One Small Thing

My daughter is home sick today. That’s kind of a good thing, because as she lay up in bed with a fever that keeps her supine and sleepy, I am forced to stay home and get something done.

Like writing.

My writing “process’ has been ridiculously sporadic to the point of being non-existent. In my writing class at Grub Street I keep touting the effectiveness of waiting for inspiration to grab me versus sitting my butt in the chair and just writing. Every published author says the latter is the way to actually get writing done and re-done. I am not sure why I think my way is better since I have yet to be published or even finish anything worth publishing at this point.

I am being lazy.

I want it to come easy–I want the  words to  flow like a springtime river from my fingers onto the page without any needed revision or correction. Words that will cleanse and refresh. Sentences that will be quoted. I daydream about my book, it’s structure and content and when it is subsequently made into that cinematic blockbuster starring…oh I don’t know, Michelle Pfeiffer?

My oldest son is the same way.

He wants to succeed at hockey and baseball, even after three knee operations, without a lot of grueling, sweat-inducing training and practice. I continually tell him that he needs to work harder if he wants to make an athletic comeback but he only focusses on how it “used to be” and what a great athlete he was before his knee problems.  He daydreams about being accepted to college on his athletic merit –being the star center-fielder on their baseball team, taking them to the championships.

And dreams are wonderful.

Where would we be without our dreams.  But dreams without hard work are like diet without exercise, or ant-depressants without therapy. Neither works alone.  Dreams don’t come true unless we actually get up and do something about them. Conversely, toiling away day after day without vision or purpose only leads to depression.

There are more reasons than I can count why any of us do not work towards our own dreams.  Why some of us actually sabotage our own efforts in the quest toward happiness. Too often we are caught up in daily tasks but isn’t that just an excuse for our fear of succeeding or our fear of failure? I can fill my days up with many, many tasks, from cleaning the kitchen to shopping to making necklaces and suddenly the day is gone and I haven’t written a word on the page.

Or I can get to work, sit my butt in the chair and write something.

Which is what I did today. I tried to think all morning about what I wanted to write –something timely and poignant–but no substantive words came into my head.  So I decided to just start typing, and here, I’ve written a slightly cohesive piece on dreams and hard work.  It wasn’t a huge endeavor to sit down and start typing. It was a small thing.

So do one small thing today that gets you closer to your dream. Always wanted to be a nurse? Sign up for one class.  You don’t have to go back to school full time. Just one class. But work really hard at that one class. Next semester take two. Want to become a runner? Lace up your sneakers and run a  mile.  And then work really hard at increasing that distance.

What is the worst possible scenario? You decide after a few classes that you don’t want to be a nurse but maybe pharmaceuticals are in your future.  Or you don’t love running but you’ve lost some weight and learned to exercise on a regular basis. In my case, I write a book and no one reads it. So what.  I wrote it.  And chances are it was hard work but that I felt wonderful while I was writing it–especially the last chapter. And then I have fulfilled one dream, which will inevitably lead to another dream–and in the process I have learned how to work toward something meaningful.

Because, really, what else are we supposed to do here, if not fulfill our own dreams?

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Changing Paddles in Mid-Stream

When I went to see my oncologist, Dr. Anderson, yesterday for my 6 month check up, I was hopeful that after 2.5 years of taking the drug Tamoxifen(one-down), that I could ask to be taken off of it since almost 3 years seemed “good enough” to me.

Dr. Anderson laughed at me. I was serious.

“Actually, we need to switch you to an AI,”she said.  She flinched. I actually saw her flinch, waiting for my response.  A little like when I tell my husband how much I spent on  the new couch, or the rug, or my new coat….but it was on sale….

Here I was, thinking I could see the end of the tunnel with all this medication and treatment. I had become accustomed to the side-effects of Tamoxifen–I’d settled into the hot-flashes, learned to dress around the extra 10 pounds that stubbornly clings to my mid-section, and figured I could handle this drug for 2 more years if I had to.  Switch me now? To get used to a whole new set of problems?

“No way,”I whined, “I really don’t want to do that.”

“I know you don’t, I’m sorry, but you have to.”

Let me explain. AI, as Dr. Anderson so coquettishly calls them, are Aramotose Inhibitors like Arimadex, Femara, Aromasin .   They do the same thing as Tamoxifen by blocking estrogen but supposedly they are more effective in post-menopausal woman. Am I post-menopausal?  Not sure, since my speedy slide into the post-menopausal world occurred as a result of chemotherapy.  Is chemical induced menopause the same thing? No idea.  But Dr. Anderson seems to think that with all the new studies out now, an AI is more effective in preventing a recurrence in my cancer than Tamoxifen.

