Thursday, November 20, 2014

This picture explains everything you need to know about my childhood.

In going through old photo albums looking for inspiration, I found this. I can't get tired of looking at it, you guys. Because, if you look closely, you can see my entire childhood.

Clearly, I'm playing school here in our wood-paneled family room with the awesome chalkboard my dad got me when I was in kindergarten, and which was my most beloved toy for many years after. The Big Yellow Bear and Mouse-a-fee Mouseriddle are not paying attention to my lesson and are engaged in some sort of risky behavior behind me. But I'm wearing my favorite outfit, a hand-me-down from more affluent cousins who wore DESIGNER CLOTHES AS CHILDREN, so I don't care. I'm fabulous and I know it.

Along the back wall of wood paneling, under the picture of Jesus knocking on your door, are two stand hair dryers. My mother was a beautician who sometimes worked from home, and I thought for years that a hair dryer with a hood was just a standard piece of beauty equipment until friends came over and were like, "WTF?"

The blue portable one is sitting on top of an ancient ice cream maker that I can only remember making ice cream in once. I'm pretty sure everyone who ever had one of those ice cream makers only made ice cream in it once. There's probably one of those in every basement in the lower 48, still in the box, full of promise but smelling vaguely of mildew and disappointment.

The closet behind me was the scariest place in my house. The previous owners were DIY non-geniuses who turned their carport into a family room and didn't feel insulation was necessary. In the blizzard of '78 we had 6 inches of snow in that closet and it rained in there more than once. All that moisture and neglect caused a hole to rot away that over time became big enough that a large, angry stray cat once got in through it in the middle of the night and picked a fight with our house cat in the hallway outside my bedroom. It was one of the most bizarre things that has ever happened to me. And my life has been full of some pretty bizarre shit.

Let us not forget the red shag carpet. And that fern whose frond is invading the far left of the picture. It really tied that whole room together. When there wasn't snow in it.

When/if I write my memoirs (tentative working title: No, Really, I Thought This Was All Normal) this will be my cover picture. Because that little slice of off-kilter 80s suburban white-lower-middle-class-life captured on Polaroid film is my time capsule.

Opening it today has been as fabulous as that designer outfit.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Through a glass. Darkly.

I'd like to start by saying...I'm fine. Or at least, I will be fine. Eventually.

If you've been wondering where I've been, well...I've been wondering that, too. After a declaration in May that I was going to get more serious about writing, after fixing up a quiet corner of our home into a writer's nook, after even toying with the idea of taking a year off of my real job to see if writing full-time could produce anything, I failed to write anything this summer longer than a swim-season grocery list. And while those lists are long and include all the main food groups a growing swimmer needs, like Clif bars by the dozen, it wasn't quite the writing I set out to do.

I have excuses, if anyone cares to hear them. Ainsley had some recurring asthma issues that kept us in doctor's offices and pharmacies more than usual. The 11-12 age group in swimming also has a more intense practice schedule than 10-and-under swimming, so I was running to and from the pool and sweating it out in a hot car in the pick-up line more than I anticipated. We had more travel meets this summer, too, meaning not only was I busy every other weekend, I was stuck in a hotel room 2 hours away from home every other weekend. It's hard to write when you're never home, and hard to find something to write about when the only drama in your day was that your young athlete didn't come out of practice on time because she prefers daydreaming in the locker room after practice to keeping Mom from sweating to the point of dehydration in her Pontiac Vibe.

And yet I still could have used the cushion of summer vacation to take that step into writing I'm always threatening to take. But I didn't. I didn't do a lot of things I set out to do this summer, actually. With the bottom line being...I sort of quit. Checked out. Gave up.

You may not have noticed if you saw me this summer. I didn't make a big deal of it, I didn't talk to anyone about it, and I assumed my blues would, as they usually do, lift on their own and melt in the bliss of a Kentucky educator's summer like so much snow.

I'm still waiting.

I tried the various tricks in my bag I reserve for times like these. I did something outside every day. I exercised. I napped. I attempted meditation. I went away on vacation. Sometimes, briefly, the fog lifted. But it always came back, and by the time I started my pre-school-year extended employment days the first week in August, I was like that frog we always hear about who lands in a pot of water that keeps getting hotter and hotter but the poor amphibian doesn't realize until too late that he's thisclose to boiling.

My realization that I was almost boiling came one sunny afternoon when I was headed to the gym to clear my mind and learned that Robin William was dead in an apparent suicide.

Like many with ongoing depression and anxiety, it has been a trigger. The idea that someone as brilliant, as seemingly joyful, as family-oriented as that man could wake up one day and go, "F*ck it, I'm done," hits hard. If he couldn't find a reason to go on, to push through the pain another day, what the hell hope do the rest of us have? I have always assumed that no matter how dark things get for me when I'm going through a depressive episode, I'm always going to get better. Through medication or therapy or self-awareness or all three. Because I always have.

And I would guess Mr. William always had, too. Until that one time he didn't. And that one time he didn't trumped the many times before that he did.

It's frightening beyond blog-post words.

I'm taking steps to get through whatever this is I'm going through now. I acknowledge that a winter and spring that saw me weathering a basement flood, unexpected orthopedic surgery, swine flu, and dental woes culminating in dry sockets (the pain of which I feel is tragically underrated) could get my chemicals out of balance. I acknowledge that some changes in my work environment could have me feeling just overwhelmed enough to magnify everything. I acknowledge that on top of all of this I just turned 40 and have a very active family and probably don't take enough time to do basic things for my mental health like get enough sleep and eat something for lunch with more healing power than a bag of Cheetos and a Snickers.

Basically, I acknowledge that I have some baggage I need to put down. I've enlisted some help. Things aren't so bad that I don't see hope. This, too, shall pass. And God knows I've been through worse.

In the meantime, I'm just not really feeling like writing anything. I have just enough creative energy to say one light-hearted, possibly-funny sentence per day, and while that's awesome for Facebook or Twitter, it makes blogging or starting the Great American Novel sort of complicated. So I'm signing off for a while. (To give you any indication how hard I'm finding it to write, I started this on August 12. And have only been able to focus on it roughly 30 seconds a day.)

I'll focus on getting back on track. I may be back. Or I may start writing a memoir or some essays or, at the very least, a recipe book I can spiral-bind and pass along to my grandchildren when they come over to my house in their flying car and ask, "What is this 'book' thing of which you speak, Mamaw?" Because writing is important to me and I know I'll find healing in it again.

So, you'll be hearing from me again soon. Maybe not on this platform, but somewhere.

In the meantime, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Friends of the Family

For the first time in many years, I cried when someone pulled away from my house.

When I was a kid, I cried every time we had house guests and they left. And every time we were house guests and we left. Goodbyes are hard for me; I can't seem to get over the "I miss you already" part to look forward to the "I'll see you again soon" part. As I get older and begin to lose more people from my life, I've also learned that, sadly, you can't take for granted the whole "I'll see you again soon" part. Goodbye is, sometimes, permanent.

In my adult life, we've had plenty of house guests who I've hated to see go. But the vast majority live a short drive away. I know that, in a year at the absolute most, we'll be hanging out sampling Kentucky's finest bourbon again. When my college roommate and her family pulled out of my drive Sunday, it was different. She lives in Atlanta; it had been seven years since I last saw her in person. We both have younger children and lives it's hard to get away from. It could easily be seven years again.

