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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tidings of Comfort and Joy...Mama Needs Massage

It’s the middle of the afternoon and I’m naked, save for underwear, lying beneath a clean-smelling bath sheet, knees slightly elevated above a rolled towel. I shut my eyes to block the outside world, to abide in bliss’s bubble as completely as possible.

The occasional sound of an airplane outside fills my ears. Inside, Dido sings Here With Me from a CD player. But mostly, my head resonates and buzzes – vibrating with comfort and joy. 

My friend, Louise runs her business (called Divine MassageTherapy), from a purpose-built room in the bottom level of her home. She rakes long, strong fingers through my hair, from the crown of my head to the nape of my neck. This sends squiggles of pleasure swimming down my neck, through my torso, along my legs, to my toe-tips. It’s like the kindest, gentlest electrocution you can imagine: my head is the current’s entry point; my feet provide the exit.

Oh, don’t stop, don’t stop…

This is my massage mantra. And Louise gives great massage. If you’ve been on a table or twelve, you learn about therapists’ styles: not-great ones are talkers, or their hands feel weak and puny, or the massage doesn’t flow from one body part to the next. Louise commits none of these sins. She’s tall (maybe five foot ten?) and strong: if you say you’d like more pressure (she asks whether pressure needs adjusting), by golly, you’ll get more. And if delivering more pressure is taxing or exhausting, she’ll never let on.

I smile when I think about another experience my friend persuaded me try, called Hot Yoga. I called it Ninety Minutes in Hell. (read about it here  : http://pickendawn.blogspot.co.nz/2011/09/not-so-hot-yoga.html  )

This is Hot Yoga’s antithesis: Moderate Temperature Massage. No beads of sweat, just blossoms of love efflorescing along my spine. I know God loves me because She invented healing touch and inspired people to become damn good at the craft. The late chess master Bobby Fischer was right when he said, “Nothing eases suffering like human touch.”

Louise’s hands move from my scalp to the meaty parts between my shoulders. She slides her coconut-oiled hands down, cups her fingers slightly, applies pressure and pulls up.

Oh, don’t stop, don’t stop…

The power surge resumes, current running in a loop from shoulders to feet, shoulders to feet…

I didn’t think I had time for this: It’s the end of the school year, and everything’s happening at once – in a single month, I got engaged and started planning a wedding to be held in three months; sold my house in Spokane; finished the rough draft of the memoir; spent hours planning and teaching a social media class… all while taxiing my small fries to swimming, Girl Guides, tennis, drama, soccer, church, play dates…

I also work twenty hours a week at my church, which is whipping itself into a pre-Christmas lather with end-of-year events, parties, extra services, a pageant, etc, etc…

Can we skip Christmas this year? Please? Please?


I don’t have time for massage, which is exactly why I’m here.

Louise presses into my hip, kneading, pulling and stroking like I’m a lump of dough who forgets to stretch after she runs (admission: I rarely stretch after I run).

“You runners are really tight through the hips,” she says.


Oh, don’t stop, don’t stop…

As I lay face-up, Monkey Mind starts whirring: What to make for dinner tonight? Do the kids have play dates? I must call to price a lamb for the wedding lunch…

It’s my hour on this table. I can think about whatever I want. Must I continue list-making?

No. If there’s any time to reside in the moment, it’s now.

Louise kneads my calves, returning me to right here, right now.  Oh, they’re tight. She tries coaxing the turnips on the back of my legs to unclench. Pleasure, then challenge. Pleasure, challenge.  Yin, yang.  It’s not effortless to lie here, but the legs need work.

Okay, give up on the calves.

She moves onto my hands, pressing and working into medium effleurage. This is unlike the challenge of clenched calves. I revert to my favorite prone position: a yielding mass of muscles, bone and flesh.

Oh, don’t stop, don’t stop…

The finishing flourish happens at my head, the place that reverberates with electricity and pleasure so intense, I check to ensure I haven’t yelped in ecstasy.

Did I say something? I didn’t make any sound, did I? Maybe I started to snore…

You know it’s coming – the moment when, as you’re lying on the table, the therapist says, “There you go. How was that?”

Oh, now you’ve stopped…Don’t leave me!

I croak out something like “fan-stick,” which hopefully can be interpreted as “fantastic.”

Louise leaves me to (slowly) sit up and get dressed. I lie for a moment, thinking that things for which we ‘don’t have time’ – exercise, writing, massage, meditation, prayer – are exactly what we need.

Especially now. Especially at Christmas.

John Keats said “touch has a memory.” I want my being imprinted with the memory of massage.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Last Friday Night

Last Friday Night

I’m standing in the kitchen on a Friday night, pulling peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies from the oven, when Pete walks in.
“Hey, Babe,” he says. “Oh, smells good in here.”

The combination of peanut butter, chocolate and the lingering scent of tomato sauce and pesto from homemade pizza makes our house smell like love.

