Friday, June 29, 2012

RIP Nora Ephron

I didn't realize what a Nora Ephron fan I was, until I read her obituary in the New York Times this week. Like many people, especially women, I liked her romantic comedy movies and her essays and rumination on topics ranging from getting breasts and 'what she wore' to death and aging. When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Julie and Julia, Silkwood, and writings I Feel Bad about My Neck, I Remember Nothing, Crazy Salad--an impressive list.

But what really struck me was her view of life, which was reflected in all her work. As Meryl Streep said in the article: "Nora just looked at every situation and cocked her head and thought, 'Hmm, how can I make this more fun?'" So, no matter what the crisis (divorce, love, everyday annoyances) she was always thinking of how to turn the disaster into a humorous piece.

I was raised somewhat similarly to render life as a good story, (but not, of course, to include the family's dirty laundry or anything too personal.) I remember working one summer as a postal clerk, a decidedly boring job, and staying with my aunt. I usually worked past the family's dinner hour, so my aunt would have a plate warmed up for me when I got home. She was not a good cook, but creative, folding rice and leftover vegetables into orange jello or pouring thousand island dressing over pork chops. She'd pull up a chair, settle in and then say, "Tell me what funny things happened today."  Luckily for me, although the job was mundane, my fellow employees at the post office, with very little exaggeration, were right out of central casting for a sit com.

As for the dirty laundry, you'll find none of us in my family writing plays about their ugly divorce from husband #2 or revealing adolescent angst about body changes.

The other great quote in the obituary was from writer Sally Quinn, explaining why so few people knew that Nora had leukemia for several years. "She had this thing about not wanting to whine. She didn't like self-pity. It was always, you know, 'Suck it up' ".

I believe my grandma's translation of this was "this is my cross to bear" but it included the same fundamental belief that everyone had something and it was best to know this and carry on--quietly. I talk to a lot of people about breast cancer and I'm always amazed at people and their stories: some are resilient and others mired in deep despair. Of course, circumstances may be different: the amount of disease progression, degree of support from family and friends, the person's age and role in life. But looking for humor and sucking it up should be vital ingredients in anyone's arsenal for coping and living well. Few have the talent and work ethic of a Nora Ephron, but all of us have benefitted from her perceptive wit that made us laugh and made everything in life a little easier to take.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Reunion thoughts

Just celebrated my 40th reunion from college, which included seeing a core of old friends, dancing to the rock music of the 60's and 70's and ziplining across a gorge.  Pretty nice mix of activities! I've been thinking about the weekend since returning and here are the really interesting things.

The times we lived through! Our reunion tshirt said it all and dubbed the Class of 72 Reunion the Forever Young tour. Events from our four years were printed on the back of the shirts and ranged from end of women's curfew and parietal hours (restrictions on visits to dorms by members of the opposite sex) to building takeovers and Viet Nam war protests. Turbulent times that defined our generation and also resulted in a few pass/fail semesters. I think it would have been interesting to have a discussion group on how these times really influenced our political and social world views or choice of profession. Given the preponderance of NY lawyers in the crowd, many working for large corporations, had the four years of political activism and long, philosophical discussions on justice and war and inequality just been a blip in our lives? Chalk it up to youthful idealism and naivete? Or had we made choices in life true to that initial activism? Maybe we hadn't gone to jail or joined the underground, but how different were we because of our experiences?

Memory is a tricky thing. I read somewhere that we remember most those things that are associated in our minds with an emotional component. So, if we are emotionally invested, the memory will remain clearer, although all memory gets filtered through the perspective of time. One of the events listed under senior year was the Collegetown Block Party/Riot. Returning home from somewhere else, we passed through Collegetown quickly that night, sensing that the Ithaca Police in full riot gear lined up along the side of the street would be only too happy to try out their new toys, given the least provocation. Sure enough, the rumblings began and as we ran through the side streets and backyards off College Avenue, the sting of tear gas seaped through the air. My partner in crime that evening does not remember it at all. Did I fantasize about the whole event, insert myself as an unwitting player just for bragging rights or had we each processed the night in totally different ways, one of us filing it away as stories of an almost-rebellious life and the other simply discarding it as a minor inconvenience?