My tears Sunday night also came from the realization after spending a couple of days back in her company that my friends have become, especially in the two years since I lost Mom, my family.

When you lose that last parent, you so often lose the various threads that tie you to the body of your blood family. I have a sibling, but we are two very different people with nothing really in common except for the genes we share. In times of crisis, I now turn to the group of people who support me by choice, not chance. The men and women who grew up with me, went to school with me, pass me in the halls every day at work, share a side yard. These are now my people. My tribe. They now know me better than anyone else still living on this planet. We've shared laughs. We've shared tears. We've broken bread together at occasions of both great joy and great sorrow. We've climbed mountains and fought in the trenches. Our bonds are deeper than blood.

My college roommate's visit brought back a trove of good memories. Of course we talked about those. But not having seen her in a while, we also re-discovered each other as adults. Adults who, since our last adventure, have lost some of the people we held most dear. Who are raising children in an increasingly scary world. Who balance work, family, and our homes.

We've changed. But we've changed together in spite of the miles. And in just a couple of hours spent catching up on the front porch, we were right back to being two girls who shared a dorm room.

No matter what, we'll always have Danville.

And though we aren't connected by blood, I will always think of her, as I do so many others of my friends, as family. Family who have been there for me when I've needed them the most.

We weren't born to the same mother and father. But my friends are my brothers and sisters all the same.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Other Mothers

"I didn't know I had another mother."
"Of course you do. Everyone does."


Today being Mother's Day, I will, of course, honor my mother. She was a good one, and I owe so much of who I am to her. But I also want to honor my other mothers; those women in my life who had no genetic or societal obligation to me and my raising but who loved me, fed me, and cheered me on even when I was falling over hurdles/singing off-key/making questionable hair and clothing choices.

In this spirit, I want to wish a happy Mother's Day to Other Mother Jayne, my childhood best friend's mom, who did not freak out the first time she invited me over for dinner and I put cottage ham and green beans (the first time, but not last time, that I had that greasy-good Cincinnati specialty) onto one single paper plate which the cottage ham just sort of...dissolved.  God love her, she still didn't freak out later that same weekend when I ate an entire jar of Klaussen pickles from her fridge. Basically what I'm saying is there are a lot of times Jayne should have freaked out on me when I was at her house, which was almost daily. I was not big on social graces at the time. She gave me rides home from everything her daughter talked me into participating in and cheered for me when I ran the last leg of the girls' 4x400 relay in 8th grade, even when every team but ours had already finished the relay before I even started my leg, leaving me to do the loneliest 400-meter "dash" in the history of awkward athletics. She was always patient, always kind, always welcoming, and still looks out for me to this day.

I also want to say "Thank you" to the Other Mother who is, actually, my older sister. Eleven years my senior, she filled in the gaps that my mom couldn't or wouldn't. I didn't realize it until years after I left home, but my mother was borderline agoraphobic. Especially in those early years of our move to northern Kentucky, which must have completely overwhelmed her, seeing as how she had spent her entire life previous in rural small-town one-street-light Appalachia. My sister went to school open houses, spelling bees, school plays, parent-teacher conferences, and even visited my kindergarten class last-minute when my mom bailed on her plans to talk to us about her job for Career Day. (For what it's worth, my classmates were just as enthralled by my teenage sister's description of working the cash register and baking potatoes after school at Ponderosa as they would have been by my mom talking about giving wash-and-sets to ladies in their 60s.) When the UAW went on strike and Dad wasn't working, Joanie made Christmas for me, buying all my toys that year and asking nothing from my parents in return. My childhood would have been rather bleak without her in it.

And finally...Other Mother Kathie. THE Other Mother, from a marriage standpoint. She raised a good boy who turned into a good man who turned into the best father. She made me believe I was pretty--she was the first female I wasn't related to by blood who told me so, and sometimes this made me think it was possibly true. I learned so much from her, everything from the importance of spring cleaning to making milk gravy to grieving with grace. She and my mother were two very different people with two very different personalities, and each balanced the other's world views during my impressionable teenage years. Some women have mothers-in-law from hell and see their significant other's mother as the enemy; I am grateful that mine treated me as one of her own. Like my own mother, I miss her deeply.

The saying, "It takes a village to raise a child" has become more controversial than it should be, perhaps due to the politics of the person who most famously said it in a public forum. In my mind, it is absolutely a true statement. No one mother can be everything her children need. Sometimes you have to call in an assist to fill in a gap you either temporarily or permanently can't provide. I am lucky that I had women who stepped up for me those times and in those unfamiliar areas where my own mother couldn't.

After you have celebrated the fabulousness of your own mother today, take some time to remember your Other Mothers. They didn't care for you because you share half their DNA; they cared for you simply because they wanted to. Even when you ate all their pickles.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The force is weak with this one.

There are certain things we wish for our children. Health. Enough intelligence, initiative, and ambition to place them on a solid-enough career path to allow them to eventually move out of our basements and feed and clothe themselves. Self-esteem. Not necessarily beauty, but at least straight teeth. Braces, they be expensive.

Sometimes we want them simply to be a little like us. To share a common passion, to have our same sense of humor, to be good at something we're also good at. It helps assure us that while we can't be immortal in our own bodies, we can live on through passed-down traits from generation to generation.

Which is why it pains me deeply to say this today, on the eve of  May the fourth: my daughter hates Star Wars. Each word a dagger to my nerdy heart. Hates. It.

I have to believe that this hate has more to do with taking a stubborn stand against something the yucky-blucky boys in her class love than with the movies themselves. After all, we can't even get her to sit down to watch the first one. (And, to be clear, by "first one" I mean "Episode IV." I am a purist in this regard, and don't you dare try to Jedi-mind-trick me into believing otherwise.) She decided she hated everything pertaining to the Force several years ago before I even had a 31-inch Darth Vader gracing our hearth or displayed my lightsaber over the mantle. She hates it on principle and in theory, not so much in practice.

This gives me hope. A New Hope. A "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" hope. Seriously. She likes Gandalf, she just may like old Ben, too.

She greatly enjoyed the Lord of the Rings trilogy and is suffering, like the rest of us, through The Hobbit (she adores Legolas, so thank God he makes an appearance), so one would think Star Wars would be a natural fit. Her generation is also accustomed to dystopian fantasies and rebellious teens blowing stuff up; they cut their teeth on The Hunger Games. I can't help but think a girl who adores Katniss Everdeen will someday cheer for Luke to get that proton torpedo into a hole roughly the size of a womp rat. Luke and Katniss are cut from the same cloth, really--rural teens who find themselves fighting (and whining about fighting) against a vast and oppressive regime using skills they didn't know they had until called upon to save the world as they know it. Katniss even sports a very Padawan-esque over-the-shoulder braid. Ainsley has to at least feel some cathartic teen angst when watching these movies, right?

I plan to find out. I have been over the moon (I mean Death Star; that's no moon) ever since the fuzzy black-and-white picture of the cast of the new film was released this week. There's Carrie! And Mark! And Harrison! And the impossibly tall guy that plays Chewie! And OMG Andy-freaking-Serkis. My two geek worlds collide in that picture and I can hardly see straight.

