Saturday, October 29, 2011

Homeschool Sale

One of the great things about the homeschool community is that you never feel obligated to brush your hair when you hang out with them...pajamas are considered formal wear...you never feel like you're being judged...you're never subjected to unsolicited advice on child rearing or pedagogy moms are pretty generous about the items they are no longer using. They are usually happy to either donate them or sell them for a very reasonable price. I've acquired a few items this way and try to contribute to this cause whenever possible.

The best loot usually comes from the moms who have completed their homeschool journey. I was looking over just such a list recently when I started to consider a time when I might have a similar list of items to post. I'm hoping we're a long way from there, no matter what you've heard me scream from the room where I'm sitting now, but if I were having the sale tomorrow it would look like this:

  • One dog-eared copy of "The Well Trained Mind". Includes significant amounts of hand crafted marginalia done in pen and ink. No extra charge. (One example: next to paragraph on scheduling first grade is printed in an emphatic font, "HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!") Smells slightly of garbage from the time I threw it in the garbage only to retrieve it 2 hours later. And from the other time I threw it in the garbage but regretted it almost immediately.
  • One dog-eared copy of "The Well Trained Mind: Second Edition". Same notes apply.
  • One dog-eared copy of "The Well Trained Mind: Third Edition". Same notes apply.
  • One copy of "Screamfree Parenting". Never opened.
  • "Ecoutez! Parlez!" French program. Years 1 - 3. Year One gently used.
  • "Escucha y Hablemos!" Spanish program. Years 1-3. Year One gently used.
  • "Sprechen und Zuhoren!" German program. Years 1-3. Never opened.
  • " " Chinese program. Years 1 - 3. Never opened.
  • Slightly used copy of, "Learning to Write is FUN!" Pages 1-4 used. Some tear stains on page 4. Some ghosting from where I had to erase the word "NOT" from the front cover.
  • One copy of "Teaching Craft Projects is FUN!" Some tear stains on page 4. Some ghosting from where I had to erase the word "NOT" from the front cover.
  • Several bottles of wine. Empty.
  • Pencils of every variety. All are guaranteed to provide some kind of impediment to getting the work done in a timely manner.
  • Unlimited lead bits fired from the tips of mechanical pencils. Some are still embedded in my face which will add to estimated ship date.
  • Every coloring book published by Dover. All unused.
  • Seventeen jillion dictionaries. All unused.
  • One t-shirt. Adult small. Says, "I SAID TO LOOK IT UP!" Slightly shredded.
  • One pack of cigarettes. Unopened but shows significant wear.
  • One Page-A-Day Latin Phrases Calendar. 2009. January 1 - 10 missing but otherwise complete. Also available for years 2010 and 2011.
  • One "Hot for Teacher" coffee mug. Slightly inappropriate.
That is not even close to being a comprehensive list but I have to stop because I'm getting sentimental. I'm glad my children are still very young and that we have so many more pages in so many more subjects to mark with our blood tears effort. I find, as I write this, that I'm not ready to even think about parting with any of these things yet. Even the mug.

Especially the mug.

And the cigarettes.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hello, My Name Is?

This weekend marked the advent of my life as a woman in her 40s. I find myself in need of a label. Let me stop you. I need a label. I'm a labeler. In my perfect world I would be allowed to walk around with a huge stack of those "Hello My Name Is" stickers and just fill them out and slap them on everyone I encounter. You might be "Tends to Go On About Not Needing Labels". Or, "Doesn't Vaccinate". Or "Thinks I Don't Know She's Getting Botox". Or, "Gave Birth To Me". Whatever. Just something on which I can hang the rest of my interaction.

In my quest for a label, I actually did a google search for "forty year old woman". Don't do that. That was worse than the time I wanted to have a Dick and Jane themed birthday for my one-year old. *Shudder*

There are a lot of way to describe a woman in her 40s but I'm not in love with any of them. There's "mature". I actually like that but in the past week I've told at least four jokes involving the word, "balls". I'm pretty sure that disqualifies me from this category. There's "cougar". I don't really care for this one although turning 40 does usher in a newly bewhiskered phase of life that makes it accurate on some level. That's all I'm going to say about that.

There's "matronly". I do wear a lot of grey but very few of my shoes are truly sensible. Well, there are the clogs but they are all lamé or animal print. There's "40 and fabulous". This is popular mostly because of the aliteration. But it's too gimmicky and the hard sell smacks of desperation. There's "of a certain age" which isn't bad but suggests that I could be much older than I already am. There's "premenopausal" but that feels a little too personal and directs the eye in a downward direction in a way that makes me a little squeamish.

"Past Her Prime", "Over the Hill", "Commercially Irrelevant" and "Almost Dead" are out for obvious reasons.

So, I'm still looking.

I've already written about embracing turning 40. I knew it was coming. I had time to prepare. I wasn't anticipating any problems. I popped a calcium chew, was retinoled up and felt ready to cross that bridge but as I put a foot on the first board I paused. In my anticipation of saying hello to 40 I had forgoten about saying good-bye to my 30s.

And I had a moment.

My 30s were good to me. In my 30s, my face lost its youthful moony roundness and I finally got some flat planes and stopped looking like an infant. People stopped dismissing everything I said right away and actually listened to me before dismissing it. I was nursing for nearly the entire decade which gave me a functional quality that I certainly didn't possess in my 20s, when my primary purpose was decorative in nature. I was pregnant a lot which provided me with lots of opportunities to be forgivably imperious - and eat ice cream by the quart - that was fun. I had a houseful of babies and teetered on the edge of madness most days making it not entirely different from my twenties in that way, actually, only with much better furniture and much better hair.

