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.

 

Uprooting Weeds

Like many Virginians this weekend, I got home on Friday to find several yellow-eyed dandelions eyeballing me from the front lawn of our townhome. The day before I spent near an hour wearing a pair of red palmed gloves strangling those yellow weeds and pulling them out of the grass and the flower bed where crimson tulips were trying to kiss the sun.

Frustrated, I dropped my work bag into the house and grabbed the green garden fork. Just the day before, I was sure I ripped all of them out and was shocked to see how deep some of the roots curled around tulips and green grass. The ground was loose and moist from the night’s light rain, and I easily pulled the remaining four or five dandelions. The last skinny white root slipped out of the ground taking a newly sprouted spring tulip with it. At first, I didn’t realize the loss of the tulip. I finished placing the weed in the pile with its fellows and saw the uprooted bulb lying on the concrete sidewalk to the house. The sweet tulip was too damaged to replant.

On Saturday night, I swung my arm wide to wake Kevin up several times in the middle of the night. It was a nightmare again. In my dream, cancer came back to claim my life, and I asked my dad if I died this time, what color he would remember me as. He said a bright and vibrant yellow. After Kevin woke up and prayed for me in the twilight hours, I realized I needed to metaphorically uproot the fear was lying dormant in me. I dismiss it like I do the dandelions – harmless and seemingly bright above ground. I rename fear “concern” or “caution” and obsess over them, but the uninhibited dreams keep telling me otherwise. It’s run deeper than I thought.

As I move toward working more with Teal45 and trying to encourage others to keep moving forward in spite of cancer’s greedy hands, I first need to take the time to uproot the weeds which are strangling my peace and faith. It’s not pleasant. Sometimes I get caught up in the fear of what I pulled out more than the relief of the extraction to the healthy soil. Keeping my spiritual and emotional garden healthy takes daily maintenance which is daily work. I need to uproot fearful mindsets which don’t align with how I pushed through chemo with scripture. I need to rip out habits or situations which are not feeding the soil of my heart with the right nutrients. Then, I need to make sure I’m getting full sunlight daily in order to make sure my environment and what I’m feeding myself spiritually is conducive to a healthy and bold life.

Time to do some gardening!

Matthew 13:24-30 New International Version (NIV)- The Parable of the Weed
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ 28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ 29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First, collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

Nine – On loss and found

As a writer and mother who can no longer have any more, it is my deep grieving responsibility to tell stories. Since the moment I saw the double lines on a pregnancy stick, I’ve encountered incredible women who have pressed on through heartbreaking circumstances. I am every, and all, and none of these women. This is a tribute to you – brave daughters of God. Though this piece is fiction, your tangible tears have never gone unnoticed.

 

9 weeks

I contort my body to make it look like you’re sticking out more. Jutting my pelvis forward and taking huge breaths, I hope seasoned passersby ask if you’re in there, and I will sheepishly allow the corners of my lips to curl and say “why yes” while feigning shock. I pretend my pants are getting too tight by wearing a pair of American Eagle jeans from college underneath a bell-shaped blouse. It’s a Tuesday, and right on schedule my phone pings with a notification from a lady with a tight and shiny face about what growth stages you are going through. My face crinkles when I open the app because the picture makes you look more like a silkworm than a succulent dumpling. In my dreams, I don’t picture you a hairless wrinkled old man in an oversized onesie. I turn it off in hopes in a few weeks you will look more like us, if you’re still with us. You will be. Just the thought of your sister presses bags of sand on my chest makes it hard to inhale. I have to convince myself sometimes that you’re not in her spot. You’re not in the place where she sat, then fell dead in a crimson clot. I’m your mommy too.

9 months

My hands wave over my belly, waxing on and waxing off body butter like a Thanksgiving turkey as a prayer against purple lightning bolts. This is what people say to do, and I’ve never been this far along so I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but your da da says your exit route is paved with plum colored directions. This may be shocking, but Mommy hasn’t seen her hoo-ha in months, so we will have to trust him. You should know this by now with all the hip-hop versions of nursery rhymes you don’t know yet coming through on 101.1 Womb, but your da da is a goof. We finished your room with a brown eight dollar lamp from Walmart to match the two plush monkeys we ordered online which arrived in a gray airmail envelope from some province in China. One of the monkeys had a pink bow, but don’t worry, Mommy took that one and put it in her closet.

9 days after

This is not how it was supposed to be. Everything from my ribs down still burns when I pee. I use all of my extra strength to avoid the grotesque reflection of a deflated balloon in the mirror when I step out of the shower. It’s 6:12 AM, and I want you to stop needing me every few hours. I know you cannot survive without me, but I can’t be the only one you need right now. Just please, let me be human. I’m tired too. Why can’t I see beauty in your eyes? All the stories of love at first sight filled me with anticipation, but all I can see is your sister who didn’t make it. Why didn’t she make it? I know there is no one to blame, but the truth is, is I don’t know how to be your mommy. People say this is all natural, but as I settle back into bed and you curl your lips around my tender breast all I am feeding you are tears. I’m sorry I can’t be stronger for you. I’m sorry it wasn’t love at first sight. But I’ve never done this before, and a big part of me is so mad because I thought I was meant to do this before you. You’ve finally stop trying to drink from me, and I know you’re only trying to live. But so am I.

