Before I had kids, I never would have been able to comprehend it—that I would no longer go to the bathroom in solitude (and without questions about my progress); that sleep would come in short spurts between changing sheets, getting water, and telling Annabel to go back to bed. I never would have known that only one meal a day would be eaten while sitting down (that’s lunch, at work); otherwise, it’s cereal at the bus stop and dinner between spilled drinks and requests for more meatballs. I don’t mean to sound like a cheesy country song, but as crazy as it all is, and as much as Brian and I cherished (like really cherished) our three days in July alone at the Spruce Point Inn, I mean it when I say that I’d never want my life any other way.
I know several people, mostly moms, who are very much like me in this respect. If asked for a hobby, we pause, and feel pathetic. Hobby? I just try to squeak in a shower every day. Do showers count? I am so impressed by women who are in book clubs or moms clubs or who just go to a club. What do I do for fun when I have a moment of free time? I write about cancer. I know, I really do need to wind down the fun gauge.
I also know that I lack some of the more traditional maternal genes. I don’t buy my kids cute matching outfits, unless you count that they both wear their Red Sox, Patriots, or Bruins gear at the same time (and they do look really cute). I never remember to take them for hair cuts before picture day, and last time Brian went away for the night, I let them stay up for hours past their bed time and try to fall asleep in a homemade fort (that didn't end well). When I'm in charge, my children eat whatever they want and Brian was horrified a few weeks ago when he came down to Annabel eating a bowl of mint cookie crunch ice cream. What? It's what I wanted for breakfast, too.
Annabel loves her John Denver, but she mostly sings Queen in a deep voice to her baby dolls when they need a lullaby. When Teddy comes out of his room in the morning with his shorts on inside out, I don’t encourage him to fix them. And I don't make up stories about angels bowling when it thunders out. Instead, I tell them what I learned in the planetarium, and I tell them that we'll go there one day.
After almost six years, I've grown comfortable and confident with how I parent even if it's not how everyone else does. But I'd be lying if I said that I started out parenthood that way because I definitely did not. In fact, I started out being a parent motivated far too much by guilt.
I remember the guilt I felt when I missed my baby boy roll over for the first time because I was in class. And I remember the guilt when I had to leave Teddy for most of the day so I could study for the bar. I felt guilty when I decided that breast feeding was too painful and inconvenient to continue and I felt guilty when I learned that other parents made their own baby food from organic vegetables (Brian tried it—we do not recommend). Before cancer (or maybe, before my happy pills), I felt guilty when I didn't exercise and guilty when I did. In my prior job, I felt guilty when I left work in time to have dinner with my family and guilty when I didn't.
In all honesty, my level of guilt was probably at a pretty healthy level compared to some people. Even before cancer, I knew that I was not a bad mother just because I dropped my kids off at day care every day or packed them lunches full of preservatives. My mother worked my whole life and raised us on boxes of macaroni and cheese and there is no doubt how much I admire and love her. But still, guilt is an ugly feeling even when it comes in small doses.
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A few weeks ago, Annabel got an invitation to go to one of her pre-school pal's birthday parties at a local farm. Ward's Berry Farm reminds me so much of the last year, in a good way, because after Brian decided to go mostly organic, he started getting our fruits and vegetables from there. The goats and chickens entertain the kids and I'm always filled with peace after a visit. Farms just kind of do that to me.
When I saw the date of the party, I was so disappointed. I knew we couldn't go because it was the morning of the American Cancer Society's Making Strides for Breast Cancer Walk in Boston. I reluctantly RSVP-ed No, but I was bummed out and didn't forget about it. I wanted a morning with the kids getting pumpkins and berries and birthday cake at the farm. But I didn't feel like I had a choice. I had to go to the walk and if I didn't, I knew the guilt would eat me up.
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On the first Sunday after my first chemotherapy treatment last October, I walked the short route of the Making Strides Walk in Boston. Brian’s high school alma mater, Catholic Memorial, turned out in huge numbers for walk that year, as they had for a decade prior and as they will again this year. They were even being honored on stage for raising more money than any other high school in 2011.
CM had graciously invited Brian and I to join them and of course, we were so grateful when we said yes. To be honest, I didn't really let myself consider whether or not I wanted to go to the walk last year; it was simply something that I knew I had to do. I was so honored and humbled by the fact that hundreds of CM students and teachers, as well as students from Canton High School and Westwood High School, were walking with my name on their t-shirts. The least I could do was show up.
It was cold and pouring rain that Sunday morning. Four days out from treatment, I pretty much felt my worst. I shivered from nerves and from the lower-than-usual October temperatures.
There was so much going on that morning that I could barely process much beyond the fear and appreciation that Octobers and pink ribbons typically evoke in me. I ended up having to speak briefly on stage when the CM kids accepted their award. I obviously hadn’t planned anything and I barely remember what I said. In a way, the overwhelming feeling probably made it all easier—I just had to keep moving forward.
When I later wrote about the walk, I said very little. I wrote about how when we approached the finish, Brian said to me that that walk would be “the first of many.” His sentiment struck me, and I remember feeling overwhelming love for him at that moment. I also remember praying that my treatment worked so that he would be right.
When this October rolled around, the emails, postcards, and letters started arriving from the Making Strides organizers encouraging me to sign up for the walk. After weeks of trying to avoid them, I finally realized something it has taken me even more time to be able to admit—I don’t want to walk for breast cancer on Sunday.
