Sunday, January 14, 2018

My Person

From what I've seen in the last five years, when suddenly faced with a cancer diagnosis or another serious health issue, many patients end up finding their "person." Their person is someone who recently faced the same (or similar) thing and is somehow generous enough to guide another through it. Their person provides advice and comfort like only someone with similar firsthand experience could do. Their person provides hope -- hope that since their person survived it, they will, too. I was so very blessed to have my person. Her name was Kristin. 

I know that Kristin was so many things to so many people. She was the loving wife to one of Brian and my dear friends, Corey. She was a mother to two beautiful young children. She was a sister to four siblings, a teacher to countless students, and a friend to so many others who were blessed to know her. She was Peach, Kiki, Hen, Mommy, Kris, and I'm sure many more nicknames I don't even know. I would never attempt to try to sum up the life of this most incredible woman here, and indeed I don't know enough about her to do so. I can only do the smallest thing and tell you about who Kristin was as my person. I realize that it may sound terribly selfish -- to look at her through only my eyes. But these are the only eyes I have. And they are full of tears. So please forgive me if, for now, I attempt nothing more than to see through those tears. 

Think about it for just a second ... How many people can you name who have saved your life? I don't mean metaphorically; I mean literally. Well, Kristin is at the top of my list. It is because of my visit with Kristin in August 2012 that I found my tumor. She was going through cancer (for the second time) and when I got home from seeing her, I did my first self-exam and found my tumor. Five days later I was diagnosed with the same type of breast cancer that she had -- triple positive invasive ductal carcinoma. Same stage. Same hospital. Same medicine. Both with husbands who taught social studies in the same department and coached hockey at the same high school. Both with an older little boy and a beautiful baby girl. Both full of hope that if we had our breasts removed and sat through the infusions they told us we needed, we would survive. 

Kristin was a teacher -- beginning in Brooklyn, New York and landing in Westwood, Massachusetts. She taught kindergartners and whenever I asked her how she did it, she just laughed and told me she loved those kids. I say the same thing when people ask me how I teach juniors and seniors in high school. It's the best. I love those kids.

Since Kristin was several months ahead of me in her surgeries and treatment, she was also my teacher. She told me what to expect before my bilateral mastectomy. My doctors had warned me that after surgery I wouldn't be able to lift anything, including my arms, and I remember asking Kristin what to do given that Annabel was still in a crib and needed to be lifted out every morning. I don't remember exactly what Kristin said, but I know how she made me feel -- like somehow it would all be okay. And it was. 

When it came to chemo, Kristin was also my teacher. Unfortunately, in some ways, she taught me by telling me what she wished she had done differently. When it came to shaving my head before my hair fell out, she recounted how traumatic it was to have Corey shave her head in their kitchen, so thanks to her, I went a different route. A kind and gentle woman from a salon in my town shaved my head on an afternoon I don't remember as traumatic. (I took Kristin to Monique last year when she had to shave her head again.)

When it came to biotherapy -- the Herceptin to be precise -- Kristin kept on teaching me, mostly about resilience. She was dealt blow after blow with that drug -- haunted by heart failure despite that only a small fraction of patients ever experience that side effect. When I was hospitalized during treatment Kristin gave me faith that I would get out and get better. She was right. 

On February 13, 2014, Kristin got the devastating news that her breast cancer had returned in her liver. From that day forward, Kristin lived with metastatic disease. I have not experienced that crushing reality and am not qualified to speak about how hard it must be to do so. All I know is that Kristin lived with that cancer in her body for just about four more years despite that her doctors anticipated it would be half that. She didn't start dying that February day, as I had so feared that she would. Instead, Kristin kept hoping. She traveled with friends and family. She raised her family, moved into a new house, celebrated holidays. She was forced to stop teaching but she never lost touch with her students. In the face of the scariest reality, Kristin lived. 

All the while, cancer ravaged Kristin's brain and her body, causing her to have seizures and multiple brain surgeries, among many other challenges. Without complaining, she endured. With grace, selflessness, and faith, she endured. With hope, she endured. 

On Wednesday January 3, 2018, around 5:20PM, my dear friend Kristin passed away at home in Corey's loving arms. I have written a lot since then, but nothing that I will share in this space. What I've written is raw. It's dripping with anger and tears. It recounts the experience of watching Kristin slowly and ever so peacefully stop breathing. Of listening to the man from the funeral home carry her down the stairs. Of seeing her body for the very last time.

I always asked Kristin before I published anything about her and since I can't do that, I don't feel comfortable sharing such intimate details. But I do wholeheartedly believe that she would be okay with me sharing what she meant to me as my person.