Unfortunately I had already done my homework on this drug.  Where Tamoxifen gave me hot flashes and leg cramps, the AI group causes severe joint and muscle pain coupled with debilitating exhaustion and insomnia. It will make me old and dried out like a prune and suck the life out of my bones making fractures and osteoporosis  real concerns. The side-effect that really freaks me out though is it’s adverse effects on the heart.  (Increased-Risk-of-Heart-Disease-in-Postmenopausal-Women-With-Breast-Cancer-Taking-Aromatase-Inhibitors-77908-1.htm)

“It’s only for 2 years,” she said.

“That’s a long time to be in pain.”

“If you stay on the Tam(her pet name for Tamoxifen) for 5 years then you’ll have to do an AI for 5 additional years.  You don’t want that. Switch now and you just have to finish out the initial 5 years.”

“What if I just, don’t?” I asked, trying to stand up to her. “What if I refuse to take the AI?”

“Listen, I’ve seen her2/neu cancers come back in 5 years,6 years,7 years. You don’t want that. Trust me, if this comes back it’s far worse than any side-effects from the drug.”

She had me there.

“I’ll give you six months to stay on the Tam. When you come back in September, we’ll check your hormone level and start the AI.”

“Ok. Maybe by then they will have an even newer study out saying I DON’T have to take it.”

Again she laughed at me. I was serious.

In the meantime, I have some work to do. If I am starting this God-awful drug in September than I have a busy summer ahead of me. I have been wavering about signing up for an Olympic distance triathlon (3/4 mile swim, 26.5 mile bike,6.2 run) but I think now I am just going to do it.  There is one on August 27th which will give me a couple of weeks to recover from Pan Mass and most of the summer to train. I am not sure how this drug will effect me but I am not taking any chances.  I may not be in competing mode for 2 years or I may be too tired to train, and after that, who knows.  I may have to take a few years off.

After 2 years on the AI, I will be 50–and I get to sign up for races in a whole new category the 50-55 age group. A much easier group than the 40-49 one I am presently in. Hopefully this medication will work well enough to keep the cancer at bay long enough to allow me to stick around long enough to race in the 60+ category.

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It’s all in Your Head…Or, How the Black Keys got me through a 1/2 Marathon

I ran my first half-marathon yesterday.  This has been on my to-do list for a very long time, along with finishing my book, completing an olympic distance triathlon, and biking across country. One step at a time here, though…I attribute two factors to getting me through this race: Personal pep-talks and my music.

A half marathon is 13.1 miles. I didn’t think I would be able to do this, since the longest race distance I had run up until yesterday was  a 10k(6.2 miles)–the half marathon seemed way out of my league.  And then there was the problem with the  training in the worst winter we’ve seen around these parts in many years. Trying to get in long runs between the snowstorms and the bitter cold was certainly a task.   The sidewalks were completely impassable which forced me out into the road.  I was as fearful of the angry drivers, who on more than one occasion, sidelined me into a snowbank, as I was fearful of slipping on the ice.  I had hip pain and achilles pain and worried that these injuries would cause me to have to terminate my running for good.  Everyone said that I should train on a treadmill but as any runner knows, it’s just not the same. Not to mention that two hours running on a treadmill is enough to make you go insane with the boredom.

So yesterday I drove to Hampton Beach with my friend Julie.  A brisk 14 degress when I left my house at 8:00 that morning with a Northwest wind of 22 miles per hour. Great. But at least it was sunny. I complained much of the ride about how I was never going to be able to do this run. Without Julie’s matter-of-fact  attitude that she has toward all races, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to pull this off.  “You”ll be fine– you can do this,” was her mantra to me, over and over to the point I was sure she wanted to punch me in my whining face and push me out of the moving car.

I knew the key to finishing this race was my pacing.  In other 5k’s, 10k’s, and sprint trithlons I am in race mode–always worried about beating my previous time.  When those races start I am usually out of the gate fast and furious, trying to pass as many people as I can at the beginning.

I knew this tactic would not work for the distance involved.  So I started out slow and steady, keeping my pace. What I noticed was that I was still passing some runners, without even trying.   By the third mile I thought, ok, this isn’t bad, I just have to do this distance four more times… just keep moving.

