Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Just One Thing...

In the fall of 2006, I decided that I would leave my teaching job to become a lawyer.

The summer associate position that I accepted began the week before Memorial Day so I realized early in the school year that I was going to need to leave my teaching post before school was out for the summer. 

When Ropes gave me the choice to delay my start date one week, I took it, even though it was financially costly. I wanted to stay with my students as long as I possibly could and I wanted to ensure that they had a smooth transition to the teacher who would take my place for the rest of the year. 

In brainstorming how this could all work best, I had the idea to invite a student teacher into our classroom. He or she could work with my students beginning in the early spring and by the time I had to depart in May, everyone would be comfortable and happy with one another. My department head and my principal were supportive of the plan and that spring, my student teacher arrived. I will call him, "Tony." 

Tony was a fascinating character. He was genuinely kind and hardworking, modest and thoughtful, strong, yet desperately vulnerable. And like almost every first time teacher (including myself), Tony struggled as a student teacher in front of the classroom.

Getting up in front of a room full of teenagers isn't easy for anyone. But eventually, some people find their groove and some people don't. As much as it crushed me (and Tony) to admit it, Tony never did.

In the end, Tony's supervising professor thought it would be best if Tony left his student teaching position. It broke my heart, not because my plan was a total bust, but because Tony wanted to do something that he didn't necessarily have the instincts to do. Finally, I agreed with Tony's supervisor that things weren't working out.

After Tony received this news, he didn't come back into the classroom. But he did write my students a letter. I will never forget that letter.

To be honest, I don't remember exactly what it said, but I know that it was the first time that Tony was himself. He was honest and confident, and even funny, as he told my students why he wasn't going to be with them any longer. I'm not sure they saw it as freshmen in high school, but if they did, that letter would have taught them more than most month-long history units. I know it taught me lessons that I still think of to this day. I also know that if Tony ever found a way to bring the person who wrote that letter into the classroom, he would have become an awesome teacher. 

*  *  * 

Looking back, I realize that I should have done many things so differently for Tony. Despite that I was a pretty good teacher for my students at that point, I was an atrocious teacher for him and while everyone was focused on Tony's failures, no one (including myself) was focused on mine.

I realize the root of my failures -- that pesky control problem (again). Giving up control in my classroom was so very difficult for me. When I sat in the back of the room and watched him teach a lesson that I had taught the period before, I wanted Tony to teach it just like I had. I itched to "fix" all of the "mistakes" that I felt he was making. Meanwhile, I was making a whole host of my own.

In helping to train Tony to become a teacher, my strengths became my weaknesses. I so sincerely wanted to help Tony love teaching as much as I did. I wanted to tell him everything that I had learned in five years and I wanted him to be able to skip over all the time and effort it took me in learning those lessons. I wanted my students to continue on after I left just as they would have continued on if I was there. And I wanted Tony to be someone that he wasn't meant to be.

Don't get me wrong, I was very kind and fair and diplomatic to Tony. But still, I have regrets about how I treated him. Most of all, I regret that I tried to give him too much too fast and I didn't encourage him to find his own style at his own pace. Granted, I didn't want my students to have to sacrifice their own learning in order for him to get there, but, still, everyone needs to start somewhere.

Even though I don't necessarily think it would have worked out however I had behaved, I believe I could have made Tony's experience a better one if I had known then what I know now. But the crazy thing about experience is that we all need to get it in order to learn from it.

*  *  *

In the last few weeks, I have had two different women reach out to me to tell me that they were recently diagnosed with breast cancer. In talking to these women, I have found myself reflecting on my time with Tony. 

While there is part of me that wants to sit down and tell these women 1,000 different things that I have learned over the past year, a more mature part of me knows that I can't and shouldn't do any such thing. These women are about to begin their own journey and while it may have similarities to mine, it will be different. 

I realize now that these women, and many men and women who will, unfortunately, come after them, will have their own moments of darkness, their own reasons that they wind up in those caves, their own ways to get out of them. While I have come to better see and understand the walls of my own caves and my own routes out, I don't pretend to fully understand theirs. 

I realize now that there will be things that bother these women that didn't bother me and obstacles that they coast through that I found to be daunting. No doubt, sharing our experiences will help them and help me, but I know now that no matter how much I wish I could spare them pain that I have felt, there is no shortcut around this formidable life experience. They will earn their victory just like I did. 

So instead of 1,000 pieces of advice for the newly diagnosed, I have just one thing I really want them to know at this stage of their journey:

Because of the incredible advances in modern medicine, because of the angels that will swoop in to care for you, and most of all, because of the unbelievable strength you will find within yourself, you will win. You will beat this. And while your path to victory won't be just like mine, it will be your own. Which, I have no doubt, will make it all the sweeter. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Weight of Weight

I am a human being over eleven years old, and I live in the United States of America, which means that I think about my weight. I can’t help it (despite my little peach-colored pill), and after a year of starting posts about this topic and never finishing them, I’ve decided, it’s time.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a general rule against sharing personal stories about weight, diets, or workout regimens. But like any good rule, I believe there are exceptions and I’m hoping that this entry is one of them.

* * *

Let’s start with numbers since numbers are easy and since they likely quell some curiosity. This morning, I weighed 147 pounds. About eleven months ago, I weighed 20 pounds less than that and when I delivered Teddy, I weighed 53 pounds more. We good so far?

OK, now for some background to those numbers.

As a senior in high school, I was deeply loyal to my schoolwork and the sports that I played. I had a family, a best friend, a boyfriend, and a life that I loved. I ate frosting out of the container when I made a cake, batches of mozzarella sticks with Brianne, and countless slices of Papa Gino's pizza at team dinners. And I didn't feel guilty about any of it. I knew who I was in my small New England suburb and I was proud of that person. When I left for college, I felt excited, eager, and blessed.

When I arrived at Bowdoin, I still felt the same way. I missed my family but I wasn’t ever really homesick. At the same time, something unexpected happened.

When the honeymoon of orientation was over, I started to feel lost; not lost so much in terms of what to do but lost in terms of how I valued myself while I was doing it.

In Canton, I had been an above-average basketball player, swimmer, and gymnast. At Bowdoin, I was way below average at the first two, and gymnastics didn’t even exist. In Canton, I wandered from class to class with the smartest kids in the school, but at Bowdoin, I was surrounded by students (like Brian) who were the valedictorian of their high school class and I definitely hadn't earned that top spot. All of the sudden, I felt average, really average, and despite that now, average sounds wonderful, at the time, I hated that feeling. It felt boring and empty; snobby and insecure; complex, and yet so very simple.

A very ironic thing added to my pain – before I left for college, I got my hair cut short, basically to the hairdo that I (unintentionally) have now. At the time I sat in my hairdresser’s chair in August 1998, I wanted something new and different, but as soon as I got to Bowdoin and realized that I was new and my haircut was different, I regretted that decision. To be honest, I didn’t regret it in any conscious way; I never stared in the mirror and thought to myself, I wish my hair were long again. But I just didn’t feel right with short hair and deep down, I hoped that when it grew back, I’d be confident and happy again.

In search of that confidence and that happiness that I had somehow lost, I started to exercise. A lot. No matter the time of day or the weather or how much my knees hurt, I ran, swam, cross country skied, or stepped up and down on the StairMaster. Today, that all sounds fun (except maybe the StairMaster part) but it wasn't fun at the time. It was absolutely exhausting -- both for my body and for my mind. Unfortunately, however, I had no idea how to get either of them to rest. My mind had become a calculator for calories consumed and calories burned and despite that it was constantly doing math, no one ever knew.

