• Erin Graham


I heard a quote recently that whenever you cook, it’s with your grandma by your side. I love that idea, how time and place and tradition and all your senses collapse and swirl together like the very ingredients of a family recipe within those moments of preparing a meal. Especially during the holidays.


I used to cringe at the very thought of preparing food and especially hosting brunch or dinner for a big ole family gathering - something in me resisted the expectation for a perfectly cooked main course, nearly always a hunk of meat that few people enjoy all that much anyway. I mean, how many times a year are you spending all day cooking a 10 pound turkey? Do people even have basters anymore? Does anyone really like turkey? Not to mention green bean casserole?


So I awoke Easter Sunday feeling rather twelve as I found myself Googling “how to cook a ham,” with more than 285,000,000 earnest results. Spoiler alert: turns out, you just shove it in the oven and turn the oven on, but nothing had really prepared me for that reality. Everything about food and holidays, from the ads on TV to the magazines on display project the expectation that this has all got to be hard to be worth it.


But in the past year or so, the women in my life have raised their collective middle fingers at this notion, and I’m completely on board.


I come by it honestly. My Grandma wasn’t fancy, and I loved that about her. She made her own clothes, all various shades and patterns featuring her favorite color, pale blue. She had an old organ in the back room that she let us bang around on, and a tall china cabinet that had abandoned its purpose long ago, filled instead with board games and art supplies, and stacks and stacks of cards frayed at the edges from the many hands of gin rummy she conquered, with her bent, arthritic fingers shuffling the cards like the wings of many birds taking flight.


She served us those little boxes of sugary cereal on Saturday mornings which we relished, because we never had the good stuff at home. But Saturday night, that’s when the magic happened.


Grandma Lucille was a pork chop and mashed potatoes type of gal who raised four kids on her own, teaching in a one-room school house to make ends meet. As a child I didn’t even consider the toughness, the grit it took for her to keep my mother, aunt and uncles alive and a house running under those circumstances during the Depression. She never talked about it, and from what I could tell of her pristine home, she had her shit together. The linoleum floors were always gleaming, there was always a fresh crochet project blooming on the front porch, and there was always homemade ice cream firming in the freezer. So in my mind, she wanted for nothing.


There was no pretense of fine china or crystalware at grandma's. We ate off melamine plates and drank out of old jam jars, all perfect in their resistance to breaking, each deemed a "favorite" of each of my cousins. And centered at her table were the old standbys we looked forward to at every visit, not only because they were unique to her table but because she made them with us. The peanut butter cookies with the butterscotch chips with a hashtag we’d forked over the top. The pizzelles we’d dutifully counted out (one Mississippi, two Mississippi…) pressing the dough into the familiar design over and over with the ancient iron that I gratefully inherited last year. The “dum-dum salad” with the multicolored marshmallows and mandarin oranges and jello and CoolWhip. The celery which we’d filled with pineapple flavored cream cheese.


I have been to the table of traditions in which the women all have a matching set of the family china and silver which travels to the hosting family’s home each Christmas. It’s not for me. I stressed each year to ensure the kids were all wearing coordinating red outfits and I spilled coffee and gravy more than once on the white carpets and even whiter sofa. I once took the “wrong chocolate pie” to Thanksgiving and it was a big ‘ole freaking deal. I was never allowed to bring pie again.


I’m pretty lucky to be part of families which take a decidedly more practical approach. My mother-in-law clued me into the magic of an all-day “Open House” with no set time for a formal sit-down, no stress about who needs to arrive when, and where paper plates earn a rightful spot alongside an all-day buffet of whatever-people-feel-like-bringing. I make it my own by replacing napkins with a roll of paper towels. Our regular, daily dented silverware is at the ready in mason jars for people to grab if they want, or even need, them.


My parents are adamant they bring food to help out, and get the kids involved chopping alongside us in the kitchen, all while the adults drink wine and dip forks in the different creations. Lively music plays. We talk deep talk and we laugh even deeper. The quickening footsteps of children and dogs down the hall remind us: Time is passing.


