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.
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.