Signs of Life (Ch. 8)

I have had a curious kind of Spring; topsy-turvy. Instead of new life growing in nature all around me, I found a lump in my breast and cancer growing within me. As I journeyed through the acceptance of my disease and the aggressive treatment I chose to undergo, my view of my future changed. Instead of assuming I would have decades to watch my kids grow up, I thought, “what if I don’t?!” and tried my best to be more loving and affectionate. Instead of waking up in the morning and wandering around in my pyjamas with my hair standing on end, I thought, “what if I lose this hair in a few months, and look shitty even if I try to look pretty?” and showered, styled my hair, and put on makeup. I looked at my enormous garden space and accepted that I would have times when I wouldn’t have the strength to dig in the dirt and pull the weeds. I begrudgingly admired the beautiful hanging baskets full of flowers that my furry man went out and chose (something I wanted to do desperately) because I knew if we waited until I was feeling up to it, the season might pass us by. All that time, I was waiting for the surgery incisions to heal, so I could meet the oncology team at the Cross Cancer Institute and forge ahead with the chemotherapy I was told I would need. All the while I wanted my body to heal quickly, I also wanted time to slow down before I had to head into a summer of unknown chemo side effects. There was nothing I dreaded more, now that I found out I could survive general anesthesia and Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday.

While I healed, we had follow-up visits in Edmonton, with my plastic surgeon. As the stitches on my breasts faded, and my transplanted tissue started to feel smoother and look as close to normal as I could hope for, and as my abdomen incision slowly closed, my doctor always asked the final question during our visits, “Do you have any questions or concerns?” And Markus would ask, “How soon can she travel?” Dr. Schembri’s eyes would crinkle as he smiled, and he would say, “If you promise to stay in your chair and not do any gymnastics while you are there, you should be just fine to go to your high school reunion.” We have been asking this question ever since we met him. The only high school reunion I would ever go to is not just for any old high school. The high school kids I always want to reunite with are from the Taipei American School. We were a tiny little school in Taiwan. Our experiences growing up there have cemented our friendships, and I am never quite as comfortable in my skin as I am when I am with a group of TAS graduates. This recent reunion was an idea that my friends Dacia and Kerri had come up with last year. Any time you bring a few TAS graduates together, anywhere in the world, we call it a reunion. Dacia planned the reunion at her parents’ B&B in Anacortes, Washington, a little spot of Heaven in the San Juan Islands. Through the winter, we put our heads together and had so much fun planning and chatting about it. When I got hit with Barnard in the Spring, I realized that surgery would probably take a huge bite out of my plans for the May reunion. One more shitty thing that I came to accept this Spring… Until Markus caught me reading the Facebook page for the Anacortes reunion wistfully, and told me, “We are going to get you there. This will be your reward for the surgery and kicking Barnard’s ass. You do your job and rest properly like the doctors order, and I PROMISE you we will get you to that reunion somehow. Being with your friends will be good for you. You’re going.” And that is where the Question came in during our visits with my surgeons, “How soon can she travel?” So ever since March, when I first met with the surgeons, we worked toward the May 24th goal of the Anacortes TAS Reunion. A better carrot, there never was. On May 24th, 1 week shy of the minimum 6 weeks recommended recuperation period, I hopped on an airplane in Edmonton and headed out to Anacortes. Missing only one piece of luggage, I met my best friend Duncan Hsu (I call him Punkin Poo and he calls me Poo Pest – my favourite nicknames from childhood) at the baggage carousel in Seattle, and spent the next 2 hours driving to Anacortes while catching up on the last 3 years we had missed together. Arriving on the sleepy little island of Anacortes, Dacia, Kerri, and my other friends tumbled out of the cozy little house, and their hugs took away all the residual pain of both the surgery and the worry of cancer. We spent the entire weekend laughing non-stop. There was crying, but only when it was time to say goodbye. My friend John made an announcement that he was going to join my CIBC Run For the Cure team, The Suepremes, and fundraise for the Canadian Breast Cancer Society. He passed around his hat and said that he would shave his head at the end of the weekend. He raised hundreds of dollars, and I did indeed shave his precious head at the end of Sunday evening. I had to catch an airport shuttle at 1:45 Monday morning, so I never went to sleep on Sunday. And when it was time to go, each friend hugged me and wished me well, knowing that I was flying home to meet with the oncologists in Edmonton, to face chemotherapy. Collectively, their love and support floated me out the door and up into the sky back to Canada.

