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Friday, January 30, 2009

Happy Holidays or Bah Humbug? (Blog 14)

On Monday, December 15th I decided to take advantage of the Christmas spirit by concocting my self-proclaimed “famous” homemade Snickers bars while watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (Clark Griswold, anyone….or, better yet, Uncle Eddie?). This candy takes all day to prepare given its dozens of tedious steps and I thus refuse to make it except at Christmas and Independence Day. I should note that I have been instructed by certain family members not to bother attending said events without that damn gooey goodness. So there I was melting chocolate on the stove when, for the fifth or sixth time, I heard what I thought was a cat meowing with bitchy demand. I walked to the porch to see if I could identify its approximate location and I heard it again, but this time it was a clear “HELP!!! HELP ME!!!” Without thinking, I threw my half-eaten banana on an end table and bolted out the door, only to find a beautifully dressed elderly woman collapsed on the sidewalk in tears, lipstick smeared and mascara stains running down her face. It was 38 degrees outside. “I fell!” She exclaimed when she saw me, further stating that the last time she fell she shattered her hip. I tried to lift her with her arms but her knees wouldn’t hold her own weight, so I knelt down and told her to put her arms around my shoulders. “You can’t hold me,” she warned. “Yes I can. Hold on to me and, no matter what, don’t let go.” I pulled her off the ground and got her to her apartment when I realized that I was bald and wearing Jockey sweatpants and TCU sweatshirt…not exactly the image to portray when meeting someone new for the first time (let alone a sweet old lady), yet I realize she was in no position to protest. She thanked me no less than five times and I walked back home, suddenly aware that I had absolutely no energy left…I was drained. Furthermore, I was left with only one thought: Somehow, some way, I had the strength to lift this dead-weight woman. After months of accepting help from others and feeling like I have nothing to give back, I was able to help someone else using reserves I didn’t know were there. As sad as it was to witness this woman’s despair, I felt honored to help someone else and I feel like it was a gift from God reminding me that I am still good for something (although she may not say the same…).

Mom arrived on Tuesday afternoon as I was baking cookies for the nursing staff and chicken tetrazzini for our dinner (and, at the risk of being labeled a total nerd, listening to Christmas music and inhaling the scents of cinnamon and pine candles). After dinner we decided to hit the suburb of Windcrest to view their amazing Christmas light displays, stopping at Starbucks for a Peppermint Mocha latte along the way. The lights were ubercheesy but festive and gorgeous nonetheless—especially given that it was 34 degrees outside and we were bundled into a heated vehicle donning wool coats and gloves. When we returned later that night, I found a heap of bags at my door. My friend Nancy had played Santa and brought over Gatorade, ginger tea (both great for puking—staving, not inducing), red wine, lemon pound cake, bananas, chocolate pudding, and a squeeky toy for Lola. I couldn’t have been more touched by her generosity and have since deemed her my Straight Female Christmas Elf (Adam is my Gay Boy Christmas Elf). I went to bed by 9:00 but woke up with entirely too much energy at 3:30. After lying in bed for an hour I read for another 30 minutes, then turned out the light and remained awake until my alarm went off at 7:00.
Even though my pre-chemo labs were scheduled for 9:35 and completed by 10:00, the nurses couldn’t seem to get a blood return on my port once again, which meant that I had to lay down and assume the ridiculous postures necessary to tease, influence, and nudge the internal catheter. This process took another 30 minutes—and was finally successful—and I had to then wait another half hour to complete my vitals and doctor appointment. Too many people have asked me to explain the blood return bit of each treatment, so I’ll attempt my best here. If the nurses don’t make sure the blood is coming OUT (back into a vile), they risk not knowing that the port or catheter may be misplaced. Worst case scenario: the needle or internal structures have moved and the chemo leaks into the tissue/skin and not the vein. That would mean serious damage as the chemicals burn me raw from the inside-out. With blood return, the nurses can be sure that everything is in place and nothing is getting obliterated, scarred, or otherwise irreparably damaged.
