Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tattoo You

Tattoo You

It’s not the kind of tattoo that Jesse James’ girlfriend favored. This one is discreet - in fact there are two of them (my mom had five, but that was more than 10 years ago). They more resemble the subtle (or not so subtle) blue tattooed numbers that you might have seen at one point in time on the wrists of some cab drivers in New York two decades ago. The blue ink and serial number always remained emblazoned on their skin, forcing a certain generation of Holocaust survivors to “never forget”. You would see that tattoo sneak out from under a lifted sleeve. It would take your breath away because you knew you could never imagine what they had been through and survived. How did they survive?

My tattoo is just a dot - one in the center of my chest - the other under my arm near my right breast. They are permanent so the radiologist can know each of the 33 consecutive days (except weekends and holidays, I just found out) that I lie under their radiation beam - that I am lined up correctly - in the exact same position every time that I enter Sibley Hospital and put on those two hospital gowns. The first one that opens in the back and the second one to cover me modestly so that the first one covers me modestly. I lost my modesty long ago - after two Al Qaeda tumors took my body hostage for 6 months and I began showing EVERYONE my breasts. They suddenly weren’t breasts. They were the scene of a crime and became war zones. And I was proud to show anyone who cared to ask after we deforested and then rebuilt them. They’ve been through a lot. I don’t really feel like hiding them. (And they are so perfectly round right now - it’s freakish. Or as Rose’s friend, Susan said tonight - ‘they are like a teenager’. True - but bigger.

So I got my tattoos today. Some people said it hurt when the needle went in. Not after what I have been through. I am not even needle phobic anymore. (I also don’t have a lot of nerve endings in my chest anymore.) But no, it didn’t hurt. Again, not after what I have been through.

I start radiation on Monday. I had wanted to go to the beach with my kids the week after I finished - that is the same week they get out of school. But I was told that in fact I had miscounted on the calendar and that since the office is closed on Memorial Day (how scientific is this anyway - that you have to have X radiation in X days to mop up any leftover sneaky sleeper cells left in the tissue beneath your skin or in the lymph nodes but you can take the weekends and holidays off?) Nobody really has a good answer for that. But because of Memorial Day. And a few anticipated delays (possible burns from the intense radiation) I can’t book a beach house.

My days are still filled with doctors’ appointments. Usually, two a day. Follow-ups. Physical therapy - to get the range of motion in my arms back. Different doctors tell you different things about whether I can lift anything or drive. My plastic surgeon’s office says go back to Pilates and lift your 25 pound son. The stitches are healed. No damage can be done. Hmmn. That’s not what the physical therapist at Georgetown Hospital said a day after I had done just that: lifted Luke, pushed him in the stroller, put him to bed with a bottle and lifted him into his crib. I had even chased the little man around St. Albans’ field and lifted him up and down to pet his other favorite “Dogu” - the bronze bulldog that serves as the St. Albans’ mascot at the entrance to the field. Well, I could do it (don’t forget the Pilates). I was strong enough. But because I had no range of motion all of my pectoral muscles tightened up like an angry fist and you could see them stretched like tendons on the back of a chicken leg. I broke the bad news to Greg and Rose. One year old Luke is so confused that I didn’t bother telling him. But he’s noticed. I sometimes have to hide from him in my own house when he is with his baby sitter just so he doesn’t get upset and lift his arms and I can’t meet his needs. It breaks my heart.

He’ll be ok - as long as no one tries to bring him in from the park or the hose in the front yard. I on the other hand...

So slowly I lift my broom stick (not the one I usually ride) but the one Anamarija Muvrin disconnected from my mop and brought up from the basement to force me to do Croatian rehab. She counts and I have learned not to disobey. In fact I sometimes travel with my broomstick in the car so that just like last Saturday night when most Washington correspondents were at the “Prom” yucking it up with politicos and listening to President Obama upstage Jay Leno - I can do my rehab exercises. I did them at Andrea Wilson’s house with Der Fuehrer counting slowly in Croatian last Saturday night.

But it seems to be working. Amelia even videotaped me tonight as we watched American Idol (yes, I want Big Mike or Lee Dewyze to win) - and I had the stick halfway over my head - about twice as far as I had the week before. The third week after the mastectomy was the hardest - emotionally and in terms of pain and helplessness. No one is feeling sorry for you any more so no one offers you a cup of tea. Your emotions (the letdown from the surgery, the forced menopause the chemo puts you in). It all adds up to pain and sadness.

