What a dead rat on a grill taught me about caring for people

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in February David and I have been living in Buffalo, NY. Daughters, grandchildren and a cancer institute two miles from the apartment we rent year around made the decision to settle in for the duration of treatment. Adding to those blessings has been the small urban Buffalo Vineyard Church that we attend.

A debriefing session was held after church today about the Friday evening barbecues that the church hosts in Buffalo’s urban west side during the summer months. This urban church is small in number but its members, mostly younger than 35, have big hearts and active mission to the people in their urban community.

We sat outside after church eating snacks while discussing the usual questions posed during a debrief of a major church initiative:  “What went well, what needs to be improved upon, what lessons did we learn for next year, and how did anyone see God at work?”

I shared my story and Maryanne said, “Dona that can be the title of your next blog post.”  I have taken her up on it because among other things rats can be great ice breakers of which I will explain shortly, but first I will share another time when a rat played an important role in a social setting.

Senegal World Vision trip 2005

Eight of us were eating in a restaurant in a small town near villages we were visiting.  Our church in Juneau Alaska was partnering with World Vision and village elders to bring clean water to an impoverished area serving a couple thousand people.  As we were eating our meal a huge rat darted past the door keeper.  Women screamed, maybe some men, too.  Some folks jumped on chairs and others like me were in denial saying ridiculous things like, “That’s not a rat. It’s too big. It’s probably a gopher.”  The rat was frantically running underneath tables and chairs trying to avoid the door keeper whose powerful legs finally won the day when he soccer- kicked the “gopher” rat across the room, through the door into the dusty dirt road from where he came.  The room erupted with applause, cheers and high fives as we witnessed this great athletic feat by our door man.  We laughed, told our versions, commiserated with the other patrons of the restaurant about their versions. Met new people. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

West Side Buffalo, June 2014

The grills were being prepared as adults from the community were coming and sitting on folding chairs and children were running around waiting for the food to be cooked and offered.  Many folks from the church had their barbecuing tasks to prepare for and others like me were sitting around trying to get to know some people who were coming to this weekly event.  I set my sights on a group of three women who seemed to know each other well as they talked about things in the community of which I knew nothing about.  But being the talker that I am (not even chemo can take that away from me) I ventured into their space and introduced myself and they did likewise.  They asked me if I went to the church that was putting on the barbecue.  I no sooner said yes, then they told me that they had seen a dead rat on one of the five grills that was getting ready to be fired up. In fact, they emphatically told me that the grill had been leaning on the side of the church for two days with the dead rat on it for both days; and someone needed to do something about that grill.  I had the distinct feeling that that someone was meant to be me.  Two reactions came up immediately. The first was laziness.  I didn’t want to do anything about it because I figured a grill heated up to over a 1000 degrees would kill any left-over dead rat-ness. I said as much but they were not impressed and seemed annoyed.  “Someone needs to wash that grill with hot soapy water,” the women said again and again. I knew that someone was meant to be me.  My second reaction was disgust.  I didn’t want to get that close and personal with a grill that had been the resting place for a dead rat for two days. I wanted to shoot back by using my cancer card, “You do it, I’m in cancer treatment and don’t need this”. But I knew that this was not the way to make new friends.

After cleaning the grill with hot soapy water, the women invited me back over to their circle with a, “You did good, girl!”  We all warmed up to each other.  Finding out I had cancer they told me encouraging stories about family members who got cancer and were treated wonderfully at Roswell Cancer Institute before they died ( hmm…..not the most encouraging of outcomes) but I knew for them the question of life or death was not the point  of the experience.  It was that their loved ones and they by virtue of proximity to their loved ones were treated respectfully and lovingly at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. They wanted me to be encouraged by such an important truth: how we are treated by strangers whose job is to care about us is the point.  I was so glad for hot soapy water and the presence of mind to finally show that I cared for what they cared about. This was my story of how God was at work, even through a dead rat.

Galatians 6:9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we don’t give up.”

