Life has been complicated, and while I have many first drafts of posts on file since October, none were worthy to go up yet. My thoughts were too scattered and cloudy, as has been my heart. I traveled a bit. I drove to Boston to have a turn taking my sister with cancer to one of her chemo treatments and saw some of my adult children and siblings and their children en route. We’ve been blessed with more grandchildren, I’ve reconnected with old friends both online and in real life, and for this year’s plot twist, after I had been told that I had more basal cell carcinoma on the bridge of my greatly changed nose and to expect surgery, I was called in, instead, by my two awesome doctors for a second opion biopsy today because they looked again at the slides, conferred, and had doubts that it was that bad. It may be something easier to treat.
I thought I was reconciled to more of everything that recovery required this past year — scraping, slicing, and bandages; surgery and recovery; sleepless nights in the recliner downstairs so neither my husband nor I undid my stitches; numb minutes watching strange animal videos and old sitcomes while not being able to wear my eyeglasses to read. This isn’t exactly a complaint. I’m not especially brave or stoic, but when the choice is death or discomfort, I will celebrate discomfort as the much better outcome. Cheerfulness is a Christian duty, and courage can be contagious. It can even spread from person to person but also within us, unannounced. That was my aim, but I have been strangely subdued. I hadn’t realized that, like the smoke from Canadian wildfires, the anticipation of going back down the rabbit hole of Treatment had tinged my world view and kept me from making solid plans.
but this new development has made me feel like Mole casting aside his paintbrush at the beginning of “Wind in the Willows.” All of the sudden I am writing again, I am editing things and creating canva posts, and looking at new submissions to the press where I work and I plan on going back to camp, after three years away, to help once more in the kitchen to work with friends and family. I am looking forward to this, and have been in training in my own kitchen so I can prepare fruits and vegetables and clean pots and pans cooking for so many more than two. This is much better than whitewashing.
When the essays that were percolating in my brain are fully brewed, I will share them here. In the meanwhile, just a short slice of life, some talk in the car between my husband and me. His Russian is better than mine. What you have to know is this: the Russians have a saying, “первый блин комом,” meaning, “the first pancake is lumpy.” I use it a lot when I cook, and when I write, and even when I sing. And now I am contemplating all the many lumpy pancake varieties I can create.
Conversation in the car on the way to the doctor:
Me: “Sweetie, if one were to write ‘первый блин’ in English transliteration, how would one do so? He: “Let’s see…. ‘p-e-r-v-y b-l-i-n.'” Me: “Aw. Not ‘p-e-r-v-i-i?'” He: “No, it’s ‘ы’ and not ‘и.'” Me: “Drats.” He: “Why?” Me: “Well, you know how I’ve just tried making saurkraut, and my pickles and all sometimes come out great and then other times do not?” He, cautiously: “Yes….?” Me: “Well, it occurred to me that someday, when I get better at it, I could start a food business, and call it Pervii Blin Productions, but if I spell it the other way they people will think I mean ‘pervy’ in English, which is altogether different, and then I may as well call it Enron or something. He: “It’s unfortunate, but, yes.” Me: “And also, First Pancake Productions just doesn’t have the same ring to it.” He: “Alas, no.”
Back to the proverbial drawing board. I am impressed at the fact that for the most part he kept his eyes on the road.
Thank you for your prayers. I had never had surgery before. The doctors are pleased with my rate of healing. The best surprise was that they took the skin for my nose from my shoulder, and not my forehead. It is a huge relief. I still have to keep my nose covered and clean. It took two office visits (my MOHS surgeon worked from eight in the morning till 5:30 at night, after the office closed) and an overnight hospital stay. But I am home, and happy to be here. My plastic surgeon had several young interns observe and even work on me, and the propriatery interest they took after in my stitches was touching. I have rules for four to six weeks:
No CPAP machine. The pressure would crush my nose.
No bowing my head. In the Liturgy, when they say, “Let us bow our heads unto the Lord,” all I can do is meekly lower my eyes.
No blowing my nose.
But if I have to sneeze, I have to hold onto my nose with both hands.
My youngest is getting married soon and I will not be completely healed for the wedding. I am still applying ointment, xerofoam, and gauze. The thread from the xerofoam gets in my eyes and tickles my nostrils. The bandages get soaked if I drink my water or coffee without a straw. And the bandages slip off, causing me to flash people with my healing skin at coffee hour. Not a look.
That said, the doctor is very, very happy. At my first visit, I just thought my nose we congested. I wasn’t allowed to explore. But the doctor had me flip my head back and with plyers and tweezers he extracted something. He was so happy and I was so shocked that I wrote a poem:
The doctor thrust the tweezers
into my nostrils,
from which my departed uncles
had, in my youth,
to my amazement.