9 weeks after

We are finally in routine, and I don’t feel like a complete failure. It’s 3:17 AM, and I already have the bottle ready for you as you make small whimpers from your corner of the room. Clicking on the bathroom light, I navigate the diaper and wipes in the sliver of light and pray for urine. Thank God. You’re still sleep-drunk as we snuggle, and I hide my failure in the darkness by placing your cheek against my warm empty breast and place the clear nipple into your searching mouth. As my eyes adjust to the haze of light, I run my hand over your dark auburn hairs. These are Mommy’s soft straight strands. Your da da didn’t give you his coarse ebony locks. There goes your two customary bubble burps before your last sip.  As you finish, I wipe your tiny Cupid’s bow with my thumb and watch as you slowly fall asleep. Before I turn off the light, I see you for the first time. I grab your fingers and toes and cup your cheek and curl you towards me. Mommy made these hands, and Mommy made these toes, and Mommy made these eyes, and Mommy made this mouth. The tide of emotions crash into me, beating against the regret and guilt, and breaking up all the stories they told me. My pillow smells like you, distinct and undeniable, of cotton, milk, and pink lotion.

I would know you anywhere.

How to be Brave – An Apology Letter

We all wrote in the middle of the field. The chilled breeze whipped around cotton sweatshirts, backpacks, and used composition notebooks. I tried to keep the prompts light until after lunch, and I’m still in shock I was crazy enough to take all my classes out. On the senior English writing pilgrimage, students sat among the trees then encouraged each other in a circle to speak out their apologies. I never asked them to stand in the middle and share. They just gravitated to the center of their universe.

It was my favorite prompt all day: “At the end of every stage in life, it is always good to tie up loose ends. Quietly, write an apology letter to someone to whom it is due in your life. It doesn’t matter if you ever share it, but it’s important you write it”.

Then as students sat away from each other, the air began to fill with the splashing of tears on grass. Nearly 95 high school English students in my three classes returned their tears to the earth as pens scratched on college-ruled lined paper.

When they were done, I wanted to show them how to be brave. So after calling them back to the circle, I said aloud to them, to the air, and to Shiloh, my apology which was scribbled in purple felt tip pen- knowing they would see both strength and immense weakness. This is not eloquent – it’s just raw. And right or wrong, it’s what burned in me as we wrote and as I spoke it into the air.

Dear Shiloh,

Mommy wanted to say sorry. I get mad when you pull my hair, but honestly I let your tiny fingers pull an extra second longer just to remind me I’m still alive and all my strands are secure. You see, I know the science. I know you will not remember the first time I held you that I smelled like sweat and morphine. Or that you breathed two days into this world before I got to see the irises of your eyes. 

You see, Mommy couldn’t hold you because Mommy was trying to survive a seven-hour surgery escaping from a two syllable “cancer” to express a one syllable “love” to you. I don’t know if I loved you at first sight because I was trying so hard not to drop your tiny body as the room spun from the IV drip. Everything is a haze of needles and warm hospital gowns, and I’m sorry to say I was relieved the nurses took care of you because I couldn’t even stand. I’m jealous other eyes got to see you before mine opened again, and for days others got to marvel at you before me. It’s not fair.

I’m sorry it took weeks after you finally came home at a two AM feeding, one hour before the next pain pills were due, to really look into your eyes and realize I loved you. 

I know it’s no one’s fault I had cancer, but I don’t know who to blame for stealing our time. 

Everyone kept saying just do what you can and that you won’t remember. But I do. The image of your father holding you for the first time while his new bride was dying on an operating table is still tattooed in my mind, and it has not yet begun to fade – the ink still shines.

I hope when you grow up and read this you will be proud. That you know I did my best, and I’m still scared some nights cancer will try to rip us apart again. 

I cannot give you another sibling – and I’m sorry for that too.You will never be able to compare noses and hair because the place where I held you was diseased and ripped out to save my life and forever losing others. 

But I teach your brothers and sisters every day. They swing into my classroom lined with posters and too many books I never had, and I claim them as my own because at the core I am a mother to more than one though my body says I can never – I’m done.

I know it’s no one’s fault, but I don’t know who else to blame. 

We cannot get back those months. I cannot give you another sibling, but I can give you the rest of me. They didn’t take it all. See? My heart is still beating.

Sometimes we lead by example – and other times we grieve by example, and there is a fine line between both.