Saturday, August 8, 2020

Eight Years Ago

Eight years ago,
my kids were at the zoo with their dad. 
A one-year-old little girl 
and a four-year-old little boy. 
A warm August day. 

Eight years ago, a doctor, 
days from retirement,
told a woman he had just met
that she had cancer. 

"Will I see my kids grow up?" 
I asked him. 
He didn't look at me. 
But part of me believed him. 

Eight years ago, 
I had to call my mother 
and tell her
that word. 
Without hesitation, 
she flew home. 

Eight years ago, 
I shook. 
Couldn't eat.
I listened to the air conditioner
late at night
scared that it may swallow me up. 
Part of me wished for that. 
Maybe it would be easier. 

"HER-2 positive," 
the doctor told me.
I stared out at my backyard. 
"I wasn't expecting that," he said. 
I wasn't either. 

Eight years ago, 
I waited for surgery. 
Five excruciating weeks. 
Sheer torture 
until they could tell me how far 
the Intruder had invaded.  

Eight years ago, 
August changed. 
Summer heat 
a reminder of fear. 
a reminder of the ignorance 
of the before 
and the abyss 
of the after. 

Eight years ago, 
I waited. 
I tried to breathe. 
And somehow,

Eight years ago, 
I took a seat at a keyboard and typed. 
Typed and typed and typed
as if those keys would save me. 
And they did. 

*   *   *

I recently purchased a new collection of Zora Neale Hurston's short stories that have been long neglected. The editor of the collection, Genevieve West, explained in the introduction that when Hurston was just a teenager, her mother died and her father married a woman that Hurston despised. Hurston left home and school, and wandered to different places, working hard to support herself. 

As West further explained in the introduction to Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, at the age of 26, Hurston took advantage of a Maryland state law that guaranteed anyone under the age of 20 a free public education. She did so by pretending her birthday was ten years later (1901 rather than 1891). So began the formal education of my favorite writer of all time. 

In 1925, Hurston wrote to a friend, "My type-writer is clicking away till all hours of the night. I am striving desperately for a toe-hold on the world." (West, xxi) 

Twelve years after she wrote that letter, Hurston published her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Chapter 3 opens with one of the best lines I have ever read: 

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

I have tried to decide whether the year I found I had cancer was a year that asked me questions or a year that answered them. Now I've decided. Asked. Definitely asked. 

Two-thousand-twelve asked me so many questions, from what parts of the human body make a person a person, to whether one can parent a child in death, to what love really looks like. And the last eight years have answered. 

Only they didn't answer in the ways I thought they would. They answered by telling me that there is no clear answer to anything. In the best case scenario, we will get a toe-hold on the world. That's it. That's what I know eight years later. 

I know that life is hard. So very hard, for every single one of us. I know that the world is always in motion. Swift, scary, beautiful motion. I know that love and trust require work and patience and forgiveness. I know that nothing is ever certain; and that uncertainty, while suffocating, can also include contentment. I know that I am here now, with nothing more than a toe-hold on the world. 

But that toe-hold, that tiny moment of connection with a person or with nature or with myself, that's the answer to it all. It's just a toe-hold and eventually, it will slip away. But it's life, and I am forever grateful that for the last eight years, I have been able to live it. Pain, purpose, love, loss, and all. A toe-hold on the world. I think that if we ask for more, we're sure to be disappointed. But if we embrace that toe-hold, there's a pretty awesome vista over our shoulder. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Sunny and School

In January 2017, we got a fish. Actually, Annabel was gifted the fish by her best friend for her sixth birthday. Annabel named the fish "Sunny Sun Sun," although we have since called her "Sunny." We have no clue if this betta fish is even female, but that's beside the point.

For the past three years and three months, Annabel and I have taken care of that fish with love and dedication. Granted, we don't do anything fancy, but I do switch her to a clean bowl every few weeks, Annabel keeps a calendar of her daily feedings so one is never forgotten, and in those nostalgic times when we left home for vacation, we always left Sunny with trusted neighbors. We talk to Sunny, include her in family dinners, and sometimes she even makes it into the count as a member of the family. Even our morning babysitter (slash, lifesaver-angel, Kathy) has a special place in her heart for Sunny.

My students know about Sunny, too. One morning earlier this year, I was teaching my high school juniors when I saw a call from Kathy ring through to my watch. Nervously, I picked up the phone, well aware that my students were all listening.

It was Annabel, sobbing.

"Sunny is asleep?!" I gasped. "Where? Is she at the bottom of the bowl or floating at the top?" I was upset, but my students' giggles convinced me to pretend to smile.

Annabel was bawling. "She's at the bottom." Good. I assumed that fish float to the top when they die so I was hopeful. But I know nothing about fish.

Annabel, still sobbing, handed the phone to Kathy. Within seconds, Sunny was awake / back to life. Praise the Lord.

