Winning Deals

I guess I have what you might call a chronic cough at this point, even though I hope that when the stupid tumor pushing on my airway shrinks, it will be a thing of the past. But when I am in public–say, on the train–I become particularly aware of my coughing, and the more I try to suppress it, the worse it gets. Some people give me sympathetic looks, and during the evening commute, sometimes middle-aged women offer me cough drops. But plenty of people give me dirty looks and others have even gotten up and moved away from me.

Just being on the train a lot has made me spend extra time on my iPhone, which lead me to a wonderful discovery… I can distract myself out of most coughing fits by playing games.  Thank you, Solitaire. Focusing on the fake cards is usually enough to calm my coughing and probably bring my public heath-hazard estimate down from “probably the plague” to “maybe a cold.”

Solitaire is a good distraction. This particular version looks like the one that used to come standard with Windows so you’d have something to do while you waited for the internet to dial. I don’t remember if this was possible with the old computer version, but my iPhone Solitaire allows you to adjust the percentage of winning deals. Did you catch that? The cards can be dealt randomly, or they can be dealt to ensure it is possible to win. When I discovered this, I went ahead and cranked “winning deals” to 100%. I also changed the deck of cards to one that features a kitten.

Turns out, I’m not that good at Solitaire, because sometimes I still don’t win and I re-deal the cards without even trying to finish the hand I started. I thought about that for a while. Am I the kind of person that quits, just so I can start over and come out ahead and watch the animated cards dance? Am I so lazy that even when I know I can win a game, I would rather quit and start over than figure out how to win the hand I’ve been dealt?

I thought about this for a while, influenced no doubt by a few of my overly-competitive loved ones. A friend once told me that even if I wanted to just play horseshoes or go bowling for the fun of it, it was an insult to him, as my competitor, if I wasn’t trying my hardest. My darling husband, when I first proposed the idea that maybe sports was more about having fun than winning, countered that “it’s not fun if you lose all the time.” I was once accused of having “no mental fortitude” for giving up on one of those metal puzzles that are hard to take apart and asking how to do it before I left. This is why I thought so much about changing the odds of Solitaire and what that said about me.

I argued, with myself, that if Solitare is a metaphor for life, you should not be allowed to set it to winning deals. That you should not expect to be set up for success, and that some hands are just not winnable, and a random deal is much more reflective of the world around us. But then I realized that there is no real consequence for hitting “new game” on iPhone cards. I can afford to lose, and I can afford to win the easy way, and all I’m really trying to do is distract myself from coughing.

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Part of my story is set at a small boarding school where my husband worked. It was his first job out of college, and he was quickly thrown into adulthood by becoming a teacher, coach, tutor, student adviser, and the head dorm parent for a building of twenty or so high school boys.

Ryan graduated a year ahead of me, and the summer after I finished school, we got married and I moved into his apartment. We had a spacious and very drafty one on the first floor of a boy’s dorm. It never quite felt like home, though, no matter how long we lived there or how many times we rearranged our collection of hand-me-down furniture.

Most of the problem was that home, for Ryan, was also work. The small community, so cherished by the school, had its drawbacks. The kids were nosy. They knew our cars, and they therefore knew when we were home and when we were out. We could hear them pounding up the stairs behind our apartment and, unfortunately, many of their conversations in the bathroom below our living room.

Ryan coached two seasons of sports, and there were classes and games on Saturdays. When we had a rare full weekend or a chance to get away, we always felt like we were escaping. School just didn’t feel like home. In fact, if  you called “Home” from my cell phone, you still got my parent’s house.

That all changed. I finished graduate school, and in the midst of a major recession, was trying to find a job. We wanted to move to the Boston area, but teacher jobs have a pretty set hiring season, so our plan was for me to find a job and move first, so that at least one of us would have a job, and we would be able to move to Boston. To my surprise, I was offered a job almost right away, at an environmental consulting firm in Lowell. We decided to go for it. I was going to move, and Pat would join me ten months later. It wasn’t ideal, but we would work it out.

I was going to start my new job on a Monday. I had moved into my first real apartment; I was going to pay rent; I was going to be more independent. Just first, I had my 4.5-year check up appointment in Boston the Friday before. My cancer had been gone so long that it was very unlikely for it to return, but they were also going to do an MRI of my hip, which had been bothering me. I’d even already had a clean x-ray of my hip, so I was not that worried.

But the MRI showed that the pain in my hip was being caused by a large mass that was hitting nerves. We didn’t find out that day what the “mass” was, since we would have to wait for a biopsy, but it was probably Ewing’s sarcoma. I was probably going to need chemotherapy again.

Too upset to call my new boss, I sent an email explaining that something was wrong and I didn’t know what yet, and could I please move my start date? His response was, “I hope it’s nothing serious; sure, we can move your start date.” About a week later, I got an email from a woman in HR that said they were rescinding my offer because I had asked to move my start date and they needed someone to begin immediately. I had been told earlier they were not waiting for me to start on any specific projects.

I am not sure how legal action would have turned out, and I never got any further responses from the company. This experience deeply shook my faith in humanity. It was not helped when my requests to cancel the lease on my new apartment were completely ignored. And so, before I was even sure I had cancer again, I was unemployed and owed rent on an empty apartment. Also, I probably had cancer. It was a definite low point.

