Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mrs. Hughes

Growing up, my siblings and I didn't watch much television. It wasn't that my parents had any rules about it, because they didn't. It was really just that we didn't even think of it as something to do. Instead, in our pre-teen and early teen years, Rachel and I were at gymnastics every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday night from 5:30-8:30pm. I remember our nannies feeding us mac and cheese before they drove us to gymnastics and we would sometimes watch a few minutes of Saved by the Bell or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air while we scarfed down our dinner, but that was about it. In high school, I did homework all night every night that I wasn't playing sports and I finally gave up pretending that I knew what much cooler kids were talking about when they laughed about something on TV.

It wasn't until college that I discovered the joys of television. Brian and I developed a healthy obsession with The West Wing and admittedly, Jed Bartlet, or better yet, Aaron Sorkin, deserves some credit for bringing us together. Through the years, our love of television has carried us through every episode of Lost (loved it from start to finish despite that I rarely understood what decade it was), Mad Men (a brilliant work of art), Friday Night Lights ("you had me at Eric Taylor"), The Shield (some of the most intriguing characters ever created)and Modern Family (hilarious). We've also laughed our way through many episodes of The Middle, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, 30 Rock, Entourage, and Friends re-runs. Brian has pretended that he didn't totally love Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and Dancing with the Stars, and we both will never forgive the American public for its lack of love for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Oprah deserves (and will receive) a whole blog unto herself, but let's just say that she was my rock for years and I take personal offense to anyone that insults her. 

That list alone probably evidences my love of TV, and I admit, it's my escape. Which brings me to the show that Brian and I watched tonight after the kids were asleep and the Christmas tree was finally packed up and put away. Downton Abbey. I've never watched a PBS show religiously until this one and I don't think I'm the only fan who would say that. But seriously, that show is so darn good and it was a long nine or ten months waiting for it to start up again. 

When the season premiered in the U.S. just over a week ago, I was giddy with excitement and even though Brian may deny it, I think he was too. The show includes so many great characters and gripping story lines, and it's an awesome escape into a totally different country, century, and way of life. 

Spoiler Alert. The show's writers introduced a few new plot lines in the first episode of the third season, including that the head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, finds a lump in her breast. I almost spit my ice cream across the living room when I realized the plot development. You've got to be freaking kidding me, I laughed to Brian. But they weren't kidding. Last week Mrs. Hughes visited the doctor and he took a biopsy of the lump to see if it was cancer. So much for an escape. 

My Mom and I had a good laugh about the fact that Downton Abbey just introduced a breast cancer story line. But I'm pretty sure she wasn't laughing when she and my Dad were watching it last week. She needs an escape too. 

This week, Mrs. Hughes waited anxiously for the biopsy results as the news of her potential illness spread to a few people in the house. Brian kept pressing pause and asking me if I was OK. I'm just fine, I told him, I promise. I'm pretty sure that he was scared I'd have a panic attack, but I knew that I wouldn't because I wasn't lying when I said that I was fine. 

There was a scene in this week's episode where Mrs. Hughes and close her friend, Mrs. Patmore (the cook), are standing on the side of the street across from the hospital. They had both dressed up and traveled into town to obtain Mrs. Hughes' biopsy results. Of course, they were both terrified. As they stared at the hospital across the street and tried to gather their strength to enter, Mrs. Hughes finally declared to Mrs. Patmore, "Well, I'm not going to be cured standing here." And then they crossed the street into the hospital. 

At that moment, Downton Abbey was the very opposite of an escape for me. Instead, it brought me back to the day when we waited for the doctor to call with my biopsy results. My Mom and Rachel were over and I remember that the TV was on the Olympics even though all of us were too nervous to really watch it. The phone rang and I picked it up. It was a nurse and I knew she had the official news. It wasn't going to be news to me because I saw the look in the radiologist's eyes when he told me he was almost certain that he saw cancer. Instead, for me, that call was just confirmation of what I already knew. Since I didn't want to hear the words, I gave the phone to my Mom. I knew by her response -- a calm and collected tone about next steps -- that I had cancer. If the results had been negative, she'd have broken down in tears. What a fabulous irony. 

Brian was crushed by the official results. He told me that he had held onto the hope that it wasn't cancer. I felt so badly that he was a day behind in his acceptance of the nightmare, but I knew that he'd catch up. 

Amazingly, tonight as I relived that afternoon next to my empty bowl of half-the-sugar ice cream, I didn't feel any anxiety, panic, fear, or sadness. Rather, I felt enormous pride. Hopefully this doesn't mean that all of my empathy has been replaced by an impulse to give myself a pat on the back because sooner or later I'll end up being a total jerk. But tonight I'll let myself have a moment of glory. Especially because it appears that Mrs. Hughes' results were negative for cancer (phew, love her, although I'm ready for a plot twist). 

I haven't yet wanted (or been ready) to reflect on being done with chemo, but for some reason tonight, as Mrs. Hughes declared that she wasn't going to be cured standing there, I felt like all I wanted to do was write about it. Because at that moment, I was bursting with pride. 

Even though this may come across sounding vain, I really am proud of myself. I'm proud that I survived waiting for those biopsy results and that I survived the first night knowing them. I'm proud that I survived a double mastectomy and the week of waiting for the official news about how far my cancer had spread. I'm proud that I survived anaphylaxis and subsequent procedures that pushed drugs into my system despite that I was deathly allergic to them. I'm proud that I survived when I had no white blood cells to help me fight infection. I don't want to bother finding a unique or eloquent way to say it -- I'm just really freaking proud that I survived. 

A few months ago, the breast cancer plot-line in Downton Abbey would have crushed me. I'd have lost it when I saw the fright in Mrs. Hughes's eyes and the hesitation in her step, and I probably would have stopped watching the show altogether. But tonight, I don't feel like crying for Mrs. Hughes. Instead I want to scream to the hills that I survived some really shitty moments like those that were depicted in the show. I want to scream out the window, F.U. cancer! And once I've gotten that prideful energy out there, I want to hug people like Mrs. Hughes and tell them that they will survive those moments too. 

On Wednesday morning my Mom and I will walk into Dana-Farber to hear the results of the echocardiogram that I will have had across the street at the Brigham just a few hours before. I will learn how my heart has tolerated the Herceptin, and then I will receive another infusion of that life-saving drug. I remember the first time I walked into Dana-Farber. It was the scariest building I had ever visited. But Mrs. Hughes was right, I wasn't going to be cured standing outside of it. So I went in. Even better, I came out again. 


  1. Tara - I couldn't believe it when that plot line developed. I literally turned to Matt and said that you and mom aren't going to watch the show anymore. Of course, I underestimated you. You would think I would know not to do that by now. But instead of no longer watching, you watched, and instead of cowering, you took pride in the fact that you did one of the hardest thigns a person has to do, and you did it with humor, love, honor, and kindness. Your pride comes from not letting your fear stop you at the door. My pride comes from getting to be your sister.

  2. Tara, you are so full of high energy and good humor about the darkest obstacles one has to face. You are simply amazing and so fun to be around. I think of you often and I also - LOVE - Downton Abbey. (Nels does too, while perhaps not giddy with excitement :) I, too, didn't watch much TV when I was little and was buried in homework most nights. I am now between jobs so I will call you so we can get together! xoxo Jen