Quarantine Diary Day 417: Tangled Up In Blue

After waiting so long for COVID to abate and for winter conditions to end, I thought this spring would feel like waking up. Other people may be afraid or ill-equipped to venture outside of their pandemic routines, even when it’s safe, but I was convinced I would need no convincing, or time to acclimate. The tulips would open and the magnolia would unfurl and I would shed my layers (coat, mask) and step into the carefree life of which I’ve always dreamed. “All I ever wanted was to be someone in life that was just like ‘All I want is to just have fun, live my life like a son of a gun.'”

Maybe that sense of sweet freedom and relief is still in the cards for me, but I spent March and April tangling in the weeds, waiting for the world to turn green.

I waited to become eligible for a vaccine. I waited for appointments to open up. I waited four weeks between doses one and two. I waited for the side effects to show up and then I waited for them to subside. I waited two more weeks for immunity to take hold.

Within the eight-week intermission between becoming eligible for the vaccine and being fully protected, an entire other drama played out. I waited to call the doctor about that mole that was really growing at an alarming rate. I waited for an appointment. I waited two weeks for biopsy results on the “neoplasm of uncertain behavior” the dermatologist scraped off my thigh. I waited a week for surgery to excise the rest of the “the spitz nevus with moderate to severe atypia” from inside my skin. I waited a week for the lab results on the margins. The news was good: “A residual melanocytic lesion was not identified.” I got that email yesterday. Today marks two weeks since I received the second dose of Pfizer’s life-saving COVID vaccine. I’m still going to die, but these won’t be the things that kill me.

During the month of waiting to know what was happening with my skin, inchoate fear subsumed all the worries I once pinned to COVID. After I got the initial biopsy results, I channeled my fear into research, an instinct that’s served me well in my life as lawyer and a writer and a joiner and leaver of institutions of all kinds. I learned about atypical moles and melanoma diagnosis, staging, and treatment. I found my way to the skin cancer forums and picked up terminology for parsing pathology reports. Before I knew it, a week had passed, and I looked up from the screen red-eyed, shoulders around my ears, scared to death of shadows in my lymph nodes.

“Here’s the thing about worrying about things outside of your control. It feels productive, but it’s not. Not really.”

That’s what my therapist said when I told her how I’d spent the week between biopsy results and surgery looking for answers online.

I wanted to defend my obsessive trawling. It felt necessary, it really did–the research led to be questions I wouldn’t have known to ask, and the answers put my mind at ease–but I knew she was right. There’s a world of information and support out there for people with skin cancer, but that wasn’t my world yet, and there was no comfort there for me. I wasn’t going to find my pathology results in an archived thread of British melanoma patients chatting in 2013, and reading stories from people with advanced stages of the disease only made me more scared.

As an anxious person, I want to believe there’s value in my vigilance. I want to believe that worry is useful, that fear keeping me alive. Of course, I also want to banish my anxiety to hell for all the trouble it’s caused, and seeing how I’ve been feeding it like an obsequious host gives me some understanding as to why it’s not going away.

Is there anything more useless than anxiety over everything that ever happened and may never come to pass? Maybe depression. I’ve been babying that beast too, and it never did me a lick of good. Certainly, it never spurred anyone to to action the way anxiety can do. It almost pains me to admit that depression may serve no purpose. That it’s anything worse than a glamorous drag. That it’s neither vice nor virtue, but illness, and a common one at that. That there was never a point to all that pain. That there was nothing admirable in sinking so low. As a depressive, I want to believe there is some redeeming quality to my depth of feeling, but sadness never saved anyone.

I’m COVID-proof and cancer-free, but I’m still me. Maybe I’ll always feel the same, or maybe this time I’ll see it from a different point of view. March and April were for waiting, but there’s still time to wake up in May. It’s still spring. The tulips are still wide open.

