Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Big Casino

The morning of my 43rd birthday I woke up with a hangover. Sadly, there had been no party the night before.
Most days these days I wake up feeling hungover.

“I don’t get it,” I whined to a friend over the phone on one especially brutal morning. “I ate a healthy dinner, I didn’t drink, I got a good night’s sleep. Why do I feel like shit?”

“Maybe because they’re poisoning your body.”

Oh, right, I keep forgetting. Fucking chemo.

I pop an Advil, put the water on for coffee and turn on the computer so I can complain in cyberspace. Fun Kim has a suggestion:

Maybe you should start strategically placing remnants of a party around the house so when you wake up with the “hangover” you can trick yourself into the party. Maybe not. Just an idea.
Next I check my horoscope. Free Will Astrology is my guilty pleasure:

Alison Covarrubias is a mentor for female entrepreneurs. Her "Ladies Who Launch" program inspires women to be brave and brazen as they develop their own businesses. One of Covarrubias's prime pieces of advice: "If you don't feel like you're going to throw up, you're not taking enough risks." That's also my message for you, Taurus. In the name of smart gambles and tricky success, I dare you to push yourself way out of the comfort zone.
The phrase rattles through my aching head. You’re not taking enough risks.

True enough. I haven’t gambled on much of anything since being diagnosed with, as Junior Soprano dubbed it, “The Big Casino.” I haven’t had to figure out how to make 100 euros last for three weeks, or decide in a split second whether the captain of that gorgeous 1928 Fife about to sail to Valencia is a psychopath or not. Come to think of it, I don’t really make any decisions at all these days. I go to chemotherapy, see my cancerologist, get lots of tests and let all the people who love me worry about what one reporter friend calls “the C word.” Apparently the biggest chance I take is saying the word CANCER out loud. With TV mob bosses and tough journalists so faint-hearted, God only knows who else I’m offending. Cancer is not hard, but as a game it stinks. There’s no calculated risk and the payoff is lousy. Even if you win, the best you can do is break even.

I forward the horoscope to another Taurus friend who recently quit a well-paying job to open her own risky business. She, appropriately, has been puking her guts out. Me, my stomach’s so settled even chemo fails to make me sick.

“Work” consists of fulfilling the obligations I committed to before January and nothing more. I haven’t solicited for new paying jobs, nor have I been working on my book, stuck on a hundred pages in. A few rejections—one from a writer’s conference, one a short story contest—have left my unfinished manuscript shelved, along with a stack of novels I have neither the concentration nor inclination to read.

Scheduling chest X-rays and PET scans, making dates with Dr. R and generally trying to stay as healthy as possible is my new full-time job. Ladies who launch? I’ve become a lady who lunches. If I get up, get dressed up, make it to Center City for a morning meeting and meet a friend for lunch, I’m toast.

Last week my wigs and I spent two exhausting hours at the salon. You can call me vain, but trust me it was a necessity, unless you think it’s acceptable for a relatively young woman to look like an aging bald man with a bad combover. My excellent stylist did the best she could, cutting what’s left of my thinning locks super short. Then she cleaned up Karina’s flyaways and gave the Lindsay Lohan a bang trim.

My hair doesn’t look hip and cool short, it looks like some old-lady beauty-parlor cut, thin and teased, except it’s not some shade of unnatural red or inexplicable blue. In an attempt to draw attention to other assets, I got my toes painted purple, splurging on the Balinese pedicure, inspired by the ancient secrets of the Indonesian salon owner’s grandmother. I breathed in the all-natural floral and ginger scrub and drifted away to the Pacific aboard little Carina which, another e-mail informed me that morning, had safely arrived in the Galapagos. Captain Kid and his girlfriend were probably swimming with sea lions and photographing the prehistoric giant tortoises at that very moment. Then my mind wandered over to another friend sailing in the other direction, across the Atlantic from New York to London. Okay, so he’s on the Queen Mary 2 and not a 30-foot sailboat, but, as he’s never been on a boat before, he is no less adventurous. It makes me happy to know a few people more fully immersed in salt water than me and my toes in the South Philly footbath.

