A Survivor’s Ball, South Carolina

We’ve been through some sh*t together, we’ve been through some sh*t on our own. And last week, we celebrated again by reuniting.

Survivors are not born. They’re made. By struggle. By sadness. By fear. By learning and doing and enduring. I’m not afraid to appear narcissistic by saying that we’ve done them all and more and we’re still here and we plan on being here for a long time.

My beloved niece Amanda is in South Carolina, I’m in Massachusetts. She’s been on a journey of recovery from liver failure for a year and a half now, I’ve been on a Stage IV lung cancer road trip since last September. Neither of us are supposed to be where we are now. But we are. So there.

Traveling is one of the things that I am. I don’t just do it. Though I’ve been criticized for “how” I travel by some who think there’s some hard and fast rules to doing it bigger, better, and faster than me, the truth is that long before I got on an airplane or in a car, I was visiting national parks and monuments on by bedroom floor with a map open in front of my unknowing eyes.  I was discovering foreign lands through age-old National Geographic magazines open on the hall steps. To have the ability to travel taken away from me by cancer was a crushing blow. So imagine the double whammy of rushing down a runway on an American Airlines jetliner and seeing my brave and beautiful niece again all in one compact trip! If this sounds petty to you, maybe you’ll understand someday. I hope you do, but I also hope you don’t have to find out the way we did.

I never cared how I got to where I was going. How much my ticket cost as compared to someone else’s or how good my hotel room was, neither. It ain’t what you’re going to remember when you’re on your death bed. I care even less now. Just let me get there again.

Where was your last trip? Portugal? Good for you. Me, Hell and back. Beat that. But now I plan to make up for lost time, and my sentimental journey to South Carolina was the first step. In a near future blog I’ll talk about the fun stuff we did in more detail, like the trip to the gem mine and the working farm, both with gift shops, of course! But for today, I’ll just recount the more personal aspects of the trip.

Last fall, when I started on my cancer road trip, there was little hope for me to be sitting at my computer and typing this in an upright position, much less boarding an airplane and going places, for a hellishly long time, if ever again. This foray, and my story in general, is one of those miracles you read about in books about someone else. Sure, I was only gone for four days. And no, it wasn’t nearly enough time to celebrate life with Amanda. But in another way, it was the trip of a lifetime, to mark my existence truly beginning again, to set a precedent for getting my life back to the way it was not so long ago, and yet ages ago.

Valentine’s Day had already passed, but not really. February 14th, February 16th, what does it matter? They’re all the same when you aren’t supposed to be where you are, but you are anyway, by sheer force of luck, love, spirit, and whatever else got you there. Lots of presents were shared, tons of dog love, chocolate, and Smarties. How can you go wrong?

We ran around like teenagers and caught up on things. Pretended to be miners in Greenville. Went bowling because the movie choices sucked. Ate at a neat restaurant like the one we’d found in Boone, North Carolina last year. Ended the trip at our favorite China Garden eating seven different flavors of chicken and shrimp and drinking jasmine tea. It was there that I read the Survivor’s Ditty I wrote for us:

Once Upon a Time
Two cute chicks
Survived bad sh*t
Then went out
For Chinese Food
And when they were done
They lived and loved
Like there’s no tomorrow
THE END

Sigh. If only it were that simple.

Early the next morning, I had to leave her and come home to reality and appointments and killing cancer. For four whirlwind days it was like I was normal again. Wait, I am normal again. Maybe I was never not normal? Still trying to figure all this out.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and it ain’t over yet. As I sit and type, I still have treatment to endure. Fingers crossed that I’ve been through the worst of it. And you can bet that I’m hankering for that next trip down the runway. Guess where it will be to? If you guessed South Carolina, you’re right.

Making up for lost time.

Done Running Away from Christmas

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve spent the past fifteen years of my life running away from home when the holidays roll around.

I’m not a fan of Christmas. It’s my least favorite holiday. I resent the commercialism, the attitudes, the lack of true spirit. Seeing people hanging up a bunch of blinking Christmas lights the day after Halloween, and walking through a department store full of annoying sparkling trees when I haven’t even eaten turkey yet gets under my skin. Fighting for parking spaces and running red lights in Walmart parking lot is about as tacky as it gets. The other day a woman was going through the aisles so fast that she smashed into my cart (hard!), smiled, and tossed a flippant “Excuse me!” over her shoulder before zooming on. My response? “Merry Christmas!” Was it sarcastic? Yup. But was I laughing? Sure was. Because more than ever this year, I have much more important things to think about.