So a proclamation went out last night over dinner. As a family, over the course of the next year, we will watch the original trilogy. Multiple times, if necessary. If we have to, we will watch the prequels. But only if we have to. I may not be able to make her love it, but I want her to at least be able to tolerate it. For we have a date. We will go, as the family unit we are, to the opening of the new film when it finally arrives in theaters. We will do this because the best memories from my childhood revolve around seeing various trilogy films for the first time--I saw Episode IV the night it premiered on HBO, I watched The Empire Strikes Back at a midnight showing with my Dad the weekend it came out, and my sister and brother-in-law waited in line for hours to get three tickets to take me to Return of the Jedi on opening night. I have to see this new movie. And whether she knows it yet or not, so does my daughter. If she's going to use her hate, she needs to know what it is she hates. And maybe, just maybe, there's more than a Sand Person's chance in Hoth of her letting her guard down and her prejudices go and liking this epic story of good and evil.

I can't just let her go to the dark side. The dark side being, of course, teen vampire romance movies.

I don't want to force my kid to be someone she's not or like something she doesn't simply because her mother loves it. But the cultural impact of these movies can't be denied, and I want her to at least know about them and make an informed decision. Then, if she doesn't like them, I will accept it. I won't like it, and I'd be lying if I said my feelings wouldn't be a little hurt. These movies were a huge part of my childhood and loving them is a part of my identity and embedded into my DNA. Not my midichlorians, George Lucas. My DNA. Leave the Force the mystery and ancient power it's supposed to be and quit explaining stuff you don't need to explain.

Wait, what? Where was I?

I would imagine that someday my daughter will have children of her own. And she will pass on to them some of her childhood loves--Phineas and Ferb, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent. They will either like it or they won't, and she will have to cope with that. If I am lucky enough to still be on this planet and not be a shadow-y, see-through apparition appearing at Ewok celebrations, I'd like my grandkids to ask their mother why Mamaw has a big robot-looking guy dressed in a black cape on display in the basement right next to a weird light-up sword (and, if dreams come true, an R2-D2 keggerator.) And I'd like my daughter to answer that question with something other than, "Because your Mamaw is a weirdo."

Ideally, her answer to why Mamaw has all these strange things in the basement would begin thus:

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away...

Friday, April 25, 2014

Reach for the stars

When I was eleven, I found nothing in my world nearly as beautiful as the full-color pictures of the Orion Nebula in the pages of Astronomy magazine.

Always a nerdy girl who couldn't decide between the Barbie Dream House and the Millennium Falcon, I became obsessed with the night sky and with the burning desire for my own telescope when I was in fifth grade. I don't know how it started, but I know that by Christmas of my 6th-grade year I was lobbying hard for a backyard telescope. It took my parents so off-guard that my mother began to ask her hair clients if they knew anything about amateur astronomy. It turns out one did, and before the telescope came I inherited five years' worth of back issues of Astronomy magazine, cast-offs from the college-departed son of one of Mom's ladies.

The magazines, it would turn out, were better than the telescope itself.

The telescope we could afford, purchased at Toys 'R' Us, was a huge disappointment. My dad and I could see the craters of the moon and, with a solar filter we probably shouldn't have trusted (I swear I haven't being seeing colors as brightly the past 29 years), some impressive sunspot activity. But stars were no starrier through the lens of our scope, and Jupiter and Saturn and Mars no more than small bright discs with no detail. The telescope sat in the corner of my bedroom collecting dust until I myself went off to college, when it became the problem of our local thrift store.

But no dust gathered on the Astronomy magazines.

I marveled at galaxies, nebulae, and clusters, and the amazing telescopes, trackers, and specialized cameras that made capturing their images in colorful, detailed glory possible. I wondered what sort of training one needed to have that job--sit at an observatory under a huge reflector telescope seeking and finding the marvels of our vast universe. Years later I found out that the training one needs to do this job actually requires a hell of a lot of advanced math, so I lost interest in it as a career. But I never lost interest in looking through a telescope and seeing the beautiful and amazing universe we live in.

So much so that I majored in astronomy in our state's Governor's Scholars program and lived for the Wednesday night viewings out in light-pollution-free rural central Kentucky, where I first looked through an amateur telescope large enough to allow me to see the rings of Saturn. Seeing that planet through a good eyepiece for the first time, at once both smaller and larger than I imagined, I gasped. It didn't look real; it had the pastel hue and crisp edges of a piece of penny candy someone had dangled at the end of my field of vision. But there it was--a celestial body I knew was so far away its light took five hours to reach my eye, but so close it seemed I could reach out and grab it.

Yet outside of viewing nights, my astronomy major was all math-y and physics-y and involved discussions of the big bang and photons and black holes and the space-time continuum. I was an arts-and-humanities-brained person trying to grasp quantum mechanics. I grew miserable and felt dumb on a daily basis and didn't look through a telescope again for years. But, oh--Saturn's rings. That's the stuff of poetry.

Flash-forward two decades. Two GSP astronomy majors have a daughter who likes to watch shows hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Jason, wanting a high-quality amateur scope without a high-quality pricetag, built a large reflector telescope so good that one of our friends used her iPhone to capture a picture of Saturn's rings through the eyepiece. Let me repeat that, so me at eleven can have her mind blown--I married someone who built a telescope powerful enough to show the rings of Saturn (and one of her moons) at a time when nearly all humans have a high-quality camera on a phone they carry with them all the time in their pockets.

In another plane of existence, in a parallel universe, 6th-grade me just got the shivers.

Last night, to make sure Ainsley's and Jason's spring break fun went out with a (big) bang, we took a family field trip to an observatory. Reservations were made before we knew it would be a cloudy night, but even on cloudy nights seeing a movable observation roof, a giant antique telescope, and getting a lecture on deep-space objects is good geeky family time. Luck, for a change, was on our side--shortly after dark, at the end of the lecture, the skies temporarily cleared. We took turns gazing at Mars, Jupiter with 4 of her moons, and a double star. The detail of these bodies was the best I've ever seen. I was giddy. It wasn't a page from one of those long-lost Astronomy magazines, but it was the stuff nerdy dreams are made of. And my own 11-year-old and my husband were just as in awe as I was.

I burned through a lot of dreams when I was kid. Like many, I dreamed of being rich, of being famous, or being a star. For a while, I dreamed simply of seeing stars. Not with my naked, nearsighted eyes, but in a way that makes this huge and overwhelming universe feel a tiny bit smaller. A tiny bit more accessible. A tiny bit more human.

On a suddenly clear night in April, my family beside me, I finally got to look through a huge professional telescope and see the details of another world. I reached for the stars and grasped them. And it was just as amazing as the Orion Nebula on the pages of a hand-me-down magazine.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Let me bring you a plate.

Food is love.

I've often heard it said but never really experienced it until the outpouring of food-love I received in the weeks following my shoulder surgery. My friends and co-workers, knowing that providing healthy food with one arm for a growing swimmer could be a challenge, kept a meal train going for me that included homemade specialties, our favorite carry-out dinners, and restaurant gift cards. I didn't have to prepare a dinner on my own on a weeknight until I started weaning from the sling. It was a gesture from those closest to me that on more than one occasion made me so grateful I could (and did) cry.

