Nine years ago, A and I welcomed an 8 lbs, 7 ozs, 19 inches long, blue eyed, brown haired little boy into our family.
AJ was about as planned as a baby could be planned. Summer baby so I wouldn’t miss school. Scheduled c-section since he was breech. Birth exactly 8 weeks before teachers returned for the new school year. Planned.
Of course, we know, “the best laid-plans of mice and men often go awry,” and while everything went as planned on June 18, 2008, after that was proof the best-laid plans can, and do, blow up in your face.
Since S had GERD, we were on high alert with AJ, and as his sister, and his father, and his grandmother, and his great-grandfather, AJ had reflux. We knew how to handle it. What we didn’t know how to handle was a baby who spit up everything. Every. Thing. All. The. Time.
He was a few weeks old when our pediatrician suspected there was more to AJ’s reflux than just typical spitty baby. Pyloric stenosis, he told us was his suspicion. Off to the hospital we went for an ultrasound. The ultrasound showed AJ was thisclose to PS, but the muscle thickening was just under the measurement threshold. So, we watched and measured. We used towels for burp rags. He slept in his swing for 2 hour stretches. Our pediatrician refered us to a specialist.
A pediatric gastrointestinal specialist saw AJ, put him on a formula available by prescription only, and sent us back to our pediatrician. The specialist suspected a protein intolerance. If he was right, the Neocate would help.
It took a few weeks, but, by the time the new school year began, AJ was better. He gained weight. He began to sleep better, sleep longer. By October, I remember thinking, “so this is what it’s like to have a baby that doesn’t spit up out of his mouth and nose.”
Baby AJ blew up all our plans for an easy summer baby. We were fools. When A and I think back to AJ’s babyhood, we laugh because man, we were such fools.
And, man, did those first 525,600 minutes go fast.
We survived his babyhood, his toddlerhood, and now, we watch with pride and trepidation as AJ ventures through childhood. He’s stubborn with a smart mouth. He’s kind and carries the weight of the world on his shoulders sometimes. He’s shy and silly. He loves his family, his cats, his Pokémon cards, and his Minecraft games.
It’s been 4,730,400 minutes with AJ in our lives. Almost five million minutes.
9 years measured in first words, first steps, first sentences. First day of preschool, of kindergarten, of first grade and second. Three seasons of soccer. Hundreds of Pokémon cards. Countless games of Go Fish and Connect 4. Innumerable questions, bad jokes, and silly puns. Museums and musicals and aquariums and zoos and parks. Miles walked holding my hand, or his dad’s, or his sister’s. Laughter and tears. Anger and happiness. Exasperation. Gratitude.
Four million, seven hundred thirty thousand, four hundred minutes.
Today is my 39th birthday. Last year, I was less than three weeks from a bilateral mastectomy and reeling from the unexpected discovery of ER+ cancer in my lymph nodes. I wondered if I would live to see 39.
I’m 39 today.
It’s been one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had. It’s been a really good day. Friends and family texted and called. A went all out and cooked a from scratch breakfast for dinner. The thought that went into the things people have done for me today has been incredible. A student brought me a bouquet of fuchsia carnations. At lunch, a bouquet of purple flowers, different types and shades, arrived at school sent by A. One of my precious coworkers left a glittery teal bag on my desk containing the biggest Snickers I’ve ever seen (and the sight of it made S and AJ’s night…they know I’ll share it). After school, my seniors brought in a poster that said “Happy birthday Mrs. V” in purple and blue. With it came an envelope containing heart shaped birthday cards from at least twenty of my seniors. I couldn’t read them. I knew it would make me cry. I thought I’d get through my workday without crying, but as I stood in the commons area at the front of my school doing after school duty, my interim principal made me cry.
Mr. H saw me and made a “come here” motion, and my first thought was, “Uhoh, what’d I do?” I’m wired to expect the worst, so when an administrator asks me to come see them, I’m convinced I’ve done something wrong. So, I walked away from the two teachers I was talking to and went to him. He congratulated me. I thought that was a really strange way of saying happy birthday, but heck, I survived another year, so maybe congratulations are in order! Still, I must have had a really confused look on my face. Then he said I needed to keep an eye on my email and to let him know if I needed any help, and as he kept talking, my face must have looked even more confused because he stopped and said, “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
Nope. I shook my head.
He sighed, laughed, and said, “Ms. G was supposed to talk to you. You’re our Teacher of the Year, and we’ve nominated you as the district secondary Teacher of the Year.”
I’ve been a campus Teacher of the Year nominee five times, but I’ve never been Teacher of the Year. I hugged him, and then, I asked him to follow me back into the office where there are plaques for every Teacher of the Year the school has had since its opening. I pointed to the 1995-1996 Teacher of the Year and said, “That’s my mom.”
