Monday, May 26, 2008


When presented with the same set of facts, we arrive at many different conclusions.

This is what makes the world contentious. This is what makes the world interesting.

Fact: it is springtime.

Fact: many people enjoy the sight of blooming flowers at this time of year.

Fact: I am one of them. I visited my neighborhood garden center yesterday; the last time I saw that level of retail frenzy was during a regrettable visit to Toys R Us on Christmas Eve. Our long-drawn-out winter and anemic spring apparently led to pent up demand in the floral consumer. Collectively, we are starved for blossom, new growth, tender shoots of green.

I made a bold decision for the planters on my patio and the pots of my front porch. Instead of going with a color scheme, I made a narrow botanical selection. This spring, it’s all pansies. Different colors, different sizes, but all pansies. Although the word ‘pansy’ is an insulting slur meaning weak, the velvety faced pansy is actually one of the toughest flowers available.

I like the idea of a tough flower.

Early this morning, I got on my bike and pedaled my favorite lake loop, encircling Harriet, Calhoun and Isles. Cool and crisp, it was a splendid time to ride. The path was all but vacant, leaving me to my solitary self as I admired the slant of the sun and the shadows falling across the lawns. The lakes mirrored back the azure hue of the polished sky. Perfection.

It smells of spring outside. It is a fresh smell that combines the loamy richness of earth/dirt with the tang of newly cut grass. As I whizzed along I also caught breaths of the extravagant perfume of flowering trees, sprinkling their pink and white petals like floral confetti.

The pleasure of the experience is the feel of my body pumping along in the great outdoors. But I also enjoy the ride because of the homes that face the path. I am particularly entranced by the mansions that ring Lake of the Isles. Many of them are stately structures, classic in style and impeccably maintained. I have my favorites that I admire on every trip: the darling faux English cottage, the massive Tudor, the shuttered Dutch Colonial. I have ridden this path often enough to note not just the structures themselves but their architectural features—the pitch of a roof, the graciousness of a front door, the pillars on a porch.

After spending time with my hands in the dirt, I took special note of the flowers in many of the yards. I have never been much good at managing a garden so that hue and height, texture and timing of floral growth coordinate into a unified plan. Lacking this skill myself, I particularly admire it in others. Many homes that I passed had showcase gardens, cleanly mapped and executed, offering a pleasing mix of bud and blossom. Taking in the beds of technicolor tulips, I felt grateful to live nearby, to be on a public path where I could be exposed to such splendor.

Yeah, I can’t pull off the garden thang, but I can put plants in pots. Container gardening, they call it. Pretty much every mansion I pedaled past has a few grand planters out in front, usually flanking the front door or front step. Terra cotta, stone, ceramic, selected to match the manse. Checking out a particularly lovely pair of pots on the doorstep of a baronial timber-crossed residence, I idly wondered how easy it might be to steal them. Not that I would attempt such a thing, of course. It’s just the sort of thing that crosses your mind when you’re on an early morning bike ride.

There were many pots that I admired--for their floral design, their blend of color and texture, for the sweetness of the posy potpourri.

Then there was the pot that made me chuckle.

This pot of flowers sits at a jaunty angle on the porch of one of those modern Lake of the Isles mansions, the kind that's all angles and attitude. The architect of this house made no attempt to build a structure to fit in with its century old neighbors.

Check it out: phoney flowers.

They are bold flowers, gaudy and oversized. I had an idea that the residents of this house decided to have some fun with their fakery. Perhaps these flowers were chosen by someone who quite literally doesn’t like getting his/her hands dirty but didn’t want to miss out on accessorizing with that popular porch planter. So: a splash of color without the muss and fuss. No watering or weeding necessary!

Those flowers are fake, but they’re cheerful about it. They don't even try to look real. You have admire the cheekiness, the self mockery that the owner took in putting those bright flowers out on tthe doorstep. They’re playing the game, but not by the neighborhood rules. ("Flowers, huh? I gotcher stinkin flowers right here!")

Riding along with a grin on my fact, I suddenly reflected that I know a thing or three about fake flowers.

II am now days away from reconstructive surgery to make my right breast more comfortable and more, well, lifelike. Last year when I had the mastectomy, I had what they call a ‘lat flap.’ My plastic surgeon removed my latissmus muscle in my back, tunneled it under my arm and pulled it across my chest, where it anchors a saline implant. The implant fills the pound and a half of breast tissue used to be there, including the cancerous tumor and surrounding tissue. This area was radiated 29 times, an effort to make sure any stubborn cancerous cells that may have remained in the area were good and killed. The side effects of radiation is that my skin feels tight and tender, while the flesh beneath created a hard shell over the implant. This was all expected. Last year they told me I would need another operation. This surgery will replace the saline implant with a silicone one and reduce the amount of tension and uncomfortable sensitivity that I feel in my chest, shoulder, upper arm and back.

And they say it will look better too. Better, as in, more natural. I will look more like I once did, back before it occurred to me that an intact body was something to be grateful for. After surgery my breasts will be symmetrical again. I will no longer have to wear special undergarments to keep them aligned and even. I will be not have to make wardrobe concessions and compensations. My form will be more like it formerly was.

My plastic surgeon (ha! that still cracks me up! I have a plastic surgeon!) tells me this is part of the healing process. Looking good, like feeling good, lets you move on past the diagnosis. You carry a scar because something that happened to you. You've dealt with it and moved on. My plastic surgeon reminds me the reconstruction is further proof that I’m cured. Doctors wouldn’t go to all this time and trouble, he says pointedly, wouldn’t bother with symmetry and aesthetics for a woman who was doomed. More to the point, insurance wouldn't pay for it.

But let’s not kid ourselves. I have fake flowers out front.

I have the shape and form of the real thing. Last June right after surgery, still groggy from the anesethesia, I was afraid to look when they took off the bandage for the first time. When I saw what the surgeons had fashioned for me, there was no drama after all. Not bad, I thought. Weird, of course. Not the one I wanted, of course. But not bad.

After surgery I presume I will be Better Than Not Bad.

I I keep thinking about those Lake of the Isles fake flowers. In their own way, they are perfect. They won't grow, or produce aroma, but neither will they wilt or fade when the summer does. They don't need dirt or sunshine or water. They will be as they are: Genuine Real Fakes, authentic in their own way. Chosen for what they are and what they are not.

Because I'm still Me all of me is mine. Because I'm real all of me is Real. Even the fake parts.

Sometimes when I'm on my bike, I could be a danger to myself and others. When gulping in the fragrant breath of spring, I find it almost impossible not to close my eyes with the sweetness of the scent. There are plenty of flowers to smell, I conclude. I don't have to smell them all.

photos by Rebecca Yates

Monday, May 5, 2008



It's the good girls who keep the diaries," pronounced the inimitable Tallulah Bankhead. "The bad girls never have the time."
I have not kept a diary throughout my life. Perhaps that tells you what kind of girl Tallulah would consider me.
Sometimes I very much wish that I would have had the discipline and desire to journal regularly. For me, life has always been either too busy to allow for the time for self-recording or, it seems, too boring to hold up under the self scrutiny. I have friends who have kept an ongoing record of their lives and I have come to envy them. It would be fascinating to look back at the What-I-Thought-Then of my past with the overlay of the What-I-Know-Now of the present. Moreover, it would be a chance to turn my journalistic instincts on the story of my self. I wish I had a journal for what was going on in my life exactly one year ago, the week before Mother's Day. It was the last week of my old life.


The week ahead is going to be a week like none I have experienced.
My first instinct is to acknowledge that I am facing it with feelings of apprehension, fear and dread.
But if I have learned anything in this past year, it is this: the one thing--the only thing, really--that I can control is my feelings. I can choose apprehension, fear and dread. Darkness is very seductive.
Or I can choose to approach this week with an attitude of renewed gratitude. Of hope. Of strength.
I can take the well lit path instead.


The week before Mother's Day, one year ago. For the most part, I believe it was a normal week in the life of my family. My husband and I went to work. My youngest daughter was probably working on mastering her skateboard. I recall being preoccupied with my two older children. My son was just returning home from college after completing his second year away. My daughter was weeks away from graduating from high school. As summer loomed, we were busy settling him back into a few months at home and planning for her exit a few months later.
Was the weather fine or foul? What was annoying me? What occupied my dreams?
Can't say.
I wish the particulars would come into finer focus. Instead, when I think about my life one year ago, I am left with a nostalgic feeling and any number of overwrought metaphors.
One year ago, I was living on a fault line that I didn't know about . I was dancing toward a cliff and had no idea about the steep drop off. I was perched on the side of a volcano, unaware that a river of fire was about to burst through the surface.
I was a cartoon character goofing off under the big black anvil that was about to fall and flatten me.