The Waiting Room

I have a friend who was quoting an elderly relative to me once. The relative lived in a nursing home. The quote went something like this: “Sometimes I imagine that while I am living here I am in one of heaven’s waiting rooms.” I think we would all have to admit that she had to be one of the most positive and optimistic women we have ever heard. There are a lot of ways that this post could thematically be approached based on that one comment but I want to talk about waiting rooms.

The nature of waiting rooms
I usually do not mind waiting rooms if I am not hurry to be somewhere else after the appointment. Being a people watcher and communicator waiting rooms afford me many possibilities of entertainment. Admitting however that cell phones have changed the human interaction potential in waiting rooms, I still find the scene unusual enough to be interesting. I imagine myself sitting like an obedient dog with tail wagging and tongue hanging out hoping some human will pay attention to me and rub me behind my ear. I don’t just start talking to anyone. I look around, size up the mood of the waiting room crowd and wait for an opening and then off to the races I go. It is amazing what you can learn from people’s stories or opinions. And if you know me, you know that I am not short of my own.

The Phlebotomy waiting room
Last week I walked into the Phlebotomy waiting room to have blood drawn. It was crowded. Every seat was taken but there was one left for me. I sized up the mood. It was grim and motivated me to send up a quick prayer on behalf of my fellow cancer patients who needed what I needed – encouragement – before seeing their oncologist, surgeon, or oncology radiologist. All ages were represented but everyone looked old. You know how not smiling or talking makes the lines around our mouth droop down so we either look sad or mad? Well, if you did not know that – you know it now. If you are over 50 and don’t want to look 70 then smile more often. It makes everyone look younger. I ought to know. I have had deep laugh lines since realizing I wasn’t going to be young forever. My children and even my husband would say at times, “What are you mad about?” This was not fair as my only fault was that I was not smiling and not smiling apparently made me look like I was mad when I was just feeling and looking neutral, or so I thought. I have defended myself enough that I no longer get those comments.

Well, anyway, back to the scene in the phlebotomy waiting room where I was among the most isolated looking and silent group of individuals I had seen yet in a waiting room since my cancer diagnosis. 15 minutes into my silent wait something changed and it happened so quickly and dramatically that I had to ask a woman later on in the day who had been there whether she noticed what I noticed. She didn’t hesitate to agree that something odd was at work. Here is what happened: A woman walked into the waiting room and the man next to me noticed that there was nowhere for her to sit. He got up out of his seat and said for her to sit down in his seat. She was several feet from him so the interaction was heard and witnessed by all of us. She said, “That is alright, I have been traveling in a car to get here for two hours and don’t mind standing”. This older gentleman was having none of it. He insisted and she capitulated. The moment she sat down, the gentleman’s name was called to have his blood drawn. And it was at that moment that the entire waiting room burst into laughter. Why? I am not sure. Maybe these folks and I included were unsuspectingly waiting for an uplifting moment to bring us out of ourselves. The sweet irony of this man’s good deed seemed to earn him a surprising reward or a dispensation of grace- He no longer had to wait. He was called and in!  Ok, that was cool enough for this sad looking group but it wasn’t the end of the story. As soon as the laughter died out, strangers started talking to each other. I mean everyone was talking except for one cell phone engrossed person. People were talking to those next to them and to those across from them and the conversations were animated and prolonged. The buzz in the room solicited a comment from the receptionist: “Hey, is there a party going on in there?” she yelled from a room close by. I remained detached for a short while as I tried to understand this phenomena objectively. Questions of psychological and spiritual nature were being raised but before long I, too, wanted to be a part of these human connections.

What to make of the waiting room transformation
“And God said, Let us make humanity in our image. God made man and then announced that it was not good for man to be alone, so he made a helper suited to the man and he made them male and female; both made in the image of God.” God, Himself, is community, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and apparently does not want us to be alone. We are wired to belong to each other. A spark of the Holy Spirit is what I believed happened in that waiting room. Isolation gave way to community and we were all better off for it. Encouraged, uplifted and hopeful is what we experienced and all of that without one of us having yet to see or hear from our doctors. God bless our doctors and what they do but at that moment we didn’t need them.

