Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pre-Cancer Napkins

I recently read this news article about a father with cancer who is busy writing to his pre-teen daughter so that when he's gone, she can still have a piece of him in her life. For many people, it's probably a heart-wrenching story, but for me, Garth Callaghan's 826 post-cancer napkins are incredibly beautiful, courageous, and, well, so very normal.

And so tonight, I'm thinking about napkins. Better yet, I'm thinking about the fact that Garth Callaghan didn't start writing notes to his daughter on napkins when he learned about his cancer; he started writing those notes years before that. Sure, his stash of 826 post-cancer napkins is remarkable. But to me, even more remarkable are the napkins Mr. Callaghan wrote prior to be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. 

Cancer has a way of giving its unwilling hosts, at the very least, a glimpse of their potential demise. It's not an easy glimpse for anyone to handle, and even now, almost a year and a half after my diagnosis, that glimpse haunts me every day. That indescribably awful glimpse into my possible future (or lack thereof) has made me examine in pretty solid detail how I want to live my life; not so much in a long-term-planning sort of way (that's still too scary) but rather, in a day-to-day sort of way.

Without sounding like I'm thanking cancer for anything (I'm definitely not) I will say that the glimpse it gave me lead me to lots of good things. For instance, it lead me to work four days a week instead of five. That one day home has allowed me to see Teddy get off the bus and pick Annabel up from school. It has allowed me to focus more on my health and that of my family, and that's made other things that used to bother me seem small. That glimpse, as anxiety-ridden as it may be, made me write to my children, not on napkins, but on a different surface they will be able to read one day.

Here's the thing. In a weird way, cancer made all of that growth relatively easy. For example, when I came back from medical leave, I still had an infusion every three weeks, a surgery, and other regular medical appointments. With those commitments in mind, I decided to reduce my work schedule. Sure, I took a pay cut to do it, but that one day every week to focus on my doctors appointments and infusions, and now, to write and help with dinner and baths, is worth every penny, even considering how much I love my job.

I know that I would never have allowed myself to work only four days if I hadn't had a really "good" reason to do so. I probably never would have started to write. Cancer was the "good" reason to do those things. Only now I know that there were so many other far better reasons that I didn't even recognize.

That is why every single one of Mr. Callaghan's pre-cancer napkins impresses me so much. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Subway Seats and Soapboxes

I don’t get mad easily and I don't get on my soap box all that often, either. This morning, however, I got mad and tonight I'm getting on my soap box. So brace yourselves, all five of you who still bother to read my ramblings.

This morning in Boston, it was cold. Like bone-chilling, boogers freezing inside your nose, cold. Luckily, the commuter rail was on time and in an effort to avoid the 15 minute walk from South Station to my office, I got off the train at Back Bay to hop onto the Orange Line that, four stops later, would drop me off just across the street from my building.  

As I descended the stairs at Back Bay, I noticed a woman whose name I don't know but who I will call "Hannah" for the purposes of this post. I see Hannah most mornings that I ride the Orange Line. She is probably about my age, and she has a physical disability that makes her walk look much different than everyone else's. It's not a subtle difference, but rather, something that you could notice out of the corner of your eye even if you weren't paying attention. 

Not to seem nosey, but whenever I see Hannah, I want to know more about her. Has she had her disability all her life? Is she in pain? How often does she think about how her legs work differently than others' do? Will her condition ever improve? If it will only get worse, how fast will it happen? Granted, Hannah may be a mean and bitter woman just like any stranger could be, but I don't get that impression. I get the impression that Hannah could teach us all a thing or two about a thing or two. Either way, I admire Hannah every time I see her. 

This morning, the Orange Line was "experiencing severe delays," which meant that the platform was packed with people, only a fraction of whom boarded the already packed trains when they pulled into the station. 

I'm not one to push my fellow commuters or the homeless man that sometimes forgets his pants, preferring instead to wait for the next train. But this morning, three trains and 30 minutes later, I figured I'd better get my nudge on if I wanted to get to work any time today. I decided I was going to get on the next train and I so I psyched myself up and positioned myself so that it could actually happen. 

That's when I noticed Hannah a few people over from me. Clearly she had been waiting 30 minutes, too, and when I realized that, I wanted to scream at every person who boarded the three trains before us. Had no one noticed Hannah still standing there? Had no one been kind enough to let her on before they boarded? 

