There is no sugarcoating the most bitter taste in your mouth; you cannot cliche away the pain. I am currently here, at the lowest point of my entire life.
February 3, 2023 marked three years post-breast cancer diagnosis, a day that fractured my sense of stability like thin ice on a frozen pond. A more immediate bomb has gone off in my life recently, pitting me to my lowest low: I filed for divorce from Ron on October 20, 2022. February is also the month I had my double mastectomy (2/26/20), and the month my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer (2/19/22). It’s been a tough month, but so have the last several.
The last four months have been exceptionally trying and painful; it has been a nightmare, really. Sixteen years we were together, most of which were amazing, now in the rear view mirror. I’m not going into details, but the universal themes of divorce permeate my life like the overwhelming cloud of Axe body spray from one of my middle school students. I will say it has been traumatic, stressful, dramatic, and difficult. There is so much more to say, but not here. I knew divorce was going to be tough, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve been through so far.
I am so lonely I can feel it in my body; heavy legs and limbs lumber about, keeping moving by sheer stubbornness. I am disciplined, so I continue taking good care of myself with exercise and time outside, but it’s not enough to outweigh the colossal shift that has upended my life. I am in affection withdrawal, missing the simple touch of another human being. The house is crushingly quiet. I mourn my old husband, our old life, all the plans we had for the future. I go snowboarding alone, missing the man I used to share that passion with. Going from having someone around all the time to no one is quite an adjustment. I don’t like being single.
I am cleaning all the time, because no one else is going to if I don’t. It’s also a good distraction. It doesn’t change the fact that I have no one to talk to at the end of the day, to share my evening with. It has been intensely sad and lonely. Though it was a change that needed to happen, I wish things hadn’t ended as they had.
On top of this bombshell in my life, I am coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death, March 7, 2022. That has been a gargantuan void I have not been able to fill even in the slightest since his passing; an uprooting of my sense of stability and self. He was the person in my life who I feel understood me the best, who really saw me and got me for who I was and appreciated it. We were also a lot alike, so that connection came naturally with lots of shared interests and personality traits. His death has left me feeling lost at sea, invisible in the way you feel when someone who loved you is no longer there. My dad was so many things to me, but above all he was a kindred spirit, my best friend, someone I cherished spending time with. Though we know our parents are going to die someday, you want them to live as long as they can, of course, and seventy-one still feels too soon for him to go.
Divorcing from Ron is similar in the sense of losing a man who loved and took care of me, and whom I thought would be in my life for some infinite horizon. In one year, I’ve lost the two most important men in my life. The men I used to go snowboarding and wakeboarding with; who I used to share dinners at our favorite restaurants with; who I could talk for hours about anything and everything with; who took care of me through cancer treatment. It is an overwhelming loss.
Add this to my breast cancer recovery, and I feel as though I can’t get a break. I should preface this by saying that life is a roller coaster, with some days better than others; there are surely moments of joy and peace amidst this chaos and loss. But overall, it feels like the hits just keep coming. My mortgage is due to rise by maybe $300/month as my homeowner’s insurance has skyrocketed from the CZU Lightning Complex fire of 2020. I have a divorce hearing in a couple of months, when I might get some sense of how badly the settlement is going to hurt. I’m the one with everything to lose – my pension, my house, my car even. I never thought I would need a prenuptial agreement as a teacher.
I feel like I was supposed to die when I got cancer, and like the Earth is trying to push me off ever since. I’m not superstitious, but it sometimes feels like everything is against me post cancer – my dad dying, my marriage falling apart, feeling angry and not like myself, getting in financial debt. I know that sounds ungrateful. There have been a lot of positive times, of course, but the gravity of the challenging times can make those moments of levity feel like light years away.
I continue to struggle with Tamoxifen. It is awful. I feel irritable almost all of the time. My anger is more like rage, and temper as short as mouse hair. I am not my old self. I still struggle with joint pain from the medication, as well as thinning hair, lowering voice, wrinkling skin, and a slew of other changes. My thermoregulation is still shot; I am either super hot and sweaty, or cold, rarely at a happy medium. It is linked to depression, too. I wonder how much of my emotional suffering right now is caused by it, though I am wise enough to know it’s not the sole culprit.
My lymphedema in my left trunk and upper arm keep me stretching daily; some days are worse than others. Add in radiation fibrosis, and I have constant tightness in my left shoulder and chest. I stretch all the time, do lymphatic massage on myself, exercise, and do yoga to help. I had surgery eight weeks ago to get new breast implants, after having my old ones removed in May 2022. The old ones were defective – crooked, rippling, uneven, and heavy enough to bring back my TMJ and neck pain I used to have with my old real breasts. Having empty expanders (temporary implants) in my chest was actually a nice break, as they weighed so little, and I felt my neck and jaw pain all but dissipate. My new implants are smaller than the old ones, and so far seem to be settling in okay, though they will never be breasts, will never feel like them, and never look as good. It is accepted in the breast cancer community that post-mastectomy, and especially post-radiation, you’ll never have ideal cosmetic results.
Then, there’s the fear of recurrence. I don’t think about it all the time, but every time I don’t feel well, I worry my cancer is back to kill me. Like yesterday, I got totally sick at work – throwing up, hit me like a train. I had to go home in the middle of the day. Though it was likely food poisoning from eating unrefrigerated leftovers (after a 3-day power outage), it immediately made me worry about stomach cancer. If my cancer does come back, it most certainly will kill me, so those are the terms I have to reckon with. I try to set it down and remove it from the forefront of my mind, but it lurks in the background like a shadow.
Physically, I just don’t feel as strong as I used to be. Duh. I am almost always tired or fatigued, though I naturally have a lot of energy. I wish I could take several months off of work and just recuperate. My endurance isn’t what it was when exercising; I just take a lot more breaks. Radiation fibrosis to my left lung really affected my respiratory function, though it has improved over time. I definitely don’t feel as attractive without natural breasts, which leads to its own set of self-image and self-esteem issues. I am reminded constantly of all that I’ve lost, physically and emotionally.
One thing I am good at? Discipline. I’ve always been pretty disciplined about taking care of myself, so I continue to go through the motions, no matter how I’m feeling. I journal regularly, play guitar, dance in my living room, exercise everyday, do yoga, practice meditation and gratitude, eat healthy, drink lots of water…but even all of that doesn’t fix hard times.
That’s what I’m here to say: you can do everything “right”, and still suffer, just like how I got breast cancer after living a healthy life. We are not impervious to life’s low points simply by being disciplined, though I do believe it is helping me get through it.
I continue to get outside, to get outside of myself, and into the infinitely beautiful world that persists, with or without me. I am grateful for what I have, though I know I risk losing all I’ve worked so hard for. All those mornings I got up early and went to work over the last eighteen years of my life as a teacher, all in jeopardy because of this divorce. Time will tell.
This is the lowest I’ve ever been in my life. But it’s not lost on me how lucky I was to experience the highest highs before all of this. I had sixteen years of an all around incredible relationship with Ron, where I felt I could truly be myself and was loved; where we shared amazing passion for not just life, but each other; undeniable chemistry; so many fun adventures snowboarding, surfing, mountain biking, exploring together. I rode those highs with a beaming smile on my face; I posted all those pictures to my social media to brag to the world about how happy we were. Because we were, and that won’t change, no matter how different things are now.
Life is a dance between the highest highs and the lowest lows, but I love it all the same. I am reaching out to family and friends for support. I have an immense lust for life, and though I feel a little beat down right now, I am trying to keep the faith.
Faith, my “One Word Challenge” for 2023. I chose the word faith because it’s something I’ve always struggled with; I’ve never had much of it. I’ve written about this before, how I met a professor in Spain when I was 17 who told me faith would be my biggest challenge in life. He was right. Every time I go through adversity, my default mode is fatalistic, nihilistic, and faithless. Right now, I feel like the best years of my life are behind me, that it’s all downhill from here. That is fatalistic. I am trying to lean into faith this year, though I’m not there yet. Faith looks like feeling calm, cool, and collected no matter what life throws at you; like trusting the future, regardless of circumstances. Faith feels like believing I’ll experience true love again, perhaps even better than before. I am working on it, making progress in fits and starts.
One thing I know for sure? I’ve been through so much, and have done a fairly decent job thus far of coping with it all. I am strong, and I have been through too much not to trust myself to persevere. Finding perseverance? Perhaps now, it’s a matter of manifesting perseverance. I continue forward, one foot in front of the other, sometimes with a smile, sometimes begrudgingly, but I keep moving. I love life, and believe it is an awesome opportunity that should not be wasted. Faith may be my challenge, but tenacity is my word.
I just want to talk to someone who will really listen.
During breast cancer treatment, that’s all I really wanted in terms of support from others. I wanted to be able to share my feelings and musings on life freely as I faced my mortality and tested my mettle in ways I’m still processing.
I just wanted to be heard; for someone to say, I hear what you’re saying, and that sounds tough. Tell me more. And then actually listen.
I really needed good listeners in my life, and fortunately, I had a few golden ones who got me through the thick of it, my husband Ron being number one, and family members. Now that it has been almost two years since finishing treatment, I’ve had some time to reflect upon the support and love I received. I am so grateful for everyone’s support, no matter the degree.
I also learned that there were some things I wish people didn’t say to me – not to attack anyone personally in my life, but to highlight some of the common themes that emerged in people’s comments. Inspired by other women’s posts about what not to say to someone going through breast cancer treatment, I am ready to write my own. I realize I may be repeating what has already been written by other cancer survivors, and it’s no surprise there are common feelings among all of us. I don’t want to come across as ungrateful, or judgmental, but this is how I felt. I’ve hesitated to share my thoughts as I don’t want to deliberately make anyone feel bad, but life is too short to hold back – something reaffirmed to me during breast cancer treatment.
Agree with me or not, if you’re ever so lucky to have cancer someday, then you can write your own list. This is just my two cents for supporting a loved one through breast cancer treatment.
Let’s start with what not to say or do.
1) Don’t play doctor.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, you spend most of your free time diving deep into research about your disease. You look at forums online, scholarly science articles, books, you name it. But you listen to your doctors’ advice, because they ultimately know more than you do (unless you yourself are a medical doctor with expertise on your cancer).
I was surprised by how much advice I got from people, whether it was a lifestyle change, an exercise regimen, energy work, dietary recommendations, supplements, or even my cancer treatment plan.Multivitamins, keto diet, intermittent fasting – you name it, it was probably suggested to me by someone. It’s funny how everyone becomes a nutritional expert through Google; I suffer the same pitfall sometimes, too. We get a little bit of information, read someone’s testimony to a diet or supplement, and we’re sold.
Diet is already a highly individualized thing. There is no one-size-fits-all, only what works for you. Though I appreciated that people were suggesting things out of love, it was kind of annoying. Did people think I wasn’t already eating healthfully? Did they assume I hadn’t already asked my doctor about anything special I should be doing? Everytime someone made a suggestion, it felt reductive, as if they were reducing my entire cancer – which is colossally intimidating – down to something so simple as a dietary change; if I just changed one thing in my diet, ate this one food, took this one supplement, that would be the game changer to kill my cancer and keep it from coming back. It was over simplistic, and frustrating.