Was I really so clueless? Seeing the innocent faces posted along the walls of our reunion dorm was sweet. Clean cut young men, girls with long straight hair and flashing white toothed smiles--the fresh faces of a promising group of new students. I had one conversation with a woman from my freshman floor who was also from upstate NY but I had always thought of her as sophisticated and assertive. We compared notes about our freshmen roommates. Mine was a California girl, whose father was an alum. She spent a week in New York City shopping before descending on campus with her Vidal Sassoon hairstyle and a wardrobe that included a leather skirt and a fur skirt. When my parents and I arrived at the double bedded room, clothes were piled on both beds and I had a sinking feeling this may not work out. My floormate had a similar experience: "I felt the same way," she said, "like I was an upstate clod next to my glamorous roommate. Don't you remember that white fun fur jacket she had?" I laughed because I had envied that coat, but I had never thought it bothered her because in my eyes she was extroverted and self confident. We had more in common than I imagined and wasn't that a wasted opportunity that we had never shared it or become better friends?

Did we really need the reunion? By the time you hit the 40 year mark, there aren't a lot of new people you expect to see at reunions. It tends to be the same crowd with the women looking predictably better than the men, many of whom sported sizable guts and gray hair. You stick to your small group of friends. Add to that the grousing about long buffet lines, too many appeals for donations, limited activities and music that was too loud. (Yes, we're getting old!) and you wonder if you should just pick any weekend to return, enjoy the beautiful campus, eat in the better restaurants in town and sit and talk as long as you want without shouting over the DJ. It's an interesting possibility, assuming all could agree on a date, but return we must. It's a good thing, even for one weekend to relive those years, to catch up on where we are, to stare at our innocent freshman eyes looking out to the future and try to divine if those eyes recognize the women and men we've become.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The end of "A pink ribbon race, years long"

In January 2011, New York Times reporter, Roni Caryn Rabin, wrote about the compelling story of Suzanne Hebert, entitled "A Pink Ribbon Race, Years Long." A young mother of 40 discovers a lump while nursing her new baby. Doctors tell her it's nothing to worry about and wait months later to biopsy it, but it's already too late. It's stage IV metastatic breast cancer and has spread to her bones and liver.

Suzanne Hebert, wife, mother of two, optometrist, friend, colleague, mbc advocate and vice president of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network (MBCN), died on May 30 after living with mbc for over seven years.

The Times article was not the first or the last time that Suzanne shared her story, speaking out for all of us with mbc, advocating for more treatments and more research on metastases.
"People like the pretty story with the happy ending,” she said. “We don’t have the happy ending.
You always hear stories about women who ‘battled it’ and ‘how courageous’ they were. Cancer doesn’t care if you’re courageous. It’s an injustice to all of us who have this. There are women who are no less strong and no less determined to be here, and they’ll be dead in two years.”

In December 2011 Suzanne appeared on ABC Nightly News and talked about the clinical trial for Afinitor that she was on, traveling from her home in Connecticut to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas once a month."I never thought my liver would be a national TV star," she quipped to me, referring to the 'before' and 'after' scans of her liver tumors broadcast that evening.

But the initial reduction in tumors did not last and soon after that, Suzanne stepped back from her involvement with MBCN, wanting to spend more time with her family. I was surprised in April to read about her again in Cancer Today magazine, but her previous optimism and unflagging hope were gone, replaced by the cold, hard facts of reality and the grim statistics of this disease.

 Asked about some new research, she expressed 'guarded' optimism. “After more than eight years of living with this, I’ve seen so many things that sound like the next great thing,” she says. “You never hear anything else.” In reality, hope arrives “in very tiny increments,” says Suzanne. On the release of the newest 'successful' metastatic cancer drug, which extends life by 2 and a half months, Suzanne said: “That’s not really something to bring the trumpets out about, but that’s the best that we get,” she says. Still, it’s better than nothing. “I’m 46 and the mother of two,” says Hebert. “I’ll take it.”

Sobering words, especially from Suzanne, who lived and breathed lightness and hope. Was it succumbing to despair and frustration or was it resignation and final acceptance of the cruelty of this disease?  I reread the article and felt the sadness settle upon me.

The last time I spoke with Suzanne, she was in hospice. We laughed a little, cried a little and she said "You know you're going to get to this point, but it seems unreal. And all the work we did doesn't matter anymore."
"I know, I know," I replied, although I didn't really know or didn't want to understand and accept it.

I'm a better person for knowing Suzanne, working with her and living in her light. Her race should have been longer, much longer, but it did matter, Suzanne, and we thank you for that.