Do you remember what you did on Feb. 29?
My memory consistently fails me day-to-day. But, surprisingly, I recall clearly Leap Day of this year. I remember what it was like.
It was before the health crisis really hit home. It was before social-distancing, mask-wearing and Zoom calls. At that time, I had no idea schools and businesses were going to close. I never imagined it was going to be a challenge to shop for toilet paper, hand sanitizer, household cleaning sprays – even groceries like peanut butter and meat. This was before more than 250,000 deaths were attributed to COVID-19 in the United States; and more than 1.3 million people worldwide had died from the illness.
As a journalist for a community newspaper, I think that besides “why,” the question I ask the most of people is: “What is it like?” or “What was it like?” I want to learn as much as I can about what or who I’m writing about so that I can convey that to my readers. I want to imagine myself in the shoes of the person I’m interviewing.
Do you remember assignments in school where you had to interview a relative about the Great Depression, or about being involved in a war, or witnessing the first moon landing, or living through and being part of another big historic event? My husband and I tell our children about what we were doing on 9/11.
It’s important to know “what it was like” so we can educate ourselves, and empathize, and maybe even prepare ourselves for a similar situation. I imagine that years from now the next generation will be interviewing either us or our kids for school assignments – or just out of curiosity – and asking what it was like to live through the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’re still living in it, but I’m optimistic I will live to see the end of it. I’m praying the end of it will be sometime next year. The world will be permanently changed. I am fortunate I haven’t lost a loved one to COVID-19, and I am praying for the families who have. I’m also very lucky neither my husband nor I lost our jobs during the pandemic because I know people who have.
Every person will have a different answer to “What was it like?” In just a few words, I’d say “we lost a lot and we gained a lot.”
I am maintaining a theme I wrote about last year in my Thanksgiving column: Coping by being thankful. I also am focusing on what this pandemic has taught me so far, besides washing my hands several times a day, which I plan to continue the rest of my life, and that is to not take things for granted. Years from now, if someone asks me what it was like during the COVID-19 pandemic, I will tell them I learned not to take a single thing for granted: from being able to pluck a package of Charmin off the shelf any time I want, to hugging someone outside of my household.
Back to Leap Day.
My friend of at least 10 years, Erica Soehnlen, who lives in Sugar Creek Township, had texted me a couple of times about The Salt & Serenity Grotto her friend, Amy, had opened in Wooster. I was flattered she invited me to go with her. The concept of Himalayan salt therapy sounded intriguing. But I was nervous. So, I tried to think of a nice way to turn down the invitation.
With Erica, I wasn’t able to use time as an excuse because I suspect she is a busier person than I am. We also discovered Feb. 29 on the calendar. That spoke to me. It was like having an extra day to pretend I was brave and try something different. My daughter had dance classes as usual that Saturday, and I end up doing a lot of newspaper work over the weekends. But my husband has been fantastic to help me out with the newspaper more than usual this past year and he encouraged me to go.
Before 2020, I had never been to a spa. The thought of a massage spurs anxiety. I walk into a hair salon once or twice a year. My teenage daughter and I enjoy doing our own nails at home together. To be honest, I don’t even like clothes shopping. I was leery about sitting in a salt room for a few other reasons as well.
Let me rewind.
I’ll touch on this a little bit, but I won’t dwell too much because I know your time is valuable. A kind caller to The Dalton Gazette & Kidron News left the nicest voice message in September. She complimented the paper and asked for an update about how my cancer treatment was going. She remarked that we all know someone with cancer and everyone’s journey is different. She also commended my husband, Robert, for his unwavering support.
I am happy to report that I am doing great – and feeling even more blessed than ever. In November 2019, I had written a column about my experience since being diagnosed with breast cancer less than three months previously. I felt moved to share my personal story for a few reasons. Even though everyone’s experiences with cancer and other diseases are different, I find that I feel better learning about what other people are going through. I was hoping others may benefit from my story. A year ago, at age 42, I was recovering well from a single mastectomy with reconstruction, but I was facing chemotherapy and radiation. I shared with our readers that I was grateful for so much – but still so scared about all the unknowns ahead.
This year, I have learned not to take good healthcare for granted. Each time I come into contact with my doctors, nurses, technicians and any health care worker, I thank them profusely. My cancer treatment continued as usual this year at Aultman Hospital – even during the pandemic. I was asked a series of COVID-19-related questions over the phone the day before as well as when I arrived at the hospital. I had to wear a mask and have my temperature taken at the door. But I don’t feel like the course of treatment was disrupted. I am still amazed at this. My heart goes out to others who have had challenges accessing health care, who have had to make difficult decisions, or whose treatment regimen was suddenly altered because of COVID-19.
I continue to ask my doctors a series of questions at every appointment. I try to follow their advice as closely as possible.
Last winter, when I received a text from Erica about the salt cave, my first concern was whether the salt would result in any drying effects. I followed another cancer survivor’s advice of drinking more water than usual – which I truly believe has helped me. Still, my skin dried out during the chemotherapy treatments. My hands were so dry for a couple of months that my smartphone didn’t recognize my thumbprint to unlock the homescreen.
At the mention of a salt grotto, I literally imagined we would change into robes and sit in a dark uncomfortably warm cave underground on giant slabs of salt rock. This led to my second concern. I feared I would have to keep myself from falling asleep in an embarrassing position with my mouth hanging open and my hat falling off revealing my bald head in front of my friends.