Dr. Wilks informed me that we would definitely ditch the Bleo because the reaction I had during Adam’s visit could be fatal next time (no bueno). Instead, she is putting me on………(insert trumpet fanfare)…..PREDNISONE. I found it noteworthy that she said it with a grimace and slow tilt/shake of her head, as if to preemptively apologize for the #$%! I was about to endure. I asked what to expect in terms of side effects and she said something to the effect of, “Oh, you don’t know…….Okay, well a lot of water retention, hunger, irritability, weight gain…..” she eventually trailed off. I wanted to cry but didn’t because, as my mom would say, I was wearing my big girl panties. On a brighter note, I did get my lung study and echo results back and all are good….Cheers to no permanent lung toxicity and/or congestive heart failure!!! I had arrived at my appointment bearing my homemade Christmas gifts and briefly considered confiscating them out of spite until I reasoned that Dr. Wilks does, in fact, hold the key to my recovery. Plus, she rocks despite her consistently bearing bad news. DAMN YOU, IMMUNE SYSTEM!
1940s warning against Mustard Gas--the exact SAME thing as "Nitrogen Mustard"--the technical, chemical term for the chemical warfare agent that is now used in my chemotherapy
I had to wait about two hours before my chemo was mixed in the pharmacy and a nurse could administer it. We later learned that, like me, many patients were trying to get their treatment over with so they could recover and enjoy the holidays, not to mention that one particular physician scheduled ALL of his remaining patients to be seen that day before he took vacation. I got Marian (or rather, Marian got me) and she very quickly informed me that one of my chemo drugs is not available on site because it is a rarely used drug and only used in my case as a replacement for Dacarbazine (the “D” of ABVD). I’d have to come back the next day for the final component.
Furthermore, I would have to start the antibiotic Levaquin immediately because my white count was so low that I essentially had no immune system….just a few little white cell guys roaming around aimlessly in my body, looking for their deceased colleagues. I asked why she would put me on a week’s worth of antibiotics instead of making me get a WBC booster, to which Marian responded that…oh yes….I will have a shot of Neulasta as well when I return tomorrow. Please refer back to my previous post about the reprehensible, flu-like side effects of this so-called “wonder drug.” Now I was REALLY ticked off at my immune system. What the hell do I keep you around for???? We were finally out of there at just after 3:00 and I thought I was going to get sick in the bushes on the walkway to my door. Luckily, slowly consuming ginger tea and assuming my position on the sofa helped to alleviate the stomach tap-dance.
Makeup: The Ruby Collection

That afternoon, after I attempted to sleep but got absolutely nowhere with that grand plan, I heard a knock at the door and it was my favorite visitor ever: The lovely brown man from UPS!!! (Note that I also welcome the purple and orange Fed-Ex guys and the yellow and red DHL gentlemen). Furthermore, the box was from my favorite retailer ever: SEPHORA!!!! Rene’ had sent me a gorgeous makeup kit from Bare Escentuals called the Ruby Collection. Need I go into great detail how much I played with my new toys? I was a kid in a candy store and loved applying the goodies with total, reckless abandon. Later, as I was feeling better and my nausea gave way to crazy food fetishes, and despite my insatiable craving for a greasy cheeseburger with mushrooms and grilled onions, Mom decided I needed a “healthy, nutritious” dinner of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and peas. WTF??? After dinner we drank a Christmas favorite: Hot Apple Pies (steaming apple cider, Tuaca, Cool Whip--in a can of course--and a healthy dose of ground cinnamon…..fabulous!!!).
Effects of Nitrogen Mustard on soldiers. Yes, that's what is administered to me. Niiiiice....
