In Byzantine and Renaissance painting and sculpture, artists adorned saints with identifiable items called attributes to help us distinguish one from another of 10,000 peers canonized by the Catholic Church. Those martyred for their faith hold palm branches. Examples of saints and their attributes include:
- St. Peter – who holds keys because in Matthew 16:19, Christ hands him the keys to the kingdom;
- St. Agnes – who carries a lamb, symbolizing the virginity she died to protect;
- St. Frances, lover of all animals and common garden statuary, who is often depicted feeding birds (and also has stigmata on his palms, which is another story all together);
- St. Luke the Evangelist – who holds a paint brush because, in addition to his role as a physician, he is also said to have painted the Virgin and her mother; and,
- St. John the Evangelist – who holds a chalice of wine he transformed from poison in which serpents waited to kill him. I’m foggy on this one and prefer the image of an angel on his shoulder dictating the Book of Revelation while the saint is exiled on Patmos.
So there you have it, a primer on why a smattering of Houston-area schools and churches have certain names.
As an aside, I found identifying these saints by their attributes a compelling way to pass time in churches and/or museums. Download your list of saints and begin your scavenger hunt here.
Were I to be included in annals of hagiography (the writing of the lives of saints), my cancer experience would be recognized by:
- a glass of rosé wine (until I felt too sick to enjoy it)
- soft things — blankets, scarves, a stuffed bunny rabbit, etc., and,
- throngs of friends
Although I play the role of martyr exquisitely (Eliza claims my go to phrase is “I feel like I’m going to die,” which she finds encouraging because I never actually do), a palm branch would not grace my portrait because, this time last Friday, doctors delivered the news that no evidence of cancer existed after my double mastectomy. This means my stage 2, aggressive cancer did not spread. The nuclear dye injected into my tumor area (now non-existent) drained to lymph nodes under my arm as good nuclear dye does and my surgeon extracted said sentinel nodes during surgery. As the word implies, sentinel nodes stand guard for the rest of the lymph nodes; if the cancer gets past them, we have a problem. During the five-hour surgery, pathologists confirmed that chemo does, in fact, kill cancer cells, in addition to hair follicles.
“No node involvement” epitomizes the “long road to a good outcome” Lance Barbin predicted when I received my diagnosis in October. The day before his prophetic statement manifested, Ashley Bull drove down from Dallas and met me and my mom at MD Anderson for my EKG, chest X-ray, nuclear dye test and labs and, afterwards, she and I peeled off for “No More Mammaries Margaritas” at Ninfa’s on Navigation. Ashley drove me back to MD Anderson the following morning, where I was met by my mom, Ellen and Valerie who took turns sitting with me during surgery prep. Ellen got her kicks taking pictures of me when the happy juice started taking effect. I don’t remember this part. Or the part where the nurses administered an epidural-type injection in the top of my spine to numb forthcoming pain. Everything is pretty vague until I remember rolling into my room and meeting Nurse Monica, her “magic pocket” of medicine to make me feel better and her freaking lady bug name tag/badge holder.
At the insistence of friends and family, I asked to stay in the hospital more than one night. My fantastic doctors, plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Villa and oncological surgeon Dr. Rosa Whang, made that happen. I learned to care for the four tubes emerging from my body (they called me “an excellent stripper” of said tubes), as well as the three-inch long incisions over both breasts. Dr. Villa even threw in a re-do of the incision/scar where my port, Rose, delivered chemo. Seriously, he’s swell and RIP Rose.
On Sunday, my sister Sarah carefully drove me home, a difficult assignment on Houston’s pot hole-y streets. Eliza sewed THE most excellent pillows to support my arms and I climbed in bed with a lavender-scented neck wrap sent by my college roomie. The rest of the week (coinciding with the chaos of the last week of school – no I did not schedule surgery to miss this fun) went as planned. I stayed in bed and people brought me things, mostly water. I hate water and I hate not helping — making me not the best patient. Mentor from Dallas Candy Hill and I, amid emptying drains and charting bodily fluids, thoroughly enjoyed “Frankie and Grace” on Netflix. I had good days, I had bad days — one of the worst in my life around day 5, but that’s also another story all together. Suffice it to say, Elise Mueller and Laran Harris know me better that I thought anyone ever would or should. Their saintly attribute would be Miralax.