So too were we passing the dining room, that dark, solitary place edged with eras gone by. Somewhere along the course of my misguided adulthood I’d gotten the idea that the room needed to be constantly at the ready - the center of the long table crowded with earnest seasonally-specific this-and-thats. Artfully placed branches that, really, would prevent everyone from actually seeing each other seated across the table. Candles, that if actually lit, would likely catch the branches ablaze. Empty white ceramic jugs huddled right along with golden deer in repose. Some mossy balls, cuz that’s a thing you find in nature, were tossed in for good measure. As a result, we all walked a wide berth around that room. It collected few memories and much dust.


Instead, we gathered in the kitchen, much as we did at my grandma's. Chairs were stolen from every room and edged into every spare nook and cranny, our family knee-to-knee and eye-to-eye as we caught up on past and upcoming knee surgeries, proposed family gatherings, and events past and future no one could remember the date to. It didn’t matter. That’s not what it was about. I couldn’t help noticing that had I been at the stove, or the sink, I’d have had my back turned to all the people I love most.


So this year as I shoved that ham into the oven I felt not only my grandma by my side, but all the many lovely women in my life who are saying “NOPE” to the formalities of hosting. I mean you, Cousin Beth who had Thanksgiving delivered from Giant Eagle, and it was perfection. I mean you, my mother-in-law Peg whose birthday celebration was spent singeing our eyebrows around a Hibachi grill, laughing. I mean you, my ex-mother-in-law who taught me the merits of a frozen Stouffer’s lasagna. You, mom, who gives dad a wide berth in the kitchen because he actually *enjoys* cooking, and more power to him. You, my new step-daughters, who take a “hard pass” with me on the ages-old expectation of days spent cleaning and meal prepping and instead join me for brunch and a pedicure.


Here on out, instead of offering to lend each other a hand in the kitchen, let's offer to lift a finger. Just one though. The middle one. Something tells me the ham will come out just fine anyway.

  • Erin Graham

Updated: Jan 25, 2019


“Well, you could try some deep breathing, that’s what all the magazines say to do,” shares my friend, before releasing a lovely peal of laughter.


She’s laughing, because she and her husband raised two boys while working full time and then some, and then right as things were supposed to be moving in the “let’s go travel the world” direction, her husband suffered a widow maker heart attack - and survived - only for her employer to block their health insurance. Between $12,000 Life Flight bills and retrofitting their home and car and life for a wheelchair, my girl has seen some things.


But like literally every woman I know and love, she bears those challenges quietly, just another task to check off her list:

  • Stop by the store for all the things: Check!

  • Work out and then work work and then house work: Check!

  • Keep the family alive and happy and together: Check!

  • Breathe in: Check!

  • Breathe out: Check!

  • Reapply lipgloss: Check!…. Check!… Check!

Why oh why am I up making lists in the middle of the night, we ask ourselves. Hey I know: I’ll just do some deep breathing and everything will be OK…OK???


But the problem with that, of course, is that you’ll hyperventilate and pass out and then who’s gonna shove the orange slices in the kids’ lunches so we look like a healthy family that has its act together?


My friend does as a good friend will, and tells me to chill. I don’t know how she got the job, but it’s become her responsibility to talk me down from the wall that I find myself climbing when I’m on tamoxifen. It’s the drug you take when you have my kind of cancer, and it throws you immediately into menopause. And in case you were wondering, it…is…as…much…fun…as….that…sounds.


Also in case you were wondering: Menopause feels a little like you,

but maybe more like your 12-year-old-self,

and you’re on stage for the holiday concert

and your tights are starting to inch down your waist.

You want to yank them up, but you can’t,

you’re in the front row of all these people,

and hello? You’re on stage?

And now you’re getting sweaty

and you can feel those tights start to roll at the waistband.

You do your best to give them a graceful and discreet tug,

but instead of just hitching up your tights

you also pull up the front of your dress

and now everybody has seen your knickers

and your stupid brother has started laughing

and pointing at you from the audience

and now you wanna cry but: no.

