Thursday, September 29, 2022

A Spot and the Soul

The technician jokingly called me "fresh" as she rolled me into the MRI tube this past Tuesday afternoon. She was referring to the fact that I was about eight years late in scheduling the MRI that she was about to perform. Truthfully, I had no idea that I was supposed to be going to see my plastic surgeon for MRIs every 2-3 years to check on the implants in my chest. 

I hadn't taken an Ativan for this test which was a first for me. I hate confined spaces and sitting still so lying still in a coffin-like tube isn't my idea of a good time. Ativan helps. I only had one pill left, so I figured I'd save it for the next brain MRI in December. 

I had some definite moments of panic while the MRI clanged away but I got through it. When I emerged from the machine, cheeks burning red and body freezing, I promised myself to take the Ativan next time. I wondered if the technicians saw anything on the scan but I've learned not to ask them because they don't tell you. Still, I felt a familiar nervous nausea as I changed out of the johnny and back into my clothes. 

On the way out, the technician who called me fresh joked again, "See you in ten years!" 

"God-willing," I replied, smiling, still sick to my stomach. God-willing. 

Yesterday, I took Annabel to Kohl's to look for a dress for a fancy event we are attending as a family on Saturday night. She had a few in hand and was headed to the fitting room when I felt my phone vibrate. It was the plastic surgeon. The implants look fine. But. 

My legs immediately turn to jelly when I get results like this. I felt the heat fill me, head to toe. 

I don't remember the exact words she used. Hyper-activity. 4mm. Bone. Sternum to be exact. Another test will look more closely. 

I thought I was going to throw up. "I'm scared," was all I could eek out. (Thank goodness Annabel is so independent and doesn't need my advice on clothes to decide if she likes or doesn't like them.)

Dr. Chun assured me that these types of things pop up "often." I made her repeat it. Often.  

"And are they ever cancer?" 

"Very rarely." 

"I'm scared." 

"I know you are and I'm so sorry to have to do this to you when it could be nothing. But when we see these spots, we have to investigate. I'm so sorry." 

I was pacing now, in and out of the clothes racks. A middle-aged woman in a grey sweatshirt with baby blue writing walked by. I almost dove into her arms, ready to tell her everything and ask her to just hold me up. I would have done that were I alone. That poor woman has no idea what she escaped thanks to Kohl's having a limited selection of dresses that Annabel liked. Had she had more to try on, that woman have gotten a dose of a crazy stranger she'd never have forgotten. Knowing Annabel would emerge shortly, I let her pass by. 

Brian was teaching a class until 6 p.m. and it was only four. I didn't want to bother him so I called my mom. Of course, she was wonderful. My rock. She asked if she should meet me at Kohl's. I told her I thought I could get home myself. But honestly, I didn't believe it yet. 

Annabel emerged. Nothing fit, thank God because I never could have stood in line to pay. It took everything in my power to not share what I was feeling. I had to be a calm, rational version of myself and let me tell you, it would be easier to convince myself that I'm a seahorse than convince myself I'm calm when I'm not. But somehow, I did it. 

Annabel immediately knew something was wrong and I told her that the stupid MRI just showed a little spot that they have to look at. She was scared. I told her what the doctor told me. That these types of things "often" pop up on tests. That they are usually nothing. I told her that I was just so frustrated (hence, the approaching tears) because I just really didn't want to go for another test. She seemed to understand that. Still, she was scared and upset. God, I wanted to help her. But I was too scared and upset to do it.  

I don't even know how I got us home but somehow, I did. Once there, I ran upstairs to the cabinet and took the last Ativan that I hadn't taken the day prior. I tucked it under my tongue so it'd dissolve faster. 

My mom was on my porch in minutes. We knew we had to make some calls and by some miracle, I made them. To my oncology team to ask them to weigh in on next steps. To my PCP to order more Ativan. I paced. With Annabel in the other room, I cried. 

