Not A Pink Girl

Lessons learned from a short life

September 14, 2008
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My friend Nancy died on August 30. Her family did not have a funeral for her. They aren’t including Nancy’s friends in the arrangements for her memorial service which her mother vaguely said would be sometime in the spring in Seattle (where Nancy was born).

So about 13 months after her diagnosis of cancer, she is dead.

I still haven’t quite digested all this. I just got back from a cruise to Bermuda, a trip that came up suddenly & turned out to be a dream come true. I thought a lot about Nancy, our friendship, & her life (its accomplishments & missed opportunities) while I was gazing out at the beautiful ocean. 56 years old is just too young to leave this crazy life (& 56 seems quite young to me, the older I get).

I am having dinner with mutual friends of Nancy’s & mine this week. We haven’t gathered since January & I’m looking forward to sharing some memories of her with them. I’ll check in later in the week. I also want to tell you all about Bermuda.

Update on a friend

August 18, 2008
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Spoke to my friend Nancy today. She somehow remembered my birthday. I have trouble understanding her on the phone. She’s so weak, it’s difficult for her to project her voice. She said she had her tubes removed. I think that refers to the tubes she had in her side to help with the disposal of bile & other excretions (she has little liver function, had her gall bladder removed, & has bile duct cancer). As I mentioned, I can’t quite understand what she’s saying when we speak on the phone. She had left me a message last week & I couldn’t decipher it. She lapsed into whispers & had the phone so close to her mouth that her voice was inaudible.

I asked her what was going to happen next. I want to somehow have the courage to ask her if she feels that she is going to die. I don’t know whether to ask her that or not. I know her mother (who is in her mid-70s) will not discuss her 56-year-old daughter’s imminent death. A nurse made the mistake of saying to Nancy in the spring (when she had her gall bladder out) that Nancy’s cancer was winning. This sent her into hysterics (crying, hyperventilating, refusing treatment) from which it was difficult to extricate her.

So I asked Nancy today, “What is going to happen next?” I want to open the door so that she can talk about maybe not making it through this. I know she can’t talk to her mother about dying. But it’s been a bit over one year since Nancy was diagnosed, & since then she has lost more than 50 pounds. She weighs under 100 pounds now & is skeletal. I just don’t want Nancy to be afraid. I know she’s in pain; she said she doesn’t take all the medication her hospice caretakers have prescribed for her. She “falls behind” the pain, & then it’s difficult for her to get ahead of it again.

When I asked her what would happen next, Nancy responded, “Heal, heal, heal, heal, heal.”

It’s difficult for Nancy because her parents & siblings are intellectuals. I think, when they found out Nancy had cancer in July 2007, they figured they’d research this thing into submission (or remission). They had always told Nancy what to do – in big & little ways – her whole adult life. Nothing changed when they found out she had cancer & a dim prognosis for recovery. If anything, that just made them more determined to throw all the initials after their names at this illness & bark, “Back! Back!” at the cancer cells eating away at her liver & other organs.

They’ve dictated the direction of her treatment, giving scant attention to her input. If one surgeon said she was inoperable, her mother just found another one (with more glittering credentials) that would do the surgery.

I guess I understand that. I would want to do everything in my power to save my child. But the thought that Nancy has been cut up, poked, stabbed, scanned, injected, shunted, stented, cathetered, medicated, & mishandled for over a year now just makes me literally tremble with fear & sadness on her behalf.

This whole thing has been doubly difficult for me as Nancy’s friend because I found it tough to understand her way of communicating when she was healthy. When she got sick, she spoke in ever-more cryptic language. She refused to say the word “cancer” or that she was terminal. She wouldn’t allow the doctors to put any labels on her illness. They tried to tell her it was inoperable, & she told the doctor never to say that word to her again.

Yes, I understand that, too. Nancy had read The Secret & watched the DVD. She was acutely aware of the power of positive thinking. Maybe that’s why she’s still alive today, who knows? But it’s difficult for a mere mortal like me to understand the big picture of my friend’s illness when she won’t come out & tell me what the doctors said.

I’ve had friends who died of cancer. There are marked similarities with their illnesses & Nancy’s. When Nancy first found out she had cancer, she pointedly & forcefully informed me that I was not to talk about my friends’ illnesses because all cancers are different. It didn’t matter that two of my friends who died had been heavy smokers (like Nancy) & that they’d been diagnosed with the same kind of cancer (bile duct) at about the same age as Nancy. Again, I am a lowly human being who can only use her past experiences as a frame of reference. So the past year of our friendship has been especially trying for me to navigate because I feel I can’t be the kind of good friend I could be if Nancy allowed there to be no holds barred on the discussion of her illness & its prognosis & progression.

