Closed Doors

The email came quicker than I expected and shattered the path we planned. After work yesterday, I stayed in bed and slept off sadness from 4pm to 10pm. Around 7, I rolled over to see our two-year-old smiling at me then he fell asleep nose-nuzzled in my hair and toes pressed against my back. Kevin reached over to hold my hand until I was ready to get up.

But I didn’t sleep it off. Our husky was at our feet in the kitchen around the table. I wasn’t in the mood for food, but I woke Kevin up to talk about it. He already knew the details since I told him: Our age range was too small, and therefore, we are not permitted to foster to adopt in our county for several years. There wasn’t even the option of doing the training and waiting.

The slammed door came more swiftly than we anticipated. Our life has finally settled to where we could begin the process, but when we reopened the possibility, this door told us we could not welcome another kid through that process, at least for another four years. This “NO” made my mind whirl. My physical body denied us children because of cancer, and now the Foster/Adopt system in Fairfax County has shut the door on us too. I have survived cancer, but I’m still surviving the aftershocks.

On Sunday during church, Kevin and I prayed for God to realign our lives. Sometimes, that prayer comes with shutting doors and opening others. It’s not pleasant, but I know He has the best in mind for us. So sitting together late at night in the kitchen, we cried and prayed together – giving our grief to the Lord and asking for His guidance. I’m waiting for the silver lining.

 

The feelings I Konmari-ed…then let go

With disdain, I threw the single worn gray sock with triangle shaped rubber slip-proof grooves into the black trash bag. It’s been my reaction to anything from that time.

There have been countless hilarious memes produced after Marie Kondo’s Netflix show Tidying Up hit the interweb. I have cracked up by myself in the dark before bed, making sure my giggles didn’t travel down the hall to the Lightning McQueen toddler bed, as laundry baskets of Konmari folded clothes pepper the bedroom floor.

There are some things from the get-go that I knew I wasn’t going to do. First, I’m not going to greet my house and thank it for providing shelter. I’m literally paying rent for our townhome sooooooo yeah, there’s that. Second, I already know I hoard books because as a military child we couldn’t keep them, so now I keep them all. I know that about myself.

However, even if I don’t do everything step-by-step by the Konmari method, there is something to be said about the emotional and spiritual item purging process. There were things I wanted to curl up with and things, like cluttered feelings I normally stash away for especially lonely nights when I need to cry, that needed to be let go. When I grabbed each item and put it in the bag for donation or trash, I put to rest some sadness – or at least the reminders.

As the only evidence in the world that they ever existed, here is the list:

  • soft pink pregnancy pillow – I will never be pregnant again.
  • several pairs of the gray hospital socks – I hope to never see another.
  • a size XL translucent white summer jacket – I wore it when pregnant on a trip to China before
  • charcoal sweatpants and a white fleece jacket – I wore too many times to chemo
  • a lace gray hat – I wore over a bald head
  • more maternity clothes 

I don’t want to look into the true feelings I had with each material – to look at them one by one and thank them and linger – for most of them, I snatched the material and shoved every strand into the darkness of the sack. As much as they served me as articles of clothing, I was happier to see them finally leave – all mourning and chemo tubes with them.

Splash of Color

I’m not going to lie – I’ve been looking for the correct picture for this post for over a half-hour, but nothing came close. I’ve also been putting Shiloh back to sleep several times for the last three hours (noisy neighbors, wet pull-up, wet pjs, sweaty, etc.).

Very soon, there will be a slew of resolutions flooding social media platforms. Before the midnight bell tolled on Christmas, I saw stores lined with workout clothes and trendy water bottles while my arms were weighed down by last-minute gifts. Everything since October feels like a blur.

With the weather milder than usual for winter, Shiloh and I went on a walk to the park a few days ago. There was nothing extraordinary about the walk. I walked on the outside of him on the sidewalk and helped him pull up his pants and tuck his shirt into the waistband because they were a half-inch too long.  We got to the park, and he went down the slide exactly twenty times, I counted, then I lured him back home without a tantrum by telling him we had to go check the mail – which he loves as much as I.