Not all of my adventures are vicarious. I spent my birthday with one of my oldest friends, doing pretty much what we would have done to celebrate our birthdays back in 7th grade, i.e. going shopping at the mall and talking about the boys in our life. My girlfriend is married with two kids and lives in the suburbs, but has cultivated a double life as a rock star groupie, and not a fantasy life, either. Thanks in part to her brother’s status as a bona fide Atlantic City high roller, my friend frequently finds herself in the front row of sold out concerts. The Stones are her favorite so I address her as Mrs. Jagger over bad Chinese in the food court. She refers to me as Mrs. Bono and we buy clothes we think our fake rock star husbands will like.

The day after my birthday, Ellen and I took a road trip to New York to see the sublime Patti LuPone in the Broadway revival of Gypsy. We savored the legendary stage star from the second row of the St. James Theatre, another perfect detail in a day also blessed with perfect traffic and parking karma. After the show, we met up with one of my journalist friends for drinks at the Museum of Modern Art, where the cabernet cost $25 a glass.

“So how are you?” asked the Gotham newsman.

Well, I’ve been sick for three weeks, and I had to get a chest x-ray and I’ve been obsessively taking my temperature every few hours because, despite being an adult, proof is now required when my friends or family ask if I have a fever. My white blood cell counts are low, and I’m tired all the time, and might have to get that $3500 Super Shot that makes your bones hurt again. Meanwhile, I’m really losing my hair now and my excitement about all those fabulous scarves I bought during my last trip to New York lasted about three days. Now I’m over it and I just feel ugly when I look in the mirror.

“Fine, thanks.” I replied.

“Beautiful scarf.”


Gotham Newsman told us about his efforts to convince his boss to send him to Myanmar, a shift in the conversation that made trendy Manhattan bars and temporary hair loss instantly insignificant, silly even. (It did not, however, detract from the importance of Patti. Good theater remains up there on the list of Things That Really Matter.)

After several more glasses of $25 wine than originally intended, Gotham Newsman picked up the tab and sent us on our way. Ellen, another 40-something single gal, had borrowed her Dad’s car for this trip. Like a little kid pooped after a full day in the big city, I collapsed into the front seat of the Chrysler sedan, whipped off my scarf, and fell asleep listening to Howard Stern on satellite radio grilling Steve Guttenberg about the size of his penis. When I woke up half an hour later, Ellen was speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike and Howard was still talking about Guttenberg’s evidently generous endowment.

I don’t know why this tidbit sticks in my head, maybe because it’s no more off-color than the rest of my current life, but a few days later, I am still laughing about it as I am typing away at three o’clock in the morning. Despite being a chemo day, which makes me really tired, I can’t sleep—which is truly obscene—probably because of the steroids they give you to help the anti-nausea medication work. I am a junkie, so wired from whatever all those drugs are they’re slipping into my cocktails, I might as well drag myself out of the comfortable bed in which I’ve been tossing and turning for the past two hours and head back downstairs to the floor with no clocks for a few more rounds of… whatever it is we’re playing.

Maybe I’ll get lucky. It was, after all, a decent day in the cancerologist’s 13th floor office. My latest PET scan showed no illumination in my neck and chest, indicating the cancer cells have stopped their frenzied dividing dance; inspecting the scan on Dr. R’s computer, I noticed my brain was the only area of glowing hyperactivity, which might also explain tonight’s restlessness. Dr. R was “not ready to jump up and down yet,” but my response to the chemo, he said, has been “phenomenal,” proving, I think, that I am, in fact, the Chemo Queen.

“Woo hoo,” I responded, minus the exclamation point. “I don’t have enough energy to be more excited than that,” I apologized. “This lingering cold has kicked my ass,” I added, neglecting to mention the two days of birthday celebrations.

“Don’t forget the chemotherapy has a cumulative effect,” said Dr. R, “so you probably will feel a little more tired.” Still, Dr. R pronounced the overall picture—you guessed it—good news (!) but I am on to him and the rest of his ilk. Here in the land of relativity, it behooves the patient to know the house rules. Sure the PET shows the chemo is beating the cancer… but are we covering the spread? When can I cut my losses and go home?

