October 26, 2015: 10 years

October 25, 2015

For weeks – the 10 year mark has loomed in front of me. And given that I’m not exactly the ‘isn’t it always a happy day today’ kind of girl, I’ve had mixed feelings about it. I’m not even sure that I want my survivor-date to be the anniversary of the day I started a month or two of being so wasted on zanax so that I could make it through each day and just breathe (and nod out – cheap date that I am) while trying to process the idea that I had cancer. Breast cancer. Cancer? Family history made me familiar with massive strokes and heart attacks brought on by too much schmaltz consumption but…cancer? Not in my vocabulary.

You know those moments you never get out of your head? In the complete haze of the day (waiting 3 hours before I was seen and then an in-office biopsy and waiting more and then some more with a husband who could only gamely try to look like its all going to be ok), mine is the older lab tech who came in and said, in the oddest almost-jocular fashion: “Well, the good news is it’s the ‘garden-variety’ type.”

I chewed on that for years. Through all the hurry-up and wait. Through being told that this found lump was much bigger than it ended up being. Through finding out that this medium-sized lump was much more aggressive than they thought it would be. Through making choices about keeping one breast, loosing two breasts, or getting my plastic surgeon and breast surgeon to forget that they hated each other and agree to a massive lumpectomy and resizing me bilaterally. Through the start of the chemo – head in a bucket mid-night because someone didn’t take me seriously when I said I get easily nauseous and having to have a friend secretly watch our young daughter overnight so I could be rushed into Manhattan to be rehydrated and given more serious anti-nausea drugs and then rushed home so the school morning was as if we had been there all along. Through the shaving of the head (bless my dear friend Lisa for being my witness). Through all my conflicted feelings about wearing a wig. Through the second set of chemo and the vicodin-glazed afternoons to calm the shooting pains in my legs while I stood in open houses pretending to work (bless my dear friend Janice for making me pretend). Through an office colleague saying to me on the street: ‘wow, you know you lost weight and you look good’ while I was only ½ way through treatment. Through the real blessings of my family and some steady friends who came over and pretended that I could really play scrabble and concentrate on the game. Through the 5 ½ weeks of radiation and all the bubbling blisters and the determination to be done so that we could drive my daughter to her first summer at the camp I loved. Through the wonderful trips we’ve taken and the sideways glances at every airport as I stand with my lymphedema sleeve and glove on my right arm – oh, and the quick learning curve to never ever put it on before you go through tsa screening lest you be thought to harbor something evil within the elastic compression sleeve. Through the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding fight with my new health insurance company when they call you on your birthday in the middle of breast cancer awareness month to inform you that, essentially, all those pesky breast cancer survivors were costing them too much money at Sloan Kettering and that they were going to eliminate the hospital and doctors as a choice– oh wait, all my care is there now. (won that particular battle).

10 years have not gone quickly. What happened to me has happened to many survivors of trauma: I saw so many other people like me. Or maybe what I really saw was that I was exactly like so many other people. Walking slower down the street. Watching tv and thinking you’ll just scream your bloody head off if you have to hear the word ‘cancer’ for the 10,247th time that week. Feeling utterly determined to move forward. Feeling utterly exhausted when you can’t always do that. Feeling that your life – the progression of your life – was taken unfairly away from you and feeling that your life is something really different and new and possible even as you embrace the joy of the everyday life. Tamping down the at-least twice monthly fear that you’re done-for because your left pinkie is aching or you have a bump on your arm that turns out to be a bug bite. Trying not to be so angry. Hoping no one will notice your vocabulary work-around when the chemo-fasia of your brain doesn’t allow you to access words in a timely fashion. Trying not to notice that your belly is somewhat bigger than your boobs. Trying to sing too soon and having to lay down on the floor of the studio winded from one song. Going through a somewhat secret bout of DCIS two yeas ago (oh boy….non-invasive!) and being treated to a teeny lumpectomy and finding out that you were getting rewarded with even more radiation but realizing you were not going to sink to the depths of despair and were actually able to believe your incredible new breast surgeon who held your hand kindly and said “I really mean it that this is a blip on the radar”. Finding out that you can sit with a newly diagnosed friend and give thoughtful advice to help them on this path – the oddly-best of which involves the importance of ‘colace’ and how to jettison the ‘friend’ who wants a ‘staring role in your illness.’ Finding out that you can sing again – and, in a weird gravitas kind of way, far better than before .