When I was an English major, I learned how to identify the literary technique known as foreshadowing. It's how an author, the god of the imaginary universe created in the narrative, subtly warns the reader of how the story is to unfold. This allows the reader to be somewhat prepared when the plot makes a dramatic pivot.
Perhaps you've noticed that real life does not unfold like book life.
Most times, we get no foreshadowing to prepare us for the earthquakes or cliffs or volcanoes in our lives. Or we're simply too ignorant or myopic to read our own scripts and see the telltale shadow of the anvil.


I remember that last year, Mother's Day dawned clear and warm. As I had for the past few years, I joined FM107.1 listeners to Walk For The Cure. As always, I was moved by the river of pink, the sheer number of people touched by breast cancer. As always, as I marched along in the pink pack I made a point to think about my connection to the disease: my beloved grandmother. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer back in the Bad Old Days, before chemotherapy and support groups and reconstruction surgery. They cut off her breast, radiated her chest and wished her luck. Her diagnosis came from the era when women with breast cancer were called victims, not survivors. But survive she did. She lived almost 40 years after her initial diagnosis, dying at age 93. Not of cancer.
Then, last year, after the walk I know we went out for brunch. (Where? What did I eat? Was it good?) And surely I got presents from the kids and my husband. (What? Was I touched? Were they thoughtful? Surely the good moms remember this stuff.)
It's all gone. Did what happened next obliterate the details of the time immediately preceding it? I so wish I could retrieve those minor memories and build them into a mosaic to see what it was like to be the person who inhabited that Sunday, that week, that life.
Because then it was Monday, the day after Mother's Day and after work I blithely showed up for my routine mammogram.
And that was the beginning of my new life.


And now I realize that, sometimes when I'm sad, it's because I miss Her.
I miss that person who I was one year ago this week. The person who had no idea that she was going to have to take a test she was so completely unprepared for.
Why was she so petty? So unappreciative of what she had? Worried about such silly stuff?
I look back on Her as if she was a child. You know how children get anxious and worried about the little kid problems in their life and, while trying not to patronize them, you want to tell them to relax and enjoy the carefree nature of their lives. You have to hold yourself back from dismissively murmuring that these aren't problems at all. That someday you will wish for the troubles that worry you today.
I am the grown up version of the childlike me of a year ago.
When I think about who I was, I can only call me She, because she's not really Me any more.


Now almost a year has passed and it's all behind me. The surgery and the chemotherapy and the radiation. I don't have cancer any more. The scars have healed. The pain is mostly gone. My hair and, blessedly, my eyebrows have grown back in.
But I am different. I can never leave my diagnosis behind. For the rest of my life, there will be medicine and checkups and scans. I will be under a doctor's care to make sure that what got me once won't get me again--and if it does, that we find it early, before it has a chance to get me good. Or bad. I am what I have never been before--vulnerable. Twice shy, because of the once burned.
I am wise where I was once innocent.
However. In some ways, I am so much happier. I appreciate the sweetness of life so much that it is sometimes almost unbearable. That appreciation gives small moments a deeper pleasure and gives my days a new zest. I have realized how much I love life and don't take it for granted in the way I once did. I love it so much that the thought of losing it is more threatening than it ever would have been before.

I'm thinner, grayer, stronger. I am still making friends with this new version of my old friend.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Thanksgiving morning found me loitering outside the sanctuary at church, killing time as I waited for the service to begin. I had arrived early to deliver my youngest. Washed, combed, and robed, she would join the other members of the youth choir as they raised their warbly, wobbly voices in a carol of gratitude.
An associate pastor with whom I am not yet acquainted moved through the area, greeting people arriving for the service.
"Nice hat!" he said as he shook my hand.
"Thanks," I replied.
He leaned in and spoke in a tone that was both sincere and concerned. "How're you doing?" he asked, his eyes searching my face.
"Pretty darn good," I answered.
My reply was both cheerful and honest but this brief exchange left me feeling a bit uncomfortable. I was puzzled because I wondered if:

a) the pastor knew me, Kevyn Burger, and the details of my cancer case--Lord knows I've talked about myself enough so that plenty o' people are clued in
b) he had access to some sort of Pastor Master List of Prayerworthy Parishoners
c) he was relating to An Anonymous Bald Woman Battling The Big C.

I should be used to this. I've been Marked since midsummer.
When you walk around without hair, people draw their logical conclusions. No middle aged heterosexual woman in her right mind intentionally mutilates herself by shaving her head. Everyone knows that hair loss is a side effect of chemotherapy. Being bald provides quick shorthand to let everyone in the world in on confidential diagnostic information that ordinarily covered by the physician-patient privilege.
I have not worn a wig, but I understand why so many of my fellow survivors do. Being bald is a way of being naked before strangers: it reveals a private part. While I have become fairly comfortable walking around with my nude scalp, I recognize that this expanse of usually-covered skin makes others feel awkward.
This adds a layer of complexity to a million simple exchanges. The teller at the bank, my child's dentist, that pastor at the church on Thanksgiving--people don't know quite what to say when confronted with the be-hatted woman before them, who is clearly in that chapeau because chemotherapy has robbed her of her crowning glory. What are they to do? Ask how she's doing? Ignore the obvious? Tell a quick anecdote about their great aunt's triumph over breast cancer?
It reminds me of being in the final trimester of pregnancy, when everyone you encounter must first inquire about The Baby before the conversation can get down to business. I remember being weary of it by the time I lumbered into the ninth month. Sometimes, I just wanted to be me again. A woman with a womb, not a womb with a woman.
Being the obvious manifestation of my disease makes ME uncomfortable, too, if that's any consolation. I can't tell you what to say to me, because I don't know. Sometimes I like it when people acknowledge my cranial nudity--and the reason for it--and sometimes I don't. It has to do with how I'm feeling at that instant and with how much finesse the person I encounter uses.
I've been this way for months, and I am not yet used to these awkward social exchanges. I'm still all muddled up about it.
But Minnesota's legendary Longest Season may give me some respite from this visual dilemma.
That Thanksgiving church service left me feeling uplifted and energized. After it ended, my three children met up with their father and my husband was up to his elbows in pastry, busily making his Traditional Annual Pie--apple, a post-turkey treat. I had the day off and an empty hour so I set out on a solitary walk around the lake.
The gray day sucked the color out of the landscape, leaving the sky and lake and trees part of a black and white landscape. The first snow snow sifted down like cake flour, adding a layer of loveliness to what would have been a dreary afternoon.
I was well outfitted for the chill--when you don't have hair, bundling is a necessity, not a fashion statement. I was snug in a hat that my friend Kate bought for me. Black, with a velvet crown and a rim of matching fake fur, it not only provides cover, but gives me kind of a funky Doctor Zhivago vibe. I wore it pulled down low on my forehead, where my eyebrows used to be. Over it I wore my cute corduroy coat; hood up and buttoned under my chin.
Walking briskly, I did what I always do. Naturally curious and a promiscuous people-watcher, I looked at the others on the path.
And I realized that some were looking back at me.
Some men.
Age, gravity and motherhood are the co-conspirators in The Case Of The Vanishing Look. In recent decades, I've noticed that I have become invisible to an increasing number of men. The ones in their twenties and thirties don't look my way--and why should they, I'm old enough to be their mother and I've never been--nor wanted to be--the MILFtype. But I have still turned an occasional head when it comes to men born within a decade or more of me. It's that wordless, harmless look that goes nowhere but is faintly flirtatious. It's flattering, that frank flicker of appreciation from a man you don't know and never will.
That's something else that goes when your hair does. Men don't look at me. I haven't felt so much as a lukewarm sidelong glance in months. My pheromones went pfft.
But that day, on the path, I was not a Woman Wearing A Hat Because She Has Cancer. I was a woman wearing a hat because it was snowing. I was simply appropriately attired, and that disguised me and my story.
When I'm naked, they look away or look through me. Hidden under layers of outerwear, I was visible again.
The path was filled with ruddy-faced folks taking their pre-feast exercise. I noted an unusual number of intergeneration walkers, with obvious familiar connections. Most on the path were in pairs or bunches, chatting away as they charged along.
And some of them--guys, men, fellas, dudes--checked me out, bless their hearts. Some nodded. A particularly bold one said, "Hi."
There was no pity in his eyes. None at all.
Turns out winter may be better than a wig. Cold is my camouflage. Bundled up, I'm not marked; I'm just like everyone else. And that makes me feel warm.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Nods on the Path

o you have your own personal favorite path?

