Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"I wish I knew how to quit you...."

Stolen shamelessly from one of the best movies of all time: Brokeback Mountain and something Bing says to me on a frequent basis, usually jesting, but sometimes, I think, in very deep seriousness....

I can't stay away. This is my outlet, embarrassing to me or not, it is me. I will never be as strong as I wish I were, as brave. But, I can write this all down. For Liv, for you, for me.

I received my second dose of chemo today. The infection in my armpit (and leave it to me to get in the most unladylike of places....the only places worse would be in my pussy or my ass...) seems to be responding well to Bactrim, so my oncologist and I decided to just go with it. He strongly advised staying out of work for the next two weeks until we were "out of the woods" but when I demurred (actually protested violently), he said, "Ok, I knew you would take that stance, so here is plan B: USE HAND SANITIZER LIKE IT IS GOING OUT OF STYLE. I have no worries of you infecting anyone, unless Bing is into licking your armpits, which I do not recommend at this time, but I DO worry about YOU getting another bug and then I swear to you, I WILL throw you into a hospital bed and it will not just be for a day or two, you will be fighting for your life. Are we in tune? Do you get me? C'mon, Maria, you are a doctor, you understand what you might be up against if you don't protect yourself." I agreed.

But, I also need to work. I can protect myself at work. But, if I sit home, I will lose my mind. I almost went nuts over the Memorial Day holiday. I read three books. I watched so much mindless TV (there is actually a show out there called something like "Naked and Afraid" where survivalist wannabes go with a stranger to a remote place, both are naked and only get to take one thing with them (a knife, matches, a bowl, a pot, etc.) and must survive for a month. I admit to being absurdly fascinated. And that bothers me. That I sat and watched this show for an ENTIRE HOUR. ) that when Bing changed the channel to Pandora's Healing Sounds, I actually let her because I was in such a brain fog that I was helpless to defend myself.

I need to work. I plan to heal, but working is part of my healing process.

So far, so good. If this chemo is anything like the last, I will probably crash on Friday afternoon. And spend the weekend in bed. I'm scheduled to go in for a shot of Neulasta tomorrow after work and get a "goodie bag" of hydration and anti-nausea/anti diarrhea meds via IV. That might help since last chemo, when I wasn't in bed, I was having massive diarrhea and threw up until I was simply dry heaving over and over again. I went through a short course of chemo 8 years ago with a different cancer and it was a walk in the park compared to this. A little nausea, a great deal of fatigue, but I am very strong willed and I got through it. This last chemo almost sent to me to church.

Fatigue I can handle. Pain I can handle. Diarrhea and vomiting? I am a wussy pants, apparently. Probably because it LOOKS so unsightly and I am so vain that even enduring chemotherapy, I want to look like a Viking warrior.

So, dudes....I lied. I just can't quit you. Can't stop writing about this journey. I tell myself that it will make me more compassionate with those around me who are sick, but truthfully? I have always been a pretty compassionate person and doctor. I was the intern who knew everyone on my rounds, knew their life stories, knew that their daughter could only come in after visiting hours because she was a bartender who worked nights and had a child to care for during the day. On our rotations (and I still cannot believe that I actually stayed awake for 32 hours straight every FOUR days for a year and lived to tell the tale and they are STILL torturing their residents this way.....), the attending doctor would not always praise me for being the most astute at deciphering illnesses but I ALWAYS received back pats because my patients wanted ME and only me to care for them because they said I was a good listener (ok...half asleep, but I was there....) And I have prided myself to this day that my kids and their parents can trust me. I give out my cell number when I shouldn't. But, honestly, they rarely use it and when they do, I am glad to be there.

I am not Mother Teresa in many other ways, but this chemo is not going teach me anything I don't already know about compassion for the ill. Maybe it will teach me that I can let go of control and just dive into the unknown and survive. Something that, admittedly, I suck big time large at. Even in my salad days, I may have slept around and did some foolish things (I still greatly regret that tattoo...) but they were always on MY terms. And I prided myself that I put myself through school without a dime from my Mother. AND paid off ALL my student loans by the time I had Liv. AND bought my own home using my OWN savings. AND am paying my daughter's pricey tuition (ok...I have a host of helpers on that one: Tinton, Bing and Vince and Thuan...) to a private high school.