I had to get her out of the house so I could freak out and then collect my thoughts (it's a two-step process). I tried to walk her over to the field hockey game but as we got close, she started to cry and said she just wanted to go home. No! I thought to myself. I'm supposed to get you to this game with your friends so I can go home and fall apart. I need to go fall apart! But she didn't want to go to the game. 

And then something happened. In my most self-centered state, something came over me that told me, Do this for her. Do what you think you can't do FOR HER. And because of that voice--the voice of love, I guess--I did it. I shed a tiny part of the burden I was so selfishly bearing, just enough to hug her and make a joke. We laughed about how annoying medical tests were, about how pouty I was being. We walked home, lighter, me, Annabel, and my Mom. 

My sister-in-law is an incredible nurse practitioner and later last night, she gave me the hope I needed to hang on to some version of sanity. She assured me that these types of things pop up all the time. That it could be nothing. That it could be nothing. That it could be nothing. 

By the time Teddy and Brian got home, I had gotten myself to a much more stable place. The night went on as usual. Homework. Dinner (for those who could eat). Television. Bedtime. I even slept. Yes, I took another 0.5mg of Ativan, but still. 

This morning I took a walk with a dear friend, someone who knows more than I do how fucking scary this all is. (Remember: swearing allowed when scared shitless.) She knows the depths of this type of fear, and while it comforts me to have that company, it breaks my heart, too. No one should know this type of fear. (Okay, maybe I'd wish it on just a few people but those ones are basically the devil's spawn, and even then, I'd probably cave and want them spared, too.)

I know that this could be nothing. I have had these scares before. So why am I writing? Because writing is my lifeboat. 

Speaking of lifeboats, I just finished reading, Stranger in a Lifeboat by Mitch Albom (yes, the "Tuesdays-with-Morrie-guy"). That book. Wow. It shook me to my core. I won't ruin it for you but I'll say this.

I know it's easier for people who love us to watch us face an obstacle and say, "You'll be okay! It could be nothing!" That's the way they hope and I would never take that away from them. But for me, it's not enough. I know this could be nothing. But I also know it could be something. Cancer, again. I have to be able to say that to myself. To type it. To read it on the screen. Of course, the rational ones around me will say, "What are the chances!? Don't worry until there is something to worry about!" And I love that you think that way. I wish I could think that way. 

But something happened to me in these last ten years, and it wasn't just the shock of my own cancer. Today or any day, my hope is no longer founded on the thought of maybe it won't come back. There's always a part of me that assumes it will. I was just too young, too (otherwise) healthy, too shocked to think of it any other way. Plus, the nightmares. Oh the nightmares. They are there at least every week. They show me--with cinematic detail--what could happen. And, of course, there are the scares--like this one. The little glimpses into the "what if?" The pure Hell of those glimpses. 

And so I need to ground my hope in something deeper. I need to believe that if this spot on my sternum does turn out to be metastasized cancer, that they could do something about it. That there would be a surgery or a procedure or a medicine. That there would be a plan of action, and then, action

But I'm not done yet. Do you want to know how really, truly crazy I am? (It's a lot, brace yourself.) I actually need even more hope than that (a hope-hog, right?!). I need to have the hope that if they didn't have a plan, or if the plans eventually ran out, that the universe would somehow still be loving and fair. What does that look like? (Oh the tears.) Breathe. It looks like last night. My mom taking Annabel to  McDonalds. Teddy coming home from a golf match and doing his homework. Brian teaching and coaching. It means me, absent, still somehow able to show them how much I love them. 

