Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy Inauguration Day! Go Ahead! Jump for Joy!

It’s been a busy start to the new year: a return to our many homeschooling projects (see above), wilderness programs, basketball practices and games, indoor soccer and wrestling, skiing, art classes, and the re-ignition of the rush-and-go engine, fueled by lots of green tea, visits to my chiropractor and acupuncturist, and flying, ever so gracefully, by the seat of my pants. Christmas brought together family and friends and offered a bright and festive pause, but the deeper layers of relaxation never seemed to take hold. I keep thinking that someday I'll enjoy a proper vacation again, but for now, life does feel at times like a flurry, really, a blitz of be here now requests that I am at once grateful for and scornful of, a creeping feeling that there’s too much on the docket, that it’s time to drop some ballast, get rid of the old, make room for the new. Winter, with all its blinding snowstorms, and the hushed, lovely stillness that follows, has a wonderful way of slowing things down, and we’ve been graced with some gorgeous days, bright skies bleeding blue, and white snows sparkling with the triumphant return of the sun, that have helped me find a new tenor, walk a fresh beat, fire up the inner ceremonial circles of light and dance and joy and beat back the encircling fear.

Now that my tattoo has all healed up, and my girl is all done, it feels good to have a new project, to be able to set my sights on the 3-day, to have something to work towards, figure out. I figure, why stop at the breast as far as reconstruction goes? My whole body could use a serious overhaul, so it feels really good to fight the wrinkly knees, the aching joints, the punch-drunk lungs, and feel my deep wellsprings of energy returning. I’ve been training as much as I can, walking in the cold rain, in flurries, along patches of ice, through fresh, fluffy snow. One morning, I walked through a stifling fog that rose and swirled around me in thick ribbons, and every time a car approached, headlights suddenly appearing out of nowhere, I’d have to jump out of the way for fear of being completely smashed to bits. The great thing about that day was that by the time I had turned my third corner into the final fifth mile, the sun had shot of the sky to burn away the fog, warm the road, and shine directly on my face. Winter roads aren’t always hospitable to walkers, though, and the cold as of late has made it downright dangerous, so I’ve had to hit the treadmill much more than not, brave the dull clink and clank of the endless loop, the inane feeling of going nowhere, and the sudden motion sickness and hankering for sea legs that hits me as soon as I step off, reeling, the ground still moving underneath me, and try to walk, and actually go somewhere.

The snow seems to fall every few days, brightening and covering the dirty roadside banks, and filling the woods with a hushed, lonely quiet that I can feel in my heart. The stillness rouses my hibernating self, reminds me that there is more than just deep snow and deep freeze in this bleak mid-winter, that if I watch closely, I’ll notice that the sun rises higher in the sky each day, that the days are getting longer, that spring is coming. The spectacle and promise of tomorrow's Inauguration seems to echo the call of winter: it may get worse before it gets better, but there are silver linings and good things to be found in the darkest, coldest hours, and that it is best to experience winter in all its glory than to hide out in its shadows.

(It's about time!!)

We’d planned to head to my mother’s house tomorrow after skiing for an Inaugural Dinner, but Dom, who wanted to wear a tux to the event, just went to bed with a troublesome croupy cough, so we may stay at home. Wherever we end up, we’ll be looking for our friend Galen and the Brattleboro High School band in the parade amidst all those zillions of shiny, happy people. What an amazing, historic time. I keep getting weepy, the whole affair seems so very moving to me. However challenging things are for everyone, there is a buzz in the air that is hard to deny, a sense that something good will come out of all this difficulty, a heightened sense of awareness of our place in this world, perhaps, and a greater responsibility for each other (and we hope, the planet and all its habitants), that will change the face of how we live, transcend the doubts and nay-sayers, enable us to better endure the hardships, and lead us into a more sustainable, unified future.

Ok, that’s the end of my speech. I wonder if there are any last minute positions that Obama has yet to fill, and if he might want to look my way. Secretary of the 3-Day, perhaps? Minister of the Gap Band? Celebrator of the New Girls?

The kids and I put together some cut and paste Happy Inauguration Day cards this past December, in preparation for the Craft Fair, where we sold them to giggling people of all ages who seemed to appreciate our light-hearted approach. We first started putting Bush heads on babies’ bodies two years ago, when we crafted an entire book of Bush Babies and Bushisms, in The Search for Bush’s Brain. Once we started, we were addicted, and when Sarah Palin arrived on the scene, oh my! Here are a few we concocted, just for the sheer fun of it. No offense intended, please. And, oh, HAPPY INAUGURATION DAY! Yahoo!!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

It's a Girl!