The next morning we started moving and shaking at a reasonable hour, in time to leave early enough to drop off some chocolate treats with my primary care doctor. She is always so busy that I found it prudent to call in advance and explain to the receptionist that Dr. Gonzalez had originally, preliminarily diagnosed my lymphoma and that I needed to give her a hug in person. The staff ushered me into a back room and my mom and I waited for a few minutes before she burst through the door, her receptionist calling out “Surprise!” in the background. After many hugs and niceties, she informed me that she reads regular consult notes on my progress and is stymied by my body’s ability to keep everyone guessing. We talked for about ten minutes and then it was off to Chemo: Part Deux. This time was fairly subdued as I was administered saline, nitrogen mustard, and the dreaded Neulasta shot on the side of my stomach (which, a week later, was still bruised, thanks). The nurses instructed me to stay at home until Monday and, if I absolutely had to be out in public for any amount of time, I was under strict regulations to wear a surgical mask to protect me from any airborne germs. At around 1:15, we took advantage of my short window of time with regard to energy and headed to Stone Oak, a northernmost suburb of San Antonio, to visit my former employers. Again, with goodies and card in hand, I gave hugs, said hellos, and then suddenly hit the proverbial wall of tolerance. With very little notice I found myself physically draining of energy in the waiting room before Mom was taking me by the arm and leading me to the car. Like the previous day, we were home by 3:00 and I was left to stew in agitation. I passed the time by playing a few dozen games of Bejeweled and making phone calls. As much as I would have preferred a bottle of wine to help soothe the restless soul, my tastes had rapidly changed (as per usual on Day 2 post-chemo) and the bitterness overtook my desire to relax. (At this point water even tastes as though a packet of Nutri-Sweet has been dissolved into it and my tongue seems to be wearing an itchy, fuzzy wool sweater). We spent the evening hours eating leftover tetrazzini—or rather, she ate while I inhaled--and watching mindless TV. I was supposed to attend a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society support group again but that was obviously out of the question given my recent quarantine.
Yet, despite Mom’s heavy eyelids and yawning, I was still as antsy, anxious, and jittery as usual on Days 1-5 after chemo. It’s got to be the MOST annoying feeling on the planet….or at least in my self-indulgent world. To give you perspective: I become weary but cannot sleep, anxious but cannot relax. Nothing seems to calm me down except for a little aforementioned herbal remedy and perhaps some wine when it doesn’t taste like battery acid. I finally fell asleep at around 11:30 with the help of a sleep aid, then woke up at 1:30, read for 45 minutes, and fell asleep again until 5:30. I must have drifted in and out of sleep because I finally got up at 8:15 feeling the effects of Nuelasta. My entire facial structure hurt: my eyes, nose, cheekbones, jaws, and neck were throbbing. Thank God (but perhaps my stomach lining wouldn’t agree) extra-strength Tylenol alleviated the symptoms within an hour.
Stir-crazy and ready for a change of scenery, I took my third dose of steroids and Mom and I left San Antonio at 11:30 that Saturday, but not without first stopping at our fave, DQ, for a quick lunch, then made our way back to Rockport in time for a short nap and cocktail hour. Let me explain something about Prednisone: In addition to the anxiety provoked by chemo, this high-dose steroid also makes me jittery, jumpy, restless, and irritable. In general, it is pretty awful and nothing really eases the discomfort except--for me, anyway--wine. For whatever reason other alcohol doesn’t help, pot only helps short-term, and Xanax only makes me tired, but no less jumpy. In short: it feels much like enduring a prison sentence in solitary confinement, but my body is the prison and I’m on total lock-down. At these times it is not uncommon to hear me whine: “I just want to unzip my skin!!!” Sneak up from behind me and you’ll likely get karate-chopped, jump out at me and you’ll be hit on the offensive with a projectile object. So, with the inevitable heebie-jeebies, we ate dinner, drank wine (which, on Day 3 post-chemo is sometimes tolerable) and I went to bed…or tried, anyway. I took two different sleep aids, and then laid in bed reading until I was finally able to drift to sleep.
I spent Sunday and Monday wringing my hands, pacing back and forth, and chewing on my lower lip as I desperately tried to find something—ANYTHING—to do. I was successful in helping my mom make rum cake, coffee cake, and peanut brittle, and in playing cards and triumphing at dominos with Mom and Gary by the fire. I am also strangely self-righteous in announcing that I started drinking wine at 2:00 on Sunday afternoon (and 4:15 on Monday but that no longer calls for bragging rites; still, that didn’t stop my stepdad Gary from placating me by rationalizing, “Go ahead and get yourself a glass of wine….it’s Sunday/Monday/day before Christmas Eve/Christmas Eve/Christmas Day,” etc. In my hopelessly optimistic family there is always a great reason to consume…).
