Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Does This Sword Match My Hospital Gown?

D.R. and I don't fight much.  Sure, we get frustrated with each other--eyes are rolled, fingers are pointed, fists find their way to hips (that's my signature move), and there are exceedingly long drawn out breaths of frustration.  But our time together has been pleasantly devoid of the ol' Knock Down Drag Out.  Make no mistake, this is not from my lack of trying.

I come from a family of fighters.  Not so much on my mom's side (although, she perfected the silent treatment and wielded that weapon well when I was young), but my dad's side--whoo boy!  There was yelling, stomping, screaming, swearing, slamming doors, and, my personal favorite, the strategic exit of a moving vehicle. 

My father and stepmother, Sonjah, were fighting in the car on the way home from dinner one night.  Amanda and I listened from the backseat, our foreheads creased with worry.  I don't remember what they were fighting about, but Sonjah reached her threshold at the bottom of the biggest hill in our neighborhood.  A hill that high school cross country coaches used to train and punish even their most seasoned runners.  It's a big ass hill.  At the top of her lungs, Sonjah shouted, "Matthew, stop this car right now!  I am walking home!"  We all tried to convince her that it wasn't necessary to get out of the car five minutes from home.
"I don't care!  Stop the car!"
"Fine!" my father shouted.  In one quick moment he pulled over to the side of the road, unlocked the car door, and stared straight ahead as his seething wife got out.  She slammed her door and my father hit the gas.  Amanda and I stared out the back window at Sonjah, astonished at how angry she was; scared she might not make it up the big ass hill and through the suburban wilds of Billings, MT; and, absolutely terrified of our father for letting her do it.

That's how you fight in the Dunn family:  guns blazing, don't back down, and always wear comfortable walking shoes.

I employed this rampaging tactic with D.R. exactly one time.  Again, don't remember what we were fighting about, but I literally threw down! . . . a pair of his dirty jeans that had not made it into the hamper, but had been living happily crumpled on our COFFEE TABLE for three days.  I said something snarky as I slammed the denim on the floor.  The gauntlet was thrown!  D.R.'s eyes got wide, he braced himself against the couch while I growled and gnashed at him (I turn feral when angry).  Then, his eyes went to the ground, his face expressionless, and I knew I had lost him.  The defensive wall went up, and whatever I said fell on deaf ears.  Progress made: none.

Since then, I've had to refine my tactical approach to conflict.  I keep my crazy in check (for as long as I can) and D.R. has learned when it's necessary to rise up and tell me I'm being crazy (illogical, dramatic, unfair, selfish, etc.) .  We have our issues just like any couple, but I am learning that it's not necessary to burn down the whole forest just because there's a twig in my shoe.  And, I am happy to report, neither of us has ever had to exit a moving vehicle.  Progress made: some.

Fortunately, this passion for conflict is the cousin of fierce strength and abiding love for family and friends.  Both my mom and dad's families spring into action at the first sign of sadness or pain.  If we can't be in the immediate proximity, we are shooting emails, making phone calls, and sending hand written cards.  We link up over the time-zones--no matter how long it's been since we've seen each other or spoken--and wage war on whomever or whatever has dared stand against us.  In this family you are loved . . . militantly. 

When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in November, I handled the news as any normal person would:  I cried.

D.R. was leaning on our kitchen counter as I wrapped up The Phone Call.  His jaw was tight, his eyes were angry, and his arms were crossed over his puffed out chest.  He wanted someone to blame just like I did.  He hugged me and waited for me to speak.  Since there wasn't much to say, he was content to let me use his t-shirt as Kleenex.   Boys are so good at that.

When the crying was over, I took the next logical step that any normal person would:  I started a mental draft of my will.

Regardless that every medical professional told me I would be fine.  Regardless that I felt great and completely healthy.  Regardless that I wasn't even on the surgeon's schedule yet because I wasn't considered "a ticking time bomb", I started leading D.R. around our apartment telling him who gets what in the event that I bite it.  He rolled his eyes only a couple of times and reminded me that I was being a bit premature, and possibly--just possibly--a little dramatic.  "Nevermind that!  Who gets my vast collection of aprons?"

Confident that my worldly goods were in capable hands, I took the next logical step that any normal person would:  I Googled "thyroid cancer".

My doctor warned me not to do it.  D.R. tried to stop me.  Hell, I tried to stop myself!  But, as I mentioned, the first sign of pain or sadness, and we go to war.  I was at war against an unknown and unwelcome thing.  I figured the more knowledge, the better.  I won't say that I was WRONG about that, per se, but I will admit that there are things I wish I could un-see.  All those horrible accounts of mangled throats, spliced vocal chords, and uncontrollable weight gain kept scrolling across the page.  When I brought the computer to bed, D.R. turned over with a disapproving sigh.  I stayed awake until 3am, reading and panicking.

The next morning, the questions started.  "What if the surgeon gets the wrong chart, and I end up minus one breast or something?"
"I will leave you immediately because I've made it very clear from day one that your breasts are the only reason I'm with you."
"What if they can't regulate the hormones and I turn into some horrible troll of a woman?"
"I will dress you up, charge people admission, and make lots of money off of you."