As my person, Kristin taught me how to fight, how to adapt, how to surrender, and how to fight some more. She showed me that despite tremendous personal pain, a person can still be compassionate to others. She taught me that real teachers never stop teaching and that the most important teaching happens through a person's actions. Kristin, my dear sweet person, showed me how a mother can live even when she knows that death is fast-approaching. She showed me that death, while horrifically tragic beyond all measure, also -- for the luckiest -- reveals the purest and deepest forms of love.

I am so angry at cancer for what it did to Kristin and her family. I am so angry at how it stole her soul from her body and left only a skeleton in her bed. I am so angry that it hurts. So sad that my heart feels a heavy physical ache.

There are no words, no last paragraph, to make any of it better. So I'll just end it simply -- with a thank you and with an apology.

First: Kristin, thank you. Thank you for being my person, my friend, and my teacher. Thank you for making me less afraid to live and less afraid to die. Thank you for saving my life.

Finally: Kristin, please know that I'm sorry. So so so deeply sorry that the medicine didn't work for you. That the dozens upon dozens of pill bottles that we emptied into the trash with the hospice nurse didn't help. That your hope for a cure never came to be. That you saved me, but no one could find a way to save you. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

#metoo

I wrote this last night in a separate document and never intended to share it in this blog. But tonight, I want to. Not sure why. And not sure I won't regret it. 


*   *   *  

With very few exceptions, I don’t jump on social media bandwagons. Granted, I am a white suburban mom (with a blog) who lives in the town she grew up in, so trust me, I don’t claim to be a rebel. But I’m not a follower, either. I tend to think pretty independently in most parts of my life and when it comes to social media, I don’t post because others are posting. But #metoo was different.

Let me admit, I have a few significant concerns with #metoo, the first one being that the hashtag seems to put sexual assault and sexual harassment in the same category. I have never been the victim of sexual assault and I would never suggest that the two are equivalent experiences. Even within those two categories, the degrees of harm vary greatly. A hashtag seems like a gross oversimplification of so much pain but still, earlier this week I did a quick cost-benefit analysis and made it my Facebook status.

This morning on my way to work, I got to thinking more about that hashtag. About the stories that led me to join the millions of other people who posted it. All of the sudden, I wanted to write. That’s what I want to do when pain enters my heart.

I thought about what I would say. But quickly, I was flooded by all the reasons I could never write about the most painful parts of the sexual harassment I have experienced in my life. I’m not talking about the ridiculousness I saw in the restaurant industry when I worked as a waitress in my twenties. Back then I somehow found the strength to tell most of the men who called me “Hon” or “Babe,” “That’s not my name.” After those brave assertions I am certain I went from “Honey” to “Bitch” but that was (pretty much) fine by me as long as I made the money I needed on my shift.

I’m also not talking about the time on the crowded Orange Line a few years ago when a random stranger (a professionally dressed middle-aged white guy with dark hair and a briefcase) grabbed my butt as he exited at Back Bay. I was so shocked and felt so dirty and so violated that I didn’t even tell Brian right away. I’m not talking about that, nor am I talking about the time a car full of boys screamed the awful "c" word at me while I was running or the time a colleague called me a "f--cking princess" or the time a boss made a lesbian joke to me referencing my short hair as it grew back after chemo. I'm okay sharing all of that.

But the truth is that I would never share about the most painful parts of the sexual harassment that I have experienced in my life because I still know those people. Because they may read this. Because in many ways, I like some of them and/or members of their families. Because they have struggles, too. Because of shame. Because time has passed. Because I was younger then and they were, too. Because maybe they aren’t like that anymore. Because maybe it was my fault for not stopping it when it first started. Because it’s not as bad as what other women have experienced. Because I don’t remember all of the details. Because my husband and my dad would be mad. Because other men reading this may think it was them, and it wasn’t. Because what’s the point.

In many ways, #metoo was just easier.

And that’s what got me thinking today. Did I take the easy way out? It’s in the past. Don’t bother now. Focus on your job. On your family. On being grateful. On the piles of laundry in the basement.

Most of the above somehow processed through my brain before 5:30AM. Yep, it was still pitch black this morning as I sat in one of two lanes at the main traffic light that leads out of my town. The sun hadn’t risen yet but somehow I had already worked up feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and confusion about #metoo and the experiences that resurfaced with it. I know, it’s ironic. Because I know I’m not alone.

Truthfully, I sat down at my computer after school today to plan lessons for next week. The house was quiet and the weekend is packed so it was the perfect time to get ahead on work. But something led me to a blank document. Something led me to this.