You have to keep right on singing.


My friend agrees. Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.


My concern, I tell her, as I clasp my hands too-tight around my cup of coffee, is that women go through menopause *literally* every day. I know this. I know I am not special. And yet I can’t seem to not suck at it.


My concern, I tell her, is that this is all going to come off as complaining, when I quite specifically promised myself I would NOT complain, given that my doctors had told me I’d be dead by October and then here I am, very much not dead, and I would take any medication, and undergo any procedure to keep it that way.


But….I tell her, my *concern* is that the last time I took this drug it made me the kind of cray that manifested quite specifically into the desire to drive a hatchet through someone’s forehead.


I mean I DIDN’T, obviously.

But I remember so clearly sharing this with my doctor

(“I want to drive a hatchet through someone’s forehead.”)

and how she penned all this down in my file,

reciting in her clinical way, without emotion,

“hatchet….forehead…got it…”


My concern, I tell her, is that here I am in a new marriage, just a year into the thing, and I’m afraid of going through that hatchet phase again. What if he decides he doesn’t *like* the me on tamoxifen?


My concern, I tell her, is that the last time around, I worked with my doctor on a list of pros and cons of stopping the medication, and when the ‘Stop’ column far exceeded the ‘Continue’ column, I stopped taking it. Because the risk of the cancer returning was so, so low. I’d had a double mastectomy for that very reason, didn’t I? If there’s no more breast tissue there’s no more chance of breast cancer, right?


But the cancer returned this past spring anyway.

And I’m not complaining, technically, but I sure am afraid.


The waitress came by with more coffee, and while we really had hogged our booth for more than 2 hours already, there was no mistaking that I was on the verge of a good cry so she just poured those cups full again.


What you need, says my friend, is a scream closet.


I laugh, of course, because that’s what you do when you know you are on the brink of brilliance and you just haven’t figured out exactly what that looks like yet.


My brilliant friend shares: When the kids were younger, and things got out of control, I’d excuse myself, head upstairs, and climb into my closet and scream my head off. In private. Like a lady mind you, not like some lunatic. And then I’d close the closet and head back downstairs to my family and work and I went back about my life like the badass I am.


****


Now, what I like about this strategy is that unlike most, you don’t have to buy anything to make it happen. No thousand dollar treadmill, no forty dollar collagen tub, no trip to some spa in Santa Fe. It’s just you. You and your closet.


Also what I like? You don’t have to wake up an hour earlier every day to implement, like so many solutions require.


(Oh you should just get up earlier every morning and meditate, they say.

You should get up an hour earlier and organize your office.

You should get up before the family wakes and take a jaunty hike through the forest.

You should get on up and choke down some lemon and vinegar in lukewarm water.

Oh, and while you’re at it, you should get some more sleep each night.)


I mean. Anybody can find the time to scream. Especially with all that coming at you.


So there I was, in my kitchen, after a long day of work and bad weather commutes and getting kids to and from stuff and really, everything was fine. My awesome husband was making dinner and the kids were playing Fortnite or at basketball practice and the dog was running around happily in the snow. But I began to feel those 12-year-old tights start to slip.


Have you ever had a hot flash? I’m guessing they’re different for everyone. But for me, they start as a flush in my chest that rises up my throat into my brain. And I know it’s just a hot flash. I know that. But when my brain starts to sizzle in that way it feels like I’m right back on that stage, the lights hot on my skin and the fear dripping down my back.


So I head up stairs.


I enter my closet, with all my lovely clothes and the hidden Christmas presents I forgot about and the returns I haven’t dropped off to UPS yet, and some recently slobbered on slippers because our dog is a naughty one. And as I close my eyes and take a deep breath it feels like the stage lights are finally turning down.


Through the muffle of the closet I can hear the chorus of family life below. Someone had let the dog in and her nails scrambled over the hardwood floors in joy. The kids sang out some video game victory and the microwave kept time with its relentless beep.