I come from a southern-slash-hill-people family, so I should have known that food isn't always just food. If I was sick, if I'd gotten my feelings hurt, if I was coming home on break during my difficult first two years of college--I got fed. My mother knew how to soothe my heart by way of my stomach better than anyone.

And when she had prepared for me one of my favorites, be it chicken and noodles, or fried spinach, or a cheeseburger, or even just a sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she always announced its readiness with the same verbal dinner bell:

Supper's ready. Come fix you a plate.

What a great colloquialism: Fix you a plate. Just that word "fix" implies healing and repair. For either your spirit or your body or perhaps both. It's not just putting food on a piece of ceramic--it's arranging it according to your own needs and personal aesthetics. It's art and medicine all at once.

My mother always said that the food she cooked for other people tasted better than the food she cooked just for herself. In her later years when she lived alone she rarely ate her own cooking, and swore that when she cooked for others, she cooked with joy and love. The proof for her was literally in the pudding. The banana pudding.

Because I am my mother's daughter, my first solo dinner following surgery was homemade chicken  noodle soup for my ailing daughter. She came home from school last Wednesday looking pitiful with a spring cold, and she needed love in the form of protein, veggies, and carbs.

She was on my mind as I cut carrots, cubed chicken, and simmered broth. I didn't just sprinkle poultry seasoning into the pot; I poured in a little of my heart as well.

And I'll be damned if that wasn't the best pot of chicken noodle soup I've ever made.

I'm determined to pay forward the kindness of my friends and colleagues. I've brought food to ailing friends and family before, but not as often as I should. I am in debt to those who helped me through a physically tough time, and the debt needs to be paid in chilies and casseroles.

So if you find yourself sick, or in spiritual turmoil, let me know. I'll stop be your house. And I'll bring you a plate.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Two Years

Hi, Mom.

I'll admit, I'm currently going through one of those phases where I'm pretty uncertain about where I stand on God/heaven/an afterlife/angels, so I don't know if these words will find you. And if they do, that first sentence is probably breaking your heart because your firm and unshakable belief has been confirmed and I'm down here doubting and debating you as usual. No matter. Because two years ago today I sat at your bedside in hospice and held your hand and said goodbye to you for the last time without knowing it would be for the last time, and I find myself missing the spirit that made you you, wherever that spirit and energy may now be. And I need to talk to you even if you can't listen.

I wrote the above paragraph yesterday after school in an attempt to express the heaviness and sorrow I felt knowing that today is my least favorite anniversary. I typed it while Ainsley did homework, then stared at it, had no more words, and went about the rest of my day.

I went down to our basement laundry room and began to take my daughter's clothes out of the dryer. As I stood there, I mulled words and phrases around in my head trying to figure out what I could possibly say to you, my readers, and to myself, that would give me comfort and strength and express what it's like to lose your mother too soon.

And then I saw something out of place on top of the lint filter. Something that I did not expect to find at all, especially not in my clothes dryer. I found a necklace. I found the necklace. And I've been trying to wrap my head around it ever since.

To tell you that story, I have to tell you this one.

In the months following Mom's death, Ainsley and I both clung to tangible items that had once belonged to her that made our healing hearts feel a little less empty. For me, it was one of her watches. It was too small for my wrist and more white and more large than I prefer my watches to be, but I wore it every day that first summer. For Ainsley, it was two things: the little stuffed lamb that had sat at Mom's bedside in the hospital and which she told me she wanted Ainsley to have when she knew she wasn't going to make it, and the silver palm tree necklace that Mom had brought back for Ains from vacation not long before she got sick.

Ainsley wore the necklace every day the first weeks of her summer vacation, only taking it off for swim practice. One day she got invited last-minute to go to the neighborhood swimming pool with our neighbors, and in our rush to get her out the door, we didn't secure the necklace first. When she came back from the pool it was no longer around her neck. Neither a frantic search of her swim bag nor violent shaking of her towel, swimsuit, and cover-up yielded the necklace. For a week I retraced her steps through the yard, called the pool, checked the lost-and-found, looked for something shiny on the pool bottom. With a heavy heart, I accepted the necklace's loss and mourned for it. It was the last gift she ever gave her granddaughter, and it was gone.

That was July of 2012. Since then, life has moved on. I had forgotten all about the lost necklace. Until it suddenly appeared in my dryer the day before the second anniversary of Mom's death.

I immediately ran upstairs to Ainsley, still doing homework in her room, and saw that she was as surprised as I was. She had not seen it since that day at the pool, either. But together we came up with the most logical explanation for its return.

Sunday night I washed her swim bag, which she had taken with her that day. Even though we turned that thing upside down and inside out looking for the necklace initially, and even though it's been emptied and washed several times since July of 2012, it must have been hidden deep inside a pocket. It finally emerged Sunday, and hid itself in the three other loads of clothes I did until, like the magic bullet or the one ring, it perched itself cleanly out in plain view.

That's the logical explanation.

But the timing of its discovery leads me to believe (bear with me, skeptics) that there is an unseen hand in this, and that it was a message of comfort to get me through a difficult day.

Do I believe in angels, or ghosts, or that the energy of the dead can somehow communicate with us from whatever is Beyond? I still don't know. It depends on the day, the slant of the moon, and how recently I've watched a horror movie. I've seen things that could lead me to believe that a bit of our souls, a bit of the energy and electric charges that make us us, sticks around a bit after we've breathed our last. Yet the older I get, and the more bitter and cynical I get, the less I believe in things I can't quantify. I doubt. Daily. And will probably spend the rest of my days in a cycle of belief/disbelief that colors my views on God, the afterlife, and the supernatural in various changing shades of gray.

Today, I lean toward belief. Mostly because it gives me comfort. Today, what was lost has been found. I feel my mother's presence in this whether it's there or not. Because of this, it's not a sad day. It's a happy day. My grieving heart has been made light.

So Mom, if you are indeed listening...thank you. Even if the necklace was not your doing...thank you. For everything. I love you, and I still miss you, but now I know: there's always a little piece of you in my heart. Like the necklace, there are times I've thought it was lost. But it's still there, just waiting for me to find it again.

Monday, March 24, 2014

90 Degrees

I've been through some painful things in my 40 years:

Childbirth. A bone marrow biopsy. A chemo drug that made my veins burn. Mantle-field radiation.  Being required to read A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court in 10th grade.

And I feel I can say, with no exaggeration or hyperbole, that physical therapy following rotator cuff surgery is, if not at the top of the list, a very very close second. To A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

The first two weeks of therapy were splendid. Honestly. After being warned by at least a half dozen people, who had either had the surgery or heard about their best friend's cousin's neighbor going through it, that it makes grown men cry and call out for their mothers, I was pleasantly surprised by how good it felt to have my shoulder stretched and exercised.

"You are a pain champion!" I told myself. "You are going to rock and roll this therapy and show everyone that you are a tough little warrior princess capable of leaping orthopedic centers in a single bound with one arm!"

That was before the pulleys. If me prior to the third week of therapy was rainbows and unicorns and Pharrell's "Happy", me this week has been more thunderclouds and porcupines and Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings."

If the pulleys weren't bad enough, my physical therapist followed that up with 15 minutes of manual stretching so intense I was pretty sure I started to go into shock. It didn't feel like she was just working muscle and tendon. It felt like she was stretching my bone marrow. Possibly my soul. I got cold, developed the shakes, and began to mildly hyperventilate.