When I got off the call, my students all seized the moment to take us off-track from the lesson, so they asked me questions about the fish. They told me that when Sunny died, I would have to find a fish that looked the same and replace her. They told me a few of their amusing fish-replacement stories. I listened and laughed, then made sure that they knew I wouldn't let them out of the lesson for long. I remember feeling truly happy that morning. Sunny was alive, Annabel and Kathy were relieved, my students were comfortable, and the morning's lesson persevered through distraction.

*   *   *

I'm pretty sure I have wanted to be a teacher since the day I met my first teacher. Since my first (and best) teacher was my mom, I guess I've wanted to be a teacher since the day I became more than a cluster of cells. Maybe it's because I'm bossy, or because I can't sit still. Maybe it's because white boards and bulletin boards make me giddy. Maybe it's because I love the innocence of kids (yes, even high school kids), or because they are way more fun to hang out with than adults (especially adults who are lawyers - ha!). Maybe it's because when I read something beautiful, I want nothing more than to share it with someone else who will analyze it with me. Or maybe it's because I honestly believe that the hope for individuals and for humanity begins with great education. Whatever the reason, I will never feel a place of belonging as perfect as the classroom. 

Of course, yesterday, we learned that we will not return to our classrooms this year. I wasn't able to sleep the night before and now I wonder if the root of my anxiety was knowing this announcement was imminent. Certainly we all knew it was coming. But for some reason, the finality of the decision formed a heavy lump in my throat that still hasn't gone away. I know I'm not alone. 

I knew that school closing would hurt me and Brian (also a teacher), and I knew it was going to crush our kids, too. So, for weeks, I have made it a point to ease the idea into their minds. I was subtle at first, starting sentences with phrases like, "If we go back..." The first time they each registered that we may not return to the school buildings this year, I could see in their faces that their hearts had sunk. Those sunken hearts were (and are) painful, but they are beautiful, too. Because loving school is a sincere blessing. 

So here we are -- our kitchens, bedrooms, and basements; our Zooms, Nearpods, and Google Meets the "classrooms" for (at least) the remainder of the school year. The reality of that change had me anxious and restless this morning, both for "my kids" (my students) and for "my real kids" (the ones I birthed). 

I am certain of this -- in homes across America and, I'm sure, around the world -- teachers are fighting back the tears. The luckiest of us are grieving the end of the school year with the simultaneous guilt of knowing how fortunate we are for our health, our safety, and our (relative) job security. But please remember, we get our kids as members of our classroom families for just one school year. This year, a virus kidnapped them from us for three-and-a-half months of that year. And there's nothing we can do to get them back. 

I know, I know. I, too, love the quotes about the school buildings being closed but all of us still being teachers. Many teachers are working as hard as ever before and we are excited about the opportunities to learn new ways to teach our students. But there is magic in a classroom. There is an electricity that is lost in remote learning: a pure, exhausting, unpredictable, invigorating spirit that cannot be created in even the best of virtual lessons. 

*   *   *

When humble moms and dads I know make self-deprecating jokes about unsuccessful "home schooling," I try to remind them that we are not "home schooling;" we are "crisis schooling." Athletes training for the Olympics (and others, of course) "home school." Right now, we are just trying to get through a global crisis with as much sanity and love as possible. And maybe for a split second, I buy what I'm saying.

Crisis schooling.

But then my mind starts to race. Crisis schooling. I beat myself up for not doing enough as a teacher or as a parent. Crisis schooling. My lessons for my students have been subpar, and Teddy is back to playing video games for hours every day. Crisis schooling. Sometimes I convince myself that things are good enough in my own house, but then I'm still worrying about others. I worry about hunger, and abuse, and the traumatic stress of kids being forced to care for the sick, the young, and the old. No schooling. Just crisis. 

Part of me is jealous of the people who still think that some of us are overreacting. But I can't unsee what I have seen in the countless articles and posts I have read reporting from the front lines. And those images are terrifying from the comfort of my own home. I can't fathom what patients, their families, health care workers, and so many others are enduring right now. Because compared to them, teachers have it pretty easy. And my heart hurts. 

*   *   *

So where does that leave us with good ole, Sunny? The poor old fish can barely swim up to the surface to get her food anymore. She pretty much lives in a vertical position and it's clear that one day soon, her nose will just float to the surface and her body will follow until she's horizontal, and no longer breathing. 

Sunny Sun Sun: April 22, 2020

But here's the one tiny thought that organized my anxiety enough this morning to take me to the "New Post" button...

A few weeks ago, I heard Annabel talking to Brian about Sunny. She said: "When Sunny dies, we will have a funeral for her in the backyard but no one else can come." (The kid shares my passion for social distancing right now.) She was strong in her assertion. Confident in her decision. And accepting of this reality. I know that may sound like nothing but in that moment, the world felt just a bit lighter. 