Maybe it's along the river or in a park or around a lake. It's that familiar, beloved route that you hit regularly, for exercise, fresh air, a time and place to clear your head. Maybe it's the path you take when you're out with your walking buddy or the dog or your radio headset. It's that place where the pace is familiar...and so are the faces that you pass when you're out walking, running, skating, biking.

For me, it's Lake Harriet. I love the dual route that encircles this city lake. Sometimes I'm on the walking path and sometimes I'm on the biking path, but I'm always in a good mood when I'm near the shore of this scenic body of water. It's a good three mile hike--at my pace, I can stroll it once--or roll it three times on my bike-- in just under an hour. A good way to raise my heart rate.

The walk does make my heart soar. I like to watch how the water's hue mirrors the sky. From the path, I admire the classic curve of the band shell, pause to soak in the splendid smudges of color in the rose garden, listen to the lap of the waves smack against the anchored sailboats. I gaze at the old stately mansions and monitor construction work on those getting additions or face-lifts. I smile at the Lake Harriet Streetcar conductor, looking spry and proud in his uniform. (He wears shorts all summer and has surprisingly shapely legs!) As I make my circle, I look forward to cranking the arm of the green iron pump by the South Beach, then relish the faint taste of stone in the water that arcs up in the fountain.

But more than that, I watch the people.

Those of us who are regular walkers know each other. We may not be familiar with one another's names, but we see each other. And if you pay attention, you can watch your fellow walkers change before your eyes.

I watched one woman on my path shrink this summer. I suspect she's taken up both running and dieting and she's dropped 30, 40 pounds since I started noticing. (You go, girl! Lookin' gooood!) There's a determined bearded guy who began roller blading earlier this spring and has gone from stumbling along, arms outstretched to break his fall, to breezing along with comfortable confidence. And it's not just people that I mark. There's an adorable Golden Retriever that I've watched elongate from a blond fluffball into a junior dog.

These are my path comrades. I don't exactly know them, but I know of them. Because I see them regularly. And they see me too.

And we nod at one another.

This summer, I nodded at several women while I monitored their pregnancies. One of my favorite nodding acquaintances is a fit, peppy mom-to-be with a pony tail that swings like the metronome on a piano as she strides briskly along the path, always accompanied by a man I presume to be her husband. She must be due soon. I've watched her belly swell and recently noticed that her belly button has done the old Third Trimester Pop. By Halloween, she'll be walking along with a flat stomach and a stroller.

There's another mother that I've kept my eye on. I first nodded at her last spring, just as the buds were bursting and the weather warmed up enough to welcome daily walking. When I first noticed her, she wasn't motoring too quickly. She kept her eyes on the lump in her stroller, not the path. She must have taken that baby out for a first walk the day after she came home from the hospital--when I first noticed them, the little one looked like a larvae, still all red and crumpled up upon itself, a little white cap on its head like a mushroom on its stem. She was wearing sweat pants and a shapeless shirt. I've kept watching and have observed this beloved heap of protoplasm turn into a laughing little boy, who wiggles and looks around and can almost sit up. Now his mother is back in slim yoga pants, walking with confidence, gazing at him with that contented look of love as she pulls of the path to adjust his funny hat to keep the sun off his face.

Then there was that couple. Young and clearly in love. I nodded at them, but they were often too distracted to nod back. Fit, attractive, intense. Probably late teens. They couldn't keep their hands off each other. They walked with arms wrapped around each others' waists, face turned to face, always locked intently in passionate conversation. I tried to stroll behind them on a few occasions to eavesdrop and find out exactly what they were talking about that held them in such rapt focus, but they murmured and whispered and I could never pick up more than a phrase. I regret to tell you that when I did overhear them, they were talking about where they

were going to eat. I expected more.

Now, I see her, alone. Walking slowly, staring at the path. I try to nod at her but she doesn't look up. Once I saw her seated on a bench adjacent to the path, talking and gesticulating wildly to her girlfriend. Is she working through a breakup? Did he leave her for another--or did he leave town for college, so maybe they are still together and she is just lonely for him...?

Am I the only one who is curious like this?

It's been three decades since I've lived in a small town, but I'm realize I'm still a small town kid--in fact, a hick--at heart. Call it nosy--I prefer the word 'curious'--I can't help but feel connected to those I share a city with.

I think that's one of the reasons I've always felt at home here. Minneapolis and St. Paul, the suburbs and the exurbs, are filled with people just like me. We grew up in villages, burgs, wide spots in the road and our small town values are deeply embedded in our DNA. Even people who grew up in The Cities were raised in neighborhoods and parishes, small town islands in the midst of the metropolis.

We like to know people, even if it's just to nod at them.

This summer, I know that some of the nodding strangers on my path have been watching me.

People on my path have noticed me this summer. They nodded when they saw me walking slowly on the path in June, right after surgery. I was wan and weak, wearing baggy clothes to camouflage the drains that I came home with when I was released from the hospital. They watched and nodded... as my strength returned and my pace speeded up. As my hair was shaved off in a buzz cut. As it fell out altogether. They nod when they see my bald head under my bike helmet.

They see me and the outward changes in me.

I have noticed that there are a few people don't look--in fact, they look away. They don't nod. What they see in me may be too threatening. It may make them think, Why her and not me? It may remind them of someone else who had to walk the path that I'm on and that may make them too sad to contemplate.

I've never had to be the person who is the Grim Reminder.

I don't take it personally at all. Most times, when I walk around my lake I feel part of that community of strollers, bikers, skaters. I almost feel like I felt growing up in my small home town. That I was a thread in the fabric that created the pattern of civic life. That I was acknowledged and known. That I had a place, a role, a function. That I was part of a whole that needed me.

Of course, I have real relationships, not just nod-in-passing ones. I am fortunate to have true friends who have demonstrated their devotion and affection this summer. I am also lucky to have gotten incredible support from my radio friends--people who I have a wonderfully odd relationship with. Listeners who spend time with me. This year I have felt them reach into the box to touch me and I have appreciated it more than I can say.

It is good to walk a path where you can be seen. Thank you for the nods. They make me feel like I'm home.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Faith of Sweet Corn

