My Article in the Huffington Post!

I’m pretty thrilled to have this piece in Huffpost Personal published today! Yesterday, International Women’s Day, was the anniversary of my surgery, but the conversation I recount in the first paragraph of this article happened exactly a year ago today. How’s that for the Universe lining things up!

I’d like to thank my dear new friend Brenda Keesal for connecting me with Noah Michelson, the amazing editor at Huffpost who took this on. Do pay Brenda a visit at her blog burns the fire: her gorgeously told stories of life and death and especially love are always an adventure of wondrous inspiration as she shines her brilliant, unique light into the odd corners of our beautiful world.

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On International Women’s Day

Today, International Women’s Day, is the anniversary of my surgery and diagnosis. I met my surgeon only moments before being wheeled into the operating room. (I had met her colleague once, but he was now away.) She was hugely pregnant and hungry, having already been in surgery all morning, and she was about to run off to get lunch before starting on my hysterectomy. But she came by my gurney where I lay completely alone in the large pre-op space. I was weak with fasting hunger and dehydration, and still shaky from having almost fainted while an epidural was inserted into my spine for part of my anaesthesia. This woman was so youthful and bright and healthy and energetic, full of not one life but two (her fourth child, I found out later)! It was such a wonderful contrast, I couldn’t help but smile.

She introduced herself, and then she told me what none of the many specialists and technicians I had seen through several scans and tests had yet had the courage to tell me, though it had been the stated concern for a month: from my recent PET scan, she could see that the rapidly growing mass in my belly was most certainly not a benign fibroid but a very rare sarcoma, a sarcoma we both knew was deadly. She was 100 % sure, though I’d been told all along only pathology could confirm the diagnosis. She assured me she would do her best to remove it all, and we would discuss further details, like the recommended chemo, tomorrow. She found tissues for me while I cried quietly, and then she ran off to eat.

I had many thoughts then, but one of them was that I was so pleased to have this woman as my surgeon. It seemed oddly fitting, if also ironic, that a pregnant woman would be removing my uterus and ovaries, and that she was in the process of bringing forth life while mine was now on the path to ending, and all on International Woman’s Day.

Susan eating in hospital

Happy to eat even hospital food after a few days of no food at all following my surgery!

A few minutes later I was wheeled into the operating room and awkwardly transferred, still crying, onto the rather terrifying, crucifix-shaped operating table. I was grateful when the anaesthesiologist introduced himself and wasted no time administering his injection while a flurry of nurses prepared my body for what ended up being over six hours of surgery. I hope they brought my surgeon plenty of snacks and a stool to sit on to get her through that! However, I know she got a break while a general surgeon was brought in for a surprise bowel resection when an invasive tumour was found there. In fact, my surgeon confessed that after opening me up (a vertical incision from my pubic bone to above my navel) and seeing how extensively the tumours had spread, she almost closed me back up again with out removing anything. I am grateful that she took on the task and gave me this year!

And so on this day I honour all women doing their jobs to the best of their impressive abilities, regardless of the circumstances, including the demands of their reproductive bodies, and for less pay than their male counterparts.

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Audre Lorde on Dying Full of Fire!

This is extraordinary poet Audre Lorde, on how to really live while dying:

I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my noseholes — everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!

What an inspiration! She wrote this in the year after being diagnosed with liver cancer, metastasized from earlier breast cancer, at fifty. Fortunately for all of us, she survived several more years and did indeed write fire!

Audre Lorde

This is also from her journal as she reflects on impending death and her life’s work as a revolutionary Black feminist (or Womanist) writer:

We all have to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboys’ world. I want desperately to live, and I’m ready to fight for that living even if I die shortly. Just writing those words down snaps every thing I want to do into a neon clarity… For the first time I really feel that my writing has a substance and stature that will survive me.

I have done good work. There is a hell of a lot more I have to do. And sitting here tonight in this lovely green park in Berlin, dusk approaching and the walking willows leaning over the edge of the pool caressing each other’s fingers, birds birds birds singing under and over the frogs, and the smell of new-mown grass enveloping my sad pen, I feel I still have enough moxie to do it all, on whatever terms I’m dealt, timely or not. Enough moxie to chew the whole world up and spit it out in bite-sized pieces, useful and warm and wet and delectable because they came out of my mouth.

(Thanks to Kelly McKinney for sharing this post about Audre Lorde and setting me on a morning of reading her again.)

