Learning to Still My Mind – Reiki

COne of the best things that going through cancer treatment has taught me is to be still.  Maybe that sounds a little crazy – who doesn’t know how to sit still?  But I didn’t.

In my real life, I didn’t really know how to be still. Day after day I would run around town, doing errands, taking my kids places, working, doing volunteer work, and keeping busy.  If I wasn’t busy, I felt this guilty nudge like I should be doing something productive.  I would go out with friends for lunch, go out for fancy dinners with my husband and other couples, and all the while, my brain would be running with my to-do list and other items I had to remember.

In June, however, everything came to a screeching halt with the cancer diagnosis.  I was sicker than I had ever been in my life; hopefully sicker than I’ll ever be again.  I couldn’t focus on getting myself out of a chair without outside help, much less a to-do list. During that time, when I was at my sickest, I didn’t care about productivity and I had to learn to ask for help, and my friends and family really pitched in.

In May, while still in Japan, I took a first step toward stillness and tried Zazen Mediation, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Just getting the chemotherapy required me to sit in a chair for upwards of six hours at a stretch.  My utter lack of mobility in the days following treatment demanded that I sit in front of the television for hours on end.  In fact, my brain power was so low at certain points, that I had to watch re-runs.  I couldn’t even watch first-run shows because I couldn’t understand or remember the plots! This was a totally new experience for me – my brain wouldn’t perform the necessary functions to deal with real life.

In August, at the recommendation of my cousin Anna, I tried Reiki treatment.  I had always had such good luck with acupuncture, but Anna, a Bikram Yoga instructor, reminded me that I was already receiving a lot of invasive treatment and perhaps something less intrusive to my body might be in order. Anna found a Reiki practitioner for me right in my neighborhood in Maryland.

Reiki is a Japanese healing art, developed in 1922 by Buddhist Monk Mikao Usui.  The main idea is that the practitioner lays his or her hands on the patient and believes that energy in the form of Ki is being transferred from the hands to the body underneath, which encourages healing and balance.  In Japan, the practice is more common and accepted as a healing art.  Here in the U.S. Reiki is seen as an alternative health option, best used in concert with Western medicine.  My friend Kendra, however, reminds me that my oncologist’s job is to get rid of my cancer; my job is to take care of myself and my body while in treatment.  Reiki is one way that I have learned to relax.

The practitioner I found, Naning, is an Indonesian woman, who has lived in the U.S. for decades.  Ironically, I learned upon first meeting her, that she had also lived in Japan for a number of years as a teenager, and attended the International School of the Sacred Heart, located not far from my Tokyo apartment. We had a lot in common immediately and I felt comfortable.  She has not only practiced Reiki at home for years, but she also works with doctors and nurses at local hospitals, giving them Reiki treatments to improve the care they give their patients.  The literature she gave me discusses the healing benefits of Reiki practice for patients and practitioners alike.  She also gave me a card with the five precepts of Reiki on it:

At least for today:

  • Do not be angry,
  • Do not worry,
  • Be grateful,
  • Work with diligence,
  • Be kind to people.

I still look at it every day – so I can think and remember and act in a mindful way.

Naning led me upstairs to the dedicated Reiki room in her home.  The entire room is done in white and cream colors, with blinds over the window to allow only soft light to come into it.  At the center of the room is a traditional massage table, which she drapes with colorful and silky Indonesian cloths. Naning invited me to lie on my back that first time, and from the very first second I put my head on the small pillow she placed under my neck, I felt myself letting go.  She put a pillow under my knees to increase my comfort and we got started.

With Naning, I did something that I haven’t done with anyone else – and I mean anyone, even my husband.  I took off my head scarf so I was completely bald. I wanted her to see me completely and participate fully in my own wellness.  She washed her hands, murmured a prayer, and put her hands on my forehead.  The relief was immediate.  Her palms warmed against me.  She touched my head, my cheeks and even my nose initially.

Her hands sort of naturally settled at the sides of my head, on my temples and she rested them there. She had a little timer that chimed every five or so minutes and she moved her hands to a different part of my body.  She concentrated a lot on my head and face, but she also touched my arms, my stomach and parts of my legs too.  Then I turned on my stomach and she put her hands on my back in various places.

