Theme on a Life (or Who TF Keeps Pulling the Rug)

When I was eleven I got boobs.  By twelve, they were huge.  

There were maybe one or two other girls in my class who had boobs.  Instead of “celebrating” puberty and being excited about getting tits like you constantly see on “coming of age” TV shows, I was mortified.  

I felt like a freak.  More than that.  I felt like a monster.  

I could feel boys staring at me.  I could sense girls criticizing my clothes because…I really couldn’t wear the paper-thin Hollister T’s and Abercrombie blouses that all the cool girls were wearing, because I wasn’t flat as a surfboard like the rest of them. 

So when the boobs came, my self-esteem plummeted.  And it stayed that way for years to come.

In high school, I searched for ways to feel loved and accepted.  I found it in two ways:

  1. With boys
  2. On the stage

With boys…well.  I don’t really think I need to expand here.

On the stage…I stood out in the best possible way.  Because I was the best.  I could sing.  I could dance.  I could act.  I could play instruments.

I didn’t stand out the way I did when I got boobs.  It was a good “stand out.”  It made me feel like people actually wondered what it would be like to be me, and envied me for it.  

When I sang, you listened.  If there was a solo, it was mine. 

By my senior year, I was dating the prom king, and was 100% certain I could triple-threat my way into any college musical theater program.  I’d already been to my first professional “cattle call”, and was ready to go out for blood.  

As I stepped off the stage at the end of the Sweet Charity dance audition at my school, I remember thinking “that was the best I’ve ever danced. I am a triple threat.  I am unstoppable.  I am going to be on Broadway.”

I was finally starting to love myself and my body and what I was capable of doing.  

I was proud.

And we all know what happened a month later.  Life forced my mouth open and shoved a cancer-sized pill down my throat.  

Fast forward ten or eleven years, and you’ll find me in New York City.  I attend the occasional audition, but I’ve never quite recovered the “out for blood” confidence I had before I was sick.  The dancing certainly never came back to what it was.  I have no balance.  And when you’re a female auditioning for musicals in New York City, you’re about a dime a dozen, and (especially when you’re short) they expect you to land triple pirouettes.  Doubles at least.  

You also have to sell yourself…which I cannot do.  In my eyes, my hair is mousy and thin and not like it was before, and so therefore I am ugly.  I am also not skinny, so I’m fat.

Did I mention that in musical theater, if you’re not skinny you’re fat?  That’s very important to understand. Not skinny=fat. 

So I immediately walk into any room mentally apologizing for not being skinny and for having bad hair.  

And that kind of attitude doesn’t really get cast often.

So…I find myself in hospitality.  Which, in New York City, is essentially theater, but with food.  But I find myself enjoying it.  I maitre d’ at a fancy Upper East Side restaurant where I help people with their fur coats, and make sure the menu they’ve planned is carefully set at their private table, and I make sure lawyers from competing law firms aren’t seated close together.  I charm the rich bankers and smile politely at their wives who hate me.  

I end up working as an executive assistant at another restaurant, and eventually find myself in charge of their events.  I meet with all the local hotel concierges, who then call the restaurant asking for me by name.  I stop the hostesses from seating Dr. David So and So at a table that I know he hates.  If they can’t seat him anywhere else, I comp his appetizer.  

I apologize that the consistency of your fish-of-the-day wasn’t up to your liking, and I send you a round of (our cheapest) bubbly as an apology.  You hand me your business card on the way out, and say you like my style.  

It’s not the game I thought I’d be playing, but it’s a game I’ve gotten quite good at.  

I’m becoming impressed with myself and what I’m capable of and WHO I’m capable of holding conversations with.  I’m starting to think…I have a future in NYC hospitality and nightlife.

I am becoming who I am…

And then life forces my mouth open and shoves a pandemic-sized pill down my throat.  

And now I’m here.  Typing this.  Wondering how the recurring theme in my life seems to be that any time I get close to becoming who it appears I’m meant to become, a MOMENTOUS road block is thrown. 

And I know that’s life.  Roadblocks come, and we navigate them.  But like…come on…cancer and then a world-wide pandemic?  Both at precisely the time I’m thinking I’ve got SOMETHING figured out?  Or if not figured out, at times when I’m finally starting to be…okay with myself?  And not feel like 12 year old monster-tits?

The most consistent aspect of the last 12 years of my life has been writing and blogging, and of course, there’ve been gaps of time where I wasn’t writing but it always comes back to this.  And it always seems to come back to cancer, and I’ve been actively rallying against that.

I stopped writing my original blog because I was tired of pigeonholing myself into only writing about cancer.

And then a recent trip to the city triggered a pretty significant meltdown.  Once again ending with me cursing the day I was diagnosed with cancer…and for the first time ever, wondering WHY I survived.  Like what was I spared for?   

And I don’t mean that in a “I should be dead, I wanna kill myself, I wish the cancer had killed me” kind of way.  

I mean it in a “why did I survive only to have the f***ing rug pulled out from underneath my feet anytime I get close to figuring shit out?” kind of way.  

And then, of course, comes the post-meltdown meltdown, titled: Why Oh Why Do I Keep Coming Back to a Cancer That is 12 Years Old?

But here’s the thing.

Now that I’ve been studying end of life care…I think I know why.  I even posted about this on facebook a few months back…and I can’t believe it took until now for me to realize it applied to my cancer survivorship as well.  

I keep re-grieving.

According to therapychanges.com, re-grief is part of the grieving process but occurs as a sudden and unexpected wave of emotion that can hit at any time.  You can read their article about re-grief here:

The way I think of it in terms of End of Life and dying, is that re-grief obviously happens in the recent months and first year or two after a death…the first birthday or holiday without that person, the discovering of an item they left at your house that triggers you into re-grieving. 