August is the shortest month of the year.
I know that, technically, it hath 31 days, but for me, the month always flies by so quickly that I can't trust the number of little boxes on the calendar grid. I love August. Usually the kids' camps and sports and classes have wound down so the days are less likely to be filled with activity. The days are still long enough to feel like they're bonus length. It's August when you make sure you do the summer activity you meant to get to in June and July--a picnic, a swim, a cookout, a boat ride, a visit to a favorite ice cream parlor, whatever you think of as a mandatory summer activity. Unlike some months (January, February...) that overstay their welcome, unlike the months that I'm glad to wave goodbye to, (March...) I'm always saddened when good old lazy August gives way to its brisk autumnal sibling, September.
August has a lot to recommend it, but I would love August for the sweet corn alone. I can never get enough of it. Buttered, salted and served steaming hot, it is the taste of the eighth month. Sweet corn is more than simply a vegetable; nothing else from the garden comes with this much personality. My favorite tasty hybrid is the regally named 'Silver Queen.'
Biting into the late summer pearls of juiciness transports me back to the summer dinners of my childhood, when my grandmothers would serve corn as the centerpiece of the meal, alongside the summer rubies--sliced home grown tomatoes and fresh watermelon. I remember turning the cornsilk into moustaches when my sister and I husked on the back porch. And don't all of us recall our sixth summer, when Mom or Dad had to cut the corn off the cob because of the universal no-front-teeth issue?
Every August, I make a near-daily run to a farmstand or grocery or farmers market to buy another half dozen green torpedoes. I take particular pleasure when I buy it from a farmer who sells the proud bounty of his cornfield out of the back of his pickup truck. In August, you can believe his hand-lettered sign that proudly proclaims "Local."
Perhaps sweet corn is SO sweet because the season is so short. Would we savor each milky kernel as much if we could indulge year round? Would it still be such a treat if the ears of August were available in April?
This year, on August first, my friend Josephine showed up with a brown paper grocery bag loaded with a lucious summer supper--pasta salad, home made cookies and, yes, ten ears of sweet corn, husked and ready to drop into boiling water. As she prepared this meal in HER kitchen, Josephine--who happens to be a reporter for the Star Tribune--could not have known that when we ate the meal, we would not be sitting in OUR kitchen. We consumed it--sadly, barely tasting it--while hunkered down in front of the TV in the basement.
As we watched the unimaginable, Josephine was covering it. She and I had been in the midst of conversation about my bald head when we my husband arrived home. He told us the incomprehensible news he had just heard on the radio. Josephine rushed from my house and proceeded directly to the site of the bridge collapse in downtown Minneapolis.
The disaster has consumed all of us for the better part of the past week. Like everyone, I have played back my hundreds? thousands? of trips across the span, including the last one. Five days before the collapse, I drove across the bridge with my two daughters at, oh, 6:05 p.m. while on my way to see 'Hairspray' at the St. Anthony Main movie theater. I tootled north over the bridge with no sense of impending doom--with no sense of anything, to tell the truth, except a slight annoyance that the narrowed lanes slowed my progress on the road.
I didn't realize, of course, that the Cosmic Clock of Doom was counting down to the bridge's demise. That, within the week, an international audience would watch in speechless horror as they took in the heart-stopping images of our beautiful river, the very birthplace of our city.
None of us will ever be able to look at this gorgeous gorge in the same way. Something has changed and can never change back.
I think we all feel betrayed by the disaster. We depended on this oft-travelled hybrid of bridge and highway. We seldom gave this particular piece of road a thought. It was there to serve us and it simply didn't occur to us that it could be sick. That it could be terminal. That it could die a terrible, tragic, crashing death.
The Bad Things we fear and worry about are seldom the Bad Things that happen.
It's the thing you don't see coming that gets you every time.
This summer, I see everything thought the lens of my breast cancer. Sorry, I know it's egocentric, I know it's absurd. I can't help it. As I have talked and listened and talked some more about the bridge, I can't help but connect the civic betrayal of the bridge disaster with the shock that I felt at my diagnosis.
I suppose we all fear cancer if we really stop and think about it. Until I saw that big blurry cloud on my mammogram, I had no sense that the cancer bell would ever toll for ME. My body was the bridge that I used and never thought about. It's job was to take me where I wanted to go. It honestly never occurred to me that my own infrastructure was vulnerable. Until it crashed on me.
I'm going to live, survive, thrive, of course. But only after experiencing the shock of my life.
Grief is at its sharpest when it involves losing something that you never thought you'd be without. Grief is loss--loss of a person, a relationship, a job. Loss of a piece of yourself.
I know so much more about this at the end of the summer than I did at the beginning.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this post.
Sweet corn.
I didn't savor the corn from the first of August. But I boiled a potful up for supper last night and it tasted good again. The family was crowded around the kitchen table for dinner, chatting a little bit, but mostly saying, "Pass the butter!" or "Push the salt back over here." Our mouths were full and so were our bellies.
Earlier in the day, I had stopped at a farmstand west of Minneapolis. I purchased corn picked earlier that morning--according to the farmer who picked it. I bought eight ears just yards from where the ground where they had started. One tiny kernel beget a stalk which beget the sweet golden meat of my dinner.
When you stop and think about it, that's a miracle.
August may never be the same for us. Something like our innocence went into the river this year.
But August still gives us her gifts. Go find the fresh local corn that is available for such a brief time. Buy and bite down. Taste and savor. Marvel at how, even in a drought year, sweet treasures can be coaxed from the dry ground.
When what we thought we could always count on changes or fools us, we need to seek out that which will never change.
Faith. Friends. Family.
And fresh local sweet corn.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

expanding to serve you better!

Whenever I see that sign at an airport, I just snort.
Expanding, yeah. Serve, hardly. Better? I doubt it!
But it may be true with the Kevyn Blog.
I don't know how you are getting at it these days...but our all new and improved radio station website may be your best link:

The website is chock full of all sorts of stuff, including much more from colleagues at the radio station, news sources and links to fm107 listeners.

Just look for my page and click on for my blog updates.

I assume I'll keep this site up and running as well...but it may not be as fresh as the other site...and you know how upsetting it can be when you're, well, not fresh.


Dread locked

Dread locked
DATE: 07/28/2007 15:56:44 / MOOD: Determined

It was a chilly night last March when I became closely acquainted with Dread.

I sometimes feel that it has stalked me since then.

Don't get me wrong. I live--have always lived--a truly blessed life that I can never be thankful enough for. I have all that money can never buy: parents who loved and cherished me, healthy kids, work that I find stimulating. A body that did whatever I asked of it and required no maintanence. All the standard issue Great Stuff that you can arrogantly view as your due after a few decades.

In looking back, it lines up a little differently. Some great philosopher said, "Life can only be understood backwards. Unfortunately, it must be lived forwards." In looking over my shoulder, I notice that, over the past year, Dread began showing its pointed little head at me, popping up on the manholes I walked over, an evil little imp pointing a finger at me. I'll get you my pretty. And your little girl, too.

I'm pretty good at ignoring what I don't care to see, so I just stomped on the manhole covers and kept skipping along.

Despite my glorious husband, unincarcerated children and troupe of loyal friends, in the past year, I occasionally had an odd feeling that somebody, somewhere was stepping on a crack and trying to break my back.

There was the plumbing problem. The freaky impounding of my car over the mixup over my expired tabs. The return of the plumbing problem. The unpleasant gum disease diagnosis. My son's dramatic illness and tonsillectomy. Have I mentioned that we had persistent plumbing problems?

None of them much to worry about. Nothing tragic. Just a short run of Bad Luck, hardly worth noting compared to the long run of Good Luck I've experienced. Expensive but ultimately annoying hassles. No boo-hooing over this or you fear that God will say, just as Mom used to, "Dry up, sister, or I'll give ya something to cry about."

Then there was that night in March that changed that and gave me the gift that has helped me so much since then.

I was on my way out to a radio station event--hosting a Women's Wellness event at St Catherine's an evening about Menopause. We had 500 guests, the hall rented, food, wine, experts, a staff of people ready to pull it off. I had prepped for months and felt ready to host a two hour live broadcast.

I was ten blocks from home when my cell phone rang.

Oldest daughter, Five Footer, who is not given to panic or exaggeration and is cool in a crisis.

This time, thought, she was panicked. Her little sister, my four footer, had slipped on the ice in the driveway and sheared off her two front teeth.

"It's bad, Mom," Big Sister warned. "Really bad."

Big called it right. We met at our neighborhood dentist. When they got out of their car, Little was crying so hard that her face was swollen almost beyond recognition. (She's pretty tough, too.)

That night she had full mouth shots and her teeth capped. I was with her when the work began and the numbness set in; her sister and my niece stayed until the dentist completed his work and took her home. I did my broadcast and got through it knowing that no matter what I chose, I would be failing someone who was counting on me.

Next day, I took the day off and delivered Little Girl to her first appointment with an endodontist. For the second time in less than 24 hours, she had full mouth shots to numb her up as she received a temporary root canal in her two front teeth.

A few months later, she developed an abcess on one of the teeth and had to have the root canal replaced. More shots and another long session for both us--her in the chair, me averting my eyes and holding her hand.

Then two weeks ago, we had to do it again. The final root canal.

Each time the full mouth injections.

Oh, how she hated it. Oh, how she dreaded it. She knew she had to do it, but oh, the dread in opening her mouth to let the endodontist put his tools and hands in there so he could do his highly skilled healing work and give her two functional, attractive front teeth.

I knew there was no prize or bribe that would take away the pain, so I didn't offer her one. I thought that would only cheapen the experience, the reality of this little girl's mighty struggle. There's nothing for a mom to do but sit there, hold her hand and pomise it will all be over soon. Nothing to do but murmur from the bottom of your heart that this hurts, that I'm supposed to spare you pain, but you have to face this yourself. I'm proud of how hard you're trying. It will be over soon.

Really, as soon as the first injection went in, between her teeth and her upper lip, the hard, painful part was over. The Novacaine took over and there was nothing to feel--or fear.

She broke my heart afterward. We were walking to the car and she was thinking about how she had put up a big fuss with the dentist at first, so much so that he had to get very stern wth her to get her to open up.

She tentatively put her little hand in mine and quavered, in a halting voice, "Mommy....I'm--sorry."

She had nothing to be sorry about. She knew it would be painful, but she did it. She did it as best she could.

It is hard to watch your child in pain. Since then, there have been so many recent examples that remind me that losing your two front teeth beats a helluva lot of the problems that many families must face. Kids who need to be at Ronald McDonald house for months because of bone marrow transplants. Kids who get their intestines sucked out at a swimming pool. Kids who...oh, I'll stop now before we all start reaching for the noose or the knife. The pain of a child--truly, what is more troubling to contemplate?