I began giving myself a pep talk around mile 5. Come on, I said to my self, you have been through so much worse than this, you can do this. I pictured myself in the chemo chair for hours at a time and remembered how hard it was to watch and feel that poison going into my veins. I thought about the many weeks I was not allowed to run, or too sick to run. This silly run should be a piece of cake, I told myself. By mile 6 I was still feeling strong.

After mile 7 two things happened. Once I passed the half-way mark, I realized that I had less left to run than I already had finished and I also knew that If I stopped to walk at this point than my legs would start to tighten up.  I knew I had to keep going. I did the math over and over in my head– 7 miles down/6 to go. 8 miles down/5 to go. I can so do this.

There are some runners who claim that real runners don’t need to listen to music while running.  Well, if that is indeed true, than I am not a real runner, because without my music I would never be able to run to the corner and back.  There are particular songs that simply keep my mind occupied enough that I don’t concentrate on how much my lungs hurt and others that get me so fired up I could run up mountains effortlessly.

At mile 9 we turned a corner and began the run back along the North Hampton coast line. The incredible views of the sparkling ocean to my left beneath a crisp clear sky and the fantastic mansions to my right kept me going. It was at this point my music became so important.  And this song poured into my ears: 

And suddenly I wasn’t tired anymore.

At mile 11, I knew that I only had 2 miles to go, but I also knew that I had never done more than 10 1/2 miles in training so everything after this was more than I could do.  My thighs were burning and although I was lucky that both my achilles and my hip were still pain-free, the bottom of my right foot felt weird and it was getting increasingly harder to move my legs. But I was saved by the Black Keys:

This put a strut back in my step long enough to get me to mile 12 and then I knew I had really done this.  I picked up my pace enough to pass a few runners while singing out loud:

And then, Edward Sharpe took me over the finish line….

Ooh, ahhh, Yeah, ya,ya,ya…..

I saw a lot of people running without music.  I would love to know how they do that, what kind of pep-talk they give themselves.  These runners may not consider me a true athlete because I wear an I-pod but I say, the fact that I even finished a 1/2 marathon makes me enough of a real runner as anyone–to me at least, and that’s all that counts.

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Tongue Tied

When I passed you in the cereal aisle of “Stop and Shop” I smiled. You scanned the labels, Life, Cheerios, Kix , while your husband pushed the carriage; the knit blue cap that covered your hairless head, a beacon of pain.  “I’ve been where you are,” I wanted to say, “I understand how you are feeling.” But I didn’t say anything, I just smiled at you, hoping you would smile back.

You didn’t smile back at me. Why would you? You probably felt self-conscious. Maybe you thought this long-haired woman was being rude to stare at you like that.  There was no indication that I had been where you are. No outward sign.

And you were probably tired.  So very tired.  But the shopping still needed to get done, because you had people depending on you at home. Children, teenagers that maybe felt bad for you but mostly were concerned with themselves and complained that there was no food in the cabinets when they got home from school.

Maybe you felt nauseous too, and queasy.  It’s hard to smile at strangers when you’re trying to get through the grocery list while your stomach is doing back flips and the inside of your mouth tastes like metal all the time. You needed to stay focussed.

But I remembered another woman on a day like today two years ago at another grocery store, in another aisle. As I leaned into my carriage, willing the turbulence in my belly to settle long enough to get me home, this woman did approach me.  “I’ve been where you are,” she said, “You will feel better, believe me.”

It’s what I wanted to say to you, to make you feel better like that woman had made me feel better, but I didn’t because I thought you would distrust my concern. Also I thought maybe this wasn’t your first time through. That maybe, just maybe, you had already recovered once and now your disease had returned. In that case no reassurance from me was necessary. Because then , if I told you that you would get better, it would be a lie. My recovery would be like salt in your wounds, not reassuring at all.

So I gathered my groceries and passed you again on my way to the register, and this time I did not smile.

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Three years Ago Tonight….

I couldn’t sleep.

I called old friends who I hadn’t talked to in a while; just in case.

I hugged my kids harder than usual.

I stared at my self in the mirror, and tried to imagine how my chest would look, afterwards.

I scanned the internet for pictures of mastectomies and stalked on-line chat rooms reading about complications that could happen in surgery.

I laid out my clothes for the morning drive to the hospital and packed my bag with the special bra they had given me to wear after the surgery, a shirt that buttoned in the front, and my fleece slippers.

