Friday, July 18, 2014

A Sad Welcome

Has anyone been brave enough to follow the news lately? To be honest, I haven't, although it's obviously impossible to avoid hearing about the awful shit that is happening out there. When I was a teacher, I followed the news like it was my job, probably because I felt like it was. I taught World History and one of our longest units was the Israeli-Palestinian confict. I knew my history of that region like the back of my twenty-something hand. I'm rusty on it now, but if there's one thing I do remember is that the issues are centuries old, engrained in people at a celluar level, and complicated beyond belief. 

I'm not proud to admit that these days, my knowledge of world news comes largely from social media, John Oliver, or I know, it's very provincial of me. But for a second, I want to explain. 

In the last few days, I have seen several Facebook posts and Twitter tweets, and even heard comments on the street and on the train along the lines of "the world being on the brink of disaster." When I hear comments like this, an ugly voice inside me says something, well, really ugly. And it always says the same thing. 

"Welcome to my world." 

I am aware of how selfish and stupid it may sound for me to compare my life to the lives of people in war-torn parts of the world. In most ways, the comparison is completely ridiculous. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to write about my ugly voice because sometimes even ugly voices need to be heard. 

I recently learned via a Facebook post by a woman I very much admire that in Israel, people subscribe to a "Red Alert" app on their phone. The app warns them of where bombs are being sent so that they have time to take shelter. Apparently the Red Alert is so active that if you have it on and try to sleep at night, you'll be up every hour. It's tragic beyond words and I cannot begin to imagine how scary that is for people there. 

Or maybe, just maybe, a little tiny part of me can. 

Because often, when I feel a pain, any pain, it's like my own little Red Alert. Is this it? I wonder. Is this the pain that will kill me? And then, my craziness overpowers my anxiety medication and for a minute or two, my world falls into disaster. I start to think about how I would tell people, what I would do, what I would write, and how I'd ever pull myself together. In those few minutes, my whole world teeters on the brink of destruction; my own tiny (and huge), insignificant (yet so very significant) world comes under attack. And I desperately try to find shelter.

So next time that I hear someone say that they feel like the world is about to fall apart, I'm going to try to silence my ugly voice's "Welcome to my world." Instead, I'll try to get my kinder voice to speak up. But what should she say? Wait, I know. 

Maybe she'll say something like, "Welcome to our world." How very sad. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ringing the Bell

A few months ago, my frend, Mike, forwarded me a commencement address delivered by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven at the University of Texas at Austin. Admiral McRaven served our nation as a Navy SEAL, and in some brilliant ways, he weaved together ten things he learned in Navy SEAL training with advice to the graduating class of his alma mater.

For example, here is the last one, which particularly fascinates me:

Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see.

All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims.

Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT—and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training.

Just ring the bell.

If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.

Mike, himself a graduate of the Naval Academy (and MIT's business school, and an Iraq War veteran, sheesh, I know) kindly remarked in his email to me that in my battle with cancer, I never “rang the bell.” Since then, I sporadically worked on a blog about Adm. McRaven's point. But for some reason, I couldn’t finish the piece. Until today.

This morning I came upon a totally unrelated speech, ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott's acceptance speech for the Jimmy V Award at the ESPYs last night. Some of the words I found there became the missing puzzle piece to the unfinished blog:

When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight then lay down and rest and let someone else fight for you.

This was the piece I needed to finish the blog about ringing the bell. So, on the way to work this morning, I finally finished one of my many elusive blogs.

As my train pulled into South Station, I closed my laptop and vowed to proofread and publish the blog on my way home. I picked up my bag feeling empowered and purposeful. And grateful that writing still makes me feel that way.

As I stepped off the train full of spirit, I heard the ding of a new text.

I read it, and almost collapsed. It was from my friend, Meghan, a young mother of three, a breast cancer survivor, and a truly beautiful person inside and out. Teddy and her eldest son went to day care together when they were babies and although we didn't know each other then, I heard Meghan's name many times after my diagnosis; at least 15 people told me that I "had to meet Meghan M-." We didn't meet until months later, at a We Beat Cancer event. I'll never forget Meghan greeting me that night with her bright smile, and a gift. The gift was a bracelet engraved with "Hero," and I cried at her kindness when I opened it. Still to this day, I wear that bracelet all the time.

