Matthew Lickona 11:49 p.m., Dec. 10
Same Route, Different Journey
Last week I returned to San Diego for vacation. It has been nine years since I left America’s finest city for my hometown in New Jersey. Every winter my husband and I ask ourselves, “What did we do?” We retell our war story of arriving in the brutal winter of 2003 to be approached by a gas station attendant (one perk of Garden State living) who noticed our California plates and said, “Why would ANYONE leave California and come here? Whatcha doing in Jersey???”
There are many things I miss about the San Diego lifestyle, especially my desire to exercise. Blame it on NJ weather (not so bad this year), or new motherhood (not so new with a 19 month old), but I need inspiration from my surroundings in order to move. I can count the number of times I have been on a treadmill on one hand. Running through New Jersey suburbs is fine but running around San Diego’s neighborhoods nourishes my soul. On vacation, I’m like a foodie (minus the grub) planning our trip by running routes rather than meal or restaurant.
During my four years in San Diego, I lived in Mission Hills, Crown Point, and Encinitas. My runs in these neighborhoods remind me of who and where I was at each point in life. When I arrived as a 22-year-old, I learned the city by running from my first apartment in Mission Hills down University through Hillcrest, exploring Balboa Park, towards the less populated streets that have become a real city since the addition of Petco Park, past the harbor, through Little Italy and up Sassafrass to the coolest street in San Diego, India Street. Or I would run through the posh neighborhoods of Mission Hills cruising down to Old Town which I mistakenly thought was a party scene since my first visit to San Diego fell on Cinco de Mayo.
I started graduate school at SDSU in 2000 and moved to a house in Crown Point. On the rare evening I was not in class or serving Amber Lagers at Karl Strauss in La Jolla, I jogged around Mission Bay. The lights from bay view condos illuminating my path were even more spectacular at dusk. The bay possessed a night-time serenity. As a kayaking instructor for the Mission Bay Aquatic Center, I occasionally led moonlight paddles towards the Sea World fireworks and explorations through La Jolla’s caves and coves. During each tour, I pinched myself wondering how a Jersey girl became so lucky.
My home away from home was Karl Strauss in La Jolla. Fate intervened with this job leading me to fun, hard-working co-workers who became life long friends. Karl Strauss reunions are special events with weddings and babies replacing nightly celebrations for no reason necessary. Runs in La Jolla were less frequent, but occasionally I’d hit the boardwalk winding through Bird Rock down towards the cove to catch up with whoever was behind the taps at the halfway mark. This and a few sips of Red Trolley Ale made the second leg of the journey even better.
Later I moved to Encinitas to be closer to my Solana Beach boyfriend (now my NJ husband) and chose to run more than ever. I ran the Rock and Roll marathon in June 2002, spending every Saturday morning from February through race time with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training tracking miles all over North County. Just thinking about the trails of Torrey Pines has my legs tingle remembering La Jolla’s half-marathon, my favorite race of all-time.
I ran along Mission Bay during this vacation. On my hour-long run-walk (it takes more time for someone who is a sporadic runner), I thought about being on the same route but on a different journey. My run began at the Bahia Hotel in Mission Beach where I’ve stayed twice on vacation; once in 2005 when my husband proposed, and now with a 19 month old in tow. When I came to San Diego for the first time in 1999 to visit college roommates, we hit the Bahia Belle for a night of fun. Whoever knew that the Sierra Club could tear it up and cage dance with us?
So this time I stopped to take it all in. Maybe we need to leave the places we love in order to appreciate them. Maybe when there is limited time, we realize how precious each moment becomes.
I have recently been faced with this parallel of same route, different journey living as a woman with the breast cancer gene. Current operating instructions following a prophylactic mastectomy are annual appointments with my breast surgeon and OBGYN to detect the slightest abnormalities. Two summers ago at 32 weeks pregnant, I found a lump under my armpit. The irony was when I felt the lump, I was writing a book chapter about the breast cancer gene. My first reaction was resistance. “I can’t believe I have to go through this again! I already went through this journey! I should be done with it!” I hated feeling like I was moving back in time rather than forward. It was slightly over a year post-mastectomy and I wanted to be thinking about my baby, not breasts.
“I’m pretty certain it’s benign,” my breast surgeon said explaining the shape and size was typical for pregnancy related changes. He shared I was one of a growing number of patients who had a mastectomy prior to having children. Lumps like mine happened with other pregnant patients, and he recommended I follow-up in 4 months.
I followed up 18 months later. The lump in my armpit faded, there was a new baby and role as a working mother, with life just happening. I wanted to be fine and close the chapter of this book forever, however unrealistic that might be.
This year I made my annual appointments. My breast surgeon thinks everything looks great, but an ultrasound revealed a blip on my ovary.
“I don’t want to alarm you, but I want another doctor to take a look,” my OBYGYN told me.
It did alarm me. The other doctor was my mother’s gynecological oncologist.
I sat in his waiting room on Thursday reading comments from my last blog link textpost, feeling like I revealed too much on a first date. I have danced around the topic of having the breast cancer gene for the past 3 years on my link textblog, with book chapters sitting untouched since my son’s birth. Maybe it is being on this same route and different journey calling me back again.
The doctor did not remember me at first. I did not expect him to with the exception that he was there on one of the most shattering days of my life. It was one of those days when you begin to think of life in terms of befores and afters. The doctor confirmed my mother’s diagnosis of peritoneal/ovarian cancer. I was alone with my mom in the hospital and my crazy thoughts. For the record, I am not the one you want with you when you hear bad news, with my tears being no poker face for my fears.
“You’re the California daughter who was getting married? How’s your mom?” the doctor asks.
“Six years strong,” I tell him.
He smiles and we consult for the next hour about my plans. I share that I’m not done having children. There are more somewhere waiting to be born. He agrees we can cross that bridge once they are. He schedules me for a second ultrasound for the thing I’m not supposed to be alarmed about. Surgery might be needed. Simple procedure he promises.
Today I am ready with miles of marathon training under my feet. Like my San Diego runs, I am in familiar territory although I am different. It’s been almost 7 years from the day of mom’s cancer diagnosis, exactly 6 years from her last chemo treatment, 3 1/2 years from my BRCA-2 genetic status, 3 years from my mastectomy, and 19 months as a mother. "I have put in some miles dealing with little lumps and bumps," I tell myself knowing that each mile has prepared me for whatever journey is next.