I prayed to my Dad to keep me safe.

I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything after midnight.

I still thought that maybe it wasn’t really happening to me and that someone had made a terrible mistake.

Three years ago tonight, my life changed forever.



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On the Grace of God and High Horses

Once upon a time there was a little boy named Cody. (I am working under the assumption here, that the reader understands that ‘once upon a time’ predicates that what you are about to read is fictitious–a compilation of many different kids simply used as examples).Cody lived in an upper middle class suburb with his parents and his four siblings of various ages. Up until a few years ago, Cody was a happy, well adjusted kid who played in the neighborhood and went to school on a regular basis. But then Cody’s Dad lost his job  when the economy went south and his mother has been trying desperately to juggle the bills on a zero income budget. Cody’s parents are dealing with other problems with Cody’s siblings so he is somewhat left to his own devices on most days. As things got worse at home,  Cody began to retreat into a world of fantasy and anger–emulating the world around him.  He was suspended from school for carrying a knife into his middle school building.

Susie lives on the other side of town. Susies’ parents are recently divorced and her mother was just diagnosed with lung cancer. She hates spending time at her Dad’s apartment because she doesn’t particularly like his new girlfriend but since her Mom is so sick with her treatments it is necessary for her and her little brother to sleep at her Dad’s more often. Sometimes Susie cuts herself ‘a little bit’ just because it makes her ‘feel better’. Susie skipped class a lot and spent many of her high school hours in the girls bathroom, away from the inquiring eyes of the teachers, who Susie thought hated her as much as her Dad did.

Joey comes from a 2 parent-2 job family that from the outside seems quite “normal” . Joey is an only child, who spends a lot of time alone because his parents both work late hours. He is very lonely and gets scared in their big house but wants to feel like a man so he never tells his parents about his fears and would usually stay up very very late until they got home. Joey ‘s parents were called in because Joey was continuing to fall asleep in his 5th grade class and not doing his homework.


My mother had a saying among her repertoire of cliches–“There but for the grace of God, go I”. This she mumbled quite often over the years. She would say this whenever she saw a fellow human in despair, down on their luck, someone worse off than herself. It’s really just a fancy way of saying “better you than me.” Oddly, she had enough of her own problems to fill a whole church–dragging seven children through adolescence she saw her share of drugs, alcohol, car accidents, skipped school, police visits, fights and failures. Enough that would have given our neighbors reason to mumble their own form of thanking God when looking at our house.

When I was first married, before I had children, I was adamant about how I would NOT raise my children.  I preached to my childless friends that I would do it differently than my own parents, and how other parents I knew were wrong in their approach. I would be aware of my kids at all times, always there for them and ever-present to their needs without spoiling. When my first son was born, I thought I had it all figured out. I would pay attention to everything he did, take him places, expose him to museums and culture, keep him busy, love him, hold him accountable–basically do everything, RIGHT. Sleeping? Well, only lazy parents let their kids sleep with them. Eating? Only fresh home-made baby-food for me. Diapering?  Cloth of course.

This is a wonderful ideal, and exactly, I believe, what all new parents set out to do.  And honestly it’ s easy to stay under this umbrella of maternal righteousness until life gets in the way. By the time my second and third child came along my kids were eating french fries in their Pampers as they crawled into bed with me.

And then they grew up. Just like the old ladies in the grocery store, who would stop me to coo at my little baby, said would happen. “Oh just wait, you think it’s hard now? Wait till they grow up?” And they’d walk away with a knowing look on their wrinkled faces. “Yuck,old people.”

But they were right.   These little kids that I could mould and pursude, grew into super-sized teenagers with ideals of their own, often quite different from mine.

At some point over the years as my kids grew I changed my attitude from thinking I was the only one who did it RIGHT, to thinking I was the only one who did it WRONG. There were times, looking around, when everyone elses kids seemed to be on the right track while mine were still waiting at the station. Extracurricular activities began to pile up in my attempt to keep up with the Jonses, and the Smiths, and the O’Mally’s.  “Why can’t you be more like, Timmy,” I’d say, in an attempt to guilt my son into joining the debating team in his spare time between hockey, work, and school.  If Timmy can do it why can’t my son? His parents must be doing something right. Why were their kids so focused and mine were not? Why is my daughter so rude to me when her little friends seem so nice to their own moms? How come Judy’s house is spotless and mine is a mess?