It wasn’t a secret-gift…it was cancer. Fucked-up mean-spirited screw-with you cancer. But with the gift of whatever the pros had to throw at me, because that’s what they had at the time, I have survived and I have chosen to love my friends more, hug my family all the time and accept that I am happy to be the big personality that I am. If you see me being too still – too quiet – nudge me, ok? I was in a bad way a few months back til I just stood up and confessed – quite out loud – that I realized I was sitting around ‘waiting for something bad to happen’. And pissy peevy get-over-yourself girl that I am, the saying it was the banishing of it and I have to remind myself to ‘sing out, louise’ and remind myself that it really has been 10 years. I work very hard to daily remember a version of Lisa’s Grandma’s wise advice: ‘Don’t borrow worry.’ (I work at it…rarely achieve it tho).

A few weeks ago I was on the stage at City Center and sang – it’s not solo work but it’s been hard and very rewarding work to be part of an amazing group chorale –and in two weeks it’s Carnegie Hall with the same group. I have a daughter who is the light of my life and a husband who is shockingly kind and steady. I aim toward the big sing again with incredible teachers holding me up toward the light. I am surprised when I realize that people don’t look at me now and think: oh, you had cancer. I have friends who I work to become a better friend toward. Family who are surprisingly resilient And I have myself. A very different myself. I know what matters. I suffer even less the fools and the bullshit. I love the genuine. I still wear mostly black.

I’ve survived 10 years. Now off to work on the next 10….

10 years

10 years


snip SNIP snip

August 10, 2010


i cut off most of my hair.  or, i asked for most of my hair to be cut.  no small moment for the woman who perpetually checks the mirror to be sure that her post-chemo hair looks decent.  i thought my hair would grow back in 6 months but the truth is it took almost 2 years to have a reasonable head of hair.  reasonable means that there were no major (plenty of minor) bald spots and i could start getting the stylist to cut pretend bangs.  pretend because the delicate hair at the front hairline didn’t really grow back – even tho using minoxidil helped the bulk of my hair growth – that front line just gave up the game. 

i’ve been trying to keep it long – for me that means that it just touches my shoulders and has some ‘swing’.  my hairdresser has known me for over 25 years.  he did my hair at my wedding.  he permed my hair in the 80’s into big beautiful curls when i was out in the world as a professional singer – oh the big hair!  when it became clear that i’d need a wig, i brought it in and he cut the wig.  i was trying so hard to be brave.  i put it on and had to hold it down while he cut it.  i was sobbing the whole time but determined.  everyone tried to pretend that i wasn’t sobbing.  he wouldn’t let me pay for that visit.  i cried more. 

for the past 2 years, he’s been working to bring my cut into normal focus and has really succeeded.  but lately, i’ve been looking in the mirror and realizing that i looked too old for my hairstyle.  my face was older – hell, i’m about to turn 53 in october – but my hair was the style from my 40’s.  respectable but aging me.  i made an appointment.  but not with him. i love him but  instinctively, i realized that i needed a new set of eyes looking at me – to help me reinvent myself – or, at least, my look.  but making that step – to voluntarily cut my hair to a level that was close to the growing-out phase had not been something i had been able to face.  i quietly booked an appointment with a local hairdresser who, i know, works with lots of women my age and seems to be good at the short haircut.  i didn’t talk about it with anyone.  i just put the appointment in my datebook and went.   he knew my story already so i was grateful not to have to repeat the telling.   and yes.  i have short hair.  i closed my eyes and didn’t open them until it was done.  he was grateful i wasn’t going to second-guess him.  and when i opened my eyes, i saw that i was right.  i was ready.  i was not the barely-haired woman from 4+ years ago.  i was a hip-looking tossled-hair 52 year old woman with noticeably less ‘blank’ spots and a physical and emotional lightness that i had only secretly thought possible.

small observations

May 22, 2010


went to see ‘sondheim on sondheim’ tonite at the theater at studio 54 (an always odd experience in a now-defunct club that i went to once or twice when it was way past it’s heyday).  it was beautiful and sometimes painful for me.  everything was done with heads held high and a troupe of good singers including barbara cook.  i grew up listening to various barbara cook albums including her turn in the recorded concert version of follies from a few years back and for many years performed ‘i can cook too’ which she sung on one of her albums (from ‘on the town’.)  i was thrilled to finally have a chance to see her perform live.  she had a few moments in the show that were quite touching – those quiet moments they didn’t make her try to keep up with the rest of the cast – her walking is pretty bad and there was a lot of ‘sit and sing’ going on…lots of floating benches suddenly appearing so that she could be part of the ‘action’ but sitting down.  nonetheless, she nailed 3 songs…one at the beginning of the show (and i don’t remember which song it was), ‘not a day goes by’ – this was the song that made me cry — i have loved this song for many years but sing it only privately – it’s complicated tonally and needs some major quiet gravitas to do it justice – and, lastly, ‘send in the clowns’ – which my teenage daughter wept to -(which secretly made me so proud to see her cry to this simply sung, by ms. cook, simply and perfectly delivered (yes, sitting down) song). 