When I landed in Edmonton on Monday afternoon, I took a taxi straight to Dr. Schembri’s office for another visit. He does a little victory dance every time he examines me and sees his precious babies, “They’re PERFECT! So PERFECT!” He told me that the sections on my abdominal incision would take some time to fully heal, as it was healing from the inside-out, but that I am indeed Wolverine, as Markus labeled me; my body is healing like a superhero. Knowing I was meeting with the Cross Cancer Institute the next day, to discuss chemo, he said to give him a call in 3-6 months and we could talk nipples. I can’t wait to make that call and get him on the line and say, “Hey there…let’s talk NIPPLES.” I don’t know anyone else who has ever made such a phone call. That one is going to give me a giggle, that’s for sure.

Markus and I rendezvous-ed at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald later that afternoon, and we braced ourselves for our afternoon at the Cross Cancer Institute the following afternoon. Actually, I mostly just slept, having exhausted myself during my reunion weekend. On Tuesday, we dilly-dallied our morning away, and reluctantly made our way to University Avenue and the Cross Cancer Institute. In the parking garage, we passed ladies on their way back to their cars, scarves covering their heads. I couldn’t swallow past the lump in my throat. Markus grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly and we slowly walked into the lower level of the institute. The very first department we passed was the Wig Department and the rooms where they conduct makeup and beauty tips for those undergoing chemotherapy. I resisted the urge to peek into the door, thinking I would get the chance to see plenty later…

Upstairs at the main registration area, we realized that we were over an hour early, but I stood in line and filled out the paperwork anyway. They made me a special red plastic I.D. card that I would need to bring to every appointment or treatment. I did not like that card. That card was my fear made tangible. I stuffed it into my purse, hoping it would get lost among the mess of receipts and lipstick that lived in there. Then, the registration lady gave me to a volunteer, who was told to bring me to my appointment area. As we walked through the centre, the volunteer pointed out the various areas to us; the lending library, the information department that would be very helpful with resources for families, the 2 cafeterias, the gift shop, the pharmacy, and the labs. The facility is huge. Finally, he deposited us into our waiting area, where a nurse had me fill out more paperwork and instructed me to change into a trusty hospital gown and robe. Then, we were shown into a room where we were told to wait for our different visitors.

Our first visitor was a heavily pregnant young nurse named Magdalene. I kid you not. For someone who has recently lost some of her faith in this unfair scuffle with cancer (if good things happen to good people, and I try my best to be good my whole life, how the Hell did I get cancer, EH?! Explain THAT one, God…), this was a little bit of a punch in the stomach. I had to take an extra breath to answer her questions, as my mind kept whispering, “Mary Magdalene was a best friend to someone who had so much more to suffer than you, Sue.” After Nurse Magdalene left, Markus and I made silent eye contact until our next visitor. She was a soft-spoken representative of the Cross Cancer Institute Tumour Bank. After all of my tumour was removed during the mastectomy, and the appropriate amount was sliced and sent to pathology, the leftover bits had the potential to be deposited into the Tumour Bank to be used for research in the fight against breast cancer. She was there to ask my permission to use the tumour for research, and to make the deposit official. As I signed the papers, I wondered, who ever would NOT give permission? If they could make some use of Barnard and somehow benefit future cancer patients, why on earth wouldn’t I sign? I just had to give a few tubes of blood to accompany Barnard to his future home in the Tumour Bank, and GOOD RIDDANCE to Barnard! That was a very cool feeling, knowing a bit of me was going to stay in the institute and perhaps help others.

Our final visitor was a Nurse Practitioner by the name of Margaret Ann Vlahadamis. She was very dry and stood over by a white board across the room from us. Markus took my hand, and we held our breath. With a very stern look on her face, NP Vlahadamis said, “First of all, before I write all the details and numbers on this board, let me tell you this: based on your tumour’s stage and grade, the oncology team has determined that you will need no radiation and no chemotherapy.”

no. chemotherapy.

There was a ringing in my ears, and I shook my head…what was she saying? Focusing on her lips, I could see her saying, “Breast cancer is fought with several different types of treatments. There is surgery, there is radiation, and there are many types of chemotherapy. You should know that your double mastectomy was a major treatment by itself. Your cancer was completely removed. The pathology revealed that it was a 1.4cm Stage 1, Grade 1 tumour; very slow growing. Your 3 sentinel nodes revealed no lymphatic spread, and during surgery it was found that there was no lymph vascular infiltration within your breasts. It is hormone receptive, but HER2 negative and not Triple Negative cancer. You were very fortunate to catch your cancer early, and for the next five years, you will only need to take one Tamoxifen pill each day. You will have 6 month wellness visits with your family doctor throughout that time, where you will be checked for possible metastasis of the breast cancer into other parts of your body. And that is all.”