Monday was the first day I was officially off of isolation according to my nurses and the timing of the Neulasta activating agents. I was so psyched to hit Wal-Mart for some grand people watching and hideously glorious Christmas sweater displays. I kid you not, I did see one female checker dressed as a sexy elf in green tights and a form-fitting leotard. While we were there, I stopped by the pharmacy counter to see if I could have all prescriptions filled while in town and in my final days of the year before my deductible renews. Embarrassingly enough, there in my scarf-wearing, Livestrong-armband-sporting fabulousness, the pharmacy tech printed out a three page list of my medications. Instead of trying to make sense of it, I leaned toward the plexi-glass and discretely told her that I’d “review the pages at home” and bring back a list of those meds that absolutely require a quickie refill. I’m such a junkie. I later tallied that my “must-haves” will cost me about $200 this month. UNBELIEVABLE! Why these meds don’t also vacuum my floors and do my taxes is a mystery to me. On a positive note, I was happy to have sailed right through the effects of Neulasta, said to be the worst for the first four days after the shot. The nurses had given me daily doses of two OTC meds that, if taken everyday, were supposed to prevent the achiness said to plague a vast majority of patients on Neulasta. So far, if a side effect was even remotely possible, Sarah was going to get it. Was my luck miraculously changing?
Later that night, we attended the Jackson’s annual Christmas party where I was able to reacquaint with and meet a few dozen people who have been actively praying for me and my recovery. Many of them were even involved in making me a prayer quilt on behalf of the First Presbyterian Church in Rockport. It was truly moving to put names with faces and hear their genuine concern. Funny enough, though, I was going strong—laughing, giving hugs, shaking hands, drinking wine, nibbling on appetizers—until I was instantly overcome with fatigue. I positioned myself in a chair—in the grand fashion of a queen assuming her stance on a throne—intending to patiently wait for Mom and Gary to finish with their mingling while overly concerned guests asked if I’d be more comfortable by the fire or laying down in a bedroom. Yet, from the moment we had left for the party Mom and Gary insisted that I let them know when I was ready to leave and, true to form, they obliged my sudden weariness. I think I even held on to my mom’s arm as we ambled out to the car…..suddenly I am 93 years old.
The next day, my Mom’s close friend, also known as my “Mama Susan,” and I went to lunch together as per our annual Christmas tradition. We usually go to Rockport’s Los Comales and decided not to break tradition. The lively conversation was typical of us: what’s going on with our daily lives, how my treatment is going (Susan is a retired nurse), etc., when our full bellies eventually pointed us in the direction of gathering our belongings and waddling out to the car. After paying, we stood up and made our way to the door when I noticed a table loaded with margaritas. At 2:30 in the afternoon, I was delighted to see other people celebrating and imbibing in style—something I have neither the tolerance nor the energy level to do these days (okay, so I did that the previous Sunday but that was a rare occasion and certainly not hard liquor). As I glanced up, I made direct eye contact with Johnny, my brother-in-law, but he clearly did not recognize me and returned his attention to the basket of chips. I instinctively, fleetingly looked around the table again and saw my sister, father, and the woman I presumed to be his new wife. In what I gather as a fight-or-flight response, I grabbed the cute little 1920s hat covering my head (given to me by Mama Susan), tugged the brim further over my eyes, veered in a different direction, and flew out the front door.
“Susan!!!” I hissed. “Did you see who that was????” “No, who?”
“That was John!”
“REALLY???? I kinda thought I saw him. I remember thinking….that man looks just like John. Well what do ya know? Let’s go back in and say hello!” She suggested, laughing, amused, and, at the same time, totally serious. After convincing her that I did not want to confront my father in a public setting—after 6 ½ years of complete estrangement, mind you—me with no hair and a distended stomach, she acquiesced and we continued walking toward the car. Of course, this was not before a waitress smoking a cigarette by the front door told us that anyone we don’t want to see definitely saw us in there. Afterall, it was the middle of the afternoon, on a Tuesday, with only four tables of patrons. My heart was pounding as we discussed the fact that a lousy childhood, bad divorce, and subsequent alienation rendered me without a father for so long that I barely recognized him. Even though I get along well enough with my sister and her husband, and despite the fact that by then I had THOUGHT I’d adopted a laissez-faire attitude about the whole situation, I was clearly not in an emotionally healthy enough place in my life to brazen out a friendly “Merry Christmas” with a table that sat someone who has had such a significant impact on my life. Certainly not then and definitely not there. Instead, I went home and watched the evening news with Mom. At just after 5:00, headlights reflected in the window and we saw Joanna and Johnny careen into the driveway. I hadn’t seen them for a full year.