Maybe that force was #metoo and the other women I deeply respect who posted it. Or maybe that force was the Irish girl I met on a ferry from Long Island years ago. I don’t remember her face but I remember that she told me she had just been raped didn’t know what to do. Or maybe that force was a combination of other secrets women have told me about similar experiences. Maybe it was my mom or my sister or my daughter. Granted, all of them are crazy strong and they don’t take shit from anybody. But that doesn’t mean anything; the very strongest women have been victims.

In the end, I think I know what led me here tonight. It was the car stopped next to me this morning at the traffic light. That car was right beside me in a parallel lane so that if I looked over, I could catch the driver's eyes. Only I almost never look at anyone stopped beside me at a traffic light. Of course half the time it’s a woman, but still, I don’t risk it. Because one too many times, a stranger-man-driver-beside-me has made a disgusting gesture or given a flirtatious look or blown a dirty kiss when our eyes met. A perk of getting older is that these looks are very rare. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget how those looks and gestures and kisses made me feel. Too gross to talk about. Which is why I never did.

Until #metoo.

Because this morning, just after I decided to just “let it go,” just after I decided that “it’s in the past,” I realized that I still dread being stopped at a light right next to a stranger-man. And I still would never share about the other harassment I have experienced. Because those dark feelings -- the ones behind my #metoo -- still haven’t gone away. And I’m still yet to decide if #metoo has changed any of that.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"On Being a Teacher"

I have the best job in the whole world. Okay, maybe that's subjective, but seriously, for me, teaching English at Boston Prep is the absolute b-e-s-t job. I honestly can't begin to explain how much I love it and even if I could, I probably wouldn't because it would just be annoying. It's not normal to love a job as much as I love mine.

This week, the 350th reminder of how lucky I am to teach where I teach came by way of an essay I shared with one of my English classes (juniors and seniors in high school). The essay appeared in The Atlantic in 2008 and is titled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" It's linked HERE for those of you who want to know the answer. (If you read it you'll see the awesome irony in the fact that no one else but you did.)

In the essay Nicholas Carr explains that the internet has changed the way that we think and particularly, the way that we read. He explained that he used to be able to read a challenging text for long stretches of pages (and time) but now he finds himself unable to do so. Carr uses this great analogy to explain the change: 

My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I tried to review the concept of irony with my classes by pointing out that I could barely get my students to focus long enough to read the whole piece (okay, a full paragraph would have been nice). But even I didn't do it in one sitting, and it's only about 11 pages long. Either way, this essay really got me thinking. Because with reading, and maybe sometimes with life, I'm afraid I've become a Jet Skier, too. 

*   *   *

The short piece that this English class read before Carr's essay was one by Nancy Mairs called, "On Being a Cripple." A copy of that one is HERE. As part of this unit, my students take short pieces of writing and then imitate those pieces, while substituting their own experiences and ideas in for the original author's ideas. For instance, after we read Mairs's essay about being (as she explains it) "a cripple," they had to write their own piece, "On Being a ____."

In response to this prompt, I read everything from "On Being a Narcoleptic" to "On Being Black" to "On Being a Homosexual." Students wrote about having learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and mental and emotional illnesses. I read about soccer and basketball, of course, but I also read about video-game addiction, about traveling all over the world despite not having much money, and about being "a ghost." I learned more about my students in this one assignment than I ever could have imagined. 

Tomorrow they will write their own version of ("Is ____ Making Us ____?"). And I will likely join them. I was going to do ("Is Facebook Making Us Fake?") but just now I had a better idea. I'm going to do, "Can Writing Make Us Smart Again?" and I wholeheartedly believe the answer is YES. But my 20 minutes of quiet are up (hockey and gymnastics are almost over and my stomach is hollering it's so hungry) so I'm going to have to wait to explain myself. And so I mount the Jet Ski until the next time I can sit down in this space and be a scuba diver again. 

To be continued...

Friday, August 11, 2017

Five Years Later

At 8AM on Sunday June 11th of this past year, Teddy had his 4th lacrosse game of the weekend. He also had had a playoff baseball game the Friday before, which I missed because it was the night of our annual (and quite massive) Jimmy Fund Walk fundraiser. I felt so badly to miss that baseball game, but there was no way around it. His team lost that Friday night, which ended their Little League season, but it was okay because summer baseball was just around the corner. Teddy loves summer baseball.

The Saturday morning after the big fundraiser, Brian asked me if he could play golf on Sunday. “Of course!” I responded, knowing that he really deserved this one morning of peace, away from the craziness that I had thrust him into with the 460-person conquer-cancer party.