The scents dull my disappointment over our cancelled date: the PAHT-nah and I are supposed to be in town, feasting on Asian food. Pete called earlier in the afternoon, saying his boss wasn’t flying out until seven that night, so he’d be home late. Damn. We need a night away from the kids. We need to talk. We need to eat a good meal we neither have to cook nor clean up.

“How was work?” I ask, even though I could recite the answer myself: “Full-on; hardly a moment’s break; they’re asking for ten impossible things before noon…”

Instead, Pete tells me the day wasn’t half-bad; he had a beer with the boss after work.  He goes upstairs to change.

My friend, Louise, enters the living room with a friend. They wear going-out frocks, shoes and makeup. Louise is dropping off her son, Raymond. At four-and-a-half years old, he’s tall for his age, blonde and easygoing. We often swap sleepovers for our kids.

Pete, still in his flight school uniform with gold and navy striped epaulets, crisp white shirt and navy trousers, comes back downstairs to greet Louise and Lois. After small chat and ‘Have a good time,’ they’re off.

I ease open the oven. The scent of peanut butter baking into a conglomeration of flour, butter, sugar and chocolate fills my nostrils. Pete says, “Can you come upstairs for a moment? I want to show you something.” I place two hot cookie trays on the stove top and decide against baking another batch just yet.

On the small balcony off our bedroom, Pete has placed a bottle of champagne, two glasses and a candle, which keeps blowing out in the wind. “Maybe try placing it in a bowl?” I suggest. Pete finds a glass and pops in the tea light.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t have a date tonight,” says Pete. “I wanted us to spend a few moments together. And I wanted to give you this.”

He sets a two-inch tall lavender box on the table. It’s tied with silver satin ribbon.

“Is this a charm for my bracelet?” I ask. I don’t want to assume…

I pull the ribbon, slip it off and open the box. Upside down. The inner chamber falls out, leaving a sparkling circle at the bottom of the container. Indeed, it’s a ring.

The PAHT-nah and I had started talking about rings shortly after my birthday. We were celebrating at Mission Estate Winery in Hawke’s Bay, waiting on steak (his) and fish (mine). Pete looked down at my left hand, on which I wore a gold ring with leaf design. My parents gave it to me when I turned sixteen.

“Isn’t that on the wrong hand?” Pete asked.

“Well, it feels kinda bare,” I replied. I’m used to having something there…

We’d started talking about marriage about six months into our relationship, around the time we moved in together. I’m Someone-Who-Values-Marriage. I knew Pete’s platinum membership in the Never-Been-Married club made him a risky proposition for husband material.  But he makes me laugh, helps steady my nerves so I don’t beat the children (too badly) and is handy with a hammer.  Just thinking about intimacy with him sends ghost fingers of wonder across my skin. I catch myself sighing out loud.  We don’t just have chemistry, we have Advanced Chemistry: Kinetics with reaction rates and colliding molecules whose energy and geometry are so well-suited, liquid in the test tube starts bubbling before you’ve added liquid number two. 

I’m getting sidetracked (‘Sidetrack,’ by the way, is the name of the café where we first met for coffee). Hormones will do that.

I had hoped that when the kids and I returned from the States late last August, Pete would have greeted us at the airport with treats for the kids and an engagement ring for me. One outta two makes for a twitchy American.

“I’m too old to be someone’s girlfriend,” I told Pete during the aforementioned birthday dinner.  

I had started to wonder if, in fact, the PAHT-nah and I had hit the one slippery steel wall we couldn’t scale. We’d survived cultural differences: he considers French fries a vegetable and recreates on the couch watching movies involving shooting, car chases and conspiracies.

We abided seven-thousand miles of distance over four months; we’ve managed the Tasmanian devil called Finley and his Emmy-award wanna-be sister, Fiona;  we’ve surmounted crises that would’ve shredded other couples like the wood chipper in the movie, Fargo, shredded Carl Schowalter. 

I feared our Waterloo was I couldn’t live together indefinitely sans nuptials and he could (Or that I pitched a pair of his thirty-year-old stereo speakers without asking first, but that story deserves its own blog post).

You know, you shouldn’t live together if you want to be married, said my Inner Critic. Because it might never happen.

“I’m not a patient woman,” I told Pete during the birthday dinner.  

I’m a pacing puppy in the space before engagement. One year is seven to me.

Thank God Pete has a sense of humor. And I’m pretty sure he can detect an imminent doggie dash.

 “I want to do this right,” he said. “I want to talk to your dad and the kids first and I want to get you a nice ring.”

“You can go to the Warehouse and buy a band for two-hundred dollars,” I said. “The important part is being married. Save the flashy diamonds for our tenth anniversary.”

Back on the balcony last Friday night, I’m pulling out the ring as Pete kneels before me.

“Sweetie, I love you. I want to spend my life with you. Will you marry me?” he asks.

“Yes, Honey. Absolutely.”

The ring is a solitaire set off by a square of small, flashy diamonds. More diamonds shoot down the sides.

We’re about to toast our love and happiness when Fiona appears.

“Is it okay if we watch X-Factor that we recorded?” she asks.

Pete says, “Do you want to see what your mum just got?”