Quarantine Diaries Day 404: Excision

On April 6, 2021, my magnificent and magnetic friend Lauren and her dear husband Kamel were killed in a horrific car wreck. Lauren died less than a week before she turned 36. Kamel was 38. I met Lauren when I started writing about my life online in 2010. We never met in person, but it didn’t matter. I talked to her more than I talk to members of my own family, more than I talk to my best friends from high school and college combined. I watched her plan wedding and navigate the tricky early years of marriage and career and parenthood. I watched raise two babies into brilliant and beautiful kids. Her oldest was born a month before my daughter, and from what I can tell they are a lot a like. He turned eight weeks before his parents died. His little sister is five. I watched Lauren and Kamel build the kind of life that might have inspired envy except they were so warm and genuine that they only inspired me to live my best life. She inspired me to print out Instagram photos and frame them on my wall. She inspired me to go adventuring with my daughter almost every weekend. She inspired me to start up stay-at-home date nights during the pandemic. She inspired me to try out new recipes on Sunday afternoons. I still can’t wrap my mind around their absence, not from my life but from their own. What their children lost is devastating; as a parent, it’s almost beyond comprehension. But when I think about what Lauren and Kamel will miss it makes me sick. The woman who caused the accident was twenty-six years old, a mom with a toddler in the car, and drunk.

On April 8, 2021, I went to the dermatologist for what I thought was a routine exam and walked out with a biopsy wound the size of a dime.

On April 11, 2021, a police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, ten miles from where Derek Chauvin was standing trial for the murder of George Floyd. Daunte was twenty years old, a young man and a dad. His little boy is only two.

On April 12, 2021, I found out about Lauren and Kamel when I saw a link to a GoFundMe in someone’s Instagram profile. I saw their names and feared the worst: that something had happened to one of their kids. “Nononononono” I pleaded as I scoured the internet for information. When I realized they were gone I grabbed my own face and fell on the floor. “Nononononono.”

On April 15, 2021, a gunman walked into a FedEx facility in Indianapolis and opened fire, putting four people in the hospital and killing eight dead.

On April 15, 2021, city officials released video footage of a police officer shooting and killing Adam Toledo in Chicago. Adam was thirteen years old, in seventh grade, and lived in Little Village. Adam has a little brother, who is only eleven, and Adam liked to play with his littler cousins.

From April 12-16, 2021, I got high every day. I told myself I wasn’t avoiding anything. Devastation was an appropriate emotion. I just needed something to take the edge off.

On April 17, 2021, I stayed sober for date night. I felt stabs of happiness and even laughed out loud, but when I touched down everything still hurt.

On April 18, 2021, I made an overly ambitious meal, one with polenta, because that’s something Lauren made. I cooked the roast in red wine and the leeks in beer and got a little bit drunk.

On April 19, 2021, I called the dermatologist’s office. “It’s been a week and a half and I was just wondering if my results were in?” The receptionist was polite but firm. “Sometimes it can take the whole two weeks. Sometimes even longer.”

On April 19, 2021, a friend texted that her floofy dog, beloved to my family as well as to hers, was sick. Something is wrong with his kidneys. He has months to live. She hadn’t told her kids yet, so I’m sure as hell not going to tell mine.

On April 20, 2021, I was scheduled to get my second dose of the vaccine, but I had a low-grade fever. That, along with fatigue, achiness, and general malaise not infrequent for me these days. My heart rate went up and I dipped down into panic. What if they wouldn’t let me get the vaccine? What if I have cancer that’s already metastasized? That would explain why I’ve felt like shit all year. My Outlook calendar dinged, reminding me I was supposed to call a friend from work. My friend told me that ten days ago her dad was diagnosed with cancer, and it didn’t look good. He’s facing chemo, radiation, and possibly surgery. His tumors are terribly positioned. Her mom is disabled, so she has to take him to all his appointments. I had to get off the phone earlier than I wanted to to make my vaccine appointment. The pharm tech didn’t love my fever, but he didn’t turn me away. This time I didn’t talk to anybody else in line. I took a selfie, bought a Vitamin water and a birthday card for my daughter, and got out of there.

On April 20, 2021, police in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant. Ma’Khia was sixteen. She liked doing hair and makeup and making videos on TikTok.