This one, though,
surprised me more.
with a flourish of his wrist.
He smiled wide and laughed,
as had my uncles.
"Bet you didn't know
that THESE were up there," he said.
My husband tells me that my profile has changed, and he is correct. I have Michael Jackson’s nose from the 1960’s, sort of flat and wide. In another year they can do more surgery. But for now I just want to heal.
I am not taking most of my vitamins or herbal supplements because they might make me bleed more, and even had to dump a cup of willow bark tea because I can’t have asprin, which comes from willow bark.
Friends have spoiled us, sending or bringing me soup, a healthy dinner with zuccinni noodles, and locally sourced eggs from their own chickens. I am grateful.
But I am tired. All I can think of are first lines, not whole poems.
I am amazed at people’s kindness. I have received wooden roses, so I don’t have to water them. Three different monasteries are praying for us. My husband has gone shopping with me, his least favorite thing to do in this life, so I don’t have to lift things. And he has accepted this task with joy and patience which are contagious.
After all, we didn’t cut off my nose to spite my face. We cut off parts to save me. And it’s a miracle. I used to have cancer all over my face and not even know it. Then I knew it but still had it. And now, God has gifted doctors to be able to remove the cancer and restore my face. That is a miracle. It’s worth four more weeks of caution.
My children introduced me to the concept of “nose goes” when I said, “Someone needs to take out the garbage.” (I used to say “We need to take out the garbage,” but my youngest coined the term “the Communist We” to describe such use of the word.) One son called out, “Nose goes!” and all four children put a finger to the side of his or her nose. Last one to touch his nose had to do the deed.
As a mother I found the concept annoying, because like the allegedly silent game “Mum Ball” played at indoor recess it led to more heated discussions than active cooperation, but it’s a wonderful concept to indicate that there’s something that has to be done, and you don’t want to be the one to do it. I have pulled it on my husband more than once.
The phrase becomes way less whimsical when you apply it to your own nose.
My nose has been bleeding on the outside when I take hot showers since I was fourteen. Since it usually healed by the time I was dressed, I thought nothing of it. As I grew older it took longer to heal, and lately it didn’t heal at all. It took a year and a half for me to see a dermatologist because three of them left their practice, one at a time, within a week of my scheduled appointment. I finally found a dermatologist, on my own, who is on my insurance but not attached to my primary care doctor’s hospital. Her office is beautiful, with purple flowers and green vines painted everywhere and interesting things to look at on the ceiling. And her manner was forthright. She stuck me with needles to numb my nose, scraped off the pesky cells, and cauterized all the points that were bleeding. For a day and a half everything I ate tasted like barbecued me. “It looks like you’ve had this for a long time. It’s probably going to turn out to be cancer. And you will need to talk about what to do next with another dermatologist.” The biopsy proved her right — I had basal cell carcinoma. “You will need MOHS surgery,” she said.
Basal Cell Carinoma
Basal Cell Carcinoma is cancer, but it’s the best kind of cancer, in that they can do something about it. The dermatologist affiliated with the hospital my doctor uses was going to do a simple MOHS procedure, where each layer of skin is scraped and examined. But that morning, I had three new lesions on my nose. So she took biopsies instead. These proved to be more basal cells. And so she set me to the surgeon.
Lack of Sugar
The surgeon she sent me to is young, and attacks cancer ruthlessly. “I don’t sugar coat,” he said. He told me what he would have to do to fix this mess, and what I would have to do to prepare. He will take cartilage from ears and use it to support skin from my cheeks or forehead to cover the nose after the middle doctor removes all the cancer. Day one is removal of cancer in the dermatologist’s office. Day Two is reconstruction of the nose, followed by 23 hours observation, at the surgeon’s hospital. But I would have to do my part to lower my A1c, and furthter he expected me to walk at least an hour every day so I would heal properly, “and not risk the chance of profound disfiguration” from poor healing.
In the days and weeks that followed, I was more careful about what I ate and took what I called “forced marches,” outdoors when the weather was good and indoors at the store or gym when it was too hot or rainy outside. I did this at home. I did this when we went to Honduras to meet my son’s fiancee’s family. I did this at airports. And it worked.
Cleared for Surgery
I am cleared for surgery, removal of the cancerous cells on 8/4 and reconstruction of my nose on 8/5. Prayers most heartily welcome.
With some trepidation, I told the son who is to be married about my upcoming adventures. He put his arm around my shoulder, looked me in the eyes with great empathy, and said, “I’ll give the doctor fifty dollars if, in the middle, he says, ‘I’ve got your nose.”
My Nose, Though…..
