Updated: Oct 4, 2022
Remember when we moved to England to start our new lives? It was only January of 2021 when we stepped off the long flight and onto our new homeland, our cat in hand. The move took almost two years of planning and saving and COVID setbacks. It would take us less than nine months to find ourselves living back in the US.
In leaving our beloved Colorado that fateful January day, just one and a half years ago, we left a string of friends, a house we loved, the only school my kids had ever known; it was a very happy life indeed. But, we wanted more opportunity for travel, more time with my husband’s English family, (much) less costly university tuition, fewer (and by fewer, I mean no) school shootings, fewer political knocks that made me worried about living in the US, and just less US politics as a whole.
Matt and I are both self-employed and can work from anywhere, so work wasn’t a concern for us, which obviously made that part of moving much easier. Getting my UK Visa and our cat, Hannibal, into England was a huge undertaking and very expensive (I had to get Hannibal registered as an emotional support animal just to get him on the plane- $3000 for that alone). But we did it. After over 1000 pages of documents and spending over $20K, the job was done.
England was a bit different than I remembered it from our visits to my in-laws. You may recall my post about driving there. It wasn’t pretty. The grocery stores were a little off, too. Like, weird in a hard-to-describe way. They lacked a certain level of detail and finesse; they all seemed incomplete compared to the grocery stores here. And the absence of Target was felt daily and in my soul, to the very core.
The pastry selection was top-notch, however. These people wrap literally everything in bread. Baked beans? Yep. Potatoes? Obviously. Meat? Any animal, any body part. Leftover veggies from your Sunday lunch? Emphatically, enthusiastically, consistently. And, I won’t even get into the desserts that find themselves enclosed by scrumptious pastry. This country knows not and cares not about carbs.
The gas stations are fancy. I mean, you can be excited about eating food from them. I remember the first time Matt said that we could stop at the petrol station for dinner. I envisioned those turning hot dogs in that little heater and pizza by the slice left sitting out all day for anyone to touch and peel pepperoni off. Thanks, but no thanks.
It’s not like that at all. The stations are stocked by the grocery stores, so there’s some sophistication involved. I’d eat at an English gas station over a US Mcdonald's any day. The standards for food and farms and their animals are much more stringent in the UK. You can trust the food there and that the animals are treated more humanely. I don’t know why we decided to become vegetarians after a couple months there, but we did. It didn’t last long.
Now, the CCTV is a bit much. You can’t get away with anything. We paid no less than $2000 in traffic fines. That’s not a joke. That’s 100% true. Every day I went to the mail, we had a new ticket. The Dart Tunnel was the fucking worst. Over half the fines went to them. There’s bus lanes there that say “Bus Lane” fair enough. But it doesn’t say “Bus Only.” And, frankly, they aren’t marked very well anyway.
The speed cameras are no joke. Not that I took the ballsy move of going even 1 MPH over the speed limit. Ever. I stayed at a relatively consistent speed of 10-25 miles under the speed limit at all times. You’re welcome, drivers behind me.
Everything is definitely tiny there. You could use the toilet and wash your hands simultaneously in every bathroom I encountered. Closet space was diabolical. Road space was terrifying. Cars were hysterical.
The beautiful green spaces were numerous and well taken care of. We were lucky enough to find a house with a stunning and very large yard in our country village. Words and expressions are difficult to get used to or understand. For instance, when we viewed the house, the landlord asked if we had white appliances. Unsure why it mattered what color our refrigerator was, I said no. Turns out “white appliances” means your own appliances.
The kids LOVED their tiny little village school. They were the most “worldly” people there, and everyone was kind to them. They made fast friends; luckily, those friends had awesome parents, so Matt and I made fast friends, too. Although there was tons to get familiar with for the kids and me, UK living was panning out. We enjoyed it.
