It’s 4:30 a.m., why am I up again?

My oncologist says that I need to be careful about my “sleep hygiene.” The chemo drugs are going to mess with my sleep. I’m probably peri-menopausal and that messes with my sleep. I’ll eventually be taking hormones to tamp down any possible tumor growth. That will make me actually menopausal, and yes, mess with my sleep some more.

But it’s 4:30, no 4:50 by now, and I’m up. This happens perhaps five nights out of seven these days.

I’m not freaked every minute, not consciously so. But on Facebook, a high school friend posts this video of a 19-year-old therapy dog that just died. He can’t walk but does cuddle with people in their last hours, and in his last hours.

I am absolutely blubbering by the end of that video. I don’t know where those tears came from; I’m not usually the cry-at-drying-paint sort. It is a sweet, wonderful bit of film, but I am not crying about the dog exactly. I am crying because the dog video pierces something deep inside, something about the preciousness of life, about how it sucks to die, about how important it is to connect, to the very end. Am I thinking about myself? the dog? the elderly people in their last hours? I don’t know, but that video gives me a clue that there is a great, tightly wound ball of emotion and worry in there. Maybe that’s why I’m up writing this at, what is it now? 4:59 a.m.

My husband goes up and down these days. He tries to be kind, to do the extra housework, to massage that knot in my back that just won’t go away. But he gets irritable about things that would not normally irritate him: an usher in church who’s a little unwelcoming, a driver who doesn’t do quite the right thing, an overly exuberant 9-year-old. He always apologizes, always tries to make it right, but he’s on edge. I hope he makes it to the “husband and significant other” support group this week.

My kid says she’s angry. She’s having trouble sleeping, too. She’s picking fights over nothing. She’s arguing just to argue. After she stomps off to her room crying for about the sixth time in a weekend, I go in to try to help her name her feelings. After some commands to “go away!” and a minute or two with a pillow over her head, she whimpers that she’s angry about everything: the move, the fact that 90 percent of her stuff is in a storage center in the East Bay, this temporary apartment with the great views but the black-and-white, Crate & Barrel impersonality, the fact that her Mom is sick. She misses her friends. She wants to go back to Brooklyn. She’s mad because Dad made us move. I tell her that if she wants to be angry at someone, she should be angry at me. I miss our friends, too, but I wanted to move back to California.

I tell her it’s OK to be angry, it’s OK to feel confused. This is a hard time; there’s no getting around that. But hard times do not give you a permission slip to be rude, to be mean. She nods that she understands. This is progress from earlier talks when she was sticking her fingers in her ears. She gives me a hug and goes back to her nightly reading, the trigger for this latest mini-crisis. Half an hour later, she draws an unflattering picture of her father, tells him not to look at it. Then, she asks him to hold up the drawing in front of the pillow. Finally, she punches the picture and the pillow ten times. Clearly, we still have some work to do. But I’ll give the kid this: She’s probably the one who’s the most open about her feelings these days.

It’s 5:14 a.m. Maybe I can get another hour of sleep before I have to get up. Maybe I can stop worrying. Maybe I can somehow make it better for my husband and for my kid. Maybe. For now, it’s 5:18. To bed.


About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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11 Responses to It’s 4:30 a.m., why am I up again?

  1. Michael Fawcett says:

    Knowing “the kid” I can so clearly visualize and understand this whole scene. My heart goes out to all of you. Life can really suck but it certainly is an interesting course. How many credits are we getting for this?

    • leftbreast says:

      Michael, Life really can suck. How is your Dad? I’ve done stories about leukemia, and that’s a tough road, too. And it’s a shock when you stop progressing from grade to grade, and getting extra credit, isn’t it? Never mind that school ended half a lifetime ago for me. Well, formal school anyway. Being a journalist is like neverending school.

  2. Dick Guthrie (Tio) says:

    Well-crafted piece, very moving to me.
    It’s the memories and the memoir that get me up early.
    Keep on keeping on, dear. We’re with you.
    You’ll get through this.
    Hugs to you — all three.

  3. Jan Larson says:

    Heather: We’ve experienced sleepless nights of late and the irritability you mention present in your family for different reasons. Our oldest son has been self-destructing. He is 16, a senior and recently diagnosed with depression and anxiety. It explains a lot of the past six months. While we all intend to pull in the same direction, our own fears sometimes push us apart. We are short-tempered. I am fighting the tendency to withdraw into my own bubble. I am praying you and your family members are able to pull together instead of apart.

    • leftbreast says:

      Jan, The teenage years are tough, tough. Depression runs in my family, and like breast cancer, there are many treatments for it. So far, I think we will pull together, but it is a huge effort, on top of everything else. I hope your son is able to find the right combination of medication and counseling. XO

  4. Catherine says:

    I just about cried reading this. I feel for all of you. You’re all under so much stress. You’re a good mom. I think it may have been easier for us that Lily was only 2, wasn’t really aware and remembers little.

    I just sent something to the L. address, should arrive by the end of the week.
    xo Catherine

  5. Heather,

    What an amazingly powerfully written and brave blog you’re writing. I too am going through challenging times but I don’t have breast cancer and in fact my health is excellent. Your blog provides inspiration but also perspective to what is important in life. I hope you sleep better tonight knowing how much you are touching and help other women face a variety of challenges.

    • leftbreast says:

      Susan, You’re right, breast cancer is just one of many, many things that can throw a person for a loop. I am so glad you don’t have breast cancer, but sorry about the challenging times. My husband and I like to joke, “Everybody gets something.” That is, there is no life without pain and trauma. But hopefully, those same lives have both joy and wonder as well. Live strong, as Lance Armstrong would say. (Still don’t have one of those yellow bracelets, but I think I’d rather have that than a pink ribbon!)

  6. Hi Heather,

    I hope you don’t mind, but since I discovered your blog, I’ve been thinking about your last post and how powerful it is…and as I was writing a post for my own blog last night, I was inspired to write about you. I thought you’d be gratified to know that women who may not (yet???) have breast cancer are following your blog and drawing emotional sustenance from it.

    Please keep your blog up!

    • leftbreast says:

      Susan, your comment truly brought tears to my eyes. Truly. Some people cope by keeping things in. I cope by sending things out, well, broadcasting them actually. I love the dialog and the sense of connection. What is your blog called? I would love to see it.

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