Yourself Go? You Bet!
From the Fall 1997 issue of Radiance
Okay, I admit it. I've let myself go.
I've let myself go dancing and swimming and to Egypt and to Argentina and up onstage in front of thousands of people to tap dance in a red sequined dress trimmed with fringe and off in tiny boats to whale watch and to work every day in a male-dominated industry.
Whoa! How did this happen? I'm a big woman and have been for most of my life. At some point, I realized that I am the only person who can hold me back and keep me from going where I want to go and doing what I want to do-and why would I do that to me?
Words matter in my life. Accordingly, I define myself as a "militant fat girl" instead of the more politically correct "large-size woman." I laugh when I say it, because I am a feminist and I don't permit other people to call me any sort of "girl." I'm proud of my forty-nine years on this planet, and I want credit for every one. However, I've learned from the girl in me to wear bright, happy clothes that say Look at me!, to laugh a lot, and to like nearly everyone I meet. My motto is, Let's try new things, learn new skills, and go new places-all the time. Mine is a purple-and-red-paisley life with turquoise accents, and it's all on purpose.
The fact that I'm fat just doesn't matter to me, or to anyone else, as far as I can tell.
Let's not use numbers as a standard of measurement for happiness, accomplishments, or states of mind. Sizes, weights, and even checking-account balances easily slip up or down, so why should we define ourselves by any of them? I learned from my parents to measure worth in other ways: Was I living up to my potential? Was I generous in thought, word, and deed? Was I happy? They used the same standards for themselves. Mom died in 1973 and Daddy died in 1982, but to this day, I heed those standards more often than any random set of numbers.
Who am I?
Writing for the junior high school paper launched my career in journalism. By the time I was in high school, I was writing not only for my high school paper, but also for a local daily paper and a weekly neighborhood paper as well. I was also selling articles to national teen magazines. Today, I am the author of a whale-watching guide, several children's nature books, and a dessert cookbook, and I write articles for newspapers all over the country and for national magazines.
And there's more to me, much more.
I'm also a mother, a whale watcher, an avid reader, a cancer survivor, a theater enthusiast, and a belly dancer in training. One Thursday past March, I made my runway modeling debut at a local department store. Public speaking-talking about my job or other aspects of my life at conferences, seminars, and meetings-has always been a part of my professional life. And, if I can find the time, I want to take up the tin whistle as a way of connecting with my Irish roots.
Then, in the spring of 1993, I was heading for a dip in a scented bubble bath when I paused to consider my naked self in the bedroom mirror. With great awe, I realized I had turned into the modern-day equivalent of the Venus of Willendorf. You may recall this chubby little goddess from your college art history class. The original is a 4-1/2-inch limestone sculpture, the oldest sculpture of the human form ever discovered, believed to be at least 30,000 years old. It was found in 1908, nestled in the ground among some tools near Willendorf, Austria. Today, the sculpture is on display at the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
As I stood staring at my image in the mirror, I realized that I was quite comfortable with the shape and look of my real self. How could I go wrong, looking like a goddess who symbolizes the abundance of the Earth? My body first outgrew society's standard sizes when I was about ten. My weight gain coincided with the illness of my five-year-old brother, Michael. I'm sure I started overeating because I was afraid he would die. Kidney disease took his life when he was ten.
In high school and college, I tried different diets, urged on by my chubby parents. They loved me completely, and let me know it every day of their lives. Still, they worried that I would have a harder time in adolescence being heavy. I don't remember suffering much more than anyone else: adolescence is hard for everyone. I always had lots of friends, and in eighth grade, I went steady with two boys at the same time because I couldn't decide which I liked better. In high school, boys didn't line up outside my house, but they did invite me to my share of parties and movies. My junior year in college, at age twenty, I decided to marry one of those young men. My new husband went into the Army after graduation, and a year after we were married he was sent to Vietnam. I gained weight that year, too, terrified that I would be left a young widow because of a senseless war.
Tom came home safely in 1971. Our son, Joel, was born in 1974. My size did not hinder my pregnancy in any way. I was convinced that my body was perfectly designed to have a baby. That's what female bodies do, I told myself, and I sailed through my pregnancy, eating healthy food, taking vitamins, and practicing for natural childbirth. I proudly nursed my son for almost eighteen months. Today, Joel is a graduate student in telecommunications engineering. He loves animals and theater and camping, is fluent in French, and hopes to work in Paris after he earns his master's degree in the year 2000.