Shiloh’s toddler fingers kept pointing and announcing to the sky that the leaves were brown. I have never met someone who’s said their favorite color is brown. Brown is earthy and organic, and as such, the color – just like the last few months – simply laid the backdrop for everything else in the neighborhood. The leaves blanketed the sleeping grass of miniature lawns of the rows of townhomes and every third house or two had strung up fabric or rainbow lights for Christmas.

Then, Shiloh stopped, pointed, then said, “It’s yellow flower, Mommy!”

Turning around, I saw – there interposed – one surviving dandelion.

Shiloh plucked it from the ground, using his other hand to jerk up his pants again, and held it up to me.

Enthusiastically, he asked,”Is it pretty?” then answered himself, “pretty yellow flower.”

I don’t promise to make any big resolutions this year – but I hope in the moments where days are strewn together and I feel like the moments are whirling past like a revolving door – that I stop to seek out the splash of color.

 

The Bottom of the Sink

Monday was the first time I’ve seen the bottom of our sink for a while. Kevin and I were both off, and we tackled the dishes and laundry with a renewed fervor. As the laundry happily tumbled with detergent, we turned our Star Wars magnet from “dishes have joined the Dark Side” to “clean the dishes are”. When we finished brunch together, we curled up with our little man in bed for an afternoon nap without setting an alarm.

I can say it; I overworked this semester. I haven’t blogged or gone to the gym in a while because quite honestly, I was asleep in all my spare time. Part of it was to finally wipe out the lingering effects cancer had on our finances, and part of it was the keep myself busy from the lingering effects cancer had on my heart. Though it is enjoyable to be an adjunct English professor at the community college, a job for which I have an absolute passion, three nights a week took a toll on our family.

Last week, I sat with one of my students after my night section of English 112 filtered out at 8 P.M., and I prepped for the 40-minute drive home. She was a non-traditional student with a beautiful child of her own and was not doing well in class.

As I sat with her and talked about how she needed to get her work done, something gurgled deep in my gut and spilled out, “Make it worth it. Make this time in this class worth it. You won’t get the hours back with your daughter that you spend here with me, that I spend here with you, so make it all count.”

I had to stop the tears from falling out and my voice from wavering. I thought about all the time I’d lost with my son – those hours in a hospital bed or chair with bags of chemo draining into my body. I still think, daily, about the moments which were viciously ripped from my life from children I will never be able to bear. But as easy as it is to sit in sorrow, I have to make the time I have with the ones I love worth it – right now in this moment of life. It’s easy to let my heart sink, and sometimes I need to feel all of it, but then I have to get back up. The people around me are too precious to take for granted, but they may be someone else’s prayer.

So next semester I will only be teaching two nights a week and spend more time making memories which are a privilege for most. Personally, I will be reclaiming time I spent elsewhere this semester. First, I need to commit to not working more than two nights a week or taking on more responsibilities at the high school. Second, all of the time I have at home should either be family time or set aside to build myself up in faith, physical health, and mental health.

I’m noticing life is less hill and valleys but, at least for me, trying to get to the bottom of the sink without throwing more dirty dishes in it.

 

Phantoms

I’ve felt all the pinpricks in the last two weeks, piercing and throbbing from things no longer there. I keep wondering if it’s the way I’ve been sleeping on my side or because we reinstalled the three inch memory foam topper we haven’t used in two years.

When I called my oncologist’s office on Monday to make an appointment, I noticed their appointment line changed. They want me to come in on Nov 9th, and I felt my rebellion swell when I knew I had to power to say, “No, I have something to do that day.” The contact for their office is no longer on my favorites to speed dial, and I regained some normalcy by having to look up the office number. Even the thought of going back for an exam evokes the image of blue latex-free gloves and echos back the crinkle of off-white exam table paper. Sometimes when I sit in the waiting room, the other patients think I’m waiting for someone else – because in their mind I couldn’t possibly have had ovarian cancer – especially not stage IV.