I never make suggestions to people about what they should or shouldn’t eat. When I’m offered alcohol or meat, I simply say, No thank you, instead of charging into a rant about how I don’t drink, or why you shouldn’t eat meat. I appreciate when people do the same for me.
And please don’t tell me what my survival odds are, or what my risk of recurrence is. If you know about breast cancer, you know it’s not a one-size-fits-all prognosis. There are multiple variables to consider. When people tell me, “You have a 90% chance of survival at 5-years”, I want to pull up all of the bookmarked articles I have from NCBI to prove them wrong. No, I don’t have a 90% survival rate. My recurrence risk is about 50% over the next 15 years, and if it comes back, it will likely kill me, and it’s most likely to recur around the 5-year mark. A young age at diagnosis, large tumor size, high Nottingham grade score, and lymph node involvement all put me at a high risk for recurrence.
That’s why my doctors advised me to be as aggressive as possible in my treatment: bilateral mastectomy with axillary lymph node removal (I had three cancerous nodes in my left axilla, or armpit), chemotherapy, radiation, followed by 10 years of Tamoxifen, since my cancer was hormone-receptor positive. It wasn’t a “choice” for me to complete all my treatment, as people like to say sometimes; it was what the doctors advised me to do, and I heeded their recommendations.
2) Please don’t tell me that you understand, unless you’ve had cancer yourself.
Sorry, but unless you’ve lived through cancer yourself personally, you do not understand because you cannot understand. I know people are just trying to be compassionate, but it was the most disingenuous thing I think I heard from people. All I felt like saying when I heard that was, NO YOU DON’T!And the fact that you think you understand only shows me how little you understand what I’m going through.
I know I sound bitter; again, unless you’ve lived through cancer yourself, you can’t understand. I don’t blame you; it’s not your fault you’ve never been so blessed to fight for your life with a cancer battle. But please, don’t tell me you understand. It doesn’t matter that your friend, mother, second cousin, or neighbor down the street had cancer; that you sat by a loved one’s side as they sadly passed from their battle. You may understand parts of the experience, but you can’t understand exactly how someone with cancer feels. Nothing can prepare you for it, and it’s something you can’t know until you experience it. Even if you’ve had cancer yourself, it’s still a different journey than mine. Respect the process and uniqueness of everyone’s stories.
3) Please don’t placate with platitudes like, You’re going to be just fine! It’s God’s plan!
There is no way to know the future, nor determine whether my cancer treatments worked; only time will tell, and until I die, I’ll never know for sure. Though platitudes like this are common during a difficult time, it made me uneasy anytime someone said this to me. I’ll never forget an encounter at the radiation clinic; I met a woman in the changing room, and we made small talk while waiting for our appointments. She was getting radiation for her jaw; I was having my left chest wall and clavicle treated.
When she left for her appointment, she turned to me and said, You’re going to be just fine. I can feel it.
I smiled politely and thanked her, but I didn’t particularly like hearing that. How do you know I’m going to be okay? You just met me; you know nothing about me. You can’t predict the future, I thought.
Everytime someone told me I was going to kick cancer’s ass, or was going to be just fine, I cringed a little inside. Again, I’m not trying to attack people for sending me well wishes, but I need to be honest about how it felt to be on the receiving end. Cancer humbles you, and teaches you that you really aren’t in charge of your body after all. We think we are – with our dietary choices, exercise, and lifestyle – but ultimately, cancer can fester silently inside you for years before emerging as a volcano on your life, covering everything with scarring lava, filling the skies with the choking ash of death. You learn a necessary fear and strange respect for it, knowing it is now the boss over you.
You don’t talk sassily to it; you don’t pull the tiger’s tail. You never beat it, especially since it can always come back. I don’t call myself a cancer survivor, because I don’t know that I will survive it. I only know that today I am alive, and feel mostly well. But as I learned before, it could all change in the blink of an eye. Therefore, I never assume that I’m going to be just fine.
4) Don’t ask: How do you know your treatment worked?
This is one of the most difficult questions I get asked. It’s a fair question, really, but a difficult one to answer. The nurse at my port-removal surgery asked me this question; I was shocked he didn’t have the wherewithal to realize what a stupid question it was to ask someone who’d just lived through a double mastectomy, four months of chemo, and five weeks of radiation.
What the hell do you think I’ve been thinking about this entire time, everyday? What do you think my life is like now that I get to live with this dark shadow on my shoulder following me around, everyday, eternally threatening to kill me?! I mused in my mind.
Did it work?!
This is the essence of my newfound anxiety about recurrence that I have to fight from dominating my mindset everyday. I wish there were a guarantee that it worked for the long run, but only time will tell.
I will never know the answer until I die – from cancer, or something else. I’ve been asked the same question by other people, and I know it’s only an innocent, warranted question. I would love to say, Yes,but then if it comes back, it clearly didn’t work. This is the limbo you are stuck in as someone who has lived through cancer.
This is why I call myself a breast cancer zombie, not a survivor. I feel like a zombie of my former self, walking around in the shell of my old body, my old identity, echoes of songs sung years ago reverberating in my nostalgic heart. Glory Days is an apt soundtrack for me right now, I begrudge. Ask me how I’m doing today, that’s fine, but please don’t ask me how I know my cancer treatments worked. It only reminds me that I’ll never know for sure, and how unsettling that is.
5) Don’t make it about you.
This is the one time in life where you should not wait for your turn to speak; where you should not think of that one time you had a health scare that turned out to be fine, ready to share it as if you know exactly what we’re talking about (see #2). I appreciate a good back-and-forth dialogue, but please don’t appropriate our suffering by acting like you know it first-hand.
Sometimes when I opened up with people, it was as if they hadn’t heard a single word I said and were just waiting to tell their own sob story, as if trying to one-up me. It’s not a competition. I felt dismissed every time I tried to share my experience only to have the conversation flipped back away from me, and refocused on someone else. Sorry, but I don’t want to hear about your friend I’ve never met who had cancer, or how Angelina Jolie had a prophylactic mastectomy, and how that must be like what I’m going through (not in the slightest).
People on the outside looking in think all of us cancer patients have basically the same experience, and though there are universal themes (feeling alone, terror, immense gratitude for the simplest of things), everyone’s story is uniquely their own. When people tried to say they understood because they knew someone with cancer, it only made me feel like they weren’t actually listening to my story.
I just wanted someone to talk to. Don’t judge how we’re coping with cancer, or for being who we are. Don’t judge us for being selfish for once in our lives. Everyone deals with adversity in different ways, and what works well for one person doesn’t translate to everyone else. There is no one right way to deal with a cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment. Some people questioned how I was dealing with it, thinking only of how they would approach the situation if they were in my shoes (again, making it about themselves). Shouldn’t I be meditating everyday, or seeing a therapist, or taking that one special supplement that will fix everything? Am I “thinking good thoughts”, and visualizing my healing?
When I was first diagnosed and told a few teachers at my school, one of them told me they’d talked about how they could support me during treatment. Expecting your usual meal-train idea or something similar, I was taken aback when she said, “Someone said they didn’t know how to help you or what you’d want because you’re so quiet all the time”.
All I heard was that being an introvert automatically excluded me from receiving support from my colleagues, and a subtle dig telling me it was my fault if I didn’t get any support from others. And then, I thought, Have you ever tried asking me a question? I have a lot to say – if you actually listen. Maybe it wasn’t that I was so quiet, but that I didn’t want to waste my breath if someone wasn’t listening. My colleagues were supportive of me during treatment, coming together with generous donations and cards. For whomever had thought I was too “quiet”, there were several who were truly there as friends, checking in on me often, which meant the world to me. I could have done without hearing that comment, however.
During treatment someone else asked how I was doing so well amidst everything, that I was making it look easy; was I really doing as well as I seemed to be? You can’t win with everyone. You’d think people would want you to be happy and deal with it as best as you could, but sometimes it felt like people were disappointed I didn’t crumple to the ground in total surrender to the gravity of my experience.
Staying busy during treatment with regular time outside in beautiful places was my therapy; that precious, invaluable time kept me focused on the big picture – that life is so much more than my little life, scared as I was for it. Leaning into the beauty of the world, and learning about it, kept me inspired and helped abate some of my hardest days, but it didn’t diminish the difficulty of every step of treatment. When someone says it looks like I had an easy time with cancer, I want to remind them of all the times I cried, felt alone, or felt terrified that my death was imminent. Just because I remained committed to outdoor exercise during treatment doesn’t mean I didn’t suffer. Before cancer, time outside – paired with the endorphins of a good workout on my bike, two feet, or otherwise – had always been my best medicine. I’ve known the secret of movement through nature all of my life, and it definitely helped me through my treatment. It’s part of my identity.
But it’s only what worked for me. That doesn’t mean my way is the right way, the best way, or the way everyone going through cancer ought to approach their treatment. I would never push my lifestyle onto someone else, as I wouldn’t expect anyone to force their lifestyle upon me. Thus, when going through a hard time, let people deal with it how they know best. Don’t judge, don’t question, and don’t give unsolicited advice about how we ought to be dealing with it. Just let us deal with it how we know best, even if it’s not what you’d do.
#6) This last year was SO hard…
I know this one may make me seem cold. I realize these last couple of years were really hard for people, in many different ways – some obvious, some subtle. But unless you had cancer yourself, had COVID-19, lost a loved one, or had your life imminently threatened – beyond the risk of catching COVID – I would beg you to reconsider your blessings. All I heard people talk about is how hard 2020 was, or 2021 or 2022 for that matter. When I heard people complain, it made me wonder if they knew their audience; if they’d actually seen what I’d been through? It made me want to ask:
Would you rather have had drains hanging from your chest wall for nearly three weeks after you had a bilateral mastectomy with 33 lymph nodes from your armpit removed? Would you rather have sat in a chemo chair for five hours at a time, cold-cap freezing your head only to barely save some of your hair, over a four month period?
Would you rather have endured five weeks of daily radiation to your chest, knowing every treatment increased your risk of heart disease, and permanent fibrosis of your lung tissue?
Would you rather have pondered your death on a daily basis, genuinely wondering if this year might be your last on this planet?
Would you rather have evacuated your house for 11 days while a wildfire threatened to burn it all down? Would you rather have had to teach remotely for distance learning, having to rework all of your lesson plans to be delivered over Zoom, without much thanks from parents or students? Then again, would I have rather had a loved one die from COVID? Gotten COVID myself? Fought for my life on a ventilator? Lost my business? Had to bury a loved one in a mass grave?
Everyone has a story to tell from the pandemic, but I realize many had it way harder. I try not to complain about how “hard” treatment was, despite it actually being quite challenging. The lesson all along has been to take what you’ve been dealt, be grateful for what you have, and try to make the most of it.
Now, the #1 thing I would recommend to support someone going through breast cancer:
I’m sorry. That sucks. I wish you nothing but love and courage to fight this. Then, put your phone down and ask, How are you?
And really listen, compassionately. That’s all. No need to compare battle stories, or try to fix it.
Give yourself fully to the moment. Don’t wait for your turn to speak, or to share your own experience with your Aunt So-and-So who had a scare on her latest mammogram, or your friend who died from Stage 4 breast cancer after having celebrated being “cancer-free” for five years.
Listen with an open heart. Ask questions. Care. Put yourself in our shoes, and imagine how you might feel going through it. Don’t shy away from us when we’re going through our darkest, hardest moments. Be a good listener.