There is a page in Mitch Albom's Stranger in the Lifeboat that reads (without giving away any  surprises, hence the multiple ellipses): 

"When someone passes, Benjamin, people always ask, 'Why did God take them?' A better question would be 'Why did God give them to us?' What did we do to deserve their love, their joy, the sweet moments we shared? Did you have such moments with Annabelle?" [The character's name is Annabelle, like my Annabel.)] … 

"Those moments are a gift. But their end is not punishment. … Beginnings and endings are earthly ideas. … Feeling loss is part of why you are on Earth. Through it, you appreciate the gift of human existence, and you learn to cherish the world[.] … But the human form is not permanent. It was never meant to be. That gift belongs to the soul." (page 241-242)

My deepest fear and my deepest hope lies in the "not permanence" of us all. So yes, the spot on my sternum could be nothing. But if it's something, I will still find hope in modern medicine, in the resilience of the human spirit, and ultimately, in my faith that soul continues on in a way no earthly being could ever understand.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Against the Current

My grandmother and grandfather bought a piece of land in East Hampton, New York in the late 1960s. Back then, I'm pretty sure when people said "the Hamptons" it didn't come with all the elitism and snobby baggage that it does now. From what family lore has told me, they found a small plot of land that overlooked a bay, and they jumped. Their eldest child and her husband (my aunt and uncle) are architects so they designed a house and my grandparents built it in 1976. Along with my mother and their other siblings, my aunt and uncle have maintained the house on its stunning perch, putting blood, sweat, and tears into a place that has meant (and continues to mean) so much to me, Brian, and our family. 

My grandparents have been gone for years now, but their spirits live on in this house. I can feel them in the books, chairs, artwork, coffee mugs, photographs, and even the placemats and recipes that remain in this house. Every now and then, I can still smell my grandmother, I swear (she had such a beautiful smell that could never be explained nor replicated). 

For us, the visits to Long Island come only in the summers, but those two precious weeks in July are cherished times of the year. When we are here, Brian cooks (per usual, but somehow it tastes even better), we read (a lot), we sit on the deck and admire the sky and the sea (that view will never get old), and we spend a lot of time at the ocean (Atlantic Avenue Beach). 

This year, our family vacation left behind a family member because his baseball team kept winning (so awesome, but boy have we missed him). Granted, our 14-year-old probably wouldn't have much interest in this quiet, peaceful place, and we have spent ten days trying to accept that in this phase of his life, playing baseball and being with friends is more his vibe. Oh how that's a tough pill to swallow, and at times, the mom-guilt of leaving him has been debilitating.  

So while family and friends in Canton have spoiled Teddy, Brian and I have enjoyed quality time with each other, and with Annabel and my Mom. It's been blissful, with reality interrupting the bliss in all its normal reality sort of ways. 

Yesterday, Annabel and I enjoyed the waves at the ocean. While my mom read her book on shore, I loved every minute of teaching our 11-year-old how to navigate the surf. I grew up playing in these waves and it's so precious watching her love them as much as I do. The waves at Atlantic aren’t enormous waves, but they are strong enough to challenge even experienced swimmers. Lifeguards raise a green, yellow, or red flag every day to indicate the danger level of the water (including riptides). Green days are fun because they are more calm but yellow days are fun because they are more full of adventure. Red days are off-limits per the life guard’s restrictions.

A yellow flag has flown over the lifeguard stand in the last few days but there has been enough space in the waves closer to shore for Annabel and I to enjoy the waves without being fearful. She's a water bug and can stay in there for three hours at a time. There's nothing better than watching her play, even if after an hour, I need to put a podcast on in my ear. There's only so much being totally in the present moment I can take. 

I never had any formal training in how to navigate the waves of Atlantic Beach but I had parents, uncles, and cousins who taught me the basics: when and how to enter the waves at the right time, how to decide if it’s safe to float over a wave or if diving underneath is necessary, how to exit the waves when you’re tired or freezing, and how to empty the sand out of your bathing suit once one-too-many boogie board or body surfing trips has led to an uncomfortable collection in a part of the body that really doesn’t appreciate sand.

