Skinny Jeans

It was my first time trying on skinny jeans and I was excited. My legs are stocky, inherited from my mom’s side of the family who were all strong Irish farmers. As a teenager I had yearned for my dad’s long, pole-style legs and had even asked my parents if I could get my legs stretched (I had read somewhere that a lengthening machine existed).

At forty-six years old I had long ago accepted by body, but when I slipped into a pair of size 24 skinny jeans and saw my legs looking strangely slim, suddenly my insecure teenage self reappeared and she was ecstatic. Yet the reason they looked slender was because I had lost weight due to cancer. I was newly diagnosed with Peritoneal Mesothelioma, a rare, incurable form of abdominal cancer and I was in denial. “I’ll take them,” I told the shopgirl. And though I’m ashamed to admit it, for the next few weeks I actually liked how I looked. How sick is that? Speaking of sick, during this same period I did not feel well: I had difficulty eating, major nausea and twice daily panic attacks where I felt like my throat was closing.

My cancer “de-bulking” surgery was eight hours long and included the removal of my reproductive organs, a section of my small intestine and my primary tumour which I had named Maude. It also included a treatment called HIPEC, which is essentially hot chemotherapy poured directly into the abdomen while the patient is still on the operating table, aka a chemo bath.

After several days in the ICU, I was moved to the step-down unit. It was there, ablaze with pain and high on narcotics, that I made a decision: I had suffered enough. I would run away from the hospital and fly to Oregon where I had read they had passed legislation that allowed patients to “die with dignity.” But such an escape would be impossible without my skinny jeans.

“I need my clothes,” I whispered in a raspy voice to my partner. Not wanting to upset me, but suspicious of my intentions, he retrieved my hospital bag and put it next to me on the bed. I pawed at it in a drugged-out frenzy, then passed out.

I awoke to a large tiger staring at me from across the room. And someone had brought their dog to work: “I can’t believe they let animals in the hospital!” I said to myself, horrified. My great escape would have to wait, the hospital needed me; I had to keep watch over the creatures infiltrating the building.

Also, I had a new friend whom I had become very attached to and I didn’t want to leave her. A nurse’s assistant had been placed in my room to guard me, since in my delusional state I had made several attempts to get out of bed (while attached to multiple tubes and monitors). Not understanding that she was there to keep an eye on my crazy self, I thought I had my own private nurse-friend and I adored her.

Due to a myriad of complications, I spent two months in two different hospitals. At the second one, a rehab hospital, the nurse weighed me: the scale read 94 pounds, I usually weigh 120. I had lost a great deal of muscle mass; my legs were emaciated, atrophied sticks and my bum was pancake-flat. I avoided looking at myself in the mirror, it was too upsetting. I begged God to help me gain back the weight, promising never to complain about my thick legs again.

In retrospect I think my early fixation on my legs was simply my way of avoiding the intense emotions that were surfacing. I was scared of dying, who wouldn’t be? But what really troubled me was the idea of hurting those I loved. I was blessed with a partner, family, friends and a one-eyed elderly street dog who all loved me. I didn’t want to cause them pain.

Now, two and a half years later, I am back up to 120 pounds and I’m as stocky as ever. I am extremely lucky to be alive, many people with Mesothelioma don’t live more than a year after diagnosis. And though I’m grateful, I’m also aware that I’m living on borrowed time. So now I wear skinny jeans as often as possible. It’s my way of giving cancer the middle finger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intimacy After Cancer Treatment

I wrote an essay about navigating romantic love after cancer treatment and it was published in The Globe & Mail Newspaper (Canadian Newspaper).  Here is the link:

https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/navigating-intimacy-after-trauma-is-something-no-one-can-prepare-youfor/article36237918/?ref=https://www.theglobeandmail.com&

The Crazy Room

This morning as I was tidying up, I briefly entered our laundry room/office which is our “crazy room.” I think most of us have one of these, or the equivalent – a crazy closet, drawer or cupboard. It’s the place where everything you don’t want to deal with goes to die. And I found myself thinking that the crazy room is very similar to that space in our psyche where we dump all of our emotional crap that we can’t deal with at the moment.