I show Fiona the ring. Her blue-gray eyes grow wide. Then wider.  Wider still.

“We’re getting married, honey,” I pat Fi on the shoulder.

Pete says, “Nothing will change, Sweetie. We’re still the same.”

Fiona displays the reaction of a rubber tree plant. Whenever I’ve asked her in the past how she felt about Pete and me getting married, she’d say, “I want you to marry Daddy.”

I ask Fiona if she wants to be a bridesmaid or flower girl. “Flower girl,” she says. “And I want to read, too.”

As soon as Fiona disappears, Finley arrives.  I show him the ring. 

“Petey and I are getting married,” I say.

Finley smiles and rushes to wrap his arms around Pete’s midsection.

 “Daddy!” he says. “Now I can call you Daddy.  Can I try your wine?”

Pete and I sip bubbly and talk for two hours.

“I’ve had the ring for a month now,” Pete says. “I tried to reach your dad for a couple weeks, and then I wanted to give this to you when we were in the Coromandel, but either the kids packed a sad (had a tantrum) or we packed a sad (had an adult discussion about world peace or who should be cleaning the motel before we leave and who maybe shouldn’t go running and then drink two cups of coffee before pitching in).

“I thought you might take me up in a plane and propose,” I say.

“Yeah, I thought about that…it just didn’t happen,” says Pete. 

“Work’s been crazy… and this is real.”

A car horn honks on the street just below us.

“This is our real life.”

That’s the weird part. I’ve been engaged twice now.  It’s real, but not. Lots of people marry once, twice, three times… but it still seems odd to have this kind of love – twice – in one lifetime. And while I’ll always miss Sean, I feel such gratitude for Pete, I rarely steep in grief.

Lionel Richie’s “Still” plays on Pete’s iPod. Neither of us reaches to Facebook, tweet or even photograph this moment.

That’s good, because I’m not wearing eye makeup. Also, I’ve quickly pulled on my ‘Australia’ sweatshirt to buffer the night air’s chill, and getting engaged wearing an Aussie shirt would be like wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey to a Cleveland Browns home game.

 After two hours on the balcony, we remember the children downstairs, including one who’s not ours. The four-year-old is sleeping sitting up on the couch. I put Raymond to bed and tell Fiona and Finley to brush their teeth and go to sleep. It’s ten o’clock.

I pull off my slightly-too-big engagement ring to finish balling and baking cookies. I place two warm ones on the counter for my fiancé and me.

My fiancé. Pete 66. Boyfriend. Partner.  I really like the sound of Husband.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bother to Write

                       Bother to Write

I spoke to a university journalism class in the States today. It was a Skype call; a presentation I’d prepared about the importance of good writing skills for a journalism career. For any career. I went through the standard spiel about using active voice, metaphor, being correct, complete, careful and clever. I threw in quotes from some of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott and Bob Dotson (who says success [in the news business] “does not depend on being dealt a good hand. It’s playing a bad hand well, over and over again”).

But only towards the end of the talk did I touch on what for me, is the heart of the matter.  Good journalistic writing is about more than not pissing off or confusing your audience; It’s about connecting people to their neighbors and helping them feel more informed.

Personal essay (for me, in the guise of this blog) connects me with other fractured humans; friends and strangers willing to share joy and empathize with heartache while they sit at their kitchen counter, fingers curled around a mug of coffee or cup of tea.

Words are the legacy we leave for our children and for generations beyond. You don’t have to pretend to be a great writer (I don’t). You do have to practice the craft. Dare to plant your butt on a seat and write, ignoring the inner critic that says your words aren’t good enough, glib enough, graphic enough. You are enough. You are enough for your own page. You are enough for your family and friends. Keep practicing, and your words may also be enough to satisfy a broader audience.

Bother because someone else needs to hear your story, even if (especially if) that person is your future self – one year or five years or twenty years from now. None of us (as the saying goes) is the same person we were five minutes ago. We’re like granite in a river, getting bashed and battered, washed and worn by an ever-changing current. The water rushes so quickly, tomorrow we’ll scarcely remember its color, temperature, scent, sediment or pieces of jetsam we saw: “Was it warm in May?”; “Did the water smell of pine, or fish, or wet dog?” “Did I spot one tire, or seven? Or twenty?” Maybe I’ll remember. Likely I won’t. Memory, like the river, is fluid.

Bother to write because someone else needs to hear your story, even if (especially if) those people are your children, nephews and nieces, and godchildren. They need to hear how you met your love; how you stayed together or grew apart; how you lost and found a home, a job, your health, your money… how the only thing that lasts is love.

And words. But only if you bother to write.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Monster in the Closet/Where the Wild Things Aren’t

A monster might emerge from the closet. The monster might eat me. I don’t want the monster to get me.

Oh, look, the Australian Women’s Weekly magazine has an article about a TV presenter I don’t know. I’ll read this story so I won’t think about the monster in the closet.  It says here Simon Barnett and his lovely wife have four daughters. They’ve been married twenty years…

Is the monster coming? Is the monster going to eat me?


