Am I Cancer, or Am I Still Me?

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Ever since I was diagnosed with lung cancer two months ago I’ve been having a real identity crisis. Suddenly, I have this thing sticking out of my neck that probably nobody notices but me, yet I’m my harshest critic. It’s ugly, it’s embarrassing, it marks me as not being like everyone else. I’m a tumor. Who would want to hang around with me? I might be contagious. And truth be told, I’ve already been dumped by someone I thought was one of my best and closest friends. So, I must not be me anymore. I must be nothing more than a cancer growth.

I’ve started to have social anxiety. Me, the traveler that a few months ago was expounding on the wonders of Sri Lanka after an exciting summer trip. Me, the hiking lady. Me, the road trip queen. Going shopping is a challenge now. Everyone looks so happy and cancer free. Going for a walk is a great achievement. What if I feel weak or need to sit down? Driving is even more aggravating than it used to be, that petty nut behind me trying to push me to go faster, not knowing the challenges I’m facing. Get a life, will ya? I got cancer, screwball. You: In a big hurry to get to McDonald’s for dinner. Me: Figuring out how to save my own life. Beat that. Yeah, you’re seriously going to get the finger now. No questions asked.

I keep hearing the usual things.

“Everyone has problems.” Yes, I know. But not everyone has the problem of figuring out how to be here to see the calendar flip to 2021 in thirteen months, when the statistics say it isn’t going to happen. Not everyone has a devastating disease rendering them unable to do seventy-five percent of the things they love to do.

“You’re still you, and we love you!” I know that, too. I don’t blame my mindset on anyone but me and cancer. You wouldn’t feel any differently if the future you were working so hard toward and looking so forward to might not ever happen.

“You’re not being a warrior!” Listen, I can’t be a warrior one hundred percent of the time, and for a person who had the rug pulled out from underneath her several weeks ago, I think I’m doing pretty good, in spite of it all. By some small miracle I’m not severely depressed, even though my life has changed from hopping planes to hopping on hospital tables. From hiking poles to biopsy needles. From Southwestern road trips to doctor’s office road trips.

Am I working through it? Yes, I am. I realize that life is fleeting for everyone. It can end at any time. There’s no guarantees for anyone. It’s a crap shoot that we’re all destined to lose. Maybe, though, I’d rather not know when, how, or why it’s going to happen.

Lately, I’ve been listening closely to the words I put out to the world, and I’ve changed the way I’ve been doing it. Instead of bemoaning my situation, I’m thinking of it as a hurdle I have to get over to get back to what I want. Instead of assuming that I’m not going to reach my goals, I’ve put them back on the table. Retirement is still a possibility. Getting back to traveling is, too. Over the weekend I took my first hike in a month and a half. Was it as fun as it used to be? No. But I can’t expect miracles. I just have to chip away at the hole I’ve dug for myself since this all started.

Oh, wait, was I really me and not a tumor just a couple short months ago? Yes. Then maybe I’m not that far from where I need to be. I’ve begun treatment and am ready to see this ugly piece of costume jewelry start to shrink. Until then, it’s easily covered with any number of pretty scarves I used to wear just because I liked them. I’ve been lucky enough to be granted a pass on chemotherapy, so I won’t need to deal with the extra added burden of being stared at while trying to look fashionably bald. Go, me.

I’ve stepped up my daily fitness goals. Though they’re still a shadow of what they used to be, they’re still better than they were. I’ve made some new norms, since many of the old norms aren’t possible right now. And yes, I have five realistic goals set for 2020. Let’s not worry about 2021 quite yet.

Something has to make me happy. My life can’t be all about cancer. Thankfully, most of the poking and prodding is over now that treatment has started. And the endless phone calls have ceased, too. Though I have to admit, those annoyances kept me busy with little time to think about anything else.

Now, I have to think about getting me back and ceasing to be defined by a tumor. Maybe I’ll even figure out, like some cancer survivors do, that there’s a really good reason behind all this, as ironic as that sounds.

I want to believe there is. Just be patient with me while I find it.

Reason

How We Road Tripped

 

 

 

With my recent cancer diagnosis, it’s kind of weird to be going back through old photo albums in order to write these autobiographical blogs. But I’m not giving up on them, anymore than I’m giving up on fighting cancer and winning! So let’s pick this story up where I left off: in 1993, when I learned to read maps and the road became my second home. Or more accurately, our second home, because my mom loved the road, too, even if she was always in conflict with leaving our stationary home.