The danger in this kind of thinking lies in it’s opposition. If I allow myself to believe that others are doing it right and I am wrong than my only chance at survival is to seek out parents who are doing it even WORSE than I am. Look for those families in crisis whose kids are being singled out for “bad” behavior, so I can justify my own parenting skills.

Luckily, not only did my kids get older, so did I. And now I have become like those yucky old ladies in the grocery store. But here’s a grand secret–with age comes wisdom–great comforting wisdom that creates peace within.  My wisdom has come in the knowledge that parenting skills are not singular–there is no Right way to do it, every household situation is different. I have learned over the years that all kids will eventually screw up. Now or later. And that it is a dangerous proposition to assume yours will be the only one that doesn’t.

So because we, as young parents, all  started out with the perfect parenting ideal and set our sights ridiculously high in our attempts to do better than our own parents did, when things don’t actually work out as planned, it’s devastating. I see our generation doing two things:

If our own family is in  crisis, we close the curtains and try to deal with it quietly without asking for help. We are ashamed of our failures–many of which are just life beyond our control. The same crap our parents had to deal with, but we thought we were better and stronger than they were so we hide our heads in shame.

If, on the other hand, we are at a point when things are running smoothly (and guaranteed that won’t last forever) than we justify everything we have done right by how well behaved and perfect our children have become–thanks to our perfect parenting skills.

But what about Cody and Susie and Joey? What happens to them?

What happens is that the well intentioned parents of the other students decide that their own kids should not hang out with these children because what if the bad behaviour is contagious and  un-does all their perfect parenting. So Cody and Susie and Joey are shunned and closed off and become insular when their behaviors were originally intended as a plea for attention and help.  Now they become even more alone and distant. The Codys, Susies, and Joeys of the world serve a grand purpose–they give the parents of the “good” kids a reason to say “aha, see, my kids aren’t THAT bad.”

There is much suffering and struggle that goes on behind your neighbors’ curtains.  It’s time to start knocking on doors and offering help. It’s time, as my mother would also say, to “get off your high horse” and show some compassion for other’s who are having a hard time.  It’s easy to sit back and judge other’s for their missteps, much harder to put yourself out and make a simple phone call. It’s quite possible that what you fear might work in reverse, that your own child’s good behavior, that you have worked so hard at maintaining, might actually rub off on someone else in need. It’s time.

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Now, Listen to this!

At the end of every year I search music sites and publications for their pick of the top alternative albums of the previous year. Usually I am in agreement with their lists and often I find new bands that I hadn’t listened to previously. I am always on the lookout for amazing new alternative music. Even though I have been out of the business for many years, I continue to actively search out new bands to listen to and see live.  Not only do these bands have to grab my attention, they need to hold it. The test of a great album for me is first it’s uniquness and musicality and second that I never, ever skip over their tune when it comes up on shuffle.

There are those, like my 17 year old, who are passionate about classic rock–The Who, The Stones, Led Zepplin–and although I totally appreciate those bands for what they have done for us in the past, I have always been more interested in the newest and greatest. There is so much innovative new music being made every day and much of it is unexposed to the general public.  Thanks to the internet though, we now have wonderful avenues to explore this new stuff  by listening to Pandora Radio or many independent stations like Houndstooth Radio and or LostFm.

I am forever wanting to share my love of these bands with my friends in hopes that they too will feel the passion I do when I listen to these gems. So here I present my Top 5 albums that have held my attention for the last year that I think you should own or at least pay close attention to.

1. Frightened Rabbit–The Winter Of Mixed drinks : I saw these Scottish lads twice this year and their CD is on repeat in my car.  If you only take one of my suggestions, take this one.

2. Florence and the Machine– Lungs. Although this album came out in 2009, I started listening, really listening last January. When I saw her preform at the Paradise I was blown away. The fact that someone so young (26?) can have such a powerful voice is mind boggling. Since last January Florence has been getting quite a lot of press and has crossed over to the mainstream, which is usually a kiss of death between myself and a beloved indie band, but I find it hard to walk away from her as she is so amazing and deserves all the accolades she receives.

3. Matt Pond PA–The Dark Leaves — Matt Pond has released 7 albums since 1998 but this year is the first I have heard of him or his Philadelphia based band.  The album is beautiful, lush, and upbeat. I never skip over Matt Pond.