Stunned, not believing this could possibly be true, I actually ARGUED with the poor woman. What about my extensive family history?! Won’t that increase my odds of recurrence? My cancer surgeon had warned me to expect chemo. How could it be that I’m all done, that there is nothing further to suffer through?!

After patiently explaining that my family history of breast cancer has nothing to do with the treatment of the breast cancer we removed – WHAT?! (they focus on treating the cancer they hold in their hands – on its characteristics, not on what my future could develop). That my cancer was removed completely by my mastectomy and the Tamoxifen would starve any microscopic bits that might be floating around in my body. That my family history of breast cancer would only be a concern for my ovaries and fallopian tubes down the line, and I would need to approach that outside of this visit. Only then, did she patiently say, “This is GOOD news…”

And only then did her words sink in. No chemo and I am done with the fear of Barnard. I turned to Markus with a lost look on my face; all my anxiety was still built up inside – where was I supposed to put it? Markus repeated what NP Vlahadamis said, “This is GOOD news…” I decided to stop fighting it. Even though I was SURE they were mistaken, that this was too good to be true, I decided to play along. I was confident someone would catch the mistake in a few days and call me with the corrected news and tell me to get myself into chemo…So I turned back to her and smiled and asked what I should do next. She told me to take my new prescription to their pharmacy, and she would be calling me in a few weeks to see how the side effects of Tamoxifen were treating me.

In a daze, I changed back to my regular clothes, and joined Markus in the hallway. We kept looking at each other in disbelief, then he would grab me and laugh out loud and cheer. In the pharmacy waiting room, he sat across from me and kept asking, “What shall we do to celebrate?!” We giggled and said, “I can’t believe it!” too many times before I looked around and realized I was surrounded by people who were suffering from cancer, waiting for their prescriptions, who didn’t have any good news for themselves. Sobered, we listened to the pharmacist explain about the many side effects of Tamoxifen (Hello, Menopause) and grinned when she politely whispered about “vaginal dryness and discomfort” and the various solutions for that. I can buy a fix for vaginal dryness on the shelves of my local pharmacy…can’t say the same for cancer, right?

Tamoxifen grasped in my hands, we retraced our steps to the car; past the cafeterias, past the information centre, past the lending library, and finally past the wig department. I touched my hair and murmured, “I’m keeping my hair…” Markus whooped and hugged me.

In the car, he told me that he was getting dozens of responses to his good news post to my friends on Facebook. He urged me to tell my friends and family right away; that everyone would be so relieved and happy for me. How could I tell him that I secretly could not believe the good news? What if I made the announcement, and I got a phone call the next day, crushing me with the opposite news? I flapped my hands and told him I would write it later. I couldn’t even call my own children to speak the words out loud; I was so scared I would jinx things. We bought a feast at the T&T asian supermarket, and brought it home to the kids. The whole family was giddy with the news, while I sat there quietly wondering. Late that night, I cautiously wrote about my day, sharing the news on Facebook, then sat back and waited for the phone call I was dreading. I put off writing in my blog, thinking I would make it officially good news if nobody called me with bad news in a few weeks.