Summer 1993. I get the big idea to do things a little differently. After mom and I cut our teeth with tour companies, and watched things we wanted to see go by out the bus window without being able to stop, we contacted our travel agent (gee, where have you heard that term lately!) and had her book us a cheap package to Las Vegas where we would rent a car and stay at the new Excalibur Hotel for seven nights. I pulled out my trusty road atlas and started planning. We could go to the Hoover Dam! And Death Valley! And Zion National Park! And the Grand Canyon! And…Jeez, could I really make this happen for us?

We’d also make a special stop at Death Valley Junction, a town that occupied a huge place in my current book, a long, handwritten saga of spoiled youth in Southern California. The Golden State was still my Promised Land, and no map made me hungrier than the one of Southern California. I found colorful names of cities and towns across the endearing area and assigned characters to the places. My favorite character of all hailed from Death Valley Junction, which I pictured to be something of a boom town. Small, but exciting. More on our discovery in a few.

Off we flew to Las Vegas and picked up our car. It was our first time in Sin City, and one of the only times I actually liked being there. I love Vegas now for only one reason: It’s a great jump off point to so many better places. Otherwise, I have little use for it, because I don’t care about gambling or the other activities the city offers. But back in 1993, Vegas was everything it was supposed to be. Given its proximity to California, even better.

In today’s world of “influencers” traveling the globe and showing their IG followers only the very best highlights of a grueling lifestyle, flying to Vegas and driving two hundred miles to Zion National Park must not seem like a big accomplishment. But to the me of 1993, a twenty-six-year-old small town girl with stars in her eyes, this was a heck of a big deal.  Did we make it everywhere we were supposed to go? Yes, indeed! But I’ll confess that we took a bus trip to Grand Canyon West, as it was easier to do it on an organized tour. This was long before glass bridges and expensive zip line packages. My favorite part of our trip had to be the Death Valley day. En route to what turned out to be one of my favorite national parks we stopped at Death Valley Junction and found not a boom town…but a ghost town! Another love was born. I’ve sought out as many as possible since then. Here’s a funny page from the magnetic album I made. Check out that cute Mustang!

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I had a dead end job at the time, and that’s what I went back to after this life-changing adventure. Friends got me into some local nightlife, but I never gave up on my pursuits of getting to other places. California wasn’t the only state where I found pleasing town names; I had them for every state. Places like Zook Spur, Iowa (another favorite!) and Summer Shade, Kentucky. Always whimsical, always good monikers to inspire stories that were flights of fancy. And always, always, places that made me yearn to get in a car and drive.

In 1994, I started to connect the dots between towns and to see how state highways, US highways, and freeways led to one another. I connected them so well that I came up with an enthusiastic endeavor to drive from Massachusetts to California and back again on a 9,400 mile road trip that would go through twenty-seven states, a dozen national parks and monuments, and to several other must-see spots in a time frame of forty-eight days. What did I expect my mom to say? A resounding “NO”! But Mom didn’t say no. Because we would have a once in a lifetime experience and be better people for it. Sure, Mom! Bless her heart. We set off in, are you ready for this, my 1990 IROC-Z convertible, all three of us total road trip virgins. Here’s one of my favorite unexpected moments on a trip that I still have not topped for length of time or mileage even twenty-five years later:

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No, you aren’t seeing things! That’s snow in July at Yellowstone National Park! And I was driving a lightweight Chevy Camaro convertible. Beat that, IG “influencers!”

After the excitement of the road, going back home to our tiny town was pretty tough. I understand a little bit of why musicians go so wild on concert tours then have a tough time readjusting to normal life again. And a pattern started to develop: just take any old job to make enough money to go on the next big adventure. The other idea that I got was that it was about time to get serious about moving to Los Angeles, my biggest dream. Like so many, I wanted to study acting and get into “the business.” I was already past my mid-twenties, so I couldn’t wait much longer. I wanted my mom to come with me, but because of my sister Jeanne she couldn’t even consider it. Jeanne needed her more than me. But as always, Mom swallowed her hurt and told me. “Go to California!”

Still, there was something in it for her: a four week one way road trip to drive my new Geo Tracker to Los Angeles, find a place to live, and fly back to pack up my less than worldly possessions. What turned into a “once in a lifetime experience” in 1994 was turning into much more than that and would continue to, even with Mom and me living on opposite coasts. This particular trip was 5,000 miles one way, and hit many more states that the first one didn’t, including what would become my favorite place on the globe, Southern Utah. Here we are at Monument Valley, circa 1995:

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How about that backdrop? It always reminds me of one of those fake pull-down things we used to pose in front of for school pictures!

