VANITY IS A LUXURY
Long ago when vanity was a grace.
It is the ordinary that is extraordinary
Have we been looking for magic in all the wrong places?
Remember when getting ready for bed meant washing your face — usually with a bar of pure, but inexpensive soap — brushing your hair — because it felt good; stimulating growth wasn’t a worry yet, and cleaning your teeth — with or without flossing? If you were on a promise, add to that slipping into something silken, and dabbing perfume in all the right places.
Those days are gone. Long gone. With age, maintenance becomes a lengthy occupation and includes numerous regiments and disciplines: exercise, diet, supplements, prescription drugs, diagnostic tests and visits to a myriad of doctors. To date, my team includes the following motley crew: a cardiologist, proctologist, oncologist, radiation oncologist, two physical therapists, orthopods (hip and hand specialists), ENT, osteopath, MD/homeopath and of course my GP, dentist and eye doctor,
So it’s bedtime. First I meditate – essential, or all sanity, equanimity and humor go out the window. Then I adjourn to the bedroom suite. I cleanse my face — with some very expensive lotion gleaned from an esthetician in Malibu. This requires that I don’t rub when rinsing but gently splash the water about like an ambivalent fish in a strange pond. I apply hydrating liquid. When it dries, I gently introduce the evening moisturizer and eye cream — also ridiculously overpriced. Why I am willing to do this? Elective surgery is not in my vocabulary. Besides I want to feel and look as healthy as possible. I’m losing the battle right now, but I hope to regain an advantage as surgery dates fade further into the distance. But, back to bedtime — next I put special lotion on my wounded breast and coconut oil on the rest of me, being careful to massage in directions that will not annoy my lymphatic system. This has become crucial.
These are conditions I never bothered to worry about in my youth, even though I qualify as a first class worrier. I used to trust my body. I left the healing to Mother Nature. HA!
Next I don my lymphedema compression glove — the fingers of my right hand tend to swell in the night. This was a problem even before cancer surgery. I have arthritis, and now it is worse. I can make peace with a few wrinkles and sags, but I live in fear of my right arm and hand being compromised. So, I wear the glove to bed and a special prescription compression sleeve when I exercise. The final touch is my mouth guard so I don’t further erode my teeth. Mumbles and I have this in common, not the mouth guard, but worn-out teeth. He chews on his tennis balls like a film producer worries a good cigar.
The coup de grace is my nightgown – still silken and fetching, but not transparent, and ankle length instead peekaboo. Even in a beautiful and elegant gown, the fact that I’m always cold and have to top it off with a cardigan sort of ruins the effect, but my mantra remains: “Vanity is a luxury.” A beautiful soul trimmed with a satin sense of humor works for me.
Bless my husband for loving me just as I am. My friends tell me that I look great, and I believe them. When we gaze upon one another, we see the inner being, the soul. The person we have known over the years never changes in our eyes. I find that my friends become more and more beautiful each time we meet. One skeptic says it’s attributable to the fact that our eyesight is going, but that isn’t the reason. If we let it, time naturally sculpts us into uniquely beautiful, breathing monuments to life.
I apologize. I should have opened this piece with two words: NO CHEMO. A chaotic mind is a piece of the cancer puzzle, as well as jabs of forgetfulness and worry lines that turn one’s face into a coiled snake. It turned out that the oncologist never considered my having chemo but was waiting to see if I was one of those people who wanted to do anything and everything possible to lower the risk of recurrence. Unfathomable.
She did acknowledge the numerous assaults my body has received. When relating this sentiment, she pulled a moue of real compassion. I was impressed. It has taken a while for us to bond. I’m not sure why. The wait in her office has never been less than an hour, so nerves tended to be frayed even before we said hello. And, I have been saddled with an entourage — husband, husband and nurse navigator for four out of five appointments. It’s hard to establish the necessary intimacy with a doctor until you put in one on one time. I plan to do this in the future. I like her. She is personable and down to earth. She has a sense of humor, likes dogs and tea, and knows her stuff. She has a wholesome quality reminiscent of fresh air, green earth and flowers in bloom.
We have ironed out the time wrinkle and I feel the path ahead is strewn with butterflies. Open communication is a blessing.
This is relationship is significant. My oncologist and I will be an item until death do us part.