Simon says (hey, that’s like the children’s game…) there’s no manual for the two most important things you can do in life – get married and have children. Oh, that’s true. He reads books about relationships. Really? A guy does that? I just finished reading the Five Love Languages and thought its ideas were logical and doable. We invest more hours researching houses or cars than we do before supercolliding our life with someone else’s. Or procreating…

This is working. I’m totally not thinking about the monster in the closet. It’s like he’s not even there.


I hear laughter on the other side of the door. Is that a good thing? Would the radiologist share a joke with the technician if he suspected I had cancer? Surely not.


Simon has four children. His wife is 50 years old, but looks about 40…

The door opens, and a man with more-salt-than-pepper hair emerges. He introduces himself as Dr. Duncan Something-or-other (you expect me to remember last names at a time like this?). Sweat creates an uncomfortably cold tingle under my arms – it’s the product of nerves, fomented by prohibition on underarm deodorant that’s de rigueur for a mammogram.  I sit and shiver in my white gown with its blue flowers, pulling it tighter in a V across my chest.

Are you my monster?  Will you make a life-changing proclamation?

Dr. Duncan says, “We compared the scans we just did of your right breast to past mammograms. I feel confident the changes are in line with benign calcifications…”

You’re not my monster. Thank God you’re not my monster. I knew that. I totally knew that. I wasn’t worried. Even though the first mammogram said, ‘inconclusive,’ and the tech today said something about ‘investigating the changes in your right breast…’

Not that I have reason to worry – it’s not like my mom had breast cancer at age 55, or her sister at the same age, or her grandmother (or was it great-grandmother?) had ovarian cancer. Not like it runs in the family, or anything… And it’s not as if any of my friends have been diagnosed in their forties (three of them, no – four, five… I’ve lost count). And I definitely didn’t sit inside this very facility to hold my friend’s hand after she was called back for a second mammogram and got a surprise needle jab just minutes later (the ‘ambush biopsy’).  It’s not like the biopsy confirmed my friend had breast cancer.

No reason to worry. No monsters here.


(with thanks and apologies to the late Maurice Sendak for his unforgettable, Where the Wild Things Are)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Free Salmon and Hairy legs

Free Salmon and Hairy Legs

I’m scared to write this blog post. Scared to write about cancer.  Scared I’ll say the wrong thing, say too much, or fail to paint the picture of my week with my sister-in-law, Stephanie.

Mostly, our time in Olympia, Washington was ordinary. Feed-the-dog, load-the-dishwasher and cajole- the-nine-year-old-to-bed ordinary. Watch ‘Impractical Jokers’ on TV ordinary (though some of those jokes are seventh-grade genius – salami down the pants, then back to the customer? Ha!) Mostly, our minutes and hours consisted of gloriously ordinary family routines.


Here’s what’s not ordinary: Steph, who just turned 47, was diagnosed in late May with grade IV glioblastoma. Three malignant tumors have infiltrated the right side of her brain, compressing and pushing healthy tissue to the left side of her head. According to Wikipedia, glioblastoma

"is the most common and most aggressive malignant
primary brain tumor in humans...Median survival with standard-of-care radiation and chemotherapy...is 15 months."

This is life-threateningly similar to pancreatic cancer, or swimming with hippos, or shooting heroin while swilling tequila  – which is to say, glioblastoma’s a killer. Steph’s husband John, a child psychiatrist who’s spent years learning about and lecturing on the brain quoted a statistic that four percent of glioblastoma patients survive five years beyond diagnosis. 

However, John wrote June 10th in ‘Steph’s Army,’ (a Facebook group he created) that survival statistics tell the story of the past, not the future:

"...They include all the people who developed this tumor in the years before we had a proven treatment. They also include all of the people who were old and sick before they got the tumor. They include all of the people who received mediocre care, and did not have a tsunami of love to give them strength. And they include all the people who are less optimistic, stubborn and determined than my wife (which is pretty much everyone).

Even if we only get the typical response to treatment, then the tumor will shrink and symptoms will be minimal for a while. This treatment works. If we get lucky, she will be like the 3 people I've met here it town and the several people I've met online who are symptom-free after 1-3 years of treatment.

Steph has a lot of advantages to improve her prognosis. The only strike against us is the fact that we could not remove the tumors before starting treatment.

Steph is afraid of losing her "self" and her mental faculties. Who wouldn't be? But I do not believe that she, or any of you, need to worry about that. At this point, she's feeling great. And it is completely realistic to hope that she will stay that way for a long time."

'Roids and Reality 

Steph’s tumors are inoperable – their tentacles fastened fiercely to the fabric of what makes Stephanie herself. Her only surgery, in May, was a biopsy to determine the kind of mass her cranium contained.

Early on, to relieve pressure on the brain, docs prescribed enough steroids to shrivel the testicles of ten male bodybuilders. ‘Roids made Steph round-the-clock ravenous and even euphoric. John quoted her in June as saying, "Life is awesome. I'm seriously amazed that I feel this way. Shouldn't I be freaked out or something?" 