I keep telling my partner, “we need to deal with that room, it’s out of control.” And it’s true, it is out of control. For someone like me, who likes keeping the house clean and organized, the room makes me anxious. But the crazy room is actually more representative of my true emotional state than the rest of the tidy house. The crazy room has unopened boxes, piles of cords and computer stuff, unfolded clean sheets, my partner’s plaid shirts hanging from an IKEA shelf like little headless Grunge creatures, a dead plant, my ileostomy supplies (thank you cancer), a giant box of small catheter tubes (again, thank you cancer) and various other randomness.

And just like I side-step and avoid the issues that I don’t want to deal with, I also breeze right past the dead plant – sitting on the floor – to put in a load of laundry. Why not just pick up the plant and put it out in the green bin? That is what an emotionally healthy person would do, I think to myself as I breeze out of the room again. But somehow that damn dead plant and the rest of the crazy room has come to symbolize all the ways in which I am emotionally stuck, frozen, paralyzed.

I am extremely lucky in that I can afford to see a therapist, it’s a luxury many needy people don’t have. So in a sense I have an ’emotional cleaning lady’ who helps me clean up my personal crazy room twice a month. And yet, somehow, it seems no matter how hard I try, my crazy room never gets completely cleaned. Just as my cleaning lady and I finish cleaning one area of the room, another area beckons for attention. Its boxes need unpacking, its cords need untangling and its damn plant needs to be thrown out!

 

Branding Queens

Is it just me, or does it feel like we are all starting to Brand Ourselves?  Through social media we each curate our lives and reveal in mostly filtered perfection, (or sometimes purposely non-filtered perfection), images and witty sound bites creating in essence our own brand.  The Brand of Me.  I am part of this trend too, I post regularly on Instagram: there is Mary Ellen the Pit Bull Advocate, Mary Ellen the Living with Cancer Through Humour Gal, Mary Ellen the Vintage Loving Stylehoader.  Is this a bad thing?  I don’t know, but it does make me a bit uncomfortable.

It used to be that creating a brand was done primarily by companies in order to sell a product.  To this day fashion retailers continue to be focused on creating a desirable brand in order to make money: “Understated elegance for the woman who knows true luxury.” “Affordable classics with a twist!” “The only watch for the man who works hard and plays hard.”  But now that we are all self-branding, are we in some strange way selling ourselves?  And to whom and for what reason?  Many successful fashion & lifestyle social media wizards are actually selling items, often through sponsored ads, so that makes sense.  But what the hell are the rest of us doing?  I realize I am probably just overthinking all of this, but it still kind of freaks me out.

The other issue with everyone becoming a Branding Queen (or King), is that – at least for me – it can lead to increased depression & anxiety.  If I see one more perfectly decorated home with that damn fury IKEA bear rug thrown casually but not casually over a mid-century chair I am going to stab my eye balls out!  Or another reclaimed wood dining-room table, sparkling with glitter and pastel food and champagne bubbling over in mis-matched but perfect vintage glasses with an incredible floral arrangement in a milk jug bought for just $2 at a garage sale!  I can’t take it!  This past weekend I actually suffered from a bout of “Insta-Madness:” I went to my favorite Leslieville bakery – Sweet Bliss – and bought myself three delicious treats (luckily for me my partner is Paleo, so I get all the sweets to myself!)  Upon arriving home and admiring my goodies in their low-key unadorned box, I found myself thinking that they would look much prettier “styled” on a vintage floral China plate.  OMG!  What has happened to me?!  Thankfully I am not THAT insane and I happily enjoyed my sweets on a regular, almost ugly plate.  And they were damn tasty!

I guess for now I will just cut back a little on social media so that I can remain sane-ish.  But then again, I did just buy my dog a new bandana, so I might have to Instagram that as part of my “I’m a Pit Bull Advocate” Brand.  #stopthemadness

Low-Rider Love

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Growing up, I was always the girl who dreamt of getting a dog, not of getting married. In the end I did get married and it didn’t work out.  The highlight of my marriage was meeting my first real love – a low-rider Corgi with a spirit like no other – I named her Quinny.