It’s happening more during the day since I hit two years since diagnosis last week. I’ve rubbed the muscle under the MediPort scar and massaged the area under my stretched mommy tummy. I know they’re not there, the deadly things they took out and nuked through IV lines, but I still feel them. My scans still say I’m fine and can confirm the emptiness, but sometimes I feel the phantoms of my organs. Sometimes I dream I can still have children. Sometimes I dream it never happened.

I’m hoping, one day, light will pierce the apparitions, and they will never return – annoying flutters of memory.

A Birthday and an Anniversary

My hand continued to shake from squeezing the last bit of frosting from the plastic sleeve to finish Shiloh’s Cars themed birthday cake’s border. Family whirred around the home with crimson colored Cars 3 themed decorations and the last touches to piping dishes. I didn’t give myself time to think too deeply – guests rolled and the little ones pranced in polyester ball pits, and Shiloh gripped the bar of his toddler trampoline, his gift from Mommy and Daddy, and bounced toward the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. The birthday song was sung, candles blown, and presents opened with remnants of wrappers hidden in corners.

There were few moments when a friend beamed as they admired the length of my curly hair. A tita or two pressed her cheek against mine and remarked how healthy I looked. These were the only moments when the hidden second anniversary peeked through Shiloh’s second birthday.

Today is October 18th .

Exactly two years from when Shiloh was born and during the same surgery which I was diagnosed with stage IV clear cell ovarian cancer. At this time, they would’ve just delivered the news of my diagnosis in the NICU to my husband and parents – Shiloh was already delivered and hooked up with a feeding tube and oxygen.

This morning I woke up in our bed at home with my husband fast asleep and little Shiloh curled up under the covers next to me. As I moved my body away to hop in the shower for work, his fingers clawed for a pillow to replace my warmth.

Neither of us are hooked up. Neither of us are in danger. Both of us are a miracle.

So every year when I make Shiloh’s birthday cake, his number in icing will also be my number. Let’s live and breath and thrive together.

Collecting Guilt

With everything so hectic with the beginning of teaching, Shiloh going to daycare, and teaching three nights a week, I was burnt out. I could feel myself spinning viciously like a metal top, wobbling just enough to show instability. I toppled over last Friday, curled up in my classroom during lunch because I had no words to say. By all accounts, I shouldn’t be stressed at all. This is just life, and I was trying to figure out why I wasn’t adjusting as well and I wanted.

September is National Ovarian Cancer Month, and I suppose I began to feel the expectation to have it all together, to paint my skin teal, and to display my life as a paragon of a stage IV cancer survivor. I am none of these things. I’m still trying to figure out what all of it means and how to stop introducing myself as a cancer survivor first.

So I took last weekend to mentally recharge with both my families, then sat down Sunday night to process my emotions to avoid another shutdown. It was during the usual time I do my best writing: Shiloh was asleep, the fan on, the sun set, and Luna-bug at my feet. For a class I’m taking for my second master’s degree, I wrote in a few styles to aid in personal expression and to access my subconscious feelings. One by one, my frustration burst like overfilled pipes and suddenly I was standing in a foot of ice cold guilt.

Though I love teaching college at night, I was feeling the pressure of “having” to do it for the pay. I’ve always been a spender, and I normally do not put much value on finances, as long as the bills are paid, because when we all pass away, our checking accounts won’t transfer to Heaven. However, this weed of stress was deeply rooted in something I couldn’t control.

I know it’s no one’s fault I was ever sick with cancer. Our families and friends were a tremendous lifeline for us both financially and emotionally, but there are still some bills lingering as a direct result of not being able to work for six months. For the most part, my body has healed, and I’ve accepted the new physical reality. I don’t look like I was ever sick and can finally sport a pony tail without an exorbitant amount of bobby pins, but the wrecking of our finances as we tried to get back on our feet still suffocates me. I feel like I have to keep trying to erase any evidence of disease. I want our finances to declare “no evidence of recurrent metastatic disease”, not just my CT scans.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been trying to overwork, to try to undo what was never my fault, but a situation in which I have been secretly collecting the guilt like discarded pennies on a sidewalk.

So as much as I would like to be a symbol of strength, I’m not there yet. I’m still coping with cancer aftermath. This year in September, I’m not ready to rally beside my teal sisters, running the ovarian cancer banner for awareness because I’m still coping.

So today, I’m going to break the penny jar of guilt I collected which I was never meant to do. We are all in this together, and I hope next year I am stronger.

Courage to be Kind

Right now I’m jittery and looking at the clock knowing at some point I will need to sleep – but I don’t want to. I know when I wake up I’ll have to go pick up the two large vanilla flavored containers of barium to chug, hoping I don’t puke so I can get my CT scan done at 10:45AM. Doctor’s order form says chest, abdomen, and pelvis with IV contrast.

This is the part I hate the most: being reminded I was ever sick.

There are only a few days until I have to be back at work full time for the school year. I’ve ordered too many books for my students, put together my syllabus for the community college, and updated my schedule book. My classroom is almost completely aired out, and I’m ready to go back. I can finally say my hair is a haircut rather than it growing out. A new teacher told me the other day that I look like someone who is self-motivated to work out. I’M ABSOLUTELY NOT, which is why I pay for kickboxing classes which has someone telling me to do things, but I took that as a compliment because it means I look healthy. Finally.

Last week, I hugged one of my beautiful friends who battled breast cancer as I battled ovarian. I wanted to will all my vitality to her because she has a new port jutting out of her chest. They found more cancer, and she’s going back through chemo. She didn’t want to tell me because she knows how it feels, and yesterday, she stopped me in the hallway and asked me when my CT scan was scheduled because she was thinking of me. She’s the one going back through treatment and will lose her hair and strength again. I must’ve thought about her every hour in the last week wishing I could take half her doses of chemo for her.

Yesterday, I watched someone tell a group they are undergoing some type of medical issues. You could tell she was weakened from the ordeal and the purple pinpricks of blood draws painted her arms. To say I don’t get along with her is an understatement, but seeing her in that weakened state sat on my chest like cement.

I needed fresh air last night and languidly walked around retail stores trying to make sense of my feelings.  The evil in me wanted to treat her the same way she had treated me, but I remembered being so sick I couldn’t move. I was tired of needles and tests. I was tired of being tired because even crying was energy I didn’t have.

As I sorted out my feelings, I came across a mug in Target. I was getting a few things for my friend going back through chemo she would need, a blanket, tea, and a nice mug for when food will not go down, when the porcelain cup shook all the remnants of the hurt away.

have courage to be kind

All of my emotions spilled out onto the waxed Target floors. No one – no one – no one deserves to be sick.

It doesn’t mean the things in the past didn’t happen. It doesn’t make them right, but it isn’t about that. It’s about being a human being and having the courage to be kind and forgive even if people around you would say you were justified.

So, I picked up an extra plush blanket, a blue and cream ceramic mug, and a watercolored coaster.

Everything before this point doesn’t matter – no one deserves to be sick.

Kickboxing and Compassion

I don’t know how I got there – well, actually, I do. I’m extremely susceptible to ads and deals. So when my sister-in-law told me there was a coupon for kickboxing classes for $15 for five classes and free pink gloves, I was all over it like a chicken on a bug.

I knew I needed to get back in shape since cancer and chemo, but the last time I tried any type of gym membership right after treatment, I lasted only twelve minutes on an elliptical. I had to stop from the exhaustion and from the sweat under my gray lace hat because I was still too ashamed to show my bald head at the gym. I tried yoga through a hospital cancer center six months ago but had to stop – again to exhaustion – but also because of the other cancer survivors in the room – I was the youngest by several decades.

So by an advertisement and the drive I got from my little one pinching my mommy pudge and cracking up – yes, Son, YOU gave me that – I was sitting on the kickboxing mat taking a break while the rest of the class went on. Sweat pooled on my back and ran rivers on my face. If I cried, the salt would blend in and run off my body. I was mad and disappointed and exhausted and most of all, frustrated. Several years ago, this would’ve been easy for me. I know what it means to work out and push through. I kept telling my body “WAKE UP!” over and over again, but the places that hurt the most were the places where things are missing.

More than trying to get my body healthy again, the emotions which bubbled over were more from coming to terms with how my body is different now. I wanted to have a dialogue with my body:

“Don’t you remember how to do this?”