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On Technology

I had hoped my phone would outlive me. I hate wasting my time on technology, and I didn’t want to spend any of the precious little time I have left learning how to use a new device. Already last month I had to get a new laptop, which I still haven’t quite got used to. So I’ve been hanging on to this old blackberry with its tiny mechanical keyboard for coming on seven years. People laugh when they see it. I try to claim retro status, as if it’s almost cool again. I’ve never even used its more sophisticated features, like access to the internet or email or apps. For me it was always just a texting machine, alarm clock, and phone. Now and then I snapped a photo or used the calculator. But it in all those years it has served me more or less faithfully, never needing a repair. Even the original battery still charges.

But then it stopped picking up a signal. I brought it in and we tried a few things. Nothing worked. Since I no longer have a land line, not getting a new phone wasn’t an option. My dear son, the one studying computer science, not the one who inherited my aversion to technology, met me at the store for moral support. And thank goodness he did, as the salesperson and I couldn’t find a common language (though we were both speaking English). Now I felt old and retro, but not cool. In the end, Oliver took care of everything, speaking to me, then to the salesperson, then back to me, like an interpreter. I stopped even listening to or addressing the salesperson, as if I didn’t understand. Not the type of social interaction I prefer or am proud of, but the only way I could cope with the situation and leave with a phone. I wish I were more evolved, but I consoled myself by thinking she could add me to her horrible-customer stories to amuse her co-workers.

My other son told me what kind of phone he would like to inherit, so that took care of some of the parameters. Oliver googled online reviews. I made colour selections. We ate some cookies I had brought to sustain us through the signing of the contract. Finally I left with my first touchscreen device, which includes a decent camera so I can add more photos to my blog posts, which I just figured out how to do on my phone. I will probably still be learning how to use it until I die. But I can now access my blog and all of you right here on my phone! And my son is pleased to have both a decent phone and a laptop to inherit!

So thank you, Oliver! And you’re welcome, Nathan!

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A Preview of Paradise!

I thought I didn’t need a vacation from my sick leave, but I see now how much more deeply I am relaxing and recuperating from the chemo here in gorgeous Costa Rica! And just enjoying! With the crashing of the ocean and the chirping of insects to lull us to sleep, the warmth of the sun and the cooling breeze keeping the temperature just right, and the beauty of the light and magnificently varied vegetation to feed my soul, I couldn’t imagine a more restorative and pleasurable experience. Each moment has been its own version of perfection. We are even blessed with kitchen staff willing to accommodate my odd dietary needs.2018-02-21 08.18.19And we have seen monkeys! Fiercely growly howler monkeys all around! They sound like King Kong in the tree tops, truly intimidating, but then they just drape themselves over a tree limb, tethered by their tails, and nap: an excellent example of how to relax! And we are delighted by the plethora of hermit crabs scurrying into their vast variety of shells on the paths at night. They are a wonder!

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On Travel

When I returned from London in December, I was unwell and sure I would not travel again. Yet here I am on a plane somewhere, perhaps over Florida, on my way to Costa Rica. Last year Roy and I had been planning this trip when it became suddenly apparent that I was too sick to go anywhere. We’d never taken a real vacation together before – nothing more than a weekend in Toronto or Ottawa. So I felt this was something we should do if I had the chance. And with him on reading week at the university and me on my week’s chemo break and relatively well, this was the chance, perhaps the last one.

I’m ambivalent, though, about traveling. I always have been. I’m a rooted sort of person, so something always feels wrong to me about flying around the globe. My parents and siblings are the opposite: there are often times when I’m the only one in the city where we all six still live, at least part time, them off on all continents for business or pleasure. Usually I couldn’t even say where each of them is. My older son Oliver is like me. However, he too is away now on a holiday with his father and family, probably somewhat ill at ease to be so far away from his daily life. While given a choice I usually prefer to be home, I do make sure I fully embrace and enjoy my travel experiences.

I don’t believe, for myself at least, that traveling is necessary to personal growth or to understanding the world we live in. (I think literature, movies, culture in all forms, and even now social media can do an adequate job of making us citizens of the world.) That said, much depends on how one travels. Embarking on an organized tour that trots one about like a herd of sheep isn’t going to give anyone much exposure to the way people really live anywhere. Nor will staying at an all-inclusive resort (relaxing as it might be) do anything to reveal a people’s culture. Traveling alone and actually meeting local people or staying and working in a place for an extended period of time can be worthwhile, I think. (I won’t say much about volunteer tourism, except that it is far better in many instances to simply donate the travel costs to the cause.)