"We doing okay?" she asked.

"Yes," I said with my mouth.


Not really, for she is a sweet young lady and she means well and this is all for the greater good and all that horseshit.

I am usually not at a loss for describing anything, but I cannot fully capture what having a surgically repaired tendon stretched feels like and why it hurts so very badly. You wouldn't thing such a thing could cause so much pain. Childbirth pain makes sense because in labor a woman's cervix and a baby's bony head meet and pass and it all nearly defies the laws of physics. Gunshot wounds make sense. Crushed bones make sense. The near-blinding pain caused the first time you raise your operated arm with your non-operated arm with a pulley? It should not make me weep in my car after. But it did. And probably will again. Ad nauseum. I would have preferred five minutes of labor to five minutes of pulleys. Maybe. Probably. I don't know, maybe I should think on this one. Can I get five minutes of sitting-on-a-white-sand-beach-with-a-margarita instead?

The goal with the pulleys, so I was told, was 90 degrees of motion. I haven't had geometry in a while, but I know that's a lot of degrees for a freshly repaired tendon to handle. I got to 85 and begged for mercy, was told unenthusiastically that I'm doing great, and had a bunch of stuff hurriedly typed into my permanent medical records.

I'm guessing my file now says, "Underachiever," "Wimp", and "Low pain threshold." Seeing as how I was always a straight-A rule-follower and game-player, this is hard to accept. But accept it I must. For I feel at this point the only other options available are:

1. Be okay with my physical therapist making like Chewbacca and ripping my arm out of its socket (I know we never see this on screen, but Han says Wookies do this when they lose, and since Greedo shot first we know for sure that Han Solo is a good guy and never, ever tells a lie.) (Sigh.)

2. Take enough Percocet before each appointment to lapse into a hazy halcyon hallucination where pain doesn't exist and HOLY CRAP! Ninjas! (This is lost on you if you haven't been keeping up and don't know that narcotics make me fight ninjas in my sleep.)

So I don't really know what to do except show up, do the best I can, and cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you.

Because shoulders are bitches.

Monday, March 17, 2014


It was a big weekend for the kid. In fact, after this weekend's various beautification rituals, it may not be appropriate to call her "the kid." She may have done gone and raised herself into "young lady" territory.

Nah. She'll always be the kid to me.

Friday was haircut day, a ritual for us the first free Friday afternoon between swim seasons. After receiving her standard cut, my normally shy daughter, who can barely order her own food in restaurants and generally doesn't speak to adults unless spoken to (and sometimes not even when spoken to, if she's in a mood) piped up and asked our stylist for curls for a birthday party she was attending later that evening.

Our hairdresser worked her magic, twisting adolescent hair expertly around a curling iron and applying enough hairspray to give the planet an asthma attack. The end result were glamorous, voluptuous waves cascading down the back of a girl who looked red-carpet ready. When she glimpsed her finished 'do in the mirror, Ainsley's smile said it all:

I am beautiful. And I'm maybe just now realizing that.

There was no reflective surface left unloved on the drive home, and as we saw her off for a sleepover with her fellow swim girls, she radiated a confidence and grown-up aura that made her mother's eyes get a little misty.

Cinderella had exchanged her soot for glass slippers. It won't be long before the princes (and the frogs) come knocking.

As these things generally do, the temporary curls longed for a more permanent companion. After a traumatic ear-piercing attempt when Ainsley was four, a mistake that promptly led her to swear off earrings for seven years, the kid decided to take me up on an offer I made last year:

Whenever you decide you want your ears pierced, we'll do it. Just say the word and I'll take you before you have a chance to chicken out.

Saturday afternoon, she said the word.

This time, there were no tears. Just joy at another rite of passage. And just like with the curls, the transformation was bigger than the act--my pre-teen looked several years older just with the addition of a tiny bit of bling.

I shudder to think of what the first visit to the Clinique counter will do.

When she spends long hours cuddling with Lumpy, her favorite stuffed animal, or making endless arrays of rubber band bracelets with her Rainbow Loom, I can forget that she's on the cusp of womanhood. One foot, wearing a pair of Day-Glo flip-flops, is firmly in the world of children. The other, wearing tasteful but fashionable Sperry loafers, is in the world of women. She still plays the part of "girl" really well. But more and more frequently, the young woman she's going to be peeps out from behind the rainbows, peace signs, and glitter. It's a beautiful and terrifying transformation to watch; once she steps over that threshold, a part of her is lost to her father and me forever. She'll always be our daughter, but there's only a fleeting moment of her life when she's our little girl. It's a sweetness that only lasts long enough to break your heart.

Oh, dear. These next few years are going to be tough.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ninjas In the Bedroom: Why Percocet Is, Actually, a Bad Thing

I'm back.

In case you were wondering, shoulder surgery is made of suck. It's painful. It's inconvenient, due to the ever-present sling. And it's very, very humbling.

Once you've been dressed and undressed by your spouse in a decidedly un-sexy-times way while your upper body is still doused in iodine and covered with a thick white bandage that strongly resembles a 1960s maxi pad, it's hard to pretend to be the strong one in the relationship.

The procedure itself was not the difficult part. And yet I still had every intention in the minutes leading up to the surgery of backing out. It was a little worry stone I kept smoothing in the corner of my pre-sedated mind--You still can run away from this. But then the blue mask came over my face, and I found myself next in a recovery room with my left arm numb and heavy.

My first words, when I woke and found my voice?

"Holy shit. I can't believe I let that happen."

The nurse was not as amused as you might be and showed concern for my mental status, checking my vitals thoroughly before helping me into my clothes and sling.

According to the surgeon in post-op, I really needed this surgery. Once the fancy little arthroscopic cameras got in there, they found that a second tendon was torn all to hell. I was a bigger mess on the inside than I appeared on the outside.

Which is pretty true of me in general, actually.

The nerve block, which made my left arm feel intriguingly like it had been transplanted from a larger, clumsier alien being, made the first 12 hours bearable. And then, as they are wont to do, the nerve block wore off. Spectacularly. Leaving me immobile on my couch for most of the day after surgery, understanding why people in pain pray for death.

And I didn't have too many options in fighting the pain. For I learned that Percocet makes me bat-shit crazy.

I'm already a little crazy in that I have some paranoid tendencies and want to control everything and have an overactive imagination that already sometimes hears the not-there footsteps of  intruders in our home at 3am. Narcotics take all these fun qualities and magnify and concentrate them into one sharp laser beam of crazy. Condensed crazy that my brain plays with destructively like a child who has just discovered how to burn ants with a magnifying glass and the sun.

In the haze of post-nerve-block pain, I took a heavy dose of my prescribed painkillers. Minutes later, I closed my eyes. But instead of dreaming of unicorns and rainbows, I launched into a half-dreaming hallucination that men in dark clothing were descending from wires in the ceiling to do me harm. I came up out of the haze swinging to fight them off. Unfortunately my limb of choice was the left one. The sling kept me from doing too much damage, at least I hope. But the resulting pain was blinding and instructive. Ninjas, it turns out, are tough to beat.