I was leaving the gym when it hit me. I had just finished my work-out and had tossed on my jacket and headed to the stairs that lead out of the club. I thought, "This is my last work-out of my 30s." And as my foot hit the first step, my 30s ran before my eyes like a movie reel that had been hooked up to a jet engine. I saw anew each slimy, pink newborn placed on my chest. One screaming, brown toddler pushing me away in terror. A realization that Life is Beautiful wasn't just an adequate movie but a succinct summation of all the everything. That time I threw a carafe of coffee across the family room in the kind of rage I find it much too tiring to muster these days. The time shortly after that when I had to clean it up (now I remembered why we got rid of those white slipcovers). 9/11. My grandfather. My father-in-law. My sister-in-law. My great-grandmother. My brother's wedding. The arrival of his children. My husband turning 40. My father turning 60. The movie stopped as I pushed open the door and stepped into the crisp morning air.

I probably looked like it was just any other day as I walked to my car in the post-dawn mist that morning. Not like I was leaving behind a entire decade's worth of events and friends and family. I let the sudden heaviness I was feeling drop away with each stride. By the time I got to the car I had recovered. I mean, my hair still didn't look great but I was feeling better.

I was ready to start a new decade that will be characterized by my changing role as my family gets older and we shift away from babies and toddlers to whatever comes after that. It will contain its own joys and losses (don't worry, I'm sure it won't be you) and will (hopefully) be looked back upon nostalgically by a future version of me. And I hope I can say for my 40s what I can say most emphatically about my 30s and not at all about my teens and 20s...I would do that all over again. Every minute.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Surprise!

I'm an old fashioned girl. In a way. I prefer Jane Austen to science fiction. I prefer Beethoven to Beyoncé. I make my kids say "Mr." and "Mrs.". I like black licorice and black jelly beans. I say, "For Pete's sake." I don't think pajamas have a sartorial place outside of your designated sleeping zone. I call viewing a streaming movie, "Watching a video."

And I'm not really into technology and gadgets. I mean, yes, I have an iPhone but it isn't the version that came out last week. I'm satisfied with my version 4 (with the iOS 5 update). Still, I'm willing to take advantage of technology from time to time. I don't churn my own butter, for example.

My niece is going to have a baby. Let me stop you before you exclaim, "But you can't be old enough to have a niece who is going to have a baby!" Because you were going to exclaim that, right? I thought so. She is my niece by marriage and she is only 10 years younger than me. When I met her she was just a kid. About 14 years old. I remember looking at her beautiful young face and thinking, "Dang. This girl is like six feet tall. What is the deal with this family?"

Funny story. My niece, henceforth to be known as Mist (as in the Valkyrie of the same moniker), came to visit her Uncle Thor and me when she was about 16. I took her into the shopping district of the little town where we lived at that time and met a friend of mine there. As we walked down the street my friend suddenly laughed.

"What?" I said looking around.

"That guy," my friend explained, "He saw us and started to check us out. His eyes went from me to you to Mist like a pinball machine. Like, 'No. No. Bingo!' You can't win against youth."

I was not happy. For one thing, I didn't know I was in this game. For another. I didn't know I was supposed to be trying to out-hot my teenaged niece. For another, I hate losing. And finally, at 26 I was horrified to realize that I was reaching a place where I couldn't just rely on the glow of youth to attract unwanted stares from strange men. I was going to have to bring more game or pretty soon there wasn't going to be anyone on the receiving end of my disgusted eye roll filled responses to being checked out.

Mist is now older than I was when I had that revelation. Also smarter, more grounded and still taller than I was but most importantly - older. And she's going to have a baby.

I don't go to the baby place anymore so I often forget the things that are important in your world during that time when your focus narrows to the tiny pinpoint that is Baby. I encourage this narrowing of focus. Be single-minded in your pursuit of excellent parenting. We don't live in a time that encourages us to narrow our focus at all let alone honing it in on something outside of advancing our own comfort. And if it gets to be too much focus, a second child usually fixes that.

But when she and her husband - I'll call him Samson because I haven't had the chance to get to know him that well outside of my observations that he is kind and patient with my children, loving and sweet with my niece and he has great hair - decided not to peek at the baby's gender, it did raise an old debate topic when I told this to a friend and that friend responded with the standard, "Oh, how nice. A surprise. There are so few surprises in life anymore."

Now listen. I've done this both ways. With my first child, Thor was rather insistent that we not learn the baby's sex before seeing it for ourselves. I reluctantly agreed even though I found the logic to be extremely flawed. For one thing, there is no shortage of surprise. Life is one hellish surprise after another. One day when I was 15, I left my house to go to a baby sitting job and when I came home I found out that my father had had a massive stroke. Surprise! Once, the phone rang and when I answered it a voice told me I had INRTAT. Surprise! One time, I was taking a walk with my niece and found out that I wasn't hot anymore. Surprise! See, what I'm saying? I'm good with the surprises. I'll take the Venti Guarantee Extra Certain.

And, I'll be frank, the least surprising thing that happened to me that day, which started with me waking up in labor (surprise!) was hearing, "It's a girl!" There was a 50/50 shot.

