Monday, July 24, 2017

Life's Mysteries

One of the many things that Brian and I had in common when we met 18 years ago was that we adamantly declared ourselves "not dog people." My whole life I saw how much people loved their dogs and I tried to get it, but I never really understood. Even my very best friend and my closest cousin perplexed me with their dog obsessions. I definitely thought their dogs were cute (and I even had a special love for Brianne's dog, Izzy), but I still wondered to myself how a person would willingly let a dog affectionately lick his or her face when dogs also lick their own butts. For me, it was one of life's many mysteries.

Then, last winter, Teddy and Annabel decided that they wanted a dog. Brian said absolutely not and I agreed at first. But gradually, I started to want a puppy, too. 

By this point, it was clear that Brian and I were not going to have another child. My move back to teaching from the law meant that we would be permanently about $30,000 short for an adoption and $120,000 short for a surrogacy arrangement. While I thought that maybe we could still piece together the latter for a reasonable sum, ultimately it didn't feel right asking another woman to give her eggs or her womb for nothing in return. The good news was that this reality did not feel tragic like it had a few years ago. Truthfully, I found peace with it. In Friday Night Lights terms, I had clear eyes and a full heart. It didn't feel like anything was missing. 

Then, I saw this photo.

Within hours of seeing the photo, I booked a trip to meet this little girl while Brian was at hockey practice one Sunday afternoon. About 20 minutes later, our family was complete. ("Hi Brian. Surprise! How was practice?")

The beautiful puppy had been born on Tuesday November 8, 2016, a night I cried myself to sleep in disbelief and in fear for what the future would hold. So I disregarded the cheesiness of the choice and we named the dog, Hope.

I know, I know. Children and dogs are like apples and oranges. Especially non-dog-people would assert that. But let me tell you, this puppy stole my heart. I can't wait to get home to see her every day and I am so blessed that she sleeps on my feet every night. I never ever thought a dog could bring our family such happiness but low and behold, Hope (all eight pounds of her) did just that. Sure, I've cleaned up more pee and poop from the rugs than I would ever like admit, but it doesn't matter; she's the baby of the family.

*   *   *

August 8, 2017 will mark five years since my cancer diagnosis. That date fills me with more emotion than I can process. It puts goose bumps on my arms and sends chills down my spine. I don't know why. Another one of life's mysteries, I guess. 

So I wrap up this post with one more mystery -- this one, solved! 

The other day I ran into an acquaintance who I hadn't seen in a while. This person said hello and then immediately asked me with an awkwardly dramatic tone, "Are you cancer-free?" She held on to my arm as if she was bracing for the answer. I was a bit taken aback and I answered something like, "I think so?" 

Later that night, I thought through the awkward interaction and realized that I finally have the perfect answer to this question if ever an acquaintance asks me it again. (Nothing like the 6-hour delay in the perfect response.)

Almost five years after my cancer diagnosis, in between rubbing the dog's belly and telling her how much I love her, my clear eyes remind me that I have a very full heart. We don't have a third child but we do have the very best that life has to offer. I don't understand so many of life's mysteries -- like why some people get cancer, why some survive, why others die young. Why some people are born with so much, while others, so little. Why people hate, why they love. I don't understand how I found a husband and a job and a house that I adore as much as I do. How I had a son and a daughter before cancer took that gift away. How I let my dog lick my face even though she licks her own butt. 

But I do know this. I know that cancer is insidious. I know that it is scary beyond comprehension and that, almost simultaneously, it can give rise to the truest beauty in humanity. I know that I'll sleep better tonight because Hope will be sleeping on my feet. And I know what I will say next time that acquaintance asks me if I'm cancer-free...

"I don't really know. Are you?" 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Tears on a Weekend

Annabel, 3 years ago (headlamp included)
Anyone who knows our six year old little girl knows that she spent the first four years of her life imitating her older brother. She had a room of everything Batman and wouldn’t be seen near anything pink. About two years ago, however, she started to take some interest in things that Teddy didn't necessarily love, like gymnastics. I understood her love for gymnastics, as I grew up loving it, too.

Last November, after I played a small (non-dancing) role in a fundraiser organized by a dance studio in my town, Annabel (newly unafraid of girls) decided she wanted to dance, too. We got her started a few weeks later and every Monday for 45 minutes, she trades her hockey-themed t-shirts and sweatpants for a pair of tights and a pink leotard that our neighbor gave us.