Steph has since crashed from the drug high, no longer reveling in cancer’s mystery. She’s seeking instead to prolong her life through radiation, chemotherapy, healthy, organic foods, supplements and possibly a clinical trial in Maryland, 3,000 miles away.


I got to bring Steph to her final scheduled radiation treatment July 22nd.  We visited Providence Regional Cancer System in Olympia. Its radiation department is called ‘Radiant Care.’ I drove Steph’s Subaru, since she’s taking anti-seizure medications and has been barred from driving. Her nine-year-old son, Sam and I sat briefly in the waiting room while a nurse brought Stephanie into the back. I looked around at other patients and their supporters: Two elderly women checked in at the desk. The other dozen or so people at this cancer clinic appear at least seventy years old.

Sam and I are allowed into the treatment room. Its door bears a lemon-colored sign reading, ‘Caution: High Radiation Area.’ I snap pictures as two women help Stephanie lie on a cushioned table. She’s wearing a custom-fitted mesh mask designed to hold her head in place during radiation.

We exit the room, leaving only Stephanie inside. She’d asked me to videotape the five-minute procedure on her camera phone. A tech tells me to aim the camera at one of the quadrants on a video screen, “You can see what we’re doing over here.” I focus on the image of Steph’s head.

“Where are the tumors?” I ask. I can’t see an outline of a mass. There’s no color – just a black and white image on a screen.

 I wonder what it must feel like, alone in that room, machinery buzzing while beams from a linear accelerator bombard your head.

“You can’t see the tumors during radiation,” says the tech. “That’s something that shows up on the MRI. Steph’s not scheduled for one of those until August 18th.

Treatment ends, and Sam and I reenter the radiation room. Stephanie stands and hugs one employee, then the other. She starts crying.

“I didn’t know I wasn’t coming back here,” she says. “I didn’t expect to get emotional.”

Sam lightens the mood as he dons Steph’s mask, which she’s invited to keep. My nephew reminds me of the Jason character in Friday the 13th.

We sit in an exam room afterwards, where Eava, the nurse, asks Stephanie if she’s having headaches or nausea. The nurse hands Steph a clear purple water bottle that says, ‘Radiant Care.’

Berries, Bubbles and Bearers of Cliches

Our first celebratory errand is Costco, to gather blueberries (packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants), ground turkey and spinach. We sample English muffins and trail mix and treat ourselves to chocolate frozen yogurt topped with berries (more antioxidants, but mostly it tastes good).  That night, Steph makes turkey roulade, which is like meatloaf, with carmelized onions and pesto and barbeque sauce topping.

John returns from his work as a child psychiatrist at an Olympia public health facility. Simon, Steph’s 19-year-old son, and Sam join us, too. John pops a bottle of Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) and we toast to life. Later, we talk about the things ‘well-meaning’ people say in times of crisis.

“I hope no one ever says ‘I mean well.’” I tell them. “Because I think it’s code for, ‘She’s a dumb-ass.’” Maybe that’s harsh. But my outlook has been calloused by well-intended clichés I awkwardly fielded, like a catcher without a mitt, during the four and-a-half months Sean was sick.

John says, “People will say, ‘Oh you HAVE to see doctor so-and-so, because he’s the best.’ How do they know he’s the best? Most of them have no personal experience…” He continues, “Then, there’s ‘If anyone can beat this, Steph can.’”

I get it. It’s not fair to the patient or her family to raise false hope, or bestow the burden of super-humanness. I’m guilty of naïve comments myself, having told Sean repeatedly while he lie in a hospital bed, “You’re the strongest person I know.”

After he started to wean from morphine, Sean looked at me through sunken, gray-blue eyes and said, “Would you stop saying that? I’m tired of hearing it. It’s getting old.”

I meant well. Dumb-ass.


A friend drops in to offer Stephanie yet another talisman – those objects we give to ward off bad luck;  provide proof we were there; or console our friend for the current shitty state of their health.

“I knew when I saw it, it was just perfect,” she says, grinning broadly, nearly breathless with excitement.

The talisman is a single, oblong-shaped pearl on a nearly invisible silk thread. The friend clasps the necklace around Steph’s neck. It’s so tight, the cord appears to cut into Stephanie’s flesh. Steph says it feels fine and has continued to wear it.

Another friend, an artist from the neighborhood, gives Stephanie a large painting of trees in the forest. “It reminds me of our walks together in the woods,” she says.

I’ve brought a silver kiwi bird charm from New Zealand. Steph places it on a bracelet. Another talisman. I also brought Marmite – not a talisman, but a yeasty paste Americans will try on a dare. (“It tastes like graphite, from pencil lead,” John says).

Your House on Cancer

Besides the gift parade, other clues inside the house reveal Steph and John’s lives have changed:  a cardboard sign tacked to the wall shouts, “TUMORS? AIN’T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT!” A this-is-your-life-on-cancer dry erase board sits in the living room, listing nine medications, dosages and when they must be taken.  Pill bottles and boxes adorn the mantle, like figurines for the seriously ill.  Thankfully, health insurance covers nearly all the cost of meds: A twenty-day supply of chemo costs $10,000.