If you can’t handle the depth of such subject matter, then thank you for supporting me in ways you know how, like sending a card, flowers, or delivering a home-cooked meal. Some people don’t want to talk deeply about mortality, and that’s okay, but I really appreciated those who went there with me.
Adversity will reveal who truly has your back in life. At this point in my life, I don’t want to waste time with people who don’t care to ask how I’m really doing, who dismiss me. Some people I’d see after months since treatment wouldn’t even ask how I was doing, or about what my experience might have been like. Again, some people don’t want to talk deeply about mortality, but it was flabbergasting to be greeted as if everything was the same.
Conversely, I had some of the best conversations of my life while going through breast cancer treatment, catalyzed by the indisputable realization that my life as I knew it was over, and that my death may be more imminent than I had imagined. There’s a lot of deep issues you face when pondering your mortality, and talking with your loved ones about them helps.
My husband Ron was my de facto therapist, best friend, husband, house cleaner, personal masseur, personal shopper, and chauffeur, but the thing I appreciated most during treatment was his good ear. Having someone to talk to about the roller coaster of emotions I was experiencing made me feel far less alone, even if he couldn’t exactly understand what I was going through. That was the beauty of his gift of listening: he didn’t pretend like he understood, or knew the perfect thing to say, or try to fix it. He just nodded and listened with emoting eyes, an open heart, and genuine love for me. That is a quality about him I’ve always cherished, but was the biggest present; not to be outdone was my Dad, who visited regularly during treatment, and leaned into every conversation with an open heart, as he did all my life before passing away from cancer himself in March 2022.
I had some amazing conversations with other family and friends, too, my sisters and mom. Sometimes it was in-person, sometimes over the phone, sometimes through email or social media. However it happened, every connection I had with someone helped me feel better. I could not put a price on the value of those who were good listeners. To be seen and heard is really all I needed from my loved ones at a time like this. I realize I may sound bitter, but if you’re ever so lucky as to get cancer, then you, too, can write your own list of things you wish people wouldn’t say to you.
I lost my father this year: six words that ripped a hole in my heart.
My dad, Laird Buchanan Craig, was born to Scottish parents Erwin Gibson (E.G.) Craig and Sheila Prentice Craig on August 26, 1950, in Oakland, California. He grew up in the East Bay, the oldest of four children: Christie, Gavin, and Ian. He graduated in 1968 from Acalanes High School in Lafayette before going to college at Claremont McKenna and transferring to UC Berkeley. He was a journeyman contractor, starting in construction at a young age, owning a few businesses over his lifetime. He married his college sweetheart, Kristin Doreen Meub, in 1972, with whom he had three children, Bonnie, Mary, and Katrin. He remarried Ella Wolfe in 2012, and retired a few years later. He died on March 7, 2022, from metastatic cancer. He loved nature, animals, waterskiing, snowboarding, learning, reading, people, and took great pride in his work.
That’s barely scratching the surface of a life fully lived, as my choppy sentences convey, but those were some of the broad strokes of his life.
How do you convey the true impact someone has, who shaped you into the person you are today? You can’t, always; some things are impossible to fully express. They are intransmissible memories. We try to share them, however much in vain, as I did during my father’s eulogy on April 8 at St. Anselm’s Epispocal Church in Lafayette, as follows:
Welcome everyone, and thank you so much for being here today.
I am Katrin Deetz, Laird Craig’s youngest daughter. Those of you here today either knew my dad by doing something fun and athletic, like water skiing or snowboarding, or perhaps you shared a lively debate about a current event, or maybe you worked in construction with Laird, witness to his craft and expertise in that domain; or maybe he helped you when you really needed some compassion. Perhaps you were lucky enough to share all of those things with him and more. He was a force of positivity for so many, with a passionate spirit and tenacious thirst for knowledge.
He was also known for being adventurous. My dad often said to me:
Drive fast, take chances, safety third.
He first said this when I got my driver’s license, but he might as well have been talking about his approach to life. Seventy-one years, and every one of them were spent chasing something more; squeezing the most out of the day; learning as much as he possibly could. Laird Buchanan Craig, my father, has influenced so many people throughout his life, spreading his zealous love of knowledge, Nature, and people.
To all three of us daughters, Bonnie, Mary, and me, he was a hero, both figuratively and literally. When I was a kid, I had a scary near-drowning experience kneeboarding. I had the strap too tight and too high around my hips, and took a hard fall. Flipping over face-first into the water, I couldn’t release myself from the strap; more urgently, I couldn’t breathe with my head underwater. Gasping frantically for air and stuck in the kneeboard, barely able to catch a breath before being smacked face down underwater again, I glimpsed my father diving out of the boat. I knew he was coming to save me, and though I was still fighting to not drown, I knew I would be okay (and I was, clearly).
My dad taught all of us what a strong work ethic looks like, too. My sister Mary and I spent a few Summers working on my dad’s construction sites, giving us the confidence to work hands-on with tools; I’ll never forget the day he let me drive his Ford truck through AppleHill in Brentwood, four-wheeling through the mud where his co-worker John McAustland had gotten stuck earlier. Today, Mary works in architecture and interior design, tackling home projects along the way, a passion definitely influenced by my father’s positive encouragement over the years. My father was also an anchor for my sister Bonnie as she pursued her education, earning a PhD in American Studies & American Literature, and authoring a book before going on to teach as a professor. He was a consistent anchor and support for her, visiting her abroad during her studies. Dad was all about empowering us.
We were in awe of the multitude of construction projects my dad worked on over the years: from the Lafayette Veterans Hall, to the San Francisco State University Mashouf Recreation Center, to countless high-rise units in San Francisco, where he specialized in door installation. He wore many hats as a carpenter: business owner, commercial developer, foreman, remodeler, housing development, restoring antique architecture, doors specialist; my dad was a journeyman in his field. He enjoyed working, and took great pride in a job well done. For all the talk about Drive fast, take chances, safety third, my dad certainly put safety first on the job site!
But he knew when to play hard, too. My parents took us on many vacations and outdoor activities as kids, from houseboating and waterskiing, to snow skiing in Winter. As a teenager, he started taking me snowboarding at Kirkwood, often with his friend Alan Gray, exploring double black diamonds and more challenging terrain. Over the Winters that followed, I cherished those days spent on the mountain snowboarding with my Dad. Sure, snowboarding itself is simply fun on its own, but it was also the experience of flow through Nature. We shared some of our closest times on the mountain.
One time, while snowboarding at Heavenly, we took a break on the way down to appreciate the stunning view of Lake Tahoe. Sitting in happy silence, he remarked, “Katie, this is our Home. Anywhere in the mountains, outside, is Home”. He had always instilled this philosophy upon us as kids, but growing up into a young adult, it grounded me. Yes, Nature was my home, my playground, and always would be. We had so much fun together out there!
Years later, we did the California Chutes, an incredible day hike off the summit of Kirkwood. After hiking for a couple of hours, we neared the summit. He looked at me with conviction and said, “Katie, this is still Home, but whatever you do, don’t fall here!” It was the most amazing run of my life, a long, powdery, blissful run, finishing out at a lake.
These experiences were not only fun and adventurous, but incredibly formative. The lesson was consistent throughout: life will throw challenges at you. How you respond to those challenges determines your experience. Thus, when you’re on the mountain and it’s snowing hard, blowing sixty miles an hour wind in your face, you’d better be prepared with your jacket, goggles and face balaclava, strength, and a good attitude, lest it ruin your afternoon. It was all about having fun despite the difficult nature of the activity. Perseverance was paramount.
One of Laird’s favorite places besides Kirkwood was the Delta. He spent years waterskiing there, probably with many of you sitting here. It was always fun to wakeboard and go fast over the water, but our best times were often when the engine turned off, when we moored ourselves on some sandy shoal, in the serenity of late afternoon sunlight, the sound of lapping water our keeper of time. We both loved birds, and would see so many amazing ones out there – herons, egrets, hawks galore. My favorite memory was cruising down a slough as a large flight of swallows led our way, hundreds of them picking off insects gracefully, never too close to the boat, just skirting ahead of our bow. This went on for minutes; we looked at each other and said, “Isn’t this magical?” And soaked up the close encounter with these beautiful birds, witness to their grandeur. Yes, it was magical.
I had the gift of time with my dad. Whether it was snowboarding at Kirkwood, wakeboarding on the Delta, hiking around California, or just hanging out talking, I am grateful we made so many memories over the years.
More than anything, he was my best friend; one of the few people I could really talk to. Laird was always keen to learn something new, or share something new he’d just learned. Intellectually stimulating conversation was his cup of tea, and I know so many of you will miss that as well. He cared deeply about the environment, and current events.
He was also a wonderful listener, especially when you were going through something tough. Talking with him is what I miss most; he was a hero in the empathy department. When I went through breast cancer treatment two years ago, he once again was my hero. He came down to see me regularly during treatment, and we shared some of our closest moments during that time – long hikes, beach days, redwood exploration, leisurely lunches outside in the garden. We shared some of our best conversations during that time.
There was one day in particular, when we had enjoyed a nice, long hike, followed by lunch. Yes, I was going through chemo, but darn it, we were making the most of it. Relaxing in my backyard under abundant sunshine, birds flitting about, he turned to me and said, “Isn’t this the life?”
Yes, this is the life, and I’m so grateful I had these moments with you, Dad. I hope everyone here looks back on those moments you shared with Laird and appreciate every one.
When he was in his final weeks of life, I explained to the Hospice nurse what a hero my dad had been for me during my breast cancer treatment; how he had saved my spirit. My dad interjected tearfully: “No, you saved me”.
Being a hero for someone is truly showing up for them; it’s seeing them for who they really are; it’s hearing what they mean behind their words. Being a hero is loving someone unconditionally, with genuine acceptance and warmth. My dad was a hero to so many people in this sense. Loving, generous, Laird loved people. He loved his wife. Wherever he went, he made friends. And he loved being Greatdad. He cherished being with his five grandchildren, and loved them dearly.
In his final days, he commented, “We said it all; we did it all”, of our life together. Yes, we had been blessed with lots of time together; yes, we had the luxury of some time to say “goodbye”. But when it’s someone you can really talk to, there is always something more to say.
In his honor, I encourage everyone who knew Laird to live with curiosity and passion; to take care of business, and then play with even greater focus; to offer yourself fully to every moment; to notice the incessant beauty of Nature, and to protect, appreciate, and fight for it; to be kind; to care about wildlife of every size, from caterpillar to hippopotamus. Notice how amazing our planet is, and how lucky we are to be alive to witness it. Though problems exist, find the light, and cultivate levity.
This leads me to a short reading from one of my favorite books, The Manitous: A Collection of Ojibwe Indian Stories. My dad gave me many books over the years, but this was one of the most impactful, given to me for my fifteenth birthday. The central theme is to respect and revere Nature; to not be greedy with Earth’s bounty; and to build wisdom among generations of humans.
“Just as food is meant for every living being, human and animal, so Kitchi-Manitou set aside and appointed a place and a time for all beings to make homes for themselves and their offspring wherein they could seek shelter from the wind, rain, and snow and take refuge from their enemies. No one was granted primacy or dominion over the Earth or another species.