This is how I got the big news. I was numb from the waist down but I could still feel stuff. Bad stuff. Basically, people were doing bad stuff on me that was unpleasant but I couldn't get away because my legs didn't respond to my commands to move. I was the size of a small whale which was appropriate as I was definitely beached, I was out of my mind high from the narcotic I had been encouraged to take, my legs were splayed open in a room full of strangers and suddenly someone was pulling stuff out of my body and saying, "It's a girl!"

"Oh my gaw!" I shrieked, "How can you tell?"

"What? No! That's the placenta. She's over there being weighed."

I looked in the direction the nurse was pointing but all I could see was my doctor, framed by the enormous expanse of my thighs, hunched over my nether region.

"Are you...sewing?" I asked in exasperation.

"It's a girl!" she exclaimed.

"Stop saying that!"

I'm kidding about the placenta. That didn't happen because my body didn't deliver the placenta on it's own (surprise!). Two nurses had to punch me in the stomach for 15 minutes first. You think I'm joking but I assure you that I'm not.

Compare this to the day in the OB's office when I found out the sex of my second child. I had been anticipating this day for ever since I found out I was pregnant again and I said to Thor, "We're doing it my way this time!" Before she told us the doctor asked, "Do you have names picked out?"

"Annabel for a girl. Henry for a boy." I beamed.

"Well, then I'm glad it's a boy," she said, "My kids' 4H pig is named Annabel."

I very deliberately chose efficiency and competence over bedside manner when I made this particular decision so I had to let that slide.

It was nice to get the news when I wasn't stoned and being pummeled by nurses who I suspect were enjoying that a lot more than they ought to have been. I had the whole day to revel in just this one piece of news. And I could distribute or withhold the news as was my wont. I mean, if I had control issues I could have done that.

I actually don't think that one approach is superior to the other. While I preferred finding out, there's a lot to be said for not knowing and thus not mentally constructing your child's entire life before you've even met them. And I'm glad I experienced it both ways. I just don't like when people get so smugly superior about electing to wait. In general, I don't much care for bragging about NOT doing stuff.

I didn't write this (just) because I really want to buy stuff for Mist and Samson's baby but I can't because I have to wait until I know whether to buy pink or blue (remember, I'm old fashioned). And I didn't write this to scare the bejeebers out of Mist about the impending delivery. Not even out of some kind of primal revenge for being the catalyst in my awakening to the fact that I wasn't YOUNG young anymore. I honestly don't think I could scare her. She's tough and she doesn't scare easy. I've always admired that about her and I can't wait to see her put it to good use in her new role as a mom.

I wrote this because I needed a way to tell her that.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Hardest Hue

I love this time of year. Take all of the usual love songs to fall, add a big scoop of pumpkin pie and a hot mug of cider. Mix until just combined and that about sums up how I feel. I have nothing new to add to this recipe so I won't even try. I will say that sometimes I'm not feeling all the red so I'll substitute a little turquoise. It's okay. As anyone who has ever read the comments thread of an online recipe can tell you, red and turquoise are no more different from one another than butter and the beaks of 6 baby penguins. You can swap one for the other at any point without significantly altering the results.

I also hate this time of year. I have to start running indoors. At the gym. On a treadmill. There are people there and even though I keep running I don't get any further from them. Outside I can be reasonably certain that if I have the misfortune of an interpersonal encounter it will be satisfyingly brief. Not so at the gym. And the gym is full of troubled souls. When I look just the right way in the mirror on the treadmill I can see all of us and I want to go down the line and go completely Oprah on every one of them. It would sound like this:

Ma'am, your work out would be a lot more convincing if you weren't performing it in what appears to be your bra and underpants and full make-up. And, if you were actually running. And if the treadmill were on. And you, Sir, I can smell your feet through the normally secure odor-border of socks and shoes. That's either a medical issue or a hygiene issue. Either way, people have been killed for lesser offenses. Or so I hear. That's not a threat. Just to be clear. Just in case my parole officer...never mind. Miss, how old are you? Twenty? Eleven? Whatever. You can slow down. We can all see you're very fast. How great for you. I used to be fast. See all this? This is you in a thousand years. Sobering, isn't it? Not so smug now, huh? And you, Lady of About My Age, you can relax too. You're going to get bursitis. It's okay to eat a piece of cake on your daughter's birthday. You don't have to punish your body for an hour the next morning. Sure, the old grey mare she ain't what she used to be but you really need to move past that and be nicer to yourself. And, hey, I have those shoes. Don't you love them? And we're wearing the same top. And shorts. And...wait a second...wow. These mirrors are really clean. I wonder what they use.
But even if the weather and the dark mornings didn't drive me inside I think the Halloween decorations would. On my favorite route someone has elected to string up disturbingly realistic effigies from their trees. The first time I saw them I caught my breath as they swayed menacingly before me while I chugged and huffed up the hill in the dawn hours. I got literal chills even though I was pretty hot and sweaty by that point in my run.

And these poor souls have been up since the end of September. I don't understand loving death that much. So much that you have to get a head start in peacocking your depraved notions of folly. What drives that? You know what, don't tell me. I won't understand.

I've never liked it but it didn't bother me as much before my grandfather died. He died on October 20th and I was grieving his death at a time when reminders of death were everywhere. I would drive around my neighborhood, sobbing, and have to quell the urge to run up to the houses and tear down the effigies and the tombstones and the skeletons. Now, six years later, the destructive urge has passed but the churning in my gut on seeing these displays remains.