in the row in front of us (and easy to see as this theater pitches hard downward (or, i suppose, upward  depending on one’s perspective) was a couple in their 60s.  during a few of the quieter songs, he put his hand across her legs and gently stroked her knees.  it was a sweet thing to see – they were entwined. 

it was thrilling to watch the videotaped interviews with the master himself.  he understands that he is leaving a legacy behind him and it was wonderful to listen.  we had the real luck of having just seen ‘anyone can whistle’ about a month ago at the ny city center ‘encores presentations’ production and right after the matinee, mr. sondheim himself came on stage with members of the cast and we all sat and listened to a question and answer session.  you could see during that experience and tonite, the wheels of my teenage daughter’s brain going round and round as she found herself soaked in the sound of genius.  she has a true talent for songwriting – and these two shows really lit a{nother} fire under her. 

i am always reminded by these moments of inspiration (the sondheim songs more and less the entwined older couple) that i should be doing more and thinking less about doing more and just doing more.  i have to get on top of that. 

an ok day

April 13, 2010


no great essay today.  just reports of an ok day – saw my breast surgeon (gee, last time i used the word breast in a blog post, i got no less than 8 dirty spams [thank you word press for your spam filters] and found out that at least 5 hits on that entry were because someone was searching wordpress blogs for the word ‘breasts’!).  4.5 years since i was diagnosed, we’re down to a pretty quick 15 minute routine of ‘hold your arms like this above your head…now down at your waist’ and prodding fingers under my arms and a few quick questions about what meds i take now, etc.  i even like it that she’s starting to not remember so much about me — ‘you have a son, right?”  “daughter”  because it means that a whole lot of time has passed since i spent a whole lot of time in her offices and under her care.  sadly, there’s an army of diagnosed women filling behind my experiences. 

then on to a lunch with one of my dearest oldest new york city friends whom i have not seen in about 13 years.  he moved to l.a. long ago and has had his own medical struggles and yet here we both were, lunching in manhattan together and holding hands with big cheshire grins on our faces.  we were best buddies back in the day: singing at the same clubs and always on the phone with each other sharing our audition and gig adventures as well as a few ups and downs in the life of a performing new york artist back in the 80’s.  he famously showed up to save my butt when i was living for a short time with a roommate found through a roommate finder’s service and the woman turned out to be the most royally fucked-up human i’d met in a long time.  she owned a mean cat who would sit in my closet and claw the bottoms of all my dresses (she denied this so i guess it was me going in and shredding up my own hems).  she announced that she had an std (ewwwwwwwwwww) from her ‘jew boyfriend’ (uh-oh) and after that disastrous relationship ended, she’d fall asleep on her bed with a cigarette burning in her mouth having drunk too much or snorted too much cocaine or, my personal favorite, she left for a week to visit someone and left 1/2-filled chinese food containers out in the kitchen and on her bed.  when i decided enough was enough, she started threatening me and my dear dear friend – a really big and imposing guy who happens to be sweet as a pussycat (not the kind who claws your dresses) came to get me at 1am and told her in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t be so lucky if *he* started threatening her and then helped me haul boxes of my stuff down the stairs (5th floor walkup) to a waiting cab and i bunked on his sofa for 2-3 months til i finally found my own 1st brooklyn home in brooklyn heights.   sitting across from each other today, i was reminded of how dear he is to me.  

it really was an ok day. 