It wasn’t like a massage; her hands were mostly warm and unmoving.  But for some reason my mind was completely still.  I’ve had it done a number of times, and it makes every single thought go out of my head.  I am only aware of my body, my breath, and Naning’s hands.  When the little chime rings and she moves her hands, I actually feel something move inside me.  I can feel the energy; I can feel the warmth.

The effects from the Reiki last for days.  I feel calmer; my side-effects ease; and it’s easier for me to concentrate on something if I have to.

I will always be grateful to Naning for showing me how it really looks to have a still mind.  I had never experienced it before.  I hope that I can carry this feeling back into my “real” life as my health hopefully returns.  This ability to focus inward for even a moment allows me to be centered and then re-focus on the parts of my outer life that need attention.  It’s a gift – and another one of those silver linings of cancer.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way out of the Chemo Room

Katie and me!

Katy and me!

Today, as I do the day after every chemotherapy session, I took myself back to the chemo room to get a shot of Neulasta, the wonder drug that boosts my white blood cells, which chemo kills off, rendering me immunosuppressed.  The Neulasta rebuilds the white blood cells within about 10 days, and in the meantime, I take a prophylactic antibiotic.

Katy, you may remember, is MY nurse, and she was her usual cheery self as we discussed podcasts and walking, and other inane things as she readied the shot and my arm.  The whole process took about ten minutes.

Just as Katy was walking away, another patient was walking toward us.  “What can I do for you Florence?” Katy asked.  Florence was an older, maybe 75-year-old, African American woman with not too many teeth in her head.  She limped slowly toward us, and anyone could see that with her beautiful hair and flashing eyes, she had once been a real spitfire.

“I want to talk to this young lady,” Florence said, motioning toward me.  She proceeded, with Katy’s help, to sit on a stool near my feet, as I was still sitting in one of the big chemo recliners.  Katy looked a little nervous, truth be told.

“Young lady,” Florence began, “I want you and Katy to hear this because it doesn’t get said enough.  I was diagnosed with the cancer about ten years ago and this here Katy lady has been here for me the whole time. Now I’m not always in the best mood when I come here, but Katy and these other ladies are always as nice and as sweet as can be.  It don’t get said enough and I want her to hear it, but Miss Katy is always patient with me even when I’m as ornery as can be.”

“She’s wonderful,” I replied, awestruck.

“She’s the best there is,” Florence agreed, “I don’t believe it’s a job for her to be here. I believe she was brought here for a reason and she is as wonderful and patient as can be even when I’m in a bad mood and hard to deal with.”

With that, Florence started to get up off the stool, and Katy again moved to hold her arm and help her with her two bags.  “You’re a nice young lady and you’re going to do just fine,” Florence pronounced.

I couldn’t reply that time.  She shuffled away with her cane, and I just sat there, dumbstruck.

“Are you okay?” Katy asked.

“I am,” I said and realized that there were tears flowing down my face.  Katy hopped over to the desk and got me a tissue box. She patted my back for a minute.  “Are you okay?” she asked again.

“I’m just feeling so lucky, so blessed,” I sobbed, unable to stop myself.  For all of the crap of cancer, there are a whole lot of wonderful people who’ve been watching over me from near and far.

“Well there’s a good energy coming off from you, Miss Aimee,” Katy said.

I finally got myself under control, stood and hugged Katy.  She patted my back again.  “See you next time,” she said with a smile and went to minister to her next lucky patient.  I hope she felt as good as both Florence and I meant her to.

I don’t know where Florence came from or who sent her to me when I’m feeling so crappy today, like I always do one day post-chemo, but I am grateful.  I know I’ll feel better tomorrow.  And I just know in my heart of hearts that Florence is right: I’m going to be okay.  I’m going to do just fine.