Steroid Side Effects: New BFF’s’

‘Tis’ the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and have her nonsense respected.’     – Charles Lamb, 17th century poet and essayist

 

The last couple of infusions have required a total of 10 steroid pills to be taken during the 18 hours before the infusion. This only happens the day before the infusion and David is so thankful.  Here’s why.

After the first episode of steroid glut David asked if he could give me a signal while I was in the clinic that would indicate that I needed to take my enthusiasm and gregariousness down a notch. The signal would be a wink. I was all for this.  I certainly didn’t want to add embarrassment to him or myself due to a steroid over-exuberance. I agreed to the signal and thought that we had worked out something very appropriate.

Then came the day of my second infusion.  My system was flooded with steroids.  Yippee!  I knew I was walking the knife edge between friendly and inappropriate but I was having way too much fun yucking it up with everybody…….and I mean everybody.  Pity the stranger who just happened to look my way as I wanted them to become my new best friend.  I knew if I looked at David’s face it would be winking away so I made a conscious decision to not look at him.  What did he know?

Perhaps you are curious what my opening liners were to try to engage my new best friends?

“Hi there (lady sitting in waiting room), you have a really nice tan. I mean it; a really pretty tan.  But are you supposed to?  Aren’t we instructed to avoid the sun while on chemo?  Tip: start with a complement but end with a friendly helpful admonition or criticism.

Our conversation ended up being shorter than I would have liked.

Next attempt to make new best friends.

“Hi, I remember you guys from two weeks ago. You are the friendly volunteers who carry around the goody cart.”  (So far so good).

Then David said hi, too, but called one of them by the wrong name, or so I thought. Apparently steroids make one’s thoughts the rule of the land. I drew attention to the fact that David had called the woman by her wrong name. We argued about that in front of the volunteers.  I tried to enlist the volunteers to take my side.  They said they were instructed not to get in the middle of family disagreements.

The goodie cart rolled away sooner than I would have liked.

The infusion center at the cancer institute is huge with 36 infusion chairs or beds.  I decided I would visit all 35 of my chemo brothers and sisters.  I told David I was going to the bathroom and would take my IV pole with me and wouldn’t need his help getting there. I wandered the aisles to see if there was anybody I recognized from my previous visits.  Bingo! I quickly engaged a friendly and talkative 80 year old something patient that I had met the previous week.  Cruising and talking was great.  Eventually David and my infusion nurse found me and semi-dragged me back to my cubicle.

Friendly 80-year-old and I could have talked longer. She was probably on steroids too.

Back home and coming down from steroid exuberance I began to think about the awkward side of friendliness amongst strangers.  I searched the Net to read what not to say to people while seated next to them on a plane, clinic, or any other waiting area.  Here are some ‘pick-up or hi-ya’ questions I hope to avoid asking at my next infusion:

“What do you do about rectal itch?”

“Does this look malignant to you?”

“Want to see something really weird?”

All steroid frolics aside:

A little bit of steroids are great.  We all know of their anti-inflammability benefits.  A one-time mega dose of steroids is one thing but I hope that those of you that must take steroids long-term and experience the adverse side-effects read this blog post for what it is.

There is good research touting the health benefits of connecting with strangers “appropriately” (benefits for you and benefits for them). We just need to be willing to take a risk.  It is both spiritual (God created community), emotional/mental and organic. New human connections boost oxytocin and serotonin, which are biochemicals that build our immune system, improve mood and bond us with others.

So, I’ll see you out there making new best friends.  And don’t forget to smile (see blog post entitled, ‘Duchennes Smiles Only, Please’).

 

The upside (I mean it!) of being bald

 

In this post I want to  speak to the pluses and minuses of being bald. I’m serious….not tongue-in-cheek, or just funny or sarcastic. I have come to see some real advantages about being bald.