I'm sure you can guess what came next. In the most delicate of ways, Meghan told me the awful truth that her cancer had returned. I read the dreaded "M" word through my tears as I traveled with the current of the commuter crowd off of the train platform. Metastatic. Lymph nodes. Bones. I couldn't breathe, couldn't stop ugly-crying, and didn't even think about who could see me or what they thought.

When the crowd broke up, I walked into South Station unsure of what to do. An empty metal table appeared before me and I collapsed at it, bent over, and bawled my eyes out. It felt like Valentine's Day all over again; the same indescribably awful feeling of knowing that someone so good was going through something so bad. The same helpless feeling of knowing that there is really nothing I can do to help. And the same terrified feeling that I could be next. To be honest, I can't say that the emotions came in that order, although I'd like to think that they did. Eventually, they all just swirled around together and revealed themselves as mascara-tainted tears all over my work dress.  

When I caught my breath, I called Brian. It was camp drop-off time so I didn't reach him. I called my mom at work and as usual, her compassion gave me the strength I needed to (eventually) stop crying and continue on my walk to my office.

Brian called me back a few minutes later and when I told him the news, I completely lost the fragile composure I had gathered in the train station. Brian said he would come pick me up but I refused. I knew that no matter where I was today, the reality would still be there. The sadness, the helplessness, the fear. The fucking cancer. 

So what about the blog that I finished this morning before I knew about Meghan? Some of it's here, but most of it changed. Nevertheless, in the end, both Adm. McRaven's message and Stuart Scott's message still felt very fitting for shaping my feelings tonight.

*   *   *

Immediately upon reading Mike’s email back in May, I had an instinctive reaction, and one that I'm guessing Kristin and Meghan and anyone else who has ever fought cancer would understand—if there was a bell that I could have rung after my diagnosis to make cancer go away, trust me, I would have rung it. I would have rung it so long and so hard that someone would have had to call the cops to pry me away from it. But there's more to it than that, as Mike most certainly understood.

In the end, I don't completely agree with Admiral McRaven’s point that one should never ring the bell, at least not in all aspects of life. Sometimes I actually think it’s good to ring the bell, and maybe even ring the shit out of it. The hardest part, I think, is trying to distinguish the times when we should ring the bell and the times we should stay clear away from it, no matter what magnetic forces we feel are trying to pull us in.

This issue is particularly interesting when we consider our younger generations' inclination to speed. Constant communication. Immediate responses. Instant gratification. While some may portray that as a bad thing, I don’t necessarily think that it has to be. But I think that it most certainly will be if we’re not all careful. Very careful. Because the thing about speed and constant and immediate and instant is that some of the best things in life simply cannot be attained that way. I think that some of the best things in life—discovery, loyalty, love, trust, generosity, pride, and hope—can only be given and received with great patience. Dedication. Time. And failure. Lots of failure. I wonder if we teach our kids, or each other, enough about those things.

Lately, I’ve been talking to Teddy about failure. I don’t know exactly why, but several times recently, I’ve found myself doing it. It’s  mostly been in the context of the book that I am trying (and failing) to get published. In fact, just this morning, Teddy woke up and the first thing he asked me was, “Does anyone want your book yet?” Granted, the Red Sox didn’t play last night and typically his first question is whether they won or lost, but still, I was touched.