So, I agree to try. It's all I can do for now. And if I sound whiny sometimes, I am very lucky to have readers who are blessed with the art of looking askance at my weaknesses and heralding my triumphs. And some of you are even Republicans. Who'da figured THAT?

Liv and Tinton come home on Thursday. Liv has a softball game on Thursday night that I will try to attend. I plan to go to work tomorrow. Just called my secretary and told her that ALL patients are a go for tomorrow.

I am slurping up a chai tea that my Sister just brought me: a venti Oprah Chai Latte with extra cinnamon, iced. I didn't even know that Oprah had managed to finagle her name on a chai tea from Starbucks, but why the hell not? And there is cranberry juice in the fridge waiting for me.

A wife who has called me twelve times in 5 hours. Twice when I was getting chemo because I was so sick of listening to my Sister talk about her granddaughter's graduation party ("I can't believe that I wasn't even asked to help make the mints! Instead they asked me to bring my chicken salad!") that I texted Bing to please call me and rescue me for ten minutes.  And she called and said that she was Tom Mison and wanted to just tell me that he was really into bald women who swore like sailors.....

I have a funny new book to read.

This is me, getting to my feet with all the dignity that I can muster and thrusting my fist into the air again.

I am Titanium.




Sunday, May 24, 2015

Stepping off for a bit

So tired of this. Tired of myself, mostly. Tired of involving all of you in this.

It is embarrassing for me to look so fragile, so weak. I like the sheen of courage to be all around me and instead, I find myself faltering and looking around at my surroundings with something close to despair.

I can tell myself that I am lucky a million times a day and it isn't sticking. What IS sticking is the residual after effects of the antibiotic that leave me nauseated and depressed. I am allergic to most antibiotics and the ones that I am not? I have a hard time holding them down and tend to do badly on them. Leave it to me to reject the one thing that can really help me now.

Bing tries so hard. Brings me venti (GOD HOW I HATE IT THAT STARBUCKS JUST CAN'T SAY SMALL, MEDIUM, OR LARGE...SO FUCKING PRETENTIOUS!) flat whites, tells me how pretty I am, how smart, how special. And I sit there blankly, book in lap, trying to read, failing. She puts in Season 2 of Orange Is The New Black and cuddles on up with me, even though I fall asleep halfway through...

Socks, ever loyal, sticks close. Follows me from room to room, pretending that he is just meandering around when he is really watching me closely, ready to bark at any time if I go down.

My daughter calls from Chicago. Having so much fun! Wish you were here! Dad and I went to see The Sea and Cake last night and he and I danced! YES! I got Dad to dance with me! Tonight, he is getting us in to see some blues singer named Shirley Johnson. He has connections or something. And we went to all the museums. I like Loyola, but it's SO big! Northwestern on Tuesday! University of Chicago on Wednesday! So glad we decided to add an extra day or two! Did you know that Einstein did a lot of work at the University of Chicago! I want to learn more!  And we've been eating like pigs. Hey, Dad bought you a present on the Magnificent Mile, Mama and it cost over 300$. He said that you were worth every penny. Mama, how're you doing? I miss you!

I miss her, too. But, I can't say how glad I am that she isn't here to see how disgracefully I have been behaving. Feeling sorry for myself. Crying alone in the bathroom, looking at my ugly nicked head, my scars, my gray face. I am ashamed of myself, but I can't seem to pull myself up by my boot straps.

Physician heal thyself.