On April 20, 2021, the jury returned guilty verdicts across the board. I couldn’t figure out how to react. We already knew Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.

On April 21, 2021, I waited for Pfizer’s side effects to swim over me. I waited for the dermatologist to call. I told my therapist I can’t see a world in which the news is good. The news is never good. I thought about writing in this blog. Instead, I took a nap in the middle of the day.

On April 22, 2021, I emailed the dermatologist. “It’s been two weeks.” She called me right away. “It’s not cancer but the abnormalities are severe. We have to go back in and cut deeper and wider and send it to the lab again to make sure it’s clear. It’s not cancer but it’s one step away.” “Well, what is it?” I asked. “Basal cell? Squamous?” The doctor took a breath. “It’s pre-melenoma. One step away. We caught it early.” I texted everybody who was waiting with me, but with fewer exclamation points than I’d been hoping to use. It was hard to feel hopeful when the doctor had sounded so serious. I thought I’d feel relieved, but I also thought the results would be more clear. More definitively not cancer or more definitively cancer but a less deadly kind. I was prepared for the worst but expecting the best: nothing at all or cancer that had already spread. I wasn’t ready for more waiting or for this stretched out middle ground

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the ways that I might die. I’ve been deathly afraid of car wrecks and guns and men in the dark. I’ve been afraid of neurodegenerative disease and, yes, COVID-19. I have been afraid of the police but not as afraid as if I were not white. I’ve been afraid of dying at my own hand and of dying from drugs. The biggest threat to me was always me. But I was an idiot kid who didn’t know what she had, or what it would look like to leave a family behind. When I think about what I’d miss it makes me sick. The dermatologist warned me that the scar would be big, even alarming. “I don’t care about scars,” I spat back. “That’s a death wish bubbling up under my skin. Cut as deep as you need.”

Quarantine Diary Day 394: I’m Sure It’s Nothing

I am still half-vaccinated. I thought I’d feel a measure of freedom after dose 1, but now that I’m so close, I find I can’t justify changing things up until I reach what the CDC has deemed full protection. Is it just me or is the wait between doses interminable?

My husband got his shot last week. We don’t have the type of marriage where I make appointments for him, but I made an exception for the vaccine. He just wasn’t anxious enough about it for my liking. He was content not only to wait his turn but for appointments to become plentiful. He was sure he would get one eventually. What I wouldn’t give for that kind of confidence and trust in the system. I wasn’t about to gamble our family’s summer plans waiting for an appointment to drop into his lap, though. I pestered him into making an account on Walgreens.com and signing in on my phone and commenced with hitting refresh until I scored him a dose last week. Johnson & Johnson. One and done.

In a few weeks, we’ll both be breathing easier. In the meantime, I’m swatting off a new threat, this one coming from down the hall of my own body. I went to the dermatologist to get a mole checked last week. I figured it was nothing–it was pretty and pink and round with smooth edges–but it sprung up practically overnight (before I got vaccinated, to be clear), and what’s the point of having a dermatologist I can’t email her about mysterious new lumps and bumps? She told me to come in and I scheduled an appointment for a few weeks out, after spring break.

I was excited about the appointment because I thought of it as crossing something annoying off my list. I thought the doctor would glance at my mole and send me on my way with a pat on the back for my hypervigilance after concluding that this thing, like all the other things I’ve worked myself up about over the years, was nothing to worry about. Instead, she peered at it closely through what I can only describe as a doctor’s version of a jeweler’s loop and told me she wanted to do a biopsy. “The risks are scarring, infection, and bleeding. There will definitely be a scar. We will tell you what to do if it gets infected. There might be bleeding. Do you have any bleeding disorders or any blood thinning medication?” My voice must have wavered when I gave my informed consent, because the doctor looked up at me and asked, “Is this what you expected to happen today?” “Um, no. Because it just looks like a normal mole? Even the internet told me not to worry.” The doctor didn’t crack a smile. “Well I’m not sure it is a mole. We need to confirm none of the cells are cancerous.” The shape of the mole was not the root of my surprise, though. I was shocked because my experiences with doctors have largely been limited to them telling me the thing I’m worried about is either all in my head or there’s nothing that can be done. There’s a reason I’ve been beating the drum of mental health for so long on this blog. I’m not accustomed to having my fears validated, much less scraped off my body and sent to the lab.