The stage was set.


One last breath in, and I think, ok so why can’t this count as mediation, and as I exhaled, it may have been a scream, but just the same, it might as well have been song.

  • Erin Graham

Updated: Aug 17, 2018


When you’re lucky enough to be healthy enough for radiation you suddenly have all these choices to make, but you thought it’d be easier. You realize you have the mental capacity AND the energy to transform the health care industry in one fell swoop if they’d only: do this.


Example. Instead of driving all over tarnation (I have always wanted to use that word) trying to find a radiologist you can stand, * there should be an app for that * — something where you can review all the doctor candidates at your leisure. Picture yourself thumbing through each physician’s likes and dislikes, what topics of conversation they tend towards, maybe the art they have on their walls and the music they play overhead, and, oh, if they are keeping folks alive at all. Because when you’re looking at six weeks of daily treatments these things tend to tick up rather quickly in your what-you-can-stand-ometer.


Another example? How about if all docs have access to the same level of honesty and candor and machines. In my particular case, it took several visits trying out some very intelligent radiologists before it was revealed that my body’s physiology is an *issue.* Apparently I have a heart that likes to snuggle as close to my chest wall as possible — I imagine it with a glass pressed against that wall, trying to eavesdrop on the world outside.


Lovely as that sounds, it makes the prospect of radiating my left breast to get at my dang stubborn recurring cancer some incredible fine trickery. The issue is that my curious heart just might get zapped right along with it. Which, apparently, is problematic if I want to continue to use it. And…..I…..do.


So after a few tragic doctor dates (OK I guess they were technically appointments) we sniffed out a doc who was not only a good hang (he spoke laughingly about his 4 month old son and his too-tallness and his wife’s expensive shoe habit and how much he loves to eat goat) but was so dang good at his job that he lectures all over the nation to share his brain with people. And, get this, my dude has access to a “heart sparing” radiation machine. Which, I know:::: shouldn’t they all be heart-sparing machines??


The Drive

I live in Cuyahoga Falls. To keep on living, I gotta meet up with my heart-sparing machine in downtown Cleveland. So, when you look at the math, that’s one hour there (assuming there’s no accidents or even a whiff of rain) then what, 15 minutes to park and walk to your appointment? Then a half hour, forty-five minutes for your appointment, then back it all up and combined? Three, four hours out of every day for 30 days? Fuuuuuck.


Try telling that to your kids. Where you go each day, and why.


Parking

Free valet parking is a beautiful thing, especially when you’re all tired and it’s 94 degrees and 94% humid and its Cleveland and you just don’t wanna do stuff anymore. But in the end, even though I’m a patient I’m not a patient person, and preferred to park in one of the garages then hike it through the connecting sky-bridges to my appointment.


I’m not saying this was a pleasant experience. Most people, turns out, don’t know how to maneuver parking garages nor have the capacity to realize that driving safely in them behooves us all. But I told myself most days that if a driver can’t figure out how to manage a turn in a parking garage then really, that’s a good thing. Because that must mean they aren’t in hospital parking garages all that often. And I would honestly be glad of that for anyone.


Sky Bridges

There’s these brief moments where you are walking through the sky bridges and you could be anyone. You could be visiting a friend, say, or just getting a check-up. Hey, maybe you’re there for a job, or you’re in medical sales, whatever. But when you turn down one very specific walkway there’s no mistaking. You’re entering the cancer zone.


They try to trick you. There’s all this beautiful gigantic artwork on the walls, and the air conditioning suddenly kicks in. It smells like *clean.* There’s music. But maybe they should reconsider the playing of harp music in their long white hallways.


The people walking away from the cancer zone have a very certain look on their faces that the faces coming from the other hallways do not. Some people are just walking and crying. Some are low in a wheel chair. Some are actually just fine, walking with that clip in their step that says, “just cuz I have cancer don’t mean I aint got shit to do.” But it’s the hall no one wants to walk down, and you’re a-walking it.


