Sunday, December 8, 2013

Truth, Lies, and Flu Shots

Unlike last year when getting my children a flu shot felt like a life-saving measure that had to be taken as soon as possible, this year, I totally procrastinated it. The flu clinics at the pediatrician's office were always during work hours and I didn't want to take a day off from writing or work to take them. After some quick research, I learned that I could their shots administered at a local pharmacy so today after Teddy's hockey game, me and the kids headed there. Brian had his own hockey practice so I psyched myself up and decided to stomach the pain that would be this two-on-one adventure.

I didn't want to ambush them so I introduced the idea when we were halfway home. I had seen a sign at another pharmacy about some national flu vaccination week so without any real details, I ran with it. I told the kids that "everyone" was getting their flu shot this week so I thought we could, too (I know, great way to promote independent thinking, right?!).

"Is Liam getting his shot this week?" Teddy asked, referring to his best buddy.

"I think so, I replied," completely lying.

Annabel then asked about Uncle Sean and Auntie Lauren.

"Yep, them, too," I lied even more. But it didn't matter. They both started to cry. Shit.

Once I could raise my voice over their wails, I took a different tactic. It's not one that I am proud of, but it's a sure bet and being outnumbered, I felt I had no other options.

"OK, so since you guys have been good today, if you want, I can take you to the one pharmacy that I know gives the shots that don't hurt." I did not like the way I felt while I said this, but they both stopped crying and looked at me very interested in hearing more.

I had already done my research and we were headed to the nearest pharmacy to home that administered the shots to kids, but I pretended like I re-routed us after they expressed their deep desire that we go to that particular pharmacy.

I went on to explain that there were some shots that took a long time and hurt a lot but then there were a few others that were really quick and felt only like a small pinch. Teddy told me that pinches hurt, so Annabel repeated that, too. I agreed that yes, pinches sometimes hurt, but we were really lucky to have a pharmacy nearby that could give them the quick version of the flu shot.

As I expected, my strategy was a wild success. As we headed down Route 24, Annabel decided to call the flu shot a "food shot" and once Teddy and I laughed, she didn't let up. We discussed what types of food they wanted in their food shots and I agreed to buy them a sweet treat after their short pinches. We all arrived at the pharmacy in very good spirits.

I like the idea and the cute little rhyme of a "minute clinic" but a more appropriate name today would have been "60-minute clinic." It took what seemed like an eternity to get all of our information into the computer and then wait for the man in a white coat (doctor? nurse? an introduction would have been nice...) to invite us into the little room for the shots.

When we got in there, Annabel completely lost it. Even the PEZ candy she had picked out did nothing to calm her down. She wanted out; just a tad more than I did.

Teddy, however, played it cool. He liked that I was telling the man how brave of a big brother Teddy was and he wanted to fill the role he saw laid out in front of him. When Teddy mentioned something to the man about getting the shot that didn't hurt, I thought I'd have to subtly explain more but the guy wasn't even listening enough to any of us to register Teddy's point. Since tuning out lots of noise is likely a very useful skill for someone who administers flu shots to stranger-children, I didn't judge.

I got Annabel to stop crying by explaining that Teddy would go first. Then I did something really stupid; like gambling-with-the-mortgage type stupid. I told Annabel that if Teddy thought the shot hurt then Annabel wouldn't have to get it. Even as the words left my mouth, I knew I had made a huge mistake.

Teddy, however, was convinced that it wouldn't hurt. That's probably what made me feel the worst because let's be honest, it kind of does, at least to those who don't get poked in the arm every few weeks.

My little guy was so very brave, but when the actual stick stuck, his face turned red and he started to cry. "It hu-wts!" he wailed. Annabel followed. In the midst of the madness, there was a knock on the door. I figured it was a manager wondering if a murder was taking place so I just ignored it. But the knock persisted so despite the chaos, I answered. It was my knight in shining armor...Brian in his coaching gear, straight from practice.