In all honesty, my obsession with my weight wasn't about what other people thought. In fact, it wasn't even really about the number on a scale, either, and I rarely, if ever, weighed myself. My anxiety was really about what I thought about how I looked, how I felt in a new place, what I could (or could not) control.

At the time, 15 years ago, I never stopped and wrote about myself in the way I do now. But I did sometimes write poetry and often, my poems were based on feelings that I understood from personal experience. Maybe they weren't precisely my own feelings, but they were close. This was one of those poems that I wrote way back then:

Naked body
that I dread
screaming voices
in my head
numbers, mirrors
haunting me
suffocating misery

Second, minutes,
hours pass
screaming voices
still harass
secret pain
and misery
every moment
haunting me

Naked body
that I hate
before the mirror
life can wait
while the voices
scream my name
I drown in shame

Days and months
and years go by
naked body
wonders why
in the dark,
the snow, the rain
forced to feel
the endless pain

Naked body
wants to rest
screaming voices
still detest
before the mirror
waist and thighs
battle cries

Naked body
that I dread
screaming voices
want me dead
But now is when
I must decide
to quell the voices
deep inside
or else allow
the pain to win
to take my life
to make me thin.

Looking back on this poem is similar to looking back on August 8th of last year – it's like watching a thunderstorm storm in the distance after it's passed...oddly enough, it looks sort of beautiful...maybe mostly because it's passed.

Gradually, for several reasons, I grew out of obsessing about my weight. It wasn't so much that I solved the problem directly, but rather, that I found things that took priority over it -- Brian, my teaching job, law school, my kids. Over the years, I found peace with something that had previously tortured me and I was proud of that.

If you’d have asked me on August 7, 2012 about my feelings on my weight, I would have told you that I was satisfied with it. But deep down, I'd have been pleased to lose 10 or 15 pounds...a few from those extra handles above my hips, a few more from my C-section pouch, some from the flabbiness under my arms, and a bit from my inner thighs. Then, I’d feel great.

It turns out that there's a really quick way for me to lose 10 pounds, or hell, to lose 20...a cancer diagnosis. Despite that I’m that rare person who can eat meals through a bout of the flu, on August 8, 2012, I lost my appetite and I lost it bad.

I was literally so nauseous with worry that the thought of most foods made me want to throw up. It didn’t help that most calls from the doctors with additional news on my diagnosis came around dinner time, and after those, sitting up straight felt like a chore, and scooping food into my mouth felt damn near impossible.

I didn’t notice the weight loss at first; it was the least of my worries. But soon, I became concerned. I weighed myself and saw that I had lost ten pounds. I thought the cancer had started to kill me.

So I started to change the food that I was able to eat. While that deadly tumor was still in me, I decided to eat only the healthiest foods and pray that they would do everything possible to stop a single cancer cell from escaping from my breast. My life became mustard instead of mayo and cauliflower instead of ice cream. It wasn’t painful, but rather, something that I could control amidst a storm of things that I couldn't.

Prior to my double mastectomy, I was generally frightened to exercise so I really didn't. Crazily (and with absolutely zero supporting science), I thought that exercise could propel a cancer cell from the invasive tumor and nothing was worth that.

It turns out, however, that even without exercise, eating healthy foods really does cause weight loss because I continued to drop; five, seven, ten more pounds. Despite that I had some control that I craved, I was terrified that I was withering away. Sadly, the madness of Hollywood helped me, as I distinctly remember telling myself, Angelina Jolie is alive and she's way thinner than me. But still, I knew that I was not built to look like Angelina Jolie or to look the way that I looked. I was supposed to be bigger than that, healthier than that.

At one point just before chemo, I met with a nutritionist at Dana-Farber. She was lovely and she gave me some useful information. But the most important thing that I took away from our meeting was that she would help me if eating continued to be such a challenge. There are ways we can get you to gain weight even if you’re having trouble eating, she told me. I felt some peace.

In the end, as my worry about dying from cancer (and the related nausea) receded, my appetite returned. I’d guess that today I weigh exactly what I weighed on August 8th of last year. And if you want to know what I think about my weight right now...what I really feel about it...I feel great. 

* * *

I’m still human, still over eleven years old, and still living in the U.S.A., so obviously, I still think about my weight. But now, I think about it so, so much less. When I do, I have pretty healthy thoughts and I really, really appreciate them.

This change in me is not, however, all because of cancer (or because of writing). I had grown far away from the girl who wrote that poem long before cancer. Still, some tiny parts of her toxicity lingered in me. Maybe while the chemo worked on any cancer that remained in my system, it also wiped out any of that girl's toxic leftovers because I honestly don't feel it anymore. Here's what I do feel. 

I feel like I have finally learned what my body is supposed to look like when it's in a healthy state. I'm supposed to have some extra handles above my hips, some flabbiness under my arms, and inner thighs that remain untoned. These aren't things I should fight against or wish away. They're how things are supposed to be, maybe not for Angelina Jolie or for Victoria's Secret models, but for me.

I recently read an article in the newspaper about some number of teenage (and even pre-teen) girls who are taking pictures of their inner thighs and sharing them through social media. The most desired photos are sent by one who is thin enough that her inner thighs don't touch when she stands with her legs together. It makes me sick to think that girls are doing this, worrying about this, trying to change something that's not supposed to be changed.

I also know that there's not much that someone can say to help a person who is battling weight issues. Yes, I think a good therapist could be key, but a family member, friend, or blogger is probably not going to make much of a lasting difference. The process of learning to value, care for, and protect the body we were given is a long and complicated one.

Nevertheless, I want to assert my wishes for my own kids. I hope that they enjoy frosting out of the container when they make a cake, batches of mozzarella sticks with their best friends, and countless slices of Papa Gino's pizza at their team dinners. I hope they learn, as soon as possible, what their body is supposed to look like when it's healthy and I hope that they never do anything to try to change that shape. I hope they exercise and generally eat well because it feels good and because it will make them stronger. I hope they look in the mirror and see a person they are proud of (but not too proud of), and that they don't just see hips, arms, or inner thighs.

Finally, I hope, so very deeply, that my kids know that I believe they are the most beautiful people in the world. Because I really do. Whatever their weight. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Good Words: Compliments

The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer. 
~Henry David Thoreau

To be continued...

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Until recently, Brian and I had a completely different approach to cleaning the house. He operated on what he called the "70% rule" and I operated on a rule governed by 100% or 0%. I'll explain using the dinner dishes as an example.

If Brian were working alone, in a matter of five or ten minutes after dinner, he would have piled almost all of the dishes into a heap in the dishwasher (un-rinsed), he would have washed almost all of the soap off of the mostly clean pots, and he would have picked up (and probably eaten) any big chunks of food from under the table. A few cups or utensils would straggle behind, and he wouldn't sponge the counters or sweep the floor (unless he had made his own pizza because on those nights, the mess of flour and cornmeal requires it). With that, he'd be done. Seventy percent clean. One hundred percent done. 

When my "old self" worked alone, it was a whole different story. After dinner, the dishes would stay put while I puttered around -- maybe playing with the kids or organizing the mail or paying bills. If I was especially tired that night, I'd think to myself about how much of a chore those dirty dishes seemed, and I'd wait...hoping that my energy level revved up again. In the meantime, I'd add to the mess with whatever else I was doing. That was my 0%.

When my energy engine was fueled up again, I'd clean; like really clean. I'd sweep the floors, wipe every spec off the countertops, and even sponge down the front of the dishwasher. Not a single cup or utensil straggled behind...until a few hours later when Brian put his empty ice cream bowl in the sink. I wanted to scream when he did that -- Maybe in your crappy 70% kitchen that is acceptable but can't you see this one is 100% perfect?!? But I just bit my tongue and put the dish in the dishwasher. (OK, I may have murmured something under my breath, too, but he had no idea.)

