Flamingo-Free in 2014

Happy new year! Did you make resolutions? I did not. The calendar is a useful construct, but I made all the resolutions I needed when my cancer came back. That day in early June forced me to look my mortality in the eye and make some big decisions. The calendar can say whatever it wants: it’s not changing anything for me.

That’s not entirely true: the start of a new year does signal two things: first, the complete lack of parking spots at the gym, and second, goodbye Christmas decorations! How I love dismantling the holiday cheer. It signals a return to normalcy. I will no longer walk around the house picking up other people’s crap, or nagging people to pick up their own crap. Is it bad to empathize with a Dr. Seuss villain? The Grinch got a bad rap: the crap accumulation simply aggravated his OCD. I highly relate to the saying: ‘you don’t own your stuff, your stuff owns you.’ Oddly, I think Max inherited my OCD tendencies along with Kevin’s slob tendencies. That’s going to be fun for him later in life: a recipe for self-torture. I think I can lure him to the organized side before he gets permanently trapped in his room by a barrier of unwashed laundry. Come, Max, we’ll organize your shirts by color! Doesn’t that sound fun?

I’d believed taking down the Christmas decorations on New Year’s Day was the ultimate catharsis, but this New Year brought something even better: taking down the flamboyance of 16 flamingoes in my yard. (A flock of flamingoes is called a flamboyance, a piece of random trivia I find fabulous.)

The flamingoes were sent by Oregon friends Aixe and Matt, packed in a box big enough to hold two goats. I was scared: Matt and Aixe are the friends who would actually figure out a way to mail goats. Max helped me unwrap all 20 plastic pink birds, matching their blank, stunned stares with his own wide-eyed excitement as they accumulated in the living room.

The stated purpose of the birds was to bring cheer and a happy surprise, to counter-balance — in a small way — the unhappy surprise that week had brought. The flamingoes were completely lovely in that respect, but what the hell was I going to actually do with them? They were all looking at me expectantly with their big, beady, black eyes. “This feels like a Dr. Who episode,” Max commented, looking around. We were surrounded.

We decided we could maximize the birds’ cheer-giving potential by putting one flamingo in the front yard to signal each completed chemotherapy treatment. Since I was now staring down the barrel of sixteen more chemotherapy treatments, almost all the birds would be deployed. Kevin numbered the birds’ bellies with Sharpie and set them on standby in the shed.

We live on a through-street that gets a fair amount of traffic in our neighborhood, so the birds got noticed. My friends understood their symbolism, but neighbors asked Kevin about them: why they were numbered, why the flamboyance was growing, whether or not he was aware of the neighborhood ordinance disallowing lawn ornaments. (Yes, he was. And no, he did not care.)

After my third treatment, all three flamingoes disappeared. We didn’t notice they were gone, but received at least five messages alerting us to the missing flamingoes. “What happened?” my friend Kate asked. “Are you OK? The flamingoes are gone!” Cheryl texted.

I didn’t realize the flamingoes had become public harbingers of my health and well-being, but to my friends and neighbors, they had.

It felt more than a little ironic that I had (mis)spent my childhood plucking flamingoes out of my neighbors’ yards and returning them a week later. bearing stories and pictures, brandishing proof of their ultimately untamable nature.

So the tables had turned. I was a flamingo owner now. The predator became the prey, just like all those Discovery Channel specials I was now watching in my sickened state. At first we hoped the flamingoes were kidnapped temporarily, which was the style of kidnapping I’d preferred as a kid. We waited for their return, but the days passed, and the yard remained plastic-bird-free. I was a little disappointed, but having intimate knowledge of that itch to steal flamingoes, I was forgiving of the thieves, who were probably just bored teenagers.

My friends and family were far less forgiving. My friend Ivy threatened to take the story to the local newspaper. Kevin wanted to put a sign in the yard, saying: “Stealing from cancer patients is bad karma.” Good grief, I told him. Martyred much? We have four extra flamingoes, we’ll just replace them. So we numbered three of our four spare birds, and set them out again, apparently to some people’s immense relief.

Kevin snuck a ribbon with a note around the neck of flamingo #4, either threatening or pleading for the return of flamingoes 1-3. The note perished in the rain before I read it, but he assures me he did not use the heavy cancer guilt trip. Further questioning revealed: “Well, maybe just a small one.”

But whatever he did, it may have worked to some degree, because the flamingoes subsequently accumulated without incident.

