I’ve always adored summers as my body pleaded for Vitamin D and a Coppertone tan. Days at the beach in June reminded me that comparing older middle-age to adolescence is like amputating your leg versus gingerly slicing it with an Exacto knife. They both hurt like hell. I would sit in my green and white webbed lawn chair at the beach while “tweens” arrived at the ocean. Their shoulders shrugged in freezing mode while the blistering sun felt like 105 degrees in the sand. Bodies fresh, opalescence in color and unmarked by ravages of time; they are works of art… in progress. At least for another two dozen years they will be beach scenery, but after that, a body changes dramatically.
Arriving in groups of three, the bikini girls squint; walk closely together like a packaged set of flawless aliens. Shoulder to shoulder, their eyes capture a quick inspection of who, where, and what at the beach. Salty water laps at their freshly-polished French-style toenails. The prettiest one, and there always is the prettier one, keeps one hand on her long hair, pulling it over her shoulder, like a coquettish shield. All three girls start tugging and tucking at bikinis, aching to show lots of flesh yet unsure if their “summer bodies” perfect enough to bare. They whisper to each other, laugh, and peek out over oversized sunglasses seeking out “where is the testosterone lurking” near the water. These immature packages of perfection are in the midst of experiencing an explosion of bodily changes, only they have no idea what the future holds. Nor do any of us, and that is exactly how it should be … though, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t long for those carefree summers of my youth.
The glorious summers of my life came to a screeching halt in 2015. No more tan lines for me. Ovarian cancer arrived in a fury during June and any ideas of the beach were never on my radar after my diagnosis. Wouldn’t you just know the 3 months out of a year that I cherished most would cease? Instead of savoring ocean breezes and delightfully fighting hard punching waves, my vacation days were spent battling cancer in a very cold, sterile hospital room where the sun never greeted me through the stark, white vertical blinds.
The diagnosis affected my perception of time so I no longer recognized any season of the year. I was in a season of grief, and days simultaneously felt like years and mere seconds. During the month of June, I bounced between thoughts of “I will live,” and making sure I’d scheduled constant appointments for chemo, bone pain, wig fittings, and anxiety.
Forget indulging in warm weather activities. My entire concentration was on staying alive and at the end of the day, I had to listen to my body, that was who was in charge: stay in the shade, drink only tea and water, muster enough energy to digest protein, and learn to think of afternoon naps on the office couch as productive work.
I think back about the funny, unfortunate maneuvers that occur in young female bodies. Irrational outbursts of tears, sprouting body hair, a pimply topography, boobs that are either far too big or that won’t quite grow… I traded these summer “beauty woes” for a whole new level of womanhood. Before cancer, I was still absorbed in femininity: keeping my strong, white teeth from acidic erosion, watching tiny, blue slender veins play hide and seek on my legs, coloring gray hairs as quickly as they appeared. But after cancer, I find beauty rituals to be more a practice of gratitude. Yes, I still have 7 tubes of red lipstick and more earrings than days I’ve lived, but each time I get ready, it’s like a silent prayer. Thank you for letting me greet another day – I will dress up and go out and enjoy it! I don’t dress up to wait for a man to come home, I dress up to greet the sun who has faithfully risen another day. I am now ready to cope with the physical changes in my body, as I am relishing the mental clarity cancer has led me to. My future may be uncertain, but the ocean no longer calls my name. Rather, it’s the sweet voices of my friends, my spouse, my medical caregivers, and the characters in my community. They make my summers bright. My new life is not about tan lines and bikinis, but living, loving and appreciating each day.