What I really want to blog about today is the strength and guts that my little girl showed and how that has come back to me time and time again as I have stared down my own pain and troubles. She showed me so clearly that there is no shame in fear. In fact, you're crazy not to fear what will be painful. But I also learned that sometimes the dread locks us in, the fear makes the pain all the worse.

I was afraid of my surgery, no doubt. And it hurt, the kind of pain morphine just spreads a little butter on. Then I was afraid of the chemo. Hey, guess what--not so bad. Hey, it's just an IV--and it will save my life. It's liquid chemical light to be embraced and welcomed, not feared. And what about the side effects? Little queasy, little tired. Odd smells put me off, like morning sickness. All of a sudden, it's gone. No problem,. Turns out, once again, I'm one of the lucky ones.

The last of this Breast Cancer Dread Trifecta--surgery, chemo, HAIR. How I dreaded losing my hair. The nurse assured me that, with the chemo drugs I'm getting, all my lovely, chemically treated locks will fall out 10-24 days after the first session. And it will all fall out ("release" they call it) in 48 hours. I would shed like a dog, my hair falling out in my bed, sink, brush, everywhere.

No thanks. Don't work to save what's beyond salvation.

And then, all of a sudden, I was ready to let it go. To take it off. It's never going feel good, I'm never going to be emotioanlly prepared for a buzz, a heinie, a skull. So let's go NOW. I sobbed like a child when I told the kids It Was Time.

We gathered on the back patio. I braided four braids and each of my children and my niece cut off one bread at the scalp and placed them reverently in a Zip Lock bag.

Then my 6 footer, my son, got out the clippers.

I see now that he had purchased them as soon as I got home from the hospital. He had taken them out of the box and placed them on the kitchen counter, to de-sensitize me, to let me know that he was ready to go whenever I was.

First he cut me a Mohawk, like the one he had etched into his own scalp. We posed for a fierce, once-in-a-lifetime Mother-Son-Mohawk portrait. You can find some of these pictures here on the website under my photos.

Then he started buzzing. The rest went. Down to the nub. Scattered there on the patio like a dead animal.

Who am I without my hair? I was born with hair, got the Toni perm in grandma's kitchen (PU!) then the pixie. Pigtail Heidi hair, Breck Girl, ponytails, long sit-on-it Cher hair, Sun-in, Protein 21, Dorothy Hamil hair, Farrah Fawcett hair, standup bangs, one bad curly perm after another. The Rachel. Brunette gives way to gray gives way to blonde streaks. The older I get, the Blonder. Take that, Father Time, you patriarchal Bastid!

Hair loss. This is no small thing, and nor would it be for many of us. I've been told that, with a breast cancer diagnosis, some women ask "Will I lose my hair?" before they ask "Will I live?"

At first, I think I look like an alien.

We all rub our hands over the shorn head. But the tears are gone now. I cried before, not during or after. The dread, like my little girl had shown me, it in the anticipation. The secret of handling this--It was all there. Why had I been unable to learn what she had already taught me? I had been dread-locked.

No more.

I'm much better now. I feel better than I did since this all started the day after Mother's Day. Now I have nothing else to dread. The surgery has healed and my new breast fits. Chemo has begun; now I know what that's about. And my hair--turns out I feel liberated without it. I don't look sick or pitiful, at least not to myself. I look strong, like a woman who has looked something dreadful in the face and decided to whistle.

That night, shsortly after I was shorn, my husband came home and as he parked his car in the garage, I sidled up beside the wall and called to him.

"I'm warning you," I said. "II'm bald."

I walked out and he examined me quickly. "You look beatufiul," he said, with utter sincerity. He held out his arms and I was home.

That night before bed, the four footer asked if she could kiss my head. She did, in a benediction that let me to know I had nothing more to dread.

I have written about my grandmothers on this blog, and a friend of mine who is acquainted with my girls reminded me that I'm part of a strong line...a line that comes both before and after me. That observation was a very sweet gift.

So now, for me, it seems there's nothing else to fear. More chemo, sure. The chemo may make me tired, but who can be afraid of tired? The cancer can come back, but I think it's already gone and I'm cured. Just buying an insurance poiicy with chemo and possible radiation. I've had a little bit of bad luck and an abundance of blessings.`

What are you dreading? I could be wrong, but in my experience, the buildup to whatever you're afraid of is worse than the reality. Don't waste time on dread and get to what you fear quickly. Life it too short...and too waste it on things that may not be worth your fear.


DATE: 07/18/2007 17:40:05 / MOOD: Alive

Have you ever had a Pearl of Wisdom drop out of your own mouth? You say something and are immediately struck by the truth of it. You take that perfect audio ivory orb and string it and examine it and contemplate your own wisdom and then congratulate yourself on just how Profound you are.

You don't do this? Really?

Occupational hazard for a talk radio host? Maybe.

I have a lot of Pearls: little mottoes and sayings and cliches. I change them up as I realize how simplistic, ridiculous or absurd they are. But one of my Mottoes To Live By has been current for years and I'm sticking with this one.

Listen up:

"Steal From The Best."

And that leads me to, uh, Rush Limbaugh.

Settle down, now. Whatever we may think of RL's attitudes, politics and choices of wives/hobbies/ideologies, no one can take away the guy's success. He figured something out and has been widely imiitated, but he's the Original. Ya gotta give him that...if nothing else.

When he first started his syndicated show, no one had ever heard anything like it and people who shared his opinions were like the Newly In Love. They would get on the air with him and babble about how they shared his philosophy, enemies and views. In their efforts to announce their solidarity, they would rhapsodize, ramble on and hijack his program. The show would slow and the pace.would.stop.

The Big Boy figgered this wasn't good for bidness, so he developed a quickie code with listeners. Those who Believe as he Belives simply crow "Dittoes!" as they greet him. Meaning, I Walk In Ideological Lockstep with You. The fans have long called themselves "Dittoheads." The show rolls on without an obnoxious amount of fawning. (Note: I didn't say it was or was not obnoxious, I simply used the word to modify the verb.)

I thought about this in the days before I returned to work following my surgery. I heard from so many listeners who have already traveled the path that I am on, either through their own experience or through that of a loved one. I knew people would want to extend their good wishes for my good health.

You can't know how much I appreciate the positive energy that has flowed my way. That said, I still want to do a radio show where we talk about all the things we always talked abut. If we're quizzing the Sexpert or getting the Dirty Laundry, I really didn't really want to slow the show with a caller who might get on the air with me and then feel compelled to extend their support before we could get into the Topic At Hand.

Hence, "Tittoes!"

Maybe you've been listening and heard another listener on the air with me who says "Tittoes!" before they say hello. Here's how that came about.

I was trying to come up with the quickie "I'm With Ya, Kevyn!" Solidarity Comment and came up with zero, zip, nada, squat, diddly. I drew the Rush comparison with my BOSS who, when I said, "I need my own Dittoes!" said simply, "Tittoes!"

"Can we say that?" I asked.

"Kevyn," she replied, "right now, you can say whatever you want."

The first day back, I talked Tittoes and listeners seemed to like it right away. Some of you great me with a hearty "Tittoes!": when you call; some of you have signed off with e mail or in cards with the greeting. I have seen it spelled a number of ways and a few of you write "Tittles!" which, well, makes me titter.

That afternoon, I was at the St Louis Park Target with the 4 footer when an attractive youthful woman (I figure she was about my age) walked up and tapped me on the shoulder.

"Are you Kevyn Burger?" she asked.

I admitted that, yes, I was.

She smiled at me with a kind and fervent smile. "Tittoes!" she said fiercely. "Tittoes!"

And I smiled back.

So that's the secret handshake of sorts in Ye Olde Kevyn Clubhouse. Tittoes. Some of you may not be comofrtable saying it--that's okay. Not mandatory. Just a way to wink at me if you feel like it. And I promise, if you say it, I'll say "Thank you!"

Saturday, July 14, 2007

I Believe in You

Photograph by Ross Yates.

