There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
Saturday, August 8, 2020
There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
For the past three years and three months, Annabel and I have taken care of that fish with love and dedication. Granted, we don't do anything fancy, but I do switch her to a clean bowl every few weeks, Annabel keeps a calendar of her daily feedings so one is never forgotten, and in those nostalgic times when we left home for vacation, we always left Sunny with trusted neighbors. We talk to Sunny, include her in family dinners, and sometimes she even makes it into the count as a member of the family. Even our morning babysitter (slash, lifesaver-angel, Kathy) has a special place in her heart for Sunny.
My students know about Sunny, too. One morning earlier this year, I was teaching my high school juniors when I saw a call from Kathy ring through to my watch. Nervously, I picked up the phone, well aware that my students were all listening.
It was Annabel, sobbing.
"Sunny is asleep?!" I gasped. "Where? Is she at the bottom of the bowl or floating at the top?" I was upset, but my students' giggles convinced me to pretend to smile.
Annabel was bawling. "She's at the bottom." Good. I assumed that fish float to the top when they die so I was hopeful. But I know nothing about fish.
Annabel, still sobbing, handed the phone to Kathy. Within seconds, Sunny was awake / back to life. Praise the Lord.
When I got off the call, my students all seized the moment to take us off-track from the lesson, so they asked me questions about the fish. They told me that when Sunny died, I would have to find a fish that looked the same and replace her. They told me a few of their amusing fish-replacement stories. I listened and laughed, then made sure that they knew I wouldn't let them out of the lesson for long. I remember feeling truly happy that morning. Sunny was alive, Annabel and Kathy were relieved, my students were comfortable, and the morning's lesson persevered through distraction.
|Sunny Sun Sun: April 22, 2020|
Monday, March 16, 2020
Most of the time, I'm pretty skeptical of advice. I much prefer observing a person's actions or listening to his or her opinion on an issue over hearing a blurb of advice. That's not to say that I don't want to learn from someone else's experiences because I definitely do. I'm just not crazy about boiling down those experiences into a neat little package of advice.
In my job, I have also improved (though very much not perfected) how to accept when I'm wrong. Damn, that's hard every single time I have to do it but I will say, with practice, it's gotten a lot easier. Which is good, because I seem to be wrong more and more often as I get older.
Anyways, that night, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a fellow breast cancer "survivor" (Dr. Britt Lee) post advice on how we should all start cancelling events, trips, and even small gatherings (her blog here). After I got through about half of it, I was pissed. How dare she over-react this way?! How dare she say we should cancel things that we need to do? How dare she not think of less privileged people in the world whose problems were so much bigger than a rescheduled piano recital or ski trip? As I read, my tunnel vision got more and more narrow. Ultimately, I snapped at her over Facebook while Teddy and Annabel were getting ready for bed. I called her out on privilege and (oops) made rude references to her rich friends in Chestnut Hill. I knew she had earned her PhD in immunology but I didn't care. I was mad and scared and I decided to take it out on her.
I felt empowered to act that way because I thought that people needed to know that Dr. Lee was not "all there." I remembered why I had pretty much cut off non-Facebook contact with her years ago after she gave me advice during chemo: she told me to stop doing things I wanted to do so that I would stop collecting germs. She told me I had to stop going places in large groups, exercising at gyms, and handing over money to people on the street. "F*%* her," I thought. "I will take on whatever illness those germs bring if it means that I don't have to miss these things." So I went to a Thanksgiving Day football game and I hugged and kissed all my relatives in large family gatherings. She was a wimp and I was awesome. So I thought.
By the Friday after Thanksgiving, my fever soared. I have never felt so sick. I landed in the ER with an Absolute Neutrophil Count (i.e., white blood cell indicator) of ZERO. I was very ill and doctors could not find the source of infection.
It would take a five-day hospital stay at the Brigham to make me better. That hospital stay wasn't fun but it was necessary. My nurses and doctors gave my body all the medicine, time, and attention that it needed to fend off the infection and make me able to fight regular germs in the world again. I missed my kids terribly during that time. But before I knew it, I was back home.