I go into the garden for respite, but after a half hour of weeding, the rain comes again, pushing me back inside. It rains daily. I feel as if everything is slick with it, constantly. I ache for the sun and it is elusive. Metaphorically and truly. Besides, I am too tired to weed anymore. Good excuse to go back inside and sit in the leather recliner, dog next to me, book on my lap, Bing leaning in to kiss me, to tell me that I am her trophy wife and not to forget that, missy. Once, I lose that hot bald head, I'm curtains. I laugh for her as prettily as I am able, but my heart isn't in it.

Saw my Sisters and niece yesterday. Lifted my shirt dutifully to show my scars. Sat in a cafe and listened to talk of the small town where I grew up, kept the conversation off of me. Off politics. Off religion. Off anything really interesting. Came home feeling as if I had been on a ten mile hike.

Mostly, I just want to escape and perhaps that is best for a while. Get my bearings. Find my sea legs. Find my courage again somehow.

Because right now, I just feel as if all I want to do is be a bird and fly away.

I'll be back when I am able to be here with more dignity.




Saturday, May 23, 2015

Shit hits the fan or Jesus, can I get a fucking break here?

I was sitting quietly in my office at work yesterday, minding my own beeswax. Catching up on paperwork. It had been a grueling morning, full of patients who were all in dire need of assistance.

I have been feeling okay, still unsteady, still have to force myself to eat (everything tastes like pennies), but all in all, getting through. I had spoken to my sisters, agreed to lunch on Saturday but no more and felt good with those boundaries.

My cell phone rang. The doctor's office. I sighed. Picked up.

Ms. Lastname?

Yes?

This is the nurse for Dr. Lastname. And we have your lab results back from your blood work and the culture from the cyst on your arm?

(In the shower, a few nights ago, I discovered what I thought was a boil of some sort growing right in my left armpit....told the doctor, had it cultured, expected it to be nothing....just part of the fun of chemo...)

Yes?

Well, your blood counts indicate severe anemia. Your white blood cell count is back up but very high. And your red blood cell count is very low. High platelet count. Low lymph, hgb, hct, chloride....and I'm sorry to tell you that we found a few klebsiella in your cyst culture. The doctor would like you to rest, rest, rest all weekend and stay on those antibiotics and come in on Tuesday and we'll do more blood work and talk about whether to continue chemotherapy or halt it until we get your body back to a better place.

I just sat there. Wait a freaking minute here. HALT chemo? No. I don't want to do that. I want it fucking over with.....like yesterday.


Ms. Lastname?

Sorry, yes, I'm here. Well, this is disconcerting.

I'm sorry.

Me, too. I guess I'll see you on Tuesday. Should I take my pre-chemo meds just in case we decide to go ahead with it?"

Yes, he said that we'll see how it goes.

And we hung up.

I sat in my chair, shaking with fury. GOD DAMN IT ALL TO HELL. What the FUCK is wrong with my body? Why can't I just do chemo like everyone else? Leave it to me to get so run down that I can't do it and then catch some superbug that is highly antibiotic resistant.

I finally texted Bing, dreading it. It was her last day of school forever. She is retiring this year after over 30 years of teaching. And it was killing her. She's only retiring because the word is that the school board is taking the early retirement option off the table next year and she didn't want to lose all that money. So, I knew this was a hard day for her. I texted her anyway. Tried to keep it light.

"Hey, sweetie. Hope you're getting through ok! Got lab results back. May be too compromised to continue chemo for a bit and the cyst culture showed a few klibsiella, so will go in on Tues but don't be surprised if I come back home...."

Her response was immediate.

"We'll baby the hell out of you all weekend. I know you want to get this shit over with. I'm right here. No worries. Sweetheart, it will be fine."

And it will. I just have to learn the art of letting go, I suppose. Not one of my strong points. I have a tendency to want to keep the reins in MY hands, not let go to some force in the universe. I trust myself more.

So, now I am home, clock watching. Will meet my Sisters and their families in a half hour for brunch and then have the perfect excuse to bow out of all functions for the rest of this long weekend.

Sorry, Sisters. I have cancer. I am severely anemic. I need sleep and rest.