Then it gets better. But before it got better Anamarija and Andrea had to pick me up off the ground a few times. They didn’t listen to me when I said, “Don’t come over. I’m ok.” And instead found me in the shower - crying like a baby. I didn’t know they were there but I am glad they didn’t listen to me. We then proceeded to clean out all of my old make-up and decide which containers I really did want to keep and which I did not. My bathroom is so organized I can’t find a thing. All of my “Look Good...Feel Better” make-up has been taken carefully out of its boxes and put in neat rows and to good use. And some has been given to my friends because really who is going to wear baby blue eyeshadow or bubble gum pink blush (Andrea and Anamarija, I guess.)

And in my free time between appointments in which doctors give me contradictory advice (such as, ‘Go ahead - fly to Barbados’) and forget to tell me that I need a compression sleeve made to wear so that I don’t get lymphedema. Good thing I didn’t go to Barbados. My arm could have swollen up like a balloon. It’s like an Easter egg hunt gathering information again from my doctors. Lymphedema is serious but no one has really told me what I can or can’t do. They say, “Avoid the heat.” Where exactly does summer in Iraq or Afghanistan fall under category of “avoid the heat.” Or you can take a bath, but not a whirlpool. How about a jacuzzi - because my bathtub is one and I truly don’t know if I can ever put my arm in it again.

The news that Lynn Redgrave died on Sunday from recurrent breast cancer did nothing for my psychology. It took my breath away. Her cancer originally diagnosed seven years ago had also responded to chemo and ‘disappeared.’ I remember when Lynn’s book with her daughter Annabel’s photos of her going through chemo and her mastectomy arrived at my mom’s house. Annabel used to go to Nantucket with us. My mom got to know Lynn through the theater and when Lynn was working on “Shakespeare for My Father.” I didn’t pay much attention to the book. My mom’s approach to breast cancer had been different (a lumpectomy and radiation - a pretty easy kind - I never even saw her cry about it. It was caught early with a mammogram - in fact the mammogram had saved her life - and guess what? She hadn’t turned 50. So don’t listen to the guidelines.) But when I heard Lynn had died, it stopped me in my tracks, a reminder that even with a great pathology report you can never be sure, and with Triple Negative, my surgeon confirmed yesterday just before I heard Lynn’s news, the first 2 to 3 years are the most dangerous in terms of recurrence, even if there is no evidence of disease at the end of chemo. That’s the fine print.

I guess just like Hakimullah Mehsud (the resilient Taliban leader that US spy plane drones thought they had killed not once but twice now in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas - only to have him reemerge and give a press conference). Just like Hakimullah - you never know if this bad visitor is gone.

And so I picked myself up again today. Anamarija called me on her way to the airport back to her family and to Singapore. Neither of us could really say goodbye. We burst into tears at lunch the day before when she handed me back my car keys (she had been driving my car for the three weeks, taking me to appointments.) We made Andrea’s husband, Scott, take a picture of the three of us that night because I had been too vain to take a picture at lunch because I didn’t have any make-up on and I wasn’t going to have my picture taken with two blonds without a little make-up. I even managed to get Anamarija to Onder at the Four Seasons to get her hair colored and cut (in Singapore it costs $500!) and we met Eve there and she had a pedicure and then I asked Onder to cut her hair too. (I figured if I couldn’t get my hair done - missing the ritual - at least my friends could.)

And there are starting to be more ups than downs. For instance, I was able to go to Amelia’s ballet recital at her school (the Washington Ballet had been giving free lessons to the entire first grade at John Eaton school and Amelia looked like the little girl in my favorite book, “A Very Young Dancer.”) I have never seen anyone so proud. We took Luke (probably a mistake) because during the recital he saw a broom that the janitors had left behind and all he wanted was that broom - he loves to clean. The first graders did a beautiful performance and they combined a few things they had learned from their Chinese teacher. There was the expected dragon dance and a ribbon dance (which one parent misconstrued from his lisping daughter and was disappointed that it wasn’t “River Dance.) But you haven’t lived until you have seen an entire first grade class do the “hokey pokey” in Chinese. I have and I did.