Saturday afternoon as it poured buckets outside, Annabel practiced her “routine” for the end of the year dance recital that would be later that night. She had the music going in the basement and told us that we couldn’t go down because she was pah-WACK-tiss-ing. We really wanted to peek but we didn’t.

We had a nice family dinner before the recital. Annabel was blessed to have two parents, four grandparents, and her big brother in attendance to see her two-minute performance amidst dozens of other (far more advanced) dances.

We waited anxiously for her to emerge to the Giggle Bellies’ song “All the Little Raindrops.” For the first six songs Brian and Teddy whispered to me, “Is this her?” Finally, she was up and all the little raindrops hopped on the stage…with the exception of one. My heart sank. I finally spotted her snuggled up next to the studio owner in front of the stage. Annabel stood there watching her friends perform.

When I found her backstage, she was hysterical again. “I was going to frow-up,” she explained through her tears. “And I didn’t want to frow up on the stage.” The poor little kid had never felt nervousness like that before and I was disappointed in myself that I never prepped her for that feeling. Oops.

On the way home, she continued to cry hysterically. We tried reasoning with her but nothing worked. So I pulled out the only thing I knew would make her laugh – a good ole story about, well, farts. Of course, it worked like a charm. I told her about one of the most embarrassing moments I had ever experienced as a little kid, when I was about nine years old. I was performing in a gymnastics meet, doing my bar routine, and I let out a little toot that was just loud enough for the judges to give me a deduction. I've never told anyone about that awfully embarrassing story but low and behold, here I was re-telling it in all my glory to Annabel as I sat with her in the backseat. She couldn’t stop laughing at that story and my heart mended in those laughing-tears. We saw a rainbow just a few miles away from the house.

* * * 

On Tuesday morning of last week, Brian lost one of his very best friends. It was instant and utter heartbreak. I met Tommy 19 years ago, just after I met Brian. Obviously I didn't know Tommy a fraction of how well Brian did but from the day I knew Brian, I knew that he loved Tommy like a brother. During high school when Brian didn’t have many friends, Tommy reached out and befriended him. Tommy brought Brian into his close-knit group of friends and Brian had a pal (and a group of pals) for life. Brian and Tommy had planned to get together last Wednesday night to catch up. Tragically, Tommy suffered a fatal blood clot on Tuesday morning as he left the gym. Countless hearts broke at the news of his passing.

I have never been to a wake like Tommy’s this past Sunday. So many friends. So many tears. Such ... I don't know ... sudden emptiness for so many people. Devastation that he didn’t get to celebrate his first anniversary with his new wife who he absolutely loved. Denial. Shock. The same question over and over -- Why? Why? Why?

I couldn’t help but watch his wife and his sister yesterday as they stood in that wake line for five straight hours. I thought about how they were living my worst nightmare. I wondered how they were still standing. How they would pick up the pieces. Why. Why. Why! I have never seen my husband sob like he has over the last few days. The tragic price for the truest friendship.

* * * 

On Sunday night just before bed, Annabel came up to me and announced that despite her prior plan to skip her Monday afternoon dance class, she now wanted to go. “I want to go because of what happened at the recital.” She proceeded to explain to me that she didn’t want to be scared but she wanted to go back and try again for next time. I told her exactly what I felt in that moment: that I have never been so proud of her.

Right now I am sitting outside the dance studio and Brian is with his friends at the post-funeral gathering. I’d guess they are wandering in between laughter and tears like they did yesterday at the wake and even today at the funeral. I know their hearts are broken and I wonder if and how they will ever mend.

Meanwhile, I find myself scared. Sad and scared. Sad for those around me and elsewhere on this planet who suffer – from grief, from war, from cancer, from life. Scared that one day I could lose my best friend, my husband, my brother, or someone else so close that I wouldn’t be able to get back up again (I can't even mention my children). Scared of dying, and scared of living.

Before we left the house for dance today, I put a blank Thank You card on the kitchen table and told Annabel that it would be nice if she wrote her dance teacher a card to thank her for helping her when she was upset at the recital. I didn’t say another word and neither did Annabel, until she was done and she handed me the card.

