On Mugs, Cancer and Transforming Our Bruises

My husband and I used to have a housemate named Vanessa in a big, stately old brownstone in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. This was in the 1990s, when the neighborhood was kind of like the O.K. Corral and every day, there were fresh bizarre car accidents to puzzle over. (“But how did the car end up upside-down without anyone in it???”) We lived on the top floor, our landlord lived on the main floor and Vanessa and her occasional boyfriend, a tall, glowering guy who was as grumpy as she was buoyant, lived in the basement.

Vanessa was a true ray of sunshine. In retrospect, I think her secret was she was usually just a little high, but she was also just naturally bubbly. I would see her sometimes coming home from work and she’d truly be skipping down the street, chatting with the birds, smiling at strangers. She was just a lovely person, kind of a hippie but more than anything, an artist. She loved the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt and would paint lavish, lush works inspired by him with the curvy lines and bright colors of the psychedelic ’60s. Like any good Deadhead, Vanessa had an old Volkswagen van, but hers was covered with dreamy visions she painted on by hand. One warm day, I was outside while she was painting on her car. “Every time I get a new dent or scratch,” she said, “I paint a flower on it.” It’s true, her van was covered with flowers. “Like a kiss on a booboo,” I said. “Yep,” she said, smiling that big, bright smile of hers, filling in a petal.

We lived in that beautiful house together for a couple of years, until Vanessa broke up with her boyfriend and hit the road, eventually touring with the Allman Band. John and I ran into Vanessa some years ago at a Whole Foods in Chicago. Our son was five or six, and we recognized each other right away. She had a toddler with her. Vanessa was a single mom, still bright and cheerful, but a little stressed, as we all get when we have children and our carefree 20s are behind us. She had an edge to her now, whereas before, she was all happily smudged. Things didn’t work out with her son’s father but she was keeping on. We exchanged emails and got caught up in one another’s lives a bit but we haven’t talked in a while. I hope she sees this and gets in touch because I don’t think I remembered to tell her about my mug and how central it is to her.

I have had this mug, a Klean Kanteen, since my son was in a stroller, so at least 15 years. I remember I bought it at the Green Festival in Chicago when it was at McCormick Place. For the first year or so, it was a shiny silver, but it wasn’t long before my mug started to get some dings. Don’t we all get some dings? Things drop, you know. Life happens. I don’t know if it was a conscious or subconscious decision at first, but as soon as the mug started to get some bumps and bruises, I began covering them with stickers I’d collected, Vanessa style. I go to a lot of festivals so I get a fair number of stickers, and stickering my mug over these past 15 years has been a form of soft outreach, especially since my mug goes virtually everywhere with me. The outreach is not only for bringing your own mug, but for the businesses, politicians and beliefs I support. My mug of today kind of reminds me of a bathroom door in an old punk club, just full of weatherbeaten band stickers, one on top of the other, older layers peeking under torn pieces, a very messy collage or papier-mâché.

I am not exaggerating when I say I bring this mug with me almost everywhere. Even on a quick trip to the grocery store, it will be in the cup holder. On my trip to Colorado to see a friend who was dying, I brought it as well. (She had a kick-ass sticker collection, too.) When I am sitting at my computer all day, it is at my side, and when I go to bed, it is always placed within arm’s reach.

Like many of us, my mug has seen better days. Some of the stickers are worn. The lid no longer has the tightest of seals. I am pretty sure it doesn’t keep things as cold as it used to, but it’s still my mug. Whenever I think of trading it in for a shinier model with a better top, I feel a profound sadness. This mug has been with me through thick and thin. What kind of person am I to even consider retiring it? A monster.

The day before yesterday, I couldn’t find my mug all day. My husband — the same one I lived in the beautiful brownstone with — is having a bone marrow transplant. He was diagnosed with leukemia in February and while we have been very lucky as he got into remission fairly quickly, it has been a chaotic and scary time filled with lots of hospital visits, consultations with doctors that hurt my stomach and long appointments multiple times a week. For me, it’s been a surreal experience of being very scared but also profoundly aware of the bullet we seem to have dodged. Although he is in remission, the bone marrow transplant is an added assurance that this kind of cancer, which is frequently recurring, will not return.

A bone marrow transplant itself is so low-key, it’s almost anticlimactic. It’s not surgical like an organ transplant; it’s much more like a blood transfusion. It’s the time afterwards where John will be very vulnerable to infection and even a simple cold could be fatal that is most decidedly not low-key. Due to his suppressed immune system as the new stem cells are created in his bone marrow, he will be under quarantine for one hundred days at home. As his caregiver, I cannot get sick, either. Nor can our son. It will be an intense experience, no doubt, and we are exceedingly fortunate to have a community of near and distant friends who are so supportive.

But the day before yesterday, the day my husband was getting his actual transplant, I misplaced my mug. I was running up, down and across our home keeping things going all morning — the laundry, the dishes, gathering things to bring to the hospital, things to unpack and wash from the hospital the day before, taking our son to school, making sure meals are made and packed, kind of like an acrobat with a million spinning plates — and somewhere along the way, I set my mug down and could not find it. I spent a frazzled 20 minutes looking before I had to run to the hospital and finally, I grabbed a ball jar and lid and took off. It’s a cute vessel: the lid is actually a sippy attachment like with a toddler’s cup, and it’s fastened to the jar with a canning ring. But it’s too wide for my car’s cup holder. And the ice makes the glass “sweat,” plus the ice melts fast. In other words, it’s not my beloved mug. My mug may be battle-scarred but there is an indentation in it that perfectly fits where my right thumb goes, nestling in the dimple so I don’t even need to look to see if it’s facing the right way for drinking. I just need to slide my hand around, which is perfect when driving. It’s become another limb, this mug, part of my body.

That ball jar is more stylish and on trend but was making my hand cold and wet. It was ungainly to carry around with all my bags from the parking lot to my husband’s hospital room, sloshing around. I was actually drinking less because of it — not just because every sip reminded me that it wasn’t my perfect mug, but because I spent any stray moment trying to figure out where I could have left it — and this made me grumpy and dehydrated. It also made my pee burn, the last thing I needed to worry about.

Last night, I went downstairs to gather laundry and there my mug was, waiting for me on the dryer. I had obviously placed it there the day before when I was putting laundry in. It was still full, too, and the water was still cold from the ice of the day before. What had I been complaining about, that it wasn’t keeping things cold anymore? Please. I held it close to my chest for a minute and was so grateful I didn’t have to go to the lost and found at the hospital and ask for this weird little sticker-covered thing no one in her right mind would care much about. Reunited and it felt so good. I actually pressed a couple of new stickers on — nice vinyl ones I’d been saving — for good measure because my mug and I had been through something together.

Somehow this experience of losing and finding my mug swept up the dust of smiley, sunny Vanessa and her VW, and the simpler days before we knew about how some sudden bad news could make it feel like the ground was ready to swallow you up alive. I think this practice of painting flowers on dents or putting stickers on dings isn’t the same thing as slapping a happy face on pain but simply dusting ourselves off after an injury. It’s acknowledging that something less than perfect happened, lovingly ministering to it, and creating a better outcome from the circumstances.

Wherever you are, Vanessa, I hope life is treating you better because you deserve the best. I hope you’re still painting on booboos and canvases, and I hope your son fills you with joy. Thank you for this lesson in graceful acceptance and transformation. My mug may not be with me my whole life but no matter what, I know that I will never run out of stickers for any and every dent life sends my way.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store