Sprouting new friends weekly, the circle of flamingoes grew, bringing kitschy cheer to our yard and to our family. Max enjoyed setting them up and posing them. I’d look at them on the way out to my car, and think, damn, all those flamingoes, and yet, here I go, off to teach Zumba. The flamingoes were a big ‘f-you’ to cancer. Sometimes, however, I’d look outside and think: my doctors are sadists and they are trying to kill me.

My nephews painted two flamingoes for me, Max decorated flamingo #8, the halfway-done flamingo, with a kicky hat and ribbon. The flamboyance grew. I survived, somewhat to my surprise. Toward the end of my treatments, I’d stare at them in amazement, pink plastic badges commemorating another five-month journey through perdition.

For the last chemo treatment, Kevin bought and inflated a giant, life-sized flamingo to proudly perch in the center of the flamingo circle. Because a regular-sized flamingo couldn’t and wouldn’t mark such a milestone, he said.

Each Thursday, I went into the hospital and had blood drawn. While we waited for the lab to process my bloodwork, I’d see my doctor to get examined and, at their encouragement, list my side effects and complaints in detail. I always hated this part, as I spent the majority of my time and energy trying to not think about this.

If the bloodwork came back “good,” meaning my red and white cells were plentiful enough for treatment, I’d get my chemo treatment that day. If not, I’d be sent home without treatment that week.

I was sent home without treatment only once, and while I enjoyed my week-long break, the delay only dragged out the process. I’d started August 1st, and if I missed one more treatment, we’d hit Christmas square on the head. I couldn’t deal with chemo on Christmas. Any other day was completely forgettable, but I didn’t want Max to waste one of his childhood Christmas memories on mom barfing. Even knowing it was unlikely they’d treat me on the actual day, it was still possible. And despite my aversion to attaching significance to New Year’s Day, I realized it was becoming important to me to finish this ordeal before 2014. Even if other ordeals lay ahead – and they did – I needed this one behind me.

But twice more, my blood came back borderline bad. Fortunately, my doctor was susceptible to whining.

I didn’t think whining, pleading, and pouting would work a third time, so it was with baited breath that I waited for my (hopefully) last bloodwork to return on December 19th. When it did, it was good enough. I texted Kevin to deploy the final chemo flamingo. He did, and texted me a picture. It looked spectacular in its proud inflatable glory. The mother bird had landed. The nurse prepped, then pierced my port and I felt the familiar metallic taste in my mouth. Out of the past three years, I’d spent ten months dreading the first swoosh of chemo into my IV, and its strange aluminum aftertaste/smell. But this time I smiled. I had finished another six months of chemo. In two hours, I’d be done.

People responded to the final flamingo deployment by honking as they drove by the house. It was fun, and I highly recommend using this or a similar countdown method during treatment. The more random and ridiculous, the better. There are times in life when it’s easy to forget to be random and ridiculous, and one of chemo’s most unsung side effects is that it gravely imperils your sense of humor.

So the flamingoes fulfilled their mission. But today is 2014, and I need my new year to be flamingo-free.

Today, after taking down the Christmas lights, I walked around the circle of flamingoes, pulling each one out of the ground, saying a few words about the treatment they represented, and tossing them a little unceremoniously into their box. Although my Christmas ornaments had just been individually wrapped in tissue and placed by category into their small, tidy Christmas bins, I rather enjoyed tossing the flamingoes basketball-style, then regarding their chaotic jumble in the box: bows asunder, legs falling off. Although my OCD winced at the mess, and some would have accused me of flamingo abuse, I loved seeing the flamingoes down, partly dismembered, and safely back in the box.

I carried the box inside. Kevin tried to take it from me, but I wouldn’t let him. I marched them all the way up to the attic, where I dropped them into a cobwebby corner. I looked at the box once more, then left.

Someday, maybe, I’ll want to revisit the flamingoes. And I’m glad to know they were part and parcel to my longest chemo treatment, answering the nastiness of chemo with a kitschy, plastic pink grin. They will be my reminders that I did not merely endure that time, but that I lived through it, refusing to let cancer (or, for that matter, neighborhood yard-display ordinances) interfere with my right to laugh, and to bear flamingoes.

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  1. Patricia Mitchell says:

    i do so love you, e. i hope you never lay eyes on the festive flamboyance again, except perhaps, at a 10 year memorial of a year that sucked in many ways, but made you even stronger.

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