the outskirts of the room, near the door. I feel like a child hovering at the edge of a pool, one who wants to join the fun but is deathly afraid of the water. So I skirt the edge, dipping my toe in and yanking it back out, shocked by the intensity of the cold and the potential for drowning.

Of course, my behavior isn’t that unusual. Like I said, I’m a bit of an oddball, and in a crowd, even a familiar one, I’m easily overstimulated and quick to retreat into myself, like a box turtle at a kids birthday party. My immediate family is comfortable with my awkwardness. And they know that my illness has intensified my skittish nature. They help me lick my wounds without ripping things wide open and, for that, I am grateful.

My extended family—god love’em—is a different story. Overflowing with good intentions, they march right up to  my rawness and begin the debridement. I’m not twenty seconds in the door before I’m ushered front and center, told a feel-good-breast-cancer story, and presented with a pink-ribbon-styled lapel pin. Staring at the trinket in my palm, I can’t help but wonder if this trip was a bad idea. “Too vulnerable to exist” is how Audre Lorde described feeling after her mastectomy and I can relate.

Indeed, I have several of you to thank for suggesting I read The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde. Her reflections upon breast cancer and her mastectomy have resonated deeply with me, including her experience of homecoming:

Going home to the very people and places that I loved most, at the same time as it was welcome and so desirable, also felt intolerable, like there was an unbearable demand about to be made upon me that I would have to meet. And it was to be made by people whom I loved, and to whom I would have to respond. Now I was going to have to begin feeling, dealing, not only with the results of the amputation, the physical effects of the surgery, but also with examining and making my own, the demands and changes inside of me and my life.

Eight weeks post-op and I’ve only begun to feel the traumatic impact of cancer on my mind and body. On a physical level, my chest is slowly thawing. The right side has more sensation than the left, partially because the left was assaulted a second time and partly because the lymph nodes were taken from under the left arm, creating a heavy, thick numbness. I’m still disturbed by the sheer boniness of my chest and its lack of contour, how the outline of every rib is laid bare, and how the distortion of my left rib cage, caused by the curve of my spine, protrudes so that, when I’m wearing certain clothes, I’ll catch a glimpse of it and think it is the rise of my breast. The flash of reality that follows, the sharp pain of loss, is one of the hardest parts of my so-called recovery.

I say so-called because I don’t know what it means to “recover” from cancer. One recovers from the flu or a bad head cold. Recovery implies a sense of normalcy that feels beyond my grasp. But, then again, a certain sense of normalcy has always felt beyond my reach, so maybe this is just to be expected.