While on this trip I took perhaps my favorite photo of Mom. Does anyone remember Highway 666 between Monticello, Utah and Gallup, New Mexico? It’s US 491 now. Ahh, them glory days of road trips!

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Notice how I had Mom in the devil holding the pitchfork pose. I was always putting her up to some bit of silliness, and she was such a good sport! Here’s another classic:

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Living in Southern California was a pretty intense experience for me. I was there for almost five years, and it was jam-packed full of exploration. If I had two days off from one of my many cruddy jobs I’d be on the road in the Tracker. Even one day would be sufficient. Once I drove 700 miles and was home the same evening! Usually, I was alone. But Mom came out several times and we took even more trips together, including a journey up the west coast to Seattle in 1997, and to Alaska the following year. My niece Amanda joined us one summer for fun closer to home, and I made my own trips back to the east coast.

Southern California was where I got my first taste of doing stuff that would freak people out. Notice me in one of the pictures at the top of this post getting ready to go hang gliding. Before that was sky diving!

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Yeah, like I said, quite a five years!

My next fabulous idea was to branch out to our second continent: Europe. Mom had three things on her Bucket List, and we did two of them on our 1999 European excursion: we went to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and visited our homeland, Poland, where Mom paid tribute to her father at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, home of the famed Black Madonna. We also got to five other countries: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. A month away from the comforts of home was a heck of a long time for Mom; she didn’t like the change in currencies or trying to keep up with the rest of the group we traveled with. By this time she already had a knee replacement and would be getting another one before long. I knew that the next time I went across the Atlantic she wouldn’t be along for the ride! But road trips were still of interest to us. We weren’t done with them yet!

By 2000, I was ready to go home. I felt like I did everything I wanted to do in L.A. and after studying acting for a couple of years and getting a bitter taste of “Hollywood,” wasn’t interested or impressed anymore. Mom was getting older, I missed her like crazy, and I wanted to spend the rest of her life with her. I did a solo road trip in the summer of 2000 to get back to Massachusetts and picked up more states toward my goal of visiting all fifty.

My timing, it turned out, was excellent. Mom and I still had four years together, and we made the most of them.

To be continued soon.

 

 

 

Traveling With Mom

 

Jeez, I’m obviously not very good at keeping up with this autobiography stuff. Only two posts all year! Last time I promised that I wasn’t going to take so long to get to the next installment in my life story, a promise that I wasn’t able to keep.  But now that my blog is the focus of my writing life, I may just do better!

At any rate, in case you want to read the first two chapters in the life of me, here’s the story of my first ten years, and here’s the post about my teenage years after losing my beloved Dad.

And now, to continue…

So there I was, with two new loves, writing and maps, but with a family shattered by the death of my dad. My interests didn’t stop me from heading down some wrong paths for a few years, even as I obsessed over road atlases my mom would buy me and created wild stories in my head and on paper about characters who traveled, fell in love, and were a heck of a lot happier than me.  At a very young age I found temporary infatuations with drinking, smoking, and being a pothead. I’m not sorry about doing any of those things, because by the time I was eighteen I didn’t care about any of that anymore, but did care about my stories and my Rand McNally’s. Back then I didn’t think I had any chance to travel or live a life even close to the stories I was writing. As it turns out, I was wrong.

Like a lot of people, my travels started out in the obvious place: Disney World, of course! I was fifteen, it was 1982, and Epcot was just opening. My mom scrounged up enough money for us to go together. It was my first flight, and we also went to Sea World, Cypress Gardens, and Busch Gardens, on a guided tour. The travel bug was planted! I have my mother to thank for that. Here’s a real oldie of me from that trip, at Cypress Gardens. I was really in my Ugly Duckling phase in ’82!

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Florida was a dream, but to me the real prize was getting to California. It didn’t happen for five years after Florida, though we took some smaller trips. Between 1982 and 1992, Mom and I also made it to Amish Country, Washington, DC, New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Nova Scotia, Hawaii, Bermuda, Niagara Falls and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Not a bad take for two ladies who had really never been anywhere! I’ve included a picture from each trip. I have to stress here, too, that this wasn’t all about me, it was about Mom, too. Traveling was a new beginning for her. Not an easy or quick one, but eventually a welcome escape from the black hole her life seemed to be without Dad. She always said that Dad would have been behind her decision to take me places. I’ll just bet he would have been pleased to know that she was finally starting to get some satisfaction out of life again.