That, my friends, is someone you want by your side when you go into battle.

I had to go through the joyous process of finding a new doctor and surgeon, which meant surgery was postponed until January.  I was ready for pumping anesthesia, flying scalpels, and now I had to wait?!  Nothing puts a damper on a war like an enemy not willing to engage.

But, December actually turned out pretty awesome.  I saw friends and family, even reconnected with people I hadn't talked to in years.  D.R. talked me down from a number of irrational cliffs with the very calm observation, "I wouldn't know what to worry about first, so I'm just not going to start until I have to."

And so, with time, space, and pre-op testing, comes clarity.  I am scheduled for surgery on January 20th, and what began as a war to be waged, now feels like a strongly-worded letter to be written.

Dear thyroid cancer:  

Get the fuck out!  

Sincerely, Samantha

The thing is, I know I'm a good fighter.  I know I can make it up that big ass hill if I have to.  Having D.R. by my side makes that possibility a lot less daunting.

But, if shit gets crazy, enjoy my real estate holdings and off-shore accounts.  You know who you are.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Hulking Greatness

I completed the half-marathon and the victory has settled into my bones.  Considering those bones are nicely insulated with Christmas cookies, wine, butter almond crunch, ridiculous amounts of cheese, peanut butter balls, and the fading hum of "Auld Lang Syne", the victory is well preserved.

It was a truly great day.

I ran with my seasoned running guru, Wendy, and my newest running hero, Erin.  Both awesome women.

Wendy has been a runner for a while, but I became supremely impressed with her when she started training for her first half-marathon about 6 weeks post-C-section.  I have been known to bitch and moan about running when it interferes with my stringent Barefoot Contessa viewing schedule--not Wendy.  The half-marathon training went so well, she just went right on ahead and did the whole marathon.  All the while, tending to two small boys, a husband, and life.  Wendy runs with purpose, and allows very little room for bullshit.  When she's ready, it's best to just git out the way, take a mental picture of her, and file it under "Ass, Bad".

She flew out to Los Angeles to run my first race with me, a 5K.  She could run 3 miles in her sleep by that point, but I think she knew how important my first race was more than I did.  I said to her, "You go ahead, I'm going to take it kinda slow."
"Nope, I am here to run this race with you."
She ran a 5K the day before on the beach--sand running, hard on the body--and it didn't even faze her as we ran on the hard asphalt in downtown Los Angeles.  The last bit of the race found me dry-heaving just behind her left shoulder and praying my lungs would remain operational.  "Samantha, you've got this . . . last tenth of a mile . . . let's go."  I cried and hugged her as she handed me a banana and a cup of water at the finish line.  She gave me a knowing look of welcome--a new member of the Runners' Fold.  She is brave and bold in her running and her life.  Hers is one of the voices on my mental motivation playlist.  Stop thinking about it, Samantha, and just do it!

I met Erin in 2004 when she was one of my students at a community theater.  I saw her perform with a youth Improv group and said to a friend, "Who is that amazing and hilarious creature?"  Then, one day, I was waiting outside of the voice lessons room, listening to the strong, resonant, amazing voice of the singer that was finishing up inside.  When the door opened and Erin walked out, I immediately developed a talent crush on her.  I kinda wanted to follow her around making requests that she would sing on the spot.  When I discovered she was one of the students in my voice class, I made up games that required her to sing as much as possible.  The amount of talent this woman possesses is oodle-esque.

Wielding her guru abilities, Wendy convinced Erin--a woman who, much like me, despised running and said she would never do it--to start running.  Not only did Erin start running, she decided to train for a half marathon--our half-marathon.  It took me five years to build the gumption to train; Erin did it in less than a year.  That is Erin's greatness: she's unassumingly plucky.  She doesn't announce her best qualities and all the reasons you're going to love her.  She doesn't shout for attention and clamor for accolades.  She pulls you in with her genuineness and humor, and before you know it, you find yourself thinking I might be a little bit in love with you.  

5am on race day found us pinning numbers on our shirts and passing around a box of Triscuits.  We left D.R. and Wendy's husband, John, in the hotel room and headed to the start line in front of Mandalay Bay.  Because there were so many runners, they did a wave start based on our predicted finish times.  Erin and I dropped Wendy off and headed back to our corrals.  When the gun went off, I was ready, man! . . . 20 minutes later I still hadn't crossed the START LINE, so I took the liberty of one final bathroom stop . . . 25 minutes after that, I officially started My Race.

The course was pretty sweet.  It's hard to beat running on the Las Vegas Strip.  As I was approaching mile 3, the winner of the half-marathon was sprinting in the opposite direction towards the finish line.  Intimidating?  Umm yeah, you betcha!  I kept my pace and enjoyed the passing scenery, including the "Run-in Wedding Ceremony" in front of The Venetian.  There actually were people running into it.  Cheers to the happy couple!

