Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Scared of Not Being Scared

I hate to repeat myself and I hate to write blogs that I know are mediocore (at best), but tonight I'm going to do both of those things. In a vacation house full of sleeping people I love, I am wide awake, not only because I was the last one to wake up this morning, but because I'm scared. Yes, I'm scared. Scared for the same reason that I've written about countless times before. Scared that I have cancer in me.

I know the story is getting old, which is why I really don't talk about it with anyone anymore. But this is the space that is always willing to listen. It is the space where I can admit -- despite the redundancy of it all -- that my anxiety once again appears to be buliding as I near the anniversary of my diagnosis.

I thought a lot about this fear and anxiety today in a quiet 20 minutes I had alone kyacking on a lake in Maine. During that precious time, something clicked for me. An epiphany of understanding. A moment when I realized that I'm actually scared of not being scared.

The truth is that in the past few months, I've been relatively not scared of my cancer coming back. I've been particularly busy, which helps, and while there have been blips, overall, I've felt good both mentally and physically. The most valuable proof of this progress is in the fact that during the past few months, I've thought a lot about the future -- even the long-term one -- without anxiously doubting that I will be blessed with it.

Then, the summer arrived. I love the summer. But it also happens to be the season that I still associate with the scariest time of my life. Yes, those memories still weigh heavy with pain.

Today's realization was so simple yet so truly significant. I am scared to not be scared. I'm scared of that fact that I started to let my guard down. I'm scared that I started to feel free again -- free of the burden of cancer. Because the last time I felt free like that was right before I was jolted by the news that I sometimes still cannot fully comprehend.

Out on the kyack today, cruising across the glassy, gorgeous lake, I wondered about the dangers of feeling free. Am I setting myself up for another awful shock? Are these pains I feel in my chest and my neck something gravely significant -- the dreaded nightmare that "it's back"?!? It's come back in so many others, so why wouldn't it come back in me? These thoughts haunt me. Then I hate myself for thinking such negative things. And I wonder if my chest hurts because of the kyacking.

This blog is D+ material but I'm going to publish it anyways. I'm going to publish it because no one ever told me that there could come a time when I become scared of not being scared. But since that's happening to me, perhaps it's happening to others. And even if it's not, I'm sure others nearing their cancer-versary would agree -- it can be such a difficult and complicated time, and hearing others admit that is sometimes all you need to feel like the heavy burden is just a little bit lighter and easier to handle.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

That Fire

I'm one of those A-type-first-child personalities who grew up feeling like it was absolutely necessary to be good at everything I did. I honestly didn't feel any external pressure, but rather, a heavy sort of internal pressure to make everyone happy, to get s&*t done, to succeed. And generally, I did. It may not have come easy to me but I worked hard, really hard, and my teachers--and later, my bosses--had good things to say.

Until last year.

Last year, I got my first negative review at work. It was a few months after I had decided that I was leaving the law to go back to teaching, but still, it stung. Or maybe more than stung. Okay, it hurt.

It hurt for several reasons, including the one reason I want to write about tonight -- it hurt because it was so unbelievably and undeniably true. The oh-so-true part of the feedback was that I get "easily distracted." To be honest, I remain stubborn in my opinion that I did every assignment I was asked to do within the time frame that I was asked to do it, but I concede that the feedback is 110% accurate. And I couldn't be more thankful for having received it.

The truth is, that with the exception of my pro bono immigration work, I have never not been distracted at my lawyer-jobs. When I started at Ropes & Gray, I was distracted by my seven-month old and by trying to maintain a healthy marriage through the turbulent time of transitioning to a demanding and unpredictable schedule. I was distracted by things as small as lunch and snacks to things as significant as my grandmother being ill and dying before my eyes. I was distracted by Scott's passing and by far too many other tragic deaths that followed. I was distracted by an infant who had a never-ending ear infection and who projectile vomited on countless rides to day care. I was distracted by family struggles and celebrations, and by trying to help other people through tough times. I was distracted by wanting to always talk to my office-mate who I loved (and drove nuts), and I was distracted by the realization that when it came down to it, I hated the professional life I had created for myself. I hated the motion-sickness that plagued me on the cab-rides home from the office after midnight and I hated the absolutely awful exit gate in the lower parking lot of the Route 128 train station which often failed to open at the most inconvenient times and thus made me wonder if one day I would just drive straight through it in protest (I confirmed last week that it's still broken). Most of all, I hated that the work day (and night) made me feel like I was dying inside. Like the fire I used to have in me was gone.