“Nope, not yet, buddy, but I’m still trying," I replied. I didn’t feel an ounce of disappointment in the “nope, not yet” part, but I felt a whole lot of pride in the “but I’m still trying” part. Then I decided to take a later train so we could watch baseball highlights together (repeats). We didn’t talk anymore about failure this morning, but tonight I’m thinking back to longer conversations he and I had on the topic. For instance, I’ve told him that maybe no one will ever want to publish my book. He was sad, but I didn’t feel the need to fight that completely. Within reason, I think that kids should be allowed time to feel sad and disappointed and they should learn how to talk about it. Only then can they learn how to deal with it productively. Still, my book isn't something Teddy needs to be sad about because, as I explained to him, I could publish the book myself even if no one else wanted to publish it. He seemed to like that idea, although he likes the idea of buying it in a bookstore more. (I do, too.)  Still, I want Teddy to see that sometimes, we fail in other people’s eyes but not in our own. In a six-year-old kind of way, I think he's starting to pick that up.

So, let me be clear. I don’t plan to ring the bell when it comes to publishing my book, particularly after Meghan told me that my writing has helped her. But publishing it will take time. And time is not something I take for granted. Especially not tonight.

Which brings me to my last point. 

Meghan reached out to me this morning to tell me about her recurrance and to ask if she and Kristin could connect. Tonight, I find myself humbled by the strength that it must have taken Meghan to do that; the strength to say, I'm going to fight this, and I'm going to need help. I want to teach my kids what Meghan, by her very actions, is teaching hers (and me). That it will be a long and lonely life if we try to fight alone; that life is so much better if we live for the right reasons and in the right manner, and if, when necessary, we fight like hell and live some more. I want my kids to be stubborn and strong, but I also want them to know that it's okay to lie down when we've fought and we're tired. That doesn't mean we have rung the bell or quit or failed. It means that we have the strength and courage to let someone else fight for us. 

Ultimately, I want my kids to meet people in their lives as good and smart and strong as the people in my life (both my every-day life and my every-now-and-then life). People like Mike and Meghan and my mom. I want my kids to have the courage to do what Stuart Scott says to do and what Meghan did today. To live strong and fight gracefully. And to see that when you fight for others when they're tired, others will fight like hell for you when you are. 

*  *  *

Note: Meghan gave me permission to share her story. Tonight she told me that if there's any way she or her story can help others, then she "is an open book." I believe deeply in the power of an open book. I think the world is a better place when we all know more about people like Meghan. 

Good Words: Fighting and Resting

"When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight then lay down and rest and let someone else fight for you." 
-- Stuart Scott

Watch Stuart Scott's inspiring Jimmy V Award acceptance speech HERE.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Our First Meeting

Annabel fell asleep in the car on the way to our very first meeting at the adoption agency. She almost always wakes up happy even if she’s still exhausted so although we felt badly waking her up, we weren’t worried about her being crazy as a result. As I pulled open the door to the building, Annabel asked in her tiny, tired voice if we would “bring the baby home with us today.”

“No, baby girl. It will take a long time to get a baby and maybe we won’t even get one, but it will all be okay.” I believe that so sincerely.

We brought the kids to the first meeting not as any statement of family unity, but rather, because we like having them with us. Plus, there was really no harm in bringing them along. Teddy loves feeling included, particularly in things he knows are important, and I wanted this to all seem as natural to him as possible.

A few weeks ago, when Brian had the kids in the car without me, Teddy asked Brian out of nowhere, “Daddy, why can’t Mommy have any more babies?” I had already told him why and he never forgets a thing, but he had every right to hear it from someone else, too.

“Because she takes a medicine that makes it so that she can’t have babies,” Brian explained just like I had. Brian said he seemed satisfied. I was surprised, because when Teddy and I had the impromptu conversation a few weeks earlier, he had pushed me a bit.

“When do you finish taking the medicine?” he had asked me.

“In nine years,” I answered.

“So could you just have a baby then?”

“Maybe, but in nine years, you will be 15 years old and wouldn’t it be more fun for you to have a little brother or sister now when you’re young, too?”

“Yeah,” he answered, still thinking about it. Clearly he has picked up that adoption isn't the traditional route, but I love that he's getting comfortable with it, nonetheless.

* * *

Our meeting last week at the adoption agency was wonderfully smooth. “Sue,” the coordinator for parents hoping to adopt domestically, was lovely, and we had a hockey connection so we knew some of the same people.

