Sunday, July 29, 2018

It's a Long One

So much for aging gracefully.

I knew I’d never look like Jane Fonda with her amazing face and killer body at age 80 for goodness sake, and I certainly didn’t expect to ever have that creamy, soft and smooth complexion that I see on Ponds Face Cream commercials, but…really?   

It’s been an unusual few months for me, with a gamut of emotions all swirling around, most of which have to do with self-image and an unhealthy focus on how I see myself when I look in the mirror.  I credit my eons of free time for feeding into this new obsession.   

Ten years ago, by comparison, David and I would have had five kids plus friends coming in and out of our home on a regular basis, and we were working full-time. I didn’t have a second to think straight, let alone look in the mirror and analyze my findings.

In January, I went for my annual dermatological checkup, and nothing concerning was identified.  The year before, the doctor had taken off several “precancerous” lesions.  She assured me these removals were common; they come with age: the catch-all for everything that changes—and not for the good—over time.  She was nonchalant about it, so I was too.   

Several months after my check-up, and again with lots of time to scrutinize myself in the mirror, I noticed new activity on my face—specifically my left cheek—and it was itchy too.  I assumed that either I was having an allergic reaction to something or maybe my face always looked like this:  freckles and spots everywhere, with rosacea picking up where my acne nightmare left off.  
My face hadn’t calmed down much after a couple of weeks, so I thought it prudent to make an appointment with the dermatologist; however, I also debated (with myself) whether I was being a hypochondriac and should just wait the 8 months until my next checkup.  But I’d never let my kids get away with that; I’d torture them to death if they alluded to waiting so long.

So, I went back.

“Just burn it off like you did before,” I said to my dermatologist matter-of-factly about the area most questionable.  My thoughts went directly to what I’d pick up for dinner when I left the office.  

Not so fast, she said, “I’m going to take a biopsy.”  I shot back with “why?” which was a perfect example of reacting without thinking, because of course I knew the answer.  Once she had the results, she said, she’ll decide how to approach the other areas on my face; perhaps instead of doing multiple biopsies, she would prescribe a cream that, in essence, would present a glow on my face to highlight all my abnormal cells.

I’d probably want to plan to stay in for a week or so because my face will light up, she said...WHAT???  I never heard of such a thing.  I thought she had to be joking, but she had a straight face.  I pictured the Lite Bright toy my kids had or Ross in Friends with his glow-in-the-dark teeth. I wasn’t thinking about dinner anymore but rather stopping on my way home for a comfort drink, which for me would be a milkshake. 

As I was leaving, she told me I’d get a call from the office in a few days informing me of the results.  I tried not to think about it, basically tuning out the fact that I’d find out later in the week whether I would be able to enjoy the beach—a.k.a. my happy place—this summer.

I was sitting in my home office and saw the dermatology number come up three days later.  The woman identified herself in a very businesslike manner.  I got very impatient, thinking enough with the niceties; just get to the point.  

She then said “you have skin cancer.”

I’ve long felt we’re all sitting ducks and that eventually my number would be called, but still, I was shocked.

She proceeded to explain that I have basal cell carcinoma, a relatively simple skin cancer and “a good one” to have because it’s the least serious of the skin cancers. I felt lucky, but I’m not going to lie.  I also wanted to cry.   

She briefly mentioned the procedure called Mohs, named after Frederic Mohs for micrographic surgery that has been utilized with great success removing cancer, and she didn’t miss a beat in giving me the names of dermatological surgeons.  I got an enthusiastic two thumbs up from a few people I spoke with about one woman in particular, some of whom had had skin cancer and went to her, so I scheduled a consult.     

The surgeon explained she wouldn’t know the depth of the cancer until she got in there, and the fact that I had “infiltrative” basal cell carcinoma could make the removal more complex.  Plan to be in the office for several hours, she advised, while assuring me that the Mohs procedure is the most effective out there as it will eradicate my cancer better than any other alternative (over 95% cure rate), while conserving the greatest amount of healthy tissue.  She also looked into my eyes and told me she will do her best to minimize the scar.   

While warm and genuine but matter-of-fact, the doctor had my trust; yet, I couldn’t get past the fact that the conversation centered on cutting my face open. I was mortified wondering if I’d end up looking like Herman Munster.  And then I felt guilty and embarrassed by my thoughts which zoned in on my feelings about how I look vs. my health and how fortunate I happened to be with the treatable nature of this particular kind of cancer.  And, that I have health insurance to cover the surgery. 

I made my appointment for the first date offered:  July 17, which actually made me smile, as it was my middle daughter Allison’s birthday. A few weeks later, I learned that Amy, my youngest, had a job interview that day too. I chose to believe that these two occurrences would funnel positive vibes my way (she got the job, too).

When I got home from my consult, I succumbed to my natural urge of researching online, which I had postponed for as long as I could. I stalked various sites, all the while trying to prevent David from seeing what I was doing, because I knew he’d tell me I wouldn’t be any better off after all my google searches.     

I learned all sorts of things about Mohs, the most interesting part of it being the technique itself:  one layer of skin is taken off at a time so as not to remove more than what is necessary beyond the tumor itself, with clear margins.  The process of removing the cancer takes about 5 or 10 minutes but analyzing it under the microscope takes about an hour, per layer.

Many Mohs websites posted warnings about disturbing photos. Depending on my mood, I ventured further, and indeed those warnings were for good reason: I saw many people with actual holes—no exaggeration—in their faces (before being bandaged up).  This is what I pictured when I closed my eyes at night. 
My appointment time was 7 a.m. on the 17th, and I was there until about noon, in part due to another patient’s emergency.  The surgeon said she had to go to the second layer, but she was able to stop there.  I was relieved, picturing her getting awfully close to my mouth and then interfering with all the dental work I had done in the last few years.

Before she closed me up, the doctor asked if I wanted to look at the surgical site on my cheek.  I wished she hadn’t asked, because that was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to come off as a wuss.  Everyone was waiting for me to answer – the surgeon, her assistant, and a couple of others in there with me.  I was stalling. I remember asking if other patients looked.  She said sometimes they do, and sometimes their partners look for them.  Immediately I asked David, who had just returned to my room, if he wanted to look – why not put the hot seat on him instead?  He was brave and said OK (I love this man!)   I watched his expression and he seemed taken aback, but then again, he didn’t get the online preview that I did to see how bizarre the actual site—or hole—could look.  However, he did encourage me NOT to look, and I am thankful for that.

Next, she asked if I wanted to take a look at my scar.  No, I didn’t want to look at that either, but I felt I couldn’t say NO a second time.  Plus, I’d be seeing it up close and personal within a few days anyway I figured, so I might as well get the initial sighting over with. 

The scar was lengthy, from about an inch under my eye (over to the side) to my chin.  It was so much longer than I had imagined.  Again, I wanted to cry.

I went home with a huge bandage that covered the whole left cheek. I was afraid to take it off 2 days later as the instructions stated; I even called the office and asked if it had to come off or whether it could stay on a third day, because I was afraid of what was lurking underneath. We were pleasantly surprised; it wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t as bad as each of us had envisioned it could be.  

It’s been 12 days, and the improvement is impressive overall, although I’m definitely self-conscious when I venture out.  As of today, I have glue, which was used to close it up (dissolvable stitches underneath), hanging loosely around the site. It’s not that I am embarrassed that I look wounded or odd, but rather that I see people’s eyes go to it and then I feel I should address it. Back to too much free time.      

I’d say all this is behind me, but I have an appointment in a few weeks to look at the other spots on my face.

Since I started this post talking about Jane Fonda, I googled her to see if she had ever had cancer.  She did have breast cancer, and she’s struggled with bulimia and osteoarthritis.

Recently, she developed cancer on her lower lip, which was removed during a biopsy. 

She was scheduled to go on a talk show shortly after the removal.  When entertainment host Ricky Camilleri praised her for being willing to go on camera while still bandaged, she responded, “Well the world is falling apart...what’s a lip, right?”

I always loved her exercise videotapes; they were invaluable when I was home with my babies.

It’s clear that I still have so much more to learn from Jane.   

Sunday, April 1, 2018


This story begins at the Division of Motor Vehicles, where I went to get my driver’s license renewed.

I sat for about 20 minutes as people came and went, all asking each other how long they had been waiting.  The camaraderie among us was strong, mostly because everyone talked about what brought them in that day.  There were also a handful of men and women who were emphatically trading stories about how rude and/or inept the employees always are and that they would rather do anything than come to the DMV. 

Once my Number 80 was called, I walked to the designated desk to process my application. I braced myself to experience the worst.   

The woman I was assigned to, who I will call “Patty” for her St. Patrick’s Day T-shirt, took my paperwork without looking at me.  She turned it from one side to the next a few times.  Here we go, I thought.  My anxiety was mounting.  So, I did the only thing I know how to do in situations where I am at the mercy of someone who, honestly, scares me a little, similar to how I approach the phlebotomist at LabCorp:  I make small talk. 