Once I moved to a so-much-more-humane law firm culture, I was still distracted, then by a baby girl who I loved as much as I loved her older brother, which I never thought could be possible. I was distracted by books and even by a little bit of exercise. I was distracted by the news that I hadn't followed in years and by wide-awake dreams I started to have again. I convinced myself that everything was good again--that I could succeed as a lawyer in this new place. But deep down, I think I knew I was pretending. Then, on August 8, 2012, I became so distracted by an out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis that I barely knew what day of the week it was or what planet I lived on.

I tried to fake it at first (not even consciously realizing that I was faking anything). I returned to the office after my first chemo infusion convinced that I would try to work--at least part-time--through my treatment. But then I was allergic to the Taxotere and had my world flipped upside down again. After that, I tended towards far-too-few white blood cells and each chemo round felt like an extremely dangerous adventure. I gave up all my corporate work and focused only on Wendy's asylum case. I couldn't find it in myself to focus on any other work beyond that. I should have known then--if not five years before--that I was wasting away in a place that I didn't belong. I was dying inside, perhaps too literally for it to even be an ironic thing to say. But I was also coming alive.

*   *   *

I read the following quote in a book recently:

Since I have been open and honest with myself and with others about what makes me come alive, I have heard the most remarkable things from people--mostly dreams they have...things they would do, "if only..." If only... I love hearing those stories. Even if part of me is sad when I hear them prefaced the way they always are. The way I used to preface things.

I know now that I have always been a distracted lawyer. But I also know that this morning, I almost missed both of my train stops while finishing Of Mice and Men (I started it Monday). The entire world melted away as I circled vocabulary words and particularly-gripping passages that I can't wait to discuss with my high school English classes. I felt so deeply alive. Cancer was completely pushed out of my mind. It was amazing.

I will take a six-figure pay-cut when I leave the legal profession and return to teaching. It will be okay because Brian and I will work hard to ensure that it is. Plus, excess money, while lovely, has never made either of us feel alive. Ultimately I know that I will never review a contract or sit on a corporate conference call without a million other thoughts or ideas popping into my head and begging me to play with them. But I know that I will walk into my classroom every morning focused on what I'm there to do...teach kids about literature and history. And more importantly, help them try to discover what makes them come alive. Because Howard Thurman is so right about what our world really needs--lawyers who aren't distracted by the paint on the wall, and teachers who pack up their classrooms in June with a fire in their belly about coming back in the fall. I so miss that fire....and I so should have been working in the 45 minutes that it took to write this....

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Brave Ones

Today I find myself feeling heart-broken over the news that a young man from my hometown died of a drug overdose last night. I knew this young man only well enough that we would say hello in passing in the school hallways or around town. I can still hear him calling me "Miss Talbot," and I can see him bowing his head with a sort of charming respect, probably because I knew (and adored) his older brother. I remember the last time I saw his mother—how proud she was telling me about her new job that she loved, how proud I was of her for being so strong even after she lost her husband to cancer.

I should be clear—this is not a blog about my hometown’s most recent victim of drugs. I don’t know enough about the victim, or about drugs, to write that piece. This is simply a musing of my sad and numb heart.

Since I made the decision to go back to teaching high school students, I have been following the news on the opiate epidemic in our area. I’ve read several articles, one as recent as yesterday, about families who have lost a loved one to heroin. Today I found myself rereading one such piece.

Over a month ago, I read an article in my local paper about the growing opiate epidemic. Three individuals were interviewed in the article. One gave his name.

When I read this article back in March, I recognized the name immediately, and could even visualize Mike B. in my classroom. I remembered where he sat and what his hand-writing looked like. I remembered his spirit and his never-hidden smile. I remembered his kind soul. When I read Mike’s admissions about his use of drugs, my heart sank. How could this happen? How could someone so sweet get mixed up in something so bad? I was asking these questions rhetorically but also because I wanted the answers.