Meanwhile, Brian was probably murmuring under his breath when I was in my 0% mode, piling dirty dishes in the sink and leaving a trail of everything I touched. He had every right to be thinking something like, Can't this woman find some middle ground? But he knows that middle ground doesn't come naturally for me. I've never been good at 70%.

*  *  *

I still hesitate to say that cancer changed me, mostly because I'd never want to give it such power. Also, I still believe that it was writing that really changed me and I won't give cancer writing's credit.

But in the last several months (which is long enough for me to believe it's not just a phase), I've realized a way that I have changed, and I figured I needed to set the record straight, especially since back in January, I dedicated two entire blog posts to the topic of organization.

So, to come clean (no pun intended), when I started this post this morning, I literally sat in a house that was maaaaybe at a 12% cleanliness level. In the hallway to my right, there were piles of wet towels, bathing suits, and Crocs, as well as bags full of sunscreen, work binders, dolls, and water toys. To my left there was a play table covered in cut-up paper and ripped out coloring book pages. The plastic box labeled "Markers" had some crayons in it and the box labeled "Crayons" contained some PlayDoh. Teddy's Wii games were scattered all over the floor, interspersed with Annabel's fake food, leopard mask, boy shoes, and Red Sox sweatshirt.

Brian had gone to pick up the groceries we had ordered online (best invention ever). I stayed behind with the promise that I'd clean up before he got back. Still thinking I'd be loyal to my promise, I sat down to write.

I can't even remember what thoughts I felt I needed to get down, because as soon as I took my spot in the oasis that was my computer, I realized how much I had changed and I ended up wanting to write about that. Then an emergency thing for work came up, then the kids came home, then we unloaded groceries while the kids danced in their underwear (don't ask), then we had lunch and golfed and swam, and, well, now here I am again. And the house is at 70%.

The "old me" (however old that may be) would never have allowed myself to do something fun in a 12% (or 70%) clean house. Often, I didn't mind cleaning, in fact, it gave me a feeling of control I craved. But by the time I was done and the house was at a glistening 100%, I'd have missed my chance to do that thing I really wanted to do. I'd have certainly missed my chance to write.

Over the past several months, however, I've unknowingly found myself a convert of Brian's 70% rule. I'm dedicating this post to its awesomeness.

Now, if I'm being honest, I need to mention a certain variable that I've written about before. That variable is called Effexor and while I joke about it often (e.g., attributing any sanity I have to it), it does deserve a bit of serious talk.

From what I understand, Effexor is an anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication that is part of the daily regimen for many people in active cancer treatment. (Apparently it's also used to help alleviate the side effects of menopause, even though I haven't experienced that yet.) Dr. Bunnell prescribed Effexor to me last fall after a conversation about my anxiety that I don't really remember.

Last Wednesday when I met with my therapy lady after my Herceptin treatment, I asked her about the Effexor. Is it something they will take me off of at some point? 

Dr. Fasciano explained that so long as it was helping me, it was good for now.

Here's the funny thing, though -- I have absolutely no idea how much it is or isn't helping me. How could I know? I've never been on anxiety medication until the cancer. Despite that I probably could have used some, I was always hesitant to turn to pills to fix something in me. I wanted to be able to fix myself myself.

Enter cancer, chemotherapy, anaphylaxis, neutropenia, Herceptin, and the realization that there are some things (ah, most things?) that I could never fix all alone. Soon after my diagnosis, I knew that I needed something to help me carry the heavy weights that had been placed on my shoulders, and more so, in my mind. Or better yet, I needed something that would help me avoid acting like Diane Keaton in my favorite scene from Baby Boom (when her well dries up).

Tonight while we got the kids ready for bed, we got the house up to 70%. The kitchen table is still a bit cluttered with things like a Lightning McQueen water bottle and a trucks place mat. Annabel's little plastic shopping cart is parked at the table like a fifth chair, and I'm certain her booster seat has hardened food in it. But I don't care. I'd rather write than sponge the table, and it'll just get messed up again tomorrow morning anyways.

And so I can't help but I wonder if it's the Effexor that makes me not care about that last 30%. I wonder if the little peach-colored pill I take every morning with my Tamoxifen is the reason why I do the dishes Brian-style now. Is that pill why adorable little fingerprints are still all over the stainless steel dishwasher?

The only way to really tell the effect of the Effexor would be to stop taking it and see if I become the crazy zero-to-one-hundred-percent lady again. But (without a discussion of these ridiculous details), Dr. Fasciano and I both agreed last week, If it ain't broke...

So I'll keep taking that little pill and I'll stay content in my 70%-ness. I'll wonder why I've changed but I won't dwell on it (maybe because the Effexor helps with that whole dwelling thing?). I'm only partly kidding.

In all seriousness though, I've found 70% to be a very happy place; the finger prints on the dishwasher are precious and Annabel's Lightning McQueen cup makes me think of how cute she will be tomorrow morning when she asks me to fill it with app-o juice. I've wasted a lot of time striving for that 100% when it just wasn't necessary. And no doubt, cancer has changed the way that I think about time.

Cancer, and even writing about cancer, didn't change me in any absolute way. Instead, it changed me on my already existing margins. I am who I was before, I think what I thought before, and I love how I loved before...just slightly different. Clearer; more healthful. More real. 

It turns out there's a lot I can do when I reallocate 30%. And there's such relief, such peace in the realization that sometimes, it's 70% that really feels like perfect. (Little peach-colored pill or not.)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Rainbows and Puppy Dogs

Back in May, I went to see Oprah deliver the commencement speech at Harvard University. I had really high expectations for that speech and unfortunately, it didn't meet them. That's OK though because Oprah's like Peapod -- she can screw up as much as she wants ... I'll keep coming back.

Last weekend, Andy forwarded me a speech for which I had absolutely no expectations. It was a commencement speech given by George Saunders and since I hadn't even heard of the guy, I didn't expect much from what he had to say.

Then I read the speech. In my humble opinion, it was a 9.8 to Oprah's disappointing 6.5. I've thought about it ever since.

*  *  * 

For me, one of the worst feelings in the world is that which comes with knowing that I hurt someone with something that I said or did. Thank goodness, it doesn't happen often (that I know of), but I can remember the times that I hurt someone with the utmost clarity. (Oh, and for the record, harsh things I've said to my husband when he did something wrong don't count, but cutting Teddy's baby finger the first time I used scissors on his nails definitely does.) 

After my treatment three weeks ago, I wrote a blog about an interaction that I had with a nurse in the lab. I wrote that blog for the same reason that I usually write -- to help me organize thoughts that would otherwise swirl down destructive paths in my brain. I never expected, and certainly never intended that the blog would do anything more than that. 

Then again, I should have remembered that my mother is my Mom. 

For my Mom, the issue of what Elaine had said to me was far from over. She wasn't mad -- she's far too professional for that. Instead, she was motivated. She wanted every doctor and nurse in the whole wide world to stop and consider the power of the words they choose for vulnerable patients. Chemotherapy is not "poison," she insisted, and no one caring for cancer patients should ever refer to it that way. 

Since she knew reaching the whole world was an ambitious goal, she at least wanted to reach the health care providers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. So she went online to find out who she could contact there to discuss the issue. When she found the President of Dana-Farber's email address on their webpage, inviting comments like her's, she asked me if she could use it. (I'm thinking they may have since taken it down. Kidding, Mom.)

I admit, I was hesitant about her idea to share the blog. I hadn't written the blog as something that anyone at Dana-Farber would read, never mind the President. But my Mom has always adamantly believed that none of us can ever improve if we don't get positive and negative feedback. I totally agree with her; I just lack the guts and the grace involved in giving (and, truthfully, in receiving) negative feedback. After some discussion, I believed that it may be useful for someone at the hospital to read the blog, even if I never had intended it as feedback. 