Many people who ride public transportation would likely argue that when it comes to commuting, people are allowed to be oblivious. We are all distracted by music, text messages, a book, or maybe even a pain we think is cancer. I get that a lot of practical distractions can lead us into obliviousness. But I don't excuse it. (Enter, soapbox.) I believe that we have a responsibility, no matter how early it is or how tired we are, to notice when people could use our help. 

When the fourth train finally arrived this morning, I sharpened my elbows, secured my feet, and made sure that Hannah and I got on the train. I felt some relief when we did, until, a few minutes later, my anger revved up again. 

Once on the train, I looked to see if the "Priority Handicapped" seat was open for Hannah. It wasn't. A young woman who was clearly not handicapped occupied the seat. She didn't even look up to see if anyone needed it. As cold as I was, my blood started to boil. 

Loud enough so that the seated girl could hear, I pointed to the seat and asked Hannah if she wanted to sit down. Matter-of-factly, she said, "No. Thank you. I'm OK." I wasn't convinced, knowing full well that if the seat was open, she would have taken it. But it was clear that Hannah didn't want special treatment so I didn't say anything else. I stood there quietly, fighting back all my impulses to tell the girl sitting in that seat that she should have noticed that someone else needed it. All that ultimately held me back was the reality that I could embarrass Hannah if I said anything more. 

I don't claim that I notice everything and the Lord knows I've missed countless chances to help someone who could have used a hand. But still, I was brought up to know that I should, at the very least, look around to see if someone needs help. (Enter, higher soap box.)

I know that there are a million different things that can distract all of us while we commute or work or play or do anything else. I'm not saying we can't listen to our music or text our friends while not driving. I know it's not necessarily our duty to make every other person's life more comfortable. Even from my soapbox, I get all that. 

But on the other hand, what if we all actually did look up from our smart phones more often? What if we checked around us before we boarded a train to see if there was someone who struggles to stand up and to walk, someone who may be in less pain if we allowed them to board the train before we do? What if, when seated in the Priority Handicapped chair, we made sure that no one needed it, and if they did, what if we got up and kindly offered it to them so they didn't need to battle their pride to ask? What if we did all these things? Would we miss anything? 

I admit, I got angry about these sorts of things long before cancer. In fact, a few years back, I wrote to the MBTA and conversed with the local police over the fact that on cold days, all of the handicapped spots at my station were occupied by drivers who sat in the car with their passenger until the train came. In my letter and my phone calls, I argued that a handicapped person could easily miss the train because they'd arrive at the station with nowhere to park, all so people who could stand on their own two feet could avoid standing out in the cold. 

After my complaint, the police came around for a few days and drivers moved from the spots. But it didn't last, and these past few weeks as I've walked by those standing cars without handicapped plates, I've secretly wanted to key them (harsh, I know, but don't worry...I have a keyless car). So yes, my anger over thoughtlessness and selfishness isn't a new thing. But my confidence to say out loud that it's something we should all think more about, well, that's new, I guess. 

Cancer also taught me that at one time or another (and likely when we least expect it), we'll all need the handicapped seat or a person to let us onto the train because we can't stand up anymore. Maybe we don't have a duty to help each other out in these ways. But I sure wish we all felt a responsibility to. Because that world would be a really beautiful place. Even on the Orange Line. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Parenthood: My Humble Opinion

Every month or so, I see a popular new blog post or article about motherhood that is shared all over social media. The articles usually have a clever title that evokes emotion and perhaps some mommy-war type self-doubt. If I choose to click open any such article (wincing, with one eye open), I immediately wonder what it will tell me about how inadequate I am in my role as master-ess of my children's universe.

To be honest, I usually don't click into those articles, choosing instead to believe that I'm doing OK no matter what someone who doesn't know me thinks about my family's situation. (Effort must count for something, right?) But, sometimes, I get sucked in. 

A few months ago, I got sucked into reading a blog by a writer-dad who I had never heard of (Matt Walsh). Cue the provocative title -- "You're a stay-at-home mom? What do you DO all day?" -- and cue the responses from "working moms" and "stay at home moms" all over the country, both in support of, and viscerally angry about what Mr. Walsh had to say. 