“Shield your eyes!” I called out from the living room as they hugged my Mom in the kitchen. “Why?” Johnny called back. “I’m BAAAAAALD!” I warned and they cheerfully encouraged me to make a naked cranium appearance. After love and hugs I said, “So, did you enjoy the margaritas?” My sister looked confused, tilted her head, and said, “Huh?” “I was at Los Comales. I was sitting at the next table!!!” I mused.
We discussed specific details and they were astounded, especially because they both noticed the girl with the “vintage hat” but didn’t recognize me as their sister. We attributed it to the facts that they were neither expecting to see me nor used to seeing me without hair: Hat-wearing, hairless Sarah is a new phenomenon to the Garners. After watching more depressing news about the Gaza Strip and devastating U.S. floods, they left and we ate a late dinner, followed by a few harrowing games of dominoes during which I hung my head in shame and admitted defeat.
"Lucyfer" The sweetest dog to hail from Hades
Christmas Eve was an extremely difficult day. I was unusually tired and attempted to read and nap in my bedroom before the house was filled to capacity with family. As soon as I lay down, my chest started to ache but was alleviated when I sat up again. My exhaustion was so overwhelming that I tried to push through the ache and sleep anyway, but my back started to throb. After a half hour or so the phone rang just as I was giving up my pipe dream of a quality rest. It was my sister. Joanna and Johnny had been staying at John’s, my biological father’s house, overnight when Lucy, one of their hellacious yet sweet miniature pinschers, had escaped around noon. They were due to come over before dinner to spend the rest of their vacation with us, but were obviously too distraught to leave without little Lucy, aptly nicknamed Lucifer when she was just a puppy (her min-pin brother Leonard is also known as Osama bin Leonard to honor his terrorist tendencies). Before Mom and I went to Christmas Eve church service, we ran off a dozen Lost Dog signs for Gary to plaster around town, then proceeded to atone for my mom’s many sins (it takes two of us). Despite the communion appetizer of bread dipped into wine, I was famished after church and we headed home for tacos and tamales. What should have been a house full of family, food, drinks, darts, dominoes, and laughter was a comparatively morose affair. Joanna and Johnny called periodically to report that there was nothing to report--in tears of course--and my brother and his family checked in to inform us that, as soon as Scott’s Barnes & Noble closed and they could pack up the kid and car, they’d be on their way—likely to arrive around midnight.
Instead, Mom, Gary and I put on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” ate too much food, and retired for bed relatively early. By 9:30, my nagging back pain was getting worse and a two Zanaflex tablets didn’t seem to dull it whatsoever. Gary was asleep but Mom had decided to watch TV and snooze on the living room sofa while waiting for Scott and Family to arrive. I joined her, erroneously thinking that doing serious yoga stretches on the rug would ease some of the tension in my back and chest. Nothing was helping; the pain was instead becoming progressively worse as the minutes ticked by. I realized that this was not a muscular problem and instead assumed a position on the couch with my mom to allow for a more convenient locale in which she could rub my head. (I realize that this sounds bizarre on so many levels but I have always adored having my hair played with. Now that my locks are gone, I’ve found that the sensation of fingernails against cranium is absolutely divine). Not ten minutes into my much-needed head massage did my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew pull up to the house on schedule. Naturally with a two-year-old it took an hour or so to unload the car and get him settled, during which my back pain veered toward the direction of unbearable. I would find myself grimacing with bad pain, hissing with severe pain, and gripping the nearest ledge I could find when the pain became excruciating. Although the muscle relaxers didn’t alleviate any of the throbbing, both were successful in making me sleepy and, for the second time that night, I tried to go back to bed. Even with a fantastic book, glass of cold water, cuddly miniature dachshund, and ear plugs at my disposal, nothing could overshadow the intense pain. I started to writhe around in my bed, moan without warning, and reflexively grab the sheets as beads of sweat appeared on my head and face. I tried various sleeping positions, various sizes and shapes of pillows placed in various crevices, and various breathing techniques, but nothing