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.

Delayed Response – Reasons

I already prepped myself just in case. I got my blood drawn for the Myriad genetic testing lab to see if my cells had a predisposition for cancer – mostly checking for BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutations. I chatted with the tech as she pulled out a fancy bright orange box in shrinkwrap. As she opened all the pieces, I asked if I could take a picture of the box. It looked more like a box for anti-spy software than a life-altering test – a test with results that could echo on both sides of my family.

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Surprisingly, I didn’t feel a prick of fear during the week wait. Being scared doesn’t make things go away or make recovery’s second-hand tick faster. So I buckled down and prepared myself. If I was positive for either breast cancer mutation, I planned to have the prophylactic double mastectomy and reconstruction. In my mind, it was a very clinical decision which would save me from chemotherapy again. Just typing the word chemotherapy makes me hold my breath, so I don’t smell alcohol wipes or the metallic taste of saline hitting my bloodstream.

While napping yesterday when Shiloh was also out for his nap, I got a call from a very excited nurse. She said my bloodwork was surprisingly clean – everything was negative. Even the rep for Myriad wanted to reach out to me because most were convinced with my history of stage IV ovarian cancer it would be positive for something – but it wasn’t.

My reaction was delayed – “That’s great!” I said. I was thrilled and disappointed. Thrilled I would not have any more surgeries. Disappointed because I was hoping for some answers – something to tell me why all of this happened to me in the first place. But just like my test results and family medical history, everyone before me was unblemished – I am still the anomaly – the rare case – a fraction of a percentage. 

I may never find the medical reason it happened to me – but I have to keep seeing the reason I’m still alive in my son’s eye as we walk through Costco, in my husband’s arms as he hugs me after work while still damp from Virginia humidity, on the walks taken with a plastic bag in hand with my crazy dog, and in every student I have the privilege to teach more than English.

Consuming the Darkness

It had been a while since I’d cried that hard – that honestly. This blog post has been rolling around my mind like a marble clanking on the side of a plastic cup. I sat on the bathroom floor hugging my husband two days before the initial foster care visit with my raw heart exposed in ways I rarely allow.

Since I’d been off of work with the school year ending, I had reorganized our townhome. I rearranged furniture on every floor, wrestled mountains of laundry, and finally had the house in order – but I avoided that room. We have a three bedroom townhome and with the decision made to pursue foster-to-adopt via the county, I needed to clean out the spare bedroom which was an unused writing studio. I found last summer as I was recovering from chemotherapy that though I embellished the space with desert themed wall tapestries and typewriter inspired wall wraps, I would not work there creatively. My permanent writing station is at the dining room table – as it always has been with a cup of coffee I will reheat three times before I finish this post.

So with the excitement of starting the process of adding another family member, I wasn’t ready for the tsunami of emotions sneaking up on my heart’s shores. I could feel it creeping throughout the week as I cleaned, but I tried to distract myself. We always wanted more children, and our son Shiloh loves to spend time with other little ones. The nagging feeling nipped at my heart – the same irritation that comes with needing to be approved as good parents before we could have another one in our home. So, on the bathroom floor on Saturday night, I let it all out – so the pinpricks of sorrow and anger would be released to hopefully, one day, have true closure.

I cried because I cannot have any more children.

I cried because, in order to save my life, all of my would-be children were ripped out so I could continue to live.

I cried because I can never give my husband another child who looks like him.

I cried because it’s no one’s fault, but sometimes I feel guilty.

I cried because if cancer never happened, we would be trying to have a baby right now.

I cried because I will never feel the kick of a baby on the inside again.

I cried because I needed to –

I cried because I’m not over it.

When the foster care representative finally came on Monday night, after letting all my insecurities and unresolved pain fall like rain, my husband and I had such a peace about the whole process. Though I initially felt the pain, the heart to foster and to give a child a home they would not otherwise have, was greater than sorrow. I’ve always been built this way – wanting to adopt and foster since I was a child.

That’s probably it – that’s probably what I needed to learn on the floor. Becoming stronger doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain and doesn’t mean it won’t come back in waves, but it means love and spiritual peace always-always-always consumes and illuminates the darkness. So, I choose to be a candle.

Ode to the Working Momma

I see you

throwing loads of piled laundry into

the washer – a hopeless endeavor

half asleep at two seconds to

midnight – the only time you have

to do anything

dust collects on face creams

made to recede wrinkles of exhaustion

dishes have piled high

but your hands are

as overworked as your mind

and instead – you stroke your sleeping

child in the dark

stealing back a few moments

lost in the commute

you made today to put

their cotton pajamas

on their body

so you whisper

I’m sorry

&

You’re welcome

&

I love you

into the dark

against their sleepy breaths

 

Sisterhood

I grew up in a military family as the eldest of three. While others were playing with Barbies and ribbons, my brothers and I used Daddy’s camcorder, sheets, and plastic lightsabers to make our own version of Star Wars – which is highly embarrassing and the evidence is sitting dormant on a VHS somewhere. In my childhood, I can only remember two girls who I felt close to enough to have sleepovers – Carissa and Lizzie – both of whom I still keep in touch. So, I don’t know what it’s like to have a sister or an older sibling. Someone to share clothes and stay up painting nails and talking about boys while also helping me navigate life.

Tragically and miraculously, I gained thousands of older and younger sisters on October 18th, 2016 – the day I was wheeled into the ICU and my diagnosis was ovarian cancer. This past weekend I went to two events. The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition’s D.C. Metro Run/Walk and the Johns Hopkins Strive and Thrive Below the Belt Run/Walk. While at both events, I met so many of my family members.

That’s the thing with a supportive family – you don’t have to ask for a hug – though I am not at all a huggy person – you just do it. You cry on each other’s shoulders and share stories. You give each other advice and have each other’s back. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been or if you’ve never met at all – you have their best interest in mind and celebrate their successes as if they’re your own.

Instead of borrowing each other’s clothes, we talk about what was the most comfortable during chemo and how to wear clothes to keep cool due to surgical menopause. Instead of braiding each other’s hair, we know what it is to be bald and reassure one another that it will come back. And instead of crying over boys, we hold each other when all seems lost and say everything will be okay. We share the jubilance of a clear CT and mourn the loss of being able to bear a child. We’ve been there. We know how it feels. We will get through it together.

Circus Monkeys

Somedays, I feel like the ringmaster standing center stage and directing all the monkeys and tigers with a scarlet baton.  I wave the directions towards hoops and stages, then bow when the show is over without a hitch as the crowd cheers for an encore. Then there are days like Friday, when I am not the star of the show nor am I the ringmaster but merely the worn out custodian sweeping up crushed popcorn and elephant droppings.

The high school was in utter chaos as I rolled in with dark half-moons under each eye. While still exhausted from the previous night’s shenanigans of my friend/colleague’s flight being continually canceled by United, I was told his substitute called 40 minutes after the bell to say she wasn’t coming. I pulled all the seniors from the first-period class, who were harassing another kind teacher, and squished them into my English 11 class. After teaching two classes at once, I got a call to cover the next period which should’ve been my break and planning. There were two fights in the building – one upstairs and the other downstairs later in the day. I almost skipped lunch, and my coffee ran cold before I could finish it.

As I climbed into my car, I was shaking from exhaustion and wished I could teleport home. When I got there, I curled into my cold sheets and waited for both Shiloh to be dropped off and Kevin to get home after letting Luna out to pee. An hour later, I woke up to Shiloh screaming “엄마! 엄마!” momma! momma! Downstairs, Shiloh was sitting clad in only a diaper in Kevin’s arms, his high chair was stripped of its cushion and the rest was covered in fresh vomit. Kevin took Shiloh away as I knew he is sensitive to vomit stench. I cleaned up the puke with paper towels and Lysol disinfectant spray, put the dirty dishes in the sink, grabbed a dry towel from the basement, gave our little monster a bath, brushed his teeth, Kevin read him a book, then we put him to bed. Then I grabbed the soiled clothes and cushion and threw them into the washer.

Our house looked like a war zone which only barely survived the work week of two working parents, a toddler, two cats, and a dog on Prozac. After lighting an overpriced candle, I sunk into the couch after ordering food via my Yelp app and just took a breath. I found it ironic that this weekend was Mother’s Day as I felt like I was barely making it. Some days are a breeze and everything goes right. I have energy enough to give Wonder Woman a run for her money, but then others, I look forward to 7:30 when the house quiets and I can sit with my eyes clothes and no one needs me. After rough days, sometimes the best moments are when we are all asleep – like the next day when we were still exhausted and Shiloh and I fell asleep on my mom’s couch.

We really do run a circus in our home, but these are my monkeys and our circus – and tomorrow we will put on another show.

 

Orange Peanuts

I regretted getting the wrong cart. It squeaked and stuttered on the waxy floors of the grocery store. Shiloh jerked the wheel of the plastic car attached to the front of the cart, speeding his way to an imaginary finish line. “Koom Koom!” he cried, announcing to the other shoppers that he was speeding down aisles of produce and packages.

It was our turn to bring snacks for church Thursday small group, and I tried to get as many kid and gluten and dairy-free items as possible. Throwing the last item into the cart, a cold box of lemon and cherry flavored Italian ice, my eyes were caught on a bag of candy orange peanuts. I knew they were not in the least healthy, a combination of puffed sugar and food coloring, but nostalgia carried the bag into my cart.

The carrot colored sugar foam transports me back to a living room of my childhood on Dickerson Street. Of wild Appalachian mountains and catching lightning bugs in clear plastic cups and milk jugs. Of lonely limbo of being too old for the children but too young for the adults. Of eating sweet Christmas ribbon candy and chocolate boxes with the mystery flavors revealed by finger punctures. Of badminton tournaments and water hoses spraying. Of times and people now gone forever.

As I taught F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line this morning, “You can’t repeat the past?… Why of course you can!”, I disagree with Mr. Jay Gatsby. Once in a while, a wisp of times past curls around my present. The laughs echo and turns my chin backward. The relationships which crumbled beneath the gravity of life only left weathered ruins for us to remember. The rusty swings. The dying fireflies. A different future than we all thought we’d have –

We can only sing the lyrics of yesterday and stomp to the rhythm of today.