The High Holidays – At My Home Away From Home

The shofar made me cry this year.  I was sitting between Ellie and Steve like any good daughter, and the hush of readiness came over the sanctuary. The Rabbi chanted the first “Tekiah” and the shofar’s clarion call rose through the hall and touched the souls of those assembled.  Without warning the tears jerked forth from my eyes like a faucet turned up too high, too fast.  For centuries Jews have gathered together at this time of year to thank God for the gift of last year, pray for another year of life, confess sins and beg pardon.  It’s a part of my life as much as putting on shoes to go out – whether I’m thinking about it or not, being Jewish is part of my identity and heritage.

One of the things I love about being Jewish is the idea of continuity – of belonging.  I was hearing that shofar at 11am in Washington DC.  At 11am Tokyo time, thirteen hours prior, my husband and children had heard the same call, said the same prayers, heard the same call.  My tears, naturally, were for them, mourning that I was not with them to hear it, nor they with me.  I have such vivid memories of both of my children’s very first Rosh Hashanahs.  I held each of them as babies as the sudden blast of the shofar startled them and I comforted them, whispering the promise of connection they would feel whenever they hear that sound.  It connects them to generations past; it connects them to generations in the future. This year we are not connected physically, but with that shofar blast, I could feel them there with me, reminding me that with God’s good help, we will be together next year at this time.  And so, the tears.

Ellie and Steve’s synagogue, B’nai Israel in Rockville, is a big place – 1500 member families.  I had been there before for various events, so it was mildly familiar with its beautiful wood and stone sanctuary and center area from which the Torah is read.  Having grown up in a large, Conservative synagogue, the atmosphere, as well as the liturgy, was familiar.  In fact, I’d venture to say that despite its large size, the synagogue was welcoming to me.

The two rabbis of the synagogue welcomed everyone to services, and on erev Rosh Hashanah, (the night before – all Jewish holidays begin at sundown the night before) as well as on both days of Rosh Hashanah, spoke of welcoming – of belonging.  Their sermons sounded like they were written for me, aimed at me, spoken in light of my situation.  They spoke of gratitude, of making every second count.  Rabbi Schnitzer referenced a book by Joan Lunden, saying that people might not remember who won the Pulitzer Prize or the Heisman Trophy, but they do remember the kindness of a friend, the encouragement of a teacher or the touch of a loved one.  He gave us the number of seconds in every day and urged us to make every one of those seconds count – every single day.  He spoke of a righteous man on his deathbed not saying that life had been good to him, but rather, saying that he was good to the world.  Rabbi Safra continued the theme, discussing how God had made the world, but made it to be imperfect, and thus God shows faith in man in his ability to repair the world, and so we are in partnership with God. As we are faithful to God, so is God faithful to us.

Perhaps these sermons seem predictable to you, even proscribed. To me, fighting cancer every day, this entire holiday – indeed this SEASON of holidays – reminds me to be grateful for the people around me, the life that I have, and the self-awareness to be so thankful.  Jews around the world are listening to similar sermons, repeating the same exact prayers, and to me it’s a comfort.  These ideas and practices were around long before my birth, and will be around long after I’m gone.  Continuity.

My Grammy used to say that a human being’s greatest need is to belong.  I believe her.  At that moment, hearing the shofar in Maryland while sitting between two extra parents, even though I was sad because I wasn’t with my husband and my children, I still belonged.  Indeed, it was the community that sustained me and nurtured me to reach this point.  Ellie and Steve, my mom and dad, my friends, my family, my doctors – all of them are the community on which I rely for my very existence right now.  I am grateful to each person who comprises that community for helping me along this journey.  I welcome the year 5774 with a grateful heart – grateful to hear the shofar, and grateful to belong.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah –  may you be inscribed for a year of health, love prosperity and peace.

Sometimes Beauty IS Skin Deep

makeupThe side effects of chemo are getting a bit stronger as I’ve gone through the treatments, but I’ve managed them pretty well so far.  As expected, I lost my hair fairly quickly.  Now I’m losing my eyebrows and eyelashes.  I’m not normally so vain, but I’ve been feeling like my face is a little “blank” as the brows and lashes thin out and disappear.  So today, I took myself to Nordstrom and the Bobby Brown counter, where I met Fiona, yet another angel on my journey.  I explained my issue and Fiona spent at least an hour with me, not just doing my makeup, but showing me everything she was doing, step by step.  She showed me fionacolors and brushes and described uses for each item she put on my face.  She helped me use the brow brush to create natural looking eyebrows to frame my face and line my eyes from the inside to the outside to create the illusion of lashes. She also helped me figure out what I “needed” to create the look as opposed to what was just an extra benefit.  I bought a lot of things, but with no pressure. Fiona made me feel like a million bucks – and definitely gave me back a modicum of control over my appearance.

