The Beautiful Mundane
The sun was shining outside the kitchen window as I held a large head of organic lettuce in my hands. It was June. I didn’t feel like dealing with the lettuce, but my husband and I had paid for a local farm share that summer, and there was always such bounty, which meant near-constant processing of vegetables if they weren’t to spoil. I had control over so very little; I didn’t want the excellent, super-perishable lettuce to go to waste.
I stood over our double-basined stainless-steel sink holding the gleaming green ball, ripping off leaves, holding each one carefully under the faucet on the right side, then dropping it into the salad spinner on the left. One by one, I admired the delicate curls on the edges of the leaf, the veins spanning out from the center ridge. Traces of rich, brown, organic soil swirled down the drain as I took care to wash both sides of each precious piece. I became deeply present as I spun out the water droplets, dumped the overage, and patted the lettuce tenderly with paper towels before storing it in the fridge for dinner that night. I even saved the crunchy white core for the dog, who would receive with delight what would have otherwise been trash.
As I worked, I grew overcome with appreciation for the lettuce. For my able hands to break it down, for the farm that grew it, for my ability to buy such quality food. Grateful for the cool water that rinsed the dirt away, indebted to my own human hunger. A domestic chore, once tedious, was now so clearly a gift.
All the while thinking, Teri can’t wash lettuce anymore.
* * *
The announcement via email from Teri and her husband to her close friends—just six months before—still haunted me: Some distressing health news… wanted to tell you in person… managing the best we can. They were two of our closest friends, with whom my husband and I double-dated regularly. I struggled to find any right words to reply: I’m not sure what’s helpful, but you are encouraged to tell me at any time: talk, food, ride, movie, hugs, etc. Teri was only forty. She ate well, never smoked, exercised every day, and had the most joyful spirit I’d ever encountered.
Extra cruelly, after three arduous years of law school, she had passed her bar exam the same day the doctor called. Teri had toured the country as an indie rock drummer and won an actual Emmy for documentary work on cable access television. As a freelance videographer, she happily made graphics for the “jumbotron” at hockey games. Her next role, attorney, was her dream.
The impact of her newly diagnosed disease was quickly amplified when it was determined to be triple negative breast cancer. Genetics got her despite her good living; her grandmother had suffered the same; it was sheer bad luck. Teri had a mastectomy right away and endured an onslaught of chemo, hair loss, and the ensuing wig and prosthetic shopping, all the while writing witty self-reflective blog posts about her experience: Oh, appetite, my BFF, where have you gone? She didn’t complain, instead finding poignancy in even the appalling tubes and drains inserted into her body.
The following morning—sky washed clean from the overnight rain—I pulled lettuce out of my fridge, wondering how something so bright and vibrant continued to exist if my dear, sparkling friend did not.
And then, seemingly overnight, severe leg pain revealed more cancer—this time in the bone; that worst of words, metastasis, had entered our realm. I sat on her couch across from her as she told me the latest, scarcely recognizing my old friend: short, dark stubble fuzzed the top of her head where thick, shining black locks had once cascaded down her back; her arm, which had been swollen since the mastectomy surgery, was completely swaddled in Ace bandages; her once athletic features had begun to thin. But even then, while reporting that she had decided to stop her treatment, she beamed at me, her broad, radiant Teri smile wincing only slightly.
Within weeks, I would urgently encourage our friends to visit if they wanted to see her again. Just three days after she turned forty-one, during a dramatic lightning storm, Teri died.
The following morning—sky washed clean from the overnight rain—I pulled lettuce out of my fridge, wondering how something so bright and vibrant continued to exist if my dear, sparkling friend did not. Despite everything, and because of everything, an onerous responsibility had become a gift.
* * *
For quite a while after Teri’s death, ordinary things took on great value. Walking the dogs, I appreciated my ability to be outside, even in the freezing cold. In yoga, I thanked my body for its ability to stretch and felt kindness instead of disdain towards my soft belly. Then time went by, the loss less acute, and I slipped back into taking things for granted. I became less mindful, as one does.