Your Body on Cancer

Cancer’s physical trademarks are evident: baldness, likely caused by radiation, since Steph has retained body hair, eyebrows and eyelashes – and weight gain. Twenty-five additional pounds have asserted themselves on Steph’s nearly six-foot-tall frame. “Why didn’t anybody stop me?” she asks, referring to her tremendous appetite of the past two months.

Cancer sucks, especially when it won’t even grant you a flat stomach or bald bikini line.

But Steph possesses a radiance even brain cancer can’t steal – her blue eyes still shine, her alabaster complexion is that of someone at least a decade younger. She wears brimmed hats when we’re out. Instead of asking ‘What happened to your hair?’ people compliment Steph’s headwear.

Hats and hoods travel to Ocean Shores, where we go to stretch our toes on the beach. When we arrive, the sea is playing hide-and-seek with fog. Sun eventually burns through, and we watch Sam and a friend dig in the sand.

En route home, I share a story Finley’s written. I’d asked the kids to write something about their lives in New Zealand, and my budding author gave me this: 

                When I went to the tolit. By: finley
       As I sat on the tolit I could feel a          tinging up my back + got sum tolit            papper and wiped then washed my hands          and walked out that fealt great!

It wasn’t the story I’d wanted, but it sure made us laugh – hard.

We sang ‘Radioactive’ in the car. Simon, Sam and I joined the refrain. “How come I’m the only one who doesn’t know that song?” asked Steph.


For the past two months, John and Steph have enjoyed and endured a parade of house guests. Now that cancer treatments are on hiatus for a month, John says, “Maybe we should take out an ad saying, ‘We don’t need any more help.’” What they need is a weekend to themselves. No kids. No guests.

After calling and e-mailing dozens of B&B’s, they find a hideaway in Poulsbo, nearly two hours’ drive up the Olympic peninsula. I want to tell the world, “You should ALWAYS have a vacancy for a couple battling brain cancer; Steph should ALWAYS be first in line; she should ALWAYS get first class treatment and a front row seat.”

You don’t always get the free pass. Not even with three brain tumors. However, you do get a 19-year-old son who postpones a year of study in New Zealand and foregoes a full-time job to work around the house for the summer; you get four free salmon, caught in the waters off Vancouver Island; you get a hair stylist who’ll keep your head smooth by re-shaving it each week at no charge; you get clients who buy your paintings not because they feel sorry for you, but because they appear to genuinely appreciate your art; you get fundraisers and casseroles and friends who’ll whisk your child away for play dates; you get to plan that dream trip to Europe that you will take between treatments…

My Point?

I don’t have a tidy way to finish telling you this story. I can’t provide revelations about life or cancer. I know from experience being the spouse of someone who’s critically ill means sleeping less, focusing less and forgetting more. I know from experience being a patient with a life-threatening condition means sleeping more, sleeping less, losing focus, and feeling like Big Medicine’s bitch.

Maybe the best we can do is recall Finley’s story and remember to wash our hands. At least that’s within our reach.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Just Go

Just Go

July 15, 2013

I’m sitting in the international departures area at the Auckland airport, on my way back to the States. It’s not that I’m homesick –  in fact, I need more time to settle into the new country before returning to the old. But life splats across our windshields in strange, messy ways, leaving trails of moth wings and smudges of mosquito blood on a surface that grows grottier each day. Somehow, through the mess, you see the sign pointing home.  

The reason for the return this time is family.  Sean’s sister, Stephanie –a major support for me while Sean was sick – is herself experiencing crisis. In late May, after crushing headaches and an episode where she didn’t recognize her hand as her own, she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Glioblastoma, stage three or four. Her husband, John, set up a Facebook page called Steph’s Army and suggested we google the diagnosis to read the average prognosis. Anything measuring average life expectancy in months is gasp-worthy. The tumors are inoperable, so the first round of treatment is chemotherapy and radiation.
August, 2012

Don't Wait

If I learned anything from Sean’s illness and death, it’s don’t wait. Not that I have issues responding – to anything – like health crises; Finley’s lack of urgency to dress himself and get out the door for school most mornings or Fiona’s failure to practice her maths times tables.  My motto: let’s do it/fix it/find it yesterday. My lack of patience is practically tattooed across my forehead: “I DON’T WAIT,” it snarls in black and scarlet. To call me Knee-Jerk Ninja would not be unfair. However, it’s never too soon (or too late) to love each other. We do that best face-to-face.

While Steph hosts another out-of-town family member, I’ll head to Spokane for three days. I’ll see friends and conduct bits of business: discover whether the home I own still stands, whether grass still grows and walls remain intact, discern how much painting might need done before I can try (for the second time) to sell mi casa next spring.

I’ll meet my Dad and his wife in Seattle, and visit with my sister, Heather. We’ll share stories and glasses of wine. We’ll drive together to Olympia (just over an hour south), where I’ll spend just over a week with Stephanie and her family.