Mom never forgot her first and only love. But I fully believe she was finally able to let go of him more after fifteen years, ten years of which we were going places together.

I held down a full-time position in a local factory during most of these years. Our travel schedule wasn’t too wild yet, so I was able to squeeze the trips into paid vacations. That would get trickier as our travels got more sophisticated…and personalized.

While Mom and I were bonding ever closer and getting better at the travel thing, relations in our family were falling apart. Assumptions of favoritism were rampant, resentments cropped up that my sister, who is disabled, had to be taken care of while Mom was gone. Money problems were always at the forefront of every conflict. Things didn’t get any better, though everyone said they wanted Mom to enjoy life. In fact, things got steadily worse. I used to say that we weren’t a dysfunctional family, because that would indicate we were functioning, just not the right way. Hardly the case with us; we weren’t functioning at all. Because of this, Mom and I could never be completely happy traveling. She was filled with guilt for leaving her daughter, who required total care, in the hands of someone else, when she had always provided for her. Being far away from home without the option to get back quickly was tough for her. Sometimes she would cry and worry. My job was to cheer her up. It didn’t always work, but we still had plenty of good times.

We didn’t give up. Soon, traveling would get even more interesting. We’d leave the guided tours behind and start making our own fun.

That’s when I learned how to read those maps I was obsessing over. The United States and Canada were soon to be our oyster!

My New Direction

 

Did you ever do something you’ve always wanted to do and ended up wanting to do something else instead? Well, I did just that!

For decades, I wanted to write and publish books. With the opportunity that self-publishing brought, I went for it and gave birth to seven works of fiction, all of which I love and am very proud of.  Those seven titles came out between January of 2017 and April of 2019. Meanwhile, I started blogging here about a year and a half ago and realized that I also love doing that. As I went along, I noticed that more than anything I was writing, my travel and hiking blogs were attracting attention. Made me wonder if maybe I had to rethink my focus, as there’s only so much time in a day, particularly when you already work a full-time teaching job. Even as I wrote books about rock and roll groupies, it was always on the back burner to align all my writing with the things I do everyday and love to do. Makes perfect sense, right?

Cut to the beginning of this year. I start my 2019 travels. Trips to see my niece in South Carolina. Patagonia. Portugal (again.) Road trips. Sri Lanka. In between, lots of hiking and weekend trips. The book writing starts to slip. And then, it naturally takes a back seat. To the point that I hardly even want to put out that last book, as hard as I worked on it. I did it anyway. Got some blogs out there, too. And wished that I could find time to post more. The outdoor fun continues, and soon, the fiction writing is totally derailed, even though my plan was to have ten books “out there” before I considered a change in focus. Suddenly, traveling, hiking, and blogging about traveling and hiking are the most important things, and what continue to garner me the most attention.

Well! I did revive my fiction pursuits for long enough to edit two more books this summer, and I have two others in pretty good shape, one of which I totally forgot existed! But after an incredible year of travel and adventure (with still more to come!) I had to make a decision. And here’s what just kept coming up: I want to get paid to take road trips. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but that’s what I want, and that’s what I’m pursuing. I plan to take an early retirement from my teaching job in three years and live on the highways of the United States and Canada in an RV (and to further explore Australia, New Zealand, and any other countries that beckon in the same fashion.) Until then, I’m going to learn how to support myself doing what I love to do most. And folks, I loooooove being on the road.

My blog will be the cornerstone and first step toward that dream. Soon, I’ll be monetizing. Yeah, I love looking at my website so pristine and pretty and without all those annoying flashing ads. But if I want to live my dream I have to get going on figuring out how to pay the bills while on the road and to supplement my retirement income.

Some other ideas are to start a YouTube channel, get public speaking gigs, and write how-to books. I’ve already begun a guide to being a pro at road tripping. Click here for a preview. I’m also collecting names for an all-new newsletter with more travel, hiking, and lifestyle advice and information. You can sign up here if you would like to receive it.

Changing directions is so tough, even if you know it’s what you should do. But I feel excited and optimistic about my decision, like everything is aligning just the way I want it to!

Thank you to everyone who has supported my writing career thus far, to everyone who has followed my blog, and to those who have read and enjoyed my work.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!