“Do you know they’re gone? –both ovaries, the uterus, appendix, gallbladder, 1/8 of a liver– Do you still know I was sick?”

After the exercise, I sat with my trainer – a beautiful soul who could tell my frustration. She encouraged me to have compassion for my body and self. This is a hard thing to do because of anyone, I am the hardest on myself – because I want and NEED to push through. She never once told me I did something wrong – but instead during the exercise helped move me in the right direction.

I think that’s what I needed, a face with a name, a kind word, to tell me what I was doing was more than enough. I hope one day I can replace one of the pictures on the wall of success stories – and feel brave enough to take a picture with my tummy cancer scars and all. I hope they never see me give up – and know even if I’m taking breaks – I’m giving 110% of all I have.

I don’t tell my cancer story for pity – I tell it so that no matter what I face, people know whatever I’m going through now, physical, emotional, or spiritual – that I’ve been through worse and WON.

Saying my Peace: 4th of July

Today was one of the first days since diagnosis and treatment that I was able to relax at home with Shiloh, Luna, and the cats. We vacuumed and played with cars and ate scrambled eggs with a side of marshmallows-only from the Lucky Charm’s box. I didn’t have any assignments due for my creative writing grad classes and the only work phonecall I got was from the boss lady at NOVA asking which community college classes I would like to teach. Many days when my body is still weak, I desperately need my husband to take over when he arrives home, but not today. Even now, there is a calm in the house.

There is a lot of buzz around Independence Day tomorrow. Some people have miniature American flags posted around the perimeter of the lawn and are currently looking at their outfit for tomorrow and also checking to make sure all the food is ready. As the national anthem plays, eyes will become misty and pride will pound deep within hearts. Others, discontent with the political climate, have sworn off celebrating tomorrow and have vowed to emancipate themselves from all who dare celebrate injustice. Some have rallied to protest tomorrow. And still, others want to denounce America altogether.

Here is what I know –

I am the product of an Army dad and a first-generation immigrant from Korean mom.

I had the privilege of watching my mother get sworn in and naturalized.

I was not given the deep sorrow of a deployed father or mother who did not return from Iraq – but they were my classmates and friends and neighbors and comrades.

I teach every single student who walks into my classroom. Period.

I have made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for children in my classroom without money for lunch because they have to keep the lights on in their home.

I’ve read gut-wrenching narratives of the girl who sat in the left corner of my room on how she crossed the border because her brother was shot in front of her eyes, and it was the only way to stay alive.

Today, no one called my existence, mixed race, unholy or tried to kill me – or my son who is sleeping upstairs.

I live happily with my husband and our beautiful mixed race family without rocks being thrown in our windows for being alive and in love.

I am a college educated woman with a bachelor’s, a master’s, and working on another master’s.

I was not stopped or imprisoned for wearing shorts outside and having short hair because of indecency.

My life was saved by several extraordinary WOMEN who chose to be doctors and nurses.

I have the privilege of teaching and knowing and loving people of different backgrounds and race and religions. This is why I chose to teach in the public school.

I pay my own taxes because any wealth I earn belongs to me and not my husband.

I know my taxes go toward people who do not have a home and whose only choice was to stay alive any way they could.

I can vote for whomever I please regardless of my mixed race or gender. And believe me, I will.

I know on this land we may borrow for 100 years of life, we are all immigrants.

Tomorrow, I will celebrate the 4th of July and call myself an American. Not because everything is being done right, but in spite of the wrongdoing. I hope I never have to post everything that is wrong in each era. I hope my actions speak louder than a typed post. I hope for a better future. I will not denounce America because I refuse to turn my back on so many people. We have the immense privilege of being able to resist evil and speak it aloud in ways other people in the world would be killed for even thinking.

As with any child who walks through the door of my classroom or home, I want to celebrate all you CAN BE, apologize and amend the evil done in the past, and hope and pray tomorrow will be better — and even if it’s not, even if we are in a failing system – just like people say of public schools – I will fight with my life and will not abandon ship. I will dig my heels into the concrete and not relent because people elsewhere dream of this privilege to resist and hope.