Everyone who met Quinny loved her.  It was impossible for anyone – even the grumpiest, most miserable souls – not to smile when she strutted by on her two inch stubby legs with her sassy wiggle bum.  She was pure Joy!  I remember gangbangers driving by in their vintage car and calling out “Hey Low-Rider!”  The same thing happened with tough mortorcyle riding men – they got such a kick out of her!  And the hipsters at Figaro Bistrot loved her too.  The one time she ran away – escaped from the backyard – she went around the corner to Figaro for croissant and Cafe au Lait!

I think of her often and I’m so grateful to her for sharing her spunky spirit with me.

Cake

Friday was my birthday, but I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate.  Earlier in the week I’d had to put down my beloved dog Leroy.  I felt like my heart had been ripped out, stomped on and then thrown back in my body.

Being so emotionally exhausted, I had totally forgotten that I had a brain scan scheduled. My Neurologist, a handsome Euro-Chic man who wears the most gorgeous Italian loafers, told me six months ago that if my aneurysm grew at all he would have to perform a procedure called “coiling” to keep it from bursting.

The funny thing is that when you already have a terminal illness and you’ve endured difficult treatments, finding out that you have a brain aneurysm really isn’t so bad. LOL. As long as the Neurologist didn’t have to open up my head during the procedure – and with coiling you don’t have to – then I was fine with it all.

But by Friday afternoon it all started feeling like it was just too much. Cancer + euthanizing my dog + brain aneurysm = bullsh*t!  So to celebrate the fact that my life was completely ridiculous, I bought myself a giant chocolate cake.  My partner does not eat sweets – how is that even possible?! – which meant more cake for me, yay!  One of the wonderful things about my partner is that he allows me and encourages me to just be myself.  He understood that I had to grieve the loss of Leroy and that I was in no mood for a typical birthday celebration.  So he let me binge watch “Nurse Jackie,” while I pounded back white wine and stuffed my face, toddler-style, with cake.

Saturday morning I woke up with cake smeared on my nightgown and mascara on my face.  I took all of Leroy’s stuff and threw it in our office/laundry room – the one room in the house which always looks like it has just been bombed.  Then I started obsessively cleaning the couch, vacuuming up every last Leroy hair that I could find.  I aired out the pillows on the deck, smashing the pillows against each other to rid them of Leroy’s beautiful brindle hair.  Beating up on the pillows felt cathartic and the tears started flowing. I cried for the loss of Leroy, whom I had loved fiercely and who had been by my side every minute of my recovery.  I cried because there was a very real chance that I would die before my parents and I couldn’t handle breaking their hearts.  And I cried thinking about leaving my partner behind and how one day he would probably be with another woman.

Crying felt so damn good, why didn’t I do it more often?  Why did I always try to control my emotional reactions?  I cut myself another piece of cake and sat outside on the deck, in the cold, surrounded by couch pillows and Leroy’s remaining hairs.  Crying + cake = just the kind of birthday celebration that I needed.

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Leroy

Leroy, my precious street-dog, is on the decline & my heart feels like it is breaking into tiny little bits, like a crumbling cookie. People always say, “oh how wonderful that you rescued that dog!” But really, it’s how wonderful that he rescued me. When I found him wandering on the streets of Los Feliz, I lassoed him with my H & M shrug and brought him home. Because what else could I do? He saved me from an unhappy marriage. He brought joy into my life and into the life of my beloved Corgi, little Quinny. The two of them were inseparable rascals, always up to some backyard shenanigans. When Quinny became very sick and I had to put her down, Leroy and I mourned her death. We were partners in sadness.

For the last year as I’ve been recovering from cancer treatment Leroy has been by my side, but now it seems his days as my canine personal support worker are numbered. We are up every night with his “doggy dementia,” and I am well aware that those who love me are worried about my health. I am not sleeping because of his cognitive dysfunction and that leaves me with a weakened immune system. Not ideal for a cancer patient. And yet, he still loves his walks. He enjoys the rush of finding a pizza crust in a bush. At the dog park he is reserved, careful not to get in the way of the younger more agile dogs, but he still thrives on it. The other day he met a dog as big as a pony and that thrilled him to no end. He still has a little sparkle left in him, but less & less. My heart is starting to prepare itself for when the sparkle runs dry.

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