Around the time I turned thirty, a male friend said one day that he thought I'd become something of a dowdy little mother hen. He wasn't talking so much about my body as about my sense of self-and he was right. I hadn't ever intended to marry or have children, and though I loved my husband and my son, I did not find a lot of satisfaction in staying at home. In college, I had always talked about going to work for the New York Times. With a family in St. Louis, that was out of the question, so I revived a dream that had begun when I was in high school: to work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
First, I had to go back to school to finish my degree. Henry David Thoreau spoke of living deliberately, so that when you come to die, you aren't overcome with the realization that you have never really lived at all. His message, printed on a poster hanging in my home, reached me in a new way the day I made my first calls to the local universities. I began to change my life. For Thoreau, living deliberately meant moving to the woods. For me, it meant taking responsibility for my life. I had gone from my parents' home directly to my husband's home. I had relied too much on others to take care of me. Suddenly, I was eager to learn to be more self-reliant.
I earned my college degree and got a job as an advertising copywriter. The changes in my life seemed to aggravate problems in my marriage, and my husband and I divorced in 1980, when I was thirty-two. To this day, Joel remains at the center of both our lives.
Around the time of my divorce, I started seeing a psychologist for help with the transition. At some point, I listed losing weight as one of my many goals in putting together a new life. This is what the therapist said to me: "That's an admirable goal, but I'm wondering if you can't accomplish everything you want to do in your career and your personal life at the size you are today." My answer, after some thought, was yes.
In 1982, I was hired at the Post-Dispatch. I joined the staff as a food writer: the first one in a long time who looked as if she actually enjoyed eating! Soon after, the style editor asked me to write for her section about the dramatic changes taking place in large-size fashion. I still write many large-size fashion stories for the style section. The feature department was my home for seven years, and then I moved to the news section, where I worked nights for five years.
It was also in 1982 that I went on my first whale watch, out of Barnstable, Massachusetts, off Cape Cod. I've always loved animals, and when I read in a travel article that a regular person could get on a boat and go out to see whales in their natural environment, I knew I had to try it. After a business trip to Washington, D.C., I booked myself on a commuter flight to Hyannis, rented a car, found a motel, and boarded the boat the next morning. We spent much of the day watching humpback whales feeding, their huge, open mouths rising up through the columns of bubbles they blow underwater to trap tiny fish. The humpbacks also waved their tails repeatedly, and two of them swam and dived in unison, as though performing a choreographed dance. It was a magical day. Since then, I have traveled all over the world to sit in boats, large and small, next to whales. Every time I hear a whale breathe, I am reminded that they are mammals, and that people of all sizes share a common bond with these magnificent animals.
Of course, when it comes to whales, big is perfectly acceptable. The American public is fascinated with superlatives: the best, the newest, the biggest. People relish knowing that the great whales range from 45 to 100 feet and weigh as much as 1.5 tons per foot. One blue whale-the largest creature ever to live on Earth-can weigh as much as thirty-two elephants. And if one of those elephants were willing, there would be room for her to stand on the blue whale's mammoth tongue. A toddler could crawl through the arteries of any full-grown great whale. A humpback whale's 15-foot-long flipper is more than twice the height of the tallest person you know.
But whales are more than just big. They are graceful. They are gentle. They are perfectly suited to their environment. What wonderful creatures with which to Identify! When I reached age forty-five, I was the healthiest I had ever been. I was happy, too, with many special people in my life. My son was doing well at college, starting to craft dreams of his own. The opportunity to write nature books for children on dolphins, sharks, and manatees was a dream come true. And I was juggling more freelance travel assignments than ever before, traveling to exotic places to learn more about the world. I was in one of those places, Baja, California, watching whales, on the day that Ross Winter, my closest male friend, died. An audacious Australian, Ross was artistic director of a dance company and the man who had encouraged me to get up onstage and dance in a show for the fun of it. He was killed when his car skidded on a rain-slick street, hit a curb, and flipped over. We had been family for each other for ten years, and then he just disappeared from my life.