My room is now filled with gorgeous flowers, my refrigerator is stuffed to the gills, and my kids ran upstairs after their last days of seventh and tenth grades just to hang out with me. My cup runneth over.
As for next steps, I marked today’s one week milestone by returning to MD Anderson, where a PA extracted two of my four drains. This procedure entailed me taking a deep breath and her pulling on the count of three. I’ll say sayonara to the final two tubes on June 1. Until then, I’ll stay in bed for the next week or so (I think I’ll start watching The Americans), then visit the sainted Dr. Villa once a week, when he will will inject saline into the spacers he placed underneath my chest muscles. I am currently scheduled to have the second step of reconstruction in August — either implants or harvesting of flesh from my stomach to fill out my upper lady bits. The second procedure (aka tummy tuck) sounds dreamy, but the recovery daunting. I have several months to decide. (Sorry if this is TMI, but I’m documenting the good, bad and ugly so I’ll remember all this when I finally process the process.)
St. Agatha is the patron saint of breast cancer patients due to the fact that her penalty for faithfulness was the cutting off of her breasts. (She is also the patron saint of bell-founders because of the shape of her severed breasts, as well as bakers, whose loaves were blessed at her feast day — but for our purposes, I’m going with the breast cancer part.)
In addition to the top image of St. Peter coming from heaven to heal Agatha in her prison cell, most iconography depicts her holding breasts on a platter with a “That’s all you got” look. I’m going with that, too, because I made it through the past eight months and am still standing (proverbially speaking – Actually, I’m in bed watching the NCAA National Women’s Softball Tournament.) I’ve learned that I am not Samson – my hair does not give me strength. I am not Dolly Parton – although I love my Dolly candle that inspires me daily. I am not Wonder Woman, although I still try to do too much. I am weak. I am strong. I am tired. I am energized. I am cranky. I am an introvert. And/but, I am liked/loved. By so many people. In big and small ways. I feel like Sally Field in her 1984 Academy Award acceptance speech.
According to church history, Agatha’s prayer uttered when facing imprisonment for declining marriage to a high ranking official was:
“Jesus Christ, Lord of all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil.” Her final prayer from prison was: “Lord, my Creator, you have ever protected me from the cradle; you have taken me from the love of the world, and given me patience to suffer: receive now my soul.”
I’m going with these prayers, too. And I’ll simultaneously light my Dolly candle and listen to her song “Better Day”:
Now we don’t know what heaven looks like
But we’ve seen enough hell right here and right now
But when the road is the roughest
And the problems are the toughest
Or when the times are the hardest
And that ol’ sky turns the darkest
You gotta keep the faith ’cause I believe there’s a better day
And those ol’ blues, why they’re gonna just roll right on away
I know they are, listen to me…
All that’s blue ain’t sky and sea
Some of that blue’s bound to get on me
But the blues don’t come to stay
They’ll move away on a better day
Troubles and woes and misery
Ain’t gonna get the best of me
Lift the shades, fix my gaze
On a better day clear away
Better days just up ahead
When sorrow ain’t sleepin’ in my bed
When people ain’t messin’ with my head
There’s a better way, there’s a brighter day
Oh, there’s a better day with clearer skies
Hope and promise on the rise
Oh, the future, well, it’s lookin’ bright, on a better day
Look away, look away
Thank you to everyone who prayed, called, texted, sent gifts and indulged me by reading this diversion of a blog. Your comments and support encouraged me tremendously and surely helped in my healing. If I may have the privilege of encouraging you or one of yours, especially when dealing with cancer, please let me know.