After I gave my Mom the green light, I didn't think anything about it, probably because I figured that nothing would happen at all. Shame on me for underestimating Dana-Farber. 

Within hours (and, by the way, around midnight), the head of the breast care program responded to my Mom's email. I admit, I was impressed solely by the fact that the President had read my Mom's email, forwarded it to the leader of the breast care program, and that this prominent oncologist had responded. But I was even more impressed by his actual words, which I found to be thoughtful and productive, mostly because they opened the lines of communication if my Mom wanted to talk further. I was also deeply comforted by the doctor's words that "Herceptin in an amazing medicine..." Personally, that's all I really wanted to hear. In my mind, the case was closed. 

But Dana-Farber is excellent because they constantly pursue excellence. So unbeknownst to me, the issue was still a work in progress. 

Earlier this week, another top administrator at the hospital, an individual in charge of the nurses, called me. At first, I had no idea why, but I soon realized that she wanted to discuss the incident in the lab. In fact, she wanted to meet me when I was in for my next treatment (today). I felt embarrassed -- like I had blown something out of proportion; like I should have had a thicker shell when Elaine was casually talking to me. I blamed myself, which I have a tendency to do. 

Then it dawned on me that my records had lead the administrators back to Elaine. How could have I have been so stupid to have assumed that using a pseudonym in my blog was all I needed to do to hide "Elaine's" identity? Of course the hospital could see who had inserted my IV that day -- it was in my chart! And then that terrible, awful, horrible feeling crept into my stomach. I had hurt Elaine. 

Of course, there's an incredible irony to this blog so far -- right about now, my Mom probably feels that terrible sick feeling in her own stomach, worried that her idea to forward the blog to the President hurt me. Oh goodness, this has gotten complicated. But it's that complication that fascinates me tonight.  

*  *  *

The George Saunders speech reminds us all (as if we need a reminder) that it's so much easier to respond sensibly, reservedly, mildly to something uncomfortable. We all know it's usually just easier to keep quiet when we see something wrong; that's part of why I pretended (to Elaine) that her comments hadn't hurt me -- it was just easier to reserve my emotion; to smile mildly as if nothing had just happened. But something had happened. And even if my thoughts weren't sensible (indeed, in retrospect, I know that they weren't), at the time, those thoughts very terrifyingly real.

George Saunders explained: 

... Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

I just had to Google "facile" even though I'm pretty sure I should know what that word means. Anyways, now I do. It means appearing neat and comprehensive by ignoring the complexities of an issue. I agree that the goal of trying to be kinder does sound "neat," and I like that Mr. Saunders explains:

Kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

Take Mr. Saunders's example about his neighbor, for instance.

I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her. But still. It bothers me. 

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

What I take from this is that Mr. Saunders regrets not having had an effect on a bad situation; he regrets that he never made a real difference for the girl. He knows now that his mild response just wasn't enough.

This is just another reason why I love my Mom, and 33 years later, I understood it all today.

I don't think my Mom ever fails at kindness. Sure, she thinks babies (and maybe even rainbows) are boring and she probably wouldn't even pet a puppy dog. But my Mom will tread into uncomfortable waters with respect and with grace if she thinks that doing so could help someone. She will have difficult conversations in order to make things better even though those conversations are rarely, if ever, fun. My Mom will ask questions then listen to the answers, and she'll expect that the other person does the same in return. Yes, my mother has high standards and she's proud of that fact. She pursues excellence for the employees that work at her hospital and for the patients that they care for. And she pursues excellence for me, and for the men and women who will walk into Dana-Farber after I do.

To be honest, the sensible, reserved, mild part of me just wants to give Elaine a hug and tell her that I'm fine; that she doesn't need to worry about having hurt me. I know that my Mom would encourage me to do that if it made me feel better.

But my Mom has taught me something more about kindness; about the messier stuff that's beneath the surface of it. She taught me that real, true kindness takes more than just a smile and a hug. It takes courage to bring an issue to the forefront and intelligence to determine how to best address it. Kindness involves the empathy and awareness that will allow us to be productive rather than destructive while we walk the very fine lines that present themselves in difficult conversations. Most of all, kindness takes selflessness because, as Mr. Saunders reminds us, keeping quiet is usually so much easier.

George Saunders tells us that we'll remember most fondly those people who were kindest to us. I agree, but I'd push the concept a little further. Because I believe that we'll remember most fondly the people who had the guts and the grace to stand up and say, This could be better, for you and for others after you. Often those people aren't the rainbow or the puppy dog type. But they're the ones who will find you a rainbow or a puppy dog, whatever it takes, if you tell them that a rainbow or a puppy dog would make you feel better. Those are the people I will remember most fondly. And obviously, my Mom will be at the front of that precious pack.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Running: Part Two

My Mom loves to read books and watch movies, I think mostly because she loves to escape into the lives of fascinating characters. Sometimes when she thinks a movie or a book took a wrong turn, my Mom mentions something about a character’s motivation; about how what he or she did wasn’t what he or she would, really, have done. As someone whose mind never (unfortunately) shuts off, I often think about people’s motivations, including, of course, my own.

When it comes to people's motivations, I wonder about the big things, like why they chose their particular job or spouse or house, why they did or did not have children, why they love or hate the way that they do. And I wonder about the small things too – why they chose a particular tattoo, why they stuck that bumper sticker to the back of their car, why they’re sprinting to catch a train. Believe me, I don't do it in any sort of judgmental way because, you know, people in glass houses and all...

Since I’ve started to write, I’ve been much more curious about my own motivations – Why do I eat sugar despite that just a few months ago, it helped me so much not to? Why do I keep writing and publishing in this space, one year and one day after my first post? Why did that race in Falmouth yesterday mean so much to me? Tonight, after an ice cream cone with my kids, I'll approach that last question.

*  *  *

It turns out that when people run the Falmouth Road Race (and, I think, other road races, too), they wear revealing t-shirts. No, no, not revealing as in see-through, although there were some of those. I mean revealing as in descriptive of the wearer's motivations. I’ll never forget the shirts that I saw yesterday. They carried me 7.ish miles.

One of the very first shirts that caught my eye did so just as we shuffled with the crowd over the starting line. A tall man in front of us was wearing a white t-shirt with Journey to Parenthood information on the back. It read, “Our journeys may be different but our dreams are all the same ... to become parents.” For much of mile one, I thought about my dream to adopt a baby boy or girl into our family. I barely noticed that much of that part of the race was uphill.

Along the route, I also noticed dozens of multi-colored t-shirts for Children’s Hospital Boston. One pair running in front of us was running for “Maddie.” I couldn't read the black ink that told the date that Maddie was born and the date that she died, but I found myself curious about what she looked like and what her family went through to try to save her.

Joe Andruzzi’s Foundation, UpBeat Cancer, sponsored several red, white, and blue tank tops, and I thought that was a nifty play on words. Whenever I saw one of those tanks, I wondered if the runner was a cancer patient like I am.

Dana-Farber's shirts were light green, sky blue, and a soft orange, and every time I ran by someone wearing one, I wanted to thank them for helping save my life. For some reason, however, almost every Dana-Farber runner I passed wore earphones and looked serious about their pace so I sent them good (silent) vibes and continued on my way.

Before yesterday, I had never heard of Compassionate Care ALS, but that organization had a huge contingent at the our hotel and along the race route. I made a mental note to look them up to see if they could help our friend who was recently diagnosed with the terrible disease. I bet they really could.