I don’t imagine I’m providing giant favors via travel – of course, I’ll help wherever I can, drive when needed (Steph's not allowed behind the wheel), cook if Steph wants a night off in the kitchen (she’s regained control of her stove)… but really, I’ll be there, because like so many of us who love Steph, the bugle’s Reveille has sounded in my head, saying, “Just go.”

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, draws a comparison between a likable narrator and great friend,

…whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, whose lines you always want to steal. When you have a friend like this, she can say, “Hey, I’ve got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma – wanna come along?” and you honestly can’t think of anything in the world you’d rather do.

I’d drive to the dump in Petaluma with Steph. She’s that cool.   

Staging the Musical
Getting there is tricky from seven-thousand miles away – a little like trying to stage a musical starring two crazed children who have two weeks off school for winter break. I enlist my co-producer, Pete, who’s past the point of dress rehearsal and opening night: he’s part of the regular, New Zealand-based company. Pete has offered to keep the show going while I’m gone. The PAHT-nah will juggle kids and work for three days before taking the production on tour to visit family in Hawke’s Bay.  The roles of set designer (cleaner), costumer (wardrobe) and chef will be split between Pete, his family and the kids. The roles of chauffeur, chef and child-minder will also be shared by friends and parents of my kids’ friends. Our production company has grown.

Several days leading to the trip feature the same kind of frenetic movements that precede most adventures. I get wonky before travel, whether remaining on this island or hop scotching the globe. You’d think I’d have lost pre-flight jitters by now. It’s not so much the flying I fear (though turbulence still has me nervously eyeing the drinks cart to see if I can coax another wine from the flight attendant), but the thought I WON’T GET EVERYTHING DONE before I leave. What if I forget to pay for kids’ holiday program? Or leave a load of wet towels in the washing machine? Or fail to return the toilet key I accidently pocketed from work?

I enlist the kids' help with last-minutes chores like folding laundry. I bark at Finley after he dons my sports bra and jeans. Meanwhile, I’m on the phone to customer service, trying to configure my new international phone card.

“FINLEY!” I say, using the exasperated tone I reserve for phone solicitors and small, insane kids, “Why do you ALWAYS have to act up while I’m on the phone? Can’t you act your age?”

Did I just say that to a seven and-a-half-year old?

Finley says, “Mom, I AM acting my age.”

 “Are you sure you don’t want me to call in more help while I’m gone?” I ask Pete. Several friends have said they’d be glad to share kid-minding duties.

“No, Hon,” Pete says, “We’ll be fine.”

Based on his history of watching Fiona and Finley while I gallivant with girlfriends, or enjoy a four-night writer’s retreat, I’m inclined to believe him.

Airport Smiles and Smells

My tribe brings me to the airport an hour early, which is about 45 minutes too soon at Tauranga’s tiny terminal. Check-in takes two minutes, there’s no metal detector, no security screening, and one departure gate. Finley runs circles around us, swatting Fiona with her own scarf.

Fiona hands me a note. “Here, Mommy,” she says, “I made this for you.”

The four-inch square piece of paper is bedazzled with sparkly stickers spelling out, "I WILL MISS YOU." The ‘M’ is a side-lying ‘E.’ On the front of the card, Fiona has scrawled in brown marker, ‘to the best Mom in the WORLD!’ I flip to the inside page, where Fi has written, ‘I LOVE YOU’ 17 times down the side, and once again, in large puffy letters. The next page reads,

Dear Mom, I will miss you very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very much and love you a billieone times. Hope you have a safe trip and lots of fun!
Love: Fiona P.S I love you way way way more than a billieone times!

Oh, how I’ll miss Fi’s pixie face and Finley’s hillbilly grin. And my PAHT-nah’s strong arms and warm neck...

Pete tells me to enjoy my freedom, tell everyone hi and don’t worry, everything will be fine at home. I’m too tired and dazed from organizing and re-re-packing to believe I’m actually leaving for two weeks.

Tears well in my eyes, but before waterworks can start, something else happens. Finley (he wouldn’t cop to it, but we’re pretty sure it was him) has released an odor that smells like fetid, four-month-old eggs rolled in dog poo.

It’s time to go.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Teacher Conference - Fake it Til you Feel It

Teacher Conference
Fake it 'Til you Feel it

It started with mid-year school reports. One of my children’s Discussion Guides describes ‘a capable and confident class member’ who completes class work with speed, reads and performs math at the top of the national standards graph, whose writing lands squarely in the middle of the gray shaded box.

The other report shows a child reading near the bottom of the standards; writing below the standard and performing math well below the national standard. This child, according to the teacher, ‘often needs to be encouraged to contribute.’

If you know anything about my kids, you might think the first report is Fiona’s and the second is Finley’s. Nope. 

For the first time, my first-born - my compliant, book-loving daughter, is pegged as struggling student. 

Finley, however, is excelling in his Year Three class, although his teacher says he needs to pay closer attention to instructions and listen, instead of figuring he already knows what to do.