I’m not chummy enough with her parents & siblings to get them to discuss Nancy’s illness with me honestly. Also, each family member is in a varying state of denial of the gravity of the prognosis. When I went to visit her a few weeks ago, I asked her mother & 50-year-old sister how she was doing before I went up to Nancy’s room. They both said, “Good! She’s getting better!” That was just not true. I steeled myself as I climbed the stairs to her room but still wasn’t prepared for the condition in which I found my friend.

The bottom line is that the thought of Nancy being in a trembling panic & a constant state of pain & fear just breaks my heart. She doesn’t sleep except for an hour here & there. I know how surreal everything seems to me – a healthy middle-aged woman – when I don’t get my full eight hours a night. To think that she is in this drugged state, in & out of pain & lucidity… Would it be better for her to go on to the next phase, death?

All I know for sure is, I don’t know anything at all.

Feeling beautiful 101

May 26, 2008
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Spoke to my friend Nancy today. She got out of the hospital & is back at her parents’ house. She sounds bone-weary, but she has a great attitude.

When she first found out she had cancer (7/2007), she was horror-stricken that she might lose her long chestnut brown hair. She’s a Civil War living history re-enactor (Confederate) & she has an exceedingly authentic look about her, especially with her undyed hair down to the middle of her back. After awhile, she got things in perspective & figured oh well, if I lose my hair it will grow back.

She was lucky in that she didn’t lose a hair through her whole first round of chemo. The second round though, she figured she’d just get a short haircut.

For Nancy to willingly submit to the hairdresser’s scissors is just something I never thought I’d ever see. But she did it. She left the hospital on Friday 5/23 & headed straight for the hair salon. She had her hair cut in a beautiful & tres chic short style that really accentuated her striking facial features (remember I told you she looks like Cher). She loved it! It helped take the edge off of her extreme fatigue.

She woke up this morning with every hair on her head having fallen out overnight.

I spoke to her on the phone a few hours ago. She said, “Kathie, do you know that I have never felt this beautiful? I looked in the mirror, scared to death at what I’d see. And I’m telling you, an inner peace spread over me. In my whole life, I’ve never felt this beautiful!”

Isn’t that stunning?

I think back on all the heartache I’ve gone through in my life to try to make myself pretty: worrying about my weight (that’s always been my number-one preoccupation with my appearance), fretting over my hair, etc. How much time & money have we spent on our hair?! I mean, Lord! When I was in second grade, my mother cut my hair in a pixie or “Sassoon” haircut (Vidal Sassoon was a celebrity hairdresser who was all the rage in the mid-1960s; he did Mia Farrow‘s hair for Rosemary’s Baby).

In my next life, I will look like this.

For some reason, my older sister (the oldest in our family & 15 months older than me) was allowed to have long hair, but my mother chopped my hair off to the point where I looked like an upside-down balloon with my pinhead as the tiny knot. I was mortified! I mean you might not think a 7-year-old really cared that much about what she looked like, but I did not want to be seen in public.

I went to a Catholic school & wore a uniform. Somehow, in my desperation to figure out how I could keep my classmates from seeing my freakish hair (or lack thereof), I remembered that our uniforms – bought at the Bo Peep Shop – came with a little plaid kerchief! The saints be praised! I wore that flippin’ kerchief on my head for months. My class picture that year shows my big-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked self with that quirky bandana on my head too. I think I was the only kid in the history of Saint Mary’s in Landover Hills, Maryland that ever wore that little triangle of fabric! I looked so doofy, but I’m telling you, my stomach was clenched with panic at the thought of going to school with that practically-bald head.

Even 40 years later I agonize over what to do with my hair. I found my first gray hair when I was looking in the mirror at school, getting ready to have my high school senior portrait taken! I was 17 years old. Do I need to inform you that now my hair is much more completely-white than salt-and-pepper gray? I’ve dyed my hair since August 1989. Back then, I used to get these dainty little blonde streaks pulled through the cap. Cap Schmap! Now I let the hairdresser slap a bucketful of color on this head from roots to ends.

When Britney Spears shaved her head, I laughed at all the reporters who said, “Britney’s had a nervous breakdown!” Ha! She finally got smart. I think she did it 1) because her flippin’ hair was probably driving her to distraction; 2) she has a whole fleet of assistants at her beck & call who can tie extensions onto the tiniest tuft of peach fuzz growing on her cueball noggin; 3) she doesn’t have to stoop to the Rachel Welch collection to find a fabulous wig; and, most important, 4) there’s a theory that a woman’s hair represents her sexuality & she just said Eff it! These men just aren’t worth it! & cut those men right out of her hair. Breakdown my butt.

So, as I sit here with my light-auburnish-strawberry blonde-highlighted-lowlighted shoulder-length hair that cost me $230 (not including a $40 tip!) to get cut & colored (in the far-out suburbs, mind you, not in Beverly Hills or something), I think of Nancy who realized in an exceedingly convoluted way that it really might be what’s on the inside that makes us beautiful.