Indeed, if there is a primacy of any kind, it may well be that birds, animals, insects, fish, and even plants possess a primacy to a greater degree than do human beings, by virtue of their capacity to fend for themselves without assistance from other beings, human or otherwise. With the exception of corn (maize) and perhaps dogs, no animal or plant needs anything from humankind. No such claim can be made of human beings.
Having no need of human beings and endowed with their own natures, attributes, and independence, eagles, bears, butterflies, and whitefish, representing various species of the Earth, are humankind’s cotenants upon the land, sharing the yield and fruit of Mother Earth. Such was the order of life that Kitchi-Manitou’s vision intended and ordained.
But the Earth did much more than serve and fulfill humans’ and animals’ physical needs and appetites. Through all its stages and seasons, Mother Earth inspired and evoked in men and women a sense and appreciation of beauty, curiosity, and wonder and stirred in their souls joy and sometimes gloom. Old men and women often paused to gaze on the sun rising on the horizon as if from the depths of the sea in the morning or to watch it decline in the west in a shroud of crimson to gratify their sense and need for beauty, saying in wonder, “Only Kitchi-Manitou can do that”. In their travels over their lands, the Anishinaubae people saw many spectacles, such as a rainbow at the foot of a waterfall or the dance of thousands of wavelets in a moonlit lake that entranced them and made them long for time to stand still and the vision last forever. Mother Earth was beautiful beyond words, for all time.
Besides beauty, mother Earth also had a spiritual presence, an aura of mystery that imparted a sacred character to certain places. Where but nearer the dwelling place of the Manitous was there a better place from which to address the Manitous and to be addressed by them.
Finally, the last sense in which the Earth was mother, was as a teacher. It was through the changes and beauty of the earth, that the Anishinaubae, discovered the existence of Kitchi-Manitou, and reasoned that the Great Mystery was the creator of all things and beings. Mother Earth revealed by means of her transformations that there is a Kitchi-Manitou and so believed that other Manitous were created by the first mystery and set in the world to preside over the destinies and well-being of every species of living, sensitive beings, by observing the relationship of plants, animals, and themselves to the Earth. The Anishinaubae people deduced that every eagle, bear, or blade of grass had its own place and time on Mother Earth, and in the order of creation in the cosmos. From the order of dependence on other beings, the Anishinaubae determined and accepted their place in relation to the natural order of Mother Earth.”
Thank you all for being here today, and remember:
Drive fast, take chances, safety third, and live like Laird!
After the service, many people came up to thank me for capturing the essence of my father’s life, to tell me how much my eulogy spoke to his spirit. One of his old friends emphasized how the words I chose were beautiful, and painted such a vivid picture of his life. Despite the circumstances, it was nice to see old friends and family, and to feel like my words had resonated with people who loved my dad.
It’s been over four months since his passing. I miss him like crazy, and still cry often, but I try to focus on being grateful for all of the time we shared. I got forty-one years with him, and I am lucky for that gift of time. I’ve been busy this Summer mountain biking and hiking around California, trying to live for two people since he can’t anymore.
Grief is a roller coaster of emotions, from acceptance, to anger, to crippling sadness. For he was not just my dad, but so much more. Though he lived to be 71, I still feel like he died too young. He was one of the few people I could really talk to in my life, who would really listen and reflect. I feel more alone now than I ever have, despite having loving people in my life. I feel lost at sea without a paddle, as we’d always been very close.
When my parents divorced in 1996, I moved in with my dad full-time. We lived together for my junior and senior year of high school, and this was one of the best times we had together. From watching Saturday Night Live (our favorite sketch was the “Neat” one – no matter what was said, it was neat); to him taking me out to fancy restaurants and showing me how a man should treat a woman on a date; to going snowboarding at Kirkwood, often with his best friend Alan Gray; to wakeboarding out on the Delta. We became more friends than father-daughter during this time, and it was formative. He helped me with my Math homework, and taught me how to drive a stick-shift on his little Toyota truck we called “The ‘Tine” because it was so tiny; he had to replace the clutch afterward, without expressed complaint, mind you. We jammed on guitar together, strumming tablature from Alice in Chains and Bob Dylan music books, among others. We sang in harmony, laughing at the times we were certainly not in harmony, and progressed as musicians.
When I got my driver’s license, he quipped: Drive fast, take chances, safety third.
I laughed hesitantly; you’re joking, right? But no, he wasn’t really joking.
This was the first of many times he would say this to me and others, which almost felt paradoxical, as he was always super safe when working on his job sites, and didn’t live his life in a reckless, careless way. It was the perfect juxtaposition to his calculated, measured demeanor at work. He would say it whenever someone was about to do something fun, go on an adventure, or take a risk athletically or otherwise. Someone taking off on a road trip cross-country? Drive fast, take chances, safety third. Someone about to drop the California Chutes at Kirkwood? Drive fast, take chances, safety third. Someone leaving Alan Gray’s famous round table? You get the idea. It was a mantra of sorts, delivered in perfect time, encouraging people to get rad; to dive in whole-heartedly to their adventures, to go for it.
After my high school graduation from Acalanes in 1998, Dad and I had a special opportunity to drive cross-country together, spending six days exploring the country along Interstate 70. Bonnie was to do an internship in Washington, D.C., so we drove her car out for her. It was a trip I’ll always remember, how we tasted each state by its tap water (Kansas tastes flat!); how Dad got a speeding ticket in Kansas on his forty-eighth birthday (the cop even told him, Happy Birthday, as he handed him his ticket), to the dramatic lightning storm we saw in Kansas. And that was just Kansas!
Dad had just gotten surgery on his ACL in his knee, and despite the brace he had to wear, crutched around the capitol to see the Smithsonian Museum, Arlington Cemetery, and Lincoln Memorial, among other highlights. When we finally reached the end of I-70 at Ocean City, Maryland, a sign displayed: “Warning: Wild Ponies Bite and Kick”. Wanting to test that a bit, I neared the wild horses, who promptly proved why that warning sign was merited. Snapping my hand back and recoiling from the horse as it bit at me, they reminded me it was their domain.
The best memories of that trip were the conversations Dad and I shared. I was readying for college, all seventeen years of my life getting ready to spread my wings.
When I left for college at UC Santa Cruz in Fall of 1998, Dad dropped me off and said, You sure chose a good place to go to college, Katie. I’ll be down a lot to visit!
Over the following years, he followed through on that promise, coming down to visit me often. Since I was only about an hour and a half away, I visited my parents and family in the Bay Area often, too. We went hiking, to the beach, waterskiing on the delta, and snowboarding at Kirkwood in the Winter. He was someone I called regularly for advice on life, whether it was choosing my major, my boyfriend, or choosing my career path. He was always there for me, day or night. There was always a sense of both adventure and excitement when we would hang out, whether we were doing an activity, or simply talking. This spirit of exploration and appreciation continued over the years that followed, as we shared many days on the mountain, on the water, on the snow. Moments of bliss, moments of awe and wonder, moments of reverence for the world around us.
Dad remarried in 2012 to Ella Wolfe, whom he loved deeply. They shared several sweet dogs: Banjo, Bozzie, Sophie, and Ginger. They lived in Lafayette, Crockett, and ultimately, Smartsville. He retired from working around 2018, but continued working many side jobs. He genuinely loved the challenge of solving a problem, or designing something to be problem-free in the first place.
When I got breast cancer in February of 2020, Dad really stepped up to be there for me. He came to see me almost every weekend, despite being in a pandemic; some days, we only hung out outside, never getting closer than six feet. It was almost a year of treatment before I was “done”, and he was there every step of the way, from the day I cried in the parking lot when my chemo was delayed, to the time I walked up the hill behind our house with him the day after my mastectomy. We shared some of our closest moments during this time, talking about life and death, reflecting on our short time on this Earth. Beach days, redwood hikes, long lunches, and time just hanging out around my house became soul-saving for me. I’ll always revere the day he brought down old photo albums from my grandmother’s teenage years, a glimpse into her life as a budding young woman.
In retrospect, this was probably the closest we’d ever been. We had some of the best conversations about Science. I’ll never forget the day we went hiking at Quail Hollow Ranch, one of my favorite parks. Sitting atop an overlook, we somehow meandered to the topic of surface tension of water. We were known to take many tangents, both on the trail, and in conversation. As a Science teacher and Environmental Studies major, I’ve taken a lot of Science classes in my life, and am a naturalist, constantly studying the natural history of the world around me. Though I might know a few things, there’s a lot more that I don’t know. I love learning, like Dad did, so it was always easy to talk about anything, really. We challenged each other intellectually and thrived while learning from each other.
Sitting on a bench in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I explained how water is a polar molecule, with an imbalance of positively and negatively charged particles at either pole, causing it to seek balance by adhering to other water molecules, the basis of surface tension – you know, why it hurts when you belly flop into a swimming pool, or how plant roots intake water through capillary action.
He turned to me and said: I’ve always thought of myself as the “teacher” in our relationship, you know as father and daughter over the years. But now, you’re teaching me.
It wasn’t the first time I’d taught him something, of course, but it was a fitting observation. I always say that my dad saved me during treatment. He reminded me of my tenacity, enthusiastic spirit, and appreciation for life and nature. My husband Ron mused that Dad had taken my cancer from me, metaphorically speaking, but I never thought he would have actually taken it from me. That’s not possible, of course, but it was a fitting metaphor based on what happened next. He may just have had cancer at the same time that I did.
In Fall 2021, he told me he wasn’t feeling very well altogether: fatigue, headaches, and an overall feeling of malaise, like something was really wrong. So began the doctor’s appointments, and bloodwork. His white-blood cell count was elevated, so he pushed his doctors to investigate further. They ordered an abdominal ultrasound, which detected a mass on his liver. This was followed up weeks later with a CT Scan, which confirmed the mass. He was then scheduled for a biopsy.
He continued to feel worse, feeling so weak he could barely lift anything heavy, nor could he do the activities he used to love. He would get uncontrollable hiccups after eating or drinking. Everytime I spoke with him, he relayed how exhausted and ill he felt. February 12, 2022, was the last “normal” day I spent with my Dad, and he clearly said: I don’t know what this thing is, but I can tell it’s not good. I’ll fight if there’s a chance, but if it’s too late, then I’m at peace with that. I’ve lived a good life, and maybe it’s just my time. I knew sitting next to him right there that he was right; that he was facing something insurmountable, and perhaps accepting it was all there was left to do.
Several days later, my older sister Bonnie and her children went to visit him over Presidents Weekend at his house in Smartsville, California, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. They had enjoyed a pleasant evening together, before my dad woke Bonnie up in the middle of the night. He couldn’t hold down any water, had the hiccups, and felt like he was so dehydrated he was getting delirious. Bonnie drove him to the Emergency Room at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley. He was admitted and given more diagnostics, including a brain CT scan; that’s when the doctors realized he had a large brain tumor on his cerebellum, and that his headaches were likely from the swelling taking place under his skull.
Doctors assessed his overall situation and offered a few treatment options, with little guarantee they would do anything to help. They could cut into his skull to relieve pressure, and try radiation on his head to shrink the tumor; this could cause permanent brain damage, and if the surgery worked, the radiation side effects would be crushingly painful. Then, they would have to address his liver and stomach tumors and all that would entail.