I've always found summer to be magical in Minnesota.
The morning dew twinkles like crystal. The sun coaxes flower buds open and you can practically see Thumbelina posing on the stamen on her teeny tippy-toes. Spiders weave gossamer webs strung with diamond dew.
When I was a child, I not only read but lived in a fairy tale. I was one of those earnest bookworms who didn't understand that fantasy was different from reality. Real life magic all around me still casts its charm. I sometimes still find myself looking for fairies and pixies and sprites and brownies--those little folk that I'm sure I saw with my own eyes when I was younger.
In fact, one of the happiest parts of being a mother has been to plant my favorite fairy visions in the imaginations of my three children. Each of them, wide-eyed, has independently reported spotting a fairy house and fairy royalty. We have examined gardens, nests, holes, rock piles, woods, beaches and more in our pursuit of these elusive creatures...or the detritus they leave behind as they flee our curious gazes.
I'm down to just one child who is still buying what I'm selling and she's becoming a bit of a reluctant consumer all of a sudden.
However, the Lake Harriet Elf has gone a long way in keeping her Believer Status intact.
Mine too, in fact.
Do you know about the Lake Harriet Elf? He's been around for more than a decade, in his house just west of the steps on Oliver Avenue South.
He calls himself Mr. Little Guy, but does reveal that his given name is Thom. He and his family live in an unassuming ash tree in between the bike path and the walking path on Lake Harriet. The tree is unremarkable in that it is no different from scores of such strong and slender trees that line that stretch of lake.
What separates this tree from the others is the small door at its base. Cunningly fashioned of wood, it has a rounded shape and an infinitesimal doorknob. You need not be a student of the Brothers Grimm or Mr. H.C Anderson or Charles Perrault or any of the great purveyors of fairy tale literature in order to be familiar with this door. If you have ever once, even long ago, imagined that our world was jointly inhabited by Little Folk, then this door is familiar to you. It's a portal to something secret. And can't help but make you curious.
When we moved to Southwest Minneapolis two summers ago, the neighbor kids quickly led my then seven-year-old to the so called "ElfTree." I had heard of it, of course, had seen it, but was not fully aware of the lore and legend. I let my daughter take me there and allowed her to fill me in on the magical family residing in the tree.
Since then, we have been back many times. In keeping with tradition, my daughter left a note for the elf, asking about him and telling him about herself. Some days later, she got a personal reply from the elf, typed on silver paper about half the size of a standard business card. It still is fixed beneath a magnet on the family fridge.
I told her I could just see him, in his top hat, black suit and striped socks, typing away on a tiny typewriter.
My daughter looked at me like I was crazy. "He's half bald, Mom,' she informed me. "With red hair around the bottom. His suit is green. And he uses a little laptop."
With and without her, I have walked around Lake Harriet countless times and I always pause near the Elf Tree. In the summer, there are always flowers planted around it. Sometimes a wooden fence is installed to corral the flowers. There are always trinkets and treasures left there, and always letters. Children routinely drop off their missives and Mr. Little Guy issues his replies on those signature silver pages.
He and his family reside in the tree in the summer; he must be one of those prosperous elves who can make an exit during the cold months. He has been doing this for years, but has kept a low profile all the while.
It's enough to make me believe in him. As far as I can see, he has no agenda, no financial motivation. He is not trying to become Mr.LittleGuy, Inc, or market himself for the movies or commercial endorsement. He has never cashed in on his celebrity or the good will that he generates.
It's work, being Mr. Little Guy. Collecting those notes, writing back, all under the cover of the mist.
But imagine the payback.
The first walk I was able to take after my surgery, I hit the path at Lake Harriet and started walking with no destination in mind. I figured that once I got tired, I'd simply turn around and trudge home.
Without realizing it, my feet carried me to the Elf House. I plopped down on a nearby bench to watch the water and relax.
Instead, I spent a delightful half hour eavesdropping. Listening to young children, some squealing with curious pleasure, some wide-eyed and whispering in wonder. Some dropped off letters. Some talked to their parents about the details of the clothes the elf family wears or how their house must look deep inside the tree trunk.
While I was settled there, I saw three soldiers approach the tree. A woman, wearing an Army-green beret and fatigues, was accompanied by two men dressed identically. From the best my eavesdropping ears could make out (An aside: When you people are having interesting conversations, would you please SPEAK UP!) the woman was familiar with the Elf House and was sharing the story. The three of them squatted to study the door and the notes and the trinket treasures and each broke into child like grins. I resisted my urge to interview them (tragic professional liability) because I didn't want to interfere with their magical moment. I don't know if they have recently returned from a battle field...or are en route to one...but I know the men and women who wear the uniform need all the magic they can find.
I need my magic, too. I need to return to the ethos of my childhood, where I was deeply absorbed in possibility and had no interest or fear in the future. What surrounded me was simply enough.
I find rich pleasure in staring at that wooden door, knowing that someone who cares about magic lives behind it. It's true. He's real. He's goodness. He's helped me accept the wonder and joy that is all around us.
Mr. Little Guy and I have something in common, I have found. He gets letters and messages from complete strangers who express their fondness for him. That has been my experience as well this summer. Mr. Little Guy must keep going because it feels so good to get those good wishes. Feels so good to be believed in.
I'll sign this one off in homage to how Mr. Little Guy ends his notes...I couldn't say it any better than he can. To all of you who think of me, pray for me, send me your best and fervent wishes for health and healing, who believe I will beat this thing and survive to see the best that's ahead, I say, as he does:
"I believe in you."

Saturday, July 7, 2007


In my ever-more-inked-up appointment book, you now find the jotting "PT."
I will have ongoing physical therapy for my right arm and shoulder. Because of the surgery, the removal of lymph nodes and the reconstruction, my upper body is about as stiff as I figured I'd be at 90. I often continue to feel a deep ache that stretches from my chest wall into my very center. Nerves and muscles were altered or cut by the surgeon's scalpel and my innards, as we hicks say, have been disrupted.
To add insult to this injury, I now have a bona fide Jiggly Grandma Upper Arm. (Let me quickly add only one of them--the right arm--has gone all old lady on me.)
The good news is that with some focused attention, it should all go back like it used to be.
Essentially, it won't be any worse than it ever was.
So that I will continue to be able to lift my clean dishes out of the dishwasher and onto the top shelf of the cupboard, I now do a series of exercises several times a day and will have multiple sessions with a physical therapist.
Before my first PT appointment, I filled out the several pages of a health questionairre. One query asked, "What is your goal in coming here?"
And then I wrote something that would have been a typo if I would have been typing. (Er, excuse me. Don't want a Grandma vocabulary to go with that arm. I should have said...not 'typing'...but 'keyboarding.'
(BTW--how come today's typos aren't called keyboardos?)
(Sorry for the digression.)
(And all the parentheses.)
Back to the my goal for physical therapy.
I meant to write that my goal was "Mobility."
Instead I wrote that my goal was "Nobility."
And as I smiled ruefully to myself and scratched out a correction, my mind seized onto that word...nobility...and I immediately thought of my Grandma Shock.
(Yep, that was her real name. My mother's maiden name was Shock.)
(Are parentheses on sale or something?)
Now I'm going to digress about my grandmother for a bit, so here is an illustration to break up the text and make the blog somewhat visually stimulating and also to provide you a mental picture of her.
This is a photograph of me (circa 1989) with my beloved grandmothers. This is the back porch of the house I grew up in in Jackson, Ohio, where my parents still live.

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From left to right: Dorothy Shock, my maternal grandmother. Jill Burger, my mother. Auguste Burger, my paternal grandmother. And that's me with the five-footer when she was a two-footer. (She had just gotten up and I can almost smell that hot-baby-post-nap scent in that sweet fold in her neck!)
(In most pictures of me that were taken in this era, I sport a heinous perm and wear black acid washed jeans. No kidding. And the saddest part is, I thought it looked bitchin!)

