My darling friend Mary Herczog wrote her way through twelve years of breast cancer. She was a great writer, and the chronicles of her story live on at www.cancerchick.com, and honestly, if you can only read one blog today, go read hers and save mine for later. She wrote beautifully, and she was a brave, bright spirit.
Because she got cancer when she was 33, she was the person in my life who most knew what it was like to get yanked out of the realm of the young-and-healthy at an early age, and what it was like to live through illness & its isolation, Western medical procedures and the blast zone they leave, and all the other junk that goes with a chronic or long-term illness. She supported me with such unending generosity: she and her husband Steve Hochman once lent me their house in New Orleans for five months so that I could finish the first draft of my book.
Sometimes, pretty often in fact, I would say to her that I felt shiftless in comparison to her. Through all her years of cancer I never once heard her spirits flag. She had cancer and she wrote the Frommers’ guidebooks every year for New Orleans and Las Vegas; she wrote books of fiction, she wrote articles, she got a graduate degree, she had a beautiful and tender marriage, she traveled the world and went to concerts and read voraciously and somehow found time to care, to really care, about the many things that were going on in the lives of her many many friends. By comparison, I am a banana slug. Whenever I said to her that I felt I should be doing more, she’d say in her brisk, sweet voice, “But honey, I’ve never felt bad with cancer, except during chemo. You’re in pain all the time. Give yourself a break.” Towards the end of her life, when she was in pain more often, she’d call to tell me she was proud of me for enduring years of chronic pain. Praise from her was high praise indeed.
She died on Mardi Gras this year, and I am still learning about what it means to miss her. Now that she’s gone, it’s my job to remember the wise and loving things she used to say, and to tell them to myself when it’s necessary. Like now, when in the middle of writing this blog my brain pitched a fit along the lines of “Who are you to write now when you haven’t felt well enough to write for weeks, you banana slug?”
On August 20th my friend Christopher and I drove from New Orleans to Lafayette for my 3rd session of prolotherapy & PRP. Prolotherapy & PRP are non-scalpel-based surgical procedures: prolo works by creating inflammation that stimulates the body’s naïve stem cells to create new tissue; PRP works by whirling a lot of my blood in a centrifuge til the plasma separates from the rest, and then reinjecting the plasma into my knees. Basically it amounts to getting stuck with lots and lots of needles.
Since after the treatment I can’t drive and am bleary as hell from meds and endorphins, none of this treatment would be possible without my friends who give up a day to drive to Lafayette with me, sing along with the stereo while we drive, hold my hand through the procedure, and then drive my semi-conscious self home. Sarah Jane took the first two trips with me; Christopher drove me yesterday; Jesyka’s on board for next time. (If I need more treatments after that I am planning to purchase a mail-order husband.) I am lucky to be loved & supported by these amazing people. I often wonder if my lonely, lonely teenage or twenty-something self can look through time and see how well things turned out.
The first 30-odd injections on each knee are lidocaine, a topical anaesthetic to dull the pain. Paradoxically, lidocaine stings like a bitch. The next 30-odd injections are the actual dextrose/saline solution, and then for the big finale, we do the PRP: the big fucking needle that injects my own platelet-rich plasma cells right into the center of my knee. (It’s a little bit like that movie where Bruce Willis has to drill to the core of the asteroid that’s coming to destroy Earth so he can insert a Big Bomb…only a little bit, though). We did the right leg first. There are about eight surgery scars on that knee; the longest is five ½ inches long. Getting needles stuck into scar tissue is very special, infinitely less fun than your average bikini wax. I said ‘Fuck’ and variations thereon about ten thousand times. My wonderful doctor, Dr. Thomas K. (for Kermit) Bond, somehow makes the whole wretched experience jolly. This is mostly because he’s a remarkable healer, and partly because he gives me a Valium 30 minutes before the procedure.
Then we got to the PRP on the right leg. The needle they use for this is loooooooong. I don’t know exactly how long because I try never to look at it. As Dr. Bond was putting the needle in my knee, I involuntarily pushed back against it (it’s hard not to). This tensed my quadriceps, which made the muscle grab the needle, which took the whole thing off the charts of the pain scale. When the muscle grabs the needle, the big-ass needle moves inside the knee joint, and then it’s really hard to get it out. By the time they pulled the needle out, I was crying, and a few seconds later I got an adrenaline surge that made my teeth chatter and my body shake. They gave me a fifteen-minute break and some pain meds before we did the left knee.