Hearing the word cancer out of a doctor’s mouth made all my invisible conditions–the dragons I’ve been keeping at bay my entire adult life–seem imaginary, like a joke. The first thing I wanted when I walked out of the dermatology office was a drink, but after a year of COVID and years of sobriety before that, I didn’t know where to go, so I went to the dispensary instead. Oh, and I should have led with this: it was a dark and rainy day.

I’m sure it’s nothing, and even if it’s not, I’m sure I’ll be fine. The biopsy is more likely than not to come back normal. If it doesn’t, they’ll go back in and cut out whatever’s bad. The challenge is living in the space where things might not be fine. We know from the last year that fine was never guaranteed. I spent the day after the biopsy reading about all the skin cancers. I texted the worst-seeming one, Merkel cell carcinoma, to my mom, because some of the pictures on the internet looked just like mole papule on my leg, and because I knew she would indulge my worry. When she didn’t text back for a few hours, I wondered what was up and checked my phone again. Oh shit. I hadn’t sent the texts to my mom, but to a long-time friend who happens to be a doctor. She wasn’t having it. “Merkel cell is so rare!! I’ve only seen it with old men. You don’t have it.” I called my sister, who has skin like mine, and pulled a bossy older sibling move. “Go get your skin checked. We’re supposed to be doing it once a year.” Probably she already knew, but maybe not. I didn’t. I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for COVID. After I got sick last year and freaked out because I didn’t know where to go, I found a primary care doctor who took one look at my pale, freckly skin and my family history of cancer and told me to get to a dermatologist. She was so serious about it she referred me to a competing practice group in town so I could get in sooner.

The biopsy results should be back before I’m due for my second dose of the vaccine, which means I’m languishing in a wait within a wait. The four weeks between shots feels longer than the entire preceding year and the four days it’s been since my biopsy feels even longer than that. You’d think I’d be better at waiting by now. You’d think I’d be a pro at passing time, but this particular stretch is stretching me.

Quarantine Diaries Day 375: Will There Really Be A Morning?

The snow that blanked the ground at the start of March melted suddenly this month. We had a few warm springy days in the sixties. I walked around without a coat, went running in shorts and a t-shirt. It was glorious, but I knew not to trust it. I warned everybody who dared to talk to me about the weather about the couple of big snows coming our way in April, guaranteed, and kept mentioning that meme about the many stages of winter and only being in fools’ spring. Sure enough, it got cold again the next week, but not as cold as it was in January and not cold enough to keep me from my first hike of the season. This last weekend it warmed up again, not really enough for my daughter to play in the mud without a coat on, but I let her do it anyway because there were other kids outside with their parents and we were both hungry for a little human interaction. We went for another hike and I warned my daughter not to expect much more than “dead leaves on the dirty ground” but an older couple stopped us in our tracks to point out a patch of purple crocuses blooming on the side of the trail. Not too long after that, we spotted a red-tailed hawk in flight. All weekend, I struggled to wrap my head around it. I was giddy, but also confused. I’d convinced myself we wouldn’t get a spring this year. Not that the world would stop turning, but that winter would be brutally long and then one day we’d slip into a disappointing summer, still miserable, still scared, still stuck at home. I really couldn’t see anything good on the other side of what we’d been through. Certainly not anything as earnestly hopeful as spring. I can admit when I’m wrong. All week, I’ve been cooking, playing, fucking, sleeping with the windows open wide.