I vowed to let ice and rest do the bulk of my painkilling for the duration of my recovery and have, mostly, kept this vow. Sometimes you just have to choose "sane" over "comfortable." Though occasionally "comfortable" is too appealing to pass up, in which case you warn your significant other that you have taken your crazy pill and to keep an eye out for unusual muttering and behavior. And traveling bands of ninjas. Because you just never know.

I'm working again now, and driving, and more or less self-sufficient. Except that I can't cook or clean. So friends and co-workers have come through with food and I have, for the first time in my life, hired someone to clean my house every other week. I am not proud of this. I am a woman raised in a lower-middle-class family and I feel I have suddenly and undeservedly gone above my raising in a way my mother and grandmothers would not approve.

But that little bit of crazy we talked about earlier includes some OCD, and I need a clean house, so...there you go. I feel bougie beyond words.

Each day will allegedly get easier. Most days I feel improvement; occasionally, I do too much and a day feels like a setback. It can be depressing. But I've gotten through worse.

Much worse.

Spring will come and with it warm sunshine, blooming flowers, and freedom from my sling. I can hardly wait.

In the meantime, I'll just keep surviving. And fighting off the imaginary ninjas as best I can.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Well, that was unexpected.

Never, ever say to yourself, "This couldn't get much worse." Because it can. And it will. And Fate will dump a bag of flaming poo on your doorstep and laugh at your tears.

Last week I found myself the sickest I've ever been in my adult life. With the exception of the whole cancer thing, of course. I had a confirmed case of influenza despite the fact that I get a flu shot every year, wash my hands so often they crack and bleed, exercise, eat right, and take those probiotic tablets that are so in fashion these days. The only thing I can think of that led to me being so sick is that I turned 40 just days before and maybe hit my "Sell by" date. Like that questionable container of sour cream in the back of your fridge, I am in a rapid state of ruin.

The biggest consequence of this illness, besides putting me in touch with my own mortality, is that it has pushed shoulder surgery back a week. I would feel like it's a stay of execution, a call from the governor, except that it simply postponed the inevitable. I'm right back on the Green Mile in just a few days.

I also learned that I am not, actually, Wonder Woman. Like so many working mothers of a certain age, I balance a lot: job pressure, running a kid hither and yon, cooking, cleaning, handling home repair crises, staying in shape, binge-watching trendy water-cooler shows like House of Cards, etc. For weeks, I've battled through ever-present exhaustion to knock out my daily to-do list, sleep and mental health be damned.

So not having enough energy to even get out of bed, let alone vacuum something (though believe me, I tried) forced me to take a step back from my busy life and un-busy it. To accept that sometimes, I need help and rest. To let the husband and the kid take care of me every now and then. To realize that while I am not old and am in relatively good health, I do have physical limitations. I am human, and therefore I occasionally need to stop and breathe.

It's good that I learned this now seeing as how I get to turn around and have another test of my endurance in the form of shoulder surgery in just a couple of days. I've accepted offers of meals from some of my friends. I am hiring someone to help me with the heavier housework every other week for the months after surgery that my left arm will be immobile. I am willing, I think, to let some things slide for a while. I won't beat myself up for not working out (more than physical therapy exercises and walks), for accumulating a little dust, for grabbing dinner at Chipotle instead of cooking something myself. If I'm tired and sore, I'm going to sleep. If I can't fold the laundry, I'm going to pass the buck to the other people who live in my house.

At least, this is what I think now in the comfort of having two good arms. This is all subject to change based on boredom, restlessness, and self-loathing.

If you pray, please pray for a straight-forward procedure with no complications and a quick rehab and recovery. If you are more of a positive-vibes person, please send those my way. If you honestly don't think either of these things work, feel free to send bourbon. Any and all of the above would be appreciated (both by me and by the other adult in my house who will, no doubt, have his hands full, his patience tested, and his sleep interrupted by a sore, grouchy, be-slinged wife.)

As soon as I  can write again, I'll update. With my good cheer and ever-present optimism (sarcasm alert!) enhanced by what we can only hope are really, really good pain meds.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Well, it just all goes downhill from here, doesn't it?

I turn 40 today.

Yes, yes, happy birthday to me and all that. I'll go home tonight and have some cake and open some gifts and be really and truly grateful I made it to this point in my life.

And after putting on a brave face, I'll quietly inspect my wrinkles, grays, and various sags, and weep for the sad fact that I am, indeed, getting old.

I wouldn't feel that way if I didn't have concrete proof that I'm falling apart. A week and one day after I turn 40, I'll have surgery to repair the rotator cuff I inexplicably tore in the fall down my carpeted stairs that I really felt at the time was not a big deal. I didn't want this. But it happened, and two different medical professionals have told me I have to go through with this if I'd like to be able to use my left arm at all in the future, so the first months of my 40s will be spent in a sling, weak, dependent on others, in pain, and making good friends with physical therapists. It's so exactly the opposite of how someone wants to begin that decade that I feel the need to applaud Fate for her creativity and sense of dramatic irony.

After a year or so of good health, a year where I really felt I had taken charge of my physical fitness and nutritional needs and made strides in the war against middle age, I can't wrap my head around losing this significant battle. I've done everything right. But I was still no match for the powerful combination of high heels and gravity.

Damn you, heels. Damn you all to hell.

As I've said several times already in 2014, it could have been worse. Yes, it could almost always be worse.

That will be so comforting when I wake up from surgery next week unable to move the left side of my upper body and my husband has to help dress me, feed me, and wash my hair. So comforting that if anyone dares tell me that, I will hit them. Hard. With my good arm.

I can't help but feel this is just a sign of things to come. That despite my best efforts to look at age as a state of being and not a number, I actually am getting too old to do certain things. I've taken great pride in my relative physical strength the last few years; I can lift furniture, carry heavy boxes, move the solid wooden tables in my library even if the custodians stacked them end over end, relocate bags of top soil from the garage to the chipmunk holes all over our yard, and basically do anything my suburban mom life needs me to do.

Pride goeth before a fall, however. Oh, how it goeth.

I could, technically, get full strength back inside of a year and go back to carrying overloaded laundry baskets up and and down 2 flights of stairs and moving the dresser in our bedroom out to search and destroy stinkbugs. But these things could also have to be put in the "Ask For Assistance Because You're An Old Lady Now" column. Believe it or not, that makes me sad. I want to stay independent and strong and be that person who works her ass off to help others, not be the one being helped.

A part of me also fears that the day I have to ask for help moving the ottoman is the day I start down a slippery slope that ends in house dresses, orthopedic shoes, early-bird dinner specials, and meeting the girls for water Zumba followed by warm tea and nap time. It's the beginning of the end.

My 30s were eventful. I went through some shit, but everything I went through made me physically and emotionally stronger. I built calluses and muscle and coping mechanisms and discovered craft beer. My 30-something years made me tough.

And I worry that my 40-something years will make me soft.

So, in the coming weeks, if I do not write, it's because I have one arm in a sling and have taken a lot of pain meds and am in general letting myself go in the name of healing.

Send good thoughts and positive vibes and prayers if you're into that sort of thing. This old gal could use all the help she could get.

See you on the other side of 40.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Glass Houses

One thing I shouldn't be surprised by, but am, is how very ugly people can be behind a veil of Internet anonymity.

Click on the comments section of any major news story published online and you see it--hateful words spewed for strangers to read. Words that go beyond merely being one person's informed opinion. Words meant to inflame.