I asked Patty how her day had been going so far, even as she stared downward at her desk. She replied, actually lifting her face to look at me for the first time. She then asked if I noticed the pink sweater on one of her coworkers.  HUH? That question came out of the blue.  I thought I misheard initially—at a time when I was anticipating her instructions to stand back and smile or don’t smile—whatever the rule is these days—for my license picture. 

I didn’t see a pink sweater and nervously told her; a minute later a woman with a pink sweater made an appearance—I will call her “Pink”—and sat down.  Patty explained that she gave Pink her sweater because of Lent.  What do you mean? I asked.  She said she (Patty) was channeling her efforts during Lent to do something she has dreaded for years:  purging her closets.
We may as well have been having tea somewhere; she sat back in her chair and told me in great detail how awful she used to feel being surrounded by overstuffed closets that prevented her from actually seeing what was inside and how out of sorts she felt in her own home.  She let out a sigh of relief when she told me that she and her daughter get along better these days because they don’t argue so much about the 18-year-old’s clothes: now, those piled on the chair or floor are no longer the easiest to reach.  Patty actually said that purging her closets has changed her life.

I wondered if Patty shared her breakthrough with anyone else. I didn’t see her engage in other personal chatter, but I couldn’t imagine that I was the only one with whom she expressed her newfound joy.  Little did she know, closet organization was right up my alley.  
This recent hobby of mine started several months ago when I began to feel that this country was falling apart.  No matter where I looked, people were hurting one another with venomous words or killing each other with guns.  Nightly, I asked myself what kind of world have I brought my kids and grandkids into?        

This angst became magnified when I’d get into bed, as David was drifting off to sleep in the comfort of his C-pap.  It was in the darkness—when the lights were out, the room was quiet, and I was alone with my thoughts—that I would stew for hours.

Counting sheep as my mom periodically suggested didn’t do the trick; I needed a more potent plan of action to combat these fears.  I began to count backwards from 100 by 3s since it was somewhat challenging initially but over time became boring so I went to counting backwards by 7s which was, I admit, too challenging to be relaxing. I also tried reciting the alphabet backwards because I know my kids can do that but I struggled with that too and gave up. 

And then I figured out the closet trick, and it’s never let me down. It literally works every time.
In a nutshell, once David reaches for his C-pap, I close my eyes and begin strategizing:  How should I set up the clothing in my closet?  Should I group my shirts by color, length or season?  Should tie-dyed shirts stay in the front of the closet or move to the back? Where should I place year-round clothing?  What can I give away, donate, toss?  Should I have a system in place to rotate what I wear so I’m not always seen in the same few outfits?  It’s minutiae at its best, focusing on details that don’t matter, not distressing in the least.  Before long, I’m hearing the birdies…it’s morning in no time.

The beauty of this new practice is twofold:  not only do I fall asleep quickly but I can make practical improvements in my life as a result.       

I wanted to share all this with Patty because I was pretty sure she’d get a kick out of it given that we’re on the same wavelength about our closets and perhaps other aspects of home orderliness as well, but she was so deep into her own storytelling that I didn’t get a chance.   

Who would have ever thought Patty and I would connect on this level, having just met in the DMV?

It goes to show that, on any given day, one never knows what we share with the stranger in front of us. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

One For All

Being one of four siblings in my childhood home was neither good nor bad.  It was, in a word, predictable.

Dinnertime was a shining example of predictability.  One of the meals in my mom’s regular rotation consisted of broiled chicken made with a host of seasonings – most likely she sprinkled tarragon, oregano, salt, pepper and paprika.  I can smell them now, as I write. 

Once we were all seated at the dinner table, the platter of chicken would be placed in front of the eldest person at the table:  my dad first if he was home or my brother Mark, who was 11 years my senior.  And from there it would be passed in age order.

Yup, I am the youngest of the four.

I often talked myself through this, never questioning the status quo aloud, but asking myself privately why I was always the low man [woman] on the totem pole, why I was always the last one invited to the dinner party.  For parents who touted the democratic way of life, this was…well…undemocratic.  Back then, though, I accepted that this is what happens when you’re the fourth kid.    

For the most part, I was fine with the routine of being the last one to delve into the platter—and it certainly kept me from eating too much—but I did draw the line in my head when it came to hot tea, which my mom offered after dinner. 

“Who wants hot tea?” she’d ask.

This always felt like a trick question. 

Yes, I wanted hot tea, but that wouldn’t be what I was getting when I responded, “I do.”

It would just mean I’d get a cup of something hot but, for me, it would most likely be water; as with the chicken, the tea bag was passed around the table in age order.  Yes, one tea bag for as many as 6 people. 

If my dad was home, he’d get the strongest tea; Mark who always partook would get the second or third strongest; Denis would go next and Sherrie too before me.  For some reason I have blocked out where my mom, a tea drinker, would have fared:  would her tea be brown or clear? 