would work. After several trips of walking around the house was deemed completely unsuccessful (as was a mouthful of chocolate brownie but that’s beside the point), I started to cry. I returned to the bedroom and contemplated dialing the on-call doctor for about an hour, at which point I finally did. The operator informed me that it was the doctor I had called when I had a fever and infection back in October and who was clearly bothered by my middle-of-the-night nuisance. I thanked the stranger and, out of sheer self-preservation, opted to not have this particular physician dialed. Finally, at 3:15, I tiptoed into my mom’s room, nudged her a few times, and asked her to bring me a Darvocet (Note: she had one of my refills from my port implantation surgery bottled up as a backup for her frequent, nasty migraines). I met her in the kitchen where she leaned against the bar, head down as if in total exhaustion. I began explaining to her that the pain was unbelievable when a stabbing, searing jab sent me doubled over on the kitchen floor. As I was groaning, she began moving her descended head back and forth on her forearm, as if to express her motherly frustration and sadness at her daughter’s pain. “Mom, it’s okay. I just need medicine. I’ll be okay,” I reassured her. She continued to sway her head, so I walked over to her (still moaning and holding my back), to show her that I was, in fact, going to be alright….although I wasn’t quite sure of that myself. Standing behind her, I suggested to her that we go to my bedroom where we could talk on my bed. As she straightened up off of the bar countertop, her arms instantly flew up, her eyes snapped shut, and she fell straight backward onto the floor. She had passed out cold. Picture this: A mother wearing a robe passed out on the freezing kitchen floor and her bald daughter writhing in pain, leaning down at her side to rouse her. This all happened in whispers, in the wee hours of the morning, on Christmas Day.
I was finally able to lightly slap her awake and lure her into my room. “What the hell just happened?” I insisted. After a few minutes of discussion, she convinced me that she had gotten up too fast when I woke her and her blood pressure had never elevated. I was completely deflated to learn that it had nothing to do with me and her immense concern for my well-being. Okay, not really….I was actually relieved to know that she was her usual, “let’s-fix-this” self, particularly when the color returned to her face and she felt normal again. She sat beside me on the bed and rubbed my back as I doubled over in an attempt to stop myself from crying out and waking the household. I explained to her that, although I’ve never been pregnant, what I felt was exactly how women describe hard back labor. She put my cell phone in my hand and encouraged me to call the answering service. The doctor answered, mystified and groggy, and I profusely apologized for bothering her.
“It’s okay,” she soothed. “What’s going on?” Hmmm….now this is quite different than the horrifically bitchy woman I had encountered months prior.
“I’m a patient of Dr. Wilks and I’m in….(pause)…..severe…..(moan)….sorry…..hang on……(deep breath)….pain.”
“Okay. What’s your diagnosis and when was your last treatment?” She asked kindly.
I told her everything in labored breathing, including the fact that I had had chemo the previous Wednesday (exactly a week prior) and a Neulasta shot on Thursday. She explained that, even though it had been awhile since the injection, the sudden insurgence of new blood cells forming in the depths of the bone can cause pain. In rare cases, it can feel like a drill boring into the bones for up to a week straight. HARK! That’s exactly it: someone has provided an accurate description for my suffering. It’s as if someone were taking an electric drill to my back and chest and pressing the “on” button with fury and unpredictability. It was like one long, constant bone marrow aspiration except I didn’t have Schedule I narcotics onboard to get me through it. The doctor told me to go ahead and take a Darvocet (which I took the liberty of translating to 1 ½). She said she’d normally call in morphine but the pharmacies would be closed tonight and tomorrow and that I should go to the ER for even stronger meds if the pain hasn’t subsided. Beside that, she said, it could be more serious and require observation if morphine doesn’t help. After we hung up, I took my medication and, despite Mom’s protests, sent her away. I explained to her that one of two things would happen: I would either sleep out of sheer exhaustion or forcefully lay awake in agony; either way, I’d need to get through it alone. After about an hour I fell asleep but woke up from time-to-time to my own strident moans of distress.