Elizabeth Gardner is pleased to announce the completion of her new left girl. Hurrah, hurrah! Nearly a year in the making, and several reconstructive surgeries and procedures later, Liz’s rebuilt, freshly and lovingly embellished (ok, scratch-painted) left girl, is healing up well after her most recent adventure. This past Wednesday, she received her tattoo, a lovely mix of rosy colors to recreate the lost areola and burnish her fabricated, Sally-esque nipple with a worthy flame, a rebirth of balance and symmetry resulting in, hurrah, a matching pair. After several minutes of color mixing in an attempt to match wit and hue to the right girl, the desired bloom was achieved. Liz is grateful for the anesthesia that rendered her long-suffering skin numb for the procedure and for the pleasantries of chatting it up with the lovely tattoo artists that silenced the annoying dentist-drilling-buzz-saw sound of the six-needled tattoo tool. Labor and delivery of the reconstructed girl was deemed successful in large part due to the expert, gentle hands of the skilled Dr. Pitts and her assistant Christina, and the magical workings of fabulous drugs and powerfully healing Juju. This re-pigmentation of nipple and areola heralds the final phase and end to this long year of gestation. Liz is thankful that it is over. And soon, when the bandages are off for good, the full extent of her girl’s bloom will be revealed, mimicking the bold, bright gaze of a peony, perhaps, the softer blush of a rose, or the dappled pinks that spread like wildfire in the springtime.

Ok, that’s enough hoopla.

It is said that She who plants a garden, plants happiness, that “always in gardening there is a sense of eager anticipation, which gives a heightened zest to life. There is not only the fullness of the enjoyment of the present, but always the expectancy of the beauty that is to come. (Louise and James Bush-Brown, The Heritage of Gardening) This new girl has been a long time growing, changing, waiting, this garden of bruising colors giving way to smoother scars in pink and silver, purples fading to brown, then yellow, a pause before the next creative flowering, with new bright reds running this way and that amidst blue threads that vanish, leaving a shrinking violet, now finally endowed with a proper hue of her own, a flush of perennial vitality masking, belying, refreshing the loss and decay of the usual cyclical rhythms of life, death, growth, regeneration. To be honest, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about it—triumphant, relieved, embarrassed, glad to be done with it all—maybe all of those things, and maybe none of them. The one clear feeling I’ve experienced all along has been a stippled, shadowy sense of shame, that somehow I’ve inconvenienced everyone with all this nonsense, this cancer that I must have brought on myself, and that now that it’s over, I’ll finally be able to get on with what I’m supposed to be doing, whatever that is.

The day after I got my tattoo, I ran into a woman whom I’ve recently gotten to know a little bit. She knew that I had been going in that week, and asked me how it went. “Congratulations,” she said, “it must feel great to have it all behind you.” And then she asked me where I’d like to go to celebrate. Huh? Celebrate? Congratulations? I hadn’t been expecting that, but it pleased me, to the end of my toes, to hear it, until I realized, in one of those rare instances of self-observation, that I was suddenly questioning whether or not this—this new girl—really merited such attention, and then I just felt annoyed with myself.

What was wrong with me? In some ways, heading in to get my tattoo had felt like some self-indulgent exercise, as if I were driving two hours each way to pick up some new drapes that had caught my fancy in the curtain shop, and had called in my mother to come take care of the boys, making her rearrange her schedule so I could go on this frivolous expedition. And yet, there have been other times when I’ve felt so amazed by the whole process, so blown away at what the doctors have been able to do, that I’ve felt like flashing my new girl to people, Look at this! Look at my new girl! Isn’t she great? But the reality is that many people are simply put off by the thought of it—my last primary care doctor, even (I have since switched to someone who does not get all squeamish at the idea of having to see my reconstructed breast)—and so, as those slivers of celebratory pride have risen, and threatened to set things a-sparkle, I’ve shoved them so far down deep that I fear I can no longer access them.

When I first met with Dr. Pitts in her Faulkner Hospital office nearly twelve months ago, I had no idea just how long it would take to grow this garden, reconstruct my breast, land back on my feet. At the time, I had been cradling my diagnosis for about a month, trying to soothe, snuff, silence the blasted fear and dread, and had just made the decision to forgo the possibility of endless clear-margin seeking lumpectomies and opt instead for a left sided mastectomy with reconstruction. I really had no idea what I was in for. Dr. Pitts introduced the different phases to reconstruction and showed me before and after photos. For my part, I wondered if all her patients—and all the reconstructed girls—made the scrapbook, or just the ones that came out really well, with near-perfect matches in size and color and droop and chutzpah. I remember joking about wanting a lizard tattooed around my nipple instead of just a plain old areola, not clear at the time as to why I would need the areola since my nursing days were over. A lizard might better represent this next phase of life, I thought, this new incarnation, signaling to everyone that yes, my left girl was different, and proudly so. But in the end, I tried to ask a few intelligent questions. In retrospect, I didn’t really have any experience on which to base my questions on, so whatever my inquiries I voiced no doubt rose right to the top of the lame-o scale, thereby preserving both my ignorance and wish to keep everything at a certain arm’s distance. It’s nice when doctors don’t laugh out loud at your questions. Did I really want to know everything there was to know? Nope. Did I really want to probe the deeper end of the reconstruction ocean, try to navigate the murky waters, and come across the multitudinous and unimaginable oddities that lurk and feed on the very, darkest, bleakest bottom? Absolutely not. So, bit by bit, piece by piece, layer by layer, I dove beneath the veneer of the “after photos” that made it all seem so very simple and triumphant, and began my search for a balance between knowing too much and knowing too little, between hiding out in the warm shallows and risking it all in the deep end. There are very good reasons why doctors don’t tell you everything at once.

This past Wednesday morning, driving out to Wellesley to visit Dr. Pitts in her tattoo studio, I was glad for the bright sun that warmed the inside of my car and ensured clear roadways for the two hour drive. It was cold outside, and I had to scrape the ice from the inside of my windshield, but I was warm even if my car, at first, was not. Quite strangely, after taking a hiatus this fall, my hot flashes have returned just in time to keep me toasty during this ridiculously cold spell.

There was some traffic on Route 2, just enough to unsmooth my edges, but I had my trusty iPod with me and so set about to suffuse my frustrations with a little iPod divination to see where the day might take me. As I drove out of Gill, leaving behind the suffocating blare of small town isolation, the beautiful, frosty winter hills white with snow, still clean from the recent storm, I hit shuffle, waited while the Pod sifted through the 6869 songs and audio book chapters and podcasts, and with an expectancy that I always seem to experience when I play this game, listened eagerly as the first song started to spill from the radio hook-up:

I had a nightmare
I lived in a little town
where little dreams were broken
and words were seldom spoken

I tried to reach you
but all the lines were down
Summer rain began to fall
on this little town
...on this little town

I’ve always liked the Brit-pop of Travis, their winding melodies and haunting lyrics, the deftly crafted beauty that often disarms and charms me. But this was a mildly depressing beginning. This particular song, 3 Times and you Lose, seemed to capture my particular conflicting appreciation and loathing of living where I live, the expansive natural beauty, the crushing remoteness, how easily the lines between our phantom dreamscapes and daily shadows can blur and blend and render the internal landscape shiftless, lifeless, barren. On my way, on my way, and yet, there’s a feeling of being stuck that lingers, pulls me in, and washes out all the color. Music seems to bring it all back into a more unified composition, replete with vivid imagery and overarching declarations that unseat my primal unhappiness, even if only temporarily, and send me deeper still into that unchartered territory, where joy rushes about unabated, and I can catch a ride on the wings of a whim and return rejuvenated.

I landed next on Video, by india.arie, and declared

I’m not the average girl from your video
and I ain't built like a supermodel
But, I learned to love myself unconditionally
Because I am a queen…

I realize I just don’t get out in the car to air out my lungs often enough. I don’t care what people think of me as they drive on by. It seems a necessary impulse, this singing at the top of my lungs as I drive down route 2 towards my first ever, final phase tattoo. But the song, for all its feel good girl power vibes, trips me up at the end:

Don't need your silicone I prefer my own
What God gave me is just fine

What happens when what God (or your mother) gave you is taken away? I spend some time musing over the reconstruction process and the choices I have made, to refashion myself a breast, a nipple, an areola, out of silicone, skin, artificial pigment, guts, glory. Many women choose not to reconstruct their breasts, or choose not to get nipples, or choose to go another way entirely. I fully respect those women and the decisions they’ve made, because, after all, I could have been one of them, if things had unraveled a little differently. We all have our reasons for doing what we do. For me, I realize suddenly, I did need your silicone. And when I’m a 65-year old lady, still trying to stay in shape to the Gap Band, watching my left girl start to show her age, I just might need it again.

