MomentI hear my iPhone vibrate just before the end of the therapy session. By the time my client dries her tears, writes a check, and takes a few Kleenex for the road, it’s 12:55–five minutes before my next client.

I punch in the voicemail code and listen. It’s the doctor, the one who removed a polyp from my uterus the week before.

“It’s likely nothing,” she had assured me. “Ninety-nine percent of the time everything’s fine.”

Now I hear her voice: “I need to talk with you, so call me. They can come and get me even if I’m with someone.”

Because I must be with someone and their troubles in less than five minutes, I don’t call then. But in that moment I know I have cancer.

I pretend I don’t know so I can make it through the session.  Then I usher my client out the door and prepare myself to return the call I don’t want to return. I’m supposed to meet my friend Deb for a walk—a walk I’ll need now more than ever, which is why I do not cancel it. I can count on Deb. I can also count on her to be late, so I hit “Call back” on the doctor’s message en route to our rendezvous spot.

The doctor says she’s sorry to have to tell me this, but the biopsy turned out to be cancerous.

“We were all so surprised!” she blurts out, apologizing for how light-hearted everyone had been during the outpatient procedure.

It’s true—she, the nurses, and I had treated it like a lark, laughing and telling raunchy jokes as I, woozy with painkillers, lay on my back with my feet in the stirrups while they dug out the suspect tissue.

The doctor tells me she doesn’t yet know much, but wanted to call right away so I could begin to wrap my mind around this. She utters the words “uterine papillary serous carcinoma,” which I gather is the technical term for uterine cancer. I write it down so I can look it up at the end of my long, busy day. The doctor quickly mentions next steps, adding that early detection is on our side. I can tell she wants to get off the phone even more than I do.

Luckily, Deb arrives just then, so I release the doctor and turn to my friend.

“Guess what? I just found out I have cancer,” I say matter-of-factly.

Deb is full of hugs and sympathy, even though she cannot keep from pointing out the house where her friend who died of melanoma lived.

“Don’t tell Jonathan,” she says, meaning my husband, who was diagnosed with melanoma two years ago. He’s completely fine now.

I’m not sure if Deb means I shouldn’t tell Jonathan some people die of what didn’t kill him, or if I shouldn’t tell him I have cancer.

But I do tell him, when we are both home from work. Jonathan is shocked, as am I, which must be why I’ve so blithely been able to carry on with my day even though my life has been upended.

Jonathan and I both assume that, like him, I’ll be fine, too. Uterine cancer, after all, is the one everyone says is the kind to have if you must have cancer. Even my mother, a hypochondriac given to fits of hysteria, sailed through hers with barely a whimper.

After a brief interlude of hugs and tears, Jonathan and I sail through the rest of our evening as if nothing, not even cancer, can interfere with our plans. We are determined to watch President Obama accept the nomination for a second term at the Democratic Convention. We are even more determined to present a good face to our 21-year-old daughter, Ally, who returns later that night brimming with stories from a backpacking trip.  We lap up her enthusiasm as if our lives depend on it. Perhaps they do.

After everyone has gone to bed, I sit down at the computer a few minutes before midnight and google the fancy term the doctor used: “Uterine papillary serous carcinoma.”

Rare and aggressive.

Highly malignant.

This is not my mother’s uterine cancer. I read on, fear choking me like ash. Even women with Stage 1 UPSC have an iffy prognosis. Will I make it to Ally’s college graduation next year?

For six months between that moment at 12:55 and the first day of spring, when treatment ends, my life is measured out in precisely timed appointments: CT scans; a complete hysterectomy sandwiched between pre-op and post-op meetings; oncology and Chinese medicine consults; chemo and nutrition classes; bloodwork; wig fittings; three rounds of internal radiation; acupuncture; six infusions of poison into my veins. I imagine the invisible cancer mushrooming inside me. Not knowing how many moments I have left, each moment is etched in my brain.

Then it is over, and I am fine. At least for the time being. I make it to my daughter’s college graduation. In the pictures of me standing next to her in cap and gown, my smile is wide, my wig slightly askew.

When I was a teenager I read a short story about people who are granted the power to learn the exact hour and manner of their deaths. Initially grateful, they spend all their time trying to outfox fate, to no avail. They die anyway, having spent their entire lives obsessed, anxious, and miserable.

The last thing I want is a crystal ball. Time already stopped once, at 12:55 on a September afternoon.  I do not want to know when it will stop for good.


Today is the third anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. I am fine. What moments–for better and for worse–are etched in your memory?

P is for Pinnacles


It’s a steep haul up the High Peaks Trail, especially when you’re seven months pregnant with your first child. But back then, giddy with promise, my husband Jonathan and I floated past the massive boulders of Pinnacles National Park. Cresting the summit, baby bulk and all, I relished the double take of the buff, shirtless teenagers loitering atop the rocks. They paused mid-swagger to glance in horror at my swollen belly as I conquered the mountain in my smocked maternity top.

Our family has returned to the Pinnacles again and again, drawn by the massive cliffs, soaring spires, and lush spring wildflowers. Leaving behind the fragmented kaleidoscope of daily life, we are calmed by the reliable sameness of the timeless, indifferent peaks.

Yet even in this constant landscape, change is under way. The fantastic rock formations are the remains of an ancient volcano ravaged by erosion, creeping steadily up the Salinas Valley along the San Andreas Fault. I am grateful that only subtle clues dispel the illusion of permanence. A precariously balanced boulder has fallen from its perch. Spatters of chartreuse and rust lichen toil as alchemists, turning rock to soil. Their magic allows monkey flowers the color of apricots to bloom from dirt pockets hidden in solid stone.