Before we left for Teddy game, I hadn't planned on having the courage to do the flu shots alone so I told Brian we would be home by noon. When I knew we'd be much later, I texted Brian to let him know I was getting the kids their shots. I hadn't said where but my husband is really smart that way. I don't know if I have ever been happier to see him, save maybe, walking down the aisle seven years ago. Teddy calmed down as soon as he was surprised by his dad.

With a newfound strength, we swiftly moved onto Annabel and after physically restraining her, she was poked and we were out. She ate PEZ the whole way home while she repeated to me that she never wants to get a food shot ever again. I kept saying, "OK," which I figured could be (mis)interpreted as my agreeing to never make her do it again. But I stick by the argument that I wasn't lying on that one; "OK" could also just mean, "OK, I heard you, baby girl." I had.

*  *  *

To be honest, I sat down to write tonight to try to find a way to channel my anxiety which you're likely sick of hearing about. Without any relation to the kids' flu shots, today I had some anxious moments. As usual, it was nothing that anyone could ever notice, but it was there as I spent all afternoon feeling my neck. I've felt pressure there for a few days now and I think one of my glands is swollen. Of course, this chucks my mind into those dark "What If" caves, but with the busyness of a weekend day with the kids, I never stayed there for long. However, when Brian gave them a bath and I was downstairs alone, I became so nervous that I decided I will call Dr. Bunnell tomorrow to run this all by him. Then it was back to usual--giving into Teddy's nagging request to use glitter on the Christmas letters, brushing up glitter from all over the house, and pretending that I will use the letters even though I won't because the glitter makes it impossible to read anything.

At bedtime, the kids both complained that their arms hurt when they lay down on them. I told them that happens to me after shots and that it gets better. Luckily, I'm not lying. Their arms will feel better, maybe even tomorrow, unlike my right forearm which hurt for many months after my long second infusion before it just went numb (for good, I assume, since it's still numb today). 

I read an interesting quote on one of the A Word A Day emails this week: "Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." A writer, Flannery O'Connor said this, and despite that she died in 1964, it seemed very timely to me today.

I know that right now, I've got a complicated relationship with truth. Even last night, during a rare evening out in high heels, I was reminded of the complexity of that relationship when an acquaintance referenced a relative whose treatment "didn't work" and whose breast cancer then "spread all over." I gave the woman the sympathy she deserved but then I quickly exited the conversation to try to get the hair on my neck to fall back down. I almost broke down in tears then and there, but Brian was smart enough to grab my hand and walk me towards the restrooms. There I realized that I had to get a grip on myself. This was not about an acquaintance saying something she shouldn't have said. We all have a right to tell the truth even to those who can't yet stomach it; whose nightmare may, in fact, be that very truth. The truth is that cancer f-ing sucks. Both this woman and I both know that. 

In the last few weeks, I've had several encounters like this one; breast cancer stories told to me that felt sort of grenades tossed at my psyche. I won't repeat any more of them here because I've made my point with the story above. But at work, in my own house, in Boston, and at a local bar for my high school reunion, I have had out of the blue moments of holy-shitness; moments where I fought to just keep standing. 

When I read the Flannery O'Connor quote earlier this week, I knew that I would write about it at some point. It really reached me. But I had no idea when or how it would become relevant until tonight when I desperately needed my laptop to steady me; when I realized something that's especially hard about being a young cancer patient. 

As kids, we are told so many lies to make us happy (and make us behave, of course). Between Teddy losing his first tooth last week, the Elf on the Shelf, and Santa's near arrival, I can barely keep the lies straight in our house. Truthfully, I'm a bit of a party-pooper in that I don't even fully promote these kid lies, as white as they may be. If Teddy asked me straight up about Santa, I'd be very tempted to tell him what my parents told me -- that there's a "spirit of Santa" but there's no real Santa. And I all but came clean with him on the tooth fairy when he got really scared of the idea of a stranger coming into his room while he slept to take his tooth. "Buddy, if you're scared, daddy or I will take your tooth out from under your pillow. Sometimes kids do get scared of that idea because it is very strange and when that happens, sometimes parents just help the tooth fairy out." He liked that idea and I can totally see why. 