Matt, on the other hand, did not. Being the only one of us who had ever lived there, he filled our heads with wonderful stories about vacations and London and his family and friends and what we’d get to do when we lived there. The problem was that he remembered the UK with a 20-year-old’s memories, perceptions, and lifestyle. In reality, after we arrived, he despised living there immediately. Upon our second month, he told me, “We’ve made a horrible mistake.”
I was in no mood to hear this and had none of it- for weeks on end. He lived in complete misery for the eight months there, and it was brutal to watch and to endure. The fighting that ensued, the tears, the worry, the financial implications, the kids’ upended lives- it was awful. I had to choose: lose my husband to this or pack up our stuff and get back to the US. Believe me when I tell you, it was not an easy choice at the time. I almost hated him.
With the heaviest heart I’ve ever had, I started planning to move back. We had no money, nowhere to live, no way of getting our stuff back because of the shipping crisis. Incidentally, as I write this, nine months after our return, all of our furniture, family heirlooms, artwork, all of it, is still sitting in a storage unit in England.
My best friend, Joanne, married a Frenchman and is living in France. I hadn’t seen her in years and thought we had a lifetime to spend meeting in exotic European locations, so when we started prepping for our US relocation, she jumped on a plane to us. We laughed so much (as usual), and it was such an excellent visit; I’ll never forget it.
It was on this visit that I noticed something strange. I wasn’t feeling “normal.” When I had to go to the bathroom, it came on very quickly. Like I’d been holding my pee in for hours. I’d have to walk bent over and super fast to make it on time. I thought it might be due to all the hysterics or, I’m 46; maybe this is a menopause situation. Who knows? Not concerned. That was the last week of September 2021. It only happened for a few days; then, I was back to myself.
I called my brother and his family (he has a wife and one daughter who is just eight weeks younger than Parker, my daughter). I asked if we could impose on them and stay with them in Milford, Connecticut (with Hannibal) while Matt heads to Colorado to start work. He already had things lined up for work but needed to look for us a house and with no money, no recent credit, no one to provide rental behavior, and all the other necessities, we couldn’t all go to Colorado and be essentially homeless indefinitely.
Our UK goodbyes were sad for the kids and me. We felt slighted. I felt angry. The anger was severe, sincere, and all-encompassing. And one person bore the brunt of it. It was wholly and solely directed at Matt and the thought of it ceasing was moot because it was never going to end.
The only thing more poignant than my anger was my stress. It went well beyond any natural, managing amount of stress. But, thankfully, my brother and his family greeted us with open arms after our hasty departure from England. It was the beginning of October 2021. We had no idea how long we’d be in Connecticut, and it was not an easy scenario for any of us. Ella, my niece, used to being on her own, was asked to share her room with Parker. Axl, my son, got a loft space, and I was given the office where I slept on a pullout ottoman. It sounds more comfortable than it was.
It didn’t take long for the kids to start fighting. Luckily, I got them enrolled in school quickly, and because we had hardly any income, they could go to the doctor for free. Matt was plugging away, making a bit of money in Colorado; I was working some but had taken a step back, the kids were making friends at their third school in under 12 months. And the bulge in my belly that I started to notice just before we moved back to the US but had no time to focus on, was getting bigger.
By Halloween, all bets were off with the kids. They loved each other one second and tears and screams the next. The adults were all getting along, and Eddie and Yvette even offered to have us stay until summer, so the kids didn’t have to leave in the middle of the school year. I love them for that so much. But, I knew we needed our own space. Matt just wasn’t having much luck finding it.
The weekend before Halloween, Eddie took me to Old Navy to get some new pants because I couldn't button any of mine. Menopause is crazy, right? But I still had very regular periods, so is that menopause? Google says no.
Yvette is a nurse; she did not hesitate to tell me to get medical care ASAP. She found a non-profit that helped me pay for it, too.
The day before Thanksgiving, I had my first doctor’s appointment. By then, I couldn't button the pants I had gotten with my brother about three weeks before. Stress. It’s probably stress.
My doctor had me get tons of blood work, a CT scan, a physical. Test results back, another physical, more blood work, a new doctor was necessary, a gynecological oncologist.