My First Medical Experience – A Real Gift

COne of the very first people I met on my cancer journey was Dr. Irnest Oser.  Dr. Oser is a general practitioner and pulmonologist in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Ellie recommended that I see him and I was able to get an appointment with him for the Monday I came into the U.S. in June – only two days after my arrival.  Meeting Dr. Oser set me on the path of the “right” treatment, and I will always be grateful for the care he showed me.

I had found out about the lymphoma two days before leaving Tokyo.  I hadn’t been feeling well and was having trouble breathing. It didn’t make sense that I was in pretty good shape yet huffing and puffing on a flight of steps. It had been going on for about two weeks so I spoke with my regular physician, Dr. Thomas Lomax, an Australian who practices at our international clinic in Tokyo, who ordered a chest x-ray for me, with the idea of getting me on the right antibiotic for what he saw on the film. Thank goodness he’s thorough, because my left lung was 75% full of fluid. A CT scan just a few hours later showed that I had cancerous lymph nodes leaking fluid into my lungs. (Later Dr. Lomax confessed that he was afraid the fluid had been hiding lung cancer so he was actually pleased with the diagnosis of lymphoma – thank goodness he didn’t share that tidbit with me right away!) Cleared to fly, I barely made it to the States.  I don’t really remember the flights, but somehow the kids and I made it, and muddled through the weekend until I could get to Dr. Oser.

Ellie drove me the 20 minutes into Silver Spring and my mother flew in from Florida to join us there, also.  This was scary stuff.

When Dr. Oser walked into his office to meet me, he found me and TWO anxious mothers. (Ellie and my mom are college sorority sisters, and they joke about being my two moms!)  He sat down behind his desk across from all three of us and verbally poked and prodded me to get a medical history.  I told him everything I could think of with both Mom and Ellie filling in blanks when I faltered.  Then all four of us moved to the exam room.  Dr. Oser listened to my chest and heart and examined my belly (with its ridiculously enlarged spleen readily apparent). He told us that based on the CT report and looking at me, that he agreed I most likely had lymphoma to be confirmed by a surgical biopsy later.  He outlined what my next steps had to be  (biopsy, lung drainage, meeting an oncologist) and promised us a list of doctors to call. He then told us to go back to his office while he looked at the actual CT film, which I was carrying.

Dr. Oser stopped in the door-frame of his office and surveyed the three of us before walking in.  “You know, Aimee,” He said, “I forgot to take your blood pressure.  Why don’t you come back to the exam room for a second.  Moms, you can stay here.”

I heaved myself off of the chair – at that point I was so sick that every movement had a cost – and back across the hall and onto the exam table.  Ellie and my mom stayed put.

In the room, Dr. Oser took my elbow firmly in his hand like he was about to put a blood pressure cuff on it, but instead he leaned forward and put his forehead directly against mine.  “You’re going to be okay,” he said.  “You’re going to stay calm and get through this and everything will be okay.”

His eyes were right up to mine and I nodded.  I had to trust him. Relief suffused my body and I felt my shoulders lower with the released tension. He nodded back at me and pulled back, keeping his eyes on mine.  He did then actually take my blood pressure, which had dropped since the nurse had taken it half an hour earlier.

My first gift with my cancer was Dr. Oser.  He knew that I needed reassurance.  He knew that I needed to be momentarily separated from my two loving mothers who were as anxious as I was.  I didn’t have to say anything aloud; he just knew.  Because of the path on which he sent me that day, my oncologist, only nine days later, as I took my first chemotherapy, commented that I set a land-speed record for the time between diagnosis and treatment.  Once I had that initial appointment with Dr. Oser, everything just fell into place for me – and I started on the path to healing.  I am grateful to him and I will never forget the doctor who took the extra minute for me – forehead to forehead.