As we ran along the oceanfront and through shady, beautiful Falmouth neighborhoods, I also noticed t-shirts for spina bifida, "trauma to art," Alzheimer's organizations, and even one that simply said, "I hate cancer." There were also several women in grey tank tops that read, “I run so battered women don’t have to.”

One of my most favorite colors to see yesterday was purple. Since her mother died from brain cancer several years ago, a friend of ours has organized the sale of purple shirts with her mother's initials on the front. Every time I saw a “PCC” shirt, I thought about Katherine and how inspiring she is to continue to raise money for brain tumor research, and how strong she is to go on, with such grace and such kindness, without her mom physically by her side.

The cystic fibrosis shirts touched my heart, too. On the way back to the car, Brian and I walked behind a man who had run to stop that terrible disease. Part of me wanted to tell him all about Ashley, but I knew I'd cry if I said anything so I kept quiet, and internally thanked him for his good deeds.

Yesterday as we ran, Brian and I wore our fluorescent yellow We Beat Cancer shirts. I have to admit, one year out from my diagnosis, running in a shirt that said We Beat Cancer felt pretty darn victorious. And running it from corral #5 was just how Brian and I wanted it.

So what did the Falmouth Road Race really mean to me? It meant running in a sea of t-shirts that each told a powerful story. It meant running with men, women, and children of all ages and sizes who each had someone or something that made them go out and train, and then go out and race. It meant running beside people who had been through something awful or seen tragedy from some short or long distance, just like I have. It meant doing something even though there were lots of reasons not to.

I've written before about my unique sort of faith in human resiliency. I think that yesterday felt almost spiritual because I was surrounded by so much resiliency all in one place. Indeed, I have never seen (and I mean, really seen, in the moment) such an enormous crowd of people gathered to make terrible situations or unbearable tragedies the starting point of something beautiful.

The race in Falmouth was so precious to me also because it reminded me that one year ago, I had no idea how resilient people could be. When I sat down at the computer in our playroom around four in the morning on August 11, 2012, a large part of me thought that cancer meant my end. I had absolutely no idea that it would be my beginning.

Yesterday, I was immensely proud of our We Beat Cancer t-shirts, partly because I believe that my loved ones and I really did beat cancer, and because I know what our running that race is going to do for families that are struggling to do the same. Since the race, however, I've remembered something even bigger -- that t-shirt or no t-shirt, we are all motivated by people and by stories that could fill up as many blog pages as I have written over this past year. Despite that I'll never even know a fraction of those stories, I still know that they would prove to me, once again, that my deep faith in humankind and its magical resiliency is well grounded. In simple things. Like running. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Running: Part One

I'm not an avid runner and despite my utmost respect for those who are, I personally don't aspire to join the club. I don't have the attention span or the knees for it, plus, treadmills make me feel like time is moving backwards and I'm way too much of a wimp to run when it's really cold out.

Now that I think about it, however, I could tell much of the story of my life just by reflecting on time that I've spent running.

For instance, I could write about running around my grandparents' basement with my siblings and my cousins; how much I loved the sound of the adults talking and laughing upstairs, how gleefully terrified I was that someone would jump out of a dark closet at me, and how sad I was when that precious time ended every summer.

I could write about field day as an elementary school kid -- that strange feeling I felt in my stomach whenever I thought about my gym teacher yelling out, On your mark, get set, go, and how I finally understood that feeling to be nervousness.

I could write about playing basketball and the smell of my high school gym; about warming up before a game and feeling like I was ready to play whenever my parents walked in and took their seats on the bleachers.

And then there was my favorite event in gymnastics -- the vault. The vault made me feel like I could fly and I still (literally) dream about sprinting down the runway and soaring through the air, twisting and flipping, and sticking the landing. I wake up feeling so magically close to the days when I could do that and it's always a bit disappointing to remember that now, I can't.

I could also write about running in Maine during my first year of college; the miles upon miserable miles, because I thought I was fat and I had to burn off a certain number of calories before I'd let myself stop. I could write about how Brian helped me change all that; and how we started running together every now and then.

Then there was running when I was a student in South Africa; the first time I learned the importance of always paying attention to my surroundings. In those five months, I did as the University of Cape Town orientation people had said to do, and I ran with a car key stuck between my right index- and middle-finger. As if that was going to stop someone who wanted to harm me from doing so.

I could write about living with my grandmother the summer after I graduated from Bowdoin; running the hills near her house, and how much I loved to jog to the ocean and dive right in; how good my hot skin felt in the cold salt water.

Speaking of jumping into cold water, I could write about when I started law school in the evening program at Suffolk. For those four years, I ran to class almost every single day. I remember one run in particular; through the freezing, pouring rain with a bag that must have weighed 40 pounds bouncing against my back. I remember thinking about how much I wanted to quit law school; that going to class at night after teaching all day was just too damn hard. I remember that night so clearly -- I got to class, dried off, and kept going.

Running has also been a huge part of my work schedule as a lawyer. When I was at Ropes, I'd sprint to almost every morning train after dropping Teddy, and then Teddy and Annabel off at day care. Then I'd sprint back to the station every night. I didn't realize how much I hated that routine until I got to a place where a brisk walk will do. I love those walks now. I start to write on those walks.

When it came to cancer, I started to run to prove to myself that the Herceptin was not giving me congestive heart failure. Unfortunately, it does that to some women, and before my first post-Herceptin echocardiogram, I was terrified that it had done that to me. So far, it hasn't, although I'm thankful that every three months, my doctors check again to be sure.

Gradually, as I started to trust my heart more and more, I started to think about it less and less. I still sporadically think about my heart when I run, but when I do, I'm not scared that it will fail me. I'm just so deeply thankful that it has stayed so strong, and that it has received the Herceptin like the precious gift that it is.

*  *  * 

A few months ago, a fabulous local organization, We Beat Cancer, sent around an email that there were a few more numbers available for the 2013 Falmouth Road Race. Brian and I have talked about running that race for about 10 years now, and this year, we jumped at the opportunity.

When we discovered exactly where the money raised by We Beat Cancer for the road race would go, we became even more inspired. In October, We Beat Cancer will sponsor approximately 25 families to attend a weekend getaway at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, the camp that Paul Newman founded in 1988 so that "every child, no matter their illness, could experience the transformational spirit and friendships that go hand in hand with camp." (For more on the camp, please click on this unforgettable VIDEO.)

I hate asking people for money, especially when I'm asking the people who have already given us so much. But after I watched the video, I didn't mind telling people about this opportunity to donate.  Proving once again the generosity of our family and friends, we collected more money than we ever could have imagined.

This morning, however, it was time to do the work that we had promised we would do. Seven and one-tenth miles (yes, the 0.1 seems important to this bunch), on one of the most beautiful summer days I have ever seen.

I had a personal goal for the race; a simple one that I revealed to Brian somewhere around mile four when I realized it was actually attainable. I wanted to feel strong through the whole run. If I had to slow down or walk, fine. I just wanted to feel strong. And, to my sincere surprise, through all seven miles, I did. In fact, Brian and I gained speed as the race went on. It was a truly incredible experience.

This blog, however, is not about how today's run was symbolic of my cancer journey. I won't draw any silly analogies between our last (and fastest mile) to my chemotherapy or my mental state through cancer. I wish it were all that simple. But I know now that it's not. This past Friday night reminded me of that.

Around midnight, after a fire alarm at the hotel we were staying at trashed the hour it took us to get the kids to sleep, I found myself in a very bad place.

Teddy had stopped crying, Annabel had stopped jumping on the bed, and both of them were done telling us that the alarm was too loud (it was). Everyone fell asleep again, except for me.

