Category Archives: Friendship

My Everest

The chemo treatment laid out for me takes six months. First there is a cycle of 12 weekly drips of one drug then four more drips of some sort of nasty cocktail, sadly not the kind with tropical fruit and a cute little umbrella in it, once every three weeks. That comes to a total of 16 treatments. I had done my homework and was prepared for most of the side effects. Or so I thought. In general, the bad days, at least physically, are no worse than a mild case of the flu. What they didn’t tell me was how testy and unpleasant my personality would become, how easily I would cry. They didn’t tell me how deeply psychological the symptoms can be; I always feel worse on days when I have to work. But I guess I should have expected that. Most of the discomfort can be relieved by a combination of napping, stretching, yoga, ibuprofen and Xanax.

One of the hardest things to deal with is explaining why I don’t have any hair. It’s really none of anybody’s business, but I am freelance, which means I work with scores of different people, and I don’t think it’s fair to them for me to I show up for work with no prior explanation. Directing in particular is very intense and requires total concentration; it wouldn’t do for people to be distracted wondering about where I may have left my hair. So I’ve been doling out the information on a need-to-know basis. My first instinct was to lie and say that I feel fine but have an unusual type of anemia that made my hair fall out. However, there are three problems with that excuse. First, if I’m talking with someone who knows anything about anemia, it will very quickly become clear that I am full of shit. Second, there will be days when I do not feel fine at all. Third, I don’t have a good enough memory to be a credible liar.

So I tried to come up with a list of believable reasons why my hair is gone:

I entered a skinhead cult, became a Buddhist monk, married an orthodox Jew, joined a high school baseball team, started Navy SEAL training, got a haircut so bad I had to start over, set myself on fire while playing with bottle rockets, had a severe allergic reaction to _____ (your choice)* and/or have lice.

Anyone who knows me at all knows none of those will fly. Except maybe the lice.

The truth, of course, is chemotherapy. But the mention of cancer scares people. And I can’t really blame them for that. So I’ve only told the truth to family and close friends, and even they are always surprised, saying, “Wow! You look great!” The word ‘cancer’ conjures up images of pale skin, sunken cheeks, anguished eyes. But that is not someone who is undergoing chemotherapy. That is someone who is dying. I am not dying, at least not yet.

me blue hat

A very valuable point a friend made is that not telling people is really an act of kindness. People who truly care will only be saddened, hurt even, oozing sympathy that just makes me feel worse. And people who don’t care will feel guilty about that and waste everyone’s time mouthing platitudes that border on embarrassing. Case in point: I had to ask for time off work for surgery, and the guy I work for said, “Oh, my! Shock! What a shock!” My reaction was, “Oh, clam up. What do you have to be shocked about? I’m the one who has to deal with this.” But instead, of course, I donned my best Mona Lisa smile and made soothing noises. “Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s minor surgery. I’ll be fine.”

In fact, and it didn’t really sink in until much later, my life is changed forever. The old normal will never return. I have to learn to live with a new normal. Almost on a daily basis, I find ways this has affected my life, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in huge ones. As I switch to my summer wardrobe, I realize many of my clothes don’t fit right anymore. As I gaze into the mirror at my naked self, I am dumbfounded. It’s much like the look the cats give me when I get home: “Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?” except that it’s “Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my body?”

So for work I settled on keeping it vague. “I have health issues. There are some jobs I will not be able to do for at least six months.” This is the message I send, politely but firmly, to any job request that I don’t have the energy for, with the underlying message, “Don’t ask questions, this is none of your business” and the even deeper underlying message, “Bugger off. I don’t want to work for you anyway.” If that means I am burning bridges, so be it. My perspective has changed. For the time being, my health and mental well-being get top priority.

Finding fun things to do, and fun people to do them with, helps scare away the depression monsters.

 

Yesterday, I went to the clinic for number eight of the 12 drips in the first cycle and we discovered that my veins are shot; needles go in but nothing comes out and the IV bag just hangs there looking forlorn. So next week I go back to the hospital to get a port inserted into my chest. That comes with it’s own kettle of rotting fish but overall should make things easier for everyone. And number eight is half way there, which I thought would make me feel better. It didn’t, but something else did. My nurse said I should schedule my one year post-surgery follow-up appointment now. “So soon?” I asked. She shrugged and said, “It’s best to book early. This is a small clinic with just one set of machines. And you’ll be done with all of your treatment by then.”

“Done with all of your treatment.” Those may be the prettiest words I’ve ever heard. Just for a moment, the clouds parted and the angels sang, butterflies flitted and unicorns danced. “Done with all of your treatment.” I had nearly forgotten such a state could exist. “Done with all of your treatment.” I wonder if she has any idea how much those words meant to me.

*I would be very curious about what my gentle readers might suggest.

 

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When the Going Gets Tough…

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…the tough go to the circus.