It wasn’t long before Dad accepted there really wasn’t much that the doctors could do at that point, and they were clear about that. Stage 4 terminal cancer was his diagnosis, and it was basically too late to do anything about it. They predicted he may have days to weeks to survive. My dad averaged that prognosis and proclaimed he may only have two weeks to live. This was on Saturday, February 19, 2022.
I got the phone call from my sister Bonnie telling me the news; perhaps Dad had only two weeks to live. Waking up from a deep sleep, I was shocked at how little time he was given. Two weeks?!
The hospital didn’t allow visitors at first due to the pandemic, but considering the situation, allowed us. Bonnie and I drove up there together on Monday. Dad was sleeping soundly, but awoke to our presence. We didn’t say much; we held his hand, and tried to be as quiet and peaceful as possible. The last thing he needed was any added grief or stress. We talked occasionally, but mostly sat in relative serenity for about an hour before we left. Something about holding his hand that day, with his gentle occasional squeeze, felt like a blessing amid a heartbreak, and I soaked up that moment.
I drove back up on Wednesday that week, and sat with Dad a while, mostly in silence, not wanting to disturb him. I spoke with the nurses, who urged us to transfer my dad from the hospital to home, where he could receive Hospice care.
Wouldn’t he rather die at home? They asked. My dad was reluctant to leave the hospital; he felt safe and comfortable there. He was losing mobility and strength, and having trouble standing and walking. With a little bit of prompting, Dad agreed to leave the hospital. My sister Bonnie lives in Lafayette, and graciously – and heroically – offered to have my dad come there.
Thursday morning, bright and early, I showed up at the hospital to take him home. Carefully situating him in the passenger seat of my Subaru Outback, I set out on the most important drive of my life. He had been given a sedative, so was quite sleepy, but occasionally interjected along the drive home. Santana, he offered, as Oye Como Va played on the radio. I tried to keep the music at a reasonable level, as I know how much he loves music, but didn’t want to give him a headache.
I saw his eyes wandering out the window along the way, and it struck me how he must be looking at the scenery realizing it would be the last time. Last drive over the Yolo Bypass; last drive among the rolling, green hills. What a bitter pill to swallow, even if he had said he was “at peace” with his diagnosis. I cried behind my sunglasses as I felt the gravity of how many “lasts” he was experiencing, and how it might feel to be cognizant of that. Somewhere along the drive, he reached out and grabbed my resting right hand and squeezed it tightly. Again, there was something peaceful and settling about his hand in mine.
After about two and a half hours, we reached Bonnie’s house in Lafayette. A hospital bed had been delivered, as had a wheelchair, walker, bedpans, and many other toiletries. With some help from a Hospice nurse, we slowly helped my dad to his bed. My sister Mary was there, too, and all three of us braced ourselves for a journey we had no idea how would unfold.
I took time off work and left plans for a substitute. I didn’t know how long it would be, but I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere else on the planet.
In those first few days, there was a lot of sleeping, but also some glimmers of hope. My dad would eat a little bit of food, and was pretty talkative with all of us. Ella had come down to be with him as well, and that gave him great comfort. He also saw his two dogs, Bozzie and Ginger, who fervently licked his face and cuddled up with him when they saw him. Clearly, they had missed him over the last week. Dad couldn’t get out of bed anymore, so we were helping him with all kinds of things. Hours were spent sitting with him in his room; I wrote in my journal, did crossword puzzles, and read while he was asleep. When he was up, I delighted in anything he said, whether it was commenting on how loudly the dogs snored, or how much we had meant to him in his life. There were many tearful conversations, reminiscing over old memories, and mourning all the memories we wouldn’t be able to make, balanced with lighthearted moments and even laughter. Some I hold too close to my heart to even try to express in words or share with others, but I hope by sharing some of these moments it might help others taking care of a dying loved one. It was the hardest, most intense thing I’ve ever done.
It wasn’t the time for us to feel sad, though. It was Dad who was depressed, with reason. Duh! Of course he would be, just given days to live. We knew there was something wrong before his diagnosis, but we’d all thought there might be some kind of “fight”, where we would try surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, something. To be told, basically, that there was nothing to do except wait to die, was a gut punch, literally and figuratively. He was crestfallen, and it was hard to see him give up, however much he knew that was the only thing to do.
After a few days of being at home at Bonnie’s, Dad started saying how he wished he would just die; that he couldn’t wait to have that relief. He had remarked to Ella one night, half-jokingly but mostly serious, that we probably couldn’t wait for him to die; that caring for him must be such a burden. I couldn’t bear the idea of my dad thinking he was a burden to us. When I spoke with him next, I had to dispel that assumption.
I told him that I needed him to understand something important:
You know all those times you took care of us over the years? Not just as children, but as adults? Well, now it’s our turn. I need you to understand what a gift this is to us, Dad, and how lucky we feel to be here with you. This is an honor to get to be here with you, to get some extra time together. You are our hero, so any extra time we get with you is a true blessing. This is not a burden to us, but an honor.
He teared up, feeling the love, but also the gravity of the situation. Yes, he was dying, and yes, his daughters and wife were taking care of him. I hoped he understood what a true honor we felt this to be.
Hospice was very helpful, by the way, but it wasn’t the full-time care I had assumed. They train you how to do everything, and then leave. I’m not complaining; I was just a little surprised by how much you really need to do on your own. I had assumed hospice care involved having someone there most hours of the day, but you have to pay a private nurse for that level of care, apparently.
Nights were a bit challenging. About a week in, we hired a night nurse to sit with him so we could all get a good night’s rest. They were there from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and it was extremely helpful.
Dad stopped eating food, and started sleeping a lot more. We had time to say “goodbye”, and reminisce about old times, but once he started saying how he just wanted to die, I felt like I wanted that relief for him, too.
His headaches were getting worse, likely from the cerebral edema he was experiencing. His forehead would get extremely hot; we rotated ice-cold, wet washcloths on his forehead, changing them as often as every thirty seconds at the worst of times. It is really heart wrenching to watch a loved one suffer in pain. This was the hardest part, but obviously it was harder for him experiencing it. We all wanted him to have some relief, to be free of suffering.
Hours were spent by his side, the only place we wanted to be. We would take breaks during the day to get out and do something as a release; my escape was going trail running or hiking at Briones, just up the road from Bonnie’s. It was the time where I could get away from it all, and let myself have a good cry. It was my time to process everything, and reflect. I felt my dad with me on these hikes, knowing he would be with me otherwise. Wildflowers were just starting to bloom, the hills were emerald green, and the best part was spotting a pair of mating newts! I was able to watch them for about fifteen minutes, sitting still alongside the creek, marveling at their beauty. It was a real blessing to witness! I also saw my old friends Orla and Shanna with their husbands one day, the best surprise. I’ve known them since I was young, and seeing their faces made me feel calmer.
I listened to Justin Bieber’s Ghost so many times, driving in my car singing at full volume a song – and music video – that spoke so directly to me. I still listen to that song often, and think of my dad every time.
As the days passed on, Dad became increasingly despondent, and slept most of the day. He said he just wanted to die at least a few times each day. I actually told him something I never thought I would utter: Dad, I hope you die today, with a loving smile, and he said, Me, too!
A couple of more days passed, and then, on Saturday, March 5, 2022, things took a turn for the worse. I had just gotten back from a run at Briones, and I admit, it was a tough one. I’d forgotten food and water, and had gone too far down the trail before turning around. It was one of those two hour runs that just doesn’t seem to end. Exhausted, hot, hungry, and facing yet another steep hill (Briones is famous for them), I shouted out into the air:
I hate this place! I don’t want to run here anymore! After ten days of conquering the unrelenting hills that comprise Briones, I was tired. I didn’t want to climb another hill; I wanted something flat and easy. It was the perfect metaphor for the hard time we were all going through. Famished and thirsty, exposed under the punishing sun, the trudge back to my car was a long one. I was beat, and said to myself, This is the last run I’m going to do here for a while. I need a break from this place – a prescient statement, really. That would be my last run there after all, for the time being.
When I got back to Bonnie’s that afternoon, Dad began throwing up blood. We gathered around him, and stood by his side as he threw up blood into a towel which I would hold under his mouth. We called the Hospice nurse, and understood now that a line had been crossed; there was no turning back from this. Dad was dying, right before our eyes. I share these details not to be sensational, but because it was shocking at first; nothing really prepares you for it. Death can be swift and serene, or long and turbulent, and everything in between.
I’d often repeated a mantra to him: Endless Kirkwood powder, and glassy Delta sloughs forever, imagining what Heaven, if there were one, might look like for him. As he lay there vulnerably, we comforted him as best we could, told him we loved him, to be free and fly.
Endless Kirkwood powder, and glassy Delta sloughs forever, I said again.
This went on for about two hours, by which time the nurse had arrived. With some encouragement, Dad finally agreed to pain medication; he had resisted all this time. We administered morphine and Ativan, and within twenty minutes, he had relaxed quite a bit, not throwing up blood anymore. He coughed again, and Mary and I both were at the ready with towels. He joked: Cough once, get two daughters. This was the last thing he ever said directly to me, and I’ll never forget it. He fell into a deep sleep after this, never fully waking up again.
We continued administering morphine and Ativan throughout the night and next day, and Dad continued to sleep heavily. He twitched when touched, as if recoiling; he didn’t seem to want to be touched anymore. We sat with him still, hoping he would soon find the relief of death. His breathing slowed, with long periods of apnea.
Around 3 p.m. that day, I left to go back home to Ben Lomond. I hadn’t been home in twelve days; hadn’t seen Ron, or cat Beau, and of course I hadn’t been at school for two weeks. I decided I would go back to work on Monday, set up sub plans for the week, and go back up to Bonnie’s that afternoon. Knowing my dad’s condition, though, I knew he was already gone. I knew on that drive home that it was only a matter of hours before he would pass. I got a phone call around 1:15 a.m. that night that Dad had passed, sleeping peacefully. It was a strange combination of both relief that he wasn’t suffering anymore, and grief that now it was actually final.
It’s hard to express what those following days were like. Bonnie wrote a gracious obituary; Mary and I started planning the memorial. I was deeply grieving, exhausted from the last couple of weeks, and starting to accept the permanence of it all. I felt like I’d lost the one person in my family that knew and understood me the best.
When my dad lost two very important people in his life – one of his best friends Alan Gray in 2010, and his mother Sheila in 2019 – he remarked, Who am I going to talk to now?
He didn’t mean he couldn’t talk to anyone else, but was merely acknowledging how much he loved talking with those two. Back in the day, we used to spend hours sitting around Alan’s round kitchen table, sharing conversation that bounced from tangent to tangent in the most organic, beautiful way. I long for those conversations. It was the same with my grandmother; I would visit her, often with Dad, and would look forward to the path our discussions would take.
That is exactly how I feel now that he is gone; who am I going to talk to now? Yes, I can talk to others, namely my amazing husband Ron, but there is no replacement for Dad. He was the one I gravitated toward at family events; the one who was always proud of me, regardless of whether I had kids or not, whether I was wealthy or not. He was the person who not only saw and heard me, but understood me. We were so much alike, truly kindred spirits, like two peas in a pod.