In the article, Mike talked about losing his younger brother to a drug overdose in 2013. He talked about his own addiction and the pain it caused others. He explained that he had been drug-free for over one year now, although the rest of the story was still an ugly one. Jail. Psychiatric facilities. Guilt over his brother's death.

After I read the article, I wrote to Mike. I told him how brave he was. How proud I was of him for sharing his story. I wondered if I would be as brave as he was if my story of struggle wasn't such a socially acceptable one.  I honestly don't know.

I think that most people like a good cancer-survival story (especially one about breast cancer), and for that reason, I'm not brave for telling my story. But I will tell you who is brave. The brave ones are the people who write about issues that make people squirm—people who write about being transgender, or depressed, or bipolar. People with metastatic disease or rare diseases that nobody knows anything about. People who write about cancers that involve the rectum instead of the breast. People who write about complicated racial and social issues. People who write about suicide, or drug addiction, or failures that they haven’t yet reconciled. People who write about stories that don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Don’t get me wrong, I am deeply proud of my blog and my book. Those represent my story and in a way, they are living beings to me. But I don’t think I’m brave for sharing them. By sharing my writing, I get only good things in return—emails and texts with words of great support and kindness, interviews with amazing people, invitations to speak and receive awards. But the ones who share the “uglier” stories—stories about heroin addiction, for instance—they risk attaching themselves to a potentially hurtful stigma. A parent brave enough to talk about his or her child’s drug addiction risks judgment (“What did they do wrong that made him become a drug addict?” Answer: In many cases, nothing.). A young ex-addict courageous enough to share his story risks people turning the other way—both on the street and in his life. Even I admit, part of me is scared of people who get mixed up in drugs.

Right now I feel heartbroken for a young man’s family who will need to bury their son, brother, and friend before he had a chance to live his life. I feel overwhelmed by a drug epidemic that is killing our youth, or at best, limiting their potential and their happiness. I feel scared for my own children and for the students I will teach next year. And then there’s that pride and appreciation I feel for people like Mike. People who have pulled themselves up from life's depths and found the courage to talk openly about a problem as ugly as drug addiction. Clearly those stories can’t save everyone, or even most people who fall, or jump, or tiptoe into the deadly grasp of drugs. Those stories can't comfort families who have lost a loved one, or families who know they are in the turbulence that will likely lead to that loss. But those stories are the only place I find hope in tragic moments like this one. Because I don’t know what it’s like to try opiates for the first time or become addicted to them. But I believe that the people who can best lead our communities to the bottom of this seemingly boundless problem are those who do. And those who have the strength and the courage to have an honest conversation about it.

Rest in Peace, M.A. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Proud Mom

I love watching my son play baseball. I love watching because he loves loves playing. As I stand there swatting bugs away and watching him make great plays in the field or make a big hit, of course I'm proud. But it's funny--I mean it when I say that the pride isn't rooted in the fact that he's a pretty good little player. It's rooted in his passion and his love of the game. It's rooted in the fact that he genuinely wants to see his teammates do well. It begins with the fact that despite some blips, deep down, I know that he's a nice kid. I'm so very proud of that.

*   *   *

Last night Brian had a hockey thing so I was alone with the kids. I had recently heard that a woman in my town (who I will call "Maria") had been diagnosed with breast cancer and I wanted to visit her to drop off a card and a book (the card which contained the caveat that I never assume the book will help, but it was worth a shot). I had known Maria years ago but our paths hadn't crossed for a long time.

Teddy took his usual sweet time getting into the car and my next door neighbor was surely horrified at how I yelled at Teddy (for the 20th time) to put the basketball down and get in the frigging car. He did so on the 28th time I asked. Once I calmed down from the whirlwind of getting home from work, wolfing down dinner, and buckling the kids up for our short trip, I started to wonder if I was wrong to bring the kids on this sort of a visit.

I told the kids why we were going to visit Maria--that she was dealing with cancer and that I wanted to bring her a card to tell her that I was thinking about her. They asked me about how I knew Maria and I told them.