4. Hey Marseilles — To Travel and Trunks :

Mix these lyrics–

“On the way I will go ,Where the days left to breathe,Are not gone, are still long,I am traveling on”–

with viloins and accordians , guitars and claps and you have a band that has captured my heart.  I missed seeing them live before they headed to Europe but I have been told they put on an amazing show. One I will not miss in 2011.

5a. Sleigh bells– Treats The newest addition to my list of albums I can’t get out of my head, this Brooklyn duo rocks harder than what I have been listening to lately.  But there is something about Sleigh Bells that gets under my skin. Their combination of heavy guitar and  lilting vocals just, well, slays me.

5b. The National — High Violet Because I can’t make a compilation without  these guys and because the album came out this year and because I think everyone should know about The National and because his voice makes me smile and cry at the same time…

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Letting Go

Icicles. Growing up, my sharpest memory regarding the Christmas season revolves around icicles. Not the frozen sharp eye-threatening weapons that hang from the corners of the gutters, but the shiny tinsel-like icicles that we used to put on our Christmas tree. The ones my mother bought in bulk at Woolworth–usually no less than 25 boxes per year–to ensure that the tree sparkled and twinkled continuously as they reflected the light.

As kids we were given a box at a time and instructed to gently pull them from their cardboard fastener and drape them over our hands like a fancy waiter in a a five star restaurant. We were expected to drape each single solitary  quarter inch thick strand of aluminum over the branches, ONE AT A TIME with the precision of a surgeon.  My father had shown each of us before we could walk the exact way to start at the inside of each branch and, one by one, layer them out to the end where they hung in perfect unison. ‘Make sure they are even’ , he would say.

This icicle placement was fun at first. I always felt extremely important and grown-up that my parents allowed me to do this meticulous work.  That feeling lasted about two and a half minutes; once I realized that my mother and father were no where in sight, off drinking tea or scotch, while I labored over the task.  Every so often they would poke their head in to make sure I was doing it correctly. This was the first time(but not the last) I actually wondered if they had a  camera in the living room since every time I tried to put 4 or 5 at a time on the branch in an effort to quicken the process, they would walk in.

‘Tsk,Tsk. Look at that, no, Franny, ONE AT A TIME.’

After what seemed liked hours facing the tree, I looked down at the stack of cellophane wrapped  boxes with their windows that displayed the sparkly tinsel, and they seemed to multiply–how could there still be so many to put on? It was growing dark outside and I could smell dinner cooking and I would squint my eyes and watch the icicles sparkle as the lights came on the tree, my waiter-arm feeling heavy; my stomach growling.

At some point I needed to go watch Gilligans Island or Bewitched or Rudolph and always abandoned the job after a few boxes. Though I never saw her do it, I am pretty sure my mother would come in and finish the job since the other 23 boxes were always strategically placed before Christmas arrived.  Maybe she did what I did when no one was watching and threw handfuls haphazardly at the tree…but somehow I doubt it.

As an adult I don’t put icicles on my tree.  As far as I know none of my brothers and sisters ever did. We were all a little scarred from this torturous exercise. If you ask my siblings they all roll their eyes in unison remembering the stress put upon us at what should have been a fun and frivolous time–stress put on kids because of their parents control issues.

Although I have alleviated the stress of icicles over the years I have had my own control problems at the Holidays. Shopping, cooking, cleaning.  I always wanted the house to be picture-perfect when my guests arrived and instead of reveling in my kids toys and enjoying the gifts in the morning, I would jump up and start yelling “hurry up, put this stuff away, we need to clean before everyone gets here!”

The tree itself was always a control thing for me as well.  I had to have the perfect tree.  I remember the first year in this house I wanted a bigger tree to accommodate the higher ceilings in my new house and ended up buying a second tree after the first one was up. I made sure the decorating was supervised very closely so that the large bulbs went up top and the homemade ornaments were evenly distributed around the tree.  I would re-arrange the decorations when my kids weren’t looking.

But this year something miraculous happened. I was working every night leading up to Christmas–either at the restaurant or for the catering company(and of course that silly 2 day trip to Disney thrown in there)–so I never had time to get a tree. As difficult as it was I had to trust my husband and son to pick out the tree and put it up.. ..and – it – was – fine.  The tree was as good as any I would have picked out so I took it one step further.  On my way out to work the next night I said,”Go ahead and decorate it, guys, I gotta go to work.”

And so they did a great job.  I added a few ornaments when I got home, but I did not rearrange and most importantly I did not criticize.

So I woke up the next morning and decided  I would incorporate that attitude to the rest of the week and right through Christmas day. And amazingly everything got done–there may have been a little more dust in the corners and the wrapping was a little haphazard, but Christmas came and went anyway. It was a nice christmas, with no yelling or stress and the first year I didn’t throw out my back from tension build-up.  If something didn’t get done or wasn’t perfect, well, nobody noticed.  What I hope was noticed was a sense of calm and well being that my kids will remember and someday write about.  I hope their sharpest Christmas memories are not a meticulous decorating task but rather a warm feeling of holiday spirit.

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The Elephant in the Room

I didn’t know Elizabeth Edwards personally. I know that she was courageous and brave and that she wrote books just like I hope to do some day.  I didn’t pay too much attention to the drama with her political husband as it seemed like Tabloid fodder– a  steroidal version of local town gossip.  But I did pay attention to her cancer diagnosis.  Diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2004; recurrence in 2007; death in 2010.  This one hits close to home.

Every time I hear of someone passing from cancer I hold my breath while I ask ,”what kind?”. It is difficult to explain what happens inside me when I find out the diagnosis was breast cancer. Those who have had breast cancer understand. Those who don’t, I hope you never understand.

Yesterday as my husband was standing at the sink rinsing out coffee cups, I said to him,

“Did you hear about Eizabeth Edwards?”

“Who?” he said. “Oh right.  She died didn’t she?”

That’s when the elephant came out of the back room where he has been eating peanuts and staying out of everyone’s way. His giant ears perked up when he heard the words ‘breast cancer’, slowly he pushed himself off his back legs and lumbered into the kitchen where he sat–not so gracefully–between my husband and me.

No one mentions it because it’s silly really. I have beat the cancer, right?  No sense even comparing. But Elizabeth beat it too–so she thought, and 3 years later it returned. The elephant looked right at me when he heard that one.  My 3 year diagnosis anniversary is this Friday, we both know that. Then he takes out his tiny calculator, if I go the same way then I am looking at 3 more years from this point to live.  I will be 50.

While the elephant and I stared wide eyed at each other in silent panic, my husband continued to wash out cups. I am not sure he even noticed him sitting there as he turned and walked away.

This part of having cancer is not getting easier. This feeling of my mortality so close to the touch.  Last month I threw my hip out and was in some intense pain.  I was afraid that I had a stress fracture which would impede my running for a long time but I was more afraid that the cancer had returned and was settled in my hip bone.  When I mentioned that possibility to a friend, they looked at me like I was crazy.”Why would you think that?” they said.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

That’s what happened to Elizabeth and that’s one of the prime sites that breast cancer will metastasize to. They found a spot on her rib, her lung and her hip.  And once the cancer travels, well the outlook is grim.

I went in for an x-ray and discovered my hip problem was a tendon/muscle pull and although it’s still killing me, I am thanking God that it wasn’t what I suspected.

In a couple of days the elephant will return to the back room where he lives a quiet existence. I would like to release him and let him find somewhere else to live but he seems comfortable here for now.  Most of my friends and family don’t notice him at all when they visit.  I am the only one who knows he’s there–especially when it’s quiet in the house and there is no one around and I am left alone with my thoughts and fears.

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The Best Laid Plans

I spoke to my older brother yesterday to tell him what time I would pick him up for Thanksgiving.  It was a call I dreaded. Not because I dislike my brother who has struggled with mental illness and depression for years, but because I had promised something I never followed through on and I was afraid that he would be angry with me.  I had promised back in June that I would come to his tiny subsidized apartment in Lowell and give it a good “spring cleaning”. I was going to replace the nicotine stained curtains, scrub down the walls and replace the fraying rug. We were both excited with the prospect of his new and improved living space. My brother has very little and this was a gesture that would bring great joy to his somewhat lonely existence. But I never went. I let the Summer turn to Fall and made excuses when I thought about it and got busy and then it just got too late. When he answered the phone yesterday he sounded genuinely happy to hear from me.

“Hey Franny, how’s it going.”

“Great Bri, listen I am sorry about not getting over there to clean, yet.”

“Oh that’s ok, I figured you weren’t feeling well.” Of course he thought that.  He has always worried about me, his little sister, since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Brian always made time to call and find out if I was ok.

“I feel terrible that I never got there to clean. I didn’t mean to disappoint you.”