The Chemo Room

In the big recliner in the chemo room

In the big recliner in the chemo room

Every three weeks I have chemotherapy at The Katzen Cancer Center at the George Washington University Hospital.  It’s not the place I would chose to spend my time, but since I have to have chemotherapy, this is the place I want to be.  Every person, from the women who check me into the center, to the people who draw my blood, to the people who schedule appointments all work together to ensure that my experience is as painless and easy as possible.

The room itself is very sunny with about fifteen chairs – or chemo “stations” if you will.  There’s a big desk in the middle where the administration of the room happens, but it’s all so open that every nurse can see every patient all the time.  Each chemo station has a huge recliner and a small table along with separate lighting.  The nurse can come and do what she needs to do with each patient in a well-lit environment, but then adjust the lights so the patient is

It's open and bright!

It’s open and bright!

comfortable.  I often sleep a lot during treatment, so I like the lights lower.  There is a chair for a companion and plenty of room to store stuff and move around.

It takes a really special person to be an oncology nurse and this staff is no exception.  Every person is great, but every time I’ve been in the room, I have been under the care of Katy Dolan, who makes me feel cozy and comfortable.  She

Katie and me!

Katy and me!

tells me what’s happening every step of the way and is as gentle as possible.  I’m so grateful to her.

Every person’s experience with chemotherapy is different.  Some people stay awake, some sleep; some people needs four hours and some need longer.  I am taking not only chemotherapy, but also a monoclonal antibody called Retuxin, which is a drug that attaches itself to bad “B” cells in the body and kills them.   I have  B-cell lymphoma, so I need to get rid of these B cells, so this is the drug I need in addition to the traditional anti-cancer drugs, or chemotherapy.  Unfortunately I had a reaction to the Retuxin early on, so the nurses are extra careful when giving it to me, meaning they drip it into my port very slowly and pre-medicate me to prevent reaction.  All of that means that my version of chemo/Retuxin days are very long and very sleepy.  I am in the chemo room for about seven hours and I snooze for most of it.

My dearest friend Bonnie has accompanied me into the chemo room twice now, cancer centerand she is as impressed as I am.  Bonnie is a chemistry professor at the University of Maryland and keeps track of my drugs, my blood work, and every other scientific element of my disease and treatment that is of concern to her.  Katie explains every step to Bonnie as well, and in a way that is better for Bonnie – on a scientific level that I don’t need to know.

With Dr. Siegel

With Dr. Siegel

The other amazing element to this entire process is my wonderful Doctor, Dr. Robert Siegel, who is the head of the Hematology Oncology Department as well as the Director of the Katzen Cancer Research Center.  I’m so lucky to be under his care, and under the care of his team.  He supervises a team of interns and fellows and to a man, each one under his tutelage  is as kind and gentle and encouraging as he is.  Dr. Siegel answers not only my questions, but also Bonnie’s and my husband’s.  Knowing that Marc is in Tokyo, he offered up his email address and told Marc that he would answer any questions he had.  Dr. Siegel always asks about how Marc is holding up so far away, as does Katy.  I always feel like my whole self is being cared for, not just my cancer.

I am so lucky to have my treatment in this wonderful place with these caring, terrific people.  Doing the treatments  is not a choice – to get well I have to go through all of the treatments, including the yucky side effects.  I’m also extremely lucky that the treatments are going well. So if I have to do it, I’m grateful to be doing it here.

Cancer – A Few Silver Linings

CMy husband Marc has taken the kids back to Tokyo to re-start their “real” lives.  Bailey is a freshman at The American School in Japan (ASIJ) and my daughter, Sydney, started middle school, grade six, at Nishimachi International School (NIS).  Both kids have been at their respective schools for a while and I couldn’t bear to take them out of their comfort zones, though I’d much rather have them here with me. (Look for a forthcoming post on the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I’m just not ready to write it yet.) They are for sure in the exact right places for them.

Though this whole cancer thing sucks, I have found a few silver linings to it, and I’m pleased to say that Marc has also found a few here and there. Case in point: the other day he said to me, “Sydney is really fun in the grocery store.”

