Purple Lines

I try not to get self conscious when my only child smacks his little palms on the pudge like hands lapping water. He smiles because he doesn’t know any better. He smiles because he doesn’t know it makes me cringe. He smiles because he doesn’t know what happened. I realize his eyes have only seen my body as a mother and will only remember thick purple scars as Mommy’s lines. 

Before strolling out of the bathroom, I look at the misshapen belly and body fat which lingers with the absence of a gallbladder. At least that’s what I tell myself about the weight gain. A picture in a blue wooden frame with seashells hangs on the wall above the towel rack and my honeymoon body cranes over and reflects in the mirror. The old image seems to cast a thin shadow over me everytime I stand in the mirror. It was before Shiloh, before they found cancer, before doctors ripped and tore a child and organs out from me, before I could have no other children.

There is a tube of Mederma scar treatment gel in a metal basket on the sink, but I don’t grab it because the marks are too purple to make a difference. Before I leave the bathroom, I put on underclothes and wonder when is too old for children to see their mother in undergarments. I have friends who have little ones and strict rules about nakedness and others who stroll in their houses, nipples blazing, with their grown children lounging in boxers. I have yet to feel any awkwardness, so I place the invisible standard on a shelf for later.

I twist my stringy auburn hair into a bun, since it’s still not long enough to look like pre-cancer me, and slather the obligatory deodorant in the pits before leaving my frankenstein reflection. As I step into the bedroom away from the warm shower air, the crisp air conditioning raises goosebumps on my exposed skin. Before I can find a shirt from the myriad of haphazardly piled clean clothes baskets, a squeel of “Mommy!” tumbles off the bed and bounds toward me in a size 3T NASA tee and clad in newly potty trained undies. 

“Mommy! Mommy!” Shiloh says through a toothy smile and playfully slaps both hands on my insecurity. “You have a line,” he observes.

I’ve played his eventual “why” over in my mind thousands of times. He won’t ask today, but eventually Shiloh will. How does any parent tell their child something so big when your child’s understanding of death is that something has merely gone away? I don’t know how to tell him that when he was born, the doctors found stage IV ovarian cancer, and I wasn’t supposed to survive surgery. I don’t know how I will tell him that Mommy was bald during all his infant pictures because I was trying to survive chemotherapy. I don’t know how to tell him or myself that I cannot bear any more siblings because my organs were killing me and had to be removed. It’s a list of a few of the thousands of things I don’t know about being a parent.

I’m convinced most parents are winging it, even the Pintrest perfect pretties. We hope they don’t remember when we bumped their head against the door frame when carrying their slumbering bodies to bed. I’ve done it once or twice. Many of us are grateful our little humans continue to grow on dino chicken nuggets and apple juice. We convince ourselves that it doesn’t bother us when someone looks like they’re doing it better or that the stain on your shirt is probably a booger your offspring just wiped on you. Sometimes, we pretend parenthood is enough to mask the disappointment of our mom bodies in the mirror after a shower. There isn’t a user’s guide for raising each little human, so we all try our best, cry, drink wine, and do it again the next day with hope we haven’t screwed them up for life.

In this moment when Shiloh’s hands beat his life song on my drum, I caress his curiosity of the scars the only way I know how. Whether it’s the “right” response or not, I take it to chance.

‘“Shiloh was in Mommy’s tummy and then you went BOO DOOP and came out into the world,” I say cheerfully. Shiloh giggles and repeats boo doop and smushes his smile into the lines.

No talk of cancer, or sickness, or lost siblings. It’s the only way I know how to say it right now. I think that’s enough.

Emotional Capacity

In my parents’ driveway, I sat talking excitedly to a friend I haven’t seen for months. We both love to talk so our words always climb over each other like overexcited puppies. I couldn’t even remember last time we made it out to a hangout with friends or even saw some of our closest friends face-to-face. There was a day during the last week of school where I had to shut myself up in my classroom, all of my students had graduated so I didn’t have to teach, and knew I had to stay away from others because I was not my best self.

Though I want to be all parts of everyone’s lives, my emotional meter was above capacity and I needed a time out.

Sometime in March, I activated my hermit-mode to survive teaching until the end of the year at both the high school and community college, finishing an online grad class, getting seniors students to walk on graduation day, prepping for the Below the Belt Stride and Thrive 5K/1-mile Run at Hopkins, and going to Colorado on vacation. I holed up into myself to survive and hoped others would understand – to include blogging.

When in Colorado, it took me a day or two to realize I was on vacation. The weight of the last few months slowly scaled off, and I found myself standing, snow flurries in the air in June, at the top of the Rockies. I stood at the cliff with arms stretched out. With arms extended, I knew I needed to push myself out of my hermit crab shell and see people again, and do things, and build relationships. The freedom of my arms floating at 14,000 feet reminded me how I needed to embrace other people in my life. I can’t love people if I’m closed up into myself. Sometimes I need the space to regroup, but I know I took too long this time.

I think most of us ebb and flow with our emotional capacity for people and the daily grind. I still haven’t figured out how to manage it without activating the hermit inside to recharge in isolation. I’m getting better – It’s all a part of processing cancer and trying to see it as a singular event rather than the background music to which every movement in my life plays. I want to get better and make an effort to process with others – with arms stretched wide.

 

Valleys and Mountains

It wasn’t until my body was curled into itself and heaved erratically from the grief that I heard the bugle call me out of the valley. It wasn’t until I was standing at the top of a mountain in a celebration that I decided to make an effort to stay out.

For the last few months, I felt like instead of pulling myself out of a valley of emotions, which I slipped into after realizing we couldn’t adopt for years, that I’ve lain in the dark grass at the base of the slope, languidly ripping the heads off of dandelions in sadness.

Recently, a precious friend passed away from a recurrence of breast cancer – a woman whom I admired and suffered alongside – and I continued to sit in a valley of sadness avoiding people – ripping up weeds that looked like flowers to make myself feel better.

It usually begins the same way. The weight of being a survivor sits like a yoke around my neck as I drag my feet back to bed to sleep off the emotions. I lose interest in everything and sleep off days, weeks, and sometimes months – and am a passive spectator in my own life. Damaged cells aren’t the only things chemo leaves behind.

But this weekend while celebrating my sister-in-law’s wedding in Wintergreen, Virginia, I stood on top of the mountain. Though the air was hot and sticky and didn’t have the crisp bite of Colorado air, there’s something about standing from a higher altitude that puts everything in perspective.

I’m still here.

The lush green trees carpeted each hill which the sunlight illuminates in different shades. Some valleys are darker, deeper while next to it a mound curling up is moss green. That’s what I saw from there –  higher up, on the other side of sadness or difficulties, is a place where you can see it’s not all valleys and the beauty of it all rises above the downward slopes.

I’m still here.

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.