This week, I got a phone call from a private caller. A voice sounding just like my best friend asked for me…so I yelled, “PUNKIN!!!” and there was a long pause…then, “Uh um, no, my name is John Mackey. I am a medical oncologist from the Cross Cancer Institute.” I swallowed my immediate panic, and laughed and explained about Duncan/Punkin and that his voice was an exact match. With a smile in his voice, John Mackey replied, “Well, if Duncan has the same voice as me, then he must have a very nice voice indeed, haha! I was asked by Doug Goss to review your pathology and double check that you are having the appropriate treatment…he said you are a family friend? I just need your verbal permission over the phone before I open your medical file and read it” Still panicked, I mumbled yes and waited…This was the phone call I was waiting for – finally someone realized that they messed up and my cancer wasn’t all gone and I would have to go to chemo after all and lose all my hair and get sick and be tired and maybe maybe I wouldn’t live as long as I wanted to… There was total silence as he read over my file. I think I held my breath the entire time. When he started to speak, I still couldn’t breathe. He said these magic words, “Sue, based on what I am reading, you can be sure that the cancer has been removed and is gone from your body. The Tamoxifen is precautionary – 5 years of starving any possible cancer that could have been missed on a microscopic level. You should feel confident that you are well. Now, let’s talk about your family history and what that speaks to.” I floated as we discussed genetic testing and I complained that testing positive would endanger future life insurance for me and my children. He paused and said, “Um. You have already had breast cancer. That horse is out of the barn. Life insurance companies will discriminate against you and your children because of that, regardless of the genetic testing results.” I had to laugh when I realized I had totally forgotten that I have breast cancer. It feels good to forget. By the end of the phone call, he had recommended I discuss prophylactic removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes with my gynaecologist, and wondered if I was ok with that; with early onset menopause. I reassured him that I was done using my ovaries, that the Tamoxifen will imitate menopause for the next five years, and as my mom went through menopause early, I expected it was around the corner anyway. I thanked him for his time and hung up, posting the funny phone call on Facebook. Immediately, my friend Wendy, who lives in Edmonton and is wading through the cancer war like me and knows every doctor out there, posted, “Dr. Mackey is the best oncologist in Western Alberta. You are very lucky indeed!” Holy shit. So, another guardian angel has landed and now I have officially lost track of how many of them are in my life. How blessed am I.

Today, we went to pick up a friend from the hospital in Hinton, and took a little side trip to the garden centre in Canadian Tire. I chose new veggies to replace the ones that have been eaten by frost in our garden, new herbs, beautiful flowers, and seed potatoes. On the ride home, we listened as our friend told us how lucky she was that although she had fallen off of a 20 foot cliff while rappelling, she was wearing a helmet and managed to not break any bones. I shook my head in disbelief, and then I stopped myself. I need to stop this denying of good news. I told my friend that I was so happy that she was safe, and that I was amazed at what a great adventure she survived. How blessed was she!

After we brought our friend home, we settled into gardening. Markus worked on the flowers in the back yard, and I worked on planting pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and cabbages in our vegetable patch. The sun shone down warm on my shoulders, my knees got dirty, and I sweated. Every spadeful of dirt I dug up was rich with pink wriggling earthworms, and every leaf on every plant glowed green with life. I sat back on my heels and looked around me. My topsy-turvy Spring was over. As I breathed in the warm fresh air, I realized that Summer was here, and I was surrounded by new life. I can dig in the dirt and pull weeds and let my hair get messy. I can plant the vegetables that I know I will harvest in the Fall. And I can look at those hanging pots of flowers that Markus chose, and I can see that hummingbirds have come, attracted to the colourful blooms. Ganbaru feels extra good in the sunshine!


Domestic Godess…Naked Plumbing

Please excuse this interruption; your regularly scheduled cancer programming will continue after this mundane reminder that Life continues…and if you are me, Life is weird and good. Sometimes useful things happen when you are totally nude, and if you bare your heart as well, love will find a way to you.

I had a haircut scheduled. An hour before my appointment, I decided I should jump into the shower to wash the unruly mane. Standing in the shower, looking up at the “rain” shower head that our hotel clowns had so thoughtfully installed for us, that only ever dribbled out water a few tablespoons at a time, I snapped. I turned off the water and marched buck naked into my son’s room closet, where I kept our old shower head from our last apartment. I knew that it could turn low water pressure into a normal shower, so I just needed to un-screw the old head and screw on the new one, right? It would just take a few minutes, right? Wrong. Old shower head was rusted on (we have orange well water…it has magical properties). Undaunted, I marched into the kitchen to find a rubber glove from the sink, so I could get a better grip on the rusty shower head. As I was still naked, the march into the kitchen quickly turned into a hunched-over scurry. Rubber glove in hand, I scurried back to the bathroom. I shoved my son’s desk chair into the shower stall, stood up there wearing nothing but one rubber glove, and wrestled with the rusted-on shower head. 5 minutes and many curses later, I realized I needed an actual tool to help me. Very dangerously, I jumped off of the chair onto the wet tile, then slid my way back into the kitchen, sporting my one-glove fashion. I found our multi-purpose tool with the pliers attached, in a cup next to the microwave oven. Up I hopped onto the chair in the shower, and spent another 5 minutes fruitlessly banging on the old shower head, inexplicably wearing that yellow rubber glove on my right hand. I finally figured out I needed something bigger; something from the actual toolbox…in the garage.