Our friend Kevin had been dog sitting for us while we were out of town when he first got truly sick. Pale and exhausted, he went to his doctor, who ordered some tests, and then some more tests, and soon I was visiting him in the hospital. After navigating a maze of ugly beige hallways with glaring fluorescent lighting, sweet antiseptic smells, and the mysterious atmosphere of pain and illness around every corner, I found his room number at last and tentatively peered into his room.
“Heyyy,” he drew out his words. “Come on in.”
“Is it stupid to ask how you are?” I asked anyway, trying not to flinch at the sight of him in bed.
“Well, I got me some cancer,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Kevin explained to me that colon cancer like his, appearing at age thirty-seven, was bizarre; the median age for this disease is seventy-two. It wasn’t just cancer either, I learned later; it was stage four cancer, but he didn’t tell me that then.
“Can I hug you?”
“Not really. They gutted me,” he said plainly, and went on to describe the foot-long incision that apparently lay just beneath the light hospital gown he wore, a cut that traveled across his belly from the surgery his doctors had undertaken to remove as much of the tumor in his abdomen as they could.
Again, at a loss, I just muttered, “I’m so sorry.”
I tried not to cry as I handed him a silly card I had made with pictures of the dogs. The territory of major illness was still foreign and shocking to me. My friend had been opened up like a fish. We were not quite middle-aged; this all seemed premature and wrong. How was this happening again?
As would become his mantra, he replied calmly, “It is what it is.”
My husband and I at least figured out a way to be helpful this time. Every two weeks on Tuesday nights, Kevin and his parents returned home after a long drive for his chemotherapy. Knowing his gastrointestinal tract would be shot the day following treatment, we celebrated the grace period beforehand by serving up what we came to refer to with a surprising amount of affection and anticipation: “Chemo Dinner.”
My husband is a fantastic cook, and he bent over backwards to accommodate Kev’s changing dietary restrictions as well as appeal to his numbing taste buds as much as possible and make sure everyone got fed, including the rotating group of friends that popped in and out. One dish that remained a favorite was risotto, something yummy but gentle that could be made in large batches and served a hundred different ways.
Month after month, biweekly, we shuttled over around seven o’clock, arms stacked with pans of chicken or fish, cooked vegetables (as Kevin couldn’t eat them raw anymore), and the risotto du jour: butternut squash, parmesan, herb and garlic, mushroom, seafood, spring pea. It was more like setting up a festive banquet than serving a sick person, and it certainly wasn’t hospital food. Whomever was in attendance gathered around a broad circular dining table and chatted for long, leisurely meals, eating and laughing despite, and even because of, the circumstances.
Kevin addressed his mom and dad by their first names, Mary Ellen and Paul, used the most colorful curses around them without blinking, and glibly shared sordid details of doing drugs and getting into all kinds of trouble as a kid growing up. Jokes went around the table, stories of hellraising in college, gossip about people we knew. I often watched the sweet, preppy Mary Ellen, dressed in pastel sweater and khakis, for signs of shock, but she just smiled benignly, her blue eyes magnified through her delicately gold-rimmed, but thick, glasses.
When he was first diagnosed, Kevin had been given six months. When he made it a year, he called it his “Cancerversary.” He never lost his hair even after all the chemicals they pumped into him, but he had looked older than the rest of us even before he was sick, his hair having turned grey in his early thirties. His beard, now snow white, grew long and he started looking like a sort of eccentric skinny Santa Claus.
For nearly seven years, Kevin took part in every kind of treatment the docs could throw at him: first the traditional, then all kinds of experimental stuff. I can’t count how many drug trials he was on. I think he legitimately advanced cancer treatment, essentially donating his body—while he lived—to science. He never lost hope, and he never had false hope.