I didn't go to my grandfather's funeral. Big mistake. Don't miss the funeral, Kids. Even if you're pregnant. Even if you're in shock. Even if people you trust convince you to stay home. You should not spend your grandfather's funeral sitting in a dark cantina on the other side of the country. While he gets a full military funeral you shouldn't be staring out the window at the driving rain while a tinny and frantic version of "La Cucaracha" plays on the sound system. It will make you sick to your stomach to type it out even years later. Go. Just go.

It was Thanksgiving when I went to my grandparents' house for the first time after he died. I love that house. I've already written some about the time I spent living there. One of the things I loved most about that house at that time was how absolutely quiet it is there. Between the acoustic ceiling and the thickly padded wall-to-wall and the heavy drapes you couldn't hear an elephant running from one end of the house to the other unless you put a bell on him first. Bumping into a fellow housemate as you turned the corner was a regular occurrence.

Which is probably why I spent the entire week expecting him to turn up at any moment. I thought I'd see him come padding around the corner into the kitchen to warm up his coffee in the microwave. He'd absently say, "Hi hi," and then disappear just as noiselessly until his coffee was cold again. Or maybe he was out and if I just watched out the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows in the family room I'd be able to see his car turning into the driveway any second.

At some point I found myself in my grandparents' walk-in closet. Just looking at his clothes. The beautifully pressed shirts and slacks. The elegant sport coats and sweaters. He was so trim and tidy all his life and his closet reflected this orderly nature. I was startled when I heard a voice behind me say, "You're looking for him, aren't you?"

"It's okay," my grandmother said, "I do it too." We cried almost silently together for a while. She looked frail and tired. I felt frail and tired.

When Thor and I got the kids into the rental car to head to airport I was already wrung out. Leaving my grandmother had been painful and draining. I thought I was too tired to do anything but sleep but as we backed down the driveway I felt my throat tighten and a rising sense of panic. I started wailing, "He never showed up! I kept thinking he might show up!"

Maybe it seems like a lot of anguish for a grandparent. Grandparents die. Unless things go horribly wrong you should bury all of your grandparents and you should be prepared to do so from the time you can really grasp the concept of death. But I felt completely unmoored by my grandfather's death.

Maybe because he had saved my life. Maybe because one day, on the brink of true despair I had made a solitary effort to reach out to someone and dialed his number and said something so alarming that he drove 5.5 hours to collect me within 12 hours of hanging up the phone. I have never doubted that this gesture alone changed the course of my life. And he had remained a kind of talisman to me ever since. And now he was gone. I knew I'd be okay in time but it hurt like hell in the moment. Even though it wasn't that unexpected for a man in his 80s to die and even though things were happening the way they're meant to happen.

Even now there are moments when the wound is so shockingly fresh that it feels like a brand new injury. These moments are mercifully infrequent but exquisitely painful. And I had one of those moments when I was chugging up that hill and saw those bodies swaying in the trees like some kind of perverse, evil fruit. I was instantly transported to that awful Halloween, that dank and musty cantina, the impossibly orderly closet and the long ride to the airport.

So I ran faster up the hill until it peaked and leveled and turned me toward home and then I slowed down a little. I shook out the creepiness and agitation at a red light while cars filled with drowsy early birds ignored me. And by the time my foot hit the front porch the gaping wound of a few miles back had closed again and I had mostly moved on to mentally prepping for my day. But I recalled this poem just before I walked through the door:

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
-Robert Frost

Friday, October 7, 2011

Coloring Inside the Lines

We don't do creative here at the Aquitaine Academy. We do structure. We color inside the lines. We think inside the box.

Even on art days there are rules and guidelines and not just the free-wheeling slathering of paint on paper that's encouraged by most institutions for learning. I picked our art program in part because the instructor on the video tersely mocks the typical child's artistic interpretation of a tree. "That's not a tree," the instructor says witheringly, "That's a lollipop." Sold.

Creative writing? Sure. On your own time. I don't spend valuable resources teaching that. There's outlining and sentence diagramming to be taught. I'm fun like that.

My kids, most kids, don't need to be taught how to be creative. They need to be taught how to sit their asses down and follow directions. And, they don't need to be taught how to think outside the box before they even know what's in the box.

I guess if there were a symbolic setting for my little home education endeavor it would be in that box.

Why? Is it because I hate creativity and art? No, that's not it. I'm looking forward to the day when I surprise them by suddenly and without warning lifting the box. And then watching them blinking and squinting into the light I'll ask, "Now what?"

So if that's not why, then, why?

It's because this:


is even more impressive when we know that you can also do this:



but you chose not to. And knowing that it was a choice makes us listen to you more closely than we would have if we thought you just couldn't paint people that look like people.

I have a print of the second painting hanging in our home. It reminds me that even though my own mind tends to live in the world of the first painting, my obligation to my children is to stay in the realm of the second painting for now. Our world is increasingly full of people given to the free expression of their every thought and desire and it becomes daily more apparent that so much time was spent on "teaching" them the process of expression that there wasn't any time to fill them with anything worth expressing.

I submit the following:

Hit show:


"Best Selling" Children's Book:


Fashion Icon/Pop Superstar:


To be fair, Gaga has some range. She can also dress like this:


And what expresses our free spirit and independent-mindedness more than an outfit that requires us to have full-time assistance when we wear it?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Ten Best Things My Mother Taught Me

My mother (happy birthday) gave me a lot of advice over the years. Most of it was immediately ignored, debunked or stowed away for a time when I could act in direct opposition to it. Here are the 10 best things she taught me. Almost all of it paraphrased and some of it isn't even taken from what she said but what she did (#5). And almost all of it is true. *


10. "It's more important to be valued for your intellect than your beauty...is something that ugly girls will try to convince you is true. Don't fall for it. Stand up straight, get the Dorito crumbs out of your hair and put on some lipstick. Also, it's time for us to just accept that those things are never coming in and get you a padded bra."