“Don’t worry about it.” he said as graciously as he could.  How could he be so accepting of this, I wondered, when I was so horrible about handling disappointment in my own life? Why do I get so upset when things don’t go my way?

I have lived through quite a few “real” disappointments in my life–like the death of my father and two brothers at young ages or the fact that I moved to a new town every 10-18 months throughout junior and senior high always right about the time I was settling in, not to mention the loss of my youth and body parts due to cancer. After enough of these major life disappointments  I seem to have become immune to death,and sickness and change in location, losing friends and loved ones with an heir of acceptance. The major blows I can handle–leaving no room  for the minor disappointments in my repertoire of coping skills.

When looking for a new home years ago when the market was red-hot and if you didn’t place a bid higher than asking price as soon as your foot hit the threshold then most likely you would lose it; my real estate agent told me to never picture my own furniture in someone else’s house so I wouldn’t be upset when I didn’t get it. But I didn’t take his advice.  Each house I entered I could imagine how my wooden bench would fit perfectly in their kitchen-nook and ,oh, wouldn’t my couch look lovely under that sunny window. And I am still doing it today.  Although now it’s with those that I love. I am the furniture and I picture myself in different scenarios surrounded by friends and family.  Whether it’s a simple lunch with a friend or a night out or a weekend away with my family where everyone gets along. I forget to take into account that other’s may have their own plans.

As I get older, my circle of close friends has narrowed considerably in direct relation to the widening of my  expectations of their loyalty and love for me. I find myself getting my hopes up about spending time with the ones I love–people I want desperately in my life–and when they are too busy for me, I become extremely disappointed. So when a friend can’t meet me for lunch or isn’t home when I visit I am heartbroken. Because in my mind I had things worked out just-so.  Last Spring I was hoping my best friend and her family would join us on a trip to South Carolina.  I got my hopes up so high and pictured all the fun our families would have together that when she finally told me no (which took some time because she didn’t want to disappoint me), I was crushed and angry.

As an adult I should have learned by now how to handle disappointment. Instead, a constant battle rages between my grown-up mind and my child-like heart . My brain does realize that I have no right to be angry at the other person for letting me down.  Since usually it is not they who have let me down but my own mental furniture moving that has gotten me into the predicamanet in the first place. But my heart acts out so when things don’t work out for me I sulk and feel sad and rejected for a while until I talk myself out of the destructive self-pitying that doesn’t do anyone any good.  At the same time I am trying to teach my children to handle disappointment. “It”s fine” ,I say when they don’t make the ‘A” team in hockey or soccer. “Pick up and move on” I say when my son realizes his bum knee will handicap him for life.  I want them to learn how to handle such things knowing full well that I, a 47 year old woman, still struggles with it.

There are solutions to this problem, but none of them sound enticing.  My disappointment revolves around people I care deeply for, who I want to spend all my time with. I am never disappointed by aquaintences or those I hold at arms distance in my life.  Only the few I have let sneak into the inner circle of my heart.  I suppose I could stop letting people in. But I would have to let the others go as well. If I stand alone, then no one can hurt me.  Just like when my oldest son was about 6 years old  and he stopped accepting balloons at birthday parties and carnivals.  When someone offered him a balloon he would say,

“No thank you, I don’t like balloons.”

But I knew he loved balloons.  It’s just that he had lost one too many to the windy skies or popped them on sharp objects and he had told me that he was never going to get a balloon again because it was too sad when you lost it. I don’t want to do that.  I don’t want to stop accepting balloons or let loose the ones that fill my heart just because they may disappoint me. It’s a jaded and cynical way to live. I think I would rather enjoy the beauty and happiness of spending time with those that I love and suffer the disappointment when things don’t work out as planned.  The alternative feels  too lonely.

I don’t want to stop making plans either. If I don’t ask anyone to be there for me then they can’t let me down.  Again a cynical view.  One I am not willing to adopt.  I think I would rather continue to make plans and get excited about things that “might” happen even though sometimes they may not work out exactly as planned. I’d rather continue to buy balloons and fill up my imaginary house and take the risk.

Because I know, deep down, that those that I love mean well–like I meant to do well by my brother. Eventually I will clean his house.  He knows that.  He trusts me. So I must learn to trust the ones I love, and like my brother, graciously accept that their true intention is never to disappoint me–only that life gets very busy and sometimes with a little patience on my part things may work out even better than I had planned.

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