‘I think of the scars across my belly, reminding me of how I’ve been put back together.’
Some people play Words Their Way on their phones. I play Book a San Francisco Trip. A dopamine rush hits as I bounce between Expedia and Travelocity, refreshing the screen for the thrill of price fluctuations — hoping for cheaper rates. A “Wander Wisely” pops up on the screen and does its job; I text my husband.
“Wanna go to SF?” He doesn’t dare say no. If he does, I’ll pull the “cancer card.” The perfect co-dependent, he’s become an enabling San Francisco travel companion; the city, itself, has become my Ace.
Photos document that my addiction to San Francisco started about eight years ago. Home equity loans taken to remodel our kitchen have financed a dozen or so trips. Never mind the roof leaks and the kitchen cabinets are from 1964. I tell my friends they’re mid-century — sans the modern.
We had just purchased our fixer-upper in a suburb of southern California when I was diagnosed with a rare neuroendocrine cancer almost twenty years ago. One day I was making rice crispy treats for a soccer game. The very next day, I became a cancer patient.
Too many tumors to count. I buckled at the mention of incurable.
How would I endure this new reality — my future now shrouded in the fog of uncertainty? The diagnosis led to a cocktail of treatments: chemo, surgeries, a clinical trial, and, the latest, four delicious doses of liquid radiation. Trips to San Francisco started shortly after a scan showed progression, offering me both a consoling balm and fits of escapism away from the realities at hand.
MRI scans now bring with them either daydreams or nightmares. Twice a year, I either receive a “get out of jail for free card” or I’m snagged back into “Cancerland,” as I call it. San Francisco’s inherent dichotomy fits either scenario.
This city bombards my senses with so many sights and smells and sounds, pleasant and unpleasant, each one complimenting and highlighting the other. San Francisco’s duality allows me to write either story with equal passion.
My typical San Francisco “fix” starts on a Friday, after work. I rush home and grab my husband, my luggage that’s been patiently waiting in the entryway all week, and the forbidden pack of cigarettes from the drawer of my nightstand. Anonymity protected, San Francisco is an escape from the rules.
Our room overlooks a lit-up Coit Tower. The iconic view is speckled with the muddy remains of raindrops. I’m disappointed. It reminds me of the once crystal-clear view of my future that is now muddled and uncertain.
A growl in my stomach distracts me, and I ask my husband where he wants to eat.
“Umm, Sotto Mare, of course,” he says.
Our favorite restaurant is nestled in the heart of North Beach. The walls sag with shelves of kitsch fishermen wearing yellow rain jackets and taxidermied swordfish that dangle from the ceiling.
Disco Inferno sets the tempo for clunks of platters and clinks of saucers. A cleaver thunks to crack and release sweet crab meat from its shell. I am reminded of the loud clacking inside the MRI.
“Hold your breath,” an automated voice will instruct. I’ll make myself statue-still, though my mind sits anything but stagnant. The slightest move might impact the measurements of the tumors in my liver; my life is now measured in millimeters, not days. My arm burns where the contrast dye enters, causing a metallic taste. It will illuminate the little tissue masses that determine my future.
Sotta Mare’s owner waddles his robust self to our table and snaps me back to the present. A savvy businessman, he makes his greeting migration through the crowd, shaking hands and slapping shoulders. A waitress delivers my drink. Bits of white foam dribble over the rim of a tall, sweating flute of pink prosecco. Its bubbling bite stings my throat. Crumbs scatter as I tear crusty sourdough to dab on a bit of butter. Soon, alcohol’s warm blanket wraps around my middle.
I’m healthy, I tell myself in self-assured confidence. I’ve lived with these tumors for almost twenty years — they haven’t grown for almost three. But, wait a minute, that’s the expiration date of the last treatment.
I replay what my oncologist said six months this year. “You’re doing great, Kelli. This treatment will last three to five, maybe up to seven years, if you’re lucky.” The warm blanket now grips and twists. Seven years? I want twenty or thirty! It’s not enough time.