Yes, we live in the woods, but the snow plow for the hotel does drive by occasionally. I did not want to scar the snow plow driver for life, so I put on my winter parka to cover my nakedness. Why take the time to get fully dressed for a quick trip across the front yard to the garage; this was just going to take a few minutes, then I could hop into the shower, right? As soon as I stepped outside and the icy wind took a swipe at my backside, I should have heeded its warning. But no, I’m not known for any kind of wisdom, whatsoever. I scanned the horizon of our driveway to make sure the coast was clear, then clunked awkwardly out to the garage in my son’s winter boots. My 2 dogs scampered beside me, perhaps thinking this was another of Mama’s crazy moments, and maybe I would stop and play catch along the way; they were only right about the crazy part. Thankfully, it was only a mild -10° Celsius and just beginning to snow. I rooted through the garage, found the toolbox (which should be stored in the house, dammit!), found a giant wrench, and clunked back to the front door in record time. Correction, I clunked back to the LOCKED front door in record time. Picture naked woman cloaked in a Northface parka with a furry hood, standing in snow boots, in the falling snow, shaking a giant wrench up at the sky, while howling in banshee-like fashion. She slumps her shoulders in defeat, thinking she will just stand there and die of frostbite until her menfolk return from Calgary 7 hours later to recover her frozen body. This would be preferable to walking her naked self down to the hotel front desk and politely asking someone to find a spare key for the cabin. Then, a lightbulb blinks over her head and her head snaps up with the memory of a brighter time when her mind was fully functioning, when she had hidden a spare key in a secret location, elsewhere on the property. Crazy naked woman in parka and snow boots points her giant wrench in the right direction and slips and slides to the hidden key, blessing her formerly sane self. Victory!

Back in the house, I clunked to the bathroom, shed the parka and the boots, climbed up onto the chair, made short work of that rusty shower head, installed the new shower head, and threw the chair out of the shower stall. Ahhhh, sweet hot water cascaded out of the ceiling, and all was right in the universe. It’s amazing how a good shower can restore sanity; or at least the appearance of sanity. At least I remembered to get fully dressed for my haircut appointment.

At the salon, I met a lovely lady named Shawna. My little boy, Simon, has always hated haircuts. Whether I cut it, or someone else cuts it, he always feels foolish for days, waiting for the hair to grow back to an un-embarassing look. This is how he felt until he met Shawna. For the last 2 haircuts, he has come back glowing, posing in front of the mirror, making studly faces at himself. My furry man told me last week, “You can only get your hair cut on a Tuesday because that is the only day that Shawna works. She lives in Valemont (1 1/2 hours away) and only comes in on Tuesdays. She will be worth it. If she can make Simon happy, she’ll make you happy, I promise.” Shawna is a petite young lady in horn-rimmed glasses, hiding behind a fringe of long straight brown hair. There were just the 2 of us in the little salon, and she shyly smiled and reached out her hand to me, “Are you Susan? I’m so happy to meet you!” I haven’t felt that welcomed in this town in so long, I don’t care that she got my name wrong. I was so happy to meet her, too.

When I shook my long hair out of my bun, she gasped, “Oh, what beautiful shiny hair! Are you sure you want to cut it?” I explained that I was due for some surgery and that my husband would have to wash my hair for me for a couple of weeks. I wanted to cut it short enough that it would be very easy for him to care for. She brightly said, “Oh! If you want to come in here, I would be happy to wash it for you? Or?…” I realized it was so much easier to just blurt out that I have breast cancer, instead of dancing around the subject, and told her that the short hair will come in handy for not only the post-op recovery period, but possibly for chemotherapy down the line. Shawna put both hands on my shoulders and spoke to me in the mirror, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I want you to know that my grandmother just finished her treatment for breast cancer and she is doing well, and that the hospitals in Edmonton are wonderful.” Then, knowing exactly what type of low-maintainance hairstyle I will need for my upcoming adventure, she settled into cutting my hair perfectly. We chatted about kids (she has an 11 year old daughter) about safety in small communities, about camping, about both of our husband’s loving to lead us up mountains and on hikes we get lost on, and about living far and away from cell-phone reception, near the North Pole. An hour passed in the blink of an eye, and I looked up to find my face looking years younger, framed by my sassy new haircut. Shawna walked me to the reception desk of the salon, and said this to me, “If you are feeling unwell and just need to freshen up, call me. I will come wash your hair, cut your hair, or even just blow-dry your hair after your husband washes it for you. And it doesn’t need to be a Tuesday. I wish you all the best for your future.” Then she wrote her home phone number on a card and handed it to me, holding my hand for an extra moment in her hand, as I took the card. How blessed am I? Every corner I turn, I meet kind people with loving hearts.