In the end, I guess all we can do is be there for one another when times are tough. Obviously a dance recital isn’t life, but to Annabel at that moment, I think it kind of seemed that way. And so I'm forever grateful for the women who comforted her before I could, who told her it was okay that she couldn't make it on stage.

I know that one day there could be a time when I can’t be there to tell my daughter fart stories and make her laugh. But I also know that this world is full of so many good people who would take care of her if I couldn’t. I know that the world is tragically unpredictable. But I know that loyal friends, other moms, dance teachers, and even strangers, come out of nowhere to help. It’s that loyalty and that kindness that made so many weep for Tommy. He was so loyal. He was so kind. He’d have had a good (and sympathetic) laugh with Brian if Brian had a chance to tell him about how the recital went down for Annabel. He would have loved the card Annabel wrote to her dance teacher. But I love to watch my other friends. Because that was Tommy – he loved to watch his friends smile, laugh, and succeed. And despite that we all wish otherwise, now he has a seat in Heaven on which to do just that. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Clean Change (Part 2)

1. Desperation
*   *   *

I am by no means an expert on addiction, just as I have never claimed to be an expert on cancer. I have nothing more than my own experiences to share, and if I ever sound like I'm writing about anything more than those, I hope that someone tries to shut me up. Nevertheless, in my own humble experience, I believe that real change begins with desperation. 

This time last year, I was desperate. While my weight had fallen to 129 pounds when I was first diagnosed (sick-to-my-stomach fear was a real appetite blocker), it had steadily climbed up to 140, 150, and 160 in the few years after. I was terrified, not so much by the number on the scale, but by the reality that I had no choice but to face -- that something inside me had broken. 

I don't mean that metaphorically so much as I mean it literally -- I felt as if there was a switch in my head, even a floodgate if you will, that had broken, no longer giving me the ability to stop. After dinner every night, I would tell myself, One bowl of ice cream, no going back for seconds, but before I had even swallowed that last bite I would be planning my trip back into the freezer for more. I wouldn't scoop it into the bowl that second time around, I would just stand at the counter and eat it out of the container, usually until the container was empty. I loved that food at the very same time that I hated it. If I'm not sitting down, it doesn't count, I told myself. Only it counted. It counted as I started to hate myself more and more. It counted as my clothes grew tighter. It counted as I tortured myself about exercising the next day enough to erase the mistakes I had made the day prior. It counted in pounds and pounds of pain. 

If it stopped at the standing-up-ice-cream, that may have been okay. But it never stopped there. Some sort of salty cracker (Cheez-Its, Goldfish, you name it), provided the yang to the yin of the sweets. So every single night, I would eat those by the handful and ultimately, the box-ful. I'd return to the sofa or to my computer "done," but then I'd be back in the cabinet for more. I wanted to stop. So so badly I wanted to stop. But I couldn't. As I've heard people say in FA, my "enough switch" was broken. Turns out that sanity requires that switch to be functioning. Happiness does, too. 

I know that Twelve Step programs scare away some people and I swear to you, I am not promoting the program through this post. Truthfully, Twelve Step programs scared me, too. I didn't understand (and thus feared) "the God part." Growing up in a family of mostly atheists and agnostics, God wasn't ever part of my life. So when I first heard people talking about God helping them with their food (or booze, or drugs) and asking me to get down on my knees, I was completely freaked. But I was desperate enough to stay and listen. That's why I think that real change, for me at least, began with desperation. 

Desperation for me was, ultimately, a voice in my head January of last year that announced, "If I get cancer again, at least I'll die thin." And God, for me, was the voice that came right after that. God was the voice that said, "That thought is so sick, so wrong, so sad, that you better get yourself some real help, and fast." I learned about FA shortly thereafter. 

The truth is that while cancer introduced me to the idea of a higher power, FA has connected me to it. I use the term "God" because it makes it easier to converse, although I have no clue what He (or She/We/They/Me/It) is. Today, I simply believe something is there -- something bigger than myself, bigger than all of us. Surprisingly, I find comfort in that. And so the thing that freaked me out most about a Twelve Step program for food addiction (besides the "food addiction" part) is precisely the gift I have found most valuable. I know that there is something so much bigger than me at play here. There must be, because I haven't had a bowl of ice cream or a Cheez-It since last January. 