I come from good peasant stock as perhaps the faces in this picture reveal. On both sides I am descended from a hard working, plain speaking, decent lot. We have no airs or pedigrees or strings of numbers behind our names...and we admit to a bit of suspicion of those who do.
That said, I now know that I am descended from nobility. Yeah, me, the gym teacher's daughter from the sticks: I am of noble birth.
At the time this picture was taken, my Grandma Shock was a 26 year breast cancer survivor.
She was diagnosed in 1963. She once told me that when she found the lump, my own grandfather told her to ignore it.
She did not. She was not the Ignore It type.
In 1963, there were no pink ribbons, no races, no support groups. No special cancer clinics, no reconstruction surgery, no hopeful clinical trials. Women were called 'victims' not 'survivors.' Furthermore, The words "breast" or "cancer" were seldom spoken aloud and never in tandem. Well bred people and newspaper obituaries didn't even mention cancer when it was the cause of death; it was termed "a long illness."
Grandma Shock's surgery was what they called a radical mastectomy. From practically under her chin to her waist, from her sternum to her bicep, every corpuscle the scalpel could find was cut away. They took the tissue under her arm as well, including all of her lymph nodes.
That was followed by an intensive course of radiation.
Go back and look at the picture. Notice Grandma Shock's right hand.
She could wear the prosthesis in her bra and conceal her poor scarred chest, but she could not hide the ravages of the side effects of her disease. Because she had no lymph nodes, she lived with constant lymphedema. Her right hand and arm were always swollen. That word hardly describes it--her arm was bigger and heavier than her thigh. If she got a cold, it would be throb with fever. It was uncomfortable every day.
And embarrassing. I have very few pictures where you can see the swelling. She was quick to turn her body so that the offending arm was hidden or tucked behind her back.
Yet she was always fashion conscious and was proud to be a little bit vain. She had a difficult time finding clothes--long sleeves were often too tight to contain her arm and short sleeves revealed the unsightly condition. "Oh, this arm!" she would say in exasperation during a fruitless shopping expedition.
That was about as much complaining as I ever heard from her.
I wish I had more details of exactly what she experienced with her breast cancer. She wasn't afraid to talk about it, but she never brought it up. It was simply part of her life. I never heard her feel sorry for herself; she always seemed so grateful that she lived despite losing her breast. I think she found it a hard bargain but a fair trade.
I now contemplate the fear that must have been her daily companion. She had no chemotherapy to lengthen her odds for a long life, no regular scans to scout for a recurrence, not even a mammogram to provide proof that her other breast was not a time bomb. For a whole generation of breast cancer survivors, the high tech imaging tht we take for granted was the stuff of sci-fi, about as realistic as a robot maid.
Instead of medical reassurance, she had faith and grit. And she cultivated the ability to seek and find joy in the a snapdragon, an excellent canasta hand, a visit with family.
My grandmother was a housewife feminist, who had a charter subscription to Ms. magazine. We had a summer--I think it was the year I was 9--where we played miniature golf every time we were together. She loved James Bond movies and gardening and the daily crossword puzzle in the newspaper.
She was not the Salty Old Dame kind of Grandma, the sort who would flip the falsie around like a Frisbee. With her well-modulated voice and shy smile, she had a kind of elegance, a dignity. She was instinctively what few women aspire to be today: she was a lady.
We were not much alike, but we were deeply devoted to one another. I have felt so close to her in the past few weeks. Her spirit hovers near me and frequently comforts me.
I was so lucky to be her grandchild. So lucky to still have her alive and vital in my memory bank. She lived 35 years after her diagnosis and mastectomy surgery. She did the crossword puzzle on the morning of the day she died, at age 93. It was not cancer that claimed her.
How I wish I had asked more direct questions about her experience. How did she bear it? How did she come to peace with it? How did she not become bitter or fearful or neurotic?
How did she remain so noble?
Honestly, I would give anything I own...everything I own...for fifteen minutes in her presence, to hold her dear inflated hand and have a woman-to-woman conversation with her.
But this is all impractical yearning and neither of us, my Grandma Shock and I, are impractical women.
If I pause, comb my memory and really think about it, I know that even if I don't have the answers to my specific questions, she showed me what I need to know.
How I need to be.
I have her brave example. If she could face it in the unsympathetic early 60's, then I can certainly do it now.
She endured. I am of her line. I will too.

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And here's one more photograph (circa 1990) to again break up the text. This time I have the six footer and the five footer with me. And, sadly, there is photographic evidence of my grave fashion errors of the previous decade. Why in the world am I smiling??

Friday, July 6, 2007

Dance Party For The Cure...

For those of you not going to Prince tomorrow night at the Target Center, ZibraZibra is playing right across the street at First Avenue with HarMar Superstar and Seymore Saves The World.
This is an album release show, but not the kind that comes on disc, tape, or wax. The album, titled 777, is being released digitally, so if you go to the show don't forget to bring an ipod, computer, robot or spaceship to take the record home on.
Doors open at 6:00 PM and the price is only 12 bucks (a pretty sweet deal, especially if you're planning on staying for the Prince afterparty and you hate breast cancer)
Yes that's right, this show is also a breast cancer benefit.
For more information check out ZibraZibra at or

The Bathroom on the Bus

Next week, my youngest...the four-footer...the Spunkiest Nine-Year-Old in the Seven If Not The Twelve County Metro Area...will go to church camp for the first time. Sleepaway Camp. In the woods--far away!
She's tingling with excitement and anticipation about this adventure. Her older siblings found church camp to be among their happiest and most memorable experiences and she's ready to be chime in with her Me-Too on this.
But I don't think she quite comprehends what church camp is.
From all that The Bigs have said over the years, she understands that it's Fun, of course. That there are songs and cool counselors and sleeping bags. That it smells like pine needles and bug spray and that melty-Hershey-bar S'more/campfire scent.
She also has heard that there's God stuff, but it's not boring.
When you ask her about what she's thinking about going to camp, she locks onto one particular detail like she's a thirsty wood tick.
There's a bathroom on the bus!
It's a long ride to the North Shore and my little camper and her co-campers will ride in style. The church contracts with a commercial bus company to provide transportation. And, wisely, considering they are hauling dozens of child-sized bladders, they use a bus that has A Facility in the back.
Hey! A bathroom on the bus! Wow, right!?!
Basically, the four footer can't quite imagine or visualize what's at the end of the bus trip. That's all as hazy as the morning mist hanging over the lake. Will she make friends? Will she be homesick? Will there be bears, as she has heard rumored?
Not sure about that.
But, as I think I mentioned, there's a bathroom on the bus!
As I continue my own journey, I think about the parallels between what my little girl is about to experience and what's directly ahead for me.
I begin chemotherapy next Thursday, July 12th. I admit that I feel a corrosive, gut-eating fear about this. I read the pamphlets about the drugs and the chemo accounts in books and I hear about the experience from others who have gone through it. But even as I am counting down to it, it seems unreal. A part of me still can't believe that there isn't some way out of this. That there isn't someone else I could pay to do this for me.
Yeah, it's irrational.
Sometimes I even think that maybe I shouldn't do it. That it just doesn't make sense to poison myself in order to be cured.
But then my intellect trumps my fear and I remind myself of just how lucky I am to have the doctors, pharmacology and science to treat and defeat this disease.
I remind myself that I can do this. I must. I will. And I'll appreciate every blessed drop, for the chemo drugs will ultimately allow me to live the long life that I so desire. It will allow me to claim a future that is cancer-free.
Still, I have to work hard not to get hung up on the symptoms that may follow the administration of the chemotherapy. We've all heard the horror stories; some of you reading this may have experienced them or watched a love one suffer. Miserable nausea, often followed by weight gain because of the steroid anti-nausea medication. Hair loss, which I am assured of. Fatigue--a level of cosmic exhaustion that cannot be anticipated. Aches and pains. So-called 'chemo brain' which drops a fog over cognitive thinking and memory.
My doctor and others who have done what I am about to do assure me that, these days, chemotherapy can be well managed. People known to be truthful tell me that the misery is far, far less than what patients experienced in even the recent past. That, while it's no one's idea of Fun, it can all be tolerated.
All I can think about right now, though, is the bathroom on the bus.
I can't think about what will happen when I get to my destination--which is the other side of the chemotherapy. I don't know exactly what happens then. I am preoccupied with the first, next leg of my journey.
For my daughter, it's the focus on the novelty of the bus biffy. Me, I think about sitting in a room with an IV drip. I am focused on how I will fare, because everyone reacts to the chemo cocktail differently, depending on their own unique body chemistry.
I truly wish that my first chemo session was behind me. It will be a relief to know exactly what the experience will be and to have faced it. For me, it seems the unknown is the bear in the forest.
"The first chemo tells the tale," the kind-eyed nurse reassured me just this morning. "Once it's done, we'll know how you react. We'll see how you do and tinker with what you'll need to take care of you and make you feel good." She smiled sympathetically. "Everybody talks about the people who react badly. You don't hear nearly as much about the vast majority of patients, who do just fine."
I will be among that number, I'm sure. I will do just fine. I spend a fair amount of time these days, calming my restless mind and staying upbeat--or, when I can't do that, keeping my spirit in neutral. I want to be tough, not a complainer or a whiner. I want to accept this and not fight it.
I want to use the damn bathroom on the damn bus and get on with the journey so I can experience what church camp will be like. That's what I really want.