My name will go on the plaque two across from hers. Twenty-one years apart. Second generation of my family to teach at this school. Second generation English teacher at this school. Second generation Teacher of the Year at this school.
That’s some awesome continuity.
I told my parents tonight when they came over for dinner and cake. My parents are proud of me no matter what, but when I told them and both realized my name would go on the wall next to my mom’s, both had that look of stunned pride.
I love what I do so damned much. Teacher of the Year is an incredible honor. I’ll sit on the stage at graduation, and this graduating class is special to me. These are the kids who got me through last year. They were understanding, flexible, and all around amazing as were their parents. Being able to sit up there and see each of them graduate, to see their pride and happiness and joy, will be a privilege…and require waterproof mascara.
I’m happy. I’m content. My cancer may come back. It may not. I think I’ve reached the point of acceptance. I’ve had 39 years on this mortal coil. I’ve had 21 years with A. I’ve taught for 17 years. I’ve been a mother to S for 11 years and to AJ for almost 9. No, I don’t want to leave them, but I can honestly say this: if the cancer comes back, if for some reason, I don’t see 40, I can say I’m happy with the life I’ve led. I really hope I see 40, though. I’m sure my friends and family will come up with something embarrassing and amazing to celebrate that Over-the-Hill day. Until then, if then, at least I can say that today, because of my family, friends, students, and coworkers, I’ve had one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had.
I spend too much time existing. Too much time blaming myself for things beyond my control. Too much time feeling guilty. Too much time being sad.
I spend too much time bemoaning what I’ve lost…my breasts, my sense of immortality.
I spend too much time being discontent. Unhappy.
I lost a childhood idol today. I played Princess Leia all the time as a kid. I had everything Star Wars a kid in the 80s could have (except an AT-AT…my mom drew the line there). I had all the ships, all the characters, including the ones you had to send in cereal box tops to get. I had all the different C3POs, Lukes, and Leias (and everyone else). Princess Leia was different. She was badass, even as a little girl in the 80s, I recognized badass, different from the rest of the female characters. She stood up for herself, her people, her friends, her family. She laughed in the face of doom, asked for help when she needed it, defended because it was the right thing to do.
I wanted to be Princess Leia.
I lost a childhood idol to a heart attack (or, as some places have said, a cardiac episode). I lost a childhood idol out of the blue, as 2016 has been likely to do…surprise!
Death comes for us all. It’ll come for me, whether it be from breast cancer or something totally unexpected, it’ll come. And, I won’t like it.
I’ll like it less if I’m just existing.
I’ve done some things that make me happy over the last week, thing that make me live instead of exist. I’ve cooked more. I like to cook and bake. My goal for last week was, before Christmas Eve, to try, again, to make my grandmother’s apricot pies (I did…they turned out…my dad claims they still need work 😂), and at the request of my mom, to make her the cake her mother used to make for her.
My mom has many talents, but cooking isn’t one of them. She could make some mean sandwiches for us, but cooking with actual pots, pans, ingredients, and utensils, not so much. My dad was the family cook. As for me, I’m self-taught. I can follow recipes well. Most of what I make turns out well, so I figured I could follow the recipe for my grandmother’s orange slice cake…if I could find it. My mom had it…in a cookbook, which she revealed to me during a text conversation.
So, instead of making it on my own, I roped S into making it. She’s been asking me to teach her to bake, and this seemed like a good recipe to let her try. She’s helped me make cookies for years, so, she made it, under my guidance, and it turned out well, too. Spending time baking with S (and AJ when he slows down enough) makes me happy.
My cancer counselor asked me to close my eyes and answer this question with the first thing that came to mind: “Besides spending time with your family, friends, and job, what’s something you enjoy spending time doing?” My answer: Baking.
Lame, but true.
She told me when I bake or cook to tell myself it’s ok to be happy, it’s okay to enjoy…because I need to remind myself it’s okay to be happy, to enjoy life
Lame, but true.
All of last week, I baked with S. I cooked for my family, and I enjoyed it. I was content.
We host A’s family every Christmas Eve for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. We eat, we talk, we laugh, we open gifts, we spend time enjoying each other’s company. On Christmas Day, we spend the day with my family. We eat, we talk, we laugh, we open gifts, my nephew, my oldest cousin, and I usually get into trouble during dinner for laughing at something my aunt said. Usually, I feel pressured to either be a good hostess (which I’m not) or to act like I’m fine. I didn’t feel any of that this year. I just enjoyed being with my family, all my family.