I firmly believe that most of the commenters would not say these same words out loud to another human being whom they could actually see and hear. Even complete assholes don't, generally speaking, walk up to a stranger on the street and tell them they're going to hell, don't deserve to live, are the scum of the earth, etc., etc., etc. Besides taking massive balls, throwing hate in a stranger's (or politician's, or celebrity's) face could very well end with the speaker getting his or her rear end handed back in a rather bruised and battered condition.

But in the comments section? Choose a clever name and don't give away your location, and no one will ever know the dark thoughts that lurk in your heart and occasionally exit your fingertips via keyboard.

And when something terrible happens to a public figure, the worst of the worst comes out.

As anyone with a television, social media account, or eyes and ears knows, a talented actor died last week at too young an age from an apparent heroin overdose. The first reactions I read were of sadness--a talented man, a friend, a partner, and a father was gone. That inspires, in those of us who are human, a largely sympathetic response. We may not have known this person in real life, but most of us paid money at some point to watch him on the silver screen. As many times as Twister has been on cable, I'd guess we've all invited him into our homes through our TV screens. For the most part, early reaction was at least a "Well, that sucks."

Within an hour, some reactions became, "Guy was a loser who had it coming." "Another addict dies. Shocking." "Good riddance." And these were the gentler negative responses.

Perhaps I'm just going soft now that I'm older. But an early death of a productive member of society seems deserving of my sympathy rather than my scorn or hateful words or, worst of all, a smugness that things are going so well in my world that I can judge others for their addiction.

Here was a person who did not make the news daily with DUIs, drug possession, and public intoxication. This was a guy who got nominated for acting awards for nearly every role he played because not only was he talented, but he took his job seriously and behaved professionally on a movie set.

I'm sure in time tabloid media and entertainment magazines will publish the full story and we'll find out that (spoiler alert) he was kind of a crappy dad and partner while he was high. Addicts generally are. But that doesn't mean those he left behind didn't love him, won't miss him, and do not have good memories from the times he wasn't under an influence. I'm going to go out on a limb and say the deceased was, more often that not, a rational human being who did not want to be found dead next to drug paraphernalia.

Emphasis on that whole "human being" part.

If you have read this blog for any amount of time you know that I am the daughter of a man who battled addiction for the majority of his life. Most of us who come from addictive families see this not as a character flaw, but as a disease. A gene that, thank God, most people do not have.

But that's a hard talking point for people who have never seen addiction up close and argue that it comes down to self-control and choices.

The first drink is absolutely a choice. For some, the many drinks that come after that are a need. A craving I can only understand because I watched it tear my family apart. And one that I've grown to have sympathy for because I saw my dad actively fight it and try over and over to stay sober. And fail every damn time because the alcohol was stronger than he was.

Does that make him weak? Probably. Does it make me angry? Yes. Does it make him a bad person who would have deserved an early death by overdose, a loser whose death shouldn't make anyone pause? No. I do not think so.

Addicts die as a result of their addiction. That is a fact.

And if they didn't make the tabloids on a daily basis with their bad behavior, if they were nominated for awards for their profession, if their colleagues spoke respectfully of them even before their untimely death, if they leave behind a family to mourn them...are they still lesser human beings, just another addict?

I personally have a hard time seeing it this way. Had my father died from an alcohol overdose (as he very nearly did once) instead of from cancer I still would have been in grief and I still would have needed support. His death would still have felt to me and to those who loved him like an injustice.

"Good riddance" would have dismissed the good in his life along with the bad. It would have dismissed me.

I know it makes no difference to anyone who posts a comment. It makes no difference to the people I follow on social media, some of whom are my friends whose opinions I respect something like 99.9% of the time.

But it makes a difference to me. And therefore, behind my own shroud of relative anonymity, it needs to be said.

Before you throw that stone, think of whose glass it might break.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Out of the Woods

I walk up the stairs to the familiar offices on the second floor. I visit this building twice a year on good years, more often in those years when I've felt a lump or a bump or had a scan come back slightly awry. It's not the same building I started this journey in; that was a tiny office down the road whose clientele quickly outgrew the space. Cancer, it seems, is big business these days.

No matter how many years have passed, I still get nervous before each checkup. It doesn't make sense, when seated in a room full of women wearing head scarves or wigs and men so weak they need wheelchairs or walkers, that I would be the lucky one. The survivor. The one who beats it. It comes with a guilt to sit among these faces and hear my name called and know that my emotions when I leave this place are going to be so very different from these others in my tribe. I have a lot in common with the other men and women in this waiting room. But the one difference, the big difference, is a hard pill to swallow.

I've been cancer-free for ten years and will survive. Too many do not.

The faces at the front desk and at the nurses' station where I get my blood drawn and my blood pressure checked and my weight measured have all changed. I don't know if the faces back in the chemo suite have changed; I haven't been back there since my initiation all those years ago. Is Fran, the nurse with the big laugh, the one who cried with me when my veins had hardened and made the IV preparation a Herculean task, still there? I want to know, and yet I don't. This is a hard job, and no one seems to do it for very long. I'd like to think Fran is still charming both those with hope and those without. But I'd also like to think she took a well-deserved permanent vacation to a tropical beach home with plentiful rum. Chemo nurses have earned such luxury.

The one face that hasn't changed is my doctor. He doesn't so much enter a room as charge through it. He is aggressive in every sense of the word; he speaks loudly, he doesn't tolerate bullshit, and he doesn't play nice with his prescribed treatment plan. He wants to kill your cancer. That simple. He's not there to comfort and coddle. It was off-putting at first, because I was young and my cancer diagnosis was tragic and I just didn't get how he couldn't see how very sad this all was. But he grew on me.

Much like, well... a cancer.

I eventually learned that he has a sense of humor. An exceedingly dry one. After all, this was the person I ran into at the frozen margarita booth at a church festival several summers ago.

"I hear those things give you cancer," said a voice behind me.

Not everyone gets to have a cocktail with their oncologist. But I highly recommend it.

As always in our appointments, the "How have you been?" questions are followed by a long silence. He is a thinker and a studier who pores over his notes from last year and my tests from this year for a full five minutes before speaking. I've learned not to interrupt. I won't know what his conclusions are until the end of the physical exam, which has become like a choreographed dance: I raise my shoulders so he can check the nodes above my collarbone, I swallow hard as he checks my thyroid, I raise my elbows slightly and relax my shoulder muscles as he checks under each arm. I inhale and exhale. I lost my modesty many years ago when it comes to medical personnel, so I barely bat an eye as my entire body is scrutinized looking for unusual growths. I remind myself to breathe those times that he spends a little longer in one area of nodes, or checks the same area twice. I tell myself that he's just being thorough and try not to sweat and feel slightly ill.

Sometimes it works better than others.

Today, after the chit-chat and the exam, he goes back to my chart. This is unusual. He hasn't spoken in several minutes, and I prepare myself for news. Good or bad, I'm not certain. But I feel as if something has changed.

"Would it break your heart if I said I think this is the last time I need to see you?"

Oh. Oh. It has been ten years, and I know this means I'm cured. But I'm not ready to let go yet. I will always, always be afraid. There was a monster under my bed once, and even though we've slayed it, it's still there. I've seen enough horror movies to know that sometimes the monsters come back. And they bring friends.