Life moves pretty quick and sometimes it feels like I blinked my eyes and went from a kid hearing about the spirit of Santa to a parent hiding gifts deep in the basement. In what sometimes seems like a heartbeat, I went from a little girl being protected to a protector of my own children. Just like yesterday, I remember screaming at my pediatrician as she tried to vaccinate me and today my daughter did the same while I tried to hold her down.

No one is going to tell me that I need to toughen up when I hear stories like the one I heard last night; I'm surrounded by people that are far too kind and understanding to do that. But the truth is that I do, if only for my own good, and I'm glad that Ms. O'Connor explained it how she did. 

The truth is that is not a promise, at least, not in the sense that cancer won't kill me. The good news is that I've finally realized that beating cancer is not about dying of something else or avoiding the tragic stories of people whose treatment did not cure them. To me, beating cancer has become something different. I can most easily explain it by the ugly yellow rubber bracelet that I couldn't take off even last night when I was dressed up all fancy. I knew it looked awful with my outfit but I couldn't be without it. I couldn't leave behind my tangible (and again, very non-Lance Armstrong-ish) reminder that I always need to try to live strong. Last night in the bathroom stall as I forgot about my stupid make-up and wiped a few tears away, I clung onto that bracelet, so glad that I had worn it.  

I'm pretty sure that I totally botched the flu shot experience for my children today. I probably should have just told them that Yes, it will hurt a bit, it hurt me when I got it, but the pain goes away. They'd have kept crying and the ride to the pharmacy would have been very un-fun. But looking back, a bit more honesty likely would have been the better approach because in the end, I know that Flannery O'Connor is right. No matter what kind of bubble anyone creates around us, we're all going to have to stomach a whole bunch of painful truths. 

You may think this is a post about how mature I've become; about how cancer has taught me to face the truth and accept it. Eh, maybe in small but significant ways some of that has happened. But far more than that, cancer has taught me that it's hard to grow up and stomach the truth; especially the truth that we have so little control over what could happen tomorrow. 

I can't help but end with an awesome irony I discovered today. When I told the kids they could pick out one treat that was less than $5 at the pharmacy, they both picked out a tiny Mickey Mouse snow globe ($3.99!). Of course I bought the two snow globes (and candy) as their prize for being brave. And as I paid for them, I chuckled at the fact that my parents brought me to see Mickey as my prize for being brave, too. Maybe keeping a toe in the innocence of childhood isn't such a bad thing, after all.

1 comment:

  1. Tara, Those "out of the blue moments of holy-shitness; moments where I fought to just keep standing." Such an accurate description!! Scan me, poison me, burn me, scalpel me… whatever. It's nothing compared to the mental challenges that come and go. Survivorship for me was the hardest part. So much harder than treatment. Then-hold onto your lunch--mine came back 5 years later, when I'd finally gotten good at handling those moments, which do truthfully become easier to deal with as time passes. But I treated it and beat it again and am coming up on one year. Do I have "feel my neck in between lying to my children and the outside world" moments? Yes. More than I'd like. Accepting that they are now a part of our lives sucks for sure. I'm not saying make friends with those moments, I'm just saying that there are ways to acknowledge them and compartmentalize them and continue living life. It does get easier to do so. Despite my recurrence resetting the clock on my "moments of holy shit-ness" tool kit, I know it will get easier again for me. And for you. I intended for this to be encouraging not terrifying. I just want you to know I am with you. Keep on doing what you are doing (except try to remove your hand from your neck though I am just as guilty of such things), and you will get to a place where you can breathe the comments away without having to remove yourself completely from the conversation. Holidays this year will be poignant in various ways no doubt. It's part of the cancer silver lining of the sweet being so much sweeter for us--sometimes the sweetness aches. Here's to the healing power of writing, running, self-centered kids, and knights in shining armor named Brian! :)