I’d love to report that, on Christmas Day, the entire family unit woke up at a decent hour, sipped coffee and noshed on some baked goods, opened presents, ate a massive late afternoon Christmas dinner, and pleasantly lazed around for the remainder of the evening. I’d like to tell you that, but it would be a blatant lie as my Christmas at Casa Brannon was nothing of the sort. I woke up at 8:30 to a quiet house: Mom was getting herself ready in her bedroom, Gary was searching for Lucy on the roads of Rockport, Joanna and Johnny were still at the other house (presumably either crying, searching for Lucy, or both), and, despite dim illumination behind their bedroom door, Scott, Sarah, and Baby Brannon were only slightly audible and barely moving after their long night. My pain had diminished from a 9.5 to a 7—still very bad but no longer totally unbearable. I calculated that I’d managed about 3 ½ hours of sleep—and only then thanks to muscle relaxers and pain pills. Still, I had my requisite 3 cups of strong, black coffee as the group (minus Joanna and Johnny) slowly appeared and congregated in the kitchen for coffee cake. We occupied Brannon with breakfast, cartoons, and toys while Daddy Scott got the video camera prepared, and we watched as Brannon tore into the living room to see what Santa brought him. At 23 months, he was clearly ecstatic for new cars, books, and plastic sea creatures, but also bewildered at what he had done to acquire such amazing luck. Christmas morning was really about him, although there was an obvious weight on the day with the solemn absence of my sister and brother-in-law, and with my intense pain. There would be moments in a conversation that I would have to stop talking because the stabbing sensation would either take my breath away completely or cause me to cry out loud. Instead, I would hold up my index finger and mouth “just a second” while the rest of my family stared at me in disbelief, then quickly looked away and tried to make casual conversation about the weather, the Cowboys, or a particular shade of green.
After I showered and got dressed, Joanna and Johnny arrived with grim looks on their faces. I hugged them both and they both started crying all over again. The next few hours were quiet as they made more Lost Dog signs, Brannon played with his new toys, and Mom and I cooked. I found that laying and/or sitting was extremely painful, and standing—no matter how exhausted I was—would be my only option at minimizing the pain and functioning at any capacity. Mom kept offering to take me to the ER and I carefully considered it. With only days left on my long-exhausted deductible, I could see an ER doctor for free now that I had crossed the threshold into catastrophic coverage. Yet, the healthcare administrator in me knew that I may have to wait hours for pain management while also utilizing valuable, limited hospital resources. I was struggling with a moral dilemma and decided, instead, to first try my own smokeable form of analgesia. My brother watched with incredulity (or was it pride?) as I openly partook on the back porch in plain sight of the entire family. “Want some?” I offered. He laughed and shook his head, knowing between the two of us that the rare offer may still stand later. Every 90 seconds Mom would ask, “Did it work? Is it helping?” I kept explaining that it would take a little while to know, but that I was clearly becoming hungry. Placebo effect? Perhaps. Steroid effect? Definitely. For a “snack” we consumed mass quantities of homemade sushi with excess wasabi (California rolls for me, thank you, since I don’t do seafood) and continued to cook. My French-baked squash casserole was delish, as were the marshmallows that I so lovingly placed atop the sweet potatoes before baking. Just like that morning, Christmas dinner was also dull as two-ninths of the group was too grief-stricken to eat, one family member found more pleasure in chucking goldfish crackers across the room and smashing his Mimi’s wine glass, and another one of us—who shall remain anonymous--was too busy eating seconds and rationalizing the effects of steroids and chemo to make casual conversation. Instead of the usual bottle-after-bottle of wine, spiked hot chocolate, alcoholic hot apple pies, dessert, darts, dominoes, and other holiday cheer, the family cohesively retired to their respective beds relatively early. We all agreed that this Christmas just sucked. Period.
The day after Christmas, we were lazing around and helping Scott & Family load their car. After a long, boring morning, they took off and the rest of us commenced doing nothing while Joanna and Johnny continued their search for Lucy. At around 3:30, after they had returned, the phone rang. A full 48 hours after her disappearance, Lucy was at my father’s neighbor’s house. As my Mom ran into the guestroom to tell Joanna, I flew out the back door where Johnny was packing their car in anticipation of their trip back home.
“JOHNNY!!! They’ve got Lucy!!!”
“What?” he asked. “Shut up.”
“No….she’s at the other house. They’ve got her. Hurry up!!!”
His face transitioned from a state of disbelief to a crumpled expression of relief and joy as he burst into tears and hugged me.