We had come to decide on domestic adoption because we heard from several sources that international adoption with a cancer diagnosis is next to impossible. We hadn’t anticipated that (in fact, I had assumed just the opposite), but when it came down to it, domestic or international didn’t make much of a difference to us, so we easily shifted to the domestic path.

As the kids colored, played, and asked for water, Sue explained to us the process for domestic adoption. First, we fill out an application. We did that as the rain poured down on July 4th, and it was nothing more than basic demographics and a few bigger decisions (Would you consider adopting a child with special needs? Would you consider adopting a sibling group or twins?) The applicable fee is just about $300, and that gets us in the system.

Next, we will be matched with a social worker who will help us through the “home study.” I had a vision of a home study being just that – a study of our home to determine if we were qualified to be parents. But Sue explained that it’s not “a white glove test.” She explained that the social worker will walk around the whole house but not in order to find something wrong with it. Rather, she will see if our house is prepared for children and if for some reason it wasn’t, she would coach us as to what to do. The home study process takes several months, and five or six meetings with the social worker, some of which will include members of our extended family.

During the home study, we will also fill out massive amounts of paper work. Brian and I will each need to write an “autobiography” about ourselves so that the social worker can more easily get to know us. Then we will do everything from fingerprints to FBI clearances. Sue explained it as time consuming but not difficult. It's how the agency gets to know us so they can find the best match possible with a birth mother.

If our home study is “approved,” we enter into the phase where Sue will conduct “outreach” in order to get our family’s profile out to birth mothers in states where the agency has professional relationships. Apparently in the Southern states, birth mothers who are contemplating adoption visit attorney’s offices, while up here, birth mothers go through adoption agencies. The agency has relationships in several states all over the country so that they can try to introduce us to women who have decided to put their unborn baby up for adoption.

What I liked most about the agency is that they have birth mother liaisons who provide support to the birth mothers during and after their pregnancy. It means a lot to me that birth mothers are cared for by the agency to the extent that it’s possible. I honestly think that any woman who chooses to have a baby and put it up for adoption is strong and brave beyond words.

Sue also explained that birth mothers will get to know our family through a “profile” that we will create. Basically, this is a photo book about our family, our house, our hobbies, and what we have to offer a child. We literally make this book, run color copies off at Kinkos, and hope that a birth mother picks it up and wants to give her baby to us. It’s nuts, and incredible, all at the same time.

If Sue finds us a potential “match,” she will call and give us basic information about the mother and the unborn baby—perhaps the mother’s age, race, state of residency, and due date. Brian and I decide if it sounds like a good fit for us and if so, we agree to have our profile presented to birth mother, or if she has already seen it, then we agree to learn more. And so the “match” goes.

Of course, there was the lingering question...

My friend, “Jane,” who adopted her third child after beating breast cancer the first time (she more recently beat it again), had already told me about the cancer piece of this puzzle so I wasn’t all that worried. Still, I wanted to hear it straight from Sue. When Teddy was out of the room getting water, I asked her.  “How would my cancer affect this process?”

Sue’s answer was just as Jane had prepped me. I will need a note from my oncologist stating that I have a “normal life expectancy.” Normal life expectancy.

There sure is a whole lot of a whole lot packed into those three words.

To be continued…

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Path

I am really bad at tempering my excitement, even if it’s about something that isn’t even certain to happen. I figure, What the hell? I’ll just be really excited and if it never happens, I’ll deal with the let down. Luckily, I’m pretty good at dealing with disappointment. It weighs heavy on me, but I am remarkably capable of picking myself up in short time and being just fine.

Yes, I realize that there’s a different approach—to be patient and calm and even-keel; to get excited about something only once it’s actually there in front of me to be excited about. I married a guy more like that, which is good, because two people like me could be trouble and two people like him could be boring. We’re a great match that way.

Anyways, lately, I’ve been excited, really excited, about the prospect that one day, we may have a third baby. As I’ve explained before, given the hormonal therapy that I take every morning and will take for the next nine years (God willing), I cannot get pregnant. Since we didn’t harvest my eggs prior to my treatment (which could allow for a surrogate to carry our biological child), that leaves one way that we can have a third baby—to adopt him or her. Finally, we’re starting down that path.