I made the mistake of doing an online search of images for this procedure. The before pictures all look rather like me, with more or less damage. The after pictures are truly reassuring, with the faces looking normal, perhaps with a thin scar. But the middle? The photos of faces in the middle of the procedure look like line drawings of gremlins and goblins from German fairy tales from the nineteenth century.
This would all be easier, I suspect, if the cancer were someplace that my clothing hides. This is the nose that my siblings and cousins share. This is the nose that my father stroked and my uncles “stole,” that siblings tried to nurse when Mom was out and which countless wrongdoers have accused me of sticking where it doesn’t belong. (They were, of course, wrong.)
And this is the nose that was beeped.
“A Beep on the Nose”
I won’t give his name, not online or in person over beverages, because he and I are both grandparents now and he is a grizzled clergyman and I cling to whatever gravitas I can still muster. But when I was engaged, almost forty years ago, my fiance took me to the Blini Dinner Dance at a Russian parish near New York City. Blini are the pancakes that Russian Orthodox people make before Lent starts, and the parties surrounding them are often elaborate, with many rich toppings for the pancakes (smoked salmon, caviar, chopped onion, melted butter, sour creme, pickled herring, and more) and the last real parties before Lent. This was a glorious celebration, and by the end not everyone had danced off the vodka they had consumed.
A young seminarian who had been at school with my now husband and my older brother came over to me at the end of the evening. He was very, very earnest, and was weaving a little. “Anna!” he said, “I know that you love George, and you both are getting married, and I respect that, but I, I just have to do this. I’m sorry, but I have to.”
You know how the responses to trauma are flight, flight, or freeze? Reader, I froze, wide-eyed paralysis. I had no idea what would happen next.
He gazed at me steadily. He leaned in closer. He stuck out his index finger and reached for the tip of my nose.
“BEEEEEEEP!” he said.
I didn’t think I could open my eyes any wider, but I did.
And then I did get the reference. He was a dear boy. And now he’s a dear man.
But, my father was careful not to let me spend too much time with the seminarians, and I didn’t know all the names of my brother’s classmates and friends. And I couldn’t tell, at the time, who this one was.
Fast forward several years. I was very married, and pregnant with our second child in three years; I felt like an ugly troll. My oldest was still a baby herself. But the youngest of the bishops had come to our parish in Boston for a feast, bringing with him the youngest of the deacons, newly ordained. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time in the service, between my daughter and the usual pregnancy complaints, but at the end of the meal after I stared hard at the deacon. If I could picture him with a little less beard, he might have been the one who beeped me. But I couldn’t be sure.
The bishop blessed us all and left, and the deacon was still gathering the bishop’s things to load into the car for the ride back to New York. He came over and spoke to me kindly, with greetings and kind things to say about my daughter and husband and parish. And he paused.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked.
“I…. I don’t know,” I stammered.
“That’s okay,” he said, good natured. “Just one more thing.”
His eyes flashed. He reached in.
Well, glory be to God for all things.
So, nobody should beep my nose for a while after the surgery. I can’t use my CPAP mask and for now I can’t take any pills or vitamins that are blood thinners and I am sure I will receive new restrictions in the days to come.
And frankly, I am not sure if I will be healed by my son’s wedding in September. I offered to reschedule the surgery, but he said, “Mom, it’s cancer. We want it gone. And we want you around for a long time.”
I offered to stay home but he scoffed at that. So now I am playing with ideas for what to do to hide the healing process, if I still look like a troll in September. Etruscan helmet? Face mask? Veil? Fabulous hat with a blusher veil? The answer will come. (I do have some friends who are beekeepers…..)
There are things we get to choose in this life — whom to marry, what to read, how to look at a problem — and there are things where our choices are limited. The cancer is there. I don’t want it there. It has to come off. And if it means surgery, thank God I can have the surgery. And if, in the end, I am changed, it could be for the better. And yes, I do know that I could look like Voldermort if this goes way wrong or like a Bejoran if the worry lines on my forehead are too deep. But I can’t afford to think about it. Sometimes thinking makes things better. But sometimes it’s not good. The late Fr. Theodore Shevzov told me, “I got to be a certain age by keeping straight in my mind two very different things — things over which I have some — SOME control, and things over which I have no control whatsoever. For things over which I have some control, I have a duty to exert myself. But for me to concern myself over things over which I have absolutely no control whatsover — already, this borders on sin.”
Nobody wants to border on sin. Especially when one is going to have real surgery for the first time. And so let me focus on getting exercise, preparing for surgery, keeping my sugar levels down, and saying something kind to everyone before the doctors get started, just in case.
Thank you for your patience with me and my sporadic and often rambling writing. God bless. We will keep you posted.