I sacrificed 10 minutes waiting in line at a porta-potty at mile 5, and had to make the hard sell to get my body back in the run.  Miles 6 and 7 meandered between the Strip and Freemont Street.  There were barely any spectators, and I encountered one befuddled gentleman asking, "What are you guys doing?"

I was happy to see the Strip approaching around mile 8, and I kept my eyes on The Mirage's sign.  Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but it felt like I covered the next mile and a half without the damn thing ever getting closer!

Then, a new thing happened--a strange thing.  I got raging mad.

You know that scene in Old School when Will Ferrell shoots himself in the neck with an animal tranquilizer?  That was me, in running tights.  I wanted to shove all of the runners that were using up my air.  But, instead of a polite, "Excuse me, would you remove yourself from my path, please?", all I could muster was, "Brawwrfurrrwheeeclopyawroooolrsnark!"  My legs felt like two linebackers were hitching a ride around my ankles.  My hat was soaked to capacity, sweat droplets falling in front of my face.  My form was drooping, and I felt the anger rising.  Hello darkness, my old friend.  I've come to talk with you again . . . 

Figuring the anger was a result of depletion, I took my last gels a little after mile 9, and waited for the serenity to return.  Each mile was marked on the course and I was relieved to see a giant "10" in the distance.  My longest run before the race was 11 miles, so I had the comfort of knowing I could complete at least one more mile.  Then, the smell of garlic wafted towards me somewhere around Caesar's Palace and I felt nauseous, along with my--clearly not subsiding!--urge to bludgeon the offending chef.

But, I kept running.

I craned my neck, looking for "11", but couldn't see it.  Regardless of their encouraging intentions, the noisy spectators shouting on the sidewalks were pissing me off (how's that for gratitude?).  I regretted my decision to run without my iPod, and I really regretted the invention of the cowbell.  I still couldn't see "11" and I was doubting I would make it to the finish line. 

My chin was down and I was employing the *Inhale*--1--2--3, *Exhale*--1--2--3 trick.  I looked up praying for "11" and was surprised to see "12".  One would think I would be elated and filled with power to blaze through my last mile.  Nope.  Instead, Where the hell is the goddamn 11?!  I didn't pay a hefty entrance fee to run a mis-marked course!  This is unacceptable!  I assure you the course was marked perfectly, but logic had not been invited to this particular party.  Only rage.

A spectator on my right shouted, "Don't worry, guys, just 3 more miles to go!"  I realize he was going for sarcasm, but I wanted to forgo finishing the race, hunt the man down, and punch him in the neck.

I believe this is what the experts call "hitting the wall". 

I knew in that moment I needed help, or the rage would win.  I needed an encouraging and familiar voice to tell me everything was OK and I would finish.  I listened for the encouraging voices I had catalogued for this precise moment--Dad? Amanda? Wendy? Erin? Hell, I'll even take Oprah?  This is when I really need someone else on my side! 

Not a single voice piped up in my head . . . and I felt lonely.

There is a slogan I see quite frequently: "Running: cheaper than therapy."  Looking back at how I felt on that course, somewhere between mile 12 and 13, I understood.  My wall had stripped me of all my good qualities and left me with the juicy center of my worst--my temper, impatience, and inclination to give up when things aren't going my way (to name a few).  I was confronted with--well, myself, and it wasn't pretty.  Being so depleted physically, the only thing I could do was let the rage roll on.  I wanted to feel fast, powerful, and untouchable.  Instead, I was a pair of cut-offs away from Hulking out.

But, I kept running.

And I made a decision:  this finish is not going to be pretty, but I will finish.  I accepted every emotion--good and bad.  I accepted every thought--light and dark.  I acknowledged that my internal voice, my muscles, my heart beat, my lungs, were all working to accomplish my goal.  I let all of that fill me up like a balloon reaching capacity.  And when I crossed the finish line, I felt whole. 

It took a bit for the emotional overload to wear off as I walked around the finish area.  The race organizers decided it would be a good idea to have the finishers get their picture taken with a Vegas showgirl.  A fun idea certainly, but not when all I wanted was an effin' banana and a cup of water!  You won't like me when I'm dehydrated!  I did not participate. 

I finally found D.R., who waited for me to finish even though there was a Bronco game in progress.  Those of you that know D.R. know how much of a sacrifice that was on his part.  His face is one of the best in the world, and I was grateful it was the first I saw.  Plus, few things sound as good as the person you love saying, "I'm so proud of you! . . . and I have to go because the Broncos just scored."

Wendy, Erin, and I walked back to the hotel room with medals around our necks and salt on our faces.  We chose the Fat Tuesday mango slushie as our "recovery meal".  Later that evening, the three of us got tattoos commemorating the event.  We got dressed up.  We took ourselves out for a delicious, gourmet dinner.  More than once, each of us turned to the group and said, "This is truly a great day."

It truly was.

I hope my running gets faster and my half-marathons easier.

I hope my running shoes continue to be a place where I find myself when life makes me want to Hulk out.

I hope for more great moments . . . days . . . races . . .  friendships.  Greatness is the complex carbohydrate of life--it fuels you more, and sustains you longer.  I shall consume as much as I can.