iPod divination is a tricky business. Typically, I’ll consider the first three songs that are chosen, but sometimes, a chapter from the Wind and the Willows, Moby Dick, or Eragon might jump in, and I have to skip ahead. I like to think that life, perhaps, is not as random as the shuffle application would like us to believe, that if you believe in the iPod goddess, as I do, then you have to welcome the possibility that there is a message behind the selection, a retooling of the apparent randomness by the spirit guides who like to insist on playful intervention. I’ve been playing these games my whole life. Silly, I know. But we have to take our cues from something. It’s that eternal quest for explanation, for purpose, for the deep hidden meaning, that ever-elusive DHM that teases and taunts us into submission.

I am surprised that I have not yet been presented with a chapter from A Short History of the World and Nearly Everything in it, or some Kanye, or B-52’s. The third song selected by those meddlesome guides is by the Indigo Girls, one of their early hits, Closer to Fine, and why should it not be? You know how it goes: I’m trying to tell you something about my life, maybe give me insight between black and white…and I think, I am trying to tell you something about my life, I’ve realized, and I don’t know if it’s because there is a certain urgency with how I live my life these days, or a need to scroll through the travelogue of life and try to figure out just how and where I might fit in now, now that I feel so different, and everything has changed, but things still drum along to the same beat around me, and I search desperately to find the rhythm, but it eludes me, and I wince at my own inability to saddle up and go. The only thing I can do is dust off and toss out the old to make room for all this new, and perhaps, as the song goes, “the best thing you’ve ever done for me is to help me take my life less seriously—it’s only life after all.”

From this divining three-pack, there were many things I could ascertain. But by the time I get to Wellesley, I’ve forgotten them all. I park, climb the stairs, and greet Dr. Pitts at the front desk. She’s always breezy and chatty and it’s always nice to see her. I feel greatly indebted to her. It’s been several months since I’ve seen her, and I’m glad for the chance to simply reconnect, get caught up, and, oh yeah, get my new girl tattooed. And there's the curiosity factor, too: what is it going to be like?

Her assistant Christina brings me to a treatment room in the back, where I change into a johnnie gown and watch as she begins to assemble the goods: little squeeze bottles of various hues, mostly browns, pinks, reds; a tiny mixing bowl, smaller than a thimble; some alcohol wipes; a minute sliver of a paint brush; gauze pads, tape, and space age bandages of a certain blue color; and finally, a strange looking device that reminds me that I might have landed in a torture chamber. She asks to see my right girl so we can start figuring out what color and shade the left girl should be. Reds, she says, lots of reds in there. Reds? I only see pinks of many shades, and notice that the nipple is darker than the areola but sports a lighter shine on its very tip, as if all that nursing polished it better than a rock tumbler. I suddenly realize that I haven’t seen many breasts at all, that compared to Christina and Dr. Pitts, who must have to eyeball dozens every day in all their glory—in full range of hue and pigment and shape and projection—I am green, pathetically green in my lack of experience with areola pigmentation, and that I will, as I have done throughout this process, defer to the experts.

Christina mixes up a few different colors, paints them along the edge of my right girl’s areola, and we wait for them to dry. It’ll take a few more attempts, but Christina nails the right colors amazingly fast and whips up her final concoctions, a rosy reddish pink for the areola, and a slightly darker shade for the nipple. Dr. Pitts returns to outline where the color will go. I have witnessed Dr. Pitts’ drawing skills firsthand a few times before, signing my left side before each surgery, using a black Sharpie to mark where the expander, then the implant, and finally the nipple would go, and now, echoing the slightly elliptical shape that surrounds my nipple, instant areola. I am instructed to stand in front of the mirror to check her work. It looks good to me! I realize, in that brief batch of seconds, that my left girl will always look different than my right girl, that it seems almost absurd to pretend that they might look the same, that maybe I should have gone with the lizard, after all, in a nod to what seems obvious now: that the left one is simply not the same, and that’s something to be celebrated, not kept under wraps, or coerced into hiding. The lizard will have to wait. She pokes my breast with the pesky anesthesia needle, and after several long seconds of slowly subsiding burning sensations, I’m good to go.

I feel nothing, of course, and can’t see anything, so have no idea what is happening. I’m comfortable, lying down on the table, my feet sticking off the end as if I were some giantess from the Enchanted Forest. We’re talking, about skiing, the kids, pretty much picking up where we left off the last time I saw her, in the OR for my new nipple back in October. The whirring of the tattoo device is a bit disconcerting, given its obvious associations, but it doesn’t really bother me, because I feel nothing, after all, and I’m grooving on the fact that I’m getting my first tattoo, and my new girl will be done, soon, to boot. It’s all good.