In the course of the healing process, my relationships with old friends deepened. I met a wonderful man who makes me laugh every day. I made some long overdue changes at work. With counseling that never wasted a moment on what size I was or wasn't, I put my life back together once again. I gained more weight, but with it came the insight that in the past I had turned to food at times of great personal stress. I realized that my fat did not protect me from any emotional pain or further loss. In spite of considerable "insulation," I had lost my brother, my parents, one marriage, and a best friend. I began to learn to deal with stress in different, more productive ways, such as regular exercise, more quiet time, and a better balance among sleep, work, and play.
Then I got breast cancer.
I found the lump late in May of 1995. Arriving home from work hot and tired, I slipped off my blouse, unhooked my bra, twirled it over my head three times, as is my habit, and threw it across the living room. I vigorously rubbed myself, happy to be free of restraint. My joy disappeared immediately when I felt a small lump in my breast. The lump and I went to the doctor the next morning. I reminded her that I had had a clear mammogram just six months earlier. She suggested that the lump might be a cyst and recommended we wait a few weeks to see if it changed. We did-and it didn't.
In September of 1995, I had a biopsy. The surgeon told me right there in the operating room that I had cancer. He said the tumor was tiny, and he congratulated me for finding it and for acting quickly. Because the tumor was small, I had the option of a lumpectomy, which my doctor said works especially well for women with large breasts. Although a fistful of tissue surrounding the tumor is removed, there still is plenty of breast left to balance out the other side, he said. I scheduled a lumpectomy for the following week.
That first night, friends dropped in, bringing hugs, flowers, garlic mashed potatoes, and plenty of emotional support. My son was away at college, and when I finally got him on the phone, Joel heard all the people laughing and talking. "Are you having an 'I Have Cancer' party?" he asked.
"I am," I said. "That's exactly what we're doing." Two days later, I was home alone in the afternoon, lying in my bed, trying to nap. I started to cry-again-and I called a friend.
"You'll be fine. You'll come to consider this disease an opportunity to learn more about living" he said when he heard my sobs. "I'll help you get through this." He knows something about living with disease. He has AIDS. His words comforted me.
The morning of the lumpectomy, I packed a picture of me patting a baby gray whale's head. "I'm not just a cancer patient" I said to myself as I waited for my ride. "I'm a whale watcher." I also tucked some ginkgo leaves from my tree out back into my bag. Ginkgo trees excel at survival: they have been on Earth since the Jurassic period, when brontosauruses ate their leaves for lunch. After the surgery, I had to wait a few days to find out whether the cancer had spread to any lymph nodes. I did indeed have one bad node. My doctor prescribed four chemotherapy treatments and six weeks of radiation.
Those first weeks, I would suddenly find myself overwhelmed at how drastically my life had changed in such a short time and at the incredible significance of every decision that I was making. Still, I returned to my job at the Post-Dispatch, showing up five days a week all through my treatments. More important to me (if not my employer), I kept my weekly manicure appointments and continued to go to the theater and out for dinner with my son and my friends. Chemotherapy made me very tired and completely bald. Radiation also made me very tired, and my skin burned badly. Cancer treatments have a way of taking from you anything about which you might be vain: for me, it was naturally curly hair, pretty skin, lots of energy. Still, I had read that it is wise to embrace your cancer treatments, as they may save your life, so I tried not to think unkindly of them.
With a lot of help from my beloved family and friends, my treasured coworkers, my wonderful doctors and nurses, cherished readers who wrote or called to say they were praying for me, and my support group at the Wellness Community, I survived breast cancer. I survived worrying about how I got cancer: I'm the first in my family. I survived worrying that I was somehow to blame. And I survived worrying that I might have to eat only broccoli and tofu for the rest of my life. On those rare days now, nearly two years after diagnosis, when I start to play the "what-if" game and panic about whether I will see my son launched in a career, have quality time with grandchildren who do not yet exist, or get the chance to spend every penny of my 401 money, I remind myself that no one gets a guarantee of how long he or she will live. That realization always brings me right back to the moment.