My family also taught me one of the most important lessons about riptides: don’t fight them and don’t panic. If you feel that a riptide is pulling you out into the ocean, the best thing to do in the moment is let it pull you. You’re never going to be stronger than the ocean. Once the riptide has taken you out and it subsides, you collect yourself, stay patient, and wait for the right time to let the waves help carry you back to shore. By that point, you have likely moved hundreds of yards down the beach from where you started, but that’s okay. Once you’ve made it back to shore safely, you can use those cold and shaky legs to walk back to where you began.

Last summer, on a glorious beach day with a yellow flag, the ocean currents were real, so real that it took no more than two minutes in the water before you were about 400 yards down the beach. That day, I taught Teddy about a few powers of the ocean. I'll admit: taking him all the way out in a yellow flag (something I haven't yet done with Annabel), scared me. Mostly, I was scared that he would fight the current. That he would panic. But I wanted him to learn, and he did. Annabel will be ready next year. I hope I'm still strong enough to teach her. 

*  *  *

In many ways, the last school year felt like trying to swim against a riptide. Several times a day, I felt like I wasn't strong enough to keep going, like I didn't have the energy or the will to keep on fighting against the current of so many bad things. Student addiction to cell phones, mental health issues (students and adults included), violent behavior, hateful and hurtful language, low motivation, and persistent negativity. Any teacher in America will tell you: it was a challenging school year. 

While some teachers may find solace in their shared frustration with students, others of us just feel sad that our students are struggling so much. “It’s not their fault,” I repeat, and I still believe that. At the same time, fault doesn't really matter when it comes to their futures. Plus, receiving constant negative energy eventually feels toxic. Last year, no amount of mindfulness could shield me from that toxicity.

At the same time, I believe deeply in schools and in educators who fully commit to closing the achievement gap. It’s a canyon of a gap, an abyss really. And COVID seems to have made it all so much worse. 

In the years of remote and hybrid learning (and, now that I think about, in the prior years teaching in Boston), I felt like I was swimming against a strong current. I'm guessing other teachers and even students felt the same. But for many of us, last year was different. Last year, I felt like I could drown. 

In what often felt like chaos, I fought the current and I went with it, and neither seemed to work. Like other teachers across the globe, I changed my teaching methods in hundreds of different ways. I edited and adapted and adjusted, before class and during and after. I reflected a lot, and even reflected on how I reflected. I took numerous different tones, tried to listen more, and tried to distinguish between noise that needs my attention and toxicity that doesn’t deserve it. I tried. We tried. So hard. And yet, by the end of the year, I was only just holding on. I have taught for a very short thirteen years. I know that's not enough to feel exhausted. But I felt exhausted. 

Aside from the feeling of failure and shame that comes when I ask myself what some students learned from my class last year (answer: maybe nothing), I also feel great guilt in the reality that I am taking the next school year off from teaching to write my book. But I know I need to surrender to the current for now, let it pull me to places I hadn’t anticipated I would land. While I’m there (wherever that may be), I hope to become stronger, more knowledgeable, and more patient. I need to rethink my ideas about education by asking questions that I think we all need to ask: How do we address students’ increasingly short attention span for any academic task? How can we get kids to come to school, never mind, how do we best teach them once they are there? Oh the list goes on.)

Still, I feel guilt and sadness. I will miss my classroom next year, despite that so many classes this year have ended in my wanting to cry or scream. But eventually, I will gather strength, emerge from the waves, and march back down the beach, ready to dive back in again.

*  *  *


A few mornings ago, I got up early to set a time lapse photo to catch this sunrise.


Playing in the waves.









Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Imperfection Anyways

I wrote in my memoir about how different the reality of life can be to our vision for it. I still chuckle (and sometimes cry) at how very true the discrepancy can be. 