Last year, I sat on the floor of our bathroom and sobbed, scared and convinced last year was my last Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s.
This year, I had those same thoughts, but not as acutely. This year, I laughed more, I took pleasure in watching other people open the gifts we’d gotten for them. Last year, A did all our Christmas shopping. I was too tired and too run down from chemo to do it. I’d tried, but the one time I went out, I came home with an arm covered in bruises from carrying bags. After that, A made me stay home. This year, I chose our gifts carefully, more carefully than I usually do, which sounds terrible, but I really wanted to get people things I knew they would really like instead of getting something convenient that they’d probably like.
I want to live a long life, to grow old with A, to see S and AJ grow up and make their marks on this world. I want to live, but as 2016 has taught us, over and over, in shocking detail, death comes for us all, when we expect it, when we don’t expect it. I could relapse, I could be NED for twenty years. I hope it’s the latter. No matter what, though, death will come. I can bemoan it, be bitter about it, be unhappy and discontent. I can exist. Or, I can do as my childhood idol did, look destruction in the eye and laugh. To live.
Living with cancer isn’t badass, but living life on my terms IS badass. Living for my children, for my husband, for my family IS badass. Resisting is badass.
Existing is giving in, giving up, and as scared as I am, I don’t give up easily. So, as 2016 ends (without anymore surprises, please…someone wrap Betty White in bubble wrap from neck to toes and put a helmet on her head), I’m making an early New Year’s Resolution…nothing drastic, nothing dramatic, just a commitment to keep my gratitude journal going. One thing I’m grateful for everyday. One thing to remind me I’m alive, I’m not just existing.
One thing to reinforce that it’s okay to be happy, even in the darkest of times. Thank you JK Rowling.
And, thank you, George Lucas and Carrie Fisher. Thank you for Princess Leia, for showing a little girl a badass heroine, a strong, female character, a heroine I now share with my daughter. S wears a shirt, often, with an imprint of Princess Leia and the quote “Girls run the galaxy.” I want to be alive to see what S, and AJ, do in this galaxy. Alive, not existing…if I’m so lucky. And, if I’m not that lucky, I want to leave them memories of me choosing happiness over bitterness. I haven’t been an example of that over the last several months. They deserve better from me. I want to be like Princess Leia and laugh in the face of doom, ask for help when needed, defend because it’s the right thing to do. So, that’s my commitment: be better. Be me, but be a better me. Be grateful. Find joy.
Dr. H removed my port on Friday. People asked me if I was excited or ready to get back to normal. Dr. H asked me if I was tired.
Yup. I’m tired. Cancer made me tired.
What removing my port or finishing Herceptin or having reconstruction has not done is return me to normal. What does that even mean? Normal? No, I’m not ready to get back to normal.
Before cancer, normal meant worrying, all the time, about everything. Cancer made me get that under control because I cannot handle that kind of stress anymore.
Before cancer, normal meant being chronically sleep deprived. Cancer made me admit to my doctor I suffer from insomnia and allow myself to get some help so I can sleep better.
Before cancer, normal meant trying to please everyone all the time and putting myself last. Cancer made me stop trying to please everyone and to put myself first sometimes.
Before cancer, normal meant not taking care of myself. Cancer made me lose weight, learn how to meditate, and find ways to relax.
Before cancer, normal meant being okay with not being okay. Cancer made me come face-to-face with my struggles and find ways to solve them or work on them.
Before cancer, normal meant not speaking my mind because someone might get mad at me. Cancer made me not care if someone doesn’t like my opinion…or me.
I don’t want to go back to normal. I’m a better mother, wife, daughter, friend, teacher because I’m not who I was a year ago. Cancer made me realize how not okay my normal was. Why would I want to go back to that?
A asked me a question last week that I’ve been turning over and over. “Why do you take everyone else’s worries onto your shoulders?”
Then, I saw a quote image on Pinterest that said “I wonder how much of what weighs me down is not mine to carry?”
So much of what I take on is not mine to carry…so, no more. Or, no more to the best of my ability.
After my last panic attack, I took a long, hard look at myself. I didn’t like some of what I saw. I don’t like that I’m dangerously close to becoming my hypochondriac grandmother. Don’t get me wrong. I deeply loved my grandmother, but she was a hypochondriac of epic proportions. I don’t want to be like her where every little thing is something I perceive to be fatal (btw, my grandmother died in her sleep in her nineties). Yes, I had cancer. I don’t right now. I will never stop worrying about the cancer coming back, but for this moment, I am no evidence of disease. That matters.
I owe it to myself to believe I am cancer free, and my scumbag brain does not get to win with whispers of my greatest fear, of the cancer returning.
