Linda Barrett could be any one of us. She’s an ordinary woman living a wonderfully ordinary life – husband, kids, teaching, writing – totally unprepared for Murphy’s Law on steroids. In February 2001, everything goes wrong. She discovers her breast cancer exactly when she starts a brand new teaching job which is exactly the same time as the release of her very first published novel. Secrets must be kept to protect her fledging career as a writer. No secrets in the classroom however. Her adult students, preparing for the GED exam, out her in five minutes when they spot her wig!
Nine years later, Linda is fully recovered from her lumpectomy, chemo and radiation when breast cancer hits a second time. She is no longer a random one-in-eight woman who develops this disease. Blood tests show she’s a target of faulty genes, a carrier of the BRCA 1 gene mutation. Without drastic measures, she’d be susceptible to a third or fourth cancer hit. Murphy’s Law once again comes into play. This second time around coincides with a thousand mile relocation from Houston to Tampa. Putting a house on the market while handling a double mastectomy, implant prep, and six rounds of chemo is not for the faint of heart. Linda’s heart is not faint as she implores: “Do house hunters think we’re part of HGTV? Real homes aren’t perfect!”
At the heart of this memoir, however, is a love story. Cancer is merely the vehicle that exposes a mature marriage in full bloom. With her Knight-in-Shining-Tinfoil at her side, Linda and Michael Barrett meet the challenge of two enemies: cancer and fear. Their fight is hard won, but with cancer now in their rearview mirror, they are relaxed and laughing again. As Linda says, “Life is good. After all the turmoil, we’ve landed in a soft place. Friends and family are all around, and I expect to live out a natural lifespan however long that may be.”
Everyone deserves a Hopfully Ever After, and that’s what you’ll find here.
And they lived hopefully ever after….
A cancer diagnosis slams into you with the subtlety of a freight train. You can’t talk or breathe. You stare at familiar surroundings, but everything looks distorted. This isn’t real, you think. It’s just an out-of-body experience, and it is not happening to you.
Except it is. Breast cancer happened to me twice, but you don’t get any points for experience here. That freight train hit with the same ferocity the second time as it did the first.
After a decade of turbulence, however, I’ve now landed in a soft place. Outside the screened lanai where I’m sitting, a pair of sand hill cranes walks across the back yard, their bright red head feathers in brilliant contrast with the soft gray of their bodies. They are tall and majestic birds, deliberate in their steps, their posture exuding the confidence I’m lacking.
“So much has happened since the first diagnosis,” I say to my husband, who’s nose-deep in a crossword puzzle. “I need to come up with the perfect starting point for this story.”
Mike lowered the newspaper and looked at me over his reading glasses. “You do know you’re always cranky when you begin a new book? But in the end, you figure out a good place to start.”
I must have looked doubtful because he glanced longingly at his paper before lifting his eyes to mine. “All right, all right. Here’s an idea: try starting with our current lives. We’re doing well. You’re healthy again. We’re finally living without holdings our breaths. Begin in the here and now.” With pen back in hand, he was once more engrossed in Across and Down.
Had I asked him to solve my problem?
No. I was just kvetching out loud. But Mike was being Mike, trying to find a solution. In our early days, long before cancer crept into our lives, I’d tease him about being my Knight in Shining Tin Foil. I’d expected him to share chores and didn’t want his head to swell because he shopped for groceries, cleaned the sink, or vacuumed the carpets. Tin foil seemed an appropriate garment.
More recently when the going got rough, he was at my side–sure, steady, and strong. A full-time job. I should replace his tin foil with armor now, but I’m holding off. He knows it and laughs; we laugh together. Gentle teasing is our way. After more than four decades as husband and wife, we understand each other very well. I know why he suggested I focus this story in the present. He prefers to live in the moment, enjoying the sunshine and the sand hill cranes. He prefers to leave the dark days behind us. I can’t blame him.
Although I’m half of the Linda-and-Mike team, I am also a mother, grandmother and novelist with fourteen works of fiction in print. My stories are about ordinary people in crisis, struggling to reach their happy endings. In 2001, when breast cancer hit me for the first time, I had to fight for my own happy ending which I achieved and enjoyed for nine years.
Sitting on the screened porch today, I feel great, look pretty good, and am planning for a long future. Part of me doesn’t want to look back; I’m not that different from Mike. I should simply put the cancer experience behind me and, as we native New Yorkers say, fuhggedaboudit! The other part of me, however, wants to write about the turmoil and examine it for my own sake as well as for my children and grandchildren’s sakes, and for those families facing the same situation. There was a specific reason for my cancers; neither was a random hit, but I didn’t know that at the time.
On a sticky note taped to my computer is a quote I borrowed from Churchill: Never, never, never give up. Staring at those words got me through many a day.
Lab reports and medical records lay on the wrought iron table in front of me. Fact checking is a must for any book. I need no notes, however, to recall my feelings as a two-time rider on the breast cancer express. I need no cues to recall the complications the illness brought to my busy life and the heartache it brought to my family. And I need no reminders as to what I’d learned: in the fight to live, no decision is too extreme. They may be dramatic and scary, but if they work, so what?
Twelve years have passed since my first bout with the disease; two years since my second one. Fortunately, that tumor wasn’t a recurrence, but a brand new visitor. A good thing. Isn’t it weird that a malignant tumor can bring good news? My last appointment with my surgeon at Tampa General is long over, and I love my new oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center who will monitor me from now on. Since our recent move to Florida, I’ve had to search for new cancer specialists, a chore I hadn’t anticipated taking on while recuperating from a second bout of the disease.
The timing of our relocation couldn’t have been worse. I adored my original oncologist who practiced in Houston, Texas where I’d lived for sixteen years. I fought most of my cancer battles there and didn’t plan on a second assault when we decided to move to Florida during the fall of 2010. I certainly wouldn’t have left at that point had I known the future, but I didn’t. Sometimes life presents choices, and we deal with the decisions we make.
Which brings me back to choosing this memoir’s starting point. I briefly considered Mike’s suggestion of Right Now. Now is important because it measures the time out from surgery: one year out, two years out, five years out. The more years, the better. Now is important because I am living in it. But…where’s the story? I’m an author in search of a story, and my daily routines don’t cut it. They’re boring. As for the future? Well, that’s the sticky one. Tomorrow doesn’t come with a hundred percent guarantee, so why think about it? Besides, tomorrow’s events haven’t happened yet, so where’s the story?
The story lies in Yesterday. Yesterday provides the yardstick to measure the journey since the original diagnosis. I must sift through Yesterday in order to pull up remembrances and mine for the truth. For that is the meaning of memoir.
Allies and Enemies
Tap. Tap. Tap.
My finger gently struck a spot on my right breast, and I heard the hard echo of a drum beat. The spot was left of center and low down toward the rib cage. I’d noticed it about six weeks earlier because it hurt when I slept on my stomach. So I’d slept on my back or side and made believe it wasn’t there.
This behavior is called denial.
A supposedly intelligent woman like me, however, can only live in denial for so long. I leaned over and woke my husband.
“Hey, honey. Touch this. Whaddyathink?” I put his hand on my breast, which usually made him very happy, and moved his index finger.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
“What the hell…?” He shot up in bed and stared at me. “I’m no doctor, but I don’t like this.”
My stomach plopped. Mike’s always a straight shooter, and there’s no one in this world I trusted more. After thirty-three years of marriage and raising three sons together, he’d proven himself time and again. In addition, his I.Q. is in the stratosphere, and that’s a fact.
“Did you just find it or what?” he asked.
I shook my head and whispered, “Six weeks.”
“SIX WEEKS? That’s five weeks and six days too long.”
“Well, I was hoping it would go away. It doesn’t hurt much.”
The next day, I was at my internist. “I feel a lump in my breast,” is a magic phrase that can open a doctor’s door at the last minute. In my case, I’d been a patient of Maya’s for ten years. We were on a first-name basis by now, and I trusted her completely. After she examined my breasts, she tapped that area again, and said, “This spot has got to come out.”
Had she said, Out, out, damn spot?
I was ready to joke, but Maya wasn’t smiling, and I knew I was in trouble, the deep doo-doo kind of trouble people don’t want to face.
She referred me to an experienced surgeon who, I later discovered, was also a sweet guy and long-married himself. I may still have been somewhat in denial, but now I had a plan of action which matched my goal oriented personality. I made the appointment. The thingy in my breast couldn’t be aspirated in the office, so it was cut out the following Friday, a simple outpatient procedure under local anesthetic. The arrangement suited me just fine. I left knowing they’d call with the results of the biopsy in about two weeks.
“There’s no reason to mention this to the kids yet,” I said to Mike. “We don’t even know for sure what we’re dealing with, so why make them worry when I’m not even overly worried? After all, these things happen to women all the time.” These things…? A misdiagnosis? Much ado about nothing? A mom’s job is to protect her children and not cause them undo anxiety. Mike thought about it for a moment and agreed. With no lab results, there was nothing to tell our sons.
Some people would have worried about the pathology outcome twenty-four/seven, but I forgot all about the lab work in the time that followed. I figured I’d done my part by showing up for the procedure, and now the medical people had to do theirs. Besides, I had a very busy life, busy enough to provide lots of distractions.
Do you ever wonder why everything happens at once? I’m talking about several big events, not the everyday stuff. Is it mere coincidence? Karma? Revenge?
Three months prior to my medical issue, I’d accepted a challenging new job teaching the GED prep class at a non-profit agency serving the homeless population. The program was headed by a woman I’d known in my last place of employment, a person who I liked and admired professionally. I applied for the teaching position partly because I trusted her. My instincts proved perfect. Kate and I worked together seamlessly and in a short time became fast friends.
On my very first day at this new position, I walked into the classroom to find 35 students who hadn’t had a teacher in two months. They were sitting around simply chatting or trying to help each other. Thirsty for a teacher, they were excited to see me and wanted to start now. My work was cut out for me—35 students on different reading and math levels—but I was unfazed. Have I mentioned my love of goals and challenges, especially ones I believe in? I do believe in striving for an education. As I told my students, “Once you earn that diploma, no one, but no one, can take it away. It’s yours forever. It might open doors to a career you’ve never thought of before.”
I’d discovered this truth myself. I hold two degrees in Elementary Education from Hunter College, CUNY, and started my career in the NYC school system teaching 3rd and 4th grade. After moving to Massachusetts, however, I became involved with Adult Education programs for the disadvantaged—high school dropouts, laid-off workers, cash and food stamp recipients—who were looking for a chance to turn their lives around. I loved working with adults and never returned to the grammar school classroom. My Master’s degree opened an unexpected door. I functioned as “principal” of the program, serving hundreds of students annually in academic, job training, and job placement programs. Hence, I’d stumbled into a career I’d never thought about earlier.
In Houston, I found similar positions, and now was so busy planning for my new students that I forgot about everything else. Until I pulled into my driveway on a Friday evening in late February 2001 and saw Mike pacing while on the lookout for me. He waved a piece of paper. I parked in the garage and ran to him.
“What’s the matter? What?”
His tears worried me.
“The doctor called.”
“Doctor? Doctor? What doc…tor?” Uh-oh. That doctor.
And I knew.
About the Author ~ Linda Barrett
Linda Barrett is the author of 13 novels of contemporary romance. She’s earned many industry awards through Romance Writers of America, including the Holt Medallion, The Award of Excellence and the Write Touch Reader’s award. Family Interrupted is her first women’s fiction story. A graduate of Hunter College, Linda now lives in the Tampa area with her husband. They have three grown sons and the most adorable, intelligent, super-duper grandchildren ever!
Her latest book is Hopefully Ever After.
Visit her website at http://www.linda-barrett.com.
Connect & Socialize with Linda!