This is something I knew already.  Sydney is very good at spotting items on the list.  She likes menu planning and then buying the planned ingredients.  She likes finding a new item to try and even feeling produce to check for ripeness.  She’s a good little shopper.  In addition, when we’re in Japan, she likes reading signs, figuring out what things are, and calculating weights and costs in grams and yen.  Her Japanese reading and speaking skills are coming along nicely and the grocery store is good practice.

Marc is also an excellent Japanese reader and speaker, so in addition to all of the fun things about Sydney in the store, he was able to show her certain Kanji symbols and discuss the language issues via food, Sydney’s favorite subject, which made everything more interesting for both of them.  Marc has always enjoyed the kids musical and sporting events, and he and Bailey can discuss fantasy football and other sporting events and issues ad nauseum. However, it has been harder to find things he has is common with our girly-girl and so the grocery experience was great in more ways than one. Marc has been a great dad from day one with our kids, but he has never been the primary caretaker of them; that has been my job, except for a few weekends or a week here or there when I’ve been away.  Now he has stepped up to do it in a big way while I stay in the U.S. for treatment – and is doing a great job of it so far.

So here’s the benefit: some serious dad and kid bonding. If I wasn’t sick, Marc would never have discovered Sydney’s talents in the grocery store. That very same day, the two of them went out to the ever-popular and crowded Azabu Juban festival near our house and had a blast together.  If I was there, I would have gone, and though I really miss being there, I am delighted that my daughter and her dad had the opportunity to experience it together differently from how it would have been if I was there.

We have such great friends in Tokyo that I know Marc is going to have a lot of help with the kids – homework, caretaking, meals, etc – in the next four months while I’m in the U.S. But I also know that he will do a great job with everything himself and he and the kids will forge a new, strong connection that they might otherwise not have done.  For that I am not sorry – it’s a little perk in a hailstorm of sorts. So in the end we will all emerge from the experience hopefully healthy, and in some ways be even better and stronger for it.

What Are You Doing?

cooking 1Sometimes people have asked me what I’m doing with my time since being diagnosed with cancer.  I must admit that some days it takes a lot of energy to simply exist.  Luckily those days are few, and when they happen (predictably on days 5-8 after a chemo treatment) I just stare at reruns of “NCIS” without even seeing them.  However, I do get out to see friends, to go shopping, to have a meal, on almost every other day of the treatment cycle.  Even if I’m feeling blue or tired, I force myself out for a little while every day.  I’ve also learned to force myself to go out walking on days when I feel okay and the weather is good.  (My definition of “bad” weather has expanded to include high humidity however – sweating never feels good, but feels particularly yucky on a covered, yet bald head.)  So I am out a lot.

One thing I have always loved doing is cooking.  I find that it’s the one thing that completely empties my brain of all other tasks and trials.  It’s not that I find it relaxing, but I can’t multitask when I do it.  I have to concentrate on the task at hand or risk making a mistake that ruins the dish.  I also find it tremendously satisfying to make things that other people get to eat. When someone I love pronounces a dish I’ve made as yummy, it’s the highest form of flattery and satisfaction to me.

Recently, since feeling even better, I’ve done more cooking.  I made a Japanese dish, beef wrapped sauteed vegetables, for Ellie and Steve – one that I learned at a cooking class I took in April.  It wasn’t perfect because I couldn’t find thin enough beef, like that used to make shabu-shabu, which I would have bought in cooking 2Tokyo.  I found thin beef, but I should have pounded it thinner.  That’s okay – it was still yummy, even if it didn’t look as perfect as I wanted it to.

Then, this week, I took it upon myself to make a full meal including dessert.  I had been having conversations with my friends Maxine and Bonnie (separately, I might add) about cooking and how seldom people cook from scratch anymore.  True foodies cook from scratch though, and I do like to consider myself a foodie, not just a gourmand! No one has time, and convenience foods are so readily available that many people rely on them exclusively in the U.S.  Cooking and eating are such arts and the preparation of a meal takes a lot of time that most working people don’t have anymore.  But time is one thing of which I have in abundance right now.

