Around the same time I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, we were scheduled to renovate our apartment. My husband, an architect, had started to sketch out the designs. We’d enlisted his favorite contractor, Slavek.
Our plans were to update the kitchen and the bathroom and to turn an unused half bathroom — really, our cat’s bathroom that featured an easily accessible hole in the door, left from the former owner — into a full bath with a shower. Our kitchen was Brady Bunch-era wood-and-probably-formaldehyde paneled situation: The refrigerator sat in the living room and we had a non-working washer/dryer combo machine called a Comb-o-Matic, circa 1975. Floor tiles were loose and scattered around the bathroom floor. We’d been saving up cash and waiting to do this project for a good seven years. It was time.
So after processing the news of my upcoming ordeal, one of the first things I said to my husband was, “But we still have to renovate, right? We can’t stop the progress!”
“Um, no,” he said. “That’s not happening now.”
“Oh, come on.”
“No! You need a bed to sleep in, not people hammering around you.”
Of course, he was right. Crap. Our financial wherewithal, my energy and my comfort had to shift toward fighting these hateful malignant cells.
But don’t you know, as soon as chemo was done, as soon I started feeling marginally better around June, one of the first things that popped back into my mind was that home renovation. Could we do it now? Could we?
My husband side-eyed me, “I guess?”
That was all I needed to hear. Everything in my life was about revamp at this point and a home renovation fit right in. Make it different. Make it all different.
At this point in September, I wasn’t just looking for a home and hearth upgrade but a body and mind revamp as well.
In the last eight months since chemo ended, I’ve spent lot of time wandering around in my head, looking at myself in the mirror going, “Who are you now?” With a new, ever-evolving shock of white hair and thick glasses (mostly ditched the contacts — who can be bothered), I don’t even look like my previous self. I squint at old pictures of me with long brown hair (RIP stripe) and flushed cheeks and think, who is that? And then I look back at pictures of me from treatment, bald and eyebrow-less; I don’t recognize her either. Or I don’t want to. Those pictures are tough to look at. A bit triggering. That time period is already becoming a haze, and I don’t really want to go back there. I can barely even read old columns.
I want to start fresh. Forget.
I’ve written before about how they say (“they” being oncologists, therapists and Google) that the post-cancer experience can be the toughest psychologically. I’ve come to understand what that means. During surgery and chemo you’re so busy following protocol, fighting to stay healthy and feel good, that little else matters. There is one direction, and it’s full-steam ahead. Your entire being is focused on fighting the fucker.
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Post-treatment, there is a new me to contend with. Figuring out who that is can be a frustrating challenge. Some days, I feel more appreciative of life with a true no-fucks-left-to-give assurance. But then there are occasional Hulk-like outbursts and anxiety (they warn you about the PTSD) when stress arises. I try to keep the stress low, low, low. Yoga, walking and meditation (more than anything) have helped. I also hired a virtual self-care coach to help guide me to better nutritional, exercise and life balance choices. I’m going to get back into acupuncture. I’m trying Reiki for the first time this week. At some point, I need to find a shrink. Renovate, renovate, renovate. I distract myself by trying to fix this house.
I listen more closely to my body to lead the way, paying attention to what feels good and what doesn’t. I don’t drink as much; I seem to have a weird new internal barrier that makes more than one cocktail a bloated, pointless experience. I’ve steered myself away from coffee to green tea. I’m eating less sugar. I’m looking at ways to reduce inflammation. I don’t always succeed, but I try.
I’m trying to make a new, better Margit in whatever time I have left. Morbid, I know, but post-cancer, for better or worse, I’ve been seeing life as a bit of a countdown. Like, how many rolls of toilet paper do I have left to buy in my lifetime? You think of these things while sitting on a terrible, cracked, faux-wood toilet.
So we did it.
In August, with help from beloved, aptly-named friend Stormy, we started packing up every cabinet and drawer and preparing for a long-term move out of our apartment during construction.
In September, we moved into my sister-in-law’s soon-to-be-sold studio apartment in Manhattan for one month. Then we moved into a nearby Brooklyn Airbnb for one month. Which turned into two months, of course.
I was charged with our specification list or “spec list” — a list of the items to be ordered, right down to the flange on the shower pipe, or the backset for the door knob. Much like learning that I had a flap of skin covering my abdomen called an “omentum” that needed to be excised during surgery, there were many, MANY items I never needed to know about — until now.
As we shopped for door hardware, I learned about the myriad of teeny and huge, interdependent, mathematically challenging choices you make when constructing a room. “You do this for a living?” I said to my husband, who laughed, “I love it.”
Slavek and crew started sledgehammering our space. In the naked support beams, we found bits of a 19th century newspaper stuffed in the walls as insulation, old hand-painted wallpaper and, after moving some furniture, oh, there’s the old remote!
Construction plodded along. We met with the contractors once or twice a week, had daily texts and discussions, and I learned a new lesson in patience and compromise. An oven I’d ordered had to be replaced, and the only one we could get within our time frame was a discounted “chef’s oven” with a fancy griddle top and digital display. A far cry from our 1980s gas range that people would kindly remark, “so vintage!” For someone who doesn’t cook much, I suppose it’s time I started.
Little by little, beautiful rooms started to emerge. We decided to add paint to the ceilings of our bathrooms (“arsenic” green) midway through. We painted a small room — formerly my office, now revamped into a light purple dressing room. My favorite color.
I feel like I’m downplaying the hell a bit. No, a lot — there was heavy and difficult moving — and moving again. There were arguments. There were frustrating mistakes. And as soon as we ended our work, our neighbors above us began their renovation. “What?? I can’t hear you??”
But as I sit here typing in my new, sleek kitchen, at a breakfast counter, a feature I’ve wanted since we moved in, all of that is a blur. Much like cancer treatment.
I now sit on my new, perfect toilet and reflect (OMG the “Toto CST416M#01 Aquia 2-piece Cotton White Double-flush Toilet” is the world’s best toilet. Now you know), I realize I sort of like this renovating stuff. There’s discovery, adjustments and patience required, but the end result is pretty magical.
Of course, without the challenges of a renovation to focus on, I’m now back to just me and wrestling with a body that’s not quite there yet. But that’s ok — I have my spec list.
Postscript: A note on my Reiki experience. The practitioner laid her hands on my meridian points and described my energy to me as she did. She told me the my body was “curious” and somewhat “reluctant.” Well, yes, of course. At times she seemed tremendously intuitive; others a bit like a fortune teller who just parrots back the things you tell her. I explained to her that my left side was where I’d had so many issues and side effects during and post cancer treatment: a blood clot, infections, pain in my psoas, pain in my abdomen. She told me that in chinese medicine, the right side is the masculine active, kind of “get stuff done” side and the left side is the more feminine calm and nurturing side. Sounds like you’re giving your left side short shrift. So I am.
At the end I did feel a tremendous sense of balance and calm and a pleasant, slightly tired, heaviness, as in acupuncture. I’m keeping an open mind.
Read more of Margit’s column, Ovarian Rhapsody: