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Reception & Reading
Friday, November 11
At Kepler’s Books, Menlo Park, CA
Join us for a celebratory evening and bring a friend! The three finalists will read their essays and the winner will be announced that night!
By Kaija Richter
What is feared by the majority of the people is something I really look forward to: growing old. I can’t wait to get grey hair. I can’t wait to get reading glasses. I can’t wait to learn how to knit scarves for my grandchildren-to-be. I can’t wait to count the wrinkles around my eyes. I can’t wait to get old.
It may seem silly to others to want those things but there was a time in my life where I wasn’t sure if I would be able to ever see my three daughters become teenagers or to welcome their first boyfriend to our family or to even see them in a white dress walking down the aisle.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in August 2013 I got the phone call. While the kids were laughing and playing outside a voice told me that the biopsy results came back and said that it’s breast cancer. The voice apologized for the bad news and asked if I was alright. With a fake smile on my face I lied and said “Sure…”. I hung up and tried to wrap my head around what had just happened. Did he really say “It’s cancer”? Maybe they mixed up the specimen and it’s all a big misunderstanding. Maybe he’ll call me back in a couple minutes, apologizing and telling me that everything is alright and there’s nothing to worry about. He didn’t call back. There was no mix-up. It was true. It was cancer. Deal with it.
The next three days were a blur. Tears mixed with fear, sleepless nights, online research, phone calls from friends and family, and doctor’s appointments. I was somewhat ok during the day. Surgery had to be planed; I would be out for a couple of weeks so my parents had to fly in from Germany. But as soon as the sun set and the house went quiet with everyone sleeping I was left alone with my thoughts. My thoughts of my kids having to grow up without their mom. My thoughts of leaving my husband alone with all the responsibilities and all the work. My thoughts of suffering through Chemo Therapy and/or Radiation. My thoughts that the last picture my kids will ever have of their mom is a bold woman in a hospital bed. My thoughts of dying. My thoughts of leaving everyone I love and care about in pain over my death. I ran out of tears at one point. I was hurting so much.
On the third day I started to dig myself out of the dark hole I was in and began doing research online about my options. I did my homework and came prepared to every single doctor’s appointment. At one point, my oncologist told me that she never had a patient that was so well informed. I asked her questions that no one else ever asked her. I finally began to feel like I got the reins to my life back. That I was finally in charge again of what is happening to me. I worked with the best doctors. I always got honest answers for my millions of questions. The fear slowly disappeared (but it never completely vanished). I would see my kids walk down the aisle in a white dress someday. That was my goal that kept me going.
Recovery was fairly quick and I was back on my feet in no time. Until in 2015 it all started again. I discovered a new lump in the same breast where I had a Mastectomy done 2 years earlier. Biopsy. Phone call. Bad news. Cancer. But this time I was prepared. I knew what to expect. I knew what and who I was fighting for. For my daughters, for my husband, and for my life.
My husband and my kids picked me up after every surgery. My daughters were there when I opened my eyes. At home they read stories to me while I was recovering. They brought me tea and food. They took care of me. And I love their little souls for being so sweet. In the darkest hours my daughters were my light. Their smiling faces, their laughs, their hugs, their kind words of encouragement kept me fighting. I am not going to miss a single second of their life!
I was 31 years old when I first got diagnosed with breast cancer. My youngest daughter was not even two when a simple phone call put my whole world upside down and left me with so much fear.
People say “time flies” and it surely does. I sometimes hear my oldest daughter (9 years old) talk about the boys in school and who she has a crush on. I have a picture of my middle one (7 years old) wearing my old wedding dress. And my youngest (4 years old) is occasionally laughing about the wrinkles around my eyes. It’s all good. I am where I want to be. I am surrounded by the greatest little people with the biggest little hearts ever.
So yes, bring it on life! Let me have grey hair, let my eyes go bad but please keep my wrists fit so that I can knit a thousand scarves for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
My Lucky Charm
By Christina Tecson
Last May, I followed an impulse to adopt a four-month-old puppy. My family owned a dog growing up and I wanted a dog “someday,” but I always thought that would be when I felt more established in life. However at 38, I wondered how “established” I would ever be and if I was aiming for a moving target.
There were many reasons NOT to get a puppy, knowing the time and commitment it takes. But holding him brought so much joy to my heart. And the brief moments playing with him—how they made me laugh and smile—I knew I needed that in my life. I mentally listed all the practical reasons it wasn’t good timing for a dog, but the only logic I fixated on was, “Why not?” Listening to my intuitive feeling that this little creature was supposed to be in my life, I trusted my heart and brought him home.
Three days later I was diagnosed with breast cancer! If having a puppy wasn’t going to overburden my life, this disease would.
The name the shelter assigned to the dog was Lucky. Originally I intended to change the name, however after my cancer diagnosis, no other name seemed appropriate. He was meant to be my Lucky charm.
Why is it that one year later when I look back at the bleak moment the nurse told me to prepare for my diagnosis . . . I can laugh at my ridiculous reaction of shock and denial? But when I replay the phone conversations breaking the news to my closest family members . . . I cry? I was strong suffering through cancer hardships, however knowing my pain hurts those I love, that is a somber thought.
The doctors already knew from my mammogram and ultrasound that I had cancer. My parents immediately booked a flight from their Florida home to be with me as I learned the details and treatment plan from my oncologist. Cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes–I didn’t even know what a lymph node was.
My parents stayed with me for the next six months while I braved through chemo, recovered from surgery, and received radiation. They drove me to chemotherapy. My mom helped me pick out wigs and cooked meals after surgery. My dad carried groceries when my arms and chest were healing. They accompanied me to every doctor appointment and provided sound advice when I wasn’t in the frame of mind to be reasonable. They showed their love by doing everything the caregiver of a cancer patient is expected to do in the ways only parents can.
However, they also demonstrated their love for ME by caring for Lucky. When I was too exhausted to play with my energetic puppy, my dad ran him up and down the street to tire Lucky out. When I needed to bunker down in my bedroom to rest after chemo, my parents kept Lucky entertained. My dad took my dog for bathroom breaks every few hours to house break him so I could conserve energy. When Lucky faltered from his routine leaving piddles on the carpet, my Dad cleaned up his mess so my low immune system wouldn’t be exposed to germs. If I had a full day of medical appointments and treatments, my dad drove home to let the dog out, then back to the hospital to be with me.
Even my pragmatist mother came to enjoy Lucky’s company, seeing the blessings of a dog. The day I called my mom to tell her she had a “grand dog” her initial reaction was, “Why would you do something so silly?” However, while she was staying in my home, my mom never suggested I return Lucky to the shelter to focus on my health, or that illness was preventing me from caring for a puppy. She could have easily made the argument that they were there to take care of me, and instead spent more time caring for my dog–it was the truth. The suggestion to return him was never proposed because they knew, in his own unique charmingly mischievous way, Lucky was comforting me. The frustration over Lucky’s housebreaking habits was the welcomed distraction I needed to stay light-hearted about my health. His constant nipping, signaling he wanted to play, was annoying when I was low energy, but motivated me to stay active. Fussing over Lucky gave me somebody to focus on instead of my own crisis.
So much of my cancer experience was not within my control or the well intentions of my parents. I was left to the expertise of doctors and the mercy of God to declare me cancer free. But having Lucky as comfort seemed to soften the harsh reality of an uncertain future. There were many emotion draining moments, but the moments that poured joy back into my heart are those that centered around the new edition to my family and the love my parents developed for my dog. They came to take care of me, but their care giving experience became a partnership in raising my puppy.
My parents have returned to retired life in Florida and I am getting back to my old life . . . before cancer changed me forever. Although I also realize I don’t want to be moving so fast I forget where I’m going, I don’t want to get stuck on a road to nowhere. Cancer has opened my eyes to live a more purposeful life. The most welcomed change, among a flurry of healthy lifestyle changes and obsessive “is this symptom cancer“ thoughts, is having a canine best friend by my side. Lucky was taught well. His duty as a dog, especially now that I live with the ambivalence of cancer, is to calm my anxieties and to energize me to be bolder than my fear of cancer recurrence. Surely seeing my parents by my side and being a recipient of their unconditional love influenced his senses.
By Anne Dimock
The chemotherapy was the worst of it. How would I get through this? Some suggested visualization – to see myself on a serene isle, or bathe myself in healing rays of light.
So I invented him – Señor Adria – and named for the crimson poison they injected into my arm. Señor Adria, my Latin lover. My protector and savior too, but a demon lover. He loved me almost to death.
Our affair was no secret. He came to me five times and each time I opened myself up to him. Everybody knew. You could tell by looking at me that the red devil had gotten under my skin. He was in me, every part of me, every cell felt his presence. I am a marked woman now. With a big red letter “A” – for Adriamycin, alias Señor Adria.
Like a bride who’s to marry the Devil himself, I prepared for each visit. My trousseau of pyjamas and bathrobes. The wedding bed fitted for sickness. A feast of water and crackers. And music – oh, the music! Only the music could change this from ordeal into fantasy.
First, a paso doble to announce his arrival, clapping hands and beating hoofs! The blare of brass trumpets and the red, cold syringes. I extend my arm and the nurse looks for the vein. I see him coming, he’s coming for me, all red in spangly sequins, he shimmers into the ring. A matador, a real lady killer. He offers me his hat and I take it because I’m bald. Slender and thin he moves like a panther. He looks at me square in the eye, nostrils flaring, bows and says, “A sus ordenes, Señora – at your service.” The nurse pushes the plunger and the red gel snakes its way into my arm. He enters me and takes possession of my body, a deathlike consummation of his promise to love me and honor me, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.
A black veil drops over me and I don’t see things clearly now, but I feel them – oh, how I feel them. I feel him within, dancing and whirling me until I am sick. He turns me inside out, intoxicates me with poison, he drowns me and saves me. Burning, he eats at my flesh and weakens my heart. He is not a considerate lover, he takes and takes and I want it to be over but it will be three days before I can rise and wash the smell of him from me.
A tango now, and I feel myself break apart. I see my Latin prince dance with a fuzzy likeness of myself, a grey ghost in black dress, a shiny bald head, chrome dome catching the light fantastic. His cold embrace shivers me, and I must dance if I want to live. We dip – and wheel – and turn around — once more – I think – I’m going down – now back – and forth – he turns me towards – the door – then we look straight ahead. Tumbling and crumbling, I glide ‘cross the floor. He is so debonair – and me without any hair. Dancing, romancing, I’m caught in his arms – he’s the most wicked lover of them all!
Now there are several likenesses of me, lurking in corners, hiding – these are the cancer cells – but he finds them, and dances them until they turn from grey to pink as I absorb his red death. Capable and confident, he tangos with each one. Some collapse and die or lie in a heap in his arms. What a lady killer! Others he transforms, infusing them with his red death with each underarm twirl until they are well and in the pink. Ay que hombre!
Then the fun begins. The tempo changes – and it’s a perky rhumba – a conga line of women – bald and in black dresses – appear. They are the white blood cells, the reinforcements, sent in to clean up after Señor Adria. With each pass they double in number – 16, 32, 64 – hundreds! Rhum-ba! Rhum-ba! Yo te quiero mi amor! Rhum-ba! Rhum-ba! You make me want you all the more!
Thousands of white blood cells circulating in kaleidoscope formation, like the Rockettes, the June Taylor Dancers, it’s Busby Berkely in oncology drag. White bald heads bouncing to the rhythm, scissoring their legs, shaking the skirts on their black dresses. They fill the dance floor and everybody dances! Rhum-ba! Rhum-ba! Their exponential growth saves me!
They bear him up on their shoulders. The beat changes into a carnivalesco samba as they parade across the floor. Their licentious shimmy and thrusting hips are almost more than I can stand. They carry him off – he’s leaving – and I’m in grave danger of being forgotten. As they samba out the door I cry out feebly –
“Besa-me – besa-me mucho.
Como si fuera esta noche la ultima vez.”
(Kiss me, kiss me hard. As if tonight were the very last time.)
And he hears me. He turns on his elegant heel and approaches as I lay in my grey heap. I cannot speak and my heart wants to jump out of my chest. I want to sleep like death and die like sleep but can do neither. He hovers, like a matador ready for the kill, but instead he bends to me, kisses me full on the lips, and blows his red death deep within. Bowing low he hisses – “Ate la próxima vez, Señora.” He winks a red sequined wink and blows me a kiss for good measure, then strides away in all his fullness.
The music winds down and I pull the black veil over me and try to sleep. The dance goes on somewhere else, in some other time. All right, Señor Adria, you’ve had your way with me. You’ve left your mark. But there will come a time when I will kiss you good-bye, when I can bid you a triumphant “Adios!” But until then –
“Besa-me, besa-me mucho.”