So, back to last week... After I over-reacted at my keyboard, I fell asleep beginning to worry about the state of the world but not at all worried about anyone's reaction to my harsh social media comments. I'm a high school teacher; I can handle a pretty good amount of attitude.
I kept reading articles, kept listening to medical professionals in the United States and abroad, and considered the fact that maybe this woman had a point. Maybe this COVID-19 thing was bigger than I thought. I read more. I kept an open mind. As I educated myself, the adrenaline pumped on high gear. At times, my anxiety made me feel short of breath and shortness of breath only made the anxiety worsen.
It didn't take long before I understood: Dr. Lee was so far ahead of me in grasping the gravity of this situation. She, and so many others, were trying to help us because the government was stagnant, and we did not know enough to help ourselves. She was trying to share information with anyone who would listen. And I was one of those people who needed to listen.
The problem, as I see it as a teacher and only a teacher, is that we need to talk and teach more about listening, reading, debating without rancor (Dr. Lee's word). This doesn't mean staying quiet while others speak (although that's important), but it means considering the views of others. It means wanting to be around (perhaps, only virtually) people who know more than we do. I'm not very good at it. But this week, without any grace, I did it.
Since then, I have read the news obsessively. I have read everything I can about China and about Italy. I cried in front of my students on Friday because I am worried for them and I knew that I wouldn't see them for a very long time. I figured that the book that I hurriedly gave them to read, Catcher in the Rye, would likely be the last book I gave them this year.
In planning to preface Catcher in the Rye for them, I found myself back at the last blog I posted in this space. It was called Catcher, and I wrote it almost one year ago, after a 28-year-old friend of mine, Justin Perry, died of lung cancer.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about Justin. He was so young when he died and until the very last photos I saw of him, he looked so strong. But his lungs were not strong. They were riddled with cancer. I can only make the educated guess that Justin never could have survived COVID-19. We all need to do more for those like Justin who, right now, must be absolutely terrified.
Meanwhile, while Massachusetts and others states gradually lock down, I see people still in denial of the seriousness of this situation. I know it's scary and I wish we could all deny it. But we can't. It's here and it's time we face it like adults. And adulthood is not easy. Actually, many times, it really sucks.
Nevertheless, an important step in acting like adults is admitting when we are wrong. Years ago, I should never have been such a cavalier cancer patient who almost consciously thought things like, "Bring on the illness; I can take it." I should have said "no" to games and parties, and protected myself like Dr. Lee said to do. I should have avoided germs and not wasted resources at the hospital. Instead, I brushed off Dr. Lee and categorized her as an elitist germophobe with whom I couldn't be friends.
Maybe Dr. Lee and I won't ever be friends beyond Facebook and that's perfectly okay. But I can most certainly admit that she taught me a lot this week, about myself at 40 and about myself back at 32. She taught me that nobody wants to realize his or her own vulnerability. To varying extents, we all struggle to fathom having an illness for which there is no cure. The more privileged, including myself, assume access to certain things, like health care. But many cancer patients, including myself and (I'm guessing) Dr. Lee, have faced the reality that even a strong body cannot handle everything that this crazy world may throw at it.
Eight years ago, when I was immunocompromised and stubborn as all Hell, I figured the hospitals would have whatever I needed to get better if I got sick. At the time, they did. But in the coming days, weeks, and months, they won't. Instead, doctors and nurses will decide who falls off the cliff and who they can try to catch. Those brave men and women on the front lines will be the catchers in the rye. But unless we do our part -- listen, sacrifice some things, and admit when we are wrong -- there will not be enough catchers and the cliff will be a deep, deep, dark one.
Monday, April 8, 2019
I should be in my classroom right now. I should be walking between desks, cuing students back to task, and snapping at strong outlines for an essay on The Catcher in the Rye. (The essay topic is an interesting one: Why was Holden Caulfield so disillusioned and what did he do to cope with that disillusionment?)