I remember sitting in the waiting room before my last infusion and talking about this blog with my mom and Brian. I hadn't had much of a reaction one way or another to the article, although I had been fascinated by all of the emotion it evoked in so many people around me. Personally, I thought most of it was a bit dramatic ("Yes, my wife is JUST a mother. JUST. She JUST brings forth life into the universe, and she JUST shapes and molds and raises those lives."). True, but Yikes.

I agreed with other parts ("It’s true — being a mom isn’t a 'job.' A job is something you do for part of the day and then stop doing."). And I disagreed with yet other parts, or at least, with what seemed to be implied by them ("The more time a mother can spend raising her kids, the better. The better for them, the better for their souls, the better for the community, the better for humanity. Period."). If this last point implies that time spent by mothers at jobs outside of the home is time spent not raising kids, I think it's a bit ridiculous. Like Mr. Walsh said in that second point, being a mother or a father doesn't turn off when you walk into work in the morning (or the night) and the effort Brian and I put into making sure our kids are safe and happy while we're away from them is most certainly time spent raising them. Plus, we've got such good people watching them that I hate to upset Mr. Walsh's little apple cart, but my kids really may be better off when I'm at work. Oops...there I go...getting sucked in again. 

Anyways, I didn't sit down tonight to talk mommy wars. I sat down tonight to write about a realization regarding parenthood that I have arrived at recently, as I continue to work outside the home (gasp), and as Brian and I continue to contemplate adoption.

I think that I, like many men and women, had an innate instinct to want to have biological children. Brian and I were blessed when a baby boy and then a baby girl came to us relatively easily and, thank goodness, wonderfully healthy. 

Even though I've been open in my writing about our cancer-related fertility issues, I've only recently started to talk more openly about it with friends and family. A group of very reasonable and wonderful people in that group have said things to me like, "You already have a boy and a girl. Why complicate things with another child?" I don't fault them for saying things like that. I know that what we already have is a perfect fit. Two kids is totally logical for our three-bedroom house and our non-minivan cars. We're so close to being rid of diapers and sippy cups and being able to leave the house without a huge production. Sometimes I think that I shouldn't want more and that when I do, I'm being greedy and pushing my luck. But I can't help it. I know there's more.  

I’ve found that exploring adoption has forced me to think about what it means to be a parent more than choosing to have my own biological children ever did. In so many different situations, the potential of becoming an adoptive parent has lead me to think about parenthood--what I like about it, love about it, and what I find so difficult about it. 

For instance, last weekend I stood at a small hockey rink watching a bunch of five, six, and seven year olds skate around in something that now actually resembles a game. The mother of the goalie on the other team was standing nearby. The one set of bleachers in the small (repeat, small) rink is so close to the glass that you can lean over it if you so choose. This lady so chose. For the entire game, she stood over that glass, her beat red face literally in the rink, screaming intensely, and even angrily, at her son who seemed to prefer to lie down in net rather than stand up. (Yes, I admit that I considered slipping the woman some of my Effexor.) 

Thank goodness, this woman is an anomaly, but she helped me think about what hockey means to me, even considering that my husband kind of, um, loves it. Hockey is something that I hope brings my kids joy and fulfillment, life lessons and friends. I don't care if Teddy (or Annabel, if she's interested) is good at the sport. OK, I admit, I'll care if they care but I don't care for myself. I honestly just want them to be happy. 

Teddy's game last weekend was surprisingly exciting. It went back and forth and Teddy's team ended up losing in the last few minutes by a score of 8-7. After the game, Hockey Mom looked like her son had just won Olympic gold. On the other hand, when Teddy skated off, he was clearly disappointed. I patted his helmet and congratulated him -- "Hey buddy! What an awesome game! So much fun to watch! You guys did great going back and forth and hanging in there." Teddy looked surprised that I was excited and happy. He told me they lost, figuring by my reaction that I must not have known. I told him I knew and repeated that it was so fun to watch such a great game. Teddy didn't say anything else to me about it but I could tell, my reaction changed him. It allowed him to feel proud. 

I know that I often lack control over my almost-six-year-old (he often ignores my requests or just flat out defies me). But still, I know that I do have a special power over him -- the power to make them feel proud when instinctually, he feels like he just lost the gold. That's one example of what I love about being a parent. 

That day last October when Brian and I were sitting in the waiting room talking about the Matt Walsh blog and the arguments it raised, my mother interjected. She said that being a good parent has nothing to do with whether you work or don't work. "You can stay at home and be a bad parent just like you can work and be a bad parent," she explained, before she reminded us once again how bored she would have been at home with us as babies. I couldn't agree more, and assuming my siblings and I turned out OK (yes, a big assumption), I don't worry about admitting that. 