Here's the thing. I don't know what home schooling, crisis schooling, or future schooling looks like. I didn't know what to tell a junior student who asked me yesterday on a call, "Will this virus end our senior year?" All I told him was that I did think the virus would change what he had always assumed his senior year would look like. And change is hard. 

That's it, really. Change is hard. For many people around the globe, this pandemic is not the first time that their entire world has changed almost momentarily. Cancer flipped the world upside down for me and for countless men, women, and children long before COVID-19. For others, a different physical or mental disease changed everything. For yet others, the entire world changed with the death of a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or (gulp) a child. People's worlds have changed in an instant with paralyzing falls or experiences in war. With divorce, or assault, or mistakes that cannot be fixed or forgiven. With tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. With poverty that broke them. For millions of people, including myself, this pandemic is not the first time that the universe has made us question our ability to survive. 

While I still believe that hope is the most important life raft in a turbulent sea, I also get frustrated at the simplified message that "we will get through it." Many of us will, and the number of survivors increases with education, hard work, strong leadership, and cooperation. But like cancer, this virus is a beast, and some of us won't beat it, no matter how strong we are or how hard we pray. 

That's what my upside down world taught, and continues to teach me: in the end, none of us get out of here alive. I don't know the first moment when I learned that. But I do believe that whenever that moment was, it was the first moment I really started to live. 

Which leads to me to the end of this circuitous message: my nine-year-old knows that her beloved fish, Sunny Sun Sun, will die one day soon. That means that she knows that the world changes, and that the future will bring pain. She also seems to be building the confidence and the skills to face those changes and that pain. She's had awesome teachers and decent parents but I'm pretty certain that none of us created a lesson plan to teach her these life lessons. But somehow, in her old school, home school, or crisis school, she learned about compassion and resilience. And truthfully, I can't think of two more important virtues for any parent or school to teach, no matter what a classroom looks like today, or in the scary, uncertain, and promising future. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Catcher: One Year Later

Over 7 years ago, after surviving my second chemotherapy treatment in the ICU at the Brigham & Women's Hospital, I wrote a blog that began as follows: 

Most of the time, I'm pretty skeptical of advice. I much prefer observing a person's actions or listening to his or her opinion on an issue over hearing a blurb of advice. That's not to say that I don't want to learn from someone else's experiences because I definitely do. I'm just not crazy about boiling down those experiences into a neat little package of advice.

A lot has changed in those seven years but a lot has stayed the same, too. I still prefer actions to opinions and I still do not feel right giving advice to other adults as if know what's best for them. I'm a teacher now, having left the law years before I paid back my loans, and I have no new degree that makes me even the slightest bit qualified to talk about the global pandemic of COVID-19. Instead, I have spent the last 4.5 years teaching English and SAT prep to high school kids in Boston and shockingly, that experience has not made me an expert on what the f*&^ we should all be doing right now. 

Until last Friday, I got to spend my weekdays with brilliant teenagers who are figuring out life. I tried to convince the doubters to love reading as much as I do, and I cherished nerdy after-class conversations with the ones who already found that love. Best of all, I learned from those kids and from my incredible colleagues. In this, my 11th (non-consecutive) year teaching, I started to learn what seems to be the most important lesson so far: that I cannot do anything right for my students if I don't listen to them. Like really listen. So I have tried to ask more questions and hear the answers with my mind, not just my ears. I struggle to hold my own thoughts inside (because I have far too many thoughts to reign in), so I nod and I keep listening. It's crazy how much you learn when you listen.

In my job, I have also improved (though very much not perfected) how to accept when I'm wrong. Damn, that's hard every single time I have to do it but I will say, with practice, it's gotten a lot easier. Which is good, because I seem to be wrong more and more often as I get older. 

*  *  *

One very long week ago, on the evening of Monday March 9th, I was feeling overwhelmed. I would turn 40 the next day, and when I was diagnosed with triple positive breast cancer at age 32, I always had my heart set on 40. "My kids will be older, then," I told myself. Now I was staring down the goal. I felt like Gatsby and the green light: "Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever." (Thanks, F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Anyways, that night, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a fellow breast cancer "survivor" (Dr. Britt Lee) post advice on how we should all start cancelling events, trips, and even small gatherings (her blog here). After I got through about half of it, I was pissed. How dare she over-react this way?! How dare she say we should cancel things that we need to do? How dare she not think of less privileged people in the world whose problems were so much bigger than a rescheduled piano recital or ski trip? As I read, my tunnel vision got more and more narrow. Ultimately, I snapped at her over Facebook while Teddy and Annabel were getting ready for bed. I called her out on privilege and (oops) made rude references to her rich friends in Chestnut Hill. I knew she had earned her PhD in immunology but I didn't care. I was mad and scared and I decided to take it out on her.