At the time, my ADHD stepdad who physically cannot sit still was out searching for her, so Mom, Joanna, and Johnny hopped into the car and drove over there, Joanna looking intent and hopeful, Johnny (being the sweet, sensitive one of the two) still sobbing. My mom later told me that she had offered numerous times to drive so that Johnny wouldn’t have to worry about blurred vision, but he insisted, as would any daddy of a missing little girl who had just been found. An hour later they returned, whole family once again intact, and cracked open beers. I opened a bottle of wine and we did what we do best at family gatherings: Commune with the aid of dirty humor and alcohol. The mood in the house was tangibly jovial. Lucy was wet and dirty but otherwise unscathed. In fact, the 5 pound little twit appeared spiritually renewed and physically re-awakened as she exuberantly leaped around from room-to-room, sniffed Lola’s orifices, attempted to steal food from kitchen countertops, and had the nerve to cry in protest as she was denied access to the outdoors…..FOREVER.
I should also report that, as soon as Mom called Gary with the exciting information that Lucy had been found, he stopped at a cheap drugstore to purchase post cards. He returned home before the dog-retrieving group did and the two of us devised messages from Lucy along the lines of: “Leonard said I didn’t have the cojones to run away” (from West Texas), and “Dear Mom and Dad, I am miserable,” and “I hope you got your #$@! together while I was gone—I want to see some changes around here.” We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as we howled with laughter, dictated Lucy’s responses to each other, and transcribed the cards. When they returned home and Gary “checked the mail” to produce the cards, we watched as Joanna’s and Johnny’s confused expressions gave way to roaring laughter.
By that point my pain was at a 4, which I attribute to a combined result of time (the dulling and slowing regeneration of blood cells) and wine. And yet, with all the Darvocet in my system, I was definitely getting pleasantly woozy. After dinner, while Gary, Joanna, and Johnny played darts and continuously chastised Lucy for The Great Christmas Caper of 2008, Mom and I went to our bedrooms. Joanna later came in to mine, saw Her Majesty Noreen the Wig and Veronica lying on the spare bed, and insisted that I try them on. “You look like a crack whore,” she said in response to Noreen (and before I could properly adjust her on my head), who I had admittedly, carelessly tossed aside for several days. “Veronica’s cute though.” That sealed it: before leaving Rockport I knew that I had to make an appointment with the lady who is known for cutting wigs. That is correct: there is both the “Famous Wig Lady” in Rockport--the woman who sells the hairpieces, and the “Woman Who Cuts Wigs.” If you know nothing else about this town, realize that it is fantastically quirky and embrace its idiosyncrasies.
Joanna and Johnny left on the 27th and I spent the day resting and helping Mom de-Christmas the house. This is no easy task as “Christmas” is stored in the attic in dozens of boxes for 11 months of the year, requires three days to assemble, and is only to be enjoyed for a mere four weeks. While we are often ready for the house to resume a sense of normalcy on the 26th of every year, this time we were saddened. Not only was the season short since Thanksgiving was so late in November, but I hadn’t mustered the strength to retrieve my own decorations from the bottom of storage in San Antonio and therefore didn’t have much time to enjoy its beauty and whimsy. Yet, within a few hours the house had returned to its previous state of “eclectic elegance” (I just made that up).
Many of you have inquired about the job situation. The former new boss returned neither my calls nor e-mails, and at one point told her receptionist to tell me that she is “anxious” to talk with me and would call me back shortly. That was on December 9th. Nothing else is in the works and I literally have no idea how I’m going to get through the next few months. I had saved a lot last year in anticipation of needing a new car (Thank GOD!!!) and those funds will soon run out, but I continue to have faith and pray. I’m also ashamed to admit that I rely on my mom a lot more than any 29 year old should. Yet, God has seen me through challenges before and has never let me down; I don’t envision it starting now. I tell you this not to whine or elicit sympathy, but to keep you informed and to present to the world that if ANYONE has knowledge of temporary at-home work (whether consulting in healthcare, writing, or otherwise), please let me know. I can manage my daily routine quite well and have learned to predict my unpredictable side effects as much as possible. In fact, more than the survival instinct of earning money I long for a sense of purpose and productivity.
I have treatment again on Wednesday and will report back soon. Although New Year’s and my birthday are both next week, I have a strange suspicion that both will be rather subdued this year. You never know though…..!!!!

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