Teddy is in the heart of a busy summer baseball season and last night's game took us to Worcester State. It's not a terrible ride -- about an hour and 15 minutes -- and Brian was more than willing to go. But I had a vision. Since I'll be missing Teddy's Thursday night game for dinner with some dear friends, I would catch up with him (assuage my mom guilt), and drive him to Worcester State. We would chat in the car about how he's doing, he would tell me all about being a camp counselor this week, and we would discuss his excitement and fears for his upcoming first year of high school. I even had some questions I wanted to ask as I churn an idea in my head for something I want to write about habits for academic success. Not that I was going to interview my own son, but kind of, I was. 

I was all packed up with things to read in the hour his team warmed up, and had my dinner in hand. Brian had packed a cooler for Teddy, and the gas tank was full. This was going to be great. A summer night with my son, oh, and his gregarious friend, who took the back seat. I was happy; these two are fun to be around. 

As we got in the car, I watched them insert earbuds. Oh. Ok. Then I noticed Teddy had left the cooler of his water and dinner in the middle of the driveway. 

When we got in the car (again), Teddy and his friend positioned themselves for a nap. 

"Oh, you're not going to talk to me?" I asked. 

"We can talk on the way home," Teddy told me with his charming smile. Well, then. I fired up the Waze and my podcast about writing, and off we went. Teddy woke up when we were almost there and his friend chose his music over my podcast (how?!). Solid bonding time was had by all. Vision versus reality. 

*  *  *

I have been writing; I promise. I even found my protagonist's voice, which feels like finding treasure. Her name is Nomzamo, and I have loved her for a long time, even before she had come close enough to be fully in focus. But she's coming closer, and she's fascinating. 

I have followed my commitment to write from 6:30 - 8 a.m. every morning and not broken it once. I have also kept my commitment to read 60 minutes a day, although that time has been much more scattered and I should probably tighten it up a bit. 

I've also realized that despite all of the reading and research I have done for this book over the last 20+ years, I have so much more to do. This morning I outlined the 20 pages of the book that I need to write to meet my first deadline of July 31. I made a chart -- basically 4 pages at a time for 5 sections -- and added a column for the research I will need to do to complete each section. I have a plan, at least for the road immediately ahead of me; it's like I've set the Waze for my writing. 

In one of the writing podcasts I listened to the other day, the writer quoted someone who said that starting to write is so hard because it means that you have to sit down to the bar of self-judgment. He went on to explain that every idea is perfect until you start to write it. When you start to write it, it's no longer perfect, and sitting down to write is so hard because we all hate to see perfection turn to imperfection. Yes. Yes. Yes. 

I realized last night that my visions for parenting, and life really, are much like my ideas for writing: they are perfect until they actually become real. Then they are wildly imperfect and the sunny summer evening turns into a lightening storm, the game ends early, and my son is mad at me because the fresh sandwich we packed for him isn't as delicious as a burrito from Chipotle. Then we drive home. I spend the first part of hour listening to music and when it's clear Teddy doesn't have much to say, I call my sister and we talk about books. Just about 10 minutes away from home, Teddy starts to talk to me. Not about much, but it's something. I'm grateful for it because I really do love him so. And he's 14, so I guess talking to his mother isn't all that thrilling. His loss. Ha! 

Writing is so beautiful and so damn hard because, like life, it is a constant reminder that even on the very best of days, imperfection is inevitable and visions are never reality. And that's okay. I'll live it, and write it, anyways. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

Goals, not dreams.

In a podcast an inspirational friend recently shared with me, an American author, Glennon Doyle, said that when she puts her writing out into the world, she doesn't then "babysit" it. She further explained: she doesn't watch what people say about what she wrote, defend it, or further explain it. She just lets it be. 

I won't lie; when this blog first came into existence almost 10 years ago (gulp, goosebumps), I babysat it like it was my nephew in the NICU. (When John was born three years ago tomorrow -- two months prior to his due date and with head trauma to boot -- I visited the NICU often. I usually went after dinner, when my kids were settled and when his heroic parents finally left his side to get a bit of sleep. When I wasn't holding him, I would watch the numbers on the screen above his incubator, examine his little body and his precious movements as if those numbers, that body, and those movements were the most important things in the whole world. Because to our family, they were.) I could write about John for a whole book, but let the metaphor end here, and suffice it to say, years ago, I babysat this blog and people's responses to it like they meant the world to me. Because they did. 