But if I could just lose about 15 pounds by the first day of summer…

Friends for life?

May 21, 2008
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I heard from my friend Nancy today. She’s single (divorced), works for a Fortune-500 company as an accountant, & found out on her 55th birthday in July 2007 that she has liver cancer. Right now she’s back in the hospital because her white-blood-cell count is too low.

She’s on her second round of chemo. She had surgery a month ago (surgery she had to fight for because her primary-care physician threw up his hands [literally] & said, “I don’t know what you want from me.” He meant that she should just accept that she’s going to die – probably soon – & it would be a waste of his time to refer her to a surgeon). Nancy’s parents – in their mid-70s – are using their savings & retirement to get her treated by a surgeon at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore MD (not too far from where we live).

Nancy is a former smoker. When I met her in 1994, she smoked about a pack a day of Virginia Slims (at one time, my cigarette of choice). She started smoking as a teenager in Seattle & quit when she was 46 (in 1998). She had met a guy (the “toe-curler,” she called him [meaning he made her heart skip a beat, in a good way]) who was a Seventh-Day Adventist & didn’t believe in tobacco use. She cared enough about him to quit. That was about the only good thing she got out of the relationship. He was a controlling jerk, toe-curler or not.

I was surprised when she stopped smoking. She just seemed like a lifelong smoker to me. Nancy has always been slim. When she was in her 20s & 30s, she looked just like Cher (who turns 62 years old today). The resemblance is still striking.I have always been overweight. I know in my heart – although we’ve never discussed it – that Nancy’s had a hard time being friends with someone as “big” as me (her term). I think my size rather overwhelms her. I think she can’t believe anyone would actually walk around in public looking like me.

Yes, I am heavy, but if you met me or if you’ve seen my pictures on facebook, you’d know I’m not going to be featured on Intervention anytime soon.  I’m 5′ 10″ & maybe I can carry extra weight a bit easier than some can. I’m trying to give you an idea of the misperception of weight that some people have. Just as someone can be anorexic & look in the mirror at their 78-pound, 5-foot-7 frame & think, “I am so fat,” so also there is a percentage of the population who look at other people & think that if you have any extra pounds you are just deformed & should probably just become agoraphobic now so you don’t have to burden the general population (& “normal” weight people) with having to be forced to look at your grossness.

When Nancy quit smoking, she gained about 20 pounds. Now I must tell you honestly that Nancy looked great. But she was devastated. She felt huge. “Kathie, I had to buy size 10 denim overalls! Do you realize that I was a 5 when I graduated from high school [in 1970]?! I’ve never been bigger than an 8!” Mind you, this woman just quit smoking. After over three decades, she QUIT SMOKING. How wonderful is that? How positively life-changing is that? But she flippin’ went up a size or two in her jeans. Time to slit her wrists.

Nancy’s never been particularly good at articulating what she’s feeling. What I mean is, she’s hurt my feelings on many occasions. She doesn’t know it though; I always kept it to myself because I know she didn’t mean to maliciously hurt me. Many times, Nancy’s let it slip how awfully overweight she thinks I am.

Once she described a coworker who wanted to join her carpool. Nancy told me, “Kathie, I don’t want her in my car because she is huge [like the woman could damage her shock absorbers or something]. I mean she’s even bigger than YOU.”

Another time Nancy & I were over a mutual friend’s. Our friend had a little wooden chair handmade of chunky wood from Scotland. Our friend wanted me to move closer to her but chairs were at a premium, so she grabbed the little chair & motioned for me to sit in it. I looked at it uncertainly & our friend said, “Don’t worry, I sit in this chair all the time.” (Our friend is overweight too.) Nancy piped up (trying to be helpful & kind), “Kathie, don’t worry; that’s a well-made chair. It could hold an elephant.” Remember, this was said in a room full of about 10 people. Believe me, this elephant will never forget that comment.

We were Christmas shopping this past December. We were at the outlets (life in hell). There was a tweedy boucle duster-length cardigan sweater. I took it off the rack to get a closer look. Nancy passed behind me & said, “That would be great for you. It would hide your fat ass.” Now I’m telling you, she was not joking. She was giving me a fashion tip. I usually let these kinds of Nancy Comments pass; this time I said, “Gosh Nancy, thank a lot.” She just walked away.

So now, here we are. I love Nancy. She’s my friend. This is a friendship I’ve ruminated about for over a decade. Why are we friends? What do we have in common? Am I a glutton (excuse the expression) for punishment? Now she could be dying. This has caused me to ponder our friendship on an even more acute level.

I’ll talk more about Nancy & me in my next post. Will you keep her in your prayers & good thoughts? Thank you so much.

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