Brian is usually Teddy’s event coordinator so with him gone for the morning, I was in charge of getting Teddy to the lacrosse game. Since it was at the field just behind our house, and since Annabel was still fast asleep at 7:15AM, I sent Teddy to walk to the game and asked his best friend’s mom let me know that he got there okay. When Annabel still wasn’t awake by the game’s start time, I decided I would just skip the game and let her sleep.

Annabel woke up around 8:30, so I had to decide whether it was worth rushing off for the very end of Teddy’s game. I asked Annabel if she wanted to go. “No!” she exclaimed. To be honest, I didn’t want to go either. Plus, we had no food in the house so I arranged for Teddy to go home from the game with his bestie. Bestie’s generous mom said I could grab him on the way back from the supermarket. It sounded like a good plan.

That morning, Annabel and I flew through Wegman’s at record pace (like under 25 minutes), so when she asked me if we could go to Target to get her new flip-flops (the dog had chewed up her old ones), I agreed.

As we were checking out at Target, I checked my phone. I had several missed calls and voicemails, and when I saw them all lined up aside the sound button on silent mode, my stomach fell to the ground. I knew something bad had happened.

I franticly returned my friend’s phone calls and learned that Teddy had seriously injured his shoulder in a collision with an opposing player. Then I shamelessly exceeded the speed limit on the ride from Target to Norwood Hospital. Brian and I both beat the ambulance there and as we waited for the ambulance, I wanted to puke. Was my little man okay? How had I not been there for him? The fear (and the guilt) were sickening.

It turned out that Teddy had a nasty break just below the shoulder. I could not believe the X-ray when I finally got up the courage to see it. 

"Before"

The break itself wasn’t what got me. What got me was the fact that Teddy was not even crying or complaining of pain. What got me even more was that I hadn’t been there at the field to help him. I knew I was being so selfish, but I couldn’t help it. The mom-guilt was almost debilitating. 

* * *

It turned out to be a truly wonderful summer despite that Teddy spent most of it wrapped up in a sling and a swathe (I learned that you can’t cast a break as high on the arm as his was). He had a handful of meltdowns—mostly about missing summer baseball, a few about missing the chance to waterslide into a lake, and one about not being able to go tubing. But otherwise, he was quite adaptable to his new condition.

On July 10th, four weeks after he broke his arm, we returned to Children’s Hospital for another X-ray. We got good news that morning—the bone was healing. Teddy still had to remain in the sling and the swathe, but there was progress.

Three weeks later, we had another follow-up appointment. They didn’t take another X-ray but the physician’s assistant pulled up the X-ray from last time. I hadn't seen it before and when I saw it this time, I was confused. It still looked like the bone was completely broken. I looked and looked but I really didn’t see much healing. Do you?!?

"After"
As my untrained eye examined the X-ray, the PA took his pen up against the computer screen and pointed my attention to a part of the image that I hadn’t noticed.

“All of this is new bone,” he explained pointing to the white shading on the right side of the break. I didn’t get it but I pretended I did. “See?” he asked, tapping his pen against the relevant part of the screen. “This is bone that the body has generated since the break.”

Then I saw it—new bone! Lots of new bone!

The PA explained that the break will eventually grow down in the arm, no problem at all. The new bone was there and it was strong. Teddy could "return to all activity." I felt like we had let a caged animal free.

* * *

I have been walking a lot lately, trying to get ready for The Jimmy Fund Walk in September. On those long walks, I have thought a lot about a very significant milestone in my cancer experience—five years since my diagnosis. The day came this past Tuesday. August 8, 2017. I remember when Dr. Bunnell told me that if I reached five years, the chances of my cancer coming back were largely reduced. I remember thinking that five years was an eternity. In some ways, it was. In other ways, it was the blink of an eye. 

As I reflect on this milestone, I don't think of it as a victory. I know that anything can happen and I don't take a single day for granted. But Teddy's second X-ray taught me something about my cancer experience that I never understood before now. For me, if I look at the part of me that broke when cancer came along, I wouldn’t get very far. In many ways, that part still looks (and feels) broken. Wonderful people I know, and don't know, have died of this disease. Friends and their families continue to suffer. There are scars and sometimes, lingering pain. I get scared. I worry about how my family would cope if I wasn't here. In many ways, the break is still broken. 

But a crazy thing also happened in these five last years, without me even noticing it—somewhere else and sometime else, another part of me grew stronger. Like the new bone that formed on Teddy's arm. The break itself may still be there and may take many more years to "grow out." But on the other side of my cancer photo, there is progress. I have returned to activity, lots of beautiful activity. I am so blessed for that. And so blessed that in just a few weeks, Teddy will begin fall baseball. 

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?"