Time has worked its alchemist’s magic on us as well. Two years after our initial trip, we camp at the Pinnacles, weighed down by the accoutrements of toddlerhood — diapers, goldfish crackers, juice boxes, a travel crib. Emma, whose in utero view had been obscured, now enjoys the scenery from the baby backpack that digs into our shoulders as we trudge along the dusty trail.

When we return again, the campground has been paved over for more parking. This time, we have two young daughters in tow, barely out of diapers. But Emma and Ally are definitely into sit-down strikes at the prospect of hiking more than a few hundred yards. Not wishing to fight an uphill battle, we content ourselves with the flat path at the base of the mountains so the girls can splash in the creek. Jonathan, impatient with the meandering pace of childhood, sprints to the summit while the girls and I delight in wild bouquets and rocky forts along the valley floor.

The next time the Pinnacles beckon, Emma and Ally gamely traverse the High Peaks Trail. They are enchanted by poppies sprouting out of boulders, the rock that looks like a camel. The girls nibble on miner’s lettuce and strategic bribes of chocolate, scampering around the summit while their tired parents lag behind. Rocks and children tame each other: whininess turns to exultation, forbidding stone becomes an infinite playground.

Although the incline invites vertigo, the girls clamber up and down, up and down the footholds chiseled into the rock, swinging from the metal banister as if nature and the Park Service had fashioned monkey bars just for them. Jonathan and I must squeeze through the narrow cliff passage in an awkward crouch. But it is just the right size for Emma and Ally, who march through boldly upright, giggling as their crooked parents bump their heads against the rocky overhang.

We are not the only ones who find the Pinnacles a good place for families. Condors, recently reintroduced to the park, build nests in the sheltered crevices. While they teach their young how to catch thermals, we show ours how to catch the shine of buttercups on their chins in the warm sunlight.

Now our daughters have taken flight too, soaring and wavering in their own grown-up landscapes. Alone again, Jonathan and I make our pilgrimage to drink in the riotous wildflowers and steadfast rocks whenever time allows. As always, we stop in Soledad at Pacheco’s Mexican Grocery for tortas — soft white rolls dripping with spicy carnitas.

Soledad, gateway to the Pinnacles, has sprung up even faster than Emma and Ally. Twenty-seven years ago, it consisted of Pacheco’s, a prison, a few dusty streets of dilapidated houses, and a fleabag hotel with a cracked, empty swimming pool. Now the highway billboard reads: “It’s happening in Soledad.”  Vineyards dot the hillsides, and a tony resort lies adjacent to the Pinnacles. Kids from tidy homes with manicured yards swarm the soccer field at the spanking new school. A vast shopping center dwarfs the original Main Street, but we still head to our old Mexican grocery. Pacheco’s, whose tortas remain a juicy, scrumptious bargain, is as timeless as the Pinnacles.

Fueled by the succulent tortas and memories, Jonathan and I start up the High Peaks Trail once more. Although stiffer and a little creaky, we ascend quickly past the boulders and apricot blooms of monkey flower.

Again and again, we come back to ourselves in the shelter of the enduring cliffs.


What is your favorite family place that you return to over and over?

From Boyhood to Adulthood, Time Passes


“We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process.”  (Anthony Lane’s review of Boyhood in The New Yorker, July 21, 2014)

In Richard Linklater’s wonderful film, Boyhood, we see a boy and his family grow up throughout 12 years of real rather than simulated aging. Time itself is one of the lead actors. Toward the end of the film, the boy, Mason, talks with a young woman he meets on his first day of college. “Seize the moment,” they conclude about the adage, has it backwards. Actually, “the moment seizes you.”

Every one of Boyhood’s ­­164 minutes seized me through its assemblage of ordinary moments that constitute life. At my urging, my 23- and 26-year-old daughters went to see the film. They liked it, but both said it was more for middle-aged people than young ones. This strikes me as true, but why?

Perhaps a fundamental difference between how my daughters and I perceived the film stems from the fundamental difference between how children and adults perceive time. For kids, time passes slowly, excruciatingly or deliciously so. Adults, on the other hand, want to stop if not reverse the clock. They have a consciousness of aging that children lack. Linklater simultaneously captures a child’s moment-by-moment experience and the palpable nostalgic ache of adulthood. Longing for what is lost to time itself adds an extra dimension for the viewer old enough to have moved midway through time’s trajectory.

During one of Boyhood’s earliest scenes, Mason’s mother hands him a can of paint and asks him to cover up stray marks in preparation for moving. Mason whites out the lines on the door jamb marking his and his sister’s heights—measurements that are a yearly ritual for any family. We don’t know how six-year-old Mason experiences the moment. Perhaps he is eager to complete a task for his beleaguered mother, perhaps he’s annoyed that his sister chats on the phone while he works, perhaps he’s sad about the friends he’s about to leave behind. But surely the child feels the disruption of the present moment, not retrospective longing as his paintbrush obliterates the record of growth spurts.

Such nostalgia is the purview of adult viewers, if not Mason’s mother, who is mostly too harried and pragmatic to feel its pull until she is on the brink of the empty nest. That’s when time’s passage wallops her. As she despairingly imagines it, everything’s over in the blink of an eye,

For much of the time Linklater was writing and filming, “Always Now” was his working title. But the film might also be called “Looking Backward.” Again, it’s the difference in perspective between young and old, and between the young and old viewer. One unfolds to new possibilities while the other feels the sharp poignancy of what is already gone.

Maybe that’s why when young people get married, “Sunrise, Sunset” makes it onto the band’s playlist not for the newlyweds, but for their parents. And why Boyhood makes it onto my, but not my daughters’, all-time-favorites list.


How has your perspective on time changed with age? And if you’ve seen Boyhood, what did you think of it? If you have kids who saw it, what did they think?