In the end, I'm not proud of anything I have admitted here. I'm not brave nor selfless. Today, I'm just desperate. Desperate because food is literally everywhere I turn. And once you take the food away from a food addict, she has to figure out what else there is to do in the week between Christmas and New Years. God, if you're not too busy, please help me with that. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Clean Change (Part 1)

We celebrated Annabel's 5th birthday nearly one year ago, on the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend. To be honest, I don't remember much about the party. Of course I remember where it was (at the place she does gymnastics) and I know that family and friends were there. But the only thing I remember in detail about that party was the food. We had pizza from Papa Gino's and cake from Wegman's. Both were extraordinarily delicious. And just like they had always been since I was a pre-teen, both were almost simultaneously my very best friend and my worst mortal enemy.

While others ate lunch with seeming nonchalance, I tried with all my might to cap myself at two pieces of pizza and one piece of cake. That was always my goal, although I never achieved it. I tried so hard to, but I failed every time. I always had different reasons, excuses, justifications, or whatever you want to call them, but no matter what, one piece of pizza would become two, three, four and the only thing that would stop me was an empty box (and sometimes shame). Cake (and pasta and crackers and, well, pretty much anything) was the same deal -- once I started, I couldn't stop. I did stop, because people were around, but once they were gone, I was a disgusting animal. I knew something was wrong and had known it for a long time. But when my daughter turned 5 years old, I hit rock bottom. 

While I don't remember anything Annabel said or did at her party, I remember that my mother threw out the cake box while it still had an outline of frosting on the cardboard bottom. I had planned to take that box home and in the privacy of my own kitchen, lick it clean. When my mom put it in the pile of trash for the gym's outdoor dumpster, I felt like she had thrown away a treasure. I was mad but I love my mom so I made the best of it. "Now I'll be 'good,'" I thought to myself. But once I was home, I considered going back to the gym, fishing the box out of the dumpster, and sitting in my car to finish that frosting. I never did it, but had the wind blown the other way, I would have. 

The next day, I went to my first meeting of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous ("FA"). There, I found a miracle. 

*   *   *

Since January 18, 2016, I have not eaten flour or sugar (save natural sugar in plain yogurt and fruit). I type that without even believing myself that it is true. But it is. And that's the first part of the miracle. 

The truth is, however, that I didn't sit down tonight to write about FA. According to the traditions of the organization, I'm not even certain I should be writing about it (I will ask my sponsor tomorrow). What drew me to my computer tonight, however, is my students. 

Tomorrow, as part of a larger team effort, I will deliver to several dozen Boston high schoolers a 90-second to 120-second pep talk about how they can change if they want to. It's likely that only a handful of students will actually be listening, but I still take those 90 seconds seriously.  I love that handful, even if I don't ever know exactly who they are. So I have thought about what I will say for 100 times longer than it will take me to say it. 

In order to deliver this message tomorrow, I had to sort out in my head the answer to a question I have danced around for quite a while now -- Can people ever really change? Before January 18, 2016, I would have said, No. But FA has shown me otherwise. FA has taken a dumpster-diving young woman who couldn't stop eating, exercising, and obsessing about both and changed her. Because of FA, I believe that people can change. I'm not sure they can change their initial instinct -- I still grieve, if only for a second, food I can't have. I still dream of swimming in a sea of brownie batter or living in a magical world where calories don't count. Food can still be my best friend and my worst enemy. But because of what I have learned in FA and because of actions I have taken as part of the program, I believe that if certain factors exist, people can change the action they take next. In FA terms, people can do the "next right thing," even if they have done 200 wrong things just prior. One day and one meal at a time, I have done just that for 324 days.  

Sometime soon, I plan to write about those factors that I believe led me to change something about myself that I thought would remain a problem forever.  In no particular order, they look something like this: 

1. Desperation  
2. Hope
3. Action steps
4. Support 
5. Faith
6. Gratitude
7. Gratitude
8. Gratitude

To be continued...

Friday, November 11, 2016


When I taught World History to 9th graders several years ago, I had a student whose parents were racist. They were captains in the Salvation Army and after I taught a unit on South Africa, the father summoned me and my department head to a meeting. His message was clear and firm -- he was extremely upset that I was teaching about tolerance yet I was not tolerant of his daughter's opinions. True, his daughter had expressed racist opinions in class and I swiftly had shut them down. He told me that if I was truly tolerant, I would tolerate the intolerant. I laughed it off as one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard. I haven't given to the Salvation Army ever since.