January 23, 2010

i’m getting to be old enough to be a snob about what music i listen to.  well, i’ll listen to a lot but i don’t love a lot of it.  the music i listen to on my ipod when i’m walking on ms. bertha (my elliptical) tends toward driving power chick-rock/pop or full-flung broadway that gets you singing at the top of your lungs and running or walking at a good clip  – by the way, have you heard the cast album of ‘the capeman’?  omg.  it’s only out on itunes (paul simon put out his own album earlier) but this is the cast recording and it’s hauntingly beautiful on it’s own.  teenage daughter is caught between very classic rock (her father cheers!) and goofy broadway (her father boos!) and some typical teenage pop. 

as a retired singer, you’d think i would listen to a LOT of music.  no.  it was too painful for a long time.  it reminded me of the life i didn’t have – when i was going through chemo – the toughest time for me – i just watched very mindless tv – the stuff i could purposefully forget and watch again if it was the only thing going during the many hours to get through. 

when i was done all my treatment, i bought an ipod nano.  i was semi-back at work by then and i went walking one day to an appointment with lots of time to waste and decided that it was time to listen to something again.  i put the earphones in my ear and first up was sarah maclahlan’s ‘hold on.’  oh.  i just started sobbing.  walking around with a wall of tears just pouring out.   at that moment, i realized that i was still alive and that i could look, once again, at the world as a place of possibilities instead of a chunk of time to force myself to get through.   now when i get on bertha for a walk, it’s always my first song.  i’ve worked on turning it around – more an anthem of hope than a plaintive wail. 

last night at the ‘hope for haiti’ concert, justin timberlake and matt morris did a duet of the leonard cohen song ‘hallelujah’.  i know next to nothing about justin timberlake but i knew what i was hearing.  a flowing line of deep musicality that was delicate and soulful and deeply beautiful.  so many things are sledgehammered into the banal by too much production and this took wing on the moment…an accomplishment in itself.   it’s a song that usually ends up as a complete cliched howler – and here it was as an almost-perfect jewel. 

i hope you like it too.  hallelujah.


from beginnings to endings

January 7, 2010


a beloved teacher from teenage daughter’s school passed away over the holidays.  she was one of those incredible people you meet who are so burrowed into a community’s psyche that you cannot think of the place without thinking of the person.  and today, i attended the memorial service that took place at the school for the upper school students, staff and any parents and alumnae who wished to be there.  although i’m quite capable at crying at the drop of a hat – just walking up to her husband (who i did not know) to hold his hand for a moment and pay my respects was the beginning of my tears.  trying to sit through the choir singing ‘the water is wide’ without having spasms of anxiety was my challenge today.  (the song i fell in love with and sang every day of my pregnancy and every day when teenage daughter was a baby and acknowledged that it would be my choice (but not sung with sadness but with a stiff backbone and some power) should my own memorial service ever come about.)   another death from the ‘c that shall not be named’.  (i am rolling my eyes as i type this – trying not to spit three times on the floor or other moments to ban the worst.) 

i have never heard the word ‘fierce’ (fierce; fiercely; ferocity) used so many times independently by so many speakers – some of them current students and many of them alum or staff.  it inspired me – i knew this about her but sometimes forgot that people – even as they get in their 50s and 60s – can still be quite fierce and forward.   yes, she was the drama teacher (and english teacher and community choir director and actor and stage director and mentor for so many) and therefore many of her students who spoke had a natural talent for the word both written and spoken.  but i was touched and excited to hear so many truely eloquently-spoken memories of her and hoped that every student there had the same deep emotional potential – in fact, for the first time in a while, i felt positive that they did. 

thank you marlene for being a big part of guiding my beautiful teenage daughter and making her feel confident in her steps.  she had less time with you than she wished but i suspect you will be with her in thought and deed and example for her entire life.

there’s a lot to be learned

November 3, 2009

from listening. take from that what you will. in a situation born out of luck and determination, i am able to exorcize (pun intended) some of my demons in my basement. lest you picture me practicing some cultish behaviour, it’s much simpler than that. i’m able to exercise in my basement. it’s not a beautiful basement but it’s private. (a reminder, that i live in brooklyn, new york…so a basement or private space to spread out is not a given but a luxurious joy.)  for the past week or so, i’ve started my exercise as usual: earphones in; ipod on. but rather than belting out whatever harmonic line suits my fancy, i’ve been purposefully quiet. i’ve forgotten how hard it is to just listen. so i have been working at it – just as i work at being disciplined at actually getting down to my ‘routine’. i have to stop myself from singing along and let myself hear the lyric and the arc of the song and the pitch of the singer. on another pass, i listen to the structure of the notes and the intervals playing off each other. the lyric. no matter how good the singer, a bad lyric can’t be saved. even just melting into the beats … a form of listening.  sometimes i feel the rise of my breath wanting to move along with the line of music and work to settle back and just hear.  i’m working on listening. 

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