With the kids in tow, I made my way up to the front door. When Maria opened the door, she almost immediately started to cry. I had the most vivid flashback of myself doing the exact same thing when I was at the stage she is -- a stage that still includes so many unknowns. Teddy and Annabel stood behind me as I hugged Maria. Through her tears, she asked me if she was going to be okay and I assured her she would. I couldn't see my kids but I knew that they were watching.

I hadn't expected Maria to want to talk to me but she did, so we talked, probably for a solid 30 minutes. Meanwhile, my kids played together like angels on Maria's front lawn.

Now, I love my kids, but I would definitely peg them as of the "high maintanence" variety. They don't typically just entertain themselves, and if they do, it's not usually in a calm and peaceful way. But for those 30 minutes, they did just that. They were perfect.

When we got into the car, I thanked them for being so good. "Why was your friend crying?" Teddy asked me, very concerned.

"Because she has breast cancer and when you first learn that you have cancer it's very scary."

"Were you scared?" he asked.

"Yes, I was. And sometimes I still am. But I also know that I got very good medicines and I'm very lucky for that."

Then we drove on to a nearby field and played some catch.

During that catch, I thought about how well Teddy can throw and catch the baseball. But that wasn't why I felt an overwhelming sense of pride in him. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride because as much of a nudge as he can sometimes be, he also recognizes immediately when someone is in pain. And I can tell it hurts him to see someone suffer.

I can't be certain of it, but I'm pretty sure that Teddy will never forget watching me hug Maria on her front step as she cried into my shoulder. And I'm pretty sure that Teddy was on his very best behavior for the rest of the night because he knew that by doing so, he would help someone in pain. That is what makes me burst with pride for my son. Because while a great catch or a big hit are fun, in the end, it's kindness that really matters.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Hope, Panic, and Preparation

For the past 16 days I have been fine. I haven't worried much about Elaine calling with news on my genetics testing. After all, she said it would be "two to four weeks" before I got the results back. I've been around the medical world long enough to know that rarely (if ever) does anything come back earlier than expected so for the first two weeks after April 27, I successfully put the issue out of my mind. I went about my business as usual, which lately, has been so wonderfully unusual. I've worked hard on the book launch and on my job search, somehow finding time for the job that actually pays me. I've watched Teddy play baseball and lacrosse and taken Annabel to gymnastics. I got a precious two nights away for Mother's Day with my mom, aunt Helen, and cousin Kirsten. And none of it has been ruined by the dread of hearing whether my TP53 gene, or any other gene for that matter, held a mutation that led me to get breast cancer at such an unusually young age.

Last night my mom thoughtfully acknowledged how hard it must be to wait. But I had to admit that it wasn't that hard because it really hadn't been. Until this afternoon.

This afternoon, something hit me and whatever-it-was almost brought me to tears while I tried to work on a project that really needed my attention. I think it started with the realization that it could be any day now that "Unknown" or "Blocked" rings me with the news. As I tried to collect myself and get back to work, I ended up taking a short break to figure out what the heck I was feeling and why all of a sudden I was feeling it.

In those minutes of deep thought--the kind that makes everything else in the world fade to the background--I realized something that I had never comprehended so deeply before. Ironically, it had to do with hope--a concept I pretend I know a lot about. I realized that balancing hope and acceptance is an extremely difficult thing to do.

The truth is that today, I panicked. I panicked that I wasn't ready; that if the news came today that I had a genetic mutation that predisposed me (and perhaps even my children) to cancer, that I wouldn't be prepared. Because I'm not prepared. And I really like to be.

That's one thing that's so hard about hope. If you hope for something, it's hard to also prepare yourself to accept the reality of the outcome-gone-bad. So while I have been hiding from that reality or hoping that the news comes back "good," I haven't at all prepared myself for the reality that today or tomorrow or the next day, my life could take another violent turn (the kind that gives you serious whiplash). Then again, how does one prepare for those types of turns? How do we brace ourselves for bad news while hoping for the best? It's not an easy thing to do, and in the midst of all of the blessings and excitement swirling in my life right now, I panicked today at the thought that I have completely failed to do it.