The Kinoshita Circus is Japan’s largest* and it’s a real circus, staged in a tent, complete with clowns, jugglers, contortionists, acrobats and animals. It was pure delight from start to finish (except for the motorcycles in the giant sphere. That act was entirely too loud and scared the pickles out of me). It was charming, totally professional and yet not quite, especially when the juggler dropped his bowling pin for the third time and the acrobat missed the trapeze and fell into the net. Kudos to him, though, as he climbed right back onto the platform and completed the act. There was an aged elephant who stood on her front feet, then her back feet, then looked right at me as if to say, “Well, what do you expect?” Four bored-looking zebras trotted around the ring in one direction then the other, barely stifling their yawns, eager to get back to their cabbage and carrots.

George feet
We weren’t allowed to take pictures. Just imagine George’s feet times 100.

But then there were lions. There were eight lions, two each of tawny males and females, and four pure white females. They didn’t do much, just jumped through a hoop and did a couple of group poses. The males reared up, but there was no pretense at fierceness, no gnashing of teeth or snapping of whip. The tamer clearly loved them and was loved in return as he patted their magnificent haunches and tugged on their swishing tails. They walked around the ring, swaying their powerful shoulders and flipping their enormous paws. And we were seated less than ten meters away. I cried openly throughout the act, overwhelmed.

By the time we got home that evening, my scalp was beginning to show. So the next morning, armed with the lingering flush of being that close to so much feline magnificence, I plugged in the razor, took a deep breath and mowed a swath right along the top of my head from the middle of my forehead, a reverse Mohawk, an irreversible, total commitment. When I asked Rochi to help with the bits I couldn’t reach, he didn’t flinch, even though I know he was at least as scared as I was.

head shaving

Picking up that razor brought back the feelings of waking up after my second surgery. As I gradually became aware of the tubes leading in and out of my body, the machines I was attached to, the medical staff bustling around, the difficult and painful recovery that lay ahead, I panicked. All I could think was, “I can’t do this. I just did this. I can’t do it again! I can’t!” I wanted to leap off the table, yank out the tubes and run away from the sterile room, the sterile hospital, the entire sterile, surreal medical world.

Instead, I remembered a visualization I had learned. I closed my eyes and found myself sitting comfortably on a warm rock in a sunny glade under trees swaying in a breeze lightly scented with jasmine. Surrounding me was my tribe, who had taken the form of pastel colored unicorns. Waves of empathy, compassion and love flowed from their soft, gentle eyes, all toward the center of the circle, all toward me.

I experienced all of that in just a few moments but it was enough. My heart stopped pounding. My breathing slowed. I opened my eyes.

Over the past few years I have kept having experiences that left me thinking, “Wow. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” And I keep being wrong about that. But I have learned a valuable lesson: Courage isn’t a lack of fear. Courage is being afraid of something and doing it anyway. And I give thanks every single day for continuing to find that courage in myself and in the people around me.

*Big, squishy clowny hugs of gratitude to Randy and his friend for making this happen.

What Price Freedom

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When I went to Bali last year, my travel buddy was Barry, a retired doctor and kindly gentleman, since we were the only singletons in the group. We got along well.

Fast forward a year and Barry and a couple of his friends are touring Japan. Barry asked us to join them for dinner. We did, and they were lovely people. We had a most enjoyable evening, but one part of our conversation really jolted me. I haven’t been able to shake that feeling.

They said that the travel company which had organized their tour had also put together twenty other such Japan tours because the demand for them had multiplied exponentially.

Why?

People are afraid of other places. Nobody feels safe going to Europe or Africa anymore. To be honest, they said, being in Japan was a relief because they live in Memphis, Tennessee, which is second only to Detroit for its gun violence. And I don’t mean the horrific psychosis that happened in Orlando. I mean day to day violence, bloodshed and murder, seemingly random, a specter that trails you every time you work up the nerve to leave your home. They said not an evening goes by when there isn’t a report of injury or death by gunshots on the news.

I had forgotten how common that type of news is in the States. On the other hand, I said laughing, just that same day the TV people had been reporting the discovery of a dismembered body in a pond not far from my house. Everyone stared at me, slightly aghast. “Oh, it’s not funny! Of course not. I’m laughing because it’s so strange. That kind of violence just doesn’t happen here.”

As all of them went on and on about how they’d fallen in love with Japan and couldn’t wait to come back, I inwardly rolled my eyes. But then I realized that I feel safe. All the time. I’m much more likely to be annoyed than threatened when I go out. I don’t lock my doors or windows. I’ve never even been groped. It suddenly dawned on me how complacent I’ve become, how I take for granted that nobody is going to shoot me for my political views or the contents of my wallet or just for looking at them sideways. I can move through my life with the comfort of not ever thinking about where I can or cannot go or what I can or cannot do.

Yes, Japan is wonderful, but it’s certainly no Shangri-la.

Or is it? Sure, it’s expensive, but what price can you put on freedom?

