Saturday, June 21, 2014

Pomp and Circumstance

The day dawned bright.  Far too bright.  Is this what 8:00 a.m. looks like? I'd forgotten.  I have not seen the sun in this position in the sky since I'd left my beloved job. I'd cleverly managed to schedule all of my doctor's appointments, scans, infusions, blood tests - whatever they wanted to do to me - in the afternoon, the later the better.  The only time I'd been up before 10:00 *cough 11:00 cough* was a surgery day, and those are usually scheduled before dawn. Apparently, surgeons like to cut you open before sunrise. Or at least, they schedule you before dawn.  Then they have their coffee, their bagels, chat up other doctors and nurses and finally turn to you, starving and grouchy, at about noon.  I suspect the trick is to get you mad, so you substitute anger for fear.

Good plan.

Anyway, getting up at 8:00 a.m after my previous cramp-filled day sounded difficult but having been ill turned out to be a blessing in disguise.   Because I'd slept/rested most of the day before, it was not the struggle it would have been otherwise.

Ritalin helps too.

I dressed quickly, in a top I'd bought for the occasion.  At first, I was going to wear a coral top and white pants, but my son's graduation gown is red, so I had to switch.  In healthier days, I was a fashionista, and then cancer made me a pajamaista.  Now, health restored,  I care about clothes again.  Amazingly, even having been through hell and back, you do not rise above wanting to look good. Only now getting dressed is limited to special occasions; PJs are too comfy to give up.

We had a silly gift and balloons waiting for my son, which he enjoyed.  A couple of his friends came over, all very happy and excited and joking the way teens do.  The graduation rehearsal was downtown at 10:00 a.m. and we were the chauffeurs for parents who had to work. We were happy to do that - one of the kids had been my son's friend since 4th grade and it seemed fitting to escort him to graduation.   Seeing these young men, happy, laughing, ready to start their lives - well, it's a beautiful thing and one of life's lasting memories.

Because the kids had to be back at the Memorial Auditorium at 1:00 pm and parking is difficult, we decided to stay for the day.  We stood outside, the crowd of teens milling about nearly glowing with happiness.  It was a formal event and all the kids cooperated. Some of the girls were in towering, five inch heels,  glittering as if they were competing with the sun.  Many struggled with the height of their shoes and walked in the stilted way of flamingos stepping over a puddle.  The boys were all tugging on their ties and stretching their necks, hoping to relieve the noose-like tension.   They were led in to rehearse and my little pack avoided the heat and followed in to watch.  

Rehearsal over, we had an hour and a half to eat.  We handed our son a $20 and the boys went off on their own in search of food,  as boys tend to do. My husband and I found my sister, who flew up from Southern California for the event.   We later caught up with my older son's girlfriend and had a light lunch.  My oldest son, ever responsible and hard-working, was unable to get the day off work from his job. Sacramento was in the middle of a heat wave and he repairs HVAC units.

After lunch, I received a text from the High School Secretary, the women who took my job when I left (and sadly did so well that nobody missed me), telling me we could come inside early as there were seats waiting for me.

Let me backtrack a bit:  Part of my old job duties included helping out at graduation, which I enjoyed tremendously.  It's always a fun and happy event, if a bit chaotic.  I set things up, assisted the kids as they got ready, and then handed out diplomas at the end.  Because I worked for the school my son attended, I had often joked about setting myself a seat on the stage when it was his turn to graduate.  When I had to quit in his sophomore year, everybody promised me that a good seat would be awaiting me at his graduation, and they kept their word.  We had seats saved for us, right up front and with a great view of the stage.  I am very grateful to everybody at MLHS for remembering my wish and following through.   Not only was I able to be there for my son's graduation - I was able to see it.

As we settled in our wonderful seats I instantly started to cry.  You know me, I don't do that. Tears are not part of my normal vocabulary.   But I became very emotional. This moment was the pinnacle of all I'd been through, all I had endured. And, make no mistake, while my recounting of my life has been more light-hearted than not, there were moments of great pain, fear, worry and suffering.  But through it all, my imagination focused on this graduation.  I thought of it when I was in intensive care near death with sepsis. I thought of it through many a chemo infusion.  I thought of it as radioactive beams shot through my liver.   In my imagination, I was sometimes watching the ceremony in a wheelchair, or bald, exhausted, weighing 80 pounds.  I thought of it even as the last thing I did. But always, I was there.  My goal was this graduation.   And so there I sat on this long-awaited day, air-conditioning blowing my shoulder length hair, dressed well and looking healthy, former coworkers around giving me hugs, congratulating me.  I sat there,  feeling fine and healthy and just like any other mom in the room.  And, no doubt like the other moms, the tears flowed, happy for myself, for my son.

I did it.

He did it.

We did it.

I had lots of help along the way.  My oncologist, my surgeons, my radiation oncologist, my nurses, everybody who works in the office to get my prescriptions on time, to make my schedule, collect my blood, make appointments.  The researchers who came up with Herceptin and Perjeta, the people in the trials, the insurance company that allowed me to receive it.  My husband who did all the driving and cooking, my friends who brought me food and sent me cards and kept my spirits up whether they knew I needed it or not, and you, my dear online friends, who have commented and encouraged me.   Nobody walks this path alone.

All of that went through my head as the tears streamed down - how very connected we all are.

We did it.

Like the students who were about to walk down the aisle, two by two, nobody does anything alone.  They called each other for forgotten notes, worked on assignments together, supported each other in quests for success. Their incredible teachers shared knowledge, their administrators made sure everything runs right, the custodian made sure the school is sanitary and functioning.  And, of course, parents provided help for their own kids and the children of others: supplies and meals and rides and cookies.  Everybody has a role in each other's lives that was finalized in this moment of triumph.