Later in the infusion room, I saw a woman who, on my first day of treatment, gave me some helpful advice and a positive assessment of her first round of chemo. Her presence as a veteran was comforting on that day, but today, well into her own treatment for a recurrence of cancer, she was gaunt, pale and, having also suffered a stroke, slurring her speech. She told me she was upbeat because her latest scans also show cancer retreating, but she is a shadow of the woman I met two months ago. I am always uncomfortable talking to her because, having watched her deteriorate before my eyes, I can’t help but wonder what the odds are of ending up like her. The more she wants to talk, the more I need to bolt. I mumbled something lame, got the hell out of there, and went to lunch.



Anonymous said...

I realized as I read this what is one of the qualities I love best about you: Resistance. That quality is always so profound and present in your writing. Here, it ebbs and flows. Your resistance is low, then it pops back up. The beauty about having moments of low resistance now is that it means the Chemo is doing its job. But the coolest part is that Chemo can turn the glow down on the cancer glow without impacting the Margie Glow.

Man, I'm out of practice writing short and sweet.


Anonymous said...

P.S. The thing you resist most beautifully is being boring.

Anonymous said...

Resist much, obey little.
--Walt Whitman

SAIL Magazine said...

And now because we are reading you, we're in the position of worriers forever waiting, but that's OK-enough. It's not about us. This post is a wonderful payoff. Here in San Francisco I have two close people in chemo, but it is your writing that brings me close to a sense of their lives, right now. Thank you. And even though we met only once, over cocktails (rather late cocktails, as I recall), it is true as I told you. We'll always have Valencia. Kimball

Anonymous said...

i thought your mom was mrs.jagger, duh! i didn't read the whole thing(joke) because i can't, you will always be fabulous and beautiful and your ass will look good even if your hair doesn't. you rock the world. when you need a laugh, remember reading our grad cards, mine was sooo deep(we rock). don't forget, i probably won't remember half of my classes-i know you're lauhing now.

Anonymous said...

Hey, "Chemo Star" - Determination is often your key to success (along w/tons of talent) but it is true beauty that defines you.

We can guess how you really feel when you casually answer "fine, thanks" and we try to understand. Guess what we see -- Beauty of heart and spirit that transcends designer scarves and temporary hair styles.

PS - get as close to the sea as circumstances allow and do nothing but absorb its power.

Mrs. Jagger said...

No, anonymous blogger, I'm definitely not Margie's Mom. I'd like to hear more about what made you think that, but I have to hurry off to my next concert...seriously, though, I agree with your comment that "Margie's ass will look good even if the hair doesn't." Margie, those jeans you found last week are totally rockin', and with such a hot ass, who could possibly be looking at your hair?

Anonymous said...

Of course you know this, but maybe it's good to remember: A mirror is only two-dimensional. We love all of you--passionate heart, brilliant mind, adventuresome soul, inviting smile, sexy ass, painted toes, and hairless skin. You are beautiful, MM. I love you.

Anonymous said...

I'm Karen Selah's friend again - Your story is as individual as yourself - I had radiation with a woman about 20 years older than myself, her second bout with breast cancer, she had chemo and masectomy, also about 15 of her lymph nodes were positive. We established a "treatment friendship" but I have not seen her since finishing radiation, but pass her house every day and breath a sign of relief when I see her car. It's ben 2 1/2 years. It gives me alot of hope.

Anonymous said...

margie, i know this is @you but to mrs. jagger...because you obviously love her as much as i do, so i figured you were mom, not me from CT.

Alison Covarrubias said...

Hi Margie!

I just came across your blog and wanted to make sure you have taken your risk for the day. :) It's weird, I feel like the astrological universe made me find your blog so I'd check in on you.

Sometimes getting out of bed is a big enough risk. Other times it has to really freak-the-shit out of you. Like when you're asking yourself, what am I thinking? What will others think? Then you respond with f-it, I am going to do it anyway.

How risky and awesome would it be to try something weird and new (that has nothing to do with business or cancer)? Like . . . paint, shoot a gun (not at anything living of course), take a samba class (I am going to start lessons next week), buy a ticket for Burning Man (I'm going for the first time myself), or enter a costume contest (kind of like burning man).

Anyway, I just wanted to brainstorm some different kinds of risks that are just fun things to do that "other people" usually do instead. Let me know if you have any ideas!

Alison Covarrubias
(no longer with ladies who launch - but you can find me at
Take care!