But here’s the funny bit: somewhere in the trying-to-pull-the-needle-out bizness, I said, trying to find a bright spot, “Well, it’s good to know Tiger Woods has had PRP too, cause he put his family through a lot, and now we know instant karma’s kicking in. We should write Elin Nordegren a note and tell her.” (NB: the original version was probably a little less lucid, since articulate goes out the window early in the procedure. It was also said through clenched teeth, and I distinctly remember thanking the heavens at one point that I had not had to have surgery during the Civil War. You gotta be grateful when and where you can.)
My beloved Dr. Bond finally pulled the needle out, patted my shoulder, and said, “Trust me, Tiger Woods was waaaaayyyyyy more of a wuss than you. You’re a tough lady.”
It made me laugh (while still crying) and it made me proud.
(NB again – Dr. Bond is not Tiger Woods’ doctor, so he wasn’t violating any confidentiality….just so you know).
The left knee was comparatively uneventful, or else my mind was mercifully blurry. Either way, I slept most of the way home, ate half a bag of Zapp’s barbeque chips and two pears, and we got to my house minutes before the Saints kicked off against the 49ers.
For the first two days after the procedure I had more energy than I usually do, which I immediately jinxed by telling everyone how easily and well it had gone this time. On the third day I crashed and slept for most of the next three days: those deep daytime sleeps where you sleep like you do at night, where you come out it with all the reluctance of a fish drawn out of water by the line that’s hooked in its cheek.
Almost all the time, but especially after the procedures, pain is my constant companion. Prolotherapy works by creating inflammation, so I can’t ice my knees. Without ice, there’s never a respite from the pain. God only knows how awful the pain would be without pain meds. I am often grateful to live in a time and place where there are analgesics, contact lenses, running water, civil rights for women….all these things make life better.
Since then the almost two-month-long writer’s block that’s had my by the throat has eased its grip. Bits of songs, ideas for scenes in my book, characters and plotlines for the next book (which exists thus far only as notes): all these have been buzzing through my brain. I write them down and go back to sleep. I’m still a little too weary to finish them without ruining them, but it pleases me greatly to see them appear.
I wanted to finish this and post it last week, but I didn’t. Today, however, is the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness month, and it seems apt to finish today.
One of the things being injured or ill teaches you, if you’re lucky, is that everyone’s in pain: some more, some less. Some can bear it better than others. And none of us seem to be any good at talking about it. We say, “I’m fine” when we aren’t; we apologize for crying. I find that whenever I tell someone how I got hurt, how many surgeries I’ve had, how little success I’ve had with all the various treatments I’ve tried, that I always plaster a bright smile at the end. I hate doing it, but it’s almost reflexive.
My friend Mary wrote wittily and bravely and beautifully about her cancer (and all the food she ate & music she heard & places she went with cancer) and her writing served, in part, as a shining example of how to be honest about the hard stuff. She died six months ago. Her work and the way she lived her life became a beacon that said, “Tell the truth. You can tell the truth and be loved. You can loet your hair & nails & appetite, your ability to walk or lift or dance, and you can tell the truth about it. There is no shame in being stuck in some hard times.”
She had the heart of a lion. I miss her. When Hunter S. Thompson died I came up with a theory I dubbed “The Thompson Justification.” It states that in the absence of that master of chaos, the rest of us are obligated to break some rules and act out a little or a lot in order to replace, with our collective efforts, some part of the gleeful mayhem Mr. Thompson strew about the world.
I’ve just invented another theory, or theorem, or whatever. I’m calling it ‘The Mary Motivation.” It is this: “Write and finish and POST your frickin’ writing, my dear, even if you’ve lost the use of one arm or both legs, even if you’re sick and weary, even if whatever. And then do something nice for yourself: hug a dog or seven; eat some chocolate.”
Nothing ever stopped her except the final visitor who stops us all. How I could I aim to do less?
Thanks to all of you for reading this, the little flare I throw up in the air from time to time.
All my love,