The First Waiting Room

I don’t know why I’m calling any particular room a “waiting room” when let’s be real: every room is for waiting. To get to my heart-saving machine you walk past four such rooms which are always in the same state of filled, and you take the elevator down and down and down.


On a good day you ride along with some very kind people with a paper plate and plastic wrap trying to contain some home-baked muffins for their nurses because it’s their last day of treatment. Maybe there’s a beautiful young family and dad’s in a nice pink polo shirt and the kids are helping push his wheelchair and it’s all so beautiful you breathe deep through your nose so you don’t cry and you try to suss out are those muffins blueberry? Or are they apple cinnamon? They’re banana chocolate chip.


And when you arrive at your waiting room you’re surrounding by beautiful people again. Your husband will sit next to an old woman who wants to tell him about the color of his aura. An Amish posse of 12 family members shuffle worriedly and silent. A man who smells strongly of necrosis who walks with a cane is offered a cup of coffee from someone’s tired sister. It’s all so beautiful. It really is.


Five tattoos

That’s how many I got so that they could line up the radiation machine just so. The tattoos in reality are just little dots - grey freckles if you will - but I like to think of them as five additional traces of badassery courtesy of cancer.


Breathing Machine

My doctor likes to show me why the heart-saving machine works by dazzling me with pieces of paper that illustrate the sines and cosines or whatever of how the radiation is literally bending around my heart. I nod politely, like, dude. You know I have no idea what you’re showing me.


What does feel immediately tangible is the breathing machine they put you on to literally press your heart away from your chest wall during the zapping. From a patient perspective, it goes like this:


They place a snorkel-like contraption in your mouth. It smells kind of like cupcakes, and I forgot to ask them why this is and how they did that because it is awesome.


There’s a thick bendy-straw-like tube that then connects to what I assume is a ventilator. Your arms go above your head and they give you a triggered button for controlling the machine. They place a plastic clothespin over your nose so no air escapes. Yep, a clothespin. You’d think it would somehow be more technical than that, but, oh well.


So during treatment there’s a table you lie on. It’s not uncomfortable. Your arms are above your head, you’re wearing your snorkel gear, you’ve got your button. There’s then this large round white and black robot eye on an arm that rotates around your body. Being at the center of its attention is rather odd, for as it swivels around you it feels like it’s actually curious, in a way. One big ole eyeball that opens and closes over you in shy benevolence.


The truly wonderful nurses are in a separate room and they speak with you through a speaker. “When you’re ready.” This is your cue to press your button and then take a big ole breath, which you then hold for 20-30 seconds while they do the zap. They give you a 10 second heads up so you don’t panic over how much time is left to go, but for me, especially at the beginning, I struggled with this. With each deep breath I would be uncomfortable with the thought of not being in control of my own breath. Don’t get me wrong - I did it, because I had to - but I’d much rather have been doing something else. You do this over and over. Maybe 15 times? There’s much adjusting between each zap and sometimes there are X-rays in between to make sure they’ve lined it up right that doubles your time throughout the process.


Strangely, towards the end, I came to enjoy those deep breaths - something peaceful was found in the fullness in my lungs. Even now I take in and hold my breath because it feels something on the border of something big, and good. Like grace, or compassion, or, life.


What the room is like

But I digress. So when you’re holding your breath time does weird things on you - you can feel each second quite immediately. You have all this time to assess the things around you. In my particular treatment room there was some magical technician named Brooke who arrived at the room first each morning and thereby got to be the DJ by default. Brooke hooked that room up. I never met her, but I could tell we’d be pals by her playlist alone. There was also this groovy light system near the top of the walls that glowed blue, then purple, then turquoise, then back again in a hypnotic, peaceful way. I liked to pretend I was at the disco.


So you’re holding your breath and the music is playing and you’ve got your own light show. The big robot eye pries in its curious way. And when it’s positioned just right over your face, four inches from your nose, you can see inside. How the pupil dilates and constricts and flexes like metallic muscle in intricate patterns as it adjusts its patterns through treatment. And you know what is happening is high-tech and very complex, but the inner mechanism itself seems very industrial. Metal teeth that look very much like screwdrivers shift towards and away from each other in almost-musical steps, controlling the level of death entering your body.