And what I won't say: I am so depressed, so down. I am SO glad that Liv and Tinton are gone until Wednesday so I can just be my crabby self with Bing, who gets me and loves me no matter what.

I want to feel good again. Really good. Like hungry. Rarin' to go instead of trying not to limp.

I'm asking myself all kinds of crazy questions. As a believer in reincarnation, I wonder why the FUCK I chose this body? Did I have some sort of wish to feel like shit on a regular basis?

And then, I stop myself. I think of Liv. The miracle of getting to be her Mother when I thought that journey had sidestepped me. The miracle of Bing. Second chances. Loving a woman who never gave up on me, even after I behaved badly and gave up on her. The miracle of my Da. I only had him for 10 short years, but he taught me everything worth knowing, including how to read, the constellations and what it feels like to be truly loved. The miracle of my kids that I work with every day at work. Their growth. The way one likes to sit in my lap and tuck into me, feeling safe and sure, trusting me when he can't seem to trust anyone else. The way another one finally said his first word last week: truck. The way the new one, the child who made the local news for being abandoned, sits quiet as a mouse in my life, not daring to smile or cry. Right next door to catatonic. How he needs me and I need to try to help. The miracle of my garden. Waiting for me to come say hello today and see how it's going.

I can do this. But, nobody promised easy.

I will fight and I will win. I feel like Scarlett O'Hara, fist to the sky saying that she'll never be hungry again.

I will heal. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.

Please?


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Busy weekend

Had planned to spend the weekend in bed again. In my experience, chemo hits hardest on days 3 and 4...so was going to do the rabbit hole thing.

Tinton is flying in to our fair city today to take Liv on a college tour in Chicago. They're going to hit Loyola and Northwestern. Leave this afternoon and come home on Tuesday. I wanted to go too, but figured that because of chemo, I wouldn't be able to go. Plus, it will be good for Liv to spend time with her Father. They plan to hit Loyola tomorrow and Northwestern on Monday. This weekend, they will do the tourist thing, hit the art museums and in the evenings, go listen to some bands that Liv likes.

The hard thing now? My great-niece is graduating high school this weekend and my entire family is descending. All of my Sisters in town, their families. None are staying with us, thank you baby Hey Zeus, since I figured I would be pretty much out of the loop except for a quick visit with them. But, now I am feeling good since no chemo, so I will be expected to join the fray at least. Will probably skip the graduation and subsequent party, but will do dinner, lunch or breakfast with the family.

Why am I dreading this? I just feel so unattractive, less like myself than I have felt in a very long time. I want to tend my garden, be alone with Bing, read and just hunker down.

Sometimes, I feel like there has always been something missing in me. I've never liked family functions, although I do love my family. I just....I;m always the orphan at the table, the lone dissenter at a table of Republicans who love to diss Hilary, closet racists who think the police are always in the right and the "bad guys" are the "thugs" that they take down. Police brutality is just not in their wheelhouse, but it is very much in mine. I've heard too many stories from Bing, who teaches in a high risk school to not know better. My bi-sexuality is tolerated, not accepted. It is what makes me that sort of eccentric Aunt, Sister, In law. I fear that they see me as comical and combative.

And cancer has cut my sharp comebacks in half. I just don't have the energy to fight back and yet, I do not feel that I stomach what I will probably hear.

It's the not fighting back that kills me. At least one good thing: Liv will not be here to witness her Mother not standing up for her beliefs, but sitting quietly, aching to go work in the garden where I am in tune with everything.

Family is a sticky wicket, yes?

What is your family like?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Update

No chemo after all. Got there and was running a fever of 100.5. Apparently, no chemo if you have a fever of 100.4 or over. Plus, I had a small marbley bump in my left armpit. Oncologist immediately wanted it looked it by the wound center.

Turns out it is an infected cyst. So....absolutely no chemo until that is cleared for MRSA. Which it probably isn't. But....if my white blood cell dropped, it could have easily turned into a blood infection and then.....well, I wouldn't be attending my daughter's graduation.

