Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Fucking Psychic Was Wrong aka What To Wear to Chemo

A single drop. One single drop at a time, over the course of three hours. Treatment number two; only six more to go.  I watched the poison – the “draino” as we called it – drip into the arm of my Big Susan, Neiman. You see, Neiman has breast cancer.

Just writing that makes me catch my breath and causes a deep pain in my chest.  This year was supposed to be different.  The psychic said so.  The new people this year brought to her life weren’t supposed to be oncologists, pathologists and care coordinators.  This year is our 20 year friend-a-versary and we wanted to take a trip to celebrate our two decades of putting up with each with nary a cross word.  A trip to the hospital is not what we had in mind.  Unfortunately, being a part of this is sadly familiar to me.  The thought of losing a friend – of losing Neiman – makes me lose my breath and I am scared.  But, I don’t tell her that. 

I know I must see her, be with her and help in any way that I can. The helping is secondary to just seeing her and being in her world.  I took treatment number two.  Why? Because, week two, after 14 days of the poison coursing through her veins and likely around the time of the second treatment, Neiman would lose her hair.  She may be western born and bred but four years of college in Texas gave her not only a degree but a whole different kind of seriousness about hair – or the lack thereof.

I arrived Wednesday night.  We were so happy to see each other; sick about the reason. The conversation is familiar and safe and then moves to the 800-lb cancer gorilla in the room.  How she feels, how her boob has healed (happily displaying said boob as she says, “My boob is now like my hand, anyone can see it.”) She showed me her regimen of pills and supplements.  I met the new dog.  I saw her thinning hair and the new wigs in between our regular catch up routine of surveying what is new in one another’s houses and closets.

It's a chemo cocktail
Chemo day is easy, relatively speaking. Relaxing morning and lunch with an old friend.  Would have been like any other visit – except for that whole cancer thing. Instead of looking at magazines, I reviewed her cancer notebook – full of surgical plans, pathology reports, treatment options and notes, taken by assorted friends who accompanied her on assorted medical appointments.  The chemo lounge is bright, warm with camaraderie and positive energy – everything orchestrated by the nurses who have warmth and humor that is astonishing.  I’m taken aback by the smiles – the laughter.  Hugs with people she’s met only once but who now figure prominently in her life.  I am grateful for them.  Chemo takes a while; most of the fluid is clear – very innocuous looking. Except for the kool-aid – that last bit that is red in color and so toxic that they don’t administer it through a drip but directly into her port.

The day after will be a tough day. It will be “Hair Friday.”  In between her cancer rehab appointment and the hideous shot that will make her weekend truly suck, we go to the wig master extraordinaire.  No shorts and t-shirts for us today – we will honor it with pretty sundresses, sandals and make up. I know this will be hard, I know her emotions are on the edge.  We look at each other, we join hands, a few tears and whispers and then we hear the snip of the scissors. She never turns away from the mirror, she never looks down.  Like everything else, she faces this, head held high and with beauty and grace. 

Her wigs are remarkable.  She has her “brand” which looks just like her regular hair.  I’m can’t believe how amazing it looks.  But it’s the second wig that surprises me - longer, darker – for her alter ego (we call her Serena.)  For some reason, this makes me so happy – that she is willing to have a bit of fun, do something a little bit different during such a tumultuous time when sameness is likely all she really wants.

The rest of the afternoon is us – we lunch, we chat, we participate in some significant retail therapy.  As we approach the mall, the store comes into view – she calls it the “mother ship” and yes, Neiman-Marcus beckons us and does not disappoint.  She buys frocks to go with her brand and we remark that Serena could give them a completely different look.  I’m shocked that when looking at her, I forget for one moment – just one nanosecond - that she is wearing a wig, that she has cancer.

Home brings visitors and calls – how is she doing, what does she need. Someone drops by with three coolers of food from a friend who is a caterer. We freeze some and finally, in our jammies and our faces scrubbed clean, we feast on a catered meal, slipping bites to the pooch, who waits less than patiently next to the table.

I brace myself for the next two days.  I’ve been warned by Jackson, a dear college friend who was here for the first treatment, what to expect.  She is tired, achy – almost like she has the flu but her bones truly hurt. Her mouth feels swollen, her spine hurts. The long walk with the dog probably did not help but it was her routine and so important that she do what she can. She naps. We sit outside and have a Pelligrino.  A neighbor comes by and she walks out front without her wig.  I am astonished.  Shortly after coming back in, we are in the kitchen and for the first time, she cries. Real tears, sobs.  There is nothing I can do but hold her, let her know I love her and that this is just a really shitty bump in the road.  That we will get through this.  And, I believe it.

With a cancer diagnosis, things happen quickly and Neiman’s army of supporters each plays a role.  One took on keeping everyone in the loop with mass emails, another researched and provided supplements, another organized the meal plan.  Others took her to surgery and nursed her through recovery while still others walked the dog or dropped by with warm wishes and smiles.  I took no role –because I’m simply too far away.  It’s hard to watch these others – these amazing friends of hers – take on roles that I selfishly feel belong only to me.  I’m the best friend.

I’ve been able to meet some of these wonderful folks – these friends that fill her day-to-day life and are so important to her.  Many of whom – no, most of whom, I’ve either only met briefly, if at all.  It is hard for me to know that it will not be me caring for her each time and I remember to be grateful for this weekend – for this time.  I remember to be grateful that she has so many friends to lean on.  I am not surprised that so many surround Neiman – it’s just the way she is.  I know that like me, many of them are scared. They also know we will get through this. We believe it.

As grateful as I am for Neiman’s friends, I’m grateful for mine as well.  Lips, Legs, Perky, Handy and Belle - they helped me navigate Olympic-worthy logistics for childcare, animal care and airport transport.  My family has checked in.  I’ve been sent pictures of mini-me having a great weekend and of the pooch snuggling with Lips and her family (my pooch Maddy, and Lips’ pooch Mario have a thing – here’s hoping Maddy hasn’t worn out her welcome by constantly humping Mario. Yes, you read that right. ) I know that I can give Neiman my all this weekend – and make the most of this time – because of my friends.

I’ve learned it takes a village – to raise, to care, to nurture and to heal.  The village may not always be the one I live in but sometimes, getting to know the other villagers is just as rewarding.  The fear, tears, laughs and uncertainly are simply all an amazing reminder that I’m not only lucky to have Neiman, but oh so lucky that my villagers – and Neiman’s - are with us on this journey and will celebrate together on the other end.  I believe it.