I have written a lot about this part of my journey, I just haven’t published most of it. At first, I didn’t fully understand, or better yet, I didn’t take the time to understand, why those posts felt so much more personal than anything else I’ve written. It’s strange, I know—that I’m okay publishing about hemorrhoids and old saggy boobs, but when it comes to this third child, things often feel so intensely personal. Of course I know that it’s fine (and, some likely would argue, better) not to blab one’s life into a blog like I usually do. In fact, if we decide on a “closed” or “semi-closed” adoption, I may need to erase this blog from existence altogether.

There are other reasons to keep this topic quiet, ones that I won’t even bother discussing tonight. But there are several reasons to talk about it, too. In fact, if I didn’t find someone willing to talk about it with me, I would never have been given this gift of hope for another child. I have lots more to write, and maybe even publish, on that topic, but tonight is just a baby step, if you will; an explanation of one realization that I have had about having a third child.

* * * 

In most ways, I’ve followed the rules my entire life. I’m bold in my convictions, but I’ve never been a rebel, so to speak. I grew up in the suburbs, did my homework and played sports, went to college after high school, became a teacher, got married, went to law school, had a baby boy, became a lawyer, bought a house, and had a baby girl. Personally, I think it’s all indescribably remarkable, but I also know that I’ve followed a relatively traditional path.

It’s not just me that observes the existence of a traditional path, even if it's all a figment of our imaginations. I know because I hear what people say—in their heads and out loud—when I mention that Brian and I may adopt a third child.

“But you already have your boy and your girl...” It’s a popular response, and I’m not faulting people who say it. I’d bet most of them say it to mean that we’re so blessed that we have a boy and a girl, and I appreciate the reminder, even though I never really need it. In fact, now that I think about it, I’ve probably made comments about the birth of a third child that could be wildly annoying if overhead; things like, “Oh, they must want a girl,” or, “I hope they get a boy.” I don’t know why I have assumed that the motivation behind a third child is always gender balance.

For Brian and I, having a third child is not logical. Financially, adoption is so expensive that we’re not even sure that it’s possible, and after that $30,000-$40,000 that we don’t have is gone, we’ll need money to actually raise the child. We would need a bigger car, bunk beds in Teddy’s room, and time away from things that we both love to do. Of course, there’s the scariest part of thinking about adoption—the thought of, What if? What if my cancer came back? What if we bring a child into our family only to have that child suffer the grief of his/her mother’s passing? Is it fair to that child? Is it fair to Brian? To Teddy and Annabel? I’m not saying these questions are logical or rational or even fair. I’m just saying that they happen in my head.

There are a million different reasons why Brian and I should clear out our basement of all the baby stuff, let our account become defunct, and start to enjoy easier work days and weekends now that our kids are getting older. It would make sense to stop; to enjoy what we have and not ask for any more. But deep down, I don’t want that. Not yet. Right now, I don’t want to be logical. I want a third child. I want a house full of awesome kid chaos. I want Annabel to have the gift of being a big sister and Teddy to have the gift of another friend for life. I love my brother, and if my parents never had a third child, I’d have lost out big time.

And so our journey begins. It’s not the logical or rational or traditional route, perhaps, but in the end, it’s not very complicated, either. Sure, there will be stacks of paperwork, FBI clearances, and home visits where we need to pretend like our kids do what we ask them to do. There could be awful disappointments and humongous complications. But that’s true for anyone who brings any child into the world. There are huge risks involved, probably because nothing is riskier than falling in love with someone. But in the end, it seems like an awful shame to waste a whole lot of love that and Brian, the kids, and I all want to give. Especially when I believe, deep down, that there’s an unborn baby out there who’s going to eat it all up.

*   *   *

Quote of the Day: Last night when we were all talking about adopting a baby, I asked the kids if they would want a baby brother or sister. Teddy immediately answered, "brother." Annabel thought about it for a second and then declared, "Why don't we just get both?!"