One of the last texts Dad ever sent me went something like this. I’d forwarded him an article about the last Irrawaddy river dolphin dying in northeastern Cambodia, part of our usual doom-and-gloom sharing of environmental news. We regularly lamented about the sad state of the world with climate change and a slew of other depressing plights of humanity. I added that the planet was fucked, and we humans have got to go.
He replied back that he found it most interesting that I, along with his other close friends in life – Jim, Danielle, Alan, Kent, Quynh – all decided to go childless. This is what I’ll miss most about my dad: the way he saw me for who I was.
I wrote him back thanking him for acknowledging this, as not everyone sees it that way; many people look down on me as a less fulfilled person because I chose not to have kids (what a waste of ovaries!). I reminded him of the moment I chose not to have kids, sitting in my senior year of high school talking about the human population nearing six billion. I proposed, half-jokingly, that two-thirds of the world’s population volunteer to kill themselves off, to ameliorate the environmental problems we were experiencing. I said I’d be one of those volunteers, willing to sacrifice myself for the greater good. Of course, that’s a violent and unrealistic proposal, but in a seventeen year old’s mind, it seemed so simple. He replied that he and his friend Jim Hale had spoken recently about the dire state of the planet, that we’d reached a point of no return.
Yet nature’s beauty persists, drawing us to those wild places, like the mountains Dad loved.
Three months after his passing, on June 7, 2022, I won the lottery to hike up Half Dome in Yosemite. It’s such a popular hike that’s been nearly loved to death, so now the park must regulate us humans; no more than 300 people per day can ascend the Half Dome cables. I was stoked to gain entry, and set out on an epic hike at 6:30 a.m. It was about five hours of hiking uphill to reach the cables; then, about thirty minutes to get up the cables. There was some traffic, and it was a slow ascent; obviously, no one wants to rush here! You fall, you die.
The summit was overwhelmingly vast and stunning. I thought how Dad would be there with me if he could, and how he’d hiked it himself some 51 years earlier. It was the hardest hike I’ve ever done – 17 miles, 9.5 hours start to finish – but an incredible one. It felt like a fitting way to honor my Dad, who loved the Sierra Nevada mountains, on the three-month mark of his death.
When Father’s Day came on June 19, it had been exactly one year since he had come to Big Bear with me. I had a downhill race at Snow Summit last year, and he came to watch; we spent a splendid weekend together. This year, I went back, and it was as hard as I thought it would be. Memories everywhere I looked, from the restaurants we ate at, to the bench we sat on after the race. It was my first Father’s Day without Dad, too. I cried often during the weekend, especially on that special Sunday I used to share with Dad. I had planned to race that day as I did last year, but couldn’t bring myself to.
I am reminded of him everywhere, from being outside in Nature, to birding, to Science current events, to my observations of daily life; to the restaurant we last ate at together in Truckee – Jax at the Tracks, when I was up at Northstar – to the hikes we used to take around here.
I’m reminded of him when I see his favorite bird, the chickadee. Chickadees are some of the most social birds around, and are fearless in their disposition; they are curious, smart, and crafty. Dad always talked about how much he loved them – mountain or chestnut-backed – and every time I see one now, I am reminded of him.
I’ve been hearing my dad through music, too, something that always connected us. We loved playing guitar together and sharing our favorite songs. I’m hearing “our songs” everywhere I go. I was missing him on a road trip recently and stopped at a gas station; in the restroom, the song In Your Room by The Beach Boys played over the speakers. This was his favorite Beach Boys song. When I listen to the radio in my car, an old Alice in Chains or Sublime song will come on just as I’m thinking about him; when I hear 311’s All Mixed Up, I remember him mocking our senial cat Sam in his old age. When I’m playing an old song we used to play together on the guitar, I feel him there. I’m not superstitious, but I can’t help notice the connection. I was stuck in traffic the other day behind a car with a bumper sticker that read “Make Safety Third Again”, knowing how my dad would love it (apparently there’s a backstory to this slogan involving Mike Rowe).
Dad loved being outside in Nature, music, learning, exploring, but he loved people just as much. Anyone who ever met him knew how he made friends everywhere he went; how he could spark up a genuine conversation with anyone, no matter their background or political leaning. He thrived off connection with others, and loved the lively banter that unfolds when people come together. He was empathetic and a great listener, and could make you feel like you were the only person in the room when you were talking. I think of all the people whose lives he enriched; he had so many friends, acquaintances, work buddies, tradesmen, coffee shop baristas, family, you name it. When you met Laird, you remembered him.
As extroverted as he was, he loved his quiet time, too, specifically for study – be it literature, or observation. He was a voracious reader, mostly science, history, politics, and works of nonfiction. He was the epitome of a fierce intellectual. We shared a love of knowledge and learning, especially about Science. Dad gave me several books over the years, like A Year on the Wing, the last book he gave me, or one of my favorite books he gave me during cancer treatment, What It’s Like to be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley. Each book influenced me, but the Tao te Ching and The Manitous were perhaps most impactful. I read these as a teenager looking for my place in the spiritual world, having long realized I did not believe in God, nor the Christian faith under which I was raised. These books resonated strongly with me, and to this day influence my life. Namely, they taught me the power of detachment, ownership, and taking accountability for your actions and thoughts; that I am small in the best way; that I am a tiny part of an incessantly vast, beautiful universe that lives on with or without me. I know that he, too, found comfort nestled in this cosmic perspective.
This Winter, when conditions are right, I will travel to Kirkwood to a special tree only a handful of people know the significance of. You have to snowboard down a challenging run to get there. Alan Gray’s ashes were scattered here in 2011, at home in his favorite place, and I will bring my dad’s ashes up there to join him soon.
I think of all the people who knew him, how many lives he graced with his presence. Everyone who knew him has their own intransmissible memories, a shared network that bonds us together. In the roll call of Life, we will always note the absence of Laird Buchanan Craig, an irreplaceable spot on a sacred roster. I’ll always reach out for his hand, hoping for a gentle squeeze back.
In his honor, I encourage everyone who knew Laird to live with curiosity and passion; to take care of business, and then play with even greater focus; to offer yourself fully to every moment; to notice the incessant beauty of Nature, and to protect, appreciate, and fight for it; to be kind; to care about wildlife of every size, from caterpillar to hippopotamus. Notice how amazing our planet is, and how lucky we are to be alive to witness it.
It’s been two years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 3, 2020. It’s the call you will never be prepared for, no matter how strong you think you are.
Here I stand, two years on the other side of that day.
I am happy and healthy for the most part, but I still feel like part of me died during breast cancer treatment. The side effects of mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and Tamoxifen took a toll so colossal it could only be felt in the aftermath. Over one year post treatment since finishing in October 2020, and I’m still adjusting to my new life. I still think about my mortality; I’m not sure when that stops.
On the flipside, there is immense gratitude, a carpe-diem attitude that won’t quit, and I see my life in a different, more appreciative way. I have lived a blessed life, and a second chance to live longer is the ultimate gift. Gratitude grows with hindsight, as we see the miracle of our life in all its glory in the rearview mirror.
It’s part of the “zombie paradox”, where I feel like the old me “died” in cancer treatment, leaving me feeling like a walking corpse of my former self in some ways (“zombie”), albeit extremely grateful to be alive and well (the “paradox”). Analogizing a breast cancer survivor to a zombie may sound dramatic and morbid, but it’s fitting for life post cancer-treatment. No matter how much you focus on the joy of being alive at all, you miss the old you. There are innumerable side effects. Your body has changed; your gait adjusts. Endurance wanes. Fatigue becomes redefined, as you feel you can never catch up on sleep. Exercise, which once came effortlessly, sometimes involves dragging your ass out the door kicking and screaming because you’re dog tired, but you know it’ll be good for you so you go.
It’s not just fatigue, but almost daily I battle with lymphedema. It began first in my thumb and forefinger, about four months after my mastectomy. I had axillary lymph node removal; 33 total nodes removed from my left armpit, 3 of which were cancerous. My fingers would swell from doing the dishes, playing guitar, cleaning – anything that required fine motor skills and dexterity of my fingers. I met with a lymphedema specialist who showed me some exercises and massage to do.
After dealing with finger swelling for a couple of months, my forearm started swelling. Then, my upper arm. It was as if it was traveling from my fingers to my ribs, where it has more or less ended now. My lymphedema is truncal, swelling around my left lower ribs. My arm doesn’t swell for the most part now, but if it gets bad, my upper arm will flare up.
I have several stretches and exercises I do throughout the day, lest I swell up and feel the painful pins and needles; lymphatic massage also helps, too. I love playing guitar, but I have to limit myself sometimes or risk having a painfully swollen forefinger and thumb. When I’m climbing uphill on my bike, I do my stretches – pumping my left hand open and closed as I stretch my arm up and down, for example. Anytime I sit too long – like a long car trip – it flares up; too much sun, heat, and overexertion will do it, too. Circulation is vital to fighting lymphedema, so going for a walk or doing some yoga always helps. There are so many ways in which cancer changes your life, and having to do less of what you love because of it is never fun, so I keep at my stretching and massage to fight my lymphedema.
I am pretty used to my side effects now, but I had the strangest health scare in the Fall of 2021. It started off with a tight left lower rib that was sore to the touch. It felt like I’d bruised it or overstretched it somehow, but I couldn’t think of anything that might have done it. It felt better after a week or so, but soon flared up again.
I could hardly stretch my left arm up over my head without feeling like it was caught on something. My lower left ribs felt like they were being tugged upon from the inside out. They were still sore to the touch.
I made a doctor’s appointment, and had an x-ray, which showed no fractures. They inferred that it was probably an interstitial muscle strain that had been reaggravated after the first time.
Another week or so passed, and it wasn’t getting better. I’d been stretching it, and it still felt like it was caught on something. I became concerned when I came across pancreatic cancer symptoms and the left rib pain it can cause. My doctor ordered a pancreatic cancer screening blood test, along with a spate of other tests, including. I was pretty anxious at this point, expecting the worst. I thought I might have pancreatic cancer, and I was bracing myself. Here I was, back to pondering my mortality, not that I’d ever really stopped.
Everything came back normal. I was enormously relieved, but still mystified. What was going on? My doctors were going to look into what tests might need to come next to dig deeper.
Soon after in early December 2021, I was lying on my back in bed going to sleep, puzzled by what was going on with my rib. I was feeling around my ribcage, for the umpteenth time, trying to feel for any abnormality, any sign that might explain what was happening.
Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, I felt a band of hard tissue below my rib. It felt like a hard rubber band, or an uncooked spaghetti noodle. Startled, I continued following the contour of this unknown mass, noticing there were three noodle-like bands of hard tissue, running parallel to each other on the left side of my abdomen, about 6cm down to my hip. I’d assessed this region before, and hadn’t noticed anything.
I ran upstairs to show Ron, who was still awake.
It almost feels like a tapeworm! I exclaimed. I was in a mild panic, asking him to feel what I was feeling. I laid down on my yoga mat on my living room floor, assessing these newfound masses. Could it be cancer? I wondered. What the heck are these things?!
It was the strangest sensation. It felt like someone had pulled guitar strings taut and placed a few on my left side. Could this be causing my rib pain? I considered.
While I was assessing myself and trying not to think the worst, Ron was googling my symptoms: bands of tissue stomach, feels like rubber band in stomach. Within minutes, he came across something that caught his eye.