9. "Don't tuck your thumb unless you want a broken thumb. Put your weight behind it and make sure you land it the first time. If they recover. Run. You're too small to win a fight. I don't understand why you're so short. What are you doing wrong?"

8. "Out there, people will tell you that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. That's total crap. If you practiced 24 hours a day every day for the rest of your life you still couldn't be an NBA star. I mean, look how short you are. Why are you so short? Anyway, figure out what you're good at. Then do that. Then let me know what it is because nothing's jumping out at me."

7. "Don't dress like a slut and then act shocked and offended when people think you're a slut."

6. "It's not that we don't love you. It's that you're not very likable. Not everyone is likable."

5. "When life gives you lemons, take life by the neck hair and jam one of those lemons into his piehole, knee him in the groin first and then the face and go get yourself a bag of oranges. Or those little clementines. I like those."

4. "A well-placed dart is the secret to getting a really good fit."

3. "You need to learn when to keep your mouth shut, Smarty Pants."

2. "You can't go into espionage, you Dummy. Look at you. You could never blend into a crowd. Don't even try."

1. "A stitch in nine saves time. What? It is. But that doesn't even make any sense. Whatever. It's a stupid saying either way."

*If you know my mother, please do not tell her that I wrote this. Thanks.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Prometheus Unbound: Part IV: Please Ignore the Eagle, The Attention Just Encourages Him

Recap: After 10 years of worrying that the condition inflicting constant cumulative damage to my liver might someday advance to cancer, I got the call telling me that there were indeed troubling spots on my liver. When last we met, I explained that while waiting for a definitive answer from my doctor I received instead a recommendation to relax and wait 6 months, at which time we'd take another peek and see if the spots had changed at all. I have spent the last three posts attempting to express the absolute depths of my despair at learning that my worst nightmares might be coming true. I have repeatedly mentioned the anxiety and fear and the crying and the grief and the nausea, um, ad nauseam as it were.

Admit it, you're a litte bored by the melodrama of it all, no? I mean, I know I was. In the first days after learning that I would have to wait 6 more months to find out anything definitive about the spots, I tried to maintain the same feverpitch level of sturm und drang, but after about a week I was exhausted and just so over myself. I don't remember if this is the case but I hope that at some point I realized that if I kept going at that pace everyone I knew was going to be secretly rooting for the cancer.

Not that there weren't epiphanies. We'll get to those. But the epiphanies came later. "Later" as in after the 2 months of the rending of garments and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Before the epiphanies I had to go through that awkward moment when the mood has passed and you're standing there in the middle of the broken glass, holding a sledgehammer and asking with Urkelian sheepishness, "Did I do that?"

It helped that the life I had "set aside" to deal with this crisis wasn't having any of that. It put on its "Nobody puts Baby in the corner" t-shirt, shoved me out of the way and kept doing its thing. I had no choice but to keep up with it.

I had a lot of talks with myself. The most important one went like this:

Me: What if you do have cancer? You can't change that. You can't worry cancer away. If it turns out that you do have cancer you are going to start feeling really terrible, really soon. You might have less than 6 months of good health left. Is this really how you're going to spend it? Really? Because if you have cancer you can certainly choose to spend your final days curled up in a ball, crying your eyes out and quoting Hemingway but you could also be doing something more productive. Damn't. WE could be doing something more productive. Either way, we're going to be dead. In fact, here's a little secret I've been saving for a moment just like this one: no matter how this liver thing turns out, you die at the end of this story. You can choose your own adventure but they all end the same way.

Me: I bend down to pick up a quarter and fall off a cliff?

Me: Nooooo...think for a minute.

Me: Oh. Ohhhhhh. Oh my gah. You're right.

Me: Duh. You're an idiot.

Me: But you think I'm pretty, right?

Me: Meh. You have your days.

Well, no, I was not going to spend my final days like that. Not just that, but I redefined what "Final Days" meant. Because they are all final days. You don't get any of them back once you've used them up and if you waste one, you can't make it up later. And, besides, it's later than you think. I spent the next 5 months learning how to live fully but striving for an authentic experience. Not a life overshadowed by the spectre of an early death. I didn't want to feel guilty every time I yelled at my kids just because I might die. I didn't want to shelter them, I wanted to challenge them and equip them with the things they would need to make their way through the world without me.

I wanted to stop ending each day going down a list of things I'd meant to do or to try or to see or to read but not be able to check off a single square. I wanted to stop talking about wanting to be in good physical condition and actually BE in good physical condition. I started going to the gym and eventually took up running. I reconnected with my inner athlete and together we push this old body as hard as it will go. I ran 13 miles just to see if I could. I was the only runner on the course and there were no corporate sponsors but it was still pretty sweet to walk into my house and announce that I was going to take a shower and then eat everything that wasn't poisonous or on fire.

I stopped being afraid to fly. I had real things to be afraid of now and they were camping out in my body. I didn't have the energy to be afraid of cancer AND be afraid of flying. Something had to give and I didn't have time to drive everywhere I wanted to go and my kids didn't have time to wait for me to stop being a wimp so we could experience the world as a family.

