Tomorrow I will be 46. I have never been the type of person to hide her age. I am proud of my age. I’ve been proud of every age I’ve been since I was first dx’d with cancer back in 2010. More than ten years - that’s how long I’ve been living as a cancer patient. I had a small remission break, and now I will spend the rest of this life as a cancer patient. I don’t feel sorry for myself (or I try not to, I do have my moments), and I don’t wish I had a different past, and I don’t gaze further than three months into the future unless I’m working toward something I enjoy that requires more than a 3 month futurecast. Even when I read Tarot, I tell myself, or the person for whom I may be reading, “I can only intuit three months out.”
Once, when I first got into Tarot, I asked my ex if I could read her cards. I thought it would be fun, and she shocked me when she said “Absolutely not . . . The Bible forbids it!” And then I remember feeling like “Well it probably also forbids being Gay Married, but okay . . .” It was too late then for us, and that moment was telling because if I was now married to someone so zealously Christian that she couldn’t enjoy a little Tarot then I was definitely married to the wrong someone. Gruber don’t fuck with American Evangelical Christians. And then she just up and left me one Sunday. Understandably, for if my Tarot cards were too “unChristian” for her, what about the rest of me? I am very queer, I am very progressive, and I have a big personal (and political) problems with Christianity on the whole.
Later, I will read my own cards. A Celtic Cross, I think, on Book III which I’ve been working on in terrible earnest. I’m like a kid with it. Some nights, I don’t even want to go to bed because I want to keep working. I forget to eat. I think of the project the moment I wake up. This is a good one, reader. You will hear about this book. I feel certain. This book is going to change some literary games. I know I sound conceited, but I’ve studied and worked and lived long enough to write the book I’ve always dreamt of writing, the way I want to write it, and reader: it’s happening.
So 46 tomorrow. I was born in the bicentennial summer. In most pictures of the baby shower held for my mother, and in most pictures from my early infancy, all the adults are covered in stars n’ stripes, or stars n’ bars - whichever you prefer. And I think of that song by the Grateful Dead where Garcia sings sardonically of “Uncle Sam” and then, “ain’t no luck/I learned to duck” – ain’t that the truth. I like the Grateful Dead. I used to be cagey about who I told this to, as Grateful Dead are associated with hippies and even some of the coolest people I know despise hippies, or more precisely, “hippie culture”: patchouli, pot, optimism, The Grateful Dead.
When I lived on The Mountain in the American Southwest, I met many real, actual, live hippies. The kind of hippies who came to The Mountain to be Hippies and then raised their children as hippies and before you knew it The Mountain was full of hippies. And I resisted their ways, being the to-the-bone Chicago girl I am sometimes, until I began my second (and most certainly final) round with cancer, and then I needed some hippies to help me with supplementary care. Nature care. Love care. Music care.
There’s something, at least there has been for me, deeply humbling about being so in proximity of your own mortality. Metastatic breast cancer, any metastatic cancer, any cancer brings us a little closer to the fact of our own death. Sometimes we get cancer when we’re older (as for cats, so it is for humans: the end will almost always be cancer), and sometimes we get it when we’re younger, and sometimes (and this is the worst) kids get cancer. And no matter our age, cancer is scary because it makes us immediately (if we treat it, that is) an object of flesh for strangers who are Doctors to deconstruct and hopefully heal. Or prolong. Or make comfortable.
Couple weeks ago, I had a pre-surgery gyne exam with a young male resident taking notes in the room. They had asked if I was okay with a resident – or did they say ‘student’? - in the room, during my pelvic exam, and I shrugged. I really don’t care. I’ve been in and out of doctor’s offices, regularly, since I was a little kid. This body has never really cooperated. So I was in the stirrups and this kid across the room was on a computer, taking notes of all my gynecologist said to me, all I said in return. And probably no male person will understand how this feels. It didn’t feel “bad” or “violating,” but it felt again like I was an object (because in a medical setting I am), and I am disturbingly good at being a medical object now.
I have become friends, a little, with the resident who works with my primary oncologist. He’s a real cute kid, and I love his fashion sense. A little boy, in Tucson, once said to me “Gruber, you definitely have style, but I don’t know if it’s ‘fashion.’” So I say to this young man, sometimes, as I’m leaning back on the table for Dr. U to examine me, “Where did you get those shoes?” Or “I like your shirt.” And Dr. U will laugh or roll her eyes because I, her patient, am sometimes a very silly sort of person.
I have to be silly sometimes. I have to. Silliness is survival, sometimes. I have to laugh on those tables, in those changing rooms, as the phlebotomist pierces the vein again (blood draws sometimes two or three times a month). “That one was Moby Dick, huh?”
When I was teaching full-time, my Cancer Doc Visits started to feel like a second full-time job in addition to the full-time job that was paying me cash money – albeit very little, as I gave my time and talents to public schools . . . in Arizona. And juggling my healthcare alongside my kidcare (students, teaching) started to feel impossible because it was. So I’ve taken retirement from classroom teaching, at least that kind. And I’m likely never going to work the way I used to work ever again. In part because I can’t. In part because I refuse. I refuse to kill myself through labor, and given my present physical conditions, this is a real and actual concern.