So, probably for the best. Provided the culture turns out negative and my blasted fever abates, my chemo is now scheduled for Tuesday, May 26th.

A reprieve? I was disappointed. SO ready to get this shit over and done with already. And I dislike setbacks. I like to run to schedule.

Took the day off to mourn my lack of hair and breasts and the fact that I actually resemble my Uncle Jimmy.

And to tend to the now debrided cyst which, they inform me, is quite a bleeder. One of the nurses told me: "You really like to push that edge, don't you? Rheumatoid Arthritis, Migraines, Meniere's Syndrome, and allergic to nearly every antibiotic there is (levaquin, penicillin, tetracycline, amitrip.....yup!)"

I responded that I have always been that person, the problem child, the one juror who won't be moved by the majority, the woman who refuses to date Republicans, and now I guess the woman who is like the three legged horse battling cancer for the second time in a decade. Apparently, I must have had too many lives of leisure and ease. This one seems tailor made for chaos and upheaval. But....hey, I have the best support system on the planet, a bunch of nurses in the chemo unit who think I am funny and smart and I will not be moved.

I plan to win this fight. Maybe they should start looking into what it takes to be a three legged horse.

Shaving my head and preparing to go down the rabbit hole again

Today is chemo day.

I think I slept 2 hours last night. I've been doing stupid things like reading chemo stats and wondering if there is a way that I can just skip this whole ride. And then I see Liv running down the steps, a little late for school, braiding her hair as she flies by me, taking the Nutri-Grain bar out of my hands, grabbing her Beatles satchel that she's had since 8th grade and rushing to the car with me.

And I know that I want to see my daughter graduate from high school. College. Grad school. Med school. Law school. Or maybe be a painter, a writer, yoga instructor, anything that feeds her bliss. Money was such a huge deal for me in my school days, it took me almost two decades to pay off my student loans. I don't want Liv to have that burden. And I want to be HERE to see how it plays out.

So, I'll go to the damn chemotherapy, today. My Sister is taking me and will have tons of photos and news regarding my niece's graduation that I missed because of being sick. I'll bring a book, too. The time will pass and then I can go home and download this:



So, I gave in and got my head shaved.

And I didn't cry. I promised myself that I would NOT cry. Bing offered to do it, but I had a very private feeling about this, didn't want her cuddling me, reassuring me. I don't know how to explain it, but that kind of attention tends to backfire on me, make me hugely uncomfortable. I preferred to keep it businesslike. Something that I had to tend to that was not pleasing, but necessary. No big deal.

So, I went to Great Clips. I figured it wasn't like they could mess up shaving my head. And I heard it was dirt cheap. I walked in and was surprised to see LOTS of people in the lobby. I was number 5. So, I waited patiently and when my turn came, I wasn't pleased to see that I got the very loud voiced chatty hair cutter with way too much makeup on and hair that was too black to be real but she was awfully old to be going through a goth phase.

I quietly told her that I was going through chemotherapy and as she could see, losing not just my hair in a pretty, thinning fashion but in a clumpy, weird fashion. I was sick of finding hair all over my pillow case every morning and Bing having to blow out our bed every morning. Of seeing my hair drop all over my keyboard at work and feel it falling into my mouth. Down my neck.

The last straw was when I went to scratch my head at work and came back with a clump of hair in my hands that our birds would have loved to help build their nests.

It was time.

Of course, Kay, the hair cutter, had to inform me that my haircut would be free since Great Clips had a policy called Clips for Kindness for chemo patients. Well, that turned every neck in the joint. I smiled and thanked her, hoping that my quiet voice would be catching.

It was. She was nearly silent as she shaved my head, only leaning down to whisper once that I really did have a nicely shaped head. I bet she says that to all the girls....

After it was over, I peeked at myself in the mirror and was properly appalled. There was my Uncle Jimmy looking back at me. He's 90, bald and nearly blind. And yes, I see that underneath all my hair and trappings, I absolutely resemble my Da's Brother.