The positives:

1. You feel squeaky clean after a quick shower.

2. Your head dries within seconds – no blow drying, no nothing – just you and your natural born head.

3. You never have a bad hair day.

4. If you ever get head lice it will be easy to get rid of.

5. You get to reinvent yourself with the many wigs that you have conned from the American Cancer Society.  (Not really a con; it is just a matter of going to all the different ACS sites and asking for your one free wig.  They don’t care that you got one at another location.  Thank you, ACS.)

6. Friends give you gifts.  Some are beautiful scarves that you can wrap your head in different styles: African, Gypsy, Egyptian.   Again you’re reinventing yourself.

Aside:

You know how our mothers always told us to make sure we had clean underwear on in case we were in an accident and had to be taken to the hospital?   Well I’ve got another one for you ladies:  always make sure you have on 24-hour stay lipstick and earrings..

True story: In an earlier post I mentioned that I passed out at the oncology clinic due to fever and infection; an episode that required the hospital’s  rapid response team to be summoned.  Once they were reassured  I was no longer in crisis  they started talking to me.  Let me rephrase that. They started talking about me.  At that point I was slowing regaining consciousness.  I could hear and understand but I just could not summon the strength to open my eyes.. I heard one responder say, “Look at her she still has her lipstick on!”  At that moment I knew something critical had to be said whether my eyes were open or not. So I said, “By the time I have my eyes open I expect all of you that are surrounding me to have your lipstick on.”  (I desrved that.)  They laughed and said that Ralph only wore his at night.  (Ralph had to have been a medical student.) See ladies, clean underwear won’t generate admiration or laughs.  Wearing clean underwear is just doing your duty.  Wearing 24-hour lipstick is above and beyond.

Positives of baldness continued……

6. When you want your husband to feel sorrier for you than you deserve you can  walk around the house bald or with an unflattering scalp cap; looking very pitiful without your lipstick or earrings. It might get you a back rub or yet another glass of lemonade. But don’t overdo  this, it will backfire. One time after being particularly demanding my husband looked at me in my scalp cap and said, “You look and act like you are in the mujahedeen!”

7. When you finally decide to spruce it up a bit you get more than your share of compliments from your husband. He really means it because he’s really relieved!

The downside:

Did you notice that I didn’t mention a single negative? There is one big one:

You cannot ride in a convertible.  If you ride in a convertible you wig will invariably fly off once the car attains a speed of 45 miles an hour. It is likely your friends will be videotaping you when this happens. The video will be uploaded and go viral within minutes. This is subject to YouTube embarrassment and notoriety worldwide. I know this to be true because I know of it happening to at least one other woman.

So I’ll close with a link to the  Church Lady’s Wig Flies Off. I have watched this YouTube a dozen times.  I love this woman and I love her family and you’ll see why.  Listen carefully for some few  keywords. She explains what a “Treacher” is.  Listen for the word, “road kill”.  Watch the  the expression on her daughter’s (the driver’s) face.  Listen to the teasing of the other daughters that are on and off-camera.   And finally listen for the expression that I could have said, “at least you wearing your lip stick!”

 

 

Please weigh in on this topic of plusses of baldness in the comment section. No negatives please.

Some illustrations from my own creative hand to amuse and educate: remember you are reinventing yourself.

Lipstick, earrings, wig and looking twelve
Lipstick, earrings, wig and looking twelve

 

 

Egyptian scarf with lipstick and cool earrings
Egyptian scarf with lipstick and cool earrings
No lipstick, no nothing but grumpiness
No lipstick, no nothing but grumpiness
Short curly wig. Too much lipstick but cool earrings.
Short curly wig. Too much lipstick but cool earrings.
Gypsy scarf with lipstick and earrings but looking 10-years old.
Gypsy scarf with lipstick and earrings but looking 10-years old.
African turban, lipstick, earrings
African turban, lipstick, earrings