The town where John and I met—Carlisle, PA—has an old, treeless graveyard tucked just off the main drag on East South Street.
In the summer, the grass there is so sharp and dry and full of anthills you can hardly sit down on it, and there is never a single bit of wind to rile the rows of veteran flags. If there is any sound at all other than the occasional muscle car revving through the stoplight at the corner, it is the sound of bees. Big loud desperate bees and the quieter, tiny, metallic-looking bees that cluster at your ankles. Sweat bees, those little ones are called—because they are drawn to human sweat. And the only bit of shade in the whole place is under the cement skirts and raised ramrod of a monument of Molly Pitcher.
Please tell me you remember who Molly Pitcher is.
The prototype Revolutionary War Super Mom traipsing into battle—fearlessly stirring pots, tending wounds, scrubbing blood stains in all the 4th Grade history books?
Recall her famous water-fetching from a hidden spring during a 100-degree day of gun-fighting at Monmouth! And then later that afternoon when she picked up her husband’s rammer after he dropped from exhaustion at his cannon, and she set to work swabbing and loading and blasting the British back to the obscure beaches of Sandy Hook, New Jersey!
Also the unforgettable time when the skirt was ripped from her frock by a British musket ball that passed between her legs, and Molly exclaimed, Well, that could have been worse!
I’ve thought of Molly Pitcher a bunch of times since my diagnosis—times when I’ve felt like I’m standing in a battlefield with my heart pounding and a gaping hole burned out of my dress.
Here’s my lowdown from the last couple weeks:
Round Two of chemo was initially a little more brutal than the last time, but with a quicker yuck-time. Doable.
We celebrated my 38th birthday several times (I wore The Wig out to Print Works for its inaugural dinner and spent the evening feeling like a female politician/robot: way too many hairs in place and some very unnatural body language).
The kids and I tagged along on John’s work trip to Asheville where we bounced on the hotel room beds, ate too much, and stood atop Chimney Rock to stare off into the hazy Blue Ridge and catch a shimmery glimpse of Lake Lure.
The majority of my hair fell out.
I was summoned to the elementary school to sit in the Principal’s Office for the first time to discuss some Unfortunate Behavior. I could tell the Principal was not happy about her job when I arrived in my little chemo hat.
My Dad launched an awesome deck-building project in our backyard. It will be the epicenter of Getting Better, I feel sure.
I got (and got rid of) MRSA on my pinky toe (!).
We watched the whole Ken Burns Emperor of All Maladies documentary about cancer on PBS (terrifying, illuminating, at times sleep inducing).
The boys and I decorated bright, hideous Easter eggs while John cooked matzoh ball soup and tried to explain the concept of plagues to the kids (“Raining frogs?!” exclaims Benny, “That sounds really fun!”).
And today was as normal as taking the kids shoe shopping and to the library as they laze through spring break—although now I am exhausted and lying on my bed while they play 452 hours of Xbox.
I’m basically okay, but at the same time I feel a little—I don’t know—homeless? aimless? I definitely don’t belong in bed. But I also don’t really belong out in the world—bald, weird and blurry-eyed from the steroids, germaphobic, emotional. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be or what I am supposed to be doing.
I’m also in this limbo of feeling like I’m a broken camera where I keep focusing on something out on the horizon (the future, cure, recurrence, death, old age, the meaning of all this) and then all of a sudden zooming in on a blade of grass (what is that weird taste in my mouth, is that a new lump?, thank you for this beautiful meal, did anyone remember to pack snack for the kids?). And then zooming out to the horizon again, and then back, and then again.
I can’t figure out where I’m supposed to point this thing.
One beautiful surprise I have become sharply aware of is how cancer seems to remove whatever weird barriers we sometimes have with others. It’s like a lumpectomy of bullshit. All the “oh yes, everything is great” stuff just flies out the window. I’m so grateful for all the realness and genuine connection from all corners that I have felt in the last few months.
One morning in the Carlisle graveyard I found a headstone near Molly Pitcher for Molly McCauley. It turns out she is the actual woman—a well-liked servant for hire, known for cursing like a soldier, who lived and died in Carlisle—and that Molly Pitcher is probably a made-up legend of centuries of lore or maybe some tall tale the author of all 4th Grade text books made up when his wife asked him to help fold the laundry.
I ended up feeling kind of annoyed at Molly Pitcher and her stony, pretend fearlessness overshadowing the grave of Real Molly. I got fonder and fonder of Real Molly, her plain grave nice for resting against, shady in the afternoon (due to Fake Molly), and her lesser-known story of hard work and quiet survival with the help of a few curse words. And I got fonder of the sweat bees, too, even though they stung me a couple times. They like sweaty, sweet, real live humans for goodness sake—don’t we all!
But in the end, I love the gutsy cement hero woman—I need her as much as I need to know that the real bones of the potty-mouthed housemaid with a ruffled bonnet are buried somewhere below that crooked, faceless grave.
I love the musket ball not hitting me, but I also love the musket ball. I love “goddammit,” and I really love “Well, that could have been worse.”