I sighed. No boobs either. Would I be seen as a man? I kind of looked it. I got out of the chair, determined to try on every scarf and hat in the house that I had purchased. No wigs for this woman. I'm either going commando or covering my head for warmth.

As I tipped Kay and walked out, I was stunned when EVERY person in the waiting room stood up and clapped. Embarrassed beyond words, I mumbled something like a thank you and got out the door as quickly as I could, a man in a business suit leaping to open it for me and smiling down at me broadly.

"You look beautiful, honey," he said.

I smiled wanly. Liar. But a nice one.

Even on the way home, I didn't cry. But I didn't look in the rearview mirror either. And when I got home, Bing (whom I had called earlier) and Liv were doing yardwork, so I had time to go into the bedroom and play with scarves.

There. Better. I would be fine. This was a temporary setback. But, it is the truth that without my hair, I feel very vulnerable.

When they came in to say that they'd ordered pizza for dinner, I whipped off my hat and showed them my head. Liv looked shocked, but immediately rallied.

"Mama, it looks so much better than it did. You were looking kind of strange there for a while."

Bing kissed me soundly.

"God, bald women get me so freaking hot."

Liv plugged her ears. "You said you would STOP that talk when I'm around, Bing. Kids do not want to know about their parent's love lives!"

That made us laugh.

So, I swallowed a few bites of pizza, watched The Voice finale. (Yeah, Sawyer!) Went to bed. And couldn't sleep.

Going down into the rabbit hole now.

I'll let you know when I crawl out........

Sunday, May 17, 2015

And the garden is in....!!!

Found a sunny spot in all the rain yesterday and we put in the garden. With the help of several of Liv's friends. What a huge help they were, too. Teenaged girls are so freaking robust. Even the skinny ones seem to be able to carry their own weight like little worker ants. And the boys? God, so much posturing for those girls. If I had asked one to carry me around his back, he would have done it without a word.

Bing and I worked as directors. Liv and her five friends planted. My hands itched to be in the soil, but, alas, since chemo, I am forbidden to work in the garden without gloves and I detest those things. We'll see how long I last....

But, they're all in. Actually, we planted the leeks, potatoes, beets, carrots and lettuce back in March and have already had salads with the carrots and lettuce. So tender that lettuce. Nothing like the tasteless ones at the grocery store. My lettuce has a buttery taste to it, tender and sweet.

But, the peppers are in. Green and red. Squash. Eggplant. Zucchini (which I will regret, I know, since it grows like mad here....) Pole beans. Sweet peas. And 7 different varieties of my heirloom tomatoes. The big boys for Bing. The tiny cherry tomatoes for Liv. And for me? I like the green zebras. But, I have 4 new ones to try this year, thanks to a friend who sent me seeds from Chicago. Varieties called black prince, lemon boy, chocolate, and costoluto genovese. I'm so curious to see what they taste like. They are all standing shivering in the morning coolness, leaves wet with the morning rain.

We planted the herbs, too. The basil, rosemary, chives, thyme, cilantro and lemon verbena because I love the way it makes the whole back yard smell on hot nights.

Most of my flowers were up and at 'em weeks ago. My bleeding hearts, my bachelor's buttons, my bells of Ireland, even my poinsettias are back, amazing to me since I was told they could never stand the harsh Winters of the prairie. My rose bushes are budding, spilling out, shyly at first with their whites and pinks and reds and yellows. The moss roses are more sleepy, not quite ready for primetime yet.

But, what I enjoyed seeing put in the ground the most? The pumpkin seedlings. These will not come to fruition until October. And then this nightmare journey that I am on will hopefully be just a bad dream fading away.

In the meantime, I look out at my garden and feel good inside. So tender towards those plants who have been slowly growing in strength in our basement for the last two months. They look happy in their new home. I feel them adjusting their roots, stretching for purchase, to find their place in this vegetable garden. I'm willing the sun to come out today to dry their leaves and give them a nice soft warm blanket of warm. Soon enough the hot Summer sun will come calling. This Spring gentle sun is a good beginning for them.

And me. I feel alive in a way that I cannot describe when I am in my garden. I tell myself that I will wear the garden gloves, not just for me, but for them. I don't want to subject them to the chemo that I would sweat out on to them.

For now, though, I am content to look out and think about a Summer where everything grows and prospers. My sturdy vegetables raising up high. My herbs sliding around and up. My flowers bursting into pastels and deep crayola colors.

It just makes me so happy.

After all was said and done yesterday, I sat outside, book in my lap, unread. I looked down at Socks, who was steadfastly sitting on my feet.

"What do you think, Socks? Pretty nice, huh?" I said. (Yes, I talk to my dog....don't judge me... he talks back, I swear it...)

Socks smiled up at me. And then there was a squirrel and he was off like a shot, leaving my question unanswered.

No matter. This garden will be part of the bridge that crosses me over.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Maria and her massage therapist, a barrel of monkeys

"Maria? Hi, it's Ciss, just wondering where you are?"

Huh? OH SHIT.

Chemo brain. My massage appointment. I spaced it. After making the most heartfelt apology, I told Bing where I was going and ran out the door, forgetting my cane, of course. Raced to Ciss' office.

Ciss is a very no nonsense massage therapist. And I hate it that her name is Ciss. It just feels bizarre to call someone Sis. Who isn't. My Sis. She is also very, very picky about her clientele. I heard about her from an old friend at the hospital where I used to work.

"You'll love her if she'll take you on but she is really picky about about who she works with. She meets with you first and then decides if she'll take you on. She isn't expensive, but she should be. I see her twice a month and it is like going to heaven."

So, after my bilateral mastectomy, I called her. Told her that Lindsay had recommended her. Her voice was noncommittal. She said that she could meet with me free of charge to talk, see if we meshed. If we did and could agree on terms, she would take me on.

We met. Ciss is a tall, slender woman with chin length gray hair who dresses completely in hemp. No makeup. No bracelets or baubles of any kind. Her office was nothing special. It looked like an insurance office. But, it was clean and it smelled nice. We talked. She asked me what I wanted to achieve with massage.

Um, ACHIEVE?

Huh. This might not go so well, I thought to myself. I finally managed to say that I had just had a bilateral mastectomy and had heard from a friend (thank you, 8th Day.) that massages were helpful for her in regaining the range of motion in her arms.

"Can I see your chest?" Ciss asked.

I lifted up my shirt, gingerly. She looked carefully. Nodded.

"You're healing nicely," she said. "Let's go over your medical history."

We did this. She sat back in her chair, looking at me carefully, sizing me up. I felt like I was applying for a job, but had no idea what it was. This set my teeth on edge so I immediately began deciding what I would say when she dumped me.

"I like your vibe," she said. "You have an incredible aura. Very strong but faltering a bit. I think I can help you. Wanna try me out?"

I said yes and we were off.

The first massage was very non-descript. She mostly dealt with my head, neck, shoulders and arms. And my range of motion improved dramatically after one visit. I was hooked. I hadn't started chemo yet, though.

This would be my second massage and there I was flying in by the seat of my pants, blathering out apologies. She looked coolly at me. Unflappable.

"Just so this isn't a habit with you," she said. "Are you prone to tardiness or forgetting appointments?"

No, I told her. In fact, I am so good at juggling balls in the air that I should be in the circus. It was just an oversight. We were getting ready to put our garden in (FINALLY!) at home and I was distracted. This wouldn't happen again. I was sorry. She nodded once.

"Let's get to work then," she said. And we did.

I'm not an easy massage recipient. I don't really enjoy being naked in front of strangers, but I had been so pleased with my range of motion improvement after the last session that I swallowed hard, stripped bare nekkid and jumped on the table, under the soft blue sheet. She knocked discreetly and when I answered that yes, I was ready, she came in, all hempy looking.