We discussed my case after she had all my results, and within two weeks from the day I met with the first doctor, I was in for surgery at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale Medical. It was December 8, 2021.
By now, Matt had found us a house in Colorado, and I was eager to get there. I spoke with my new doctor about driving to CO from CT. She said I’d need to wait at least three weeks after the surgery. In most cases, the first follow-up visit isn’t until three weeks after surgery, so they made a lot of concessions for me, with a laundry list of rules to follow.
The day of the surgery, I looked as though I was eight months pregnant and had a cyst in my ovary that was 9” high, 6” deep, and 6” wide. I was told it likely wasn’t cancer, and they’d keep one of my ovaries in to avoid medical menopause.
I wasn’t nervous. I was confident even at the hospital entrance when they told me my kids (who were terrified) couldn’t come in because of COVID. Matt had to leave me there– alone– to take the kids home after a gut-wrenching goodbye.
I arrived at 2 pm for my 2:30 surgery. I went to the pre-surgery area; they took my clothes, gave me a gown, a silver cap, some socks that do their best to keep your feet anything but warm, and an epidural that was administered by a student who couldn’t quite get it in correctly. It was painful. I almost passed out; it was so painful. I started to throw up and quickly removed my mask before swallowing it back down and starting to spin. I vaguely heard someone shouting, “Fluids over here!”
Before I knew it, I was composed and embarrassed. I hadn’t had water or eaten all day or the previous evening and had to take a drink that “emptied my bowels,” so I think the pain, the adrenaline, the coldness, the hunger, the dehydration- it was a savage cocktail that just all caught up with me. I didn’t know then that my doctor got stuck in an emergency surgery that meant I wouldn’t get in until 11:30 pm.
I suffer from anxiety and for a reason that I’ll never be able to understand, the time went by fast; I never feared or worried or stressed. I sat alone until Matt came back for a visit. He left again to go to Eddie’s and check on the kids. He came back for another visit. He left again to go to Eddie’s and check on the kids. He came back again. That was his last time because it was getting late, so we hugged our last hug of the night, and he left.
I was finally wheeled into a white, bright, sterile room full of doctors. I counted seven, but it was hard to move because I had the epidural in my back. Yale is a learning hospital, so the doctors supporting my doctor were pre-med and they were children. Each had kind eyes; they were confident. One, a young girl, bent to my level and asked if I could be anywhere right then, where would it be. I told her at a French cafe with Joanne (something I had imagined us doing so many times and never got the chance to). She stood up for a moment, then came back down and set her phone next to my ear. It was playing French music.
Exactly one second later, I awoke in a hospital bed in a rather nice (not that I noticed at the time) private room. Surgery was over. I had cancer.
Tuns out, it wasn’t actually one second later, but over six hours later. Although the surgery went well, the cancer was a surprise and became more complex than anticipated. My ovaries, uterus, and 17 lymph nodes were taken out. Medical menopause had started. Yep. It’s that fast.
The five days I spent in the hospital are a blur. Doctors came and went, sometimes seven or eight at a time (learning hospital, remember?). I was told at one point that I’d need chemo. But I didn’t recall that at all. It’d be a harsh reality later.
Matt picked me up that last day; he waited in the car as two nurses pushed my wheelchair out, then he helped them get me into the passenger side. We thanked the nurses, and they left. Matt and I sat in the car, not moving, in silence. We cried. It was the first tear I shed since this started. He finally pulled away from the hospital, holding my hand as he did and not letting go until we arrived at Eddie’s.
It wasn’t until my follow-up appointment just a week after I returned to the ottoman (the oxycodone made it much more luxurious than it had been) that I relearned the chemo situation. They didn’t have my test results back from all that they had removed from my body yet, but the best-case scenario was 12 weeks of chemo for five to six hours each time, every three weeks.
Anyone who knows me even a little knows how much I hate my thin hair. I complain about it no less than 13 times a day. Now, though, the thought of losing it made me physically sick.
