Monday, May 30, 2016

Sincerely, Hope

Sincerely, Hope
A Poem

Hello, sweet friend.
Can you hear me?
I am hope --
with a lowercase “h.”
Can you find a quiet place?
You’ll find me there.

Hello, dear friend,
I’m glad to meet you.
Although I have been with you
since the day you were born;
you just didn’t notice me until decades later.
It wasn’t negligence, so don’t you worry.
You were lucky --
you didn’t need me until you were 32.

Good morning, dear friend.
I am here.
Can you feel me?
I’m a hidden lump, discovered.
I’m a doctor’s appointment that you didn’t cancel,
a phone call to your husband from the nurse’s office,
and the strength it took to tell him --
despite your shattered universe --
They think it’s cancer.

I am hope.
Can you hear me?
I’m an explanation to your mother
from your porch
so your kids wouldn’t hear you cry into the receiver.
I am the first first flight she could catch home,
a long embrace on your front step,
tears on your shoulder.

Hello, my precious friend.
I am here.
Can you see me?
I am an appointment on the calendar.
I am Monday,
a plan,
a starting point.

I am hope.
Have you heard about my superpowers?
They are immense,
wait ………….

Did you feel my presence while you waited?
When the phone rang with results?
When the doctor opened the door
and looked down at his clipboard?
I sat beside you then --
strong, like Batman,
fragile, like a one-year-old missing her mother.

I was there while you slept --
did I wake you?
I sat right there, like a loyal watchman
in the depth of the night.
I tip-toed upon the prayers you whispered
over the humming of the house --
foreign thoughts of desperation,
a language never spoken.

Good morning, sweet friend.
Can you hear my footsteps?
I am your family pacing in the hallways,
the surgeons’ steady hands.
Did you feel my hug?
We embraced when you first woke up.
I am your chest --
and wrapped in gauze.
I am a sample in a laboratory,
a scientist,
a lymph node removed,
a tumor extracted.
An Intruder

Hello, sweet girl.
I am here.
Can you feel me in the ridge of your scar?
I healed you there, and elsewhere.
I’m your sister and your husband,
a pen and notepad of times and doses.
I’m your mother’s nervous scribbles
on those same straight lines,
and her clarity --
that what they called poison
would be your ally.

Dear friend, I am hope.
Did you feel me in the needle to your vein?
In that rush of cool liquid through your bloodstream?
Did you hear me in the buzzer that removed your brown hair?
I am your cousin and your aunt and your best friend
poised beside you
while your reflection morphed.
Did you see me at your mother’s elbow,
softly cradling her wailing question --
Why not me?
without an answer.
I am the stranger at the back of your chair
who understood.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you see me in the dust
that gathered beside the wig you never wore?
Did you see me in the fearful stares
of children and their mothers?
I am your father’s watery eyes
and his anger.
I am your son’s hesitance
and his acceptance.
I am your baby girl’s confused cries
and her recognition.
A hug.
I am their resilience.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you see me in the code blue,
and the angels who descended?
I am the air you breathed,
the extinguisher to the flames in your heart.
I am the plan that followed the shock,
the protocol you never knew existed
to make a mortal enemy a lifelong friend.

Dear friend, you were tired, I know.
But did you feel me in the white covers
of the open hospital bed?
Did you know I flowed
through the slow, thoughtful drip of a drug
programmed to kill
only what it should kill.
I was there
through it all.

Did you feel me in your cells?
I was there, too --
in the good cells, the ones that regenerated after annihilation!
I am a birthday from a hospital bed,
a mask and around-the-clock antibiotics,
a pack of saltines,
crushed ice when your cheeks were flushed.

Sweet friend,
did you see me in the ink that signed the discharge papers?
Did you feel me in the fresh, cold sheets of your own bed?
I am your Christmas tree, lopsided and bright.
I’m reindeer food sprinkled on the front lawn.
I am a fireplace and a family feast.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you feel me hold your hand
over the last insurmountable ridge?
I squeezed tight, I really did.
Did you feel me in the antibody that entered your veins?
Because I am Herceptin,
and every ounce of sacrifice made for its delivery.
I am

I am what I am and I am hope.
Did you see me glisten in the eyes of the friends you met
in the walls you so dreaded?
In their tears and in their smiles?
I am tissues in an exam room
and at a support group.
I am ubiquitous --
there for all of you who need me.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you see me on the computer screen
as you typed your story?
I am a blog and a book and a dream realized!
I am a team and a walk,
yard sales and lemonade stands.
I am a flock of lavender,
sneakers on the pavement of a September morning.
I am strangers who appear as angels.
Can you see me in the movements of young dancers?
I am dancing beside them!