You had liposuction when they did your exchange surgery this Summer, right? Ron asked.
Yes,I replied, clinging to a sliver of hope from his tone of voice. I could tell that he had found something.
There’s something called Mondor’s Cords. They can happen after liposuction in the stomach; they’re bands of tissue that develop after surgery sometimes.
I leapt up from the living room floor, hoping we had found the cause of the problem. Reading onward and looking at pictures, I was soon convinced I had them.
During exchange surgery, the old, temporary implants are removed; these are called expanders. Their job is to keep the skin expanded until you can have a semi-permanent implant. Radiation therapy can cause poor results on recent implants, so many breast cancer patients must wait for their real implants until after radiotherapy. When they do the exchange surgery, plastic surgeons often transfer fat from your abdomen by liposuction to supplement the implant and give it a more natural look and feel. Sometimes, the procedure causes inflammation in the veins, and the buildup of band-like cords.
They tend to go away on their own, but I made an appointment with my plastic surgeon just in case. I was able to take pictures of them and send them to him and my general practitioner, who said it was likely Mondor’s Cords. By the time the appointment came in early January 2022, they had gone away on their own. It happened over a series of days, almost as quickly as they had appeared. Knowing it was a fairly common side effect of plastic surgery made me feel better.
But another issue was building up, literally. For a few months, I’ve been experiencing stomach distention, early satiety, and painful bloating after eating small amounts of food. It started out subtly. At first I thought it was just the Tamoxifen I’m taking, which is known specifically to cause weight gain in the lower abdomen (“Tamoxifen Belly”). Tamoxifen has a slew of side effects – joint pain, hot flashes, fatigue, weight gain, irritability, to name a few. Irritability and lack of thermoregulation are the ones I notice most. I get both hot and cold easily, and when I exercise, I overheat quickly, sweating like a raincloud. It also saps your energy: I’m already struggling to rebound from chemo and radiation, but the Tamoxifen finishes you off.
I had gotten more or less used to life on Tamoxifen, but then, around October 2021, I had some odd pains in my pelvis. Suspecting a problem with my uterus, I saw my gynecologist for an exam and cervical cancer screening, which came back normal, but she was concerned about my symptoms.
She referred me for a pelvic ultrasound to assess the health of my uterus, since I’d been on Tamoxifen for a year. Tamoxifen is known to wreak havoc on the uterus, causing everything from polyps, cysts, fibroids, to uterine enlargement and thickening. Worst of all, it more than doubles your risk of uterine cancers; it is fairly effective at lowering breast cancer recurrence, however, so is considered the gold standard for hormone-receptor positive breast cancer adjuvant treatment.
I went for my ultrasound in November, and they found several fibroids, polyps, an ovarian cyst, along with an abnormal endometrial stipe, 18mm in size; this is one of the main indications of uterine cancer. An endometrial biopsy was ordered next. In the meantime, my oncologist said I could take a break from Tamoxifen, in case it was contributing to any abnormal cell growth.
I was pretty spooked. The silver lining, though temporary, was getting a break from Tamoxifen. Within a week, I felt more like myself again. My energy was up, my skin was glowing like it used to, and I felt happier overall. My voice was different. I was actually sleeping less soundly than I did before; on Tamoxifen, my head would hit the pillow and I’d be out, but now, it took me a few minutes to wind down, and I’d wake up easier in the night. My body felt like itself again, however, which felt amazing. I felt how I used to feel pre-cancer. It’s remarkable what estrogen can do – both good, as in feeling like my usual self, and bad, as how it can fuel cancer growth.
Taking that break really opened my eyes to how accustomed I’d become to the side effects.
When my biopsy day came, I was really nervous; I didn’t know how it would feel, though it had been described to me. I was bracing for intense pain. Of all the procedures and tests I have had on my journey, this was one of the most painful. It was as awful as it sounded: a scratching of the cervix to remove tissue. Ten seconds of complete agony, one of the most gut wrenching pains I’ve ever experienced. I lay still until it was over. Luckily, it was a quick process, but I immediately got hot and flushed from the pain, and felt lightheaded. They give you nothing for the pain, by the way.
Wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible, I changed clothes, used the restroom, and made my way to the third floor stairwell. I felt like I might actually pass out, so held the railing tightly as I moved downstairs. A kind woman sensed my distress and asked if I was alright; I barely eked out a Yes, thank you, as I continued my way slowly down the stairs. At least I’m in the right place if I do pass out, I reasoned.
I exited the building on the ground floor, walked a few paces from the entrance, and sat down on an inviting wooden bench with conviction. My uterus was in pain, like strong cramps, and I still felt hot and light-headed. I stripped down to a tanktop and jeans, amid the frigid December air, which didn’t even register on my maxed out internal thermometer. The fresh air brought instant relief, blowing relief all over my body. I took some deep breaths, and the tears followed soon after.
I was terrified. I’d made it this far on my breast cancer journey only to be possibly sidelined with uterine abnormalities, and my biggest fear, cancer recurrence. It was intense, and a familiar feeling of doom set in.
Not wanting to cause a hullabaloo by sitting on the bench and dramatically sighing like a child, after cooling off for a couple of minutes, I meandered to my car in the large parking lot. I reclined my driver’s seat and lay down for a few minutes to just rest in silence. I’d made it; the biopsy was over. Yes, it was as excruciating as I was warned, but at least I’d gotten it over with.
Then began the waiting period. This is always the hardest part; you’ve done the test, but what did it show? Is it going to be a life-altering diagnosis, a terminal Stage 4 diagnosis, or simply a fibroid problem? Your mind can’t help but run down all of the possible roads, considering how you might even start to adapt to a crushing diagnosis of terminal illness.
Just two days later, my results were in. The biopsy was normal; no cancer was detected. I was ecstatic to hear that news! It’s an indescribable relief. After a three and a half week break, I was told to resume Tamoxifen.
I was relieved, but my distended abdomen was getting worse. I was getting full after eating the smallest amounts of food: a handful of macadamia nuts, an apple, a slice of cheese. Whenever I did eat a decent meal, my stomach would get so bloated I look disfigured, and I would feel sick to my stomach like I might throw up. I thought it was my enlarged uterus and fibroids compressing my stomach, as many women have reported the same issue, but my gynecologist didn’t think they were accounting for the amount of bloating I was experiencing. She suggested having my gastrointestinal tract and organs examined. Something was clearly off.
My doctors ran a bunch of bloodwork, including a CA-125 test which screens for ovarian cancer, which came back normal, and then my oncologist ordered a CT Scan with contrast dye of my abdomen to get a clearer picture of what was happening. They ran an IV with contrast dye during the scan, which was done in less than ten minutes. The iodine contrast is a vasodilator, so it makes you feel warm, and tastes metallic.
It was also an interesting date: 2/2/22, a palindromic date of 2’s. It was also Groundhog Day, my maternal grandfather’s birthday (may he rest in peace), and it was the last day my life was normal. I was diagnosed on February 3, 2020; 2/2/20 was my last normal day (also palindromic if you drop the 0). Most of all, it had been almost 2 years to the day since my diagnosis.
Interesting numbers aside, I braced myself for impact: they might discover cancer during this scan, and if they do, it’s likely terminal. “Scanxiety” is a real thing; these scans bring so much worry. I went home and went for a nice bike ride with Ron.
Later that evening, the saddest thing happened. Around ten o’clock at night, Ron and I heard wailing from our neighbor’s house across the street. It was clear something terrible had happened. We ran across the street to check on them. Their two goats had been attacked and killed. One had a broken neck, and the other was having CPR done on it to try to save it. This is every pet owner’s worst nightmare; my heart broke for them. Seeing those goats was intense, and so sad; I felt so bad for their family as they had to experience such a tragic loss. Pets are family, livestock included.
I didn’t really know what to do to help, and perhaps I was a little raw from my own health scares going on. Someone yelled to call the fire department, so I took that on. I could help with that. I ran back to our house and called 911, who put me in touch with a woman from the Department of Fish & Wildlife. The fire department didn’t come, understandably; I’m sure no one was really sure what they could do to help at that point. But it was something to try, and try you must in an emergency.
Mountain lions are common where we live in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and it was assumed that one had jumped the fence, killed both goats, but then couldn’t carry them back over the fence. I felt so sad for my neighbors; what an awful thing to go through. It also reminded me, again, that our cat Beau is vulnerable as well when he goes outside, especially at night.
We didn’t sleep very well that night, but I can’t imagine how terribly our poor neighbors slept.
The very next day, two years to the date of my breast cancer diagnosis, I got the good news that my CT Scan was clear! This was huge – a major weight off my shoulders. I methodically looked through the list of organs – pancreas, liver, kidneys – and delighted at the “Clear” note next to each one. I cried as I let weeks of anticipation go. I felt physically lighter. The relief is indescribably palpable.
The one organ a CT Scan isn’t so good for, however, is the uterus. The CT is good for assessing the internal organs, and was a good test to rule problems with them out, but an MRI shows the clearest picture of uterine issues. As the tech noted on his report, Uterine imaging not well defined with CT.
I haven’t yet talked to my doctors, but I would imagine an MRI may come next to get a clearer picture of my uterus and the extent of my cysts and fibroids.
In the meantime, I can say with anecdotal confidence that the bloating I’m experiencing is related to Tamoxifen. It can’t be a coincidence that I went on it for a year, and looked pregnant at the end of it. When you have fibroids and an enlarged uterus, it can make you look five months pregnant, and after a meal, I can certainly look it!
It’s not so much the “looking pregnant” part that’s bothering me, though not fitting into all your jeans presents a problem, and darn it, I did always have a nice, flat stomach! The worst part is feeling sick, and not being able to eat very much. Everyday, my stomach hurts – a gnawing, wrenching pain. I have found myself at times in the middle of a trail, miles from my car, so hungry I feel like I could keel over, tempted to ask a complete stranger for food as I’d forgotten to bring any. As an athlete, this makes going for a run or mountain bike ride challenging. My energy crashes, as I don’t have much fuel to burn.
Now I’ve gotten in the habit of bringing a snack with me whenever I exercise, which helps, even if it’s just a few bites. I constantly feel like I need more food, though, despite not being able to physically stomach much. I am stuck in this yo-yo of being hungry and overly full, while never really getting enough to eat during the day. I am eating nutritious food when I do eat – nuts, fruit, yogurt, eggs, fish, vegetables – as I know I’m not eating enough. I love food and am usually a good eater!
Hopefully I’ll get to the bottom of this sooner than later. I know it’s not tenable to continue in such a pattern.
Two years post-diagnosis, I am not quite the same person as I was before, but many pearls of wisdom have amalgamated with that change. All the old cliches are still true: live everyday as if it were your last; seize the day! Have an attitude of gratitude.
Most of all, we are nothing without health.
I’ve grown more accepting of myself. I’ve always had a perfectionist streak, but I’m settling for good enough more often now. You may find a few errors in my writing – gasp! – but it’s more important to me that someone is reading this and relating to it.
What matters is to enjoy life, and cultivate love and kindness as much as possible. Who cares if I run slower, or need to take more breaks when I ride my bike uphill?
At least I am still flying downhill. I don’t take it for granted, whether snowboarding, mountain biking, running, or walking. No matter how many times I ride the same trails, they never get old, though I may.