The other thing that happened this weekend was that I snagged an appointment for a vaccine. I didn’t think that could be real either. Certainly I didn’t expect it to happen so easily or so soon. I didn’t even wake up early on Saturday, but when I checked the Walgreens website around eight o’clock in the morning, there were at least a dozen appointments only three days away. I tapped one and then it was gone. Damn. Too slow. I tried again and it went through. I slid through the screens filling in my information until I reached a confirmation page. Tuesday at 12:00 PM. All weekend, I struggled to wrap my head around it. I was giddy, but also confused. I’d convinced myself I wouldn’t be vaccinated for many months. I prepared myself to be turned away. I’d read about glitches in the enrollment system. I’d read that some pharmacies were declining to vaccinate people with appointments, notwithstanding their eligibility, to prioritize people over 65. I would understand if that happened. They need it more than me. I was doubly ashamed about the basis on which I’d qualified: former smoker. Usually, I’m proud of the fact that I quit a half pack a day habit, but realizing it made me eligible for a precious dose of the vaccine felt like sneaking in through a loophole. I think I would have felt more legitimate if I was still sneaking cigarettes on the sly like I did the first three years after I “quit.” I was prepared to be turned away, but I wasn’t about to count myself out. Nothing about the last year has been fair. It’s been a lot of short straws and shit luck, for others more than me. I don’t know how to draw a circle that leaves out my hatred of the fact that the system is rigged for people like me and captures my profound gratitude that the wheel spun in my favor for getting a vaccine. The best I can do is this: Getting the vaccine feels like welcoming another spring. I could never earn this embarrassment of life-giving, life saving riches, but I deserve it just the same.

When I went to get the vaccine on Tuesday, I quadruple checked for my state ID, insurance card, confirmation email, and eligibility documentation and doubled up on masks. Anticipating a long wait before and after the shot, I also packed a laptop (for my MEMWAAHS), my phone (for the ‘gram), and a slim volume of Emily Dickinson (for appearances). At the pharmacy I got in line behind a handful of people. I read a few pages before closing the book over my fingers and trying to strike up a conversation with the gentleman in front of me. “Hey. How far did you have to travel to get here today?” Once upon a time I was the kind of person who shit talked on small talk but after a year of isolation I can’t resist it. My line buddy was game and we chatted amiably about our respective neighborhoods until he made it to the front of the queue.

When it was my turn, the young man working as a pharmacy technician passed a thermometer over my head. I’ve been through this drill dozens of times in the last year and never clock over 99, but this time the pharm tech pulled back like he’d put his hand on the stove. “Okay, lady. I’m going to need you to take off your coat and hat. Sit down. Breathe.” He had a point. I was coming in hot in more ways than one. I stripped off as many layers as I could get away with in public. I fanned my armpits and willed my body to cool down. I snuck water under my mask. I filled out the forms and checked the boxes indicating my eligibility with zero guilt or qualms. After an interminable wait, the technician handed me a vaccine card and cleared me to advance to the next waiting area. After that, it was only a few minutes before he called me from behind the privacy screen set up in the corner of the room. As he was giving me my shot, I asked, “Do people ever cry back here? From, like, emotion?” “Yeah,” he said, as he smoothed the red Walgreen’s bandaid over my arm. “I’ve had a few people break down.” I stood up to leave. “Thank you. Just…thank you. Thank you so much.” When he saw the tears in my eyes, he “awwwed” at me like I was a cute puppy but the smile on his face was sincere.

I didn’t have time to process what had just happened or take a vaccine selfie before I saw my line buddy waiting for me on the other side of the screen. We were supposed to stick around under observation for 15 minutes in case of adverse reactions and we were glad to have each other’s company. As we talked, we discovered we work in the same industry. When he told me where he worked, I couldn’t believe it. His company had been my biggest client for over seven years at my last law firm. When he told me the name, I jerked my head around and said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” any shred of decorum I might once have maintained in a situation with a potential professional colleague destroyed by the last year of living like an emotional animal. The 15 minutes passed and then some. We stayed put, talking and talking. The only reaction we were experiencing was the thrill of human contact, but we couldn’t tear ourselves away. By the time I’d left, we’d exchanged emails and made plans to meet for drinks. We promised to look for each other in line for our second doses in three weeks. I didn’t crack the Dickinson in my bag again, and I don’t think there’s a more fitting image for coming out of quarantine than choosing an hour with a stranger over the vast interiority of myself.