I know I may seem invisible sometimes,
but I’m here,
I promise.
I’m the possibility that tomorrow will be better.
I’m the maybe in a storm of probably not.
I’m the small fraction they don’t anticipate --
the David to your Goliath.

Dear friend,
fear not
in those times
when you can’t touch me
or see me
or hear me.
Because that only makes me
Trust me.
I will help you breathe,
one breath at a time.

Dear friend,
Can you hear me?
Can you trust me?
Because I swear it,
one day,
I will even
help you
Because I am here now
and I am

Sunday, March 27, 2016

For Marisa

Tonight I beg
through guilt and tears,
through pain that grips
my deepest fears,
for a sign that
He does exist
and thought this through
a devil's hiss.

Tonight I scream
why. Why! WHY?
Who decided
she had to die?
Why her, why now?
I need to know
what made the cancer
grow and grow.
why. Why! WHY?
Why left, not right?
Why her, not me?
Why dark, not light?

Tonight I pray
just one prayer
(or pretend there
is a God out there).
Rest in peace
beautiful friend
who never should have
met this end.
Rest in peace
precious soul
who weathered such
a ghastly toll.

Tonight I sleep
here on Earth
defying the devil's
ghastly curse,
wondering why
she sleeps eternal
with angel wings,
a dream unfurled.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Skeleton Earrings

About a month ago, I visited my PCP for an annual check-up. I pulled into the parking lot of the building where I was diagnosed just over three years ago. I looked right, to the section of the lot where I had parked that fateful August day back in 2012. I have avoided that part of the parking lot ever since. In fact, I even considered finding a new primary care doctor because of the awful memories I had made in that building.

That morning of my check-up, however, something came over me. I very rare swear, but as I pulled into the parking lot, I decided to turn into a spot just next to the spot I had parked on August 8, 2012 when the radiologist told me I had cancer. "F#&k that," I said out loud to myself. By "that," I think I meant cancer.

It was a small victory, parking in the dreaded section of the lot that I had so avoided for three years. But it was a victory nonetheless.

Today, I had a similar victory. Ever since Halloween day 2012, I have refused to wear anything that I had been wearing that day. I gave away the clothes I had worn, and I was spooked by the homemade skeleton earrings that had accompanied by newly bald head. Without any real thought, I assumed those earrings were bad luck or had bad vibes or were ... something bad. Actually, I don't really know what I thought. I just associated those skeleton earrings with the day that I learned I was deathly allergic to my chemotherapy, and that was not a fun day.

This morning, however, as I reached into my jewelry box, I decided I wanted to wear those skeleton earrings. Sure, the last day I wore them I knocked on death's doorstep, but...well, "F&*k that," I whispered to myself as I put them in my ears.

Tonight as I changed out of my clothes and into my pajamas (at 5:30pm), I got to thinking about those earrings, and Halloween, and even that silly parking spot. And with a whole different attitude, and a little smile, I may even have looked in the mirror and said, "F*@k that," to myself. And really, I very rarely swear.

*   *   *

I barely remember the last time I wrote in my blog. This must be the longest stretch I've ever gone without it. The reasons for my blogging absence boil down to two very simple ones -- (1) every ounce of my energy I have poured into my new teaching job, and (2) I have never been so fulfilled. Granted, there have been some tough times -- a few dark spots when I was convinced that certain pain I felt was my cancer back with a vengeance, and a few sleepless nights wondering if I should begin on medication to shut down my ovaries as another way to lower my risk of recurrence. But all in all, life has never been so good.