Dr. Pitts leaves Christina to finish filling in the color. She paints a little on, and then etches it into the skin with the six-pointed whirring tool that I am convinced does double duty as a torture device or sadistic sex toy somewhere. Paint, etch, chat, paint, etch, chat. I’m just glad for the chance to talk, and I realize that I have grown fond of Dr. Pitts and Christina, that I will miss them. After about twenty minutes, she is done. There is some blood, after all, getting a tattoo is like getting an intentional abrasion, a wicked bad scrape that, once it heals up, reveals something pretty spectacular, an etch a sketch of the permanent sort. Christina cleans me up, applies ointment, the blue space age bandage, and two layers of gauze, tape to hold it all in place. She explains what I can expect: to take off the bandages, carefully, so they don’t pull off the color, and shower, in another day; to put on fresh ointment and bandages, and then change them every day for a few days after that, until everything heals up; to stay out of pools, hot tubs for a couple of weeks. Just as the nipple shrunk in size over time, the color, too, will lighten a bit over time, with the final hue settling in about ten days. Dr. Pitts gives me a prescription for a 5-day run of antibiotics. And in a few months, I’m to return to the office for my after shots (I am reminded of the ever-mysterious-full-0f-spectacular-promise after party, and think the appeal is somehow similar) I tell them I’ll have to get ripped for the photo shoot. I want to be sure my girls are in the scrap book, after all.

A day later, my bravado is gone, gone, the first glance at my tattoo bringing back the harrowing fear of having to take off the bandages for the first time after my mastectomy back in March, accept the ugly mess of bleeding incisions and mangled, bruised flesh as me, and try to start imagining something better, a garden, perhaps, a bit tangled, but blooming with color and life. It seems easy now to sweep much of the fear aside, and I am relieved when the bandages come off easily, and I can check things out without first having to pick out any bits of bandage from my skin. But I don’t linger here, by the mirror; I know that the color is not yet set, that my girl will change once again, for “a garden is ever-changing, for it is a thing alive…” Instead, I take to the shower, to feel the rush and warmth, the prickly sensation of water cascading over my scraped up girl, to dawdle instead in the slow expanse of quiet, wrap myself in the hushed calm of the steam.

And now what? I ask myself. Now that the new girl has been successfully installed, just where do we go from here?

When Dominick was two and a half, he said to me

I’m strong!
Maybe I’ll grow up and be a man

Maybe I’ll grow up and be Mommy
And you be Dominick and I’ll give you nah-nees!

Maybe I’ll grow up a be a man
A Daddy, and have nipples
And hair on my tummy
And Daddy will be in my tummy
He’ll be my baby

I’ll grow up and be a man
…Like Zephyr!

(Zephyr was our dog, a noble male, but a dog, nonetheless)

I love that even at that age, Dominick saw that life is ripe with possibility, that anything, perhaps, can happen, even becoming a dog-man, switching places with your mother, or giving birth to your father, and nursing him, even with hair on your tummy. To revisit his two year old sensibility is quite amazing, especially since now, one month before he turns ten, he takes care of me in so many ways, offering me the comfort, nourishment and reassurance—the very manna of nah-nees—that he prophesized nearly eight years ago in his imagined Freaky Friday-swap for the nursing-toddler set.

As much as I’d like to think that the gods and goddesses (iPod and otherwise), spirit guides, ancestral energies, toddler insight and the collective consciousness might divine my path, I know too that there is much we engineer, in our ability and willingness to open ourselves up to change, to the winds that blow in unexpectedly, to the river that carries us, to the idea that we don’t know everything and don’t have to, that there is joy to be found in the not knowing, in the wonderment, in following our feet, our hearts, down paths we have not yet explored.

Thankfully, we are in training, we have plans. My new girl needs to be properly christened. I have decided that a celebration is in order. And I’m gradually getting my feet well-weathered to walk 60 miles in three days, my hips and knees well-oiled, legs strong. There are lots of things on the calendar to look forward to. Most importantly, I strive to stay in the here and now, to lose myself in the portal of possibility, go down the rabbit hole, and tend the tangled garden that grows untamed, wilderness of mind, soul-sanctuary, to await the beauty, grab the giddyup and go, and let the winds carry me.