It was a tall order for that little Lipton’s tea bag to flavor anywhere from 3 to 5 cups of tea before it got to me.

Here’s my attempt at rationalization.

My mom was born in 1917 and lived through the Great Depression in her grand mom’s home; so sadly, her mom passed away from the flu epidemic when my mom was just 6 mos. old.  My grand mom did her best to care for her family and put food on the table by boot legging wine.

I can understand how the Depression changed its survivors.  Life was hard, money was tight or non-existent, there was always the fear that they wouldn’t have enough, wastefulness was incomprehensible.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that my mom seemed to believe that one tea bag for a family of six was appropriate; why “waste” more than one if everyone wants the same thing? 

At times I thought, but didn’t dare say, “How about we switch it up today and let the baby of the family go first?” Even second or third would have been an improvement.      

Old habits die hard, and even though it wasn’t my old habit I’m struggling with but rather my mom’s, the tea bag has tormented me all my life.

I just can’t get the one teabag-per-meal—or was it one-teabag-per-day?—rule out of my head. 
I agree that my mom was right that it’s wasteful to use a tea bag just one time, but by the third or fourth dip, it is flavorless.  So when should I draw the line?  When is it the right time to use a new tea bag?        

I can obsess all I want about this when it’s just me—I can and do use my original tea bag for multiple cups of tea—but the issue is more pronounced when others also want a cup of hot tea.

There is no way in good conscience I could give Amy, the youngest of the bunch, a tea bag that had been used multiple times before I served her tea.  Even if I could, she’d never let me get away with it.     
The other day, Lauren and Amy were both home and said “yes” to my eternal question, “Who wants hot tea?” Right away my thoughts were focused on how I’d handle the tea bag distribution; luckily, I was partially saved from this dilemma, however, when the girls chose different kinds of tea: Lauren wanted decaf and Amy, green. Two varieties call for two tea bags, end of story.  Whew!

But then I saw my mug sitting on the counter with the used green tea bag inside, waiting for my next cup.  Should this be for Amy?  It would be good enough, I was sure, and I could even get another couple uses for myself afterwards.  I’m fairly certain that’s what my mom would have done in this situation.

But I didn’t do that.  I gave Amy a new one, because David was lurking and I wanted to avoid his commenting on my obsession with the tea bag because his general feeling is each person who wants tea should always have his/her own unused bag.

I did cringe an hour later when I threw out all the tea bags.  Did Amy really need her own tea bag, and why didn’t I save it to use later?   

Some things I can do without guilt, like toss the supermarket plastic bags that contained tomatoes or cucumbers or apples, which my mom used to wash with soap and hang up to dry and reuse. That’s another smell I can still remember, and not fondly, either.  

Anyone want to come over for a cup of hot tea?

Better get here early!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Birthday Coupon

I can’t resist coupons, let alone special ones sent to me in honor of my birthday, from local stores I frequent all too often.  

Add a coupon to a clearance item with an additional percentage off this time of year, and wow, that’s a no-brainer purchase.

One afternoon when my birthday month (January) was fresh and new – let’s say January 2—I headed to the Promenade in Marlton, on the hunt to explore one of my favs, J. Jill, coupon in tow. 

A woman with a great big smile and a very pretty top I had seen in the window welcomed me into the store and asked me how my day was going so far.

Her warmth was a quick reminder of some of the reasons I like to shop there:  the sales people are very friendly, forthcoming with sale information, helpful and never pushy.   

After exchanging pleasantries, I went on my merry way to search for the lucky item(s) that would be coming home with me that night.

The woman with the huge smile passed me several times, commenting every few minutes.

“I have that…that looks nice with so many things…try this on!”  She was a little more outgoing than the other women I was used to, but I was fine with it and found her happy mood to be infectious:  now I was walking around with a smile too.        

At one point, confident we had become buds, I told her she looked very nice in her tunic.  She pointed to the section of the store where it was hanging.

She was clearly delighted with the compliment and told me she fell in love with the top at first sight because she knew it would flatter her figure.   

“I don’t know about you, but all my weight is in my back side and thighs,” she said…and then she proceeded to pull up her top to expose her midsection and most of her bra, to her cleavage.

I had a couple thoughts running through my mind:  1 - Is she expecting me to do the same thing, because that’s not happening and 2 - I’ve never seen anyone at J. Jill do this before, and I wonder what her co-workers feel about her sales technique.   

She then pointed to her belly, rubbing her hand up and down and then turning around to show me that her butt and legs were her “problem” areas.