With that very last statement (which I deleted thrice and added back each time), comes a bombardment of guilt. Because while I have been blessed to remain cancer-free (I think) and pursue my dream to write and teach, I know that so many other cancer survivors are not as fortunate. In fact, it feels like in the last few months I have heard countless stories about cancer's most relentless nature. Dear friends of mine continue to battle its wrath. And so I admit that I feel guilty. Guilty for my own luck, my own health, and my own healing. It's a whole different kind of "survivor's guilt," I guess.

At the same time, the truth is that "healing" after a cancer diagnosis is not the linear process that everyone wishes it would be. The path is more akin to the footprints of a child lost in the woods. And for someone who has to face cancer more than once, I can't even imagine what it's like.

*   *   *

There are a few things I try never to say to any cancer patient. "You'll be okay,"* is one of them. Because how do I know? I don't, despite that I live in a culture that likes to make false promises. But none of us know what the next minute will bring. I no longer find that reality depressing or pessimistic. I just know it's reality. Honest. True. Life. (*Please note that stories about people who have beat cancer are different and still very helpful.)

What I do want to tell cancer patients takes more than four little words (or three if you count the contraction). Well, maybe what I want to say is short, too, but it comes from a place of significant thought, I promise. I want to tell them, "You are here now. Please know that. You are. Here. Now." I want to tell them that there is so much light and so much life after a cancer diagnosis, despite the number of sunrises that follow. I want to tell them that there will be bumps -- big ones -- and there may even be some moments when you feel like you ran face first into a brick wall. I know that's how I felt three years ago on Halloween. But I also know that today, without any plan to do so and anyone else even knowing (until this blog, of course), I had a small victory that involved a ridiculous pair of homemade earrings. Skeletons earrings that have survived in my jewelry box for three years.

I see now that healing, like hope and like pain, comes in all shapes and sizes. And I see now that small victories -- like parking spots, earrings, and the quiet whisper to oneself, "F&*k that" -- are victories nonetheless. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Cancer Changes Everything

It's been a while since I sought respite here in the wee hours of morning, and that realization helps me see how far I've come. Then again, it is 3:00AM (on the dot), and my fear has lead me to my key board. I take my place here tonight (this morning?) to state for the record that sometimes it feels like cancer changes everything.

The fear that has me physically shaking has to do with my seven-year-old, Teddy -- the most active (and awesome) little boy I'll ever know. On Saturday night, Teddy got sick. I knew something was wrong the moment I looked at him. He had just played flag football and according to his coach, he completely crashed afterwards. When I saw him, he was pale and he wanted to sit with me rather than play with his friends so I knew something was really wrong. We sat together for a while, both of us sick to our stomach, though for different reasons.

A short while later, he said he felt better so he went off to play. But not long after, he was back and asking to lie down on the sofa. He did, and fell asleep, only to wake up to the need to barf all over the place.

Since then, Brian has barely left his side. The poor little guy has thrown up nine times (he kept count). His temperature has hovered around 100 degrees and he has done nothing but sleep and ask us when he is going to feel better. Whenever he asks that I assure him that he could feel better the next time he wakes up and I tell him that I wish I could take all his sickness away and put it in my own stomach. It's truly heartbreaking to watch your little kid be sick.

It's also absolutely terrifying. On top of the constant puking and the fever, Teddy has been complaining about a headache. Every time he says it, I want to puke, too.

I admit, before my own cancer I would have worried about my sick son. But I just don't think my mind would have gone to the dark places it has gone now -- to crushing thoughts about leukemia and other childhood cancers. But perhaps as evidence of a tinge of my own post-traumatic stress, that's precisely where it seems to have landed. At least, this morning.

*   *   *

This past week, as I started my new teaching job and thought to myself at least twice every single minute, "I am the luckiest person in the whole entire world," I even threw cancer a few silent "Thank yous." I never would have had the guts to quit the law and return to teaching if it wasn't for cancer. Or even forget guts -- I never would have had the insight that lead me to the realization that that is what, deep down, I really wanted to do.

But right now, as poor Teddy sweats in my spot in bed next to Brian and I lie awake, shivering, downstairs on the sofa, I want to spit at cancer and take back any hint of Thanks I ever gave to it. Because at this very moment, it feels like cancer changes everything. After cancer, a headache is no longer just a headache. After cancer, a lump is no longer just a lump. After cancer, the Intruder has an awful way of reminding us of his potential presence.