I felt empowered to act that way because I thought that people needed to know that Dr. Lee was not "all there." I remembered why I had pretty much cut off non-Facebook contact with her years ago after she gave me advice during chemo: she told me to stop doing things I wanted to do so that I would stop collecting germs. She told me I had to stop going places in large groups, exercising at gyms, and handing over money to people on the street. "F*%* her," I thought. "I will take on whatever illness those germs bring if it means that I don't have to miss these things." So I went to a Thanksgiving Day football game and I hugged and kissed all my relatives in large family gatherings. She was a wimp and I was awesome. So I thought.

By the Friday after Thanksgiving, my fever soared. I have never felt so sick. I landed in the ER with an Absolute Neutrophil Count (i.e., white blood cell indicator) of ZERO. I was very ill and doctors could not find the source of infection.

It would take a five-day hospital stay at the Brigham to make me better. That hospital stay wasn't fun but it was necessary. My nurses and doctors gave my body all the medicine, time, and attention that it needed to fend off the infection and make me able to fight regular germs in the world again. I missed my kids terribly during that time. But before I knew it, I was back home.

So, back to last week... After I over-reacted at my keyboard, I fell asleep beginning to worry about the state of the world but not at all worried about anyone's reaction to my harsh social media comments. I'm a high school teacher; I can handle a pretty good amount of attitude.

The next day, I read through some reactions with a chuckle. Meanwhile, I wanted to dig my heels in. Fight back. Be witty and sound sassy. But there was just one problem. I was wrong.

I kept reading articles, kept listening to medical professionals in the United States and abroad, and considered the fact that maybe this woman had a point. Maybe this COVID-19 thing was bigger than I thought. I read more. I kept an open mind. As I educated myself, the adrenaline pumped on high gear. At times, my anxiety made me feel short of breath and shortness of breath only made the anxiety worsen.

It didn't take long before I understood: Dr. Lee was so far ahead of me in grasping the gravity of this situation. She, and so many others, were trying to help us because the government was stagnant, and we did not know enough to help ourselves. She was trying to share information with anyone who would listen. And I was one of those people who needed to listen.

The problem, as I see it as a teacher and only a teacher, is that we need to talk and teach more about listening, reading, debating without rancor (Dr. Lee's word). This doesn't mean staying quiet while others speak (although that's important), but it means considering the views of others. It means wanting to be around (perhaps, only virtually) people who know more than we do. I'm not very good at it. But this week, without any grace, I did it.

Since then, I have read the news obsessively. I have read everything I can about China and about Italy. I cried in front of my students on Friday because I am worried for them and I knew that I wouldn't see them for a very long time. I figured that the book that I hurriedly gave them to read, Catcher in the Rye, would likely be the last book I gave them this year.

In planning to preface Catcher in the Rye for them, I found myself back at the last blog I posted in this space. It was called Catcher, and I wrote it almost one year ago, after a 28-year-old friend of mine, Justin Perry, died of lung cancer.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about Justin. He was so young when he died and until the very last photos I saw of him, he looked so strong. But his lungs were not strong. They were riddled with cancer. I can only make the educated guess that Justin never could have survived COVID-19. We all need to do more for those like Justin who, right now, must be absolutely terrified.

Meanwhile, while Massachusetts and others states gradually lock down, I see people still in denial of the seriousness of this situation. I know it's scary and I wish we could all deny it. But we can't. It's here and it's time we face it like adults. And adulthood is not easy. Actually, many times, it really sucks.

Nevertheless, an important step in acting like adults is admitting when we are wrong. Years ago, I should never have been such a cavalier cancer patient who almost consciously thought things like, "Bring on the illness; I can take it." I should have said "no" to games and parties, and protected myself like Dr. Lee said to do. I should have avoided germs and not wasted resources at the hospital. Instead, I brushed off Dr. Lee and categorized her as an elitist germophobe with whom I couldn't be friends.

Maybe Dr. Lee and I won't ever be friends beyond Facebook and that's perfectly okay. But I can most certainly admit that she taught me a lot this week, about myself at 40 and about myself back at 32. She taught me that nobody wants to realize his or her own vulnerability. To varying extents, we all struggle to fathom having an illness for which there is no cure. The more privileged, including myself, assume access to certain things, like health care. But many cancer patients, including myself and (I'm guessing) Dr. Lee, have faced the reality that even a strong body cannot handle everything that this crazy world may throw at it.

Eight years ago, when I was immunocompromised and stubborn as all Hell, I figured the hospitals would have whatever I needed to get better if I got sick. At the time, they did. But in the coming days, weeks, and months, they won't. Instead, doctors and nurses will decide who falls off the cliff and who they can try to catch. Those brave men and women on the front lines will be the catchers in the rye. But unless we do our part -- listen, sacrifice some things, and admit when we are wrong -- there will not be enough catchers and the cliff will be a deep, deep, dark one.

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