When she finally pulled her tunic back down to where it belonged, I thought to myself she’s pretty bold, showing one of her customers up close and personal what she saw as her body’s flaws.  That is something I wouldn’t have done. 
I continued to collect more to try on from the clearance section while struggling to balance all my items, with hangers digging into my forearm and strangling my wrist, rendering me almost unable to look at other items on the rack.  A serious world problem, for sure.

Usually by now one of the sales people would ask if she could put my items in the dressing room, but my friend was nowhere to be seen and no one else was paying attention to me.   

A minute later there she was again, commenting on the sweater jacket I was reaching up to see.  Just as I started to respond, the jacket fell off the hanger and on to the floor.  I looked at her, she looked at me and then everything came crashing down.           

I could tell my voice was shaky and my tone desperate when I asked if she could help me, but it didn’t matter.  She kept walking. 

I felt abandoned. She had been so eager to disrobe in front of me but couldn’t find it in her heart to lend a hand?  So typical of relationships that fail!  But from a J. Jill salesperson? 

I started to ruminate about what was going on.  Did I offend her by asking for help?  I then felt ashamed that I asked, bordering on paranoid that I had done something wrong.    

About five minutes later, once I had cleaned up my mess on the floor, she came over to me and asked, “Do you think I work here?”  


I didn’t know what to say.  Didn’t SHE think she worked there?

I said “yes…you don’t?”

She said “No, I just like the clothes.”

OK…so she undressed in front of me…why?

I was still feeling rather embarrassed that I thought she was a J. Jill employee, when she was a shopper, just like me. 

I was relieved to go into the dressing room and shut the door, until I heard this:
“Some lady asked me for help because she couldn’t hold all her stuff and she thought I worked here.”      

Now wait just a minute.

I opened my door and saw her standing in the middle of the dressing room area with her arms crossed like a parent about to discipline her children.  

She looked right at me and asked why I thought she worked there, with all the other women in the dressing rooms looking at me too. The pressure was on.

I didn’t even know where to start, so I didn’t.  I closed the door, tried on my pile of clothes and chuckled inside when I heard someone else tell mystery woman she thought she worked there too.   

I left empty-handed; my coupon transformed into entertainment for the afternoon, far better than a sweater that would have gotten lost in my closet anyway.  

Sunday, January 7, 2018


On the third anniversary of my mom’s passing (January 10), I’m feeling quite…reflective.

First off, let me say my mom was an amazing woman:  a trailblazer, organizing unions when she was just in her 20s, mobilizing a neighborhood force—Ogontz Area Neighbors Association—in the 1960s in Philly, fighting segregation in the community and in the schools, acting on behalf of the voiceless for civil rights, youth programs, a local library and so much more. 

She was on the front lines, and behind the scenes too, always so serious and determined. 

Yet, she also reveled in the simple pleasures, often reminding me to take time to smell the flowers.

For her, that advice was as literal as it was figurative. She cherished the hours she spent working in her garden, tending to the rose bushes and petunias and lilies of the valley.    

I didn’t want to plant and weed and water like she wanted me to. I didn’t get what all the hoopla was about with flowers.  Sure, they were colorful and pretty, but they were time consuming and dangerous too.  As a kid, I was always getting pricked by the rose bushes on our lawn when we played tag or chased lightening bugs at night. 

In my teen years, I had more important things to do than take care of flowers, like talk on the phone endlessly with my friends about boys: who liked whom, who said what to whom, etc.  It never got old.  It made my mom crazy.  

Fast forward decades later…my mom was living alone in an apartment, and we all wanted her to be aware just how special we knew she was.

In an effort to do that, my sister and I would always bring her fresh flowers; sometimes, it was unclear whether she was happier to see me or the new bouquet (I’ll have to ask Sherrie if she felt that way too).

Upon replacing the wilted arrangement with the fresh bunch each time, I noted another downside of flowers—this time in a vase, not the ground—their shelf life is very short.  With few exceptions, they go from being vibrant and full of life to sad and on their way out in no time at all.

Well, I still don’t want to garden, and I continue to spend a lot of time talking to or texting with my friends about anything and everything, but one thing that changed when my mom passed away is my relationship with flowers. 

I now have one…and it’s a loving one, too. 
I even buy them for myself from time to time, based on what I would have picked for my mom on any given day.

I’m not sure if it’s the flowers themselves, or the reminder to take time to smell the flowers, that I find so compelling.

Either way, I was so touched recently when my daughter Allison told me she bought sunflowers for her home because she knew I loved them…because my mom—her Bubbe—loved them.

I am glad it didn’t take a lifetime for Allison to appreciate one of my mom’s—and now my—passions.