It is difficult to maintain the necessary rapport when by definition the relationship is impersonally personal. But the truth is that all relationships are personal. We are all connected. For any relationship to succeed, there must be reciprocity. The give and take of healing is like the breath. It has to go both ways, inhaling and exhaling equally. The only God in this equation is the one we can’t see, but I believe she exists in the cells and hearts of all sentient beings beyond time and form. Surrender and common sense are required. And I remind myself in moments of great angst, impatience and inequity that people are what count. All the rest is just stuff.
I asked her how likely it was for the cancer to recur. My Onco DX numbers said 16%, but the cancer is cunning and could resurface anywhere in my body unannounced. If I take an estrogen inhibitor, it improves my odds, reducing them to to 11%, but can I tolerate the long list of side effects? Some drugs eliminated themselves immediately, because I am on a blood thinner and have a prosthetic hip and heart valve — i.e. clot magnets. So I started taking Exemestane ($230 for a 30 day supply). After three doses, I was having drenching night sweats, nightmares and waking up weeping.
The following day I continued to burst into tears for no apparent reason.
My friend greets me: “Good morning Mari, how are you? “
“Wah!” I reply.
I’m in the gym doing curls and squats: “One, two, three.” And suddenly an onset of: “Wah!”
When I told this to my friend Saras, she said,
“Sounds like the life of most women I know.”
I respond rapidly to stimuli — both negative and positive. It is true that our liabilities become our assets if we manage them skillfully. This sensitivity affords me great passions and joys, and frequently it breaks my heart and makes me sick.
I can read the intonation of your voice like a seismic expert reads a graph of the earth’s movement. The subtle shift of an eyebrow doesn’t escape me, and eyes give it all away. I’m always attuned to how someone feels, and I am rarely wrong. Egads, I can even pick up the flavor of texting. How appalling is that? Still it has allowed me to be of service. And that is one of the most effective tools for healing.
Offering help to others helps me, but I have to be careful that I don’t forget to follow my feet. If they take off on their own, and I discover I am dogging yours, not a good idea. This new illness has made me ever more vigilant. When my faults glare at me, I smile back at them.
I am not wasting time.
The doc has me holding this drug for a couple of weeks to see what happens, and then we will decide whether to reintroduce it or try something else. Taking this drug would buy me insurance. But with cancer nothing is definitive.
Once installed on the medical merry go round, you cannot escape the bureaucracy and disorder of medical offices, billing and insurance. It’s enough to make you sick if you weren’t already. Thank Dog I have an advocate, Robert. But the stresses have taken their toll on us both. And stress makes you sick.
“Choose your battles carefully, Mari.” I try not to dwell. Instead I pursue a graceful solution.
When it gets the better of me, I take my “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” frustration out to the lawn. Mumbles hates this. He has a very sensitive disposition. By the way, I have a bone to pick with that dog. Can you believe that on the morning I woke up weeping, Mumbles ran for the doggie door? This is a dog that sleeps next to me and makes a point of adjusting his position every time I adjust mine, which is often. He settles his soft body so that we remain touching at all times.
Still all is forgiven. Love him, love his foibles. I have plenty of my own.
Each time I encounter a new unpleasant quirk of my personality, I try to turn toward and open up to the feelings and my reactions. My meditation has taught me this, and it is a great freedom. To stop running. To stand still. To be one among the many.
When I say I have cancer, my beautiful friend, Amy, corrects me and says, “No. You had cancer.” This is true, even though the doctor tells me that the cancer cells lie in wait like an unignited flame. No one knows what might rekindle the fire.
Living with unresolved problems in loving harmony and with unflappable equanimity is my wish. Its practical application sounds more like this: “Right foot forward, then left, now pause, sip your tea, breathe, embrace the spring day, laugh, weep, jump up and down, stop multi-tasking, throw the ball.”
I have some down to earth good news: I am returning to my new book on Monday and have committed myself to a deadline. A woman I absolutely adore wants to publish it. What a thrill and a gift to have something in place even before I finish my first draft.
Now I am off to walk through the trees and admire the promise of peonies, roses, the sweet scent of apple, pear and cherry blossoms, the magnificent beauty of the delicate but sturdy-petaled tulip magnolia and an opportunity to throw the balls as many times as I can muster.
Oh and by the way, let’s have a cup of tea.
Above photos by Harry Langdon Jr.