Slow down! You’re such a puppy. I say this to my husband who is shoving the third piece of bread into his mouth. His eyes are crazed; there’s no stopping him. Our faces light up, and I can’t help but smile. Screw his high blood pressure. And I’m not here to think about my stupid cancer either, my inner voice chastises.
Our waitress approaches with a steamy cauldron. After tying plastic bibs around our necks, we slurp our cioppino. Its deliciousness coaxes me away from my ruminations.
Bellies full, we link arms and stride across the bustling intersection of Columbus and Green. My favorite gelato shop awaits.
The deep red of the blood orange flavor glistens next to the golden mango one. I search for my favorite, stracciatella — creamy vanilla sprinkled with bitter bites of chocolate. We shiver as we lap up our frozen dessert off little plastic spoons. My light jacket is no match for the bite of San Francisco’s chill.
A trail of scents leads us back to our hotel. The buttery aroma of caramel corn is interrupted by an acidic waft emanating from a yellowed corner of the ATM machine. A few steps further, and ocean’s salty breath carries the foul smell away. I light a cigarette and become heavier with each drag. I watch the bits of flicked ash.
Why am I so attached to this life? We’re all going to die sometime. We ride the elevator to our hotel room where scenes of the day lull me to sleep.
The next morning, at the farmer’s market, a chef’s cart rattles past vendors filled with ingredients — sweet plump strawberries, handfuls of piney pistachios, and a bundle of dandelion greens. The finale — a salty blue cheese. It’s no wonder world-renowned chefs are born in this city. Their conjured creations are balanced with sweet, savory, acidic, and even pungent
What would my life look like without the intense celebrations that come after a clean scan? Would I appreciate how delicious food tastes if my taste buds hadn’t been temporarily muted by medications?
That afternoon we climb Nob Hill. Soon my body rebels. My calves stiffen. My lower back throbs. I gulp the crisp air. At the next corner, out of breath, I slump, hands on my knees. But, when I lift my head, a picture-perfect view grabs my attention — framed by a tunnel of skyscrapers, the Bay Bridge stands tall. My first memory of the iconic landmark glared from my TV screen after the 6.9 magnitude quake caused the double-decker bridge to collapse upon itself in 1989.
I think of the scars across my belly, reminding me of how I’ve been put back together. Medical advancements. Prayers offered. Miracles manifested. My endurance.
Onward, up another perpendicular hill. Grace Cathedral, in her purple majesty, finally emerges.
Also brought to her knees by an earthquake, rebuilt, she stands tall today. Drawn into her cavernous bosom, my husband and I sit on a wooden pew that creaks loudly, ushering a wave of echoes. We tense into stillness. Then silence. At that moment, the afternoon sunlight penetrates the stained glass to release a shower of shimmering prisms that pulse and vibrate sending a ripple across my flesh.
I am more than this body. This truth I know. But it’s as elusive as the colors cascading down the walls at this moment in time. I want to swaddle myself in this “present” to buffer the onslaught of thoughts that will later come.
I take a mental snapshot, an anchor to hold on to when the tug of uncertainty returns.
Just like me, San Francisco, my gleaming jewel by the bay is blemished and chipped. Yet, she offers her respite. She doesn’t care about the story, because all the endings have been written on her page.
Kelli Devan Edwards is a writer, public speaker, long-term cancer survivor, and educator. She is a patient mentor for a Los Angeles-based support group for Neuroendocrine cancer and the newsletter editor for the Orange County Branch of the California Writers Club. In August 2022, her writing was published in Orange Coast Magazine. Born and always rooted in the Bay Area, Kelli frequents the city every few months.
Feature image: Courtesy of Michael Slaten
Kelli Devan Edwards is a writer, public speaker, long-term cancer survivor, and educator. She is a patient mentor for a Los Angeles-based support group for Neuroendocrine cancer and the newsletter editor for the Orange County Branch of the California Writers Club. Her writing has been published in Orange Coast Magazine, Journal of Expressive Writing, and Guideposts Magazine. Born and always rooted to the Bay Area, Kelli frequents the city every few months.