Among the joy was sadness.  Two of the students in the class of 2014 did not make it to graduation.   As they were acknowledged and remembered, everybody was solemn and at that moment, I knew I was not the only one understanding how precious life can be.  For a moment, we all shared that realization, that vibrant young lives can be snuffed out, that the future is promised to nobody.

But life is for the living. The music started to play and the kids..... no, the young men and women started to walk, red gowns flowing, I became even more glad I wore waterproof mascara. But there are 360 students and one can't cry forever, so I stopped and began to really enjoy it, snapping pictures, waving to people I knew, smiling at the grads, nudging my husband as my son was acknowledged as a Valedictorian.

Another aside:  There was a camera crew there doing a story on me and my son.   Lindsay, the reporter, had interviewed my son and the Science Bowl team.   When I retweeted her article, she noticed that I had more followers than the average mom, and reporter-like, she looked me up and discovered this graduation had been my goal.  So she asked to do a story, and after talking to her and finding her lovely,  I said yes.  I always want to represent the metsters of this world, and show that not all in breast cancer world is pink and pretty, and yet there is hope for all of us, end-stage cancer or not.

And it went as high school graduations across the country do.  Pomp and Circumstance, students on the cusp of adulthood walking together, a touching and funny graduation speech, pride for their class displayed.   Then their names are called, they walk across the stage, shake hands with administrators as people cheer.  They go back to their seat, then at the right moment, move their tassels, cheer, and enter the world of adulthood.

They did it.

We came home, and he opened gifts we gave him, and he got ready to go to grad parties.  (Which continue to this day.)

And, as life is wont to do, it threw a little stink bomb at us, reminding us that perfection is illusive. As my husband and I sat relaxing, watching TV, my son off at an all-night grad party, a smell wafted in.  "Oh, there is a skunk in the neighborhood," I thought.  Then it got stronger and stronger and stronger.....and pretty soon my eyes were watering once again.  The smell of skunk was overpowering, and sleep became impossible.  I thought it had let its noxious spray go under the house, it was that close and strong.  I lit candles and tried to rest in my son's room, because he has fans going everywhere.  It was a fitful sleep at best.

The next day, we found a dead skunk in our backyard.   And, our dogs also found it, so out came the peroxide, baking soda, and dishwashing liquid for me and the hounds.  My husband got the shovel and the plastic bag.

These kids will go off to college or to work.  They will have loves and heartbreaks, they will live lives of routine or adventure or a little of both. They will start careers, change their minds, start new ones. There will be happy days and skunk-filled nights.   Some will even get cancer, or their parents or loved ones will.

Life will go on for them, and, for a while longer, me.

I will not set any more goals.  If this experience has taught me anything, it is the importance of living for today and enjoying the moments that you have. Anything else is just a dream.  Dreams can lead to wonderful days, full of joy.  They can also lead to heartbreak.  It is in the small moments that I found the real meaning in life.  Watching a hummingbird feed on a flower, hearing the laughter of children playing, reading a good book, seeing a baby smile, taking a hot bath.  Those are the things that I will live for now.  Anything else is extra, and I'll take it as it comes, whatever it may be.  Life, however long I am given, will be welcomed with open arms, skunks and all.  But no more goals to set.  I am at peace.

I did it.


  1. Beautifully written! I would keep one more goal: stay alive! for as long as prudently possible. I love your and your son's story thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. This is so beautiful. I follow your blog, with its eloquent and profound writing, but I think this one was my favourite so far. It's such a triumph of desire over, for lack of a better word, fate. I'm reading 'Into Thin Air' by Jon Krakauer right now, and your post reminded me of his reasons for wanting to climb Mount Everest, of that burning fire that drives us to push past the seemingly insurmountable.

  3. You made me teary and that's not easy to do. I'm on the (hopefully) pinker side of this journey and I love to read your blog. I am so happy you were there. I am so happy your son has you for this, and longer. May the rest be as long and happy and healthy as possible. Much love from far far away.

  4. You did it! He did it! The poor skunk..... But you are still here.

  5. Congratulations Ann & Family!!!

  6. Wow, beautiful story. Congratulations - Ann, you continue to blaze a trail for other breast cancer warriors. I am so glad you made it to your goal.

    Everyday I spend with my little boys is blessed.

    Cancer changes us forever, some of the changes are good. Breast cancer, then Sarcoma in less than 20 months taught me to enjoy the day that I have in front of me, right now.

    I have ceased putting off doing things tomorrow - except my tax and I still put off the unimportant boring things like house cleaning !

    “There is not a day that goes by where I am grateful to awaken to another day to give thanks,” Bernal said.

  7. So well written...thank you, you are such an inspiration!

  8. I've been following you for quite some time and am thrilled you made it to this milestone which was so important to you. Wishing you continued survival and many more bonus moments in the weeks, months (and dare I say?) years ahead.

    -Cambridge, MA

  9. I am so happy you were able to see your baby graduate from high school. Your determination and perseverance, in my mind, proves that one does have some control on their destiny.

  10. My niece is 7 years old. Fighting high risk stage 4 Neuroblastoma .Today is her parents' anniversary. Her birthday is in 2 weeks' time. Instead of celebrating, we are wondering about next year this time. This post-and the NED one-have given me hope again. Was really feeling so sad...But how can I be sad when we reached this goal? And will rejoice in every other moment?

  11. Congratulations, Ann. I've been following you since my stage II diagnosis in September of 2012. I too have a son who graduated this month from his high school. I've been cheering you on, hoping and praying for your desired outcome. You are amazing. You defied everything that mets had to throw at you and you achieved your goal. You did it because it was not for you, it was for him. Your mama bear chops beat the dread cancer mets. A story for the ages.


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