And that's when I felt cancer. Everywhere. I was achy, probably just from carrying Annabel around outside for 30 minutes as the Falmouth Fire Department sorted out the issue, or maybe from Teddy jumping off my shoulders in the pool earlier that day. But in my half-awake, half-asleep state, I was convinced that I felt cancer in my bones. If I had packed my Ativan, I'd have taken one, even if it meant that Brian would have had to shake me awake if the fire alarm sounded again. Ativan-less, I had to rely on my own faith that everything was going to be OK. Turns out that works too, and I fell into a deep sleep at some point around one in the morning, until 6:30AM when the fire alarm sounded again.

The next day, we golfed in our annual family golf tournament. Being out there with my favorite guys -- my Dad, my brother, my husband, and my son; it was pure Heaven. When, after 18 holes, I felt great, I convinced the majority of myself (at least, for the time being) that my fears of the night prior were just the vomit of my sick imagination.

Today, exactly one year after I started this blog, we ran along the roads in Falmouth faster than we expected we could. After the race, we almost gave ourselves a pat on the back, but we were quickly brought back to reality when, on the two-mile hike back to the car, we both simultaneously tripped over a raised slab of concrete on the side walk.

Tonight, I'm exhausted. Fulfilled, proud, increasingly sore, and totally exhausted. Tomorrow I'll start Part Two of this post. It will be about what the Falmouth Road Race really meant to me.

Ready to run!
To Be Continued...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Good Words: August 8th

Today I took a deep breath and continued living. 

Thank you, Joy, for giving me the perfect answer to my question. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"The One About August 8th"

Until now, I have never thought about what I would write on August 8, 2013, or even if I would write at all. That’s probably because I just write about what I’m feeling in the moment, and the moment of August 8, 2013 hasn’t arrived yet. But tomorrow, it will be here. Three hundred and sixty-five days after my diagnosis. Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, if I remember that song from Rent correctly.

Well, crap. What do I even say about this one year mark? No idea...and now I have that song stuck in my head...in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cu-ups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter in strife...how do you measure, measure a year? Now I’m just procrastinating.

Until tonight, I never realized how helpful it can be that our culture tells us how to celebrate or commemorate certain annual holidays. All of those smart people before us figured out that we should watch fireworks on July 4th, put gifts under the tree on December 24th, play pranks on April 1st, and dress up in costume and beg for candy on October 31st (or at least, that’s part of the culture that I grew up in). Those geniuses even told us what to do at particular life milestones -- put the tooth under the pillow, initiate the proposal with a ring, escape for a vacation with your new spouse. We know the song to sing on birthdays (although I seriously think we should all lobby for a new one) and … OK, you get the point.

My question tonight is, seriously, what the hell am I supposed to do tomorrow? It’s a day so powerful and so meaningful to me that every time I think of it, I get an immediate rush of adrenaline. It’s also a work day. A Thursday. A summer day. A regular day to most other people. There are no generally accepted rules for August 8th. Perhaps I should just copy from one of my favorite holidays; take out the dozens of hospital bracelets that, for some odd reason, I have kept from the past year and scatter them all over the back lawn. I could invite the neighborhood kids over with their baskets to pick them up. But then again, the plastic bracelets aren't exactly sweet treats.

I’d imagine that a lot people have these sorts of issues, and for many people, they are so much more significant and painful than mine. For instance, in all seriousness, August 7th would have been Ashley’s 27th birthday. How is her family supposed to “celebrate” that? Knowing them, even just a little bit, I'm sure they found a beautiful way to. But I'd imagine that it was horrendously difficult, in small part because there really isn’t much guidance for these types of things.

So what do I want to do tomorrow at this one year milestone? Well, logistically, most of my day is already accounted for. I have work, and our makeshift “Bring Your Kids to Work Day” is tomorrow morning. That means I won’t be alone on the train; I’ll be sitting in traffic in the "HOB" lane with Brian and the kids. Once we arrive at my office and order lots of Dunkin' Donuts, they’ll get a chance to run around the office for an hour doing the little Treasure Hunt we prepared. I can't wait.

After the kids exit (tumultuously, I'm sure), I’ll work and have lunch with some of my favorite people and work some more. At the end of the day, Brian will pick me up and we'll sneak in a dinner-date while the kids eat tacos in Southie. Pretty sweet deal for all of us, if you ask me.

But what about that other time, particularly, my early morning hour? Should I start some sort of personal tradition? Should I sleep as late as possible? Should I get up to write? I have absolutely no idea. I think I'll text Brianne and see if she wants to go for a walk. But she has a new baby and it's supposed to rain. We'll play it by ear (or "by year," as I used to think the saying went).

Maybe I’m giving all of this way too much thought. Or maybe another date deserves my attention. Should I instead celebrate my “One Year Cancer Free Day”? But when is that? December 27th, my last day of chemo? Or since the chemo worked its magic for weeks after that, is “the day” sometime a few weeks later? Or, wait, maybe it's September 12th. Yes! That’s the day the real killer was extracted from my body. But then again, it’s that stupid HER2 protein we need to stop. So tumor or no tumor, Herceptin is the key. So maybe the real "one year" point is the day of my last Herceptin treatment, which isn’t until the end of October. Urgh! Not to sound like a lazy high school kid in math class, but Someone please give me the answer!

Too bad there aren’t any answers. Which makes me think of this A Word A Day quote I loved from this week:

As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to live it more and more. 
~ Jules Renard, writer (1864-1910) 

I like that quote. It’s a good August 8th quote, no?

But I can’t just rely on a quote. Not tonight. That’d be cheating. Quotes are what I post on my lazy days when I have nothing that is bursting to be written. But there’s so much that is bursting to be written tonight. I just don’t know exactly what it is.


I always find it really interesting when people tell me that something I wrote "inspired" them. I wonder what they mean, mostly because sometimes I say the same thing and I don't really know what I mean. I could never ask them, because I'd sound like I'm fishing for a compliment, but really, I'm curious. Did it make them think something like, Well, shit, I won’t complain about my bad haircut anymore. Or maybe, Damn, that sure sounds like it sucks. To be honest, that’s probably how I would respond (internally) if I were on the other end of many of these posts.

Despite that I really do interpret those comments as some of the kindest that I've ever received, until just recently, I would usually respond to them by thinking to myself, How in the world is this impressive? What would be impressive is if I chose this. But this was just thrown on me! So really, I’m just dealing with it. Like someone deals with wiping dog poop off their shoe. But thank you so much, anyways! Lately, however, I've realized something a bit deeper about the "dealing with it" part. No, I haven't come around to thinking that cancer smells like roses. It still just smells like dog poop.

Long before this post, I realized that at some point in our lives, we all have to deal with something awful, something we never would have chosen. Granted, the degrees of awfulness vary greatly, and from my personal experience, I can only understand those degrees that have some hope at their core. I know that I am blessed with that hope and I have the deepest sympathy for people who don't. But even with hope, we can still end up in a dark cave. Alone and shivering with fear.

When that happens, everything we built aboveground crumbles. We can't eat or sleep or work or even carry on a conversation that we'll remember. Breathing becomes an overwhelming chore; laughing a near to impossible one.

It's a really, truly terrible series of moments; watching everything we created so thoughtfully for years fall to pieces. But in retrospect, it's a pretty awesome series of moments, too. Because as cliche as it may sound, that's when we find our foundation, our core, ourselves. We always believed that our family members would hop on planes or drive hours and hours just to sit with us, but in our state of devastated shock, we see them actually do it. Amidst the heap at our feet, we realize once again why our best friend really is our best friend and we see that old friends and new ones care about us just as we care about them.

When everything above the surface falls apart, we see what's beneath it. We realize how safe we feel even while we're bawling into our spouse's t-shirt. We see how brave we can be in front of our kids even if it's all an act. We see how much our loved ones would do to save us; how much we would do to save ourselves.