I went to the grocery store last Tuesday and slowly gathered ingredients.  I then spent upwards of three  or four hours in the kitchen and later tried not to feel disappointed as the meal was consumed in ten minutes.  Ellie and Steve are a pleasure to cook for, though.  They appreciate each flavor and are generous with compliments.  I didn’t care how long the meal took to make – the looks on their faces as they enjoyed it was more than compensatory.

My only food restriction from the cancer treatment is that I can’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables – nothing raw.  The doctors are afraid that if there’s one bit of bacteria that’s not washed off properly, then I might get sick in my immune-suppressed state.  Getting sick when one is immune-suppressed is dangerous.  So I can eat whatever I want – as long as it’s COOKED.

I made a Food Network shrimp dish for a main course.  Craving tomatoes and berries, I made a caprese salad with roasted tomatoes a la the Barefoot Contessa.  I also made ricotta cheese toast with caramelized tomatoes from Martha Stewart.  For dessert, also from Martha Stewart, we had blueberry and strawberry scones with cream cheese whipped cream.

Cooking is a great way to spend my time as I go through the treatments.  It occupies my time, empties my brain and delights my tummy.  So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Conversations With Brian, or, What I’ve Learned So Far

CMy friend Brian Ledell is my favorite “Words With Friends” buddy.  Some people just play the game, which is an online version of Scrabble, but he and I chat a lot, too.

Last week I made a move on the board at about 3am.  “Insomnia,” I confessed on our chat.  When he awoke a few hours later and made his own move, he sympathized, telling me how much he hates when that happens to him.

Because I’ve known him for so long and because of our close relationship, I decided to put myself out there and just be honest with him.  The following conversation ensued:

Aimee: Confession: I’m taking something to quiet my brain at night.  I’m upbeat and positive all day.  Nights are tougher.

Brian: If I was going through what you’re going through I would be taking all the anti-anxiety drugs I could get the doctors to prescribe for me and would not feel the least bit bad about it.  Life is stressful enough in normal times.

Aimee: And this is why I love you – permission to be imperfect. I really work on that Superwoman mask but sometimes it just won’t stay on. I’m learning that not only is it okay to BE fallible; it’s okay to let people know you’re as flawed and faulty as everyone else.

Brian: You are too kind! I agree with you, though – asking for help is not an easy thing to do.  I think you’ve handled it very well. I’m proud to know you.

Aimee: I am so control freaky that I’m usually the helper, not the one asking for help. It’s a challenge, but I’m learning.  I’m learning a lot of things lately!

There are several important items in the subtext of that conversation, not the least of which is that Brian is an excellent listener.  For me, though, the crux of it is that I am learning.  Even when I’m going through this sh***y exercise called cancer, I continue to learn about myself, the people I love, and the world around me.  I’m reading a lot.  I’m continuing to write. I get messages from friends that brighten every day, and when I feel well, which, luckily, is many many days, I get to see several of those wonderful friends who live nearby – and sometimes even people who make treks of many miles to see me.  On most days I’m feeling quite lucky as I learn.

In order to maintain my own sanity and get through this, I have to stop trying to be perfect, express gratitude, and allow myself to ask for help when needed.  Learning to do these things has not been easy and I’m still not so good at it, but I’m working hard. They’re good lessons and I just hope that some of them stick with me beyond (God willing) cancer.

Cancer: an opportunity for a growth experience.  I’d rather not have the opportunity, but since I have no choice, I will take it.  Thanks, Brian.

The Gift of a Haircut

nancy picBefore she started, Nancy put her hands on top of my head and closed her eyes for a few moments.  The warmth of her palms penetrated the wisps of hair still loosely attached to my scalp and suffused me with a measure of calm about a procedure for which I felt far from ready.

“Do you mind if I pray over you?” she asked.  I appreciated the asking; Nancy is a Muslim and I am a Jew, but I was in no position to hedge my bets – all prayers are gratefully accepted.