The next weekend, my parents came to stay with me as I recovered from port-placement surgery–it’s really a minor surgery, but my parents told me that moving was not an activity in which I was allowed to participate. I didn’t fight that one.

Meanwhile, I lay on the couch, and my parents cleaned my apartment, happy for a way to help. Ryan and two of our faculty friends drove the three hours from school to my apartment. His uncle met them there, and they took down the photos we had just hung, broke down the bed we had just bought, and packed and wrapped everything carefully back into boxes. Then they drove the three hours back and helped unload everything on the other end. And as they carried my things back into our apartment, I followed them into my home.

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Memories, Dreams, and People

The ports I visit, the safe places I return to, come in three main forms: memories, dreams, and people.

I am not the first to find comfort in favorite memories and dreams of the future. They are both a form of escapism, and at first, I didn’t know if they represented healthy coping strategies. But they are common ones among Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war, and others who have made it through incredibly trying times.* So they’re good enough for me.

Replaying favorite memories is a way I’ve found to occupy my time and escape from my body when it is feeling miserable. I go through memories in as much detail as I can. I remember the day I met my husband, Ryan. What we said, what we did, what we ate, and what we were wearing. I remember the day of our wedding. I remember riding my favorite pony through the woods, the Halloween parties my mom loved to organize, and my nieces and nephews as they have grown up, from first being able to hold their heads up to their early quests for mobility and communication.

I pick out memories of comfort and love when I have been sick–and I don’t replay how sick or sad or scared I have felt. I have lived through those experiences once, and I know that they happened to me, but I let them go. This is a conscious effort to have a selective memory, and I recognize that I am deluding myself, at least a little. Then again, if my memories end up a little rose-colored, at least I’m not trapped in the dark ones. Those, I can learn from and move on.

My mother’s parents both lived through a suite of life-threatening illnesses, and I have lost count of how many times each of them went into the hospital and surprised everyone by coming back out. Watching them, and trying to figure out how they did it, I realized that their lives were full of love, and they were always looking forward to something–Christmas, the next family wedding, the birth of their next grandchild or great-grandchild. A ten-minute phone call from a family member made their day; a visit made their month, and they would talk about it for that long after. My grandparents made me believe that quality of life depends on your attitude more than your physical well-being, and that I could be relatively happy even when I was really sick. I try to emulate them by finding the next thing to look forward to, whether it is dinner with friends later in the week or a wedding next summer.

The past and future ports that I travel to exist now only in my mind, but they all involve people that I love. Fortunately, most of these people also live in my present and are there to help me when my imagination is not enough. The people that I knew would support me through anything have–my parents, my sister, and my husband. But I have found constant support from people that could have easily faded from my life by now, people who I used to be friends with, back in another lifetime, and people that I was only tangentially friends with. I wouldn’t have known how loved I am, and how many true friends I have, without having gotten so sick.

I like to think that I will someday be done with chemotherapy and routine visits to the hospital, and that even if I can’t see the end of the tunnel just yet, it’s just around this corner, or the next. And when I dream of that future, I bring my selective memories and all of the friends I didn’t know I have.


*The common thought processes, habits, and hope among those who survive extraordinary situations provide a model for the rest of us. For more information, check out the books Deep Survival and The Survival Personality. 

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Ports in a Storm

“It’s hard to understand why someone as loving and wonderful as yourself has to endure something like this.”  Although I’m normally pretty modest, I agree with my friend.  What did I do to deserve this?  The answer is nothing.  The appropriate proverb is, “life’s not fair.”  Everybody knows this is true, but we are still surprised when it becomes personal.  It’s just not fair.  And who doesn’t believe that it should be?

This is the third time I’ve been treated for a type of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. I was first treated at the end of college, and just before my 5-year check-up, it came back. I was treated again, we thought successfully, but three months later, the cancer had moved to my lungs. I have essentially been getting chemotherapy for the last two years.

When I was treated in college, I approached chemotherapy as a sentence I had to serve; all I needed to do was endure the 14 chemotherapy treatments over 10 months, and I would come out the other side. I more or less wrote off the year I had to spend in treatment and was living to get to my release date.

When I relapsed five years later, I promised myself that I would not be straight-up miserable for another year. I would find ways to be happy, anyway. That was a great idea. At first, I had no idea how to implement it, but the difference was that this time, I was looking for ways.

I found them. I found solace in my family and friends; I let them in. When I got a social invitation, even though I wanted to stay curled up on the couch with my husband and cats, I set my default answer to “yes.” Over time, I learned which friends to go to when I needed someone to say, “that’s just how I would feel.” And I learned who to go to when I needed to be told, “that’s too bad; you just have to do it.” Perhaps more importantly, I figured out that I needed both, and I learned where the fine line between processing and dwelling hides.

I have moments, hours, or days sometimes when I am miserable, and I get stuck again on the injustice of it all. But I realized also that I am blessed by the people in my life, and that any kindness I’ve tried to hand out in the past has been multiplied and handed back to me. My world has been stormy for the last two years, and I don’t know when or if it will calm back down. But I now know where all the best ports are, and they are so beautiful that I feel compelled to share them.

The following is not really a story about cancer, nor is it really about me.  It’s not about the storm; it’s about the ports that I discovered along the way.

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