In the end, I know my mom is right. To me, mommy wars about whether women should or should not have careers are as useless as Hockey Mom's angry cheers for her son as he lay on the ice enjoying, or perhaps just plain bored of the game. 

Being a good parent isn't about careers or hockey wins or even logic. To me, being a good parent is really just about whether we have a whole lot of love to give to another human being. I don't know if or when or how Brian and I will become parents to our next child or children. But I do know that despite the overwhelming love I feel for my kids now, I've got a lot more love to give. And in my humble opinion, that's what I think is most fundamental about parenthood. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

An Odd Little Comparison

I've drawn a lot of analogies to cancer-related experiences in this space. I've talked about planes and snow, falling ice and flash mobs, and I've been pretty P.C. in the meantime. Tonight, however, I'm going to go out on a limb and, with whatever degree of humor you need to interpret to not hate me, I will compare the experience of having cancer to the experience of having children.

I know that I'm prefacing with the following paragraphs, but this one may need it. Firstly, please know that I have the utmost respect for the millions of men and women who desperately want children and, for whatever reason (including stupid cancer), struggle to have them. I pray those good people get their wish and when they do, I'd bet most of the honest (and lucky) ones will agree with what I've written below.

Secondly, I can already hear the wrath of the types of women who freaked out when Brooke Shields talked about postpartum depression; they'd probably want my head on a fancy plate. Oh well. I'm just being honest, as are all of the women who talk about how much PPD sucks. Because it does, whether people want to admit it or not.

Third, I am not comparing children to cancer as I can't see anything that they have in common aside from the fact that they both involve cells. Here I will compare dealing with cancer to dealing with children, because there really are some similarities between the two.

After the night I had with my son yesterday that ended with me icing my face and frustrated beyond words, I felt like I needed to jot some of those similarities down, mainly to amuse myself, and to prove that nothing is really beyond words. I never planned on finishing the list and I certainly never anticipated publishing it (as a potential adoptive parent, it may be best not to reveal how much I actually fail at the role sometimes). Then, tonight, after Teddy hugged me at bedtime with more love than he's ever hugged me with before, I changed my mind.

I pray that none of my kids ever understand these similarities in the first person, but I feel confident that if they have children, they'll know just what I'm talking about.

25 Similarities Between Having Cancer and Having Children

(1) Both completely change your life, even if it looks like you're doing the same thing.

(2) Counting slowly to ten becomes extremely helpful.

(3) When something new and different happens (e.g., your toes go numb or your three-year-old swears when his favorite team screws up), you react, then you wonder if you overreacted or under-reacted.

(4) Both make you appreciate any help you can get, especially if it involves food or babysitting.

(5) Both make you want each day to simultaneously slow down and speed up.

(6) Both cause you to age like a dog, mentally, if not physically, too.

(7) A plan becomes nothing more than a starting point and you need to be ready to adjust and adapt at any moment.

(8) Both make you appreciate your parents more than ever before.

(9) For many, both lead to the need for a great plastic surgeon.

(10) Both can make you start to pull your hair out.

(11) All those people who had cancer or kids before you...they become your heroes.

(12) If you haven't already, you find out who your real friends are and you cherish them forever.

(13) When you look like a wreck, you don't care like you used to. You just hope that people understand why without you having to explain it.

(14) You feel love and gratitude like you've never felt them before.

(15) You feel anger, fear, and frustration like you've never felt them before.

(16) You learn that it's possible to feel love, gratitude, anger, fear, and frustration at the very same moment.

(17) Both experiences make you reflect on people, places, ideas, and so many other things that you previously took for granted.

(18) Both experiences can give you nosebleeds.

(19) Both make your weight and moods fluctuate like a thermometer in New England.

(20) Both can seriously f$%k with your sleep habits.

(21) If you don't let go of your pride, you're doomed.

(22) If you're surrounded by wonderful people (particularly, a significant other and/or a parent), the experience is exponentially easier.

(23) Both experiences make you realize how very fragile, and how very precious life can be.

(24) Both teach you the deep power of hope and faith.

(25) Both teach you that shit happens, but miracles do, too.

Happy New Year!