Even when he referred to himself as “a professional sick person,” Kevin never really complained. Instead, he showed up to every concert, every reading, every art opening, dinner, lunch, coffee, or drink date—even though he wasn’t drinking. He’d tote his orange Gatorade along and enjoy the hell out of any party despite being the only sober person in the room. When we had him over, he’d be the first to arrive and the last to leave. He lived as much and as well and as hard as he could all the time. I still think about this when I feel too tired after work to see a friend or go to some cool event. I remember again how blessed I am, and the opportunities and abilities I have. Something as simple as eating raw vegetables, for example. In dying, Kevin taught me a lot about living.
* * *
Each time a new friend was in treatment, I held my breath waiting for results of follow-up scans, my entire body exhaling when results were positive. As in negative. As in clear.
Then another friend got The Big C. And another. And another, and another. Lungs, brain, breast. It felt like a plague, Cancer Season.
More dinners were planned and delivered, cards sent, hugs administered like medication. Reminders were entered into my phone to send texts and emails on scheduled chemo or radiation days; when pinged, I struggled to come up with new ways to say encouraging, loving, cheerful-but-not-too-cheerful things: I hope your treatment wasn’t terrible. Did the nurses admire your sweet new hat? Even when I struggled, secretly weeping in the car or shower, I never lost sight of my ability to do these things, to offer help.
We would go on to lose Kevin and to thank the Universe for sparing others. Each time a new friend was in treatment, I held my breath waiting for results of follow-up scans, my entire body exhaling when results were positive. As in negative. As in clear.
A subtle, ceaseless anxiety began to underline my days. Who would be next?
My beloved sister-in-law visits and tells us, somewhat blithely, over coffee one morning, that she has found a lump. It is breast cancer again. I am not stunned by this news; there is no gut punch this time. Though I am upset and scared and hug her too much, I am alarmed by my lack of alarm, and hope that what I am feeling is resilience and not simple, resigned jadedness.
My husband and I stoically await approval for her to receive an MRI to check for that worst of words. We await the treatment proposal—not optimistic, not unoptimistic. Realistic. Yet worried, and sad, for her, for us.
It is November and chilly. Tonight, I run three loads of laundry, a necessary, but often-loathsome chore. Tonight, I have a hard time focusing on much, so I am glad to be productive in a way that is not especially taxing. Tonight, I find myself in a hazy kind of trance, worry overcome by the warmth of freshly dry towels, stress washed away by the purifying smell of detergent and bleach.
I methodically pull tights and sweaters off the drying rack in the laundry room, piling them into a basket already overloaded with stuff from the dryer and ferry it to the couch in the living room, my preferred place for folding. Usually, I let the TV provide a remedy for this mindless boredom. Tonight, though, as I sink my hands into the soft, clean laundry, I think of Teri, Kevin, my sister-in-law. I think of the blessing of my body, my health, my random good luck.
I focus on the fabrics, touching each patterned sheet and white washcloth, noticing its relative smooth or nubby texture. I fish out socks one by one and place each on my knee until I locate its matching mate: polka dots, stripes, solids—then fold them together carefully into a ball, reunited. Checkered dishtowels and red napkins are neatly set on the coffee table to be delivered to the kitchen. The stuffed alligator, a favorite of the dog, is tossed onto his bed in the corner of the room where he receives it with a happy squeak. My husband’s t-shirts, emblazoned with band names, are folded in half and in half again to fit into his narrow drawer. Jeans are stacked into one side of the basket, underwear—including my bras, which I spend one extra moment handling gratefully—in the other.
Momentarily, I hug myself, close my eyes, and inhale deeply. It is acknowledgement that my anxiety has, once again, turned into hyperconsciousness and deep gratitude, a coping method honoring the things not everyone is here to celebrate. I appreciate my washer and dryer and having more clothes than any one person actually needs. I appreciate extra sets of sheets and plenty of towels for guests, for friends and family. I appreciate my able hands for folding. I appreciate my colon, brain, lungs, breasts.
Like a prayer, I give thanks for my life, in all its mundane-ness, its abundance of beautiful little chores, the things I can control. What I don’t let go to waste.