My therapy lady appointment before last week's infusion helped me work through these issues. I hadn’t seen Dr. Fasciano in six weeks, and I hadn’t planned any help-me-with-this agenda items for our meeting. I hoped that if we had nothing to discuss about cancer, we could just talk about other stuff. I was being way too ambitious.
Just a few minutes into the appointment, I arrived at something I hadn’t planned on talking about with my therapy lady, or with anyone really. I arrived at the topic of the Making Strides walk.
I have been very hesitant to post this entry because I worry that people will misinterpret it. The nuances here matter, and if they are neglected, my message could come across as a personal dislike of the walk, or worse, a lack of appreciation for all of the people and the hard work that make it such an enormous success. That interpretation couldn’t be further from the truth. I love that walk and I care deeply about the well being of the people there. Plus, the American Cancer Society was intimately involved with the development of Herceptin and, I'm sure, countless other projects from which I have benefitted so there’s no doubt that the money raised at walks like that one changed my entire future (i.e., it gave me one).
When Dr. Fasicano first asked me why I didn’t want to go to the walk, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “There’s just so much breast cancer,” I told her. There is. That’s what makes it awesome and that’s what makes it terrifying.
Even more than a year out from my diagnosis, it's not easy to read the back of the “in memory of” t-shirts anywhere. It was difficult to see at the Falmouth Road Race and it was difficult to see at the Jimmy Fund Walk. But for some reason, at the breast cancer walk, it’s just too much. Too close. Too possible.
Dr. Fasciano helped me understand it all a bit more. She explained to me that from what she’s seen, I don’t identify with breast cancer. She thinks I naturally focus more on issues related to being a young adult with cancer. Damn; she's good.
The truth is that to me, very little of my journey has been about the breast part of breast cancer. Sure, I've written about my double mastectomy and getting my tissue expanders inflated before my very eyes. But even that wasn't so much about boobs for me. It was about the resiliency of the human body.
As anyone who has followed me on this journey knows, I have cared very little about trading out my real breasts for fake ones. In fact, on the list of parts of my body that I would exchange, boobs would be right up there behind my gaul bladder and my appendix. I completely understand that others feel differently, and I don't discount those feelings, but to me, boobs are just boobs. A dialogue in one of my favorite romantic comedies (Knotting Hill) said it best:
Anna Scott: But, but, seriously, they're just breasts. Every second person in the world has them.
William: Oh, more than that, when you think about it: you know, Meat Loaf has a very nice pair.
Anna Scott: But they're...they're odd looking, they're for milk, your mother has them, you've seen a thousand of them...What's all the fuss about?
William: Actually, I can't think of what it is, really. Let me just have a quick look...
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I would be lying if I said that I don’t consider myself extremely lucky to be able to feel snobby at that moment—every day I am grateful to have had a type of cancer that can be cured rather than another kind that can't. But I can’t help but think about people who develop rare kinds of cancer, or those who have rare diseases that few people have reason to pay attention, or donate, to. I would bet that some of those people would love to attend a massive walk to raise millions of dollars for their disease. But even knowing that doesn't change the fact that I just don't want to walk on Sunday morning. I want to be home with my family. I want to take Annabel to her party at the farm. I don't want to drive into Boston and I don't want to be around breast cancer.
Several awesome, strong, and brave women and men that I know will walk on Sunday. Some of those women will be handed a sash that says, "Survivor." I am so proud of those women and of all they accomplished to wear that sash. And I'm finally comfortable admitting that I'm just not a sash kind of girl. Wasn't before cancer and wasn't after. It's in my genes, and it's probably part of why half of my daughter's wardrobe comes from her brother.
I just deleted a sentence that read, I know that these women who will walk on Sunday are much stronger than I am. In a way, I still think that they are. I also realize that if I argue that they are stronger than me because they walk, they could reply that I am stronger than them because I write. But I'm not. As Brian and I repeat to the kids all the time, It's not a competition. People are different. That's it. And that's a good thing.
I've been trying to figure out why I've gotten so anxious about the breast cancer walk while I enjoyed the Jimmy Fund walk with very little anxiety. Maybe it's because I feel so safe in the walls of Dana-Farber. Maybe it's because at the Jimmy Fund Walk, it was sunny and warm and I didn't feel sick from chemo. Maybe it's because I have a more clear perspective a year later or because my anxiety medication really does help. Maybe it's because Teddy was at the Jimmy Fund Walk with me and we got to talk about the Red Sox, and because no one offered me a sash. Maybe it was because of the good music and good food or the fact that no one noticed me. Maybe it's because to me, breast cancer is just one type of cancer, and in the end, I want to eradicate all kinds, especially those that strike children.
Knowing me, I will feel some guilt after I post this or on Sunday morning while I drive Annabel to the birthday party. I'm certain that I will feel guilty every time I think about the CM boys wearing my name on their shirt despite that I won't even meet up with them to say Thank You. But doing what I want to do instead of what I feel like I should do is a big step for me.
This week, as I tried several times to collect my thoughts into words on the topic of the Making Strides walk, I realized that my idea of "me time" may not be anyone else's. Granted, I'm not going to help cure breast cancer on Sunday by going to a birthday party with kids and goats and chickens. But sometimes it's great personal progress to sit one out; to not let guilt ruin a trip to the farm with my little girl.