I ambled to the next window to check in for the downhill mountain bike race at Snow Summit in Big Bear, California. It was a hot, sunny day, with a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. I’d been told by a kind employee to go to a particular window, and that I did not have to wait in that line.
Again, I heard a shout:
Sir! Excuse me, Sir! Did you just cut this whole line?
I didn’t know who she was shouting at, but it sure as hell wasn’t me…or so I thought.
A few seconds later, she approached me.
Sir! With just one look in my eyes, she realized the mistake she was making.
Yep, I was being called Sir.
I’m sorry, Miss, but did you just cut this whole line? She interrogated.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d been told specifically to go to this window, and now I was being called a guy. Awesome start to my day.
I was told by that employee over there, I began, pointing to the nice lady, to go to this window to check in for the downhill race.
She immediately said I was right, and was in the correct spot. Yelling back at the long line of people waiting to buy tickets, who had taken interest in seeing me get schooled for “cutting the line”, she said:
It’s okay everybody; she’s a racer! The sarcasm in the way she said the word racer was a taunt to the people in line, a few of whom laughed and mocked, Ooh, a racer!
The lady walked back to manage the line, and I continued with my check-in. My mood changed from excited to sour pretty quickly, especially being called a dude in front of all those people, and being accused of line-cutting. I’m a rule follower and I don’t believe I’m more important than other people; I will wait my turn, no problem. But if you’re doing a race, and they tell you to go to a certain line, that’s what you do.
I was angry, and dejected. I know how awful my hair looks right now, short and in the mullet stage. This is the hair of someone who’s lived through eight double-dose chemo infusions for breast cancer last year. I know my hair looks crazy, but my body does not look like a man’s!
I decided to let her know how I felt. I walked back up to her and said:
That was a pretty bad way to start my day here at Snow Summit – being called a guy in front of all of those people, and then being accused of line cutting. You were kind of aggressive about it too, as if I’d done something wrong. It might help you to know that my hair is so short and crazy because I went through treatment for breast cancer last year. I know how bad my hair looks. So you calling me out in front of everyone was a really crappy way to start my day.
She apologized, genuinely from what I could surmise, and I felt better saying something to her, in front of all those people in line who’d laughed at me. As for those guys, I just scowled at them. The hell you looking at? I sneered under my breath.
It was a bad start to my day, and after getting on the chairlift, I admit I cried. Sometimes I just want to escape from the world, and situations like this. Of course I know how bad I look right now; I am reminded everyday when I look in the mirror of the woman I am no longer. I have felt uglier than I ever have over the past year. It takes a toll on your self esteem. I am already feeling so down about how I look, to be called a dude reminded me that even if I finished cancer treatment, I am still dealing with its ramifications in so many ways. Having someone else call it out stung. It was similar to seeing that old colleague in the market by my house who had gasped Your Hay-ER?!
It wasn’t that the employee was an evil person for mistaking me, but that I was already so sensitive about my short hair. The usual, more confident me would have shaken out my long hair in a model-like fashion, saying, Excuse me, M’aam? I don’t see a Sir anywhere around here, batting my eyelashes for flair.
But the current Katrin? I already feel lower than normal, anything coming at me feels like a tsunami. I wasn’t so angry at her for calling me a guy, but I was angry about the situation in general: angry that I got breast cancer; that I ultimately lost my hair, albeit lucky not to lose it all at once because of the cold-cap. I am still dealing with a lot of anger about the entire thing – all of my breast cancer experience, not catching it sooner, etcetera…
I let myself have a quick cry, alone on the chairlift, thinking to myself, Watch me beat half those dudes down Miracle Mile.
I had a great first run down Miracle Mile, one of my favorite trails at Snow Summit. It had been a couple of years since I’d ridden there, but I knew the trail well. I was a little distracted by what had just happened with the security guard.
All was going well until the very last jump; I hucked it fast, forgetting it has an off-camber landing that you can’t see from the approach. I saw that I was going to land on the slopeside, not the flatter side, and came down in a somewhat controlled slide out from my jump. I abraded the hell out of my right arm, and of course, wasn’t wearing elbow pads that day. I was otherwise okay and had managed to slide out of it alright, but my arm was quickly bleeding.
I knew I’d hit hard. I went to the bathroom, and, trying not to gross everyone out, rinsed out my arm. I had scrapes and abrasions from my forearm up to my shoulder, and I could see a couple of deep gashes that had split the skin open. Worried I might have broken it, I decided to see the Medics on site.
They dutifully cleaned out my abrasion, and said it was up to me about stitches; it wasn’t so long of a gash, but it would be a slow heal without them. They dressed my wounds and advised me to see a doctor the next day if pain increased. They did some stress tests on my arm, which didn’t show any immediate signs of fracture. I felt like I was basically okay, save for weeks of healing from my abrasions to come.
I thanked them for their time, and took a minute to sit outside on a park bench in the shade. Here I was at Snow Summit, just an hour ago so excited to ride, and now I was hurt – physically, and emotionally. I felt defeated.
I knew right then and there that the best remedy was to get another lap in. I got back on the chairlift, rode up to the top, and did a second lap down Miracle Mile. This time, I angled the last jump better so I could land in the flatter spot, not hillside. I was jazzed. I felt renewed. Forget being called a dude, and forget my throbbing arm! More importantly, I was happy. I wasn’t going to give up after that crash.
I did a couple of more laps, finishing the day feeling good and confident. The race was the next day, and I felt ready. I had a great dinner with my awesome Dad, who came to join me in Big Bear for the race, and went to bed early.
On raceday, my arm was certainly hurting worse, as I would have expected. Just the slightest vibration from holding onto my bars made me wince. I started questioning whether I’d be able to finish the race it hurt so badly. Feeling unsure of my situation, I lined up toward the back of the starting line, as I didn’t want to slow anyone down should I need to pull off the course, or possibly crash.
This turned out to be a mistake. I ended up having to pass two riders, which is always sketchy during a race. There wasn’t a good spot for them to pull over right away, so I lost some time waiting for the space to pass. This picture sequence captures it perfectly.
I ended up with second place for this race, Open Women 40+, 23 seconds off of first place. I wondered over and over whether I would have made up that time if I didn’t have to pass, and it was a reminder to me that no matter the injury, you’re always going to give it all you’ve got. I should’ve lined up toward the middle, at least. I was happy with the race, though, and I certainly like the format of a Downhill race better than an Enduro race, which I would tackle the following weekend.
First, I would head back home, only to leave for a couple of days in Big Sur the next day to celebrate my fifteen year anniversary with Ron on the Summer Solstice, June 21. I love that our anniversary is the longest day of the year; quite apt for us! It was one of those perfect trips – calm, warm weather, no fog, just pure bliss. We love meandering down Highway 1 and exploring this gorgeous coast. I feel so lucky to live so close. I love Santa Cruz, but Big Sur is exceptional.
A few days later, I took off for China Peak, where I’d race the California Enduro Series Enduro race. I was going to do the Expert category, which would require climbing twice, but knowing how I’ve been struggling with endurance and shortness of breath lately, I changed categories to Sport, which only had one climb (which was still a killer!).
On practice day, it was super hot, and the lines were equally long – about an hour just to get on the chairlift. As I’ve become somewhat of a vampire since radiation, only able to tolerate periods of direct sun for so long before I start melting, despite still loving every ray, I only got one practice lap on Stage 4, my favorite run. I just couldn’t stand in that long line, in the beating sun. I’d raced here in 2017 and 2018, so I knew I could ride the course, but obviously it would have been better to preride the entire course.
I went for a beautiful hike among alongside a riparian zone through burnscar near Huntington Lake, from the Creek Fire in 2020.
On raceday, I had my usual nerves and stomach ache; this is one thing I hate about racing, and haven’t learned to quell, yet. We started off with the climb, getting it out of the way in the morning, before it got really hot. I stopped to take many breaks on the way up, feeling the altitude with every foot gained.
My confidence waned as I grew more tired; starting off the race with this long climb took most of my energy. I felt fatigued, which is the worst way to feel when you’re about to race. I didn’t push too hard, and just focused on completing the race. I crashed once on each stage; not badly, just slid out in the loose, deep corners. My handlebars got knocked crooked twice after falling, which made for an amusing finish to those stages.
It was a stacked category of 16 women in my Sport category, and alas, I was eleventh – ouch. Just like the last Enduro race I’d done at Exchequer, I’d landed toward the bottom. This was my first California Enduro Series race I’d done that I hadn’t made the podium. I miss the days of being fast and placing well, but my body is doing the best it can post-cancer treatment. It was a beautiful trip, though, and I enjoyed hanging out with everyone on the mountain.
With my exchange surgery looming on the horizon for July 9, I knew I only had a week or so to seize the Summer before I’d be on a mellow schedule for a few weeks as I healed from surgery. Thus, a couple of days after I got back from China Peak, I headed back up the hill to Downieville for a couple nights of Yuba River heaven, and mountain biking.
I also did something I’ve always wanted to do: hiked up to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout. This is about 2.5 miles from the parking lot at Butcher Ranch, gaining about 1,500’ of elevation in that length. It’s a good hike up, about an hour, and it went fast coming down.
The fire lookout is like being on top of the world. After hiking up to the peak, you ascend multiple stairs up to the lookout, which is a small room fit for one or two people to play sentinel. The views are panoramic and expansive, with Mt. Lassen visible to the North, and multiple geologic features popping up in all directions. The dominant rock type is quartz porphyry. I was awestruck. Unfortunately, I watched as the Beckwourth Fire Complex simultaneously grew to the East, giving this location its apt name.
It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time: mountain biking in the morning, Yuba River swim in the afternoon, with a sunset hike to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout in the evening. I slept like the happiest baby there ever was that night. I just love to play hard outside during the day! I rode Northstar the next day, which is always a rip roaring good time.
The next week, I went back up the hill for a couple more days of mountain biking at Northstar, spending the night on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. I had so much fun I didn’t want to come back down the hill, but I literally had surgery the next day! Here I was sitting at Northstar, all my gear on, on the phone for my pre-op appointment, then minutes later flying down Livewire. It was an awesome way to spend the day before surgery.
When surgery came on Friday, July 9, I was ready. While my expanders were somewhat okay, they always had a temporary feel to them, and certainly didn’t look the way I wanted them to. I was reminded every time I looked at them of breast cancer. I didn’t feel so confident.
Surgery went well; about two hours later, I was waking up in the post-op room. There were no drains this time, as there were in my initial mastectomy and lymph node removal. The pain was almost non-existent. I went home that day, and stayed up until evening, puttering around the house as usual, minus any heavy lifting. I was really blown away by how easy the surgery felt! He had done some liposuction from my stomach to contour my new silicone implants, and my stomach was quite bruised and sore for a week or so, but aside from that, I felt fine. One of the hardest parts was not being able to sleep on my side for the first few weeks, and of course, not being able to go for a mountain bike ride, or run, or surf. Basically, the first few weeks you’ve got to take it easy. I always miss my runner’s high when I don’t exercise.
As I did after my first mastectomy, I walked a lot. I went to the beach almost everyday, and went for long hikes. It is a saving grace when you’re healing, and eternally proves itself as such. I read, did crossword puzzles, watched Netflix, and let my body rest.