* * * * * * * * *

I have not written much in the past week. I have had a number of medical appointments--physical therapy for my arm, body scans, blood work. Between running around, working, and focusing on gathering my internal strength, I have made less time to ruminate on the blog.
I hope this will be a space where I can continue to process what I'm experiencing with those of you who are interested in hearing about it.
The radio show will continue to be a place where I go to get away from some of This. On my first show back after surgery, I promised you that I would not turn The Kevyn Burger Show into The Cancer Show. I want to talk, laugh, and get snarky like always. I need it--and need you to help me have fun!
For those of you who would like to hear a more personal, me-focused take on my experience, I offer the written word on the blog. The blog is meant to be an alternative way for me to interact with FM107 listeners. If what I write here is of little interest to you, I hope you will simply bypass the blog and will continue to listen to the show from 9 to 11 Monday through Friday. I hope to still be behind the microphone most days.
I do not want to become the face of breast cancer in the Twin Cities. I have become a reluctant expert on this disease. But, really, who would want to be the face of this disease? Who would want to become the go-to Survivor Girl?
I do realize that I am in an extraordinary situation...that, because I have lived my life on the public airwaves, I am in a unique position to raise awareness about breast cancer. I could do some good here. I could and I should.
To be honest, I don't yet know how--and when--I can use that position. I'll figure that out as I go. Right now, my sole focus in on healing and staying strong. So stay tuned and know that I'm pondering what my move will ultimately be.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of you who have sent your prayers to me and my family. We feel the power of that wave of good wishes.
I know that many of you offer a positive thought or blessing in my direction as you cross the river. I feel it. I feel it. I feel it and I humbly thank you.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hit me!

I never crossed the bridge today.
On these summer mornings, I particularly relish crossing the Mississippi River as I head into the station. When I'm in the middle of the bridge, suspended over the water, I make sure that my head swivels from right to left, north to south, to take in the majestic vision of that storied ribbon of water.
Too often on my morning commute in the past, I would arrive at the parking lot at work with no memory of making the drive--I had coasted in on autopilot.
Right now, I'm working on and learning to be 'more present' in my every be less distracted, to appreciate each task for the pleasure in it, to give up the idea that multi-tasking is a worthy, efficient accomplishment.
I'm changing. This is good.
I want to be more alive in my own life, less distracted by the illusion of busy-ness and productivity. I want to slow down and stop coasting on autopilot.
I've only been back at work for two days, so I'm hardly stuck in the old routine. And I really, really want to be back on the air. The contemplative cocoon I've spun for myself to inhaibt in the days since surgery has served me well, but at some point, this extrovert can have too much silence and a good thang could go bad. I needed very much to return to my familiar post and the work that I love so much. I needed the stimulation and laughter that I find in the broadcast booth. I was so content, being back in my chair and on the air on Monday and Tuesday. I found it comforting that, in the midst of so much change, my ability to talk on the radio has remained a constant.
But right now, the only way I can do my work is to work differently. My post surgery fatigue demands that I show up later, leave earlier, let the show flow with less preparation. Be more myself, more spontaneous. Like its host, the program is in transition.
As part of my determined effort to work less and sleep more, I now leave for the office at 8:00 am--I used to take off at 6:00. This time switch gets me into the thick of rush hour traffic for the first time in years.
I felt particularly cheerful this morning as I walked out my back door, coffee in hand. I noticed a squirrel scampering on my back fence, admired the purple petunias spilling out of the clay pots on my patio. I turned the key, popped the car into reverse and tuned into Ian without Margery. Ah. Feeling centered and content, I turned out of my driveway and soon was heading north on 35W.
As I approached the turn from 35 to eastbound 94, I noticed the red brake lights on the car in front of me. I braked.
Fortunately, I was not going too fast, not tailing too closely.
Unfortunately, the car behind me WAS going too fast, WAS tailing too closely.
My eyes flicked to my rearview mirror. In slow motion, I saw the vehicle behind me--which I swear looked more imposing than one of those monster trucks with the two-story-tall wheels--looming large.
I'm about to be rear-ended, I thought. My mind froze around one word. I braced myself and muttered, "Oh, heavens to Betsy!"
(Actually, I didn't mention heaven or Betsy. I know there are words that broadcasters who value their jobs do not use on the airwaves. I don't know if it's dangerous to use those words in a blog that appears on a broadcast website. I'm not taking any chances...a prudent policy seems to be: if you can't say it on the air, best not write it on the blog.)
The huge car--which later shrunk to being a cherry red Nissan--hit me. Hard.
I pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway and cautiously stepped out of my car. The other driver--a young woman--was mashed behind her inflated airbag. Her front bumper was in the road, her hood was crumpled, and I could hear a hissing-gurgling coming from the exposed engine.
The damage to my car was minor in comparison--a shredded back bumper and dented hatch.
The Highway Helper came arrived with the orange cones. The other driver got her car on the shoulder of the road. She squeezed out of her car, realized she was unharmed and began crying. She was trembling too hard to write down her insurance information for me. The patrol officer showed up with his clipboard. The tow truck arrived to haul the other car away. I was able to drive my car home.
I called Alexis, told her I wouldn't be in to do the show, and headed home.
I've spent the rest of the day seeing doctors.
Checking in with receptionists, filling out medical forms and flipping through magazines in medical waiting rooms is nothing out of the ordinary for me these days, but today the appointments were all 'squeezes,' doctors pushing their schedules around to accomodate me.
When my car was struck, I was thrown hard against my seat belt. I immediately got a headache and felt a very slight twinge in my shoulder and lower back. Although I did not have a feeling of dread or true concern about any of this, I'm totally freaked out about a)my body and b)my bad luck with my health right now.
I called my primary care physician who recommended that I make immediate appointments with my plastic surgeon and a neurologist.
The plastic surgeon checked my incisions and my implant. (Still feels mighty wierd to write that word and know that it applies to moi!) Both were determined to be intact. Good. The neurologist squeezed my shoulders, tapped my hands with a silver hammer, passed a cylinder in front of my face to watch my eyes track it. He, too, pronounced me fine. Good again!
Call me shaken, not stirred.
All's well that ends well, as my mother says.
But I'm hung up on that instant when I looked in my rear view mirror. When I knew I was going to be hit--but just didn't know how hard, with what force and velocity. I didn't know if I would shoot through my windshield, or if my car would be struck so that it would spin into the adjacent lane, just as a multi-ton 18-wheeler was bearing down.
There was time for one word to form in my brain, to bubble up from my place of deepest fear. The word was "Please."
Please let me live.
Yes, I'm exhausted right now. It's been a day of reading off claim numbers, accident reports and rushing to doctor's offices. I've talked to several claim agents at several insuance agencies. I took my car to a repair shop and learned that it will take four days to repair what looks like a coupla dents to me.
A busy, tedious, frustrating, exhausting day.
But I'm not bitchin.
My life could have ended today. Right now, I could be in a hospital with critical injuries. In a brief second, my future could have been altered forever. Once again.
But it didn't.
I didn't cross the river today. But I'll do it tomorrow.
"Please" isn't much of a prayer, but it was all I had time for. It was a prayer that was heard and heeded. For those of you who have been praying for me--thanks. The spillover from your prayers might have saved me this morning.

Monday, June 25, 2007

We Are Your Friends, You'll Never Be Alone Again.

Hot Damn! Mom was back on the air today.
I woke up in time to catch the whole ten o'clock hour while I ate breakfast and it felt great to hear her voice pumping through the kitchen HI-FI again.
Although she's not exactly "back in action" I'm glad Mom has made the choice to do the show as often as she feels able.

Here is a response to this morning's show posted by Mom's long-time friend J.C. Burns.

Here is a link to Andrew Zimern's food and dining blog with a post regarding Mom kicking cancer's butt.

And here is the news in City Pages posted by Mom's friend G.R. Anderson, Jr.
"Last week's news that Kevyn Burger has breast cancer shocked her friends and radio listeners alike. Not just because the FM-107 chat-show host conducted self-exams over the air every month—asking her listeners to play along at home, work, or in the car—but also because the lady seems so damn invincible.
She took to the airwaves for one hour Thursday morning to talk about her illness before undergoing surgery, reconstruction, and chemo. In typical Burger fashion, she was stunningly frank, but her wicked sense of humor bubbled up when she talked about losing her hair and her breasts.
"I got a good rack," Burger said. "I always felt I got a good shake, literally, in that department. I love my hair, and I love my breasts, and now I'm going to lose both."
She wrapped up by vowing to come back, and you can bet that she will."

The river photograph for this post was provided by Missouri photographer Jacob Bruton.