My frequently bothersome and occasionally crippling chronic anxiety all but disappeared. Turns out that you can take all that generalized anxiety, harness it and direct it at one thing until you get bored and take up a new hobby. Like running. Or traveling. Or pie. Oh, it's a hobby. Don't even go there.

I exchanged my old guiding philosophy of, "Oh, like you're any better?", for the less abrasive, "We'll sleep when we're dead."

And at the end of the 6 months when I had the second MRI and the doctor called with a smile in his voice and said, "Soooo, the good news is that the lesions are stable. However, we need to follow up again in 6 months because this is still not definitive.", I didn't go to pieces. I said, "Okay then. See you in 6 months." And 6 months after that when the ultrasound revealed a BRAND NEW THIRD LESION, I didn't spend the next 2 weeks in bed. And 6 months after that when the third lesion "disappeared" I didn't dwell on it for hours. And the 6 month intervals have just kept coming. Which is why I was surprised that it had been 4 years because I really expected an answer by now.

And even though I get a little anxious and morose a day or two before my ultrasounds or the regular blood work that has also been a constant in this whole story, it isn't the same as the old days. I can't fling myself around a room in despair like that anymore. The knees just won't cooperate and I have bursitis in my right hip. Which reminds me. This series hasn't actually been about cancer, or INRTAT or my journey to learning how to live. It's really been about turning 40, which I am poised to do this month.

There might have been a time when I would have had to "accept" turning 40. Where I would have grumbled about the lines on my face and the gray in my hair and the way that no number of tricep dips completely eliminates that tell-tale wobble when I wave to you from across a room. But that was a different time and at THIS time I couldn't be more delighted to be 40. I wouldn't dream of ironing out a single wrinkle or line. And you know, I can wear sleeves.

But, I'm not letting my gray show. I'm happy to be alive but only with hair that's brown all the way to my scalp.

In Shelley's 4-act play, "Prometheus Unbound", he revisits the ancient Greek story of Prometheus and Zeus in which, you know, let's not do this. Life is too short to pretend I know anything about this play other than the part where Prometheus is doomed by Zeus to spend all eternity having his liver eaten by an eagle and then gets set free somehow. My story is a little bit different in that, while we are both freed from the bonds that held us back from being fully alive, that stupid eagle is still following me and pecking at my liver. And eventually, only one of us is going to emerge ultimately victorious in this battle. But, in the meantime, while he's stuck eating tiny bits of my liver I'm devouring this life, one pie at a time. And I don't see how that's not winning.



Prometheus Unbound: Part III: Confronting the Eagle

At this point in the story, I find that I have to go back through my medical records to sort out the timeline and, in doing so, I am surprised to read that this all took place not three years ago but four years ago. I don't want to give away the ending but you've probably already guessed that I didn't die. This isn't being "ghost written" as my friend, Melissa, hilariously suggested. Nor is it being publish posthumously. No. Based on the absurd amount of laundry that's awaiting me this morning, I am very much alive. Or, my personal circle of hell involves a never diminishing pile of laundry making it so similar to my life that one need hardly worry about making a distinction. Either way, the reason why I was confused about the dates will become clear at a later time.

The wording of the original report reads something like this: "...two echogenic foci in right lobe of liver measuring approximately 7mm in size...differential consideration would include a hemangioma but given the history of INRTAT, malignancy cannot be strictly excluded..."

Two weeks and one failed CT scan after getting the call from my GP, I went for an MRI. Then I went to Starbucks. Then I went home and waited.

And waited.

The week or so that I waited to get the results was awful. I felt nauseated most of the time. Cried constantly. Spent hours playing one macabre scenario after another in my head. And decorated the house for Christmas.

I have two very distinct memories of this time. In the first, I am struggling through the haze of my anxiety to decorate the Christmas tree with the kids. The carols are playing and we're having a generally good time and I'm even kind of forgetting that I'm waiting for a call from my doctor. Except that I don't really. I understand that liver cancer is a bad one. The survival rate is low and most people diagnosed with it are dead inside of a year. These are the exact thoughts I'm having and I wonder if this is the last time I'm going to do this. I look at my kids and wonder if this is the year that they'll remember as their last Christmas with their mother. I suddenly realize that my youngest child, who is bouncing excitedly around the room, is still much too young to preserve any memories of this day. I feel like I've eaten a bag of stones and I think I might pass out.

In my second memory of this week I am at a meeting of my book club. I don't want to be there but I think it might serve as a distraction. Only one person in attendance is aware of what's happening with me. In general, I've kept it to myself. The conversation turns to a mutual friend of some of the other members. A woman who has died of cancer in the not too distant past. The woman who knows my situation turns to me and says pointedly, "It is such a terrible story. She was so young and so angry about dying. She wasn't ready to die. She never came to peace with it. Not even at the very end." I don't know how I managed to sit absolutely still with a hundred-yard stare on my face until the meeting ended but I did. Then I drove home and cried for 2 hours. Thor still cannot mention the woman's name without getting angry.

It's funny but all these years later, I cannot recall getting the phone call. You'd think I would remember the call that told me that I didn't have cancer. But I don't. At all. Probably because, that call never came. The call that I got went more like this:

"So, it doesn't LOOK like cancer, for sure. In fact, it looks like not-cancer. But, we just can't be sure. And we can't do a biopsy. Because if it's not-cancer and we cut it, you could bleed to death. So what we do is we follow it. If it gets bigger - probably cancer. If it doesn't change - probably not. Okay? So we'll check it again in 6 months and see what it does."

Gobsmacked. I had been waiting for one of two answers. This was a third possibility that I had never even considered. SIX months? Six months of no answers? Of not knowing? Of panic attacks and crying jags and uncertainty and a gut full of stones and a constant bitter taste in my mouth? Six months of monitoring every inch of my body for some sign of cancer?

I spent the next several days trying to figure out how in the name of all that was good I was going to get through the next six more months of this agony. I had put major portions of my life on hold for the past month or so while all of this had been transpiring with the idea that at the end of it I would either pick things up again and proceed in good health and high spirits, or, not. How could I do all of the things I needed to do everyday for the next six months when I was in a constant state of inner, and often outer, turmoil?

Well, I couldn't.

So, I didn't.

Next: S#ck It, Eagle



Saturday, October 1, 2011

Prometheus Unbound: Part II: MRI? No, MRU.

So, why would anyone be afraid to get an MRI? You go into a machine get some pictures taken and then you go home. No big whoop. Unless, you know, you don't like to be confined to tight spaces and/or you are familiar with the story of the boy who was killed in an MRI machine when, following his successful battle with a brain cancer, someone left an oxygen tank in the room which was violently sucked into the cavity of the machine when the magnet was activated.

I may have focused on that last part more than necessary given the odds but the overall message I was working with was: MRI's are scary and dangerous. And sometimes they take pictures of your cancer.

Speaking of cancer, what were the odds of me having liver cancer? Well, the average person has about a .6% chance of developing liver cancer in their lifetime. With INRTAT my chances are about 20x that. So, the odds of me not having liver cancer were in my favor. But, if you're the average person, I like your odds better. And given the low risk of ending up with INRTAT to begin with, once you've been told you've beaten the odds of NOT having it, you start to understand that the numbers don't always matter that much. Once you've drawn the short straw you never look at straws the same way again.

It's hard for me to convey how deeply committed I was to my fear and anxiety during these weeks. It was hard to get out of bed. I lost weight because I couldn't eat. I'm not going to say that there weren't moments when I was kind of digging the weight loss but as soon as I'd start to enjoy it I would remind myself that it was probably the cancer causing the weight loss. And then I'd think, "At least I'll be super skinny when I die." Then I'd cry.

Thor took me to the MRI but he spared met he humiliation of coming into the MRI room. I tried not to let on to the staff how afraid I was as they handed me the gown and directed me to a changing area. I'm not sure what I said but it was probably something like, "Nervous? Why would I be nervous? It's just an MRI, right? No one dies in there or anything. Do they?" Followed by 10 minutes of nervous snort-laughing and some mild vomiting.

Going up to the machine I tried not to make eye contact with it or stare into its gaping maw. I looked down at the dolly they would use to slide me into the tube and noticed...

"Wait, are those straps?"

"Oh, those? Yeah."

"Forrrr...?"

"We gently secure you to the table."

"Is there a chance of me falling out? I'm pretty good at laying down. Practice as much as possible. Majored in it in college. Haha."

"It's just better this way."

Well, not exactly like that but something like that. And then there I was. Strapped to the board. Marveling at the absurdity of it all. Then they threw a heavy white sheet over me. I imagined it was just an efficiency measure for when I died in the machine. I begrudgingly approved because I admire efficiency. Then they stuck me with an IV.

"I hope that's not iodine this time. Haha."

"No."

Then the tech vanished behind a wall and a disembodied voice spoke to me.

"We're going to slide you into the machine now. If you have any problems just tell us. We can hear everything and can stop at any time. We will have some instructions for you while you're in there. Ready?"

Uh. No?

But it had come to this, me, strapped to a table under a heavy sheet with a needle in my arm and sliding effortlessly into a tunnel that could cut me into a jillion slices without breaking the skin. I found myself wishing I'd read more sci fi because nothing in my many repeated readings of the works of the Bronte sisters had prepared me for this. My guiding philosophy of asking, "What Would Jane (Eyre) Do?", was of no use to me now.

My mother, not having raised any fools, made her presence felt when I followed my instinct to keep my eyes squeezed absolutely shut. I was relieved to feel a cool breeze on my face and I imagined that I was outside. It was quiet. Really quiet. Quiet in a way that I don't experience a lot as a mother of (at that time) three young children. For half a second, I was really enjoying this. Then, to my dismay, my hand and my arm and then my mouth got really hot and weird.

"Okay, we're about to start..."

"My mouth feels funny."

"Like what?"

"Hot and kind of tingly and dry. And my tongue might be swelling. You know I'm allergic to iodine right?" I started to panic.

"Oh, that's the IV. I meant to tell you that might happen. It's normal."

"Yeah, I'm not sure that's the word you're looking for."

"Okay, then. I'm going to take some pictures now. Sometimes I will need you to hold your breath. I'll tell you when to let it out. If you can't hold it as long as I need you to that's okay. Go ahead and breathe."

"Breathe as needed. Got it."

"Okay. For the first pictures just breathe normally. Here we go."

I settled back onto the board and waited to hear the click of the first picture being taken.

Here's another thing they neglected to mention. The MRI. It is loud. Really. Really. Crazy. Loud. So loud that I thought something had gone horribly wrong. My next thought was, "Great. We're being attacked by the Death Star and I'm strapped to this stupid board with my light saber back in the changing room." Then I laughed. Because, really there was nothing else to be done.

If you haven't had an MRI, go here, scroll down to the clip called MRI sounds 4. That's what I heard.