I owe it to myself to celebrate that exactly one year ago today, I had my first chemo treatment. It was hard. Chemo was hard. But, I’m still here, one year later. I’m still here, done with treatment.
I owe it to myself to remember the wisdom of Albus Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” There’s been a lot of darkness over the last year. I have nothing to lose by turning on a light and finding some happy more than I’ve allowed myself.
I owe it to myself to stress less over things I absolutely cannot control. For years, I’ve lived in a constant state of stress, much of it, my own doing. It’s beyond time I find ways and force myself to stop. I have nothing to gain by stressing and worrying about so much of what I stress and worry about because there’s zero I can do about most of it.
I owe myself. I rarely allow myself to think about what I truly, really, deeply need. And, what is it?
*preapologies for spelling/grammar errors…I’ve proofread, but I know I missed things.*
I came home from the hospital today. I’m so glad to be home with A and the kids and the cats. I’m so glad I have reconstruction in the rear view mirror.
DIEP reconstruction is no joke. I thought I knew what to expect, but it’s been like everything else-until it happens, you can’t really know what to expect. I was not prepared for the grogginess, the nausea, and the differing types of pain from my abdominal incision (sharp to burning to gnawing to shocking), even though I thought I was.
The incisions completely live up to my expectations. They’re bad right now. They’re gnarly. They’re going to be amazing scars, but really, they are no worse than I expected.
Recovering has been hard. I had a pretty bad ICU experience Wednesday night (post surgery). I woke up around 2 am very uncomfortable because I was twisted in the covers and with the mattress pad sticking to my skin. My mom tried to help me get untwisted and unstuck, but I could barely move. Enter the night tech. In his defense, I was having a hard time communicating what was wrong. I was so groggy from the anesthesia and uncomfortable from the surgery. So, the tech got a nurse. She told us I was uncomfortable due to surgery and was anxious. She told my mom I needed a Xanax. My anxiety was the problem. We argued with her for ten minutes. It took me getting myself together, communication wise, and yelling, “No! I am not anxious! I’m sticking to the bed. You need to listen to me!” to make them understand what I needed to do. She was so brusque. And, hey, you know what happened when the three of them helped me sit up and move from side to side to get rid of the mattress pad? I became comfortable again, even with the pull sheet, because everything on the bed was fixed. My mom insisted they help me out of bed briefly and remake the bed. That’s what I needed. The morning team was great. It was the exact opposite experience. By noon, I had gotten out of bed on my own and into a chair. By three, my doctor did rounds and pronounced me ready to leave ICU for the surgical recovery floor. I didn’t expect to have as hard of a time verbalizing my needs that first night, and this was the first time on this cancer coaster where I dealt with a medical professional who really wasn’t listening to my needs. I know what anxiety feels like for me. I know when I need help with it. That was not my problem at that moment. I didn’t like how she made me feel…I felt like a nuisance. I know that wasn’t her intention, but it was my perception.
Thursday evening, Thursday night, Friday morning, and Friday night were very, very hard. I had a great team of nurses who worked to find a way to get my pain and nausea under control. It took some trial and error, some sobbing in pain on my part, throwing up a few times (indescribably awful with an abdominal incision running from hip to hip), and getting out of bed to slowly walk the floor to get everything under control. Moving helped get rid of the nausea, helped straighten my skin, helped everything. We had a new, unexpected, problem come up, though. I ended up needing two units of blood on Friday. My blood pressure crashed pretty much out of the blue, or so it seemed to me. My blood counts were bad (my hemoglobin was right at a 6), so, I needed a blood transfusion. It did its job…just a bump in the surgery road.
Saturday was ok-ish, but I really didn’t start feeling better, more like myself, until Sunday. I was able to walk around, standing up straight, which surprised me, my appetite came back some, and I wasn’t groggy. Grogginess was a huge problem from Thursday through Saturday.
Today, I came home early afternoon. I still have three drains, all associated with my hip incisions, but considering I had seven drains until this morning, dealing with three is a picnic. I still tire quickly. I told A that I’m going to need a lot of help not overdoing and not feeling guilty for being a sloth over the next two weeks.
All of this would be so much more difficult without our family and friends helping us. My mom and A traded nights at the hospital. A’s parents kept S and AJ. My dad kept my mom’s schedule straight so she didn’t miss any appointments (she had her six month oncology visit, a physical, and other things). My childhood, longtime BFF kept me in Sonic iced tea and laughter with a listening ear.
There were no surprises, nothing unexpected, during the surgery or afterwards, so far, with the exception of the blood transfusion. I’m so damned glad to have this hurdle behind me. I’m glad to feel as well as I do. My focus now is healing and my scheduled treatments. I scheduled my last three Herceptin appointments. I still feel like I should be waiting for something unexpected and horrible to happen.