At this moment, I am perfectly healthy once again. I have put into practice the many lessons cancer has taught me. Working for a living matters, but not nearly so much as working on a life. I have cut back on my work hours. A four-day week allows me to spend more time with people who make me laugh, to read more, to go to the zoo more, and to snuggle on the couch with my cats more. I have regular massages. I'm making time to learn about seashells, seabirds, and the different species of cactus. And I'm learning to let go of hurts and grudges that have outlived their usefulness.
I no longer push to get ninety-nine things done when eighty-nine will do nicely. Every night, I say, "Thank you for this day." I list the names of people I'm worried about. Then I sign off by saying, "I know the universe is unfolding exactly as it is meant to, whether or not I understand the plan." My doctors had cautioned me that sometimes people become depressed when treatments end, as they no longer feel that they are actively fighting the disease. That didn't happen to me. I was happy to stop focusing on something as scary as cancer. What did happen is that I worried that a.b.c. (that's After Breast Cancer, as opposed to b.b.c., Before Breast Cancer), I might launch my new life tentatively, with more fear than hope, figuratively holding my breath to see what would happen next. I worried that I might move lightly through life, as though walking on eggs. I am delighted to report that instead, I've been making omelets, eggs Benedict, and scrambled eggs with fresh chives and feta cheese! Looking back, I have no real sense of exactly when I began to turn my attention from having cancer to surviving it, from agreeing to do what I was told to telling others what I planned to do, from taking sandwiches kindly made for me to making them for myself and for others. Certainly, it was an incremental process.
Maybe it started at the beach. In April of 1996, just one month after my chemotherapy and radiation treatments had ended, I was sitting on a beach north of Malibu with a good friend. As we watched the sun prepare to set, we started to shiver from the cold. Suddenly, directly in front of me, twenty feet from where I sat, a whale spouted. I squealed and pointed, and my friend looked in time to see a second, smaller spout. We watched the gray whale and her calf swim by.
"We can go home now," I said. "I'm healed." Some other people on the beach saw the spout. Some were oblivious. What a perfect reminder that if you concentrate on what's in front of you, blow the picture up so that it's really big, and let go of stupid mistakes from the past and brilliant successes of the future to concentrate on now, you see exactly what you need to see.
This past Thanksgiving, fully eight months after the treatments, I woke up one morning and felt like myself again. Not the well-muscled, healthy self I had been before cancer, but a self finally ready to go back to the gym, a self able to walk farther than from here to the corner, and a self willing to stay up past 9 p.m.-some nights, anyway. I directed some of my newfound energy into looking at the rest of my life, eager to make changes at work and in my personal life. "I am in need of new beginnings" I told a friend.
That's how I came to run away to Egypt.
In the end of January, I took a two-week trip to Egypt in the company of sixteen other women, guided by a fifth-generation Egyptologist. I didn't have the money for the trip, of course, but what does money matter when you've just beaten cancer? I borrowed the money and went to Egypt because a year before I couldn't and this year I could. I knew before I went to Egypt that scarab jewelry was popular, but I didn't know why. While touring the tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens, I learned that the scarab is the symbol of new beginnings. New beginnings! That's what I'm up to here in Egypt, I thought. I decided right then to buy a scarab souvenir of some sort.
I didn't have to.
After the tour, we headed back to the bus. The driver had brought along his eleven-year-old son, who sat across from me. Earlier in the day, I had noticed the boy watching me use my binoculars to scan the sky for birds. Before our group left the bus to tour the tombs, I had handed the binoculars to the boy and told him to enjoy himself. Upon my return, he thanked me and gave them back. Then, shyly, he placed something on the seat next to me.
"This is for you" he said.
It was a small alabaster carving of a scarab.
People always ask me if I'm back to my old self, and I tell them that I am an all-new self, trying to live a more focused life, a more mindful life, a more deliberate life, the kind of life suggested by the Thoreau poster that first inspired me back in 1978. Once again, I have decided just to let myself go-absolutely anywhere fun that life may take me-and I intend to go with a grin, living up to my potential, and expressing generosity of spirit at all times.
Hey, you can play, too: just let yourself go! �
PATRICIA CORRIGAN can be reached at 314-862-2152 (or e-mail email@example.com), or by writing to her at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 200 South Bemiston Ave., St. Louis, MO 63105.