While her outer office looks like an insurance office, her massage room is much more cozy. The walls are painted a dusky rose color, the sheets on the table are a soft blue. It smells clean and lemony but not overwhelming. Soft music goes on in the background, if you strain you can almost hear monks chanting now and again. A small Buddha sits in a corner holding a small bowl filled with pennies, keys, wrist bands, and a few nickels and dimes. I have always wondered what this was for but haven't asked. The room is lit by soft lights in the corners of the room, making both of us look all rosy and dewy.

She began by massaging my head. This alone was wonderful, but I was having trouble relaxing. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on r e l a x i n g....

She turned me over slowly and began to work on my back, pulling here, pressing there until she found one spot. One particular spot that for some reason brought tears to my eyes with such suddenness that I gasped.

"Everything okay?" she asked, leaning down to look into my face.

I nodded, tears coursing down my face. How humiliating. What the hell was going on? I NEVER cry.

She sat down on a stool next to me and began to gently rub in concentric circles across my back. "Maria, I need you to help me out here. Tell me what is the general thought that goes through your head these days,"

I didn't have to think twice.

Hold it together.

I said it out loud. She nodded. "I thought so. The part of your back that I am rubbing? It is often a trigger for emotions held in tightly. This is what I think. I think that last chemo scared you to death because it was so awful. I think that you know that, in three days, you will put your body through that again and it is scaring you. And I think you are presenting a stiff upper lip to everyone. Maria? You are very strong, but no one expects you to be Hercules."

I sighed, feeling more in control. "Most of the time, I feel more like Sisyphus."

Ciss smiled. Went back to work, kneading and stretching, rubbing and sliding, rocking and rolling.

"You've lost a lot of weight. I can see your ribs," she commented.

"It's this new fun thing called the chemo diet," I told her. "Everything tastes like metal. Especially water. Which I am supposed to drink a ton of....."

She gently began rubbing my scars, softly, softly. I wanted to moan in pleasure but was afraid it would sound sexual, so I closed my lips tightly.

She moved to my face, tracing the line of my nose, my forehead, my cheeks.

"You know what?" she said. "I don't usually get this personal with clients, but you have the loveliest skin, so very soft and such a pretty pale tone."

I smiled, told her that my nickname in college was the milkmaid. And then I thanked her for telling me that, said that I was not feeling particularly alluring these days and it was nice to know that there was something pretty of me left.

She moved back to my head.

"I never told you this, but your wife called me right before we met for our first consultation. She wanted me to know that you were an exceptional person, but that you often come across as aloof and cool. She said that you were the bravest, most beautiful person that she had ever met and she hoped that I would take you on. And then I met you and well, no...you aren't the most beautiful person that I've ever seen, but you have a lovely, stalwart aura and I knew we would be a good match. Maria, you may feel that you have to be brave other places in your life, but you are safe here with me. You can cry anytime you need to do so. Just so you know...."

I was stunned. Bing had CALLED her? I half wanted to smack her. And I have a stalwart aura? I fucking LOVE that word. And I knew without a doubt that I actually could cry here if I felt the need. And it was so.....freeing.

My entire body relaxed.

"There you go!" Ciss said. "Wow, your whole body just....let go. Doesn't that feel better?"

Yes, I agreed. It surely did.

"Ok, time for the foot rub (Ciss always ends with a long, luxurious foot rub) and then scoot. I have another client soon. And DO NOT miss our next appointment, agreed?"

Agreed.

As I drove home, I contemplated talking to Bing about her butting in. Sighed and decided that it was not a fight I was equipped for. And seriously, how could I get angry at her for trying to help? For knowing me so well that she feared that I would flunk at some sort of personality "people test"? Others should be so lucky.

And hey, I had a place to cry if I need to that isn't the shower or the bathtub. Maybe I needed to work on better releasing my emotions at home, maybe I didn't have to be the tough cookie ALL the time. But, I did know this.

I need Ciss. Me and my stalwart aura.