*   *   *

On Tuesday night, or better yet, early Wednesday morning, I lie awake in my bed after having realized that Donald Trump would become our nation's next president. I was crushed, and still am. Just the day prior I had introduced a feminist novel to my English classes and we had analyzed some of Donald Trump's words from a feminist perspective. One of my amazing students raised his hand and said that he didn't need to take on a feminist perspective to condemn Trump's words. My heart was full of hope for humanity when he said that.

But later that night, the map turned red. I thought I was going to throw up. I cried. I prayed. I wondered, How? 

The next day was not an easy one, particularly because many of my students were extremely upset. All but a few are black or Hispanic, many of them are children of immigrants, and many of their families rely on government programs to survive. They were scared, and from my privileged white perspective, I did the best I could to help.

That day, I gave my students time to write about and discuss their feelings. (I love that I work in a school that trusts and encourages its teachers to do so.) I listened to my students. I asked them to remember all the good people in the world. We talked about how it feels to realize that so many other communities in our nation are not as accepting as ours. We talked about how some of them were surprised by this seeming injustice, and how others are surrounded by so much injustice that they expected this, too. Several of them cried. I tried to give them some historical perspective. I gave them the Louis L'Amour quote that I opened my book with -- that what seems like the end may actually be the beginning. I held it together in front of them, but on the way home, I wept, too.

Since then, I've mostly gone into a cocoon, much like I did after I was diagnosed with cancer. I can't watch the news and I don't want to talk to anyone about it, save a few select conversations. I want to recede and gain back some strength and then face the world again.

It's crazy to me how similar Tuesday night felt to the first night I experienced after I knew I had cancer. The fear, the uncertainty, the anger and confusion at something that seemed so wrong. So unfair. Amazingly, just like President Obama said it would, the sun rose again the next day.

Yesterday, I thought a lot about what I should try to learn from all of this. For one, I have realized how entitled I have felt for most of my life. Entitled to living in a place where war is not at my doorstep. Entitled to a job. Entitled to peaceful transfers of power. Entitled to a community where my children would be safe. But on Tuesday night, all of that seemed to have been invaded by principles and ideologies that I consider deeply dangerous. Racism. Xenophobia. Sexism. Homophobia. Dishonesty. Stupidity. I know I'm prone to overreactions, but truthfully, my entire universe feels -- once again -- shaken to its core.

For some perspective, I admit that I was in a dark place after George W. Bush won the 2000 and 2004 elections. At first, these reminders brought me peace because we did come out of those years alive. But then I remember that some people didn't. Life-saving research halted. The environment was neglected. And thousands of American and foreign soldiers and civilians lost their lives as an indirect or direct result of lies about weapons of mass destruction. George W. taught me that lies kill.

So today, I wonder about what I can do. When I'm ready, I will write to our President-elect to tell him some of my thoughts. I will write to Hillary Clinton to thank her for her astonishing efforts. Those letters will make me feel the tiniest bit better. But then what?

Then, I suppose, I will go to work and go to my kids' hockey games and gymnastics practices. I will have Sunday dinners surrounded by family. I will celebrate Christmas and my kids' birthdays. I will be grateful for every single day, just as I have been for years now.

Somehow in the midst of all of that, I will remember that I am not entitled to anything. None of us are. So we better be willing to work to protect the things we hold dear. Our health, perhaps...and now, our freedom. All this time, I've assumed it was the job of our military to protect our nation and I've put my feet up in my "free country" while our brave servicemen and women sacrificed themselves. I don't mean that I'm joining the army, and I still thank God that the military will take up the dangerous posts. But I think it's time I consider myself a small part of the effort.

As a first step, what I think I need to do is remember back to that conversation over 12 years ago when I laughed in the face of a man who told me I should be tolerant of the intolerant. I did not listen to him, and after I heard his daughter's racist comments, I dismissed her as someone less than me. I felt entitled to the freedom to react that way. To ignore it because the rest of the class was with me. But Tuesday night showed me that a sizable population in the United States is not with me. Clearly they don't want to be ignored.

Maybe that's what I'm most sad about right now -- that I somehow have to find a way to tolerate the intolerant. I have no idea how to do that. And I really really don't want to.