So here is the lesson of the day, boys and girls: a naked plumber in the chill of winter, is not as wise as a plumber fully clothed. But a naked heart in the chill of cancer, can sometimes be the best kind of wise there is.



Flowers and Tea in the Winter Mountains

During the past week, our house has been bustling with the arrival of our oldest daughter, visiting from university, and the departure of our youngest daughter on a French exchange program to Quebec.  Sitting down to write has been a luxury I couldn’t afford, so the words have been filling me to overflowing, inside.  A few days ago, while shopping in Safeway, those words had nowhere else to go, so they started spilling out of my ears.  In the floral section. Luckily, I carry a little notebook for just such occasions, and I caught them before they were lost (something Hashimoto’s has taught me – write it down or lose it forever).
Driving to Safeway takes an hour, so I usually take my time, wandering the aisles to make sure we have everything we need before making the long journey home.  At the end of the produce section, I found myself surrounded by flowers.  As I ventured further into the arrangements and noticed all the tulips and lilies,  my heart lifted with the realization that Spring was around the corner.  Living so far north, this is the time of year when it feels as if Winter will go on forever.  So I indulged myself by wandering around the flower section, picking up the heavy glass vases, picturing the long-stemmed blooms I could arrange, and where I would place them in my apartment.  I gently stroked the glossy leaves of the orchid plants, reminiscing about my house in Hawaii, filled with all varieties of those beauties that my husband would bring home to me every few weeks. Large baskets filled with luscious ferns, hung from iron hooks, green tendrils tickling my ears as I brushed by.   All around, the damp smell of healthy plants in rich soil made me feel homesick for something I couldn’t place my finger on…
Then I found wide pots filled with assorted bulbs; crocuses, tulips, and hyacinths.   They were slightly over-bloomed, the hyacinth stem drooping with the weight of the heavy blossom clusters. But I knew they would smell heavenly, so I leaned in and nestled my face amongst the petals.  A deep inhale of the heavy perfume…and I found myself in Bedfordshire, England, with my best friend, Connie.  We were taking one of our days off from working in the AAFES Base Exchange store on RAF Chicksands, and enjoying a day visiting garden centers.  Our lives as Air Force wives would have been very boring, if it weren’t for the small miracle of meeting each other.  When I interviewed her for a job in the Shoppette, I remember thinking how nice it would be to have such a fun friend.  She was just a young girl like me- barely 20 or 21, freshly returned from her honeymoon with her high school sweetheart, but smart as a whip, feisty, and quick to smile.  She had long, chestnut brown hair, that fell in wild waves of corkscrew curls, and startling blue eyes that never ever missed a thing.  It’s funny how appearances fooled me into thinking, “high school cheerleader, popular crowd – maybe not interested in being friends with an oboe-playing band geek who liked to read cookbooks for fun and prune roses for kicks.”  Lo and behold, both Connie AND her husband Dan had been band geeks, they loved to cook, and had the same goofy sense of humor I thought I was alone in possessing.  Our husbands worked crazy schedules on base; 3 days of day shifts (7am-3pm), 3 days of mid shifts (3pm-11pm), 3 days of swing shifts (11pm-7am), then 3 days off.  In the beginning, Connie had to wait for base housing, and she and Dan lived in a spider-infested townhouse in a village called Sandy, about 30 minutes from RAF Chicksands.  To escape the dark rooms filled with spiders, we would explore garden centers on our days off from the BX, where we both had transferred to work.  The garden centers were enchanted places where you could wander greenhouses filled to the rafters with plants of all varieties and sizes.  They also had gift shops stocked with gardening books and beautiful pottery to drool over.  But best of all, every garden center had a cozy little area where customers could enjoy high tea.  Some teas were fancy, with scones and clotted cream, and some just offered small sandwiches and strong, sweet, milky black tea from chipped teapots with knitted tea-cozies.  It didn’t matter what the weather was like outside (usually chilly and mostly wet), because inside we were warm in the greenhouse, surrounded by bright flowers and the pleasant muted clinking of our china cups in their saucers.  I  remember that we were always too poor to buy many things (our husbands were brand-new enlisted airmen – we would have had more income on Welfare), but we always had a few pounds to buy a pot of tea and maybe share a sandwich or some sausage rolls.  And wandering the garden centers, paging through the books and looking at, touching, and smelling the flowers were always free.  