I felt tears swell for the second time since this ordeal began. I looked at Yvette, who came with me to the appointment. A nurse, if you recall. She’s seen a lot of shit. She had tears too. I took it as a bad sign.
We had to be aggressive. Even more aggressive than removing everything that makes me a woman? I thought.
For the first time, I was scared. The thought of chemotherapy brought me down real low. And how would I get it? At Yale, with the doctor I trusted? In Colorado? Could I go back to my family in a couple weeks? How can I add this pressure on Eddie’s family? Was the non-profit going to keep footing this bill? Stress was inching in more severely at every waking moment.
Matt had been staying with Eddie and fam while I was in the hospital, and he stayed on for a couple days after I got out. But he had to get back to work, and since Christmas break was only a few days away, he took Axl and Hannibal with him. Although I missed all three of them, the house and the mood were lighter with them gone.
Walking, moving, breathing, eating, all of it was excruciating. Even with the oxy and prescription Tylenol. Then, my doctor finally called with my test results. She said, “I can count on one hand how many times I’ve given news this good, but you don’t need chemo after all. It’d be way too aggressive for how clean your results are. Congratulations and have a very happy and healthy new year, Sonny.”
Cue third round of tears. This was unexpected and oh-so-lucky. I do have to get blood work and a physical from a gynecological oncologist in Colorado (who is great) every three months for the next two years, then every six months for another three. But I’ll take it. Gladly.
Matt and I spent Christmas apart for the first time in 12 years, and it was hard without him and Axl. But the day after Christmas, he was there to pick Parker and me up and take us back to Colorado.
The day we left Eddie and his family was bittersweet. (That’s actually a drastic understatement.) When we arrived in Colorado, it was the 11-month anniversary of our departure from it- to the day.
It’s been six months since this all happened, and it’s been challenging to look back on. It was a lot. For each of us. I think Yvette may have saved my life that day she told me to stop putting off getting checked out. As most women know, we tend to put ourselves last. I wanted to wait until we were settled in Colorado before doing anything because, logistically, it made more sense. Thank God I didn’t. Had that cyst burst (which it likely would have at the rate it was growing), I’d have cancer coursing through my body.
Matt blames himself, wondering if the stress from the two overseas moves in less than a nine-month span caused it all. I don’t know what caused it, but I hate that he feels guilt.
When your kids’ Christmas wish list goes from toys to a cancer-free mom (Parker’s wish) or an alive mom (Axl’s wish), it puts things into perspective. We all look at life a bit differently now. I’d say better. We live more in the moment than before, although, to be honest, that’s waning some.
When we look back, we can’t help but wonder, why did all of this happen? How were we so lucky that all the pieces fell into place so incredibly precisely and meticulously? We could have gone to stay with my mom in Ohio, my sister in Florida. I could have put my foot down and forced us to live in the UK longer, where the NHS is on a serious cancer wait time. We could have been one of those families with a young, widowed, single dad so easily.
Did any of this happen for some higher reason? Why do I get to see another day when so many don’t? So many who are far better than me- better moms, better providers, better activists, better supporters- people who were destined to die rather than make the worldwide changes they were on the path to make. And what do I do with this immeasurable guilt that has come with my good fortune? It’s so fucking confusing and unfair.
I’m still here. I’m in no pain, and the only thing that ever makes me even think about any of it is the footlong scar running down my stomach. It's safe to say that if you're going to get cancer, this is the way to do it.
I’m still here, and I don’t know why and I probably never will. Grateful doesn’t begin to describe it- what a massive win for my family, friends, and me. Am I a better person now? I don’t know. Am I living life to the fullest? Probably not.
But I enjoy things with a fullness I didn’t before. I take more time to care for myself. I call my friends and family more often. I have more patience with my kids and husband. I’m not saying that it'll all last forever, but I’m glad it’s happening for now.
As it turns out, my anger toward Matt did cease. And as for my thin hair, it's really not so bad.