Chemo had caused me to lose my hair – very quickly – and then I lost all of my eyebrows and eyelashes over the following couple of months. But what a relief and blessing as all my hair is growing back – and my skin is getting back to normal. I no longer take my hair for granted.
Erica cleared up everything. It was nothing like I visualized. Nonetheless, at my next visit I had to ask my amazing oncologist at Aultman, Dr. Shruti Trehan, whether there would be anything harmful about going to a salt room. OK, my husband asked for me. I felt too silly asking. I think she chuckled a bit at my hesitation and actually recommended it.
Erica told me that she also had invited another friend of ours, Megan Brown. All three of us have kids the same age and we first met about a decade ago when our kids attended St. Barbara School. Both Erica and Megan are smart, talkative and funny. They are ladies you connect with instantly and they never seem to judge you. They would do anything for you. I have been blessed with a few friends like this over the years. The pandemic has helped me reconnect with some old friends and I don’t take any of them for granted.
To make a long story short (well, a bit shorter – again, I know time is precious and that’s another thing I certainly don’t take for granted), all of my fears were allayed as soon as we arrived in Wooster. We parked by the normal-looking building on a normal-looking street and I didn’t see a hole in the ground with a ladder leading down to a dark underground cave.
I don’t know about Erica and Megan, but for me, the salt cave turned out to be therapeutic for my soul and spirit. Most people may very well sit silently – or even take a 45-minute nap – with a salt rock in each hand under a thick comfortable blanket in the room that seems to glow from every corner (there are pictures available at saltgrottolife.com along with information about the salt cave, and COVID-19 compliance). Not our trio. We laughed and talked, mainly about our families, the entire time without any distractions. No cellphones. Nothing.
It turned out to be the perfect therapy for me. I think my feet were singing and my body was thankful. We wore protective disposable booties (even pre-pandemic) and I could feel the salt under my feet.
By that time, I had gotten through four rounds of chemo every other week, which had really knocked me out by the end of it. I had begun 12 rounds of a different kind of chemo, which was easier on me. However, I followed my doctor’s recommendations and stuck my fingers in a bag of ice and my toes in shallow tubs of ice during those 12 treatments in an attempt at warding off neuropathy. Either it worked, or maybe that was a side effect I wasn’t going to get in the first place. Either way, if my toes could sing, there were “Alleluias” coming from my feet in the salt cave.
To me, 2020 has been kind of like my experience with cancer. Cancer sucks (please pardon my language – sorry, Mom!) and there is a lot about this year that sucks. But both have taught me so much. I am reminded to be grateful for everyday things I used to take for granted, and to celebrate them. I mean, why not? “Childhood is short! Do the things!” another close friend of mine, Ann Palaski, wrote in a text to me as I told her we were thinking about buying my daughter guinea pigs for her birthday in September. That advice should apply to life, too: “Life is short! Do the things!”
Last month, I celebrated my one-year anniversary of being cancer-free. Why not celebrate these things, right? As of January 2019, the National Cancer Institute estimates that there are 16.9 million cancer survivors – about 5 percent of the population – in the United States. I am one of them. My parents – who live on the other side of the continent in British Columbia – actually surprised me on my year anniversary with a flower delivery and paid for dinner and cake, which my husband picked up at a local restaurant. It’s amazing the things we have discovered can be done thanks to technology.
My doctor had reminded me that I was considered cancer-free after surgery, but I didn’t feel like I was. Through all the treatments I felt like I was still fighting the disease. I had to put it in perspective. I had to tell myself to be thankful for the treatments that were keeping the cancer from coming back.
I still don’t feel like I’m “done” with cancer. I feel like it’s waiting. In the shadows. But I feel more confident and knowledgeable about doing everything I can to fight it than I did a few months ago. A friend of mine in West Virginia, Danielle, who is a nurse and incidentally mentioned that the days she had to work on the COVID unit were the worst in her nursing career, texted me some great words of encouragement about being cancer-free and also asked: “Do you feel like you can conquer the world right now?” Nope. Nothing like that. I still feel very minuscule in this world, but I am praying as loudly as I can for those fighting cancer and COVID and everything else out there.
In March, when my kids cleaned out their lockers at school, my husband stopped commuting to Lakewood, and things shut down, I thought about the safe feeling of the salt cave. I thought about retreating to it. But I would want to pack it with all of you. And leave COVID-19, cancer and all other illnesses and ailments at the door.
I told my husband I was going to write a short column this time. He laughed. If you read any part of this column, at least this list may make you think and want to come up with items on your own as you go about your holidays this Thanksgiving and Christmas. I came up with this list last week while waiting to see a doctor for a follow-up appointment to a recent surgery and thinking about all the things I am grateful for and I don’t want to ever take for granted.
Next month, for the first time in over a year, I can look at the calendar and not see a single doctor’s appointment, follow-up, procedure, or treatment for myself – nothing for four whole weeks in a row. I imagine some of you can relate to this feeling of relief.
The items I have listed below all impacted my life just that morning by 9:45 a.m. My list of 10 things quickly expanded to 20. But I’ll keep each item to just a couple words. Because your time is precious. And life is short. I wish you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving and don’t forget my friend’s advice when it comes to some decisions you may be contemplating as you finish up 2020: “Do the things!” Just do them as safely as possible, please.
In no particular order, this Thanksgiving I am grateful for:
4. Warm home
6. Healthcare workers
7. Essential workers
10. Rewarding job
11. Reliable vehicle
12. Kind people
15. Patience and grace
18. Awesome bosses
19. Music and dance
20. All of you