And so I lie awake and listen...hoping and praying with all my might that the heat coming from my son's skinny little body has absolutely nothing to do with that beast. I lie awake hoping and praying that the sickness I feel isn't just worry, but rather a stomach bug that will prove to me that Teddy is sick in a "normal" contagious sort of way. Because sometimes after cancer, nothing feels normal -- both in the miraculously good ways that I found in my classroom last week, and in terrifyingly bad ways that torment me when I see my son sick.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Laundry, Lady Bugs, and Lint

I am really good about making sure clean laundry is available to my family but I kind of suck at folding the clean clothes and putting them away. For the last few days, three baskets of clean laundry has lingered around our kitchen table as the kids fetched their favorite clothes and faded bathing suits out of them.

Last night before the kids went to bed, in an effort to ease them back into the reality that summer is ending and structure and responsibility are on the horizon, I decided that we would all fold the laundry together and finally put it away. Teddy and Annabel saw it as a way to stay up later so they agreed to help. It went swimmingly. For the first 90 seconds.

Then I found a lady bug.

It was odd, I admit. The lady bug looked perfectly fine, stuck to the inside of a new black t-shirt that I had just purchased on sale (apparently I missed the "dry flat" instruction so what was once a medium is now an extra small...oops).

Anyways, I remarked about the lady bug to Teddy and Annabel and, perhaps seeing a chance for an even further delay to bedtime, they appeared interested. I tried to pick the lady bug off the shirt to bring it outside but the little shiny bug fell to the floor. Clearly the thing was dead. D-e-a-d. Dead.

All of the sudden, Annabel lost it. She started to wail, "Is he ever going to be not dead? But once he's dead he won't ever be alive again!!! Fings that die don't ever be alive again." Her tears looked so enormous on her tan little face.

At first, I pretty much ignored her. I had a goal: finish the damn laundry before bed. So I told her something about heaven and figured she'd move on with me. She didn't.

She kept crying and I could almost see the thoughts in her head. Thoughts about permanence. About something or someone being gone. Forever. As I let her emotions seep into mine, I could feel my heart start to feel heavy. Sad and scared and heavy.

Annabel kept on asking me whether someone who dies will ever "get not dead again." I had no freaking idea what to say. Still folding and trying not to make a big deal about it, I tried to tell her something about a person's spirit remaining alive. But she didn't understand, probably because I didn't make much 4-year-old sense. I stopped folding.

I picked up my daughter and sat down with her on a big chair in our living room. I hugged her. I told her that sometimes I have thoughts like she was having and those thoughts are so hard. I agreed that it is really yucky to think about someone you love being gone. She settled down a bit.

Still stumped as to how to deal with the sobbing, I went back to fundamentals. My own adult fundamentals, I admit, but it was all I could think of. I told her, "Oh, my Boo," (that's our nickname for her) "Let's not think about years from now. Let's just think about this moment. And at this moment I'm here and you're here and Daddy is here and Teddy is here." She immediately retorted with something about one day us "getting dead" and how sad that would be. She's so darn persistent. And so darn right.

The heaviness in my heart grew heavier.

I held her tight and said I understood her but that sometimes when it's scary to look ahead, we just need to think about what we have at this very moment. I repeated to her that I understood and that I get sad when I think about those things too. I told her that she was brave to talk about it with us because that's hard to do. She cried a little more and may have even started to recognize this conversation as a tactic to further delay bedtime (I don't think it started out that way, but still...). So I shut that door, thank you very much, and carried her upstairs to brush her teeth. A few jokes about Daddy's belly button lint and she was giggling again. Thank goodness for Daddy's belly button lint.

In the end, I have no idea if I made things better or worse for my Boo last night. I just know that as I sang George Michael's "Faith" to her at bedtime, she was smiling. Thank goodness for George Michael too, I guess.

Now if only someone would put away that folded laundry at the top of my stairs. Nah. I'd rather just write about it.

(To be continued...Because Teddy's mind is always going, too...)

*   *   *

For those looking for more information about speaking to children about cancer and death, check out these recent pieces that I really appreciated. 

Boston Globe Article by Kristi Palma, "Talking to young children about death" (I hesitate to include this one because upon re-reading it, I realize that I failed on several pieces of the advice!)