But I'm not in my classroom. Instead, I'm heartbroken on my couch. One of my many selfless colleagues is covering for me at school because after I spent two free periods crying in a hidden conference room, I still couldn't pull myself together enough to teach my last two classes. So I handed off my lesson and ran out of the building into the cold rain. (Ironically, more than one chapter of Catcher ends with Holden trying to escape his pain by running away.)
This morning my dear friend and Jimmy Fund Walk co-captain (Amy) called to tell me tragic news: our mutual friend, Justin Perry, had passed away. Justin was just 22 years old when his cancer diagnosis (stage IV nonsmokers lung cancer) blind-sided him and his family, leaving him to commute back and forth from Maine to Boston to shrink his tumors enough so that he could breathe.
When Amy and I met Justin and his then-girlfriend, Michelle, in the summer of 2015, Amy and I immediately loved them both and knew we would keep in touch. We did, and we even had the sincere honor of giving Justin and Michelle a "Hope Award" at the 2016 Evening of Hope. Anyone there that night likely will remember hearing Justin speak, and if you didn't have the pleasure, his speech is LINKED HERE.
At last year's Evening of Hope, Justin and Michelle drove down from Maine with a car full of items to donate to the auction. Despite all that they were going through with Justin's many clinical trials and treatments, and despite that Justin had moved to Mass General for his cancer care, Justin and Michelle were still focused on giving. I will never forget seeing them there that night.
Last summer, when Amy told me that Justin had done a podcast about living with metastatic lung cancer, I thought to myself, "I'll never be able to listen to that." But somehow, on one of my long training walks, I clicked on the podcast and was awed and inspired (and yes, tearful) from start to finish. (For more on the podcast, CLICK HERE.) Needless to say, Justin was a force to be reckoned with, and even though I never knew him as a day-to-day friend, I considered him a special friend -- one who understood what it felt like to be "so young" and "look so healthy" and yet still have cancer. One who knew about fear and hope, about optimism and realism, and most of all, about the deepest form of love, despite it all. It's surprising, or maybe expected, how bonded you can feel to another young person who sat, like you did, awaiting a critical surgery or praying in a chemo chair. Who always flashed a thumbs up for the camera, partly because he was hopeful, but sometimes just to make others feel relief.
This go around, however, teaching that book was an entirely different experience. I loved watching my students unpack Holden's disillusionment and discover how, just maybe, it compared to their own. I loved that a few of them figured out early on that Holden wasn't entirely truthful, with others and even, with himself. I think they enjoyed the irony that Holden hated "phonies" yet couldn't figure out who he really was. And I loved speaking things that I was just figuring out myself, namely, that becoming an adult (by more than just age) is so hard partly because one must shift from the comforts of being protected to the challenges of being one who protects.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden's younger brother (Allie) died of leukemia when he was only 11 years old. My students intelligently recognized that Holden's disillusionment may have come largely from his loss. But Salinger didn't stop there. Indeed, Catcher has survived the generations because it is more than the story of a teenager who wants to preserve the innocence of youth. Rather, it is a story about the deep emotional challenges that accompany the realization that we have very little power to protect anyone from anything. In fiction, Holden's brother died of cancer, and in real life, 75 years later, Justin did, too. At some point, we will all want to be the catcher in the rye, for a sibling, a parent, a child, or a friend. We feel broken when they die, for countless reasons I am not equip to articulate, including because we feel failure and fear. But there is no catcher in the rye -- no way to protect the ones we love -- and today, that reality feels nearly impossible to bear.
|Rest In Peace, Justin.|
Wednesday, August 8, 2018
A thoughtful man from the communications department at Dana-Farber wanted my patient perspective for a short publication, and we spoke over the phone for almost an hour. We covered the necessary details of my own treatment but more so, I told him about Kristin and Steve and Dr. Ng. I told him about our Jimmy Fund Walk team, my students, and my family.