Connie and Dan eventually secured base housing, and were given a unit just a few hundred yards behind my house.  With our husbands’ shifts keeping them in permanent sleep deprivation, Connie and I had to occupy ourselves with few resources. Living on the economy was very expensive, and simple things like going out to dinner or the movies weren’t luxuries we could all afford very often.  So we learned how to cross-stitch.  And we learned how to cook.  To this day, Connie’s Spaghetti Carbonara is the best sauce I have ever had.  Pancetta, red wine, beef,  sauteed onions, garlic and carrots, all married together for hours, then finished by pureeing and stirring in silky cream.  I could drink the whole pot of sauce if I didn’t have to share it… I tried to convince her that we could open a restaurant and only serve her spaghetti and my beef stroganoff and get RICH!  She would laugh and flap her oven mitts at my foolishness, but to this day, I know people would pay good money for our food – if only they could taste it first.  
Once in a while, if our husbands’ off days and swing shifts would coincide,  we would splurge and take the train to London. The 4 of us visited Madame Toussad’s Wax Museum, dallied in Harrod’s, and stood at the gates of Buckingham Palace.  I remember always having a difficult time breathing in those places, not quite believing I was actually travelling in a city that was older than my native country.
Every Saturday at 6:45pm or Sunday at 9:45am, Connie would say, “Okay, I’m running to Mass – I’ll be back in about an hour.”  Whether she was at my house or I was at hers, she went.  Her husband and I, both baptized but never raised by families to practice our faith, would wheedle and whine to keep her from going, but she would just smile and say, “I gotta go!  I’ll be right back!”  There was no Bible thumping or preaching – she went because she wanted to go.  My father is Agnostic (in my opinion, a very pretentious way of saying, “I dunno”) and my mother was just paranoid.  She was baptized as a baby (some Missionary must have convinced someone in her family, but never followed through with the rest of the faith lessons) but it meant nothing, as not one of them attended Mass or even discussed any faith in the household.  She also believed in Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, among other things.  Basically, it felt like my mother wanted all bases covered, in case she died and one of the faiths was actually true, so she had all of us children baptized at birth.  In any case, both parents were too lazy to physically bring us to churches to explore faiths, so they always told us, “You decide what you want to believe in when you grow up.”  I went to an Episcopal boarding school one year.  It was my first time in a church, and I was enthralled by the architecture, the acoustics (I sang in the school choir), and the hushed air when the minister spoke.  The hymns were my favorite part, though, which made me think that perhaps I wasn’t feeling the message I was meant to receive from the Episcopalians. So I asked Connie, “Why do you go to church?”  At first, she laughed and told me that when she was little, her mother would get tired of the kids whining about going to Mass on Sundays and would yell, “Get up and come to Mass, or you’re all going to Hell!”  Then I said, “Why do you keep going now?  You could sleep in, or we could keep watching that show on tv, or we could all have a glass of wine – why do you feel you have to go to Mass, now that you’re grown up and Mom doesn’t need to nag you?”  She grew still as she thought about it, a little crease forming between her eyebrows.  Then she said, “Well, I think I go to say thank you.  God gives me every day of my life – every minute of every day.  And I have a really good life.  I’m healthy and happy, and I have a wonderful husband and a good job.  For all those days in my life, I think it isn’t too much for God to ask me to go to Mass for just one hour. An hour is such a small amount of time to say thank-you for everything He gives.”
For weeks, Connie’s words rattled about in my head.  Finally, I worked up the courage to ask her if I could come with her one time, to see what Mass was like.  She agreed and said I was totally welcome, but there was a little rule that I wouldn’t be allowed to partake of Communion because I wasn’t a fully initiated member of the church.  I thought, “that’s okay.  I’m just curious.”  Following her to Saturday night Mass was curious, indeed.  Upon entering the small wooden, multipurpose chapel on base, Connie dipped her fingers in a little basin of water (Holy Water, she explained), and genuflected with her dampened fingers; gently touched forehead, then sternum, then left shoulder, then right. I imitated her, the water leaving a cooling spot on my forehead. There were only a few other people there, so the carpeted chapel was very quiet. We slid into the wooden pews, and Connie pulled out the padded kneeling bench by our feet, and knelt.  She bowed her head and became very still.  I looked around at others doing the same, looked up on the alter to the large crucifix, studied Jesus’ bowed head.  And the pianist asked us to open our Catholic Book of Worship (hymnals) to a certain number, and we began to sing.  The music was meh.  But then there were readings from the bible.  2, to be exact.  