I was in that machine a good long time. About 30 minutes. Thirty minutes of breath holding and exhaling slowly and squeezing my eyes shut and monitoring my body for any more signs of allergic reaction and trying to remember anything my brother might have said about how to behave if I was ever taken hostage by the Empire. When it was over, the tech praised me for my accelerated breath holding techniques. I had gotten an A in MRI. I smiled happily for a second until I realized that I was being an idiot. But, you know, once you've been conditioned to salivate when you hear the bell it can be hard to shake that instinct.

I stepped out of the hospital and demanded to be taken to the nearest Starbucks. I felt light and free as a bird. My ears were ringing like crazy but I didn't care. The MRI was over. All I had to do was go home and wait for the results.

Oh, yeah. I had almost forgotten. I got into the car.

"You did it!" Thor said happily.

"Easy for you to say. You don't have cancer," I snapped.

"YOU don't have cancer."

"You don't know that."

"I don't but we do know that it is very likely not cancer. Right?" Thor said gently.

"You know what I'll miss most when I die from this cancer? Not being able to see the look on your face when you realize that I was right and you were wrong. God, I hate cancer!"

Thor is very patient with me.

Next: The Results Are In


Prometheus Unbound: Part I of the Series

It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving three years ago when I got the call for which I'd spent the previous 10 years waiting. I knew who it was and I thought I knew what he was going to say. It was my doctor. And he said, very quietly and carefully,"Heeeeeeyyyyy, Zelda. How are you?"

That's when I knew that I had only been right about the first part.

"So, the ultrasound? It shows you have 2 tiny, tiny spots on your liver. We just want to get some more images of these. They're probably nothing. Probably just some clusters of blood vessels. But, we should check."

I understood. He was right. We should check. After all, I had spent the last ten years being monitored for a condition (I'm Not Ready To Talk About That Yet - INRTAT) that carries with it a high risk of liver cancer. The ultrasound was part of the monitoring. We had been looking for liver cancer. So, yeah, probably a good idea to follow up on these spots on my liver. Made perfect sense.

I tried to stay calm only I really didn't try to stay calm. That's just a thing people say. What really happened was that my inner cave person took over my body for me so I could collapse in a corner of my brain and throw up there for a while. My chronic tinnitus flared dramatically (it's a bit of a drama queen) and my head was buzzing with the noise of it and was swimming with cortisol.

"Is it cancer?" I asked simply.

"Probably not. But we should look to be absolutely sure. My office will schedule a CT scan for next week. In the meantime, don't let this ruin your Thanksgiving."

At this point, you might think this paragraph will describe how I didn't touch my food from being sick with worry but if you've read my previous entries here you will realize that it would take a lot more than a fear of dying to keep me from eating pumpkin pie. Like actual death. Even then, I don't think we can say for sure. We just don't know enough about what happens after we die. I like to think that pie is still on the table.

Still, it did ruin the Thanksgiving I had intended to have which was one that did not include me thinking about liver cancer every 30 seconds. But it didn't ruin Thanksgiving. I mean, not that anyone has mentioned. I don't remember anything but the pie part.

After that Thursday, I was a wreck. A wreck. I cried a lot. I was often overcome with anxiety. I was short with the children. You know, so that they wouldn't suspect something was wrong. I realized that the only thing that would alleviate my suffering was an answer. I focused everything in me on that scan. I couldn't get the CT done soon enough. I even happily chugged the half gallon of chalky disgusting possibly irradiated tracer fluid because I wanted the thing done and drinking that stuff was doing something other than waiting. I actually felt good as I showed up to the appointment early and had the gown on in a flash. I sat at the edge of the table looking at the tray and the IV. IV?

"What's in there?" I asked.

"That's the iodine solution."

"Oh. That's not good. I'm allergic to iodine."

And that's when they sent me home.

I walked through the automatic doors of the hospital and started for my car but I passed by an empty bench and it occurred to me that this would be a good place to sit down and sob openly for a while. I made some calls. I have friends that I call when something goes horribly wrong. Some of them I call because they are deeply empathetic and will cry with me. Some of them I call because they will lend a few kind words about my despair and then ask, "So, remember that brownies recipe you mentioned? Did you happen to bring that to the hospital with you?" I call them for perspective. To get out of myself and put my focus back on externalities. I called a combination of these friends during this crisis and we all managed to pull me together enough to go home.

And wait. For two more weeks until I could get an MRI.

The good news about going for the MRI was that I stopped being so worried about the cancer because now, I was terrified of getting an MRI. I spent the next two weeks vacillating between dry heaves and cold sweats. And, can I just say this, thank goodness for the internet at times likes these. It really opened a dialog between me and my husband during this time. It usually went something like this:

Me: So, this person at soyouthinkyouhavecancer.net says that they had a similar finding on ultrasound.

Thor: Oh, yeah? What does he say about it?

Me: Nothing. He died.

Thor: Please stop reading that.

Me: Stop telling me what to do! I have cancer!

Thor would want me to tell you that these were long weeks for him too but because he didn't think I had cancer his stress was of a different variety. He had to be very careful of everything he said. Here's why:

Thor: "Do you think you could drop off this dry cleaning on your way by there this afternoon?"

Me: "Sure. Do you think I should do that before or after I die from cancer? Probably before, huh?"

Or.

Thor: "I'm going to refinance the house since interest rates have dropped."

Me: "I'm sure your second wife will be glad to hear that. You know, when you remarry after I die from cancer."

See what I mean?

Next: The MRI.