It was only a few days before my second chemotherapy session and my hair was falling out rapidly. Feeling pretty well, I had been out to dinner with my friend Brain the evening before and he had reached over and pulled a hair out of my wine glass. It was unnerving.  I called Nancy that night and she agreed to come over right away.

Nancy Emanian, who works at Images Salon in Chevy Chase, MD, has been cutting, coloring and styling hair forever, and specifically cutting my Maryland Mom, Ellie’s, hair for upward of twenty years.  I visit Ellie and Steve every summer when we are in the U.S. and upon their suggestion, I always get a mid-summer haircut from her. When Ellie called Nancy to tell her that I was staying with them for an extended period, and the reason, she immediately offered to come to Ellie’s house and shave my head when the time was right.

Ellie set a sheet out to cover the kitchen floor and put a chair in the middle of the wigsheet.  Nancy put a cover over me, part of a kit she had taken home from the salon in order to meet me.  Before I sat down, Nancy reminded me it was Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims.  Nancy is from Iran, and her culture and language and religion are very much a part of her everyday life, even in suburban Washington DC.

Nancy’s voice is low and she sometimes has a way of slurring English words together.  She has a heart of gold, and I always feel like I’m her most special customer that day.  I imagine every one of her clients feels that way.  But that day she and Ellie were both focused just on me and making this experience as painless as it could be.  I sat down on the chair.

After she had her hands on my head, she pulled out her scissors.  She murmured a lot as she worked, and the room was pretty quiet, save for some classical music suggested by my friend Saori that I put on my iPod.  She first used the scissors to take off as much hair as she could.  I could tell that she was just pulling on some of it and it fell out into her hands.  Every now and then she would stop, lean in toward me, and caress my shoulder or my head as she prayed.

At first the tears leaked out of my eyes as Nancy worked.  My hair.  It felt like my last vestige of “normal” was being taken away from me.  I already had body problems.  I had the port protruding from the right side of my chest.  I always had a mark on my arm from blood being taken.  My skin was so dry it was flaking regularly.  And for the first time in my life, and hopefully my last, I was too thin.  In the first weeks of being sick, eating was simply not an option.  Everything made me feel stuffed or sick.  Then the after-effects of chemo made everything taste metallic, so I didn’t eat much then either.  Taking a shower had become a nightmare because I didn’t want to touch or look at my body anymore.  My dear husband solved part of that problem by buying me the largest shower “puff” he could find and a lilac scented bath scrub.  Bless him, the puff was even purple, my favorite color.

But Nancy didn’t let me cry.  She caressed my head and my shoulders, murmuring still in Farsi, her hands still warm.  Ellie stepped in front of me, too and held both my hands in hers.  She nodded at me.  Ellie nods at me to reassure me and with her reassurance and strong belief, I really have no option other than to take a deep breath and nod back.  It’s like a signal between she and I.  She signals to me that I’m okay – that I’m going to be okay.  Through all of this, that’s how she has handled it, and this is why I love her so much.  I’m always okay in her eyes, which makes me believe it for myself.

Minutes later when Nancy said her Amen (I’m not sure of the proper form in Farsi), kissed my forehead and resolutely plugged in the razor, I was no longer afraid.  She shaved my head down to a nub, all while exclaiming over the perfect shape of my head.  Ellie said she couldn’t believe how cute I looked without hair.

With the two of them telling me how adorable I was, I did take a look in the mirror pretty quickly.  It wasn’t as bad as I thought.  But before I could stand in front of the mirror too long, Ellie and Nancy were both shooing me out, urging me to take a quick shower, and then bring my wig downstairs for Nancy to style.

What happened next was the real gift of the day.  I showered, put on a little makeup and a new dress my Aunt Helen had sent as a treat for me.  I put on the wig and Nancy touched it up a little so it fell neatly around my face.  Both Nancy and Ellie were still exclaiming over how good I looked, and it didn’t even matter if it was true or not, they both made me believe that I was attractive no matter what.  As a bonus, I brought a scarf downstairs, and Nancy wrapped it around my head and showed me how to twist and tie it properly.

Nancy took what could have been a nightmare experience and made it into something kind and gentle, and even loving.  She brought a feeling of grace to the whole procedure.  I will never forget it.