The fortunate thing is that I now know how to be happy wherever I am, so I will be delighted with my new surroundings and thrilled with the water, the profuse vegetation, and hopefully some wildlife. I might even see monkeys! The biodiversity in this area is supposed to be among the most abundant on the globe, so witnessing that will be a special privilege. It will be green and beautiful, and I will be in bliss!

Much of my own ambivalence, now and in the past, comes from the fact that I don’t want to leave my happy life at home. This week I felt no need for escape or respite. I was content and comfortable, excited about my writing and knitting projects, enjoying my visits with Nathan and others. Usually Montrealers are desperate to get away from winter by mid-February, but because I have been on sick leave and able to just stay in when the weather is horrible, this winter, long as it has already been, hasn’t bothered me much. Besides, I love winter – though a few recent hard ones had me decided that a short break at my age might be a good idea: being cold all the time does get tiresome. But the medication I have been on recently keeps my metabolism so revved up that I’m never even chilled. Nevertheless, here I am on my way to the rainforest at the edge of a hot, sunny beach on the Pacific!

We’re staying at a sustainable eco-resort and will make sure to pay our carbon offset as well (Costa Rica has a program for this: One of my primary concerns with travel is its environmental toll. The strain of tourism development, while ardently sought by many local economies, is often terribly destructive to local ecologies. (This particular resort takes many measures to minimise harm and has been recognised by National Geographic for its sustainability efforts.) Flying is especially devastating to the planet, so I always feel guilty about it. In fact, until this past year, I did my best to avoid flying and other forms of travel. I have never flown so much as in the past six months! But I try to forgive myself, knowing I soon won’t be making any demands on the earth except to decompose my body.

But then travel still makes me feel guilty for the excess of privilege that even makes it possible. Every person on this plane is white. Every one is far enough away from poverty to indulge in this luxury of a warm week away. It is a stark illustration of global inequity.

So why am I here in this plane? The day before leaving is always the worst for me. I get anxious about packing and preparing. This time was especially bad as I worried about forgetting needed medications when we will be hours from any hospital. So my mood was not the best, and I started to feel that I was taking this trip not just with guilt but out of guilt. Guilt that Roy and I had never taken a vacation together, never been somewhere warm to relax and indulge in the simple pleasures of sunshine and water. I know he has been tired, that winter wears him down. That work wears him down. That he always needs more self-care. But guilt is a terrible reason to do anything. Probably one of the worst. And certainly not the way to enjoy a trip.

So I had to figure out a way to not feel guilty or this trip would be a failure. Instead of doing this despite my own ambivalence, I had to make this something I wanted to do. And what I want to do is give Roy this gift. A gift of time together. Time away from the harshness of winter. Time away from the concerns of his job, of my illness and treatment. Time away from the challenges of parenting two teenaged boys. Time away from figuring out what to do for supper. I want to offer him time instead with a warm breeze from the sea caressing his face, time floating in warm water so the weight of all troubles falls away. Time with all our needs taken care of by others. Time together to fill him with love and affection to recall in the time ahead when I won’t be by his side. Time before there is no time left.

Of course, that time doesn’t have to be in Costa Rica at a luxurious resort. But my mother also wanted to give us this gift. Allowing someone the gift of giving means being willing to receive. So now we have a chain of gifts, each bringing joy to the giver and to the receiver. This gift is beautiful, as is the giving, and I am enormously grateful for receiving it. So I thank my mother for her gift, and I thank Roy both for receiving it and for sharing it with me.

So now I am happy to be here on this plane. Though this trip is an extreme luxury, it is a gift that Roy will cherish and remember, that brings me great pleasure rather than guilt, and that will bring my mother joy in knowing she has made our joy possible. And I will delight in every moment in our lovely, secluded “casita” watching the sun sparkle on the sea, surrounded by the magnificent jungle and its marvels of nature. The further we fly, the further I leave all those guilts behind.

Susan Hammock Costa Rica

And here I am, ready to view our first Pacific sunset!


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Roy’s Article in the Huffington Post!

I am so thrilled with this! Roy has a beautiful article up for Valentine’s Day in Huffpost: My Girlfriend Is Dying Of Terminal Cancer, But Here’s Why I Still Feel Lucky!

heart no outline

I know I am the lucky one to have someone like Roy accompanying me at the end of my life’s journey. Not many men could do this with such grace and generosity, not to mention patience and understanding. It’s not easy and there’s no guidebook (not yet, at least: he’s writing one now!), but we are figuring it out as we go. I have so much to be grateful for: Roy is one of the sweetest gifts!

See Roy’s blog for more of his always moving writing: And sometimes it goes the other way.


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