Yeah, I have cancer. And I’m doing better than expected. But it still changes everything. Before cancer I had little tolerance for bull. After cancer I have zero tolerance for bull. Which might make you think that I have my head buried in the sand while I beg to be airlifted out of my misery. Well, surprise! Quite the contrary. I’ve found some semblance of peace, of wanting to do things differently. By jove, I’m done running.

If you’ve read any of my autobiographical blogs, you know that I come from a broken family. Holidays weren’t ever any fun, because someone was always complaining about someone else being late, or was outside smoking instead of opening presents. Oh, the hours spent on those cigarettes! (None of those hours were spent by me, but I’m the one with lung cancer. How about that.) Perhaps while all this was happening another family member would be missing a lost loved one. Or maybe a loved one a few miles away refused to come.  That’s the way it got after a while.

I did my time. Once I was old enough and had enough money to escape, why would I want to hang around?

One reason: Mom. Mom still needed someone to be there for her when the door only swung one way. But Mom left us fifteen years ago on the longest and greatest road trip of all. And that’s when I had a license to run. Not only at Christmas, but the rest of the year, too. And I happily renewed that license on a yearly basis.

Make no mistake about it: I did it because I wanted to. Running turned out to be fun and therapeutic. (The sunset shots above are from Fiji on Christmas Eve, 2015.) And I’m going to start running again as soon as my oncologist says I can. Just with a few differences, and one of them is that I’m staying home with my family and friends for my future Christmases. If I do any running it’s going to be to places where family and friends await me.

I can’t travel right now, but I can still fill up my calendar with things to do, and this year I’m making plans with the special people I want to spend time with. The fact that time is getting a little tight is a reason to smile, not grimace, because it means that I’m loving and being loved back. Hey, I kind of like this!

Sometimes, it takes a total life-changer to figure out things that maybe you should have altered long ago. I’ve been spending Christmas and New Years alone for more than a decade. A new tradition begins this year. Maybe I won’t have the excitement of seeing the coast of New Zealand for the first time out the airplane window, or be able to post a picture from the California desert with a clever twist on “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” by rocking around the joshua tree instead, but I’ll be close at home and close at heart to those that love me most in the world and whom I love most in the world.

Everything in its time, right?

It’s time.

Merry Christmas to all, no matter where or with whom you choose to spend it.

 

Eight Things I’ve Learned With Age

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As we get older, the world expects us to look like we’re younger, act like we’re younger, and covet youth. We’re supposed to want to be the Kardashians with their bright orange six-figure cars, or those twentysomethings making fashion statements at Coachella. At 52, I’m all for looking and feeling young. I routinely have others telling me I look at least ten years younger than my actual age. And damn right, I’m going to fight old age every step of the way, like the old Oil of Olay commercials said. But I don’t covet the Kardashians and their ridiculous vehicles and lifestyles, Coachella fashions and the people who wear them, or even youth in and of itself. Truthfully, when I grew up was a much nicer time than now. I know what it’s like to be able to get in a car with a near-stranger and come out alive.

I’ve learned a lot of other things from aging. Here are eight of them.

1. Let Others Have the Last Word

When you’re young and opinionated, you always have to get in the last word, to “make your voice heard.” Getting the final say is gratifying, like “Yeah, I guess I told him/her!” A real adrenaline rush, even. As the years have gone by, I’m so much more likely to give others the last word so they can feel like they told me. I’ve come to understand that last words leave the ball in my court, just where I like it to be, and leave sometimes angry conversations dangling with the other person’s unfortunate or ugly words the last thing said. The ability to do this also says, “You’re right, I’m wrong,” even if you know it isn’t true. We love to be right. Give the other person that pleasure. Maybe you can even say it: “Yeah, you’re right,” with a little knowing smile. Leave them wondering what you really mean. In the end, you’ll feel better, especially when the dust settles and you turn out to be the one in the know. Don’t expect the other person to be able to congratulate you on your know how. Congratulate yourself on giving them the final say.

2. Love Takes Many Forms

I spent a major part of my youth pining “for love,” when the greatest love of my life, my precious mother, was right there with me. (My other great love, my father, passed away when I was ten, so I missed a lot of his wonderful gift.) I don’t regret feeling this way, because even as I pined I got so much from her and didn’t take advantage of it. But what I know now is that I don’t have to be in a committed relationship or be engaged or married to be loved. In fact, I feel like with the lifestyle I lead, not having a steady partner is much better for me. Love comes in many other forms: siblings, more distant family members, friends, students, coworkers, animals. I’ve met people on social media that have become very important to me, even if I may have just seen them face to face a couple of times in my life, or not at all. Once again, it’s our society that makes us believe if you’re not “with” someone, then you aren’t worthy.  Complete nonsense. If I can be forever single and build a wall of love around me, believe me, you can, too.

3. Money is Important, But it’s Not THAT Important

I absolutely was one of those young people that wanted to be “rich” and “famous.” Then I went through a phase that I only wanted those things because I wanted to help others. I landed somewhere in between, just wanting to do what I love and be nice to people and help when I can. You don’t have to have millions to do that. Still, it’s not accurate to say that money isn’t important, because it is, to a certain extent. But it isn’t everything. As the years go by, I’ve come to realize that you don’t really need a huge amount of money to be able to live a good life. And money attained by hard work is much more appreciated than funds handed to you by someone else. Having enough money to pay your bills and have some money left over to enjoy life is the best thing. Not having enough is too stressful to enjoy much of anything, having too much makes you indulgent.  Time is an important commodity in this one, too. Finding a good balance of making enough money to feel good about things without working more than your forty hour work week and cutting into your ability to enjoy it should be the goal.

4. The Lottery is a DUMB Dream

Guilty! I was one of these, too. In fact, I dedicated a whole blog to the stupidity of the lottery For starters, read about what really happens to the average Joe when a whole bunch of free money drops into his lap when he never had any. Secondly, this is not a goal. Have a goal that you have some control over, instead of wasting your time dreaming about something so random. Winning the lottery is not the least bit realistic. It’s not even a dream, it’s a fantasy. Do you really want to live your life around a fantasy? Get a job at Disney World. At least you’ll get a real paycheck. Sure, someone has to win those jackpots. But the probability that it’s going to be you are basically zero, and you could end up spending a lot of money trying to make it happen. Think about this, too: having enough money to buy everything your heart desires is a wonderful thought. But just how long is that list of things you want, and do you really need to win millions to satisfy it? I’ll just bet that unless you’re totally greedy and silly you can satiate your needs by going to work every day. And you’ll appreciate what you get more, too!

5. It’s Okay to Slow Down

I understand the unnecessary aspects of speed now. It doesn’t really get you anywhere faster. It makes you crazy and impatient and it puts other people in danger as well as yourself. I talk a lot about the way some people act in their cars. Wrote a blog about that, too! But that’s not the only way to slow down. Are you highly competitive? If you are, why? Do you have the need to be better than other people? I have a groundbreaking idea to suggest: why don’t you just be better than you? Instead of having to bowl other people down in your path? I have friends that go through life trying to do too much too fast, attempting to stuff too many things into too short of a time. How about prioritizing and leaving something for later or another day? How about taking more time to enjoy what you’re doing, and putting a little less time into things you don’t really want to do but feel like you have to do? Part of slowing down is saying “NO” sometimes. I could write a whole blog about that…but won’t right now! I’ll just say this: it’s okay to say no!

6. You Only Have Control Over You

How many times in your life have you tried to control other people? How many times have people tried to control you? If you don’t have control over yourself, you are, inevitably, going to attempt to control someone else. Everyone needs to control someone. (That’s one of my strongest beliefs in life.) Sometimes the need to control comes from envy, from those who see you living a life better than them. They want to bring you down, and they’re called “haters.” Haters rarely have control over their own lives. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be haters and would have something better to do than control someone else. If there are things in your life that you cannot control that you should be able to control, change them. End relationships. Start relationships. Get a new job. Spend less money. Lose weight. All these things are empowering and will do the double deed of scaring away people who want to feed off you.

7. Some People Do Change!

Yes, this one kind of hurts, but sometimes people do change, and you have to accept that they are different. I know this is a really stupid example, but when Guns N’ Roses started touring again a few years back, I couldn’t wait to get tickets. All I heard from friends when I asked them to go with me was what a jerk Axl Rose was, like, two decades ago or more. It really got me thinking how hard it is to live down a reputation. Yet the same ones who don’t let others turn over a new leaf want everyone to accept them when they try to do something new. Jeez, let’s give each other a break! Sure, plenty of people never change and just keep making the same nonsense mistakes over and over again no matter how many chances they have. But that’s not true of everyone. And by the way, Axl Rose is now a consummate professional. Go, Axl!

8. It’s Not That Hard To Be Nice!

Sometimes you’re nice to others and it isn’t very rewarding. Don’t bother with those folks. Just keep walking. But if you say hello, or meet eyes with someone, or smile at strangers, you’d be surprised just how friendly human beings are, and hey, maybe your smile or your hello is the only good thing that has happened to them all day. We tend to forget that we’re all in this race together, we all have problems, we all have feelings. Treat others how you want to be treated. If someone doesn’t treat you like you want to be treated, keep moving. But don’t be afraid to put some genuine goodness out there. Lead with a smile and hope that it’s contagious.

Getting older isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. Not learning from your experiences is.

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