When we get betrayed by our bodies, we have to start over -- rebuild our relationship with our own cells so that we trust them again. We have to reexamine things that we took for granted; things like our boobs or our ability to have children or our next birthday.

One year ago, both before and after the word, cancer, I was very blessed. The foundation upon which I stood was very solid. I had an incredible support system, a job, good health insurance, access to some of the best hospitals and treatment therapies in the world, a healthy body and mind (except, of course, for the cancer and mild anxiety), and countless other reasons to be happy. I know that it's not like that for everyone. I know that I can sit here and write because I don't need to leave the house for a second job so that my kids can eat lunch tomorrow. I know that a lot of HER2+ women will never get Herceptin and that I'll get mine next week. Life definitely isn't fair.

I admit, part of me wants to cry at the thought of August 8th because I feel so proud and so grateful for how I've been able to live -- not just survive -- over the past year. But I also know that it's only because of all of the people that helped me build a solid foundation for 32 years before that -- starting, of course, with my parents -- that I was able to rebuild everything that felt like it had crumbled. And somehow, the rebuilt version feels even better than the one that cancer knocked down.

Oh, and I have better boobs. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Bad Day"

Whenever my Mom used to tell me that she thought little babies were "so boring," I used to think she was kidding. She’d say it in a funny way and I took her smile to be, well, humor. It was only when I became a parent that I realized what was really at the root of that sly little smile -- her internal voice whispering, Don’t worry, she'll see it all for herself one day. 

That "one day" arrived on my first maternity leave. I saw for myself that being home alone with a baby is not only pretty boring, but it's really hard work, too. No matter how hard I tried, the kitchen always remained a mess, Teddy's poop consistently exploded out of his diaper, and I never had a chance to exercise, make myself a healthy lunch, or even shower. I found much of that time home alone with my firstborn to be isolating, claustrophobic, overwhelming, and gross.

When I was fed up with the walls of our condo, I'd go for a drive with my new baby. Until I discovered his habit of projectile vomiting about two miles into the trip. At times, yes, my time alone with baby Teddy was absolutely wonderful, but if I were going to be honest, those times happened maybe just once or twice a day. Looking back, I realize that's not a bad average.

With Annabel, everything was different. I was different. I had three years of sleep deprivation practice, comfort with my complete lack of independence, a bigger space to live in, a husband who was a parenting-pro, and a little girl who was happy sleeping or just looking around. Most importantly, I had a three year old to hang out with.  

Which brings me to what my Mom would always say after her “boring babies” comment. She would always say something like, Once you kids could talk, I loved every minute with you. 

The physical milestones of babyhood are undoubtedly pretty neat -- the first roll-over, the first walk across the living room. But for me, my kids learning to talk was the best thing of all. It was the very opposite of lonely or claustrophobic or boring.

I find it overwhelmingly awesome to hear Teddy tell me about how a knuckleball is really hard to catch and how I shouldn't blame the Red Sox catcher for so many pass balls in the first inning of tonight's game. And it's incredible to hear Annabel tell me (like she did today while holding up her index finger for emphasis), I didn't hab a good nap today because I was missing you when you wah at wuk and Daddy was at school. 

Perhaps the best thing about the kids being able to talk is that they have no idea how funny they can be. (They also have no idea how frustrating they can be, but I'm trying to be positive here after an hour of frustrated go-the-f*&k-to-sleep negotiations.) Tonight, I want to share a story that seems randomly relevant. 

Sometime last fall, Teddy was trying to tell me about a song that he really liked that he had heard during a football game. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the song. He kept repeating something about Fantasy Football and guys being sad. Finally, I got there. This was the commercial to which he was referring and the song is Daniel Powter's “Bad Day.” 

I got such a kick out of Teddy's random instinct to like this song that he essentially found all on his own. Sure, he loved Bruce, but that’s because we did. There was something so cool about his first independent music choice. 

Of course, there was something hilariously ironic about it, too. Last Sunday night, as the one year anniversary of my really bad day approached, I found myself laughing out loud at this irony.

That Sunday night, we had just wrapped up a great summer weekend. On Friday night, Teddy got to play wiffle ball with Brian’s former hockey players and his best pal, Liam. He stayed up later than I did and got to watch the Red Sox play a close one. On Saturday, he played catch for hours and then he got to swim at his friend’s birthday party. Sunday was spent on a beautiful lake in Western Massachusetts, where we all jet-skied, kayaked, and swam with my awesome college friends and their adorable little kids. Teddy was spoiled by cookies for lunch, his choice of pizza for dinner (Brian and I wanted Thai but we caved to the boss), and a home-scooped ice-cream cone for dessert. After his shower, TV show, and snack, it was finally time for bed.

Brian always sings songs with Teddy after I read him a book. The songs are usually soooo repetitive and so boring that I can barely stand them, and when I tell Teddy that, he thinks I’m hilarious (can’t wait until he’s a dad and realizes I was serious). But even though I exit the room a few minutes early to start to tackle the mess that accumulated that day, I always keep listening to my two most precious guys as they lie together in Teddy's toddler bed.

On Sunday night, I listened as Teddy made his first song request. He wanted Brian to sing, “Bad Day,” which was not repetitive at all. In fact, I hadn't heard anyone sing it in months. The song doesn’t translate well to a lullaby, never mind when you have Brian’s tone-deafness, but Super Dad pulled it off. As I unpacked the beach bag of life jackets, goggles, cookies, and sunscreen, I couldn’t help but think how totally hilarious it was that Teddy wanted Brian to sing about a bad day.

That's why I love kids. Because writing about a bad day doesn't just evoke memories and pain from August 8, 2012. It also makes me laugh out loud at Teddy's totally random and ironic choice of music.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Part of Life

I either love driving in the car with my kids or I'm just kind of numb to the madness of the s*#t-storm of complaints and questions and spills coming from the back seat. Fortunately, the majority of the time, it's the former.

Saturday afternoon, on the ride to Teddy's friend's birthday party, my conversation with him (and now, with Annabel, too) turned to some silly talk about babies in bellies. Teddy is fascinated by the idea that he was once in my belly and every now and then he asks me serious questions about it. Annabel, the budding jokester in the family, likes to make us all laugh and so, with a little smirk on, she told me and Teddy things like, Mama was in my beh-wee! We laughed and I reached back to tickle her chubby little thighs. 

Then Teddy asked me when we were going to have another baby (the collective we, like as in all of us). Before I could even answer, he clarified that he knew that the baby would be adopted. I couldn't believe that he even remembered the word adopted. I told him that I didn't know and that it takes a long time to make a baby. Then I asked him if he wanted a little brother or sister even though I obviously knew the answer. 

The natural opportunities to talk about adoption with the kids don't come along often so even though I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about something that I don't know with certainty will happen, I still feel like I shouldn't let those chances pass. So we talked about how much fun it would be to have another baby in the house and how it doesn't matter if the baby doesn't come from my belly. 

As we sat in traffic at a stoplight, Teddy got quiet. A minute or two later, he told me that if we got a new baby, we would have three kids in our family like the family that lives a few doors down from us. Then he reminded me that the youngest child in that family wasn't adopted. I know, but all families are different, I explained. Then, referring to his friends' mother, he asked me, "When will Debbie get her bweast cancer?" 

There aren't too many times in my life that my heart has melted, but that was one of those times. 

I stammered through an explanation that not every woman gets breast cancer. We listed lots of women in his life who have never gotten it, and a few others who have. He asked me why I got it and without any time to prep an answer that might comfort him, I told him, I have the same exact question! And as soon as someone tells me the answer, I promise, I'll tell you! 