Ten years ago, thanks to my brother (John's dad) who showed me how to see the "analytics" of the blog, I experienced joy in watching people in over 90 countries consistently read something I wrote. I still don't understand how it happened, but at the time, I was scared out of my mind and the distraction of writing and then babysitting my writing helped. At a time when I wondered what more I'd get to do with my life, I felt valuable in seeing that what I was writing meant something to someone else. Plus, I felt loved. Heard. Insightful. Who doesn't want to feel that?!

In one month, August 8, 2022, I will (God willing) reach the 10-year anniversary of my diagnosis. I would be lying if I said I haven't been looking at that date. Watching that number on the calendar. Five years felt big. Ten feels monumental. And standing in the shadow of a monument can feel really overwhelming.

Part of this burst of energy to begin to write my book is fueled by that anniversary. It's even fueled, a bit, by fear, but more on that sometime soon. It's largely fueled by my mother, who doesn't just inspire me with her faith in my abilities and the constant insight she gives me without even trying, but with the practical support I need to actually do this. And it's fueled by something deep inside me that just knows: this is what I need to do if I am going to live, really live, as me. 

At the same time, I'm trying not to babysit these little blogs. I'm practicing for when I start to put more writing out into the world. I can't control what people will say about what I write so I may as well practice surrendering now. 

Still, I peek. I smile. And I'm so grateful for the people who believe in me. Again, who doesn't want to feel that?!

I have two solid guesses as to the person who left this comment on my "It's Time" blog, and there's a little magic in not reaching out to either of them to say, "Was this you?" So I haven't done that (yet?) and rather, I've just been reading these words over and over. 


The brave and warrior part are sweet but I don't really pay much heed to that. How can I believe that when I'm reading American Dirt? What I have done is like 0.00000000001% of what others do in this world. But still, I'm grateful for the sentiment. 

But just read those words: "Goals, not dreams. Not an if, but a when, marked in your time, your pace, to reach your planned goals." Dang. For me, words are often precious gifts and when shaped in the way this person shaped them, I feel like Anonymous left me a gift worth billions. 

This morning, shortly after 6:30 a.m., I made a new note in my novel's Scrivener document. I called it, "Goals, not dreams," and I mapped out the plan. 

300 pages by December 31. A full draft of the novel, messy and in need of months of editing, but complete by the end of 2022. That's the planned goal, with a pretty little table and mini-deadlines all mapped out as of today. That map will take me the distance. Planned goal. Born in a dream. 

Thank you to Anonymous for sharing the precious gift of your words. I promise, I won't babysit, but every now and then, I'll quietly open the door and peek in to check on these sleeping babies. Because who doesn't want to feel that?!

Thursday, July 7, 2022

July 7, 2022

I took a huge baby step this morning (maybe even a toddler step) with respect to my narrator's voice and the point of entry to her story. I needed this boost of confidence that I can find the narrator's perspective and that her perspective can be strong, vulnerable, purposeful, and authentic. 

American Dirt continues to inspire me as mother, a wife, an American, and a writer. I highly recommend this book even though it will twist your gut and ache your heart. Even after years of working closely with refugees who sought political asylum in this country, I still needed this book to teach me about how much pain people endure to reach America. This nation has broken many hearts lately, but American Dirt reminds me that the freedom, opportunity, and hope within our borders still hold the power to heal those breaks.  

My goal for tomorrow's morning writing session is to finish outlining the novel. I also plan to finish reading American Dirt. When I'm done with that, I plan on finishing The Alice Network, which I am halfway through. Kate Quinn does historical fiction like no other.