What it feels like

And that’s a weird thought. For me at least, I didn’t feel anything at all during the actual zapping. It was more of a residual, cumulative energy rob, much like after a day spent in the sun. And of course what the radiation is doing is killing the cells in your body that are cancerous — but it’s taking the good cells right along with them. So there was a killing field across my chest that started right between my breasts, went up to my left clavicle, wrapped down around my armpit to my left shoulder blade, and back around down to just beneath my left breast.


I have some seriously sensitive skin so even after my first treatment I knew I was in trouble. Again, you don’t feel anything during the radiation itself but after — even now, six weeks later — you feel a heat.


There’s a nurse who tells you what moisturizes to use on your skin and how to not exacerbate your “issues” and I did all the right things. But there’s no fighting what your body is.


Turns out my body is not all that fond of radiation. First the area just felt warm all the time. Then the follicles started to get irritated, so that there was a poison-ivy like rash across the entire treatment area. Then it turned a deep, scary red, and I couldn’t stand for anything to touch it. I was lathered all the time in the only thing that would soothe it — Pinxave baby butt cream. I smelled awesome, as you can imagine. And then the skin began to peel.


There was a period there where the peeling was so painful I wasn’t sleeping all too well. Especially in the area under my armpit and beneath my breast there was no way to prevent contact with clothing and other skin and it’s Cleveland in the summer so everything swelled like a beached and dying sea creature. At one point I texted my friend in a frenzy because I thought my nipple had fallen off.


But then, through that miracle that bodies possess, my body began to heal. About 2-3 weeks after treatment was complete, the skin was back to something like normal.


Sleep

In between it all, your life is nothing but sleeping. Your kids find you boring. But, at the same time, while you have slept they have found all of the places you hide candy, so they are grateful for that.


Muffin Day

I’m not much of a baker, so on my last day of treatment instead of muffins I brought the nurses bath bombs. I had them in individual little bags with a kind but courteous note, and it was all adorable and stuff. I had in my mind that I would walk off that elevator like a celebrity — all smiles and energy, ready for people to cheer and throw confetti in my hair. It was my last day! Let the universe shine upon me!


But instead, I sort of muddled through in a haze of fatigue and something close to anxiety, and I wasn’t sure why.


When it was my turn to check in at the front desk the receptionist showed me her row of pretty teeth and congratulated me — by name, because we were buds after all this — and I dug into my bag of bath bombs and presented it to her, saying, “Hey! Thanks for saving may life! You’re the bomb!” And what I intended to be a flash of radiant smile and lasers of joy beaming from my eyes, ended up being a sort of choked up cough of words and I had to look away, blinking, keeping the tears at bay.


I handed out 15 bath bombs that day, and it was all the same, my face betraying me, every time.


When the final treatment was done and the last bath bomb disbursed, I walked to the changing room alone, and shut the sliding door to separate me from the 6 other patients who waited patiently for their turn at zap. All were talking about their progress, or lack thereof. Everyone spoke about “getting more time.”


Dressed, I opened the sliding door to them and feared there would be something tangible to betray me — something that would float over their heads, just out of reach, advertising, I was one of the lucky ones. I was done with treatment. The following morning, while they were driving here, I would get to stay home. Maybe I’d sleep in. Maybe I’d have my coffee in bed with my children surrounding me. But the room was filled with people who would still be waiting, still be here.


As I walked away from them, feeling guilty, feeling small, my footsteps in the long white hallways were conspicuous. That sound of person meeting world. That world stuck together by gravity and miracle and time.


I passed through a set of tall white doors that took me to the main waiting room, and the quiet shuffle there. The shuffle of air breathing the passing of time. I too breathed deep, exhaling a big ole prayer over us all, spreading the hope that they, that we, would still be here. Just a little longer. And please, not in this building. But most definitely here.

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