Glancing at those two curious little faces in my rearview mirror, I felt such love that my heart physically ached. Soon we arrived at the party, ate cake and ice cream, and went swimming. 

*  *  *

Moving from one phase of cancer recovery to the next is kind of like growing up -- it's not clear when we go from childhood to adulthood and sometimes, we're forced to act 40 when we're 16 or we find ourselves behaving like we're 10 when we're really 32. The path rarely feels all that linear, but every now and then, I realize that I've changed. Of course, there are times when I revert right back, but still, the overall movement seems to be forward. 

I didn't spend a lot of time this weekend reflecting on my one year mark; we were too busy enjoying a few awesome summer days. Still, I couldn't help but let my mind go there every now and then. It happened when I was doing the dishes during Brian's hockey cookout and when I was changing the laundry yesterday morning. It happened when I was putting Annabel's hair in a ponytail and when Teddy and I played catch in the backyard on Saturday. It's funny how much clarity I found in those random moments, especially while Teddy was standing on pitcher's mound (the circle of dead grass upon which the baby pool sat for a few days too long), instructing me as to which pitch signal he wanted me to throw (usually a "1" for the fast ball but sometimes a "2" for a knuckleball or a "3" for a ... I could go on).   

For some reason, I kept coming back to something Mark had said to me earlier this week. He had just returned from the funeral of one of his friends who had died suddenly. I asked him how his friend's long-time partner was doing. Mark explained to me that she was remarkable. She has really taken the perspective that she was so lucky for the time she did get with her loved one and she's not feeling cheated out of the time that she won't get with him. 

In my last post, I wrote about what Vivian said to me; that I will live. Most of the time, I believe her in the simplest of ways -- that my cancer will not return, just like her's didn't. But every now and then -- like when I was holding my sleeping baby girl or catching Teddy's fast ball, I believe her on a whole different level. 

Because in the last year, I have lived more than I have ever lived before. I haven't traveled the world or had a new baby or written a book. But my neighbor held my hand and made me believe in magic. I've watched my body go from strong to dangerously weak to stronger than it was before. I've met new people and reconnected with people I grew up with. I've grown closer to the ones I am the closest to and I've found a voice I never knew I had. I've learned that a family is so much more than blood relation, and that sometimes, adapting to the unexpected is a gift. Thanks to this space, I have seen and heard more in one year than in the 32 years that came before it. Vivian was right -- I have lived -- through paralyzing fear and through joy and relief so profound that I haven't even tried to write about it yet. 

I see now, one year later, that the first phase of my battle with cancer was about survival. About believing what Vivian and so many others had told me -- that I will have a life after cancer. 

But the next phase for me, one that I've only started to dip my toes into, is a bit more complicated. It's about trying to be more like Mark's friend's partner, a woman I've never even met. It's about appreciating that I've been given so much, and that if my time is "cut short" (as others may explain) I, personally, won't feel cheated. It's about me enjoying each August 8th without worrying (too much) about whether or not there will be another one.

I know that it's a lofty goal, but I've tasted it, and it feels good. It's tastes better, at least, than that holy s*&t it's August 8th again!?! feeling that also pops up when I least expect it. 

When will Debbie get her breast cancer? There is so much packed into that simple question. What I find most remarkable about it at this moment, is that deep down, Teddy already realizes that breast cancer is just a part of life. Like playing baseball or going to a birthday party. But maybe just a bit less fun.

Annabel, asleep on the lake during one of my favorite get togethers of the year. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013


In a house near to ours lives a very sweet old woman who I will call “Vivian.” Vivian must be in her mid-eighties and like most people her age, she doesn’t get around easily anymore. Nevertheless, Vivian is still famous to the neighborhood kids as the “chip lady” – for Halloween, she distributes small bags of chips instead of candy. Aside from last Halloween when I was too nervous to eat, I have enjoyed my other Halloweens in the neighborhood with a bag or two of Doritos that I stole from Teddy’s trick-or-treat bag.

Including Halloweens, I’ve only spoken to Vivian maybe ten or twelve times. But I’ve realized that one conversation at just the right time can mean more than a thousand instances of small talk.

* * *

Almost exactly one year ago, Vivian called me on our home line. I didn't recognize her name on the caller ID, which was probably because until then, I didn't even know Vivian's last name. 

Vivian's call came during that terrible time where “Blocked” on the caller ID meant Dana-Farber and Dana-Farber meant more news about my diagnosis. It was maybe the most terrifying time of all and it’s taken me almost a year to be able to see “Blocked” on my phone and not want to throw up.

Vivian talks slowly, and the kids had turned the house into a carnival so I could barely hear her as she tried to tell me something; something about having read my first blog in the local newspaper and about how she wanted to talk to me.

I have no idea what made me walk straight over to her house. It could have been some magical pull, or just the instinct to want to find a quieter space. Either way, I told Brian I had to go by Vivian's house and I scooted out. I knocked on Vivian’s door and after about five minutes of sporadic movement inside, she greeted me.

While there are serious holes to my memories of that time, there are also pictures so vivid that I can smell, hear, taste, and feel them. Sitting in Vivian’s kitchen was one of those times.

When we sat down, Vivian took my hand. I have a bit of a personal space issue and I really don’t even like when my leg touches other people's legs when I’m smooshed between them on the train. But I didn’t mind Vivian holding my hand. It made me feel safe.

I don’t remember how the conversation flowed but I remember as clear as the day a few things that Vivian said to me. I remember her telling me that she had cancer many years ago; that her doctors “gutted her like a chicken” to get the cancer out. That her husband died soon after, in her mind, due to the stress of it all; that I should make sure that Brian is doing OK.

I remember her telling me that my hair will grow back. And I remember her pulling off her wig. I like to think I’m pretty observant but I was absolutely shocked to see Vivian’s baldish head. I had no clue she wore a wig, although I had always thought her hair looked fabulous.

Mine didn’t really grow back, but yours will, she promised me. I was still a few months away from losing my hair, and I didn’t care much about it to begin with. But I cared very much about Vivian's honesty, her vulnerability, her empathy, and her kindness.

Then Vivian said something I remember almost every single time I drive or walk or chase the kids past her house. She told me that I was going to live. You will live. I smiled, to thank her. You will live. I started to cry, because I heard her that time and her words took a heavy weight off my shoulders. I just know it. The moment was so precious that it was almost surreal.

On the way out, I saw a photo of Vivian’s grandson perched on a small table by her front door. I immediately recognized him as a boy I had taught my very last year at Canton High School. I wasn't just being nice when I told Vivian how much I had enjoyed teaching her grandson. I’ll never forget that kid, who really isn't even a kid anymore. He was an amazing magician and on my last day at CHS, he and his friend orchestrated a magic show in the auditorium for me. That magic meant more to me than I could possibly express. And there was a wonderful irony in the fact that the whole experience with Vivian had felt so very magical before I even knew that she and I already had a connection.

I haven’t seen Vivian since, except, of course, for Halloween. I really should go say hello to her and thank her for giving me the gift of believing that I will be OK every time that I pass by her house. 

To be continued...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ashley Drew, 26

And when great souls die, 
after a period peace blooms, 
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of 
soothing electric vibration. 
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us, 
They existed. They existed. 
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed. 

~ Maya Angelou, excerpt from "When Great Trees Fall"

In 26 years, she gave countless people so much and taught thousands of us about faith and hope and the will to never give up. She was loved and she loved in return, and she made beautiful music with lungs that couldn't keep up with how strong she was. Tomorrow, Ashley Drew's family and friends will gather to celebrate her life. 

Click HERE for Portland Press Herald article on Ashley, and HERE for another.