The River Flows On

Big River closed last Sunday. While a major production like that is never easy, it was a joy and a challenge which I welcomed.

full cast

 

All through high school I was in a theater group called Guerilla Theater. The group was all high school students but our directors were grad students from the theater department at Carnegie Mellon University. They were very good: young, creative, energetic. In my first production with Guerilla, I played a sacrificial virgin in Dracula. For the opening scene, I lay down over Dracula’s casket looking at the audience backward and upside down, then someone cut my throat with a fake knife and fake blood dripped down the side of my face. One night, a piece of makeup fell into my eye, and being dead and all, I wasn’t supposed to blink. But the makeup hurt and after a few seconds, a tear fell out of my eye and slid down my cascading hair. A friend was sitting in the front row; I saw her eyes go wide and her face turn pale. Now that’s good theater.

We did a lot of productions. I once played a character named The Richest Girl in the World. We also did an acted-out radio show and some Moliere farces. Cool stuff. The group was vibrant and the productions challenging. But by my senior year, the community center that hosted us suddenly veered toward the conservative and chose some kid’s mother as our director. Most of us quit when she announced that the next play would be You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

I did a little acting and a lot of costuming in college and always enjoyed the camaraderie of the costume shop, but once I left the States, I never went back to the theater. All these years, I had imagined the Tokyo International Players were a group of bored expat housewives with nothing better to do; thoughts of them evoked frightening visions of Charlie Brown inside my head. But then a friend was in their production of Avenue Q. I went to see it and was astonished. I’ve seen several other productions since and they’ve all been really excellent. Not a bored housewife in sight, these are dedicated, talented professionals who do these productions not for money but for love of the stage and everything that goes into bringing a play to life.

Theater people tend to be a tad kooky, but usually in the best sense. I loved interacting with the actors and crew, our hearty laughter and quick moments of reaching out, the gentle companionship of fellow costumers stitching away under the stage as we listened to the singing and dancing going on above us.

Hannah and Lensei

This is our director, the lovely and talented Hannah Grace, with her charming husband who shall remain nameless and faceless because he’s secretly a member of AKB48 or something like that; I didn’t really understand the explanation of that. I didn’t understand the explanation of the pink jackets, either, but Hannah is the reason I got involved with the production in the first place and I hope she knows how grateful I am.

All in all, it was a great experience. I managed to connect with a lot of wonderful people. I reconnected with parts of myself I had nearly forgotten about and found strength I didn’t know I had. I was reminded that there’s more to life than work and getting paid. And, as icing on the cake, I got to see how cute my monkey looks when he’s wearing a mop cap.

Monkey Mop Cap

 

Surreal Hiroshima Part 2

The producer had told me a narrator named Hara was coming from Tokyo and that he’d pick us both up at the hotel in the morning. When I got to the lobby….

“Sachiko-san!”

“Eda-san!”

Producer: “You guys know each other?”

No, actually. We’d never met, but had known each other peripherally, through other connections, for years.

The recording only took a couple of hours. She had made arrangements to spend the night with a friend and I had to stay until the next morning to do the final program check, so we decided to spend the day together. First stop was the peace museum, ’nuff said about that yesterday. Then as we were making our way to the dome, one of us said something funny and we burst into giggles. I said, “Hey, I don’t think we should be laughing here!” And that made us laugh even more.

I was planning to head back to Tokyo the next morning after work but Sachiko asked me to go to Miyajima with her. She  pointed out that it had taken four hours on the shinkansen to get to Hiroshima. Or 28 years and four hours in my case, seeing as I’d never been there before. We suddenly found ourselves on an unexpected mini vacation, some time to enjoy and good company to share it with. We both kicked it into silly gear, laughing like little girls who’d run into a clown on roller skates bearing balloons and cotton candy.

Miyajima monument

It took about 40 minutes on a charmingly rattly train and then a 10 minute ferry ride to get to Miyajima, but the journey was worth every minute. It was one of those almost impossibly perfect days. The sun was shining, the sky was clear. Buying my ticket at Hiroshima station, a wondrous feeling of freedom surged through my body. I realized that, for just a few hours, I  could get away with not having a care in the world, which was my oyster and therefore appropriate for lunch, along with some freshwater eel.

I was feeling good.

Breathing the ocean scented water deep into my lungs, I used my superpowers to nearly topple this monument.

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Upon landing and monument toppling, one walks past an arcade of restaurants and souvenir stands and an oddly large number of coffee shops, then one is expected to kiss a deer before entering the shrine, a lovely old wooden edifice built over the Seto Inland Sea. At high tide, the complex seems to float on the water, one of the finest examples of Japan’s traditional, elegant architecture.

We were there at low tide. We saw a lot of barnacles.

Sachiko tried and tried to get a good selfie of us with a deer, but most of them were more interested in the contents of my shirt and Sachiko’s purse, which was pretty much covered with deer snot by the time we left the island.

two deerAnd that was that. We took the ferry and train back to the city, then the shinkansen back to Tokyo and the mini vacation was over. But what a treat. I can’t remember the last time I went somewhere just for fun. Thank you, Sachiko, and thank you, world.