Because I love life. I really do. Always have. Even in my highly suicidal twenties (man, I was a hot mess), I chose life. Because this is what I love, the music on my good headphones (“Maps,” STRFKR), the coffee in my Gay Flag Mug, the plants and twinkling lights throughout my Divorcement Apartment, the blue sky outside, writing down my thoughts, my big notebook and research materials on my coffee table (for das Book) . . . this is what I love. Wednesday, friends are coming over to have dinner with me. Friday, two cousins are coming over to play Birds! and enjoy some cannabis with me. Saturday, Megan (my ride-or-die) is coming over to celebrate my birthday with me a little later, and I know we’ll get up to the best kind of no good. This is what I love. Life.
This will be my second “sober” birthday, in that I no longer take alcohol or “hard drugs.” And I’m proud of myself for this. Alcohol was particularly challenging to wrest from my evening habits. Sleep, reader. At the end of my drinkin’ dayz, it was really about sleep. And of course so much of my social life, with certain friends, was centered around booze. I seldom spoke to my doctors about my sleeping problems, my anxiety, my depression. All of this felt secondary, particularly once Ms. Cancer had made her grand debut. Also, what if they didn’t believe me? I’d been telling friends and lovers for years that something was wrong “up here” (in my head), and no one ever really seemed to believe me. Or if they believed me, they never knew what to say because they were not doctors.
So I have found at my new Medical Facility doctors who listen, who believe me. And I’ve wept at their kindness. I really have. Healthcare on The Mountain and even in Tucson was so scary and abysmal for a fragile thing like me that both experiences only traumatized me more. What happened, medically, to me (or not) on The Mountain was one of the scariest, most devastatingly chaotic, anguishing experiences of my life. And that’s saying something because, in this life, I’ve had more than my fair share of scariness.
And I’m finally, after damn near three years of struggling to get sane and normal healthcare, to get that and then some. My new Medical Facility is superb. And I trust my doctors and nurses there. And I feel seen and heard, and just as importantly, respected as a human being having a human experience. Or perhaps a series of them.
Last birthday, I was still married. Still in Tucson. It was my first birthday sans alcohol, and it was all right. My sister flew in, and so did my parents. My ex was already detached and spent the majority of that time “scrolling” (which I now know was not mere “scrolling”) on her phone, not speaking, taking long naps. She was sad, too, she just dealt with her sadness much more differently than I or most others I’ve ever known. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that that birthday was “fine.” And I don’t put much stock in birthdays, only to acknowledge them now, to acknowledge myself, my own survival.
My favorite birthday, at least of my adult life, was my 30th. My friends and I gathered at Montrose Beach. Spent the whole day by Lake Michigan, eating, drinking, smoking, swimming, dancing, laughing our asses off. And I was so cute. Even went home with a “date” that night, I remember. I was so broke, so wild, so cool, so young. And the day had been so magically perfect – the sun, the sky, the water, my beloved ones. Never could “top” that birthday. I had everything then – and I almost never recognized this fact because I was so blind, as young Americans often are.
My little sister (8 years between us, though that makes no difference anymore) got me the best, most thoughtful presents for my birthday. She brought them to a family Father’s Day gathering on Sunday: two heart chimes, a golden Buddha (“I’ve been wanting a golden Buddha!” I told her, for she knows my mind.), and a book about Needles, California - a place which, if you know me at all, you know I am low-key obsessed with. I mean the whole damn “city” is a fucking American Metaphor of the highest order. And of course there was the card. Willie Nelson on the front, “I Hope Your Birthday is Dope” (a nod to my appreciation of the “green arts”) and inside filled with quotes from the times we’ve shared together. “Take a right, and a right, and a right” - Ireland Directions, read one quote in her handwriting. We had gone to Dublin together years ago and were often frustrated with the directions given by locals. And “you just had to have a regular” - me from that time I told my sister the Chinese dive near my Milwaukee apartment went out of business because “that one time you ordered a Diet Coke but you ended up taking a regular, and it screwed up their whole inventory so they had to close.” Of course, this was not the reason, which made my observation all the more ridiculous and funny to us both.
And I love my life because I have people like my sister in my life. People who do listen to me. People who remember me. Not, I mean, people who remember a date on a calendar (for I am terrible at remembering birthdays), but people who remember what you say, what you truly enjoy, what you truly dislike, people who remember who You are. And then go on to love you regardless.
So here I am. Tomorrow, 46 years in this life. So much has changed since my last birthday. I am almost divorced (my ex and her family’s attorney keeps dragging it out - why, I do not understand: there were no kids, no assets, just my retirement account and medical debt which never really was being paid while we were married - sigh). I am retired from teaching. I am living, again, in Chicagoland. And though I am not a wealthy woman, monetarily speaking, I have everything I need and so much more than most.
Yesterday, I had my pre-op labs done for the ovarian (and fallopian tube) removal scheduled for next month. Preventative. My variety of cancer loves Estrogen, so we’re trying to get all the Estrogen producing organs out my body. They won’t take my uterus. I asked the surgeon to take the uterus, too, just to have one less organ in my body waiting to develop cancer. The surgeon said they cannot do that as my uterus is not a problem. As I said to my mom and sister, while retelling the uterus-removal convo, “Like what does he think? I’m going to be some fucking surrogate for rich gay men with my stupid leftover uterus? I don’t need it!”
So now I’m off to enjoy my birthday-eve with more coffee, more research, more writing, time on the Patio Plant Farm (my patio, full of plants), time talking to friends.
I made a 4 min video yesterday about getting lab work done. I quite enjoy making these silly things:
Be good, hooligans.