Towards the end of our conversation, he asked me if my six-year mark was bittersweet. I have been thinking about that word ever since. Or maybe, about the two words, and the space, or no space, in between. Bitter. And sweet. I thought about that space this morning when I woke Annabel up to put her hair in a ponytail (despite a serious lesson yesterday, she insists Brian won't be able to do it in my absence today). I thought about that word and that space as the dog skipped back to our bed once she realized I was leaving. I thought about it as I drove by the restaurant in Braintree where I first met Marisa.
Now, waiting for my flight to board, I wonder, am I bitter? Actually, yes, I am. Not for myself, of course, but for others. I’m so deeply bitter that cancer is the relentless murderer and thief that it is. I’m bitter that Kristin is not in the passenger seat while her husband and kids travel north for a week of summer vacation. I’m bitter that this winter, Steve will not see his son play hockey nor his daughter play basketball. I’m bitter that the day after tomorrow a surgeon will remove a large tumor from my neighbor’s innocent body. I’m bitter for mothers and fathers who buried their children, for siblings aching for their brothers and sisters, for sons and daughters who no longer can call mom or dad, and for grandbabies who never got to be spoiled by their grandparents. I’m bitter because of the permanence and depth of a loss that I can only barely comprehend. I’m bitter, with deep fibers of my soul, at the enemy that is cancer.
Meanwhile, I don’t identify with the word “survivor” and I don’t feel a sense of victory today or any day. I hate my blog URL because really, I didn’t beat anything. I just got lucky. That’s it. In the words of the poet Wislawa Szymborska, I was closer or farther away (see poem here). Or maybe I survived because I was first or last, maybe because a shadow fell. Really, I have no idea why I’m here six years later and so many others are not. Maybe it was because somewhere a straw was floating on the water.
When I think of today, of six years, one word comes to mind. Humbled. I am humbled today and every day by life and by death. Maybe because of cancer or maybe just because it’s in my blood, I notice with sweet and with bitter detail the love and the loss that surrounds me. This week I am especially aware of those senses because right now, in my town, there is palpable pain.
Like countless others in my hometown and beyond, I remain shocked by the week-old news that a young man – a human being as good as they come – died by accident in a reservoir a mile from my childhood home. Cancer didn’t take Jimmy but water did. Why? No mortal could ever begin to explain it. A frame, a turn, an inch, a second. They are gone and we are here. Straws floating on the water. Full and broken hearts. Contradictions never to be sorted out.
I saw a billboard on the expressway this morning that read, “Real Christians love their enemies.” I can think of no better example of a paradox. But can someone ever love an enemy? If I love my enemy then that enemy is no longer my enemy, so doesn’t the statement swallow itself? Similarly, in this life, does the sweet swallow the bitter or the bitter swallow the sweet? Are we to expect Kristin’s family to cultivate a love for cancer or for Jimmy’s family to ever feel anything but anger and regret when they look out at the rez? That seems offensively absurd.
Rather, it seems to me that as humans, we are forced into a life of incomprehensible contradiction. Of fear that makes the night a ghastly monster, and of hope that somehow clears a passage to breathe when the air seems to have turned solid. Of love that, under the hot summer sun, forms a long orderly line down a small town’s main road, a line leading into a funeral home where a strong and kind 26-year-old rests.
Today feels especially bitter because I can’t shake the injustice of lives lost too soon. I am also especially grateful because soon (God willing) my plane will land, I will see my sister, and we will spend the evening talking about books with a group of men who may enjoy the pages we hand to them. But really, I am once again humbled. I’m humbled by the worry that still haunts me – that I could eat something (a strawberry?), breathe something (air near a turf field?), or do something (use deodorant?) that could cause another tumor to grow. Every day I know that death’s net could catch me or someone I love and, despite my daily anxiety medication, the realization of that vulnerability makes some moments feel unbearable. Indeed, the mesh of death’s net seems ever so arbitrary and suffocatingly cruel. For some reason, I squeaked through the mesh to be blessed with this day. But I will be forever humbled knowing that really, it may just be because somewhere a straw was floating on the water.