Part of the reason I’m gobsmacked (a popular term in New Zealand which means utterly astonished) by the school reports is they explode assumptions about my kids. I knew Fiona needed help with math; what I didn’t know is she’s also lagging in reading and writing. Knock me over with a blade of seagrass.

Finley’s loud, confident and, well, loud. But maybe there’s truth in his seven-year-old boy treatise that goes, ‘Mom, I already KNOW that!’ Confidence. Finn’s chock full, like an impudent bean bag.

Fiona, at age nine, shows moxie at home and in social situations. She kicks the ball on the soccer pitch (field) instead of twirling her hair; she’s already led her Girl Guide patrol during one of her first meetings (she’d recently moved up from Brownies); and last Sunday, Fiona read two lines of scripture at church. In front of about sixty people. Into a microphone.

“Fiona,” I asked, “Why is it you can stand in front of the church and speak up, but you can’t do it in class?”   

Fiona replied, “Most people in church are old. They can’t hear me unless I speak up.”

Fi’s teacher, Mrs. Styles, tells me, “Fiona’s like a closed book in here. She’s a fish out of water. She reads so quietly in her small group, the other students can barely hear her. And she doesn’t want to ask for help.”

I ask the teacher whether I need to consider holding Fiona back a year. I’m half-expecting, hoping, she’ll say, “No, that won’t be necessary.” 

Instead, she answers, “It’s a possibility. It could be she’s intimidated by the Year Five/Six class [Fi is in a composite class with around 30 students]. She still has a chance to turn it around.”

I emerge from the meeting, head swimming in battle fatigue. This conference has been so different from others. Fiona’s teachers had previously told me what a pleasure she was; how she followed instructions and was becoming a competent reader and writer (if not mathematician). It’s as if the teacher had said, “Fiona hasn’t bathed and she smells bad. And she picks on other kids.” I feel equally gut-kicked.

Wheels on the Mother Guilt Machine start grinding: It’s my fault for taking Fiona out of school five months to travel when she was six; my fault for not continuing flash card drills to learn times tables; my fault for not knowing this sooner…

I discharge my anxieties to Pete as if dumping a bucket of dirty mop water down the drain – I must sluice it quickly, or its dirt and stagnation will permeate the house. I recount Fiona’s failure to thrive in Room 16; convey the confidence void that threatens to pull my little girl into a scholastic implosion. And then, I speak the words I don’t want to Fiona to hear, “I may have to hold her back a year.”

I had sent Fiona to clean her room during my monologue. With her door open, she likely hears every word. By the time I get to her, Fiona is huddled under her bed, crying. Finley and I coax her out.

“Fiona, honey, it’s okay,” I tell her.

Fiona cries, “I don’t wanna be held back in school!”

I try to reassure her that won’t happen – if she starts speaking up in class, learns her math times tables and asks questions. I hug her and tell her we’ll work together. 

In my head, though, I’m thinking staying in primary school an extra year is not a bad option. It’s better than an extra year in intermediate. Fiona is one of the youngest kids in her class. 

And something else bothers her; something I learn after asking why she doesn’t use her voice in Room 16.

Fiona says, “I’m the smallest one in my class!”

“That has nothing to do with the size of your brain,” I tell her.

I hold my sweet girl, dry her tears and say it’ll be okay. I tell her every day before school, I’ll kiss her palm, like the story we got before she started kindergarten called The Kissing Hand. In it, the mama raccoon kisses her son, Chester’s, hand, so whenever he feels lonely, all he has to do is press his hand to his cheek to feel his mother’s warmth.

“I’ll call you Fearless Fiona,” I say.

“But I’m not,” says Fi.

“Fake it ‘til you feel it,” I tell her. “It’s worked for me for a very long time, and it can work for you, too.”

 I tell Fiona about the first time I reported live for the news – I thought the top of my head would blow off. It didn’t.  She too, can fake confidence until and unless self-assurance arrives.

We discuss the teacher reports at the dinner table that night. Pete tells Fiona he, too, was the smallest in his class when he arrived in New Zealand from Scotland. He was eight-years-old.

Pete says, “I couldn’t understand a word the teachers said.”

Fiona says, “Petey and I have something else in common. I can’t say it – I’m gonna write it.”

Fi carefully pens a sentence on the back of Pete’s business card. It says, ‘Both of our dads died.’

Gobsmacked again. I want to cry. I so hunger for my kids’ happiness and success, I want to bulldoze a path to joy and mathematical genius. And while I don’t want to use the fact they lost their father as an excuse for failure, I also don’t want to ignore their loss.

The next morning, I kiss Fiona’s hand while reciting her new mantra, “Fearless Fiona: Fake it ‘til you feel it.’

Two days later, I see Fiona’s teacher at the school gate.  

She says, “I don’t know what you told Fiona, but she’s really making an effort to speak up in class. In fact, I made her ‘Student of the Day’ today.”

I beam. And look for other ways to boost Fiona’s courage. I’m enrolling her in drama classes (against her protestations) next term; the flash cards and computer math games will be an ongoing ritual in our home. For now, the mantra stays:

Fake it ‘til you feel it.