Monthly Archives: February 2012
I hate cancer. I hate it so hard that it’s hard to even quantify. I’ll go with the measurement that my five-and-a-half-year-old uses and say that I hate it googol.
For those of you new to my blog, I should tell you that I am a massage therapist. It has been my career for over 12 years, and it is, I suppose, one of my life’s great purposes. I love it. In fact, I love it googol. Some of my clients I see once, and never again (although those are few), others I see on and off for a few years, and then things happen and they move on. Then there are the ones who have been with me for either the entire length of my career, or long enough that it seems like it.
Some of these clients have always maintained a distance with me—one that is not uncomfortable or strange, it just is. And that’s alright. Some began that way, and over time our relationship has changed, bringing a certain level of familiarity that is mostly found in long-term-acquaintance relationships. And then there are the relationships that transcend all of those and become, well, like family. Healthy family, that is.
Nine years ago a woman was referred to me by a regular client. She came into our office with a large bandage on her arm, and with an air of vulnerability that I’ve rarely seen since. She was dealing with one of her worst nightmares: a melanoma had recently been removed from her arm. Sure, there isn’t a single person in the world who doesn’t consider cancer to be terrible, but I have found that there are people in the world who dread what they believe to be the inevitability of the occurrence of cancer in their own physical lives. This client was one of those people. And in this particular treatment, our first, she was quiet and just wanted to get some relief from pain related to stress. I treated her, and she rebooked before she left that night. She has come regularly ever since.
She’s a fiery broad, with strong convictions, and a wit and intelligence that I have always admired. She loves her cats like I love my kids and I dare you to challenge her over the depth of her love for them. For nine years, she has never simply called me “Sarah,” but always “Sarah, dear,” each and every time we speak. Over the years I have worried on and off about her, simply because she has chosen to live her life alone. Never married, no children, and just a small circle of close friends. She has been content, and mostly it’s been a nice life. She is a smart, accomplished woman, and although she is approaching 70 years of age, she has felt tethered to her professional career and had not until recently, considered retirement.
She is a client who talks. Now, there are therapists out there (and clients too) who frown upon this, but I have always felt, with this particular client, that it is a need as strong as that for relief from physical pain. And to be honest, I have enjoyed it. At times I have had to put a stop to political conversation, not because we differ, but because her passion sort of takes over her body, and at a certain point, it becomes obvious that her passion will win.
I found out by e-mail that she has terminal cancer. An e-mail because, well, she wanted to prepare me for her treatment plan of positivity: “I am still quite positive and hope you will be too.” Of course, I said. Of course! It is my way. And I am. Or, at the very, very least, I try to be.
I have grown to love her. She is one of those clients who has become very important to me. It is one of the great challenges of our profession, this balance between the professional relationship and the human experience. In this case, when I see this strong, feisty woman losing her hair and unable to hold a glass of water without spilling it, I feel for my friend, not my client. Where once she could tell me all the news of the week (including book reviews) and her feelings about it, she now can’t remember what she was saying as she is saying it. This of course is because of the other thing I hate: chemo.
The first time I saw her after her diagnosis, I was positive as requested, until I left the room to weep. And today, when she finally succumbed to the overwhelming sense of sadness, fear, anger, and loss of physical autonomy, I cried with my friend, not my client. And because life can sometimes be a total shitstorm of crap, I held her while she wept for another loss—one of her cats—to, of course, cancer. My treatment room has become her safe place to express what makes most people uncomfortable or nervous. I want her to express it because I know what can happen to us when we don’t. And I mean it when I say to her, “please don’t apologize. You can say anything to me.” I mean it, but it still hurts. This is one thing that I cannot offer her any relief for, and it feels unnatural to me, as I am most comfortable in the role of helper. But it’s the many levels of loss that need to be processed that is overwhelming for both of us, though for her most of all.
This isn’t written in my usual fashion, and although I have the urge to, I will not apologize for the lack of humor in this post. Don’t worry, it will come back. But for now, all I have is this: I really fucking hate cancer.
*If you are looking for more from Erica Steinhagen, my guest blogger, she’ll be back soon.
The audition room is very warm and has beige carpeting. It smells vaguely like potato chips. The wall I am facing is covered with tall windows, and there is a long table in front of me with four people sitting at it. Their coats are tossed over the chairs, and there are papers stacked in front of each of them. They each have a copy of my headshot and resume. I have 2 minutes to show them that I can act; that they would want to call me back to read for roles in the plays their companies are producing. The monologue begins, and I laugh, and see his face in front of me. I say the words, and they taste like sharp edges on my tongue. I get a twitch under my chin, and my chest tightens. My arms contract, and I throw my eyes towards the windows in front of me, hurling words at the glass like rocks. I can just imagine the cracks forming where they land, and I wish deeply to hear a shattering. I realize I’m flushed and hot, and there is a ringing in my ears. I’m not talking anymore, and I take a breath. The monologue is already over.