It was a bit difficult to understand, because I was slightly nervous from all the rising and the sitting, and the responses to prompts that I was a stranger to.  Then the priest began his homily.  I figured out that after a reading from the Gospel, the priest does a homily to explain the Gospel in layman’s terms.  I could never have prepared myself for Father Ryan, though.  Here was a spritely little man in his mid-fifties, glasses on his nose, talking about how great the Rolling Stones are…what?!  He had us laughing and answering questions, and next thing I knew, I felt a “click.”  I started tagging along after Connie to every weekly Mass.  Eventually, perhaps feeling left behind, her husband joined us. Not once did Connie nag us, not once did she preach.  She just lived her faith, and we lifted ourselves to reach the level she seemed to glow from. The rhythm of prayer and response, song, and readings, began to feel comfortable and easy.  Every week, we all gave each other a sign of Peace during Mass, by shaking hands after the Lord’s Prayer, and wishing each other, “Peace be with you.”  And every time that happened, I felt the peace wash over me and I felt strong and refreshed, ready for a new start to a new week.  Dan and I went through the RCIA program and were both given our First Communion and were Confirmed on Holy Saturday Night before Easter that year.  
Within one month of each other, Connie and I found ourselves expecting our first babies.  Soon after, however, our husbands were reassigned to the U.S.  Connie moved to Maryland, and I moved to the armpit of Texas: San Angelo.  The best part of living in San Angelo (the ONLY part) was that my daughter was born there.  The rest is a blur.  Connie’s baby boy was born 11/12/92, and my daughter was born on 12/13/92.  She made me the Godmother, and I made her and Dan the Godparents.  She and Dan came for a visit when the kids were 3 months old – we celebrated Easter together and for a few days it felt like no time had passed.  Luckily, it turns out we have that kind of friendship, because 17 years went by before we saw each other again.  We tried to keep in touch, but life gets busy with jobs and kids, divorce, and moving.  Years later, I found myself in Colorado for a high school reunion, and Connie and Dan drove to my hotel to bring me to their new home.  Connie’s hair was blond, Dan’s was all salt and pepper, and mine was falling out, but as soon as we started talking, we were in our 20’s again, laughing and joking and comparing kids. Their son and my daughter, although raised apart since they were 3 months old, have turned into mirror images of each other.  We alternate between wanting to hug them and wanting to strangle them.  Connie confides in me that she has had ups and downs with her son, as I have had with my daughter, but through it all, she maintains an inner peace I wish I could find.  She gets angry like a normal person, but she bears no resentment, like I do. For her, forgive and forget go hand-in-hand.  That’s something I need to work on…  They also got on a plane and flew out to Canada to visit me a couple of years ago.  It’s so strange and wonderful to me, each time we are reunited, to find that nothing has changed.  Connie is still the kind of person that I strive to be.  She is patient and kind, she is forgiving and loving.  As I age, I realize how important it is to surround myself with people that I look up to; people who teach by example.  But there are very few people I meet that inspire me to be a better person, while making me laugh and appreciate life at the same time. I’m sure I am describing every Best Friend in the world, but this is different, because this is my Best Friend.  Since I get more discerning as I age, I find myself choosing to be alone, rather than have shallow friendships. If it weren’t for Facebook and FaceTime, linking me to the friends I have held on to, and to my Best Friend, I think I might go crazy in this winterscape called Jasper.  I mentioned the Girl Scout organization on Facebook, a couple of weeks before Lent, praising it for its liberal views, and the next thing I know, a huge box arrives in the mail from Connie, full of Girl Scout Cookies (and other goodies).  All it was missing was a big pot of steaming tea, strong, sweet, and milky hot.  And Connie.  And a warm greenhouse full of flowering plants…
I blink, look down, and find myself holding a little pot of deep purple african violets.  The dark green leaves are impossibly soft, covered in velvet that begs to be touched.  I look up, and I’m in the flower section of the Hinton Safeway, thousands of miles away from England.  Connie and I both live in the Rocky Mountains now – she’s on the Colorado side, I’m on the Canadian side.  There are just a few really big hills between us.  I brought the little plant home and placed it on my kitchen table.  It keeps me company while I abstain from Facebook during Lent, it’s cheerful purple petals reminding me that Easter is around the corner.  It stands in for the garden centres in my memories, while I raise a cup of strong, sweet, milky black tea towards the snow-covered mountains, to my best friend on the other side.  Cheers, Connie!

%d bloggers like this: