A Stranger

I posted about this a couple years ago but a friend recently asked me to retell the story. So you old-timers might recognize this one.

Ten years ago I was going through radiation treatments for lymphoma. Every morning I drove an hour and a half to the cancer center, took off all my clothes, put on this robe, and sat in a room with others in their robes.

There was no socializing. There was little, if any, talking. Everything going on in that room was internalized. We were all head down, thoughts inward. Preparing for what we knew was coming, and how awful we were going to feel in a couple hours, and how sick we were going to be the rest of the day.

We were simply breathing. Grateful to be breathing, but able to do nothing more than take the next step right in front of us.

There was an older woman in that group. Short, steel-gray hair. She was always there before me, and when I walked in, she would lift her chin in greeting. We could manage an acknowledgement, but that was it.

Three or four years later I was in a grocery store, in the produce section, and happened to look up. And there she was. We met each other’s eyes and immediately burst into tears.

She was alive.

We hugged. We asked each other how the prognosis was going, how the healing was going. That’s when I found out she’d been in there for breast cancer.

And then we moved on to finish our shopping.

We never asked for each other’s name, or phone number, or email.

It was so random, to run into her there, of all places. That we happened to be, not just in the same town and the same store, but the same section at that exact same moment in time.

Years passed.

Two years ago I was…you guessed it…back at that same store. And there she was.

Once again, as soon as we met eyes, we were crying. We hugged. We asked those questions. Are you still free? She was. I wasn’t. I’d just finished another round of radiation and was still pretty sick. But I was able to tell her it was a precaution only and all was good. We cried some more.

We never asked for each other’s name, or phone number, or email.

She’s a complete stranger. I know nothing about who she is as a person, or what her family is like, or any of the myriad of stories we associate with those we know.

Yet I count her as a close friend.

And some day I’ll run into her again.

Labels and Irony

Labels

Fat and ugly.

I’ve carried those labels as long as I can remember. They were reinforced, unknowingly, by family, friends, and strangers.

Kids on the bus who spit in my hair and told others I came from ‘the Land of the Weird’.

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7th Grade 1972

Friends who said ‘don’t worry, there are guys out there who value personality over looks’.

Everyone, every single person, who said ‘wow, you look so much like your mother!’. What they didn’t know was the conversations behind the scenes. Mom sitting on the edge of the bed telling me how homely she was, how she’d struggled growing up because of that. I heard her message, drank it in deep, and was reminded what I was every time someone said I looked like her. I still hear that message.

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My mother, young

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Mom at the cabin

I strove to never tell my child he looked like either parent. Let him be unique, himself, no mirror.

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1978

It is so vitally important to me that my son (who is handsome by the way) never hears a negative message from me. That he never absorbs someone else’s opinion and makes it his own. I’ve never allowed myself that same grace.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t angst-driven, depressed, traumatized. The labels were, and are, just a piece of the whole, just who I am, nothing to be done about it, nothing to stew over. And I’ve learned in a few potentially dangerous incidents that being fat and ugly can be protection. Rather like an odd sort of invisibility cloak. Well, there’s the opposite, too. One particular incident comes to mind where a family friend came to the house when my parents were gone, thinking I’d be desperate for male attention.

So I’ve perfected over the years looking in the mirror to check earrings or brush hair, without seeing. I avoid sitting where there might be a reflection visible. My husband rarely sees me naked. It’s hard to find photos of myself because I avoid cameras. Again, nothing I brood over, just a part of life.

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Then, a couple of years ago I was sifting through photographs and found one of us siblings standing in front of the fireplace. I wore a burgundy dress that had been a favorite. Soft and flowing so when I went Scottish dancing, it swirled. I stared at that photo, shocked. I wasn’t fat. Busty, yes. But shapely. How could that be? I remember so clearly loving that dress even though I was fat. I knew I was. And yet, I wasn’t.

How could my self-image be so warped? So blind? At least, back then.

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Another time period when I knew I was fat and now see I wasn’t as big as I thought

Ugly was still there. Nothing to be done about that. Though by then I’d adopted mom’s phrase of ‘homely’ as it seemed less negative. Easier to say. But not fat. At least, not back then, when I knew I was.

And that was the time period when I’d traveled with friends overseas and watched all the attention they received for being attractive American girls, while I was invisible. As it should have been, I thought at the time, because those friends were, and still are, beautiful, inside and out.

Life, the universe, karma, whatever you want to call it, has a funny way of forcing you to see. A few years ago I was diagnosed with lymphoma. The doctors told me it was in an unusual spot that they didn’t come across very often. The right parotid gland. Where is that you might ask? My right cheek.

Meaning a lump formed there that was visible every time I went out in public. Then a biopsy was done and it became even more visible. Then I started radiation treatments and everyone was focused on my face. That homely face. I still managed to avoid seeing it myself though.

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Right after parotid diagnosis before lump got too big. Taken by a friend who made a calendar so sorry for the odd size photo.

Last year I developed a skin cancer on my nose. Surgery took care of it and for a week I went out in public with a big white banner bandage that said ‘look at this face!’.

Recently, the lymphoma has come back. In another odd spot that isn’t seen very often. At the base of my esophagus. For the coming month, everyone is going to be looking at my fat stomach. I mean, it’s even tattooed now, for treatments.

It dawned on me this morning that each time I’ve had this happen, it’s placed focus directly on the areas I despise. It’s directed everyone’s eyes to the places I wish I could hide.

What’s with that, universe? Some sort of sick humor? One last little poke at the weird one? Or are you saying, look? Look. Yes you’re homely (ugly), yes you’re fat, but how important is that in this short time we’re allowed to live?

I’m not a young teenager anymore who isn’t asked out to dances or the prom, or even visible to the eyes of crushes. I don’t waste time feeling sorry for myself, or even thinking about this very often. It’s just labels, a part of who I am, no more, no less, than my freckles or my height. So if it doesn’t bother me anymore, why does the universe keep pointing its cosmic finger at the worst spots?

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that cosmic finger.

Besides raise my middle finger.

The problem now is that if I put these labels, these words, out there for someone else to read, I’ll get compliments. Friends, probably a little horrified, will feel the need to reassure me by telling me none of this is true, that I’m actually pretty (they won’t be able to peel off the label of ‘fat’). And I won’t believe them. I’ll love them for their need to care for me, to lift me up from what they perceive as sadness. I’ll recognize their politeness. What else can you say to someone who mentions these labels except, ‘of course you’re not that!’?

They won’t realize that I’m not saying all of this as some sort of backhanded way to get, or ask for, compliments. I’m simply saying, these are my labels. This is who I am. These are the facts. And the purpose of this whole essay is to also say, how ironic is the universe?

Oh, and let me be very clear. Just because I wear these labels doesn’t mean I’m a victim, or submissive, or shy like I was in school. I am a strong woman and I know it. I love who I am on the inside. I wouldn’t change a single atom of personality.

In other words, I don’t need the reassuring compliments. These are, after all, just labels I wear in the face of an ironic universe.

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About 1995

Coincidental Universe

Bear with me, those who have heard part of this story before.

About eight years ago I went through radiation for lymphoma. During the treatments, I would share the waiting room with several others, all in our gowns, focused on our personal issues, waiting for chemo, or radiation. We never talked or engaged in any way.

A year or so later I was in the produce section of a grocery store and there was a woman from that waiting area. We made eye contact and immediately burst into tears. Spontaneous crying and hugging over apples. We’d both thought the same thing. ‘She’s alive!’

Over the years, oddly enough, I’ve run into her a couple more times. Both at that grocery store. I haven’t seen her in about two years now.

Some of you know that I spent some time this past March and April in the hospital for internal bleeding. Found out that there’s a tiny spot of a weird type of lymphoma at the base of my esophagus. Sounds worse than it is. Anyway, I find out in a week if I have to do radiation again. If so, it’s not a big deal. Low-dose, localized, etc. I might have problems swallowing and nausea, but nothing I haven’t gone through before. And if I do, this time it won’t involve my brain so I won’t struggle through two years of radiation fallout waiting for the brain chemistry to sort itself out and terrified I’ll never write again.

So here’s the point of this personal non-writing blog post. Today I went to the grocery store. And guess what? There she was. Still alive. Doing great.

Isn’t that  weird? I think that every time I run into her. I mean, I have to drive to the city, and of all the days and times and people, we just happen to periodically be in the same place at the same time. Coincidence today? I think not.

Some might see that as a bad omen.

I see it as the opposite.

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