“Thank you”, I say.
I turn and walk out of the room, the door making a heavy CLICK behind me. I know the words landed. The heavy thud as they dropped all around my feet was so real to me, I look down to see if there are marks on my shoes.
There are a thousand (more! so many more!) ways to begin. I wonder if there is a bad time to begin. We can choose moments of importance. Of distraction. Of love. But on the subject of beginnings…there is a foggy mess where that rattles in my ears. I can hear the crunching and rustling of words like dead leaves about to crumble and blow away, but I try to hold them delicately so that I don’t lose them. Perhaps it’s not about the beginning, but choosing which is the moment of importance.
Perhaps it was the first time I read that monologue. I had seen the film. Revolutionary Road. Alone, one night, I watched it. Heartbreaking. Beautifully written, acted, directed. I sobbed. I knew this woman. I felt her. I watched the interruption of her career as an actress to move to the suburbs and become a mother and wife. With a heavy heart I watched her get stuck. I recognized a more extreme version of a story I watched all around me a million times with women I knew, and women I didn’t know; women who were interrupted. Who chose but who also felt like they had to choose. In a dark, dark place, I hated that I related to her.
I learn her words and repeat them as if they are my own, and I believe them. Because I know where I meet her in the middle. I meet her in front of my washing machine. I’m taking the heavy wet clothes out and putting them slowly, deliberately, into the dryer. I know in about an hour they will be ready to come out again. They will be put into a basket. I will meet her next to that basket. The clothes dumped onto the bed. The heavy vibration in my ears as the word “drudgery, drudgery, drudgery” repeats and rings over and over again. I will meet her in front of the sink. I am doing the dishes and my hands hurt from the hot water, they have dried so much this winter. The skin is cracked and the water stings. I meet her there and finish scrubbing the pan from dinner. I don’t feel myself. I am not finding the joy here. I meet her here.
I meet her in the theatre, where I try to maintain a sense of ME; where I do my best to do good work, and continue to perform and continue to be inspired by the community of theatre creators and theatre-goers that I adore so fiercely. I meet her on my son’s bed in the evenings, where I get precious and rare time to read and snuggle this incredible little human being, a child who is my favorite human in the universe. And I wonder how soon he will come to resent me for being away so many evenings in the theatre, at rehearsals, at performances. How soon until he learns to hate me for leaving him for six weeks at a time to go perform in a city far away? Will he? Will he understand? Will he know that I am a better human, a better mother because I go? Maybe. Someday. And he hugs me and tells me that he loves me to another galaxy and back, Mama. And sometimes I cry when you go to New York City, Mama, but I know you always come back. And I close his door softly and let the tears come. And I think about how full and amazing my life is. And how much I have. And how I want it all. And how I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
A moment of importance that I choose, a part of the beginning, a moment that feels shiny and hard like glass is the moment I really saw my unhappiness on the wall of our bedroom, scratched there on the blue paint, invisible, but for the vivid picture I had of it, there in the dark. I knew I had to find out what was wrong with me, this terrible flaw, this deep canyon of regret. Regret? No, denial — denial and fear. That’s it. Fear. It is too hard to go on alone; too painful to forfeit our family; impossible to hurt our golden son. Our son! But there it was. My life had stalled. I used the word stuck over and over and over again. My career felt incomplete. My patience was paper thin, ready to disintegrate at the slightest provocation (or at no provocation at all). My son was not getting the best of me. I had no best.
Then I began saying the words. The monologue I had chosen because I knew her. I met her in the middle. I went into a room of strangers and I spoke someone else’s words and I believed them. I felt myself start to fill. I began to step over the edge of the bed, at the shiny glow of dawn, hardly able to wait each morning to begin the rest of my life. I made the decisions that I didn’t have to forfeit anything, especially my own life. The leap into the abyss and the weekly trips to New York City and the newness of life where I felt like I was maybe getting it all, maybe—well, that is where I stand now. I stand in the center of the rest of my life. And I make a little quiet promise not to make any more decisions based in fear. I promise to always work on being a better mom than I am today. I choose a moment of importance, and that’s this moment. Right now. Because it’s the most important one I have. I am here, now. This is what is happening. And my son will see me as a full soul. I will see myself in the city, and in my small town. I will remember how I denied and denied and denied. And how that no longer was possible. I hope he sees how happy I am now that I am making my own way and making my own rules about what it can all look like.
And often it looks like a room with hardwood floors and a wall next to me covered in mirrors. Always a table at one end — sometimes a piano. Sometimes I sing. Sometimes I talk. Sometimes I speak the words that feel pointy like glass and make my eyes prickle. And I see that really anything can happen if you really want it to.
And that is for my son.
And I also promise to pay for therapy.