I have no idea what to say. I've become co-dependent. I need to hear every year that I'm okay. I need to watch the instant CBC machine analyze my blood and get the results placed in my hands. I need that appointment card on my fridge, giving me a date I can hang something concrete on. My immune system has seemed a little weak this year, but I see the doctor in January, so I can ask about it then. I've felt a little pain in my upper right side that I'm worried might be my liver; the doctor can check it for me in a few weeks. I sometimes think I feel a lymph node in my neck; good thing I see the doctor this summer. These appointments are my touchstones. It's like tagging home plate. I can't let go.

But it's time. And I know I must.

"It might break my heart. But I think I'll live."

He smiles. I smile. I get a quick reassurance that the door is always open if something comes up, and that I will still be seeing the radiation oncologist once a year to deal with the side effects and risks from that part of my treatment. But the radiation oncologist has only known me from the point my cancer was already in remission and I just needed some rogue cells mopped up. That's not the person who saved my life and made me whole. This guy is. But I know it's time to say goodbye.

"Yes," he says. "I think you'll live, too."

I gather my things and walk out of the room. The doctor turns immediately into another exam room; his work is far from over today. The receptionist smiles when she sees that I do not need to make a follow-up appointment. I walk down the stairs and into the cold winter sunlight.

I'll live.

Friday, January 17, 2014

You never really understand a person until you fall down a few steps in her shoes.

Another paper to file away in the "Why can't I just be like other women?" folder.

This one says, "Suspected proximal bicep tear (partial)" and is my receipt for a little trip I took this week to an orthopedist after another little trip I took down five of our living room stairs.

After last week's fun-filled basement water extraction adventures, I felt the need to make a grand return to form at work on Monday and don a pair of my mother's high heels. Any time I want to feel professional and semi-attractive, I turn to one of two pairs of her shoes that actually fit me. And wonder, after just an hour of wear, how in the hell that woman trounced around in elevated shoes every single day of her adult life.

For, when it comes to stylish but painful footwear, I am not my mother's daughter. I have neither the ankles nor the will for it.

In this case, I really should have just stuck with my cowboy boots.

Midway down the steps leading from our bedrooms, a heel caught in the hem of my dress pants. I knew I was going down. My brain had just enough time to form one thought-- "Oh, SH*****T!"--before my body succumbed to the stubborn forces of gravity. I do have a fighter's instinct, though, and I vaguely remember bracing myself and hanging on to walls and banisters and carpet for dear life in an attempt to, much like Sandra Bullock's character in a recent motion picture, pull off a win against earth's sucking.

I admitted defeat when I found myself curled on my back in our entryway, nearly fetal, hoping my padded ass broke most of my fall.

It initially seemed that it did. Except for a left arm that felt weak, as though I had just performed a bicep curl with a refrigerator, I felt none the worse for wear. Jason helped me up off the floor, as he so often does, and I completed a day of work. IN HEELS. Though I think it goes without saying that this will be the end of that.

24 hours after the fall, the bruises and the pain began to appear. By lunch on Tuesday, my left shoulder and bicep muscle spasmed and burned. A call to my doctor's office for advice led to a referral to a local injury clinic where I was told that I may, indeed, have a bit of a problem and that in some point in my tumbling down the stairs, I must have fallen onto an outstretched left arm.

I don't remember that happening, but the pain and weakness I felt during the shoulder exam tells a different story with not as happy an ending.

Fortunately (or un-, depending on your personal view on Vicodin) I do not have enough pain to need the bad (good?) drugs. I don't even need a sling. Unless the MRI I'm supposed to have but am thinking of cancelling BECAUSE DEAR LORD THEY HAVE TO INJECT DIE INTO MY SHOULDER JOINT shows a more serious injury. But I doubt it will, because it truly feels like the tear is starting to heal. In fact, the only things that still aggravate the pain and make my left hand go all tingly are typing, texting, and driving.

All three of which I'm doing right now because I'm Catholic and like to suffer. Kidding! I'm not really Catholic anymore. (Kidding again. But barely. And I am still typing.)

Everything will heal eventually except  for my pride, which may be permanently damaged at least as it pertains to my ability to wear nice shoes. I couldn't even navigate stairs in them; my mother, at my age, worked 8-hour days in a beauty salon wearing them. The woman will never cease to amaze me, even now that she's gone.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with some Alleve. And perhaps an MRI machine.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Standing on the edge, contemplating the view

I almost wrote a post last Tuesday night about The Ledge.

The Ledge isn't a physical place. But I go there from time to time, just the same. It's the brink I reach in my mind sometimes, when life circumstances or chemical inbalance or the sad slant of the winter sun colors everything in my world in blue.

After the coldest day in 20 years here in Kentucky, and after a delayed start back to school and to a normal routine following our holiday break, and after a Christmas that for some reason I just couldn't get behind and enjoy, I found myself once again on The Ledge. I stood there, looking down into the chasm, knowing that I was only one step away from the darkness, but also knowing that stepping into it was a choice I was not making. I would pull myself out. Winter would become spring, routine would save me, and I would soon be able to step far, far away.

But then on Wednesday a frozen pipe burst in my home while I was at work, and my finished basement flooded, and mother nature and bad insulation came up behind me and gave me a forceful push. And suddenly The Ledge didn't seem like such a light-hearted little view on depression.

Sh*t got real.

If you're keeping score at home, this was the second basement flood in six months. But the first one, in the bright glow of hindsight, was not bad. We called an emergency restoration crew, they worked to dry us out, and 72 hours later we were able to move furniture back into place.

72 hours from this flood, and we are nowhere close to moving furniture back into place. I don't know how many more hours we're looking at, but my guess is...many. A lot.

I'm forcing myself to look away from the darkness and into the bright side, which contains these things:

--We didn't lose anything that can't be replaced, like pictures or family heirlooms or my lightsaber.

--The damage is covered by our homeowner's policy.

--We got further proof that our neighbors are good people who come through in times of crisis and offer tequila afterward.

--I learned that my kid is rather unflappable, like her father, and therefore a calming presence in the face of her mother's general tendency to flip the freak out.

I'm able to look at the bright side for about five minutes at a time, or until I have to enter my basement laundry room to start or finish a load of laundry, and then the hyperventilation at the mess left behind and the noise of industrial fans and dehumidifiers becomes cloying again and I have to breathe into a paper bag that once held a bottle of (you guessed it) tequila. What I think I'm saying here is that it all comes back to Patron in the end.

The damage has felt like a loss. Like one more thing in the past couple of years I've been forced to grieve. I've been through all those stages before and recognized the white-hot anger I felt when I learned that the previous owners finished the basement so beautifully but didn't insulate one outside corner. I recognized the denial I felt when my eyes told me there was water pouring into the basement but my hands wouldn't believe it until I forced their contact with the water-logged carpet. I recognized the bargaining, the sadness.

And when I finally got to acceptance, roughly 48 hours after the initial incident, I recognized that, too, the way one recognizes an old friend.

Things will eventually be fine, as things so often are. For that's all the basement is: a thing. It could have been so much worse.

As for The Ledge...well, I'm still standing there. I started to fall in, but there were many hands offered, and strong people to lift me out.

It's up to me now to will my feet in place and begin to back away. The first step is always the hardest.