But it will continue to happen even in the decades to come.  It’s why grief is truly a never-ending process. If you’ve lost a parent young, it may happen when you have your first child and you wish they could be there to see the baby.  It may happen at a very difficult time in your life ten years after their death, but you SO wish they could be with you to hold your hand during your struggles.  And the fact that they are not causes you to re-grieve.

This has to be no different with cancer survivors.  Certain events in our lives are always going to trigger our cancer grief, no matter how far away we are from treatment, and no matter how much therapy we get.

It’s going to hit us when it’s time to have children and we don’t know if our chemically-treated and radiated body will allow that for us.  It’s going to hit us when we have to start having colonoscopies and breast cancer screenings YEARS earlier than everyone else.  

It’s going to hit us when we hear of someone else who has died of cancer, and we wonder why the they should die when we got to live?  It’s going to hit us when we come across a photo of ourselves pre-cancer and realize that no matter how hard we squint our eyes and focus…we can NOT remember what it was like to be a person who never had cancer.  

It’s going to hit us during a global pandemic, when we’re knocked on our asses by the universe again.  When that feeling of TOTAL LOSS OF CONTROL hits.  When the deja vous of having the rug pulled out from under our feet throws us off balance and we’re, once again, wondering who the fuck we are now?  Wondering why we, once again, feel like the 12 year old with giant tits that everyone is looking at like…WTF.

Who am I now?  Now that I’ve had cancer and am living through a global pandemic?  

I don’t know.

But I do think it’s important that I stop apologizing in my writing for talking about cancer.  Especially in my more recent postings, you’ll notice I often say things like “not to make this about cancer again,” or “I know this happened so long ago, but…”

I know now that I cannot do that.  I am doing a disservice to myself as a cancer survivor and to my fellow cancer survivors.

The person I am today is a person who had cancer during a time of self-discovery, and it will always be part of my identity.

I re-grieve, and I re-greive often.

You can, too.  That’s okay, you know.  

You, too, can grieve the person you were before the pandemic.  You can grieve the person you were before you lost your mom.  You can grieve the loss of your grandfather ten years later.  You can grieve the person you were when you were 18…even if you’ve experienced NO trauma since then.  

You can grieve and re-grieve.  It’s okay.  

The grieving can lead to self discovery.

And that’s what I’m hoping for myself. 

And if you still feel like an awkward 12 year old with giant boobs, you CAN call a plastic surgeon.

I did. 

NEEDLES

It seems to me we spend our entire childhoods wondering who we will be.

Will we be beautiful, tall, successful, happy, rich, married, etc, etc.

We ask these questions and say we want to be a This or we want to be a That. We play MASH and determine we will live in a mansion with Aaron Carter and drive a blue punch-buggy.

We work hard to get good grades, good SAT scores, good everything so we will get in to a good college and be good and do everything good, so that when college is done, our lives will be good.

It seems to me that once we grow up—once we get the degree, get the things, find the cow as white as milk, the slipper as pure as gold—once we get our wish, or alas, we do not get our wish…there is a strange reversal.

We start wondering, and this time it’s more of an investigation because this time there are solid clues—real evidence. We start wondering who we were.

What were we thinking?

Why did we do that?

Why did we want that?

*

I have spent quarantine-time up at my childhood town in Upstate New York.

It has been both lovely and strange.

I have nothing but time…time to go through old boxes in my bedroom, time to go through plastic, dust-covered bins full of photographs in the basement. My boyfriend, who also lives in town, (and who I conveniently met three and a half weeks before quarantine began), has now sat through many dinners with my family and heard countless stories about me and my sister growing up:

“Jesse used to run upstairs and lock herself in her bedroom when we tried to sing happy birthday to her.”

“Jackie refused to face the audience during her 4th grade chorus concert.”

“Jesse touched the burner on the stove to see if it was hot the first time she made a grilled cheese.”

We all laugh.

But now with all this free time, I really, truly think about these things. I wonder why I couldn’t stand the attention of a “Happy Birthday” chorus. In a shyness all her own, why Jackie could not stand the audience watching her sing in a chorus concert.

I search my face in piles of old photographs for a sign of what I was thinking on that day in history. Was this the phase where I worried constantly about my pimples, or was I struggling with math…why did I love that T-shirt? Why that haircut?

Looking at a few, I wonder had you even met a black person yet? Had you had a black classmate? A black schoolteacher? When did you first know it was better to have your skin?

*

On HBO, Lorraine Bracco leads Tony Soprano, the famous, fictional mob boss, through therapy. Uncle June used to tease him about not making varsity, and why was his mother so cold and volatile and how has it impacted him? Why is he broken today because of who he was yesterday?

How will he ever stop fainting at the sight of sliced meat after watching his father cut off Mr. Satriale’s pinky?

*

I sit at a table with my mother and three of my aunts, listening to them talk about their parents (my grandparents). What they used to say to them. How it made them feel. What they said to “you and not me”, “he was that way with me and X”, “she’d say that to me, too”, “he never was that way with Y”.

“I remember a moment on my first trip home from college—” says Mom, “X, do you know what I’m going to say?”

X remembers, and she remembers how she sat on the front stairs waiting for her in the freezing cold and how later on Papa wouldn’t sit with her at the table. How that made her feel.

How that made Mom feel.

These women—these strong, influential women of my life—remember these tiny needles from their past, and they work through their memories and words to figure out how these needles lay in the giant haystacks that have become their lives.

It makes me all the more curious about my own needles, and I think I must have a lot of needles.

Nearly four months outside of my New York City life, I have enough space to speculate on my world there—my behaviors and habits, wants and needs, triumphs and failures. I can see the whole haystack that was my life there.

And here upstate, I have nothing but time to sift through it.

*

We became someone. We became adults. But who even were we back then?