Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Survivors Who Lunch

Clark modeling the Miami J Collar
Are you a survivor? Survivors are the people who stay heartily engaged in living, no matter what fortune, good or bad, throws their way. They are people who remain valid. They count. They function in a way that enhances far more than detracts from the world in which they live.
    In the last two days I’ve been out to lunch. Twice I’ve dined on fish sandwiches in busy restaurants with some very impressive people, survivors all, who still sparkle with vitality and glow with love and enthusiasm for life. First, with the girls. Then, with Clark and Barb.
    The cancer survivors — my group — are perhaps the most obviously thankful to be breathing and dining and laughing and hugging. Cancer, just the word, plunges our imaginations into a very dark place. We survivors have been to that place, and climbed out of the blackness and back into the light. Today we can tell stories about our adventures, and laugh at them. Cancer and heart disease are our most constant calamities.
Clark's Key West album. It's a good one.
    Our friend Clark had a tumor on his spine. The surgery to remove it was long and torturous and painful. Then he needed to wear a Miami J Collar. You’ve seen them; they hold your spine utterly still while you attempt to live your life in spite of it.  Clark wore his to the restaurant where he works. For three months! One of his customers said “Oh, I see you’re wearing the Miami J Collar. I did time in one of those things, too,” the lady said. “Ugh!” 
    “Why did you have to wear it?” Clark asked. “What happened to you?”
    “Rough sex,” she replied, while the man behind her shrugged and grinned.
    In the grocery store Clark and his wife, my great friend Barb, were approached by an old timer who recognized the Miami J  and commented on it. “How long you been wearing it?” he asked.
    “A month or so, but I’m supposed to wear it for three months,” Clark said.
    “Well do like the doctor tells you,” the old guy said. “I took mine off too soon and I still can’t swaller right.” Then he grimaced and demonstrated his bizarre swallowing technique.
    The occasion of the lunch was to celebrate Clark’s recent PET scan. The news is good. No evidence of cancer.
    The funniest story I have about my cancer is remembering the day Barb, who is a nurse, removed a drain tube from my throat, after my lymphectomy surgery. I was very happy to be having the nuisance tube, that threaded around and about within my neck, and exited beneath my chin, removed. At last! With easy confidence Barb cut through the stitches holding the tube in place, grasped it firmly, and pulled. And pulled. That sucker was a foot long, and as it continued to emerge, like a trail of scarves pulled from a magician's sleeve, Barb’s eyes grew bigger and bigger. I was watching them. Finally her face relaxed again. The tube was out. At last!
A fuzzy photo of survivors June, Barb and Natale
    Our friend Natale was at lunch, too. Natale is a beauty, attracting the eyes of everyone in the room wherever she goes. She looks like an angel. She is an angel. But she’s been to hell, too. She grew up in Siberia. Her parents died in a car crash when she was 16 years old. She lost her husband to heart disease while she was still very young.  She raised a son, alone. She has worked hard just about every day of her life. And still, she smiles her Mona Lisa smile and maintains her sweet grace.
    Also at lunch the other day, Barb’s friend Jane. In the course of our conversation, the drug Synthroid came up.
    “Why do you take Synthroid?” is the question that inevitably follows.
    “I had cancer. The radiation treatment destroyed my thyroid,” I explained to Jane. “What about you?”
    “I was struck by lightning,” she said, popping a French fry into her mouth.
    OMG!!  Really?  Really.
June and Barb with Electro-Girl
    I demanded to know everything, every little detail, of this event — Jane being the first person I’ve ever known to be struck by lightning.  It happened on a clear, sunny day in Tuckahoe, New York. Jane walked out of her office and into the street and remembers nothing until she awakened in the hospital a week later. Her doctors weren’t quite clear on what had happened to burn her, paralyze her, and knock her consciousness right out of her head. She is just below 5 feet tall. A very tiny target! To see her you wouldn’t guess she’d had a problem in the world. Then you notice the medallion she wears on a chain around her neck to alert paramedics that she has seizures as a result of scars on her brain from that lightning strike.
    Barb told me that when Jane told her the story of being hit by lightning she said “Well, you don’t have to worry about that happening again. Lightning never strikes in the same place twice.”
    Turns out, it does. Some people simply attract lightning strikes. And Jane is very cautious about venturing out of the house, no matter what the weather report says.
    Barb’s brother David, seven years her junior, is battling pancreatic cancer back in her native Kentucky. The good news is that he’s doing very well on chemo. But there’s more. The brother she never knew very well has become very close to her. The two talk on the phone, or text each other, multiple times each day. They talk about the tiny dramas of daily life — the dinner menu, the progress of the neighborhood's new kittens, their mom, their families. They are just getting around to making solid a bond they never quite got around to before. It is very sweet indeed.
    My husband Michael has survived two cancers, but he rarely refers to them. It happened long ago and far away and he’s happy to distance himself from the memories. Nonetheless, cancer has changed our lives. We appreciate our days so much more than before. We work on keeping difficulties in perspective.
    Barb told me that at the end of each day she and Clark review the day and talk about the highs and lows of its course. Michael and I do that, too.
    The other day, as Barb and I posed for Natale’s camera, and Natale showed Jane how it worked, the sun was high in the sky but not too hot, and the breeze was balmy and just right. We had a moment together and I said to her “This is it, Barb. This is our life.”
    “I know it is, June,” she said. “And it’s just fine.”
    And then we smiled for the camera.

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