I hope, with everything I am, this ending is a new beginning with many more tomorrow, with physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, with a stronger sense of who I want to be for whatever time I have, with peace. Not too long ago, I made peace with my breast cancer. Then, I lost it. As the anniversary of my diagnosis creeps closer, it’s time I find peace again.
Today, as I cleaned up the window seat in our room from six months of collected stuff, I found the binder I put together in preparation to interview for teaching positions. I updated it with stuff from this school year. Then, I stared at the cover I have on it and smiled. The cover I made says “Teaching is the most important job in the world. Every moment a student is in a classroom is a moment a teacher can change that student’s life.” I believe those words with every fiber of my being. Those words are my daily teaching mantra.
It’s crazy to think it’s been almost one year since I attended the AVID summer institute, came home from it, and told A that I missed teaching and wanted to go back to the classroom.
It’s crazy to think it’s been almost one year since A began the interview process for his current position.
It’s been almost one year since I turned my own life upside down (on purpose and with certainty I was doing the right thing) and followed my heart to my current campus. I’m forever grateful to the friends who told me to listen to my heart instead of my head, for family who encouraged me to listen to my heart, and for the faculty and administration of my campus for welcoming me with open arms and hearts.
I can’t believe it’s been nearly an entire year since A and I turned our professional lives upside down (on purpose) not knowing cancer was lurking and would completely upend everything we thought we knew.
We’re both incredibly grateful to our families, friends, coworkers, and employers for supporting and caring about us throughout this year that should have just been us acclimating to new positions in our careers, but instead of just doing that, we spent the school year on a roller coaster moving at light speed while working new jobs, raising two kids, and trying to keep life as normal as possible.
Thanks binder for reminding how I felt this time last year-full of hope for the future, excitement for what I was going to do, and anticipation of the year. I need those feelings as I stare another major surgery in the face, another echocardiogram in the face, three more months of Herceptin in the face, the quickly coming one year anniversary of hearing a doctor say “I’m 70% sure this is going to come back cancer,” and the one year anniversary of hearing a doctor say, “It’s invasive ducal carcinoma grade 2. You need to find an oncologist” and seeing my life slip away as the feeling of a cancer death sentence slipped over me.
Everyday, I work very hard to combat that feeling. Everyday, I work very hard to consciously relax. Everyday, I work very hard to find some peace. Everyday, I work hard to remember this is out of my control.
Thank you, binder. You reminded me of when I felt a great deal of hope, happiness, and excitement. I need to remember how I felt almost one year ago today so that I can concentrate on those feelings as August lurks in the distance.
Thank you, binder. You reminded me cancer only defines me when I allow it to define me. I prefer to be defined as a wife, mother, daughter, friend, teacher. I need to remember I am more than breast cancer.
Thank you, binder. You started me on a journey to a school year where I loved every moment of teaching. I found my passion again and poured my heart and soul into everyday I worked with my students.
On the last day of school, I thanked my students. I told them I was so grateful to them for rolling with the punches this year threw, for being caring and kind, and for never allowing me to wallow in self-pity too long. I thanked them for recognizing there were days I felt terrible and knowing I felt terrible, they stepped up their game because if I could be there teaching, they knew they had no excuses. I thanked them for working so hard. I told them I was humbled by them. Then, I sent them on their ways with high fives, hugs, and tears.
So, thank you, binder. Thank you for reminding me that the last nine months haven’t all been terrible. Thank you for giving me a moment to pause my cleaning and remember how I felt nearly one year ago today. Thank you for reminding not all changes are bad.
Almost one year ago today, I made one of the best decisions of my life. Thank you, binder, for reminding me cancer takes nothing away from my memories unless I allow it. So, I’ll work really hard today to stop my scumbag brain from dwelling on the negative and instead, I’m going to make every effort to focus on how I felt this time last year. That’s the least I can do for myself.
I took some steps today. Steps that require a deep breath and a willingness to believe I have a future where the shadow of cancer may loom, but the shadow does not swallow me like it has done the last several months.
I’m tired of living in the shadow of cancer. I know I can’t escape it completely, and I do understand I have no control over it, but I can control a few things, things that are important to me and help me survive (beyond my daily medications).
I love my job. (Hang on, it all connects together, I promise!) I’ve said that many times here on my blog, but it’s the truth. Teaching is my gift, and (most days) I love coming to work, even on the days when I’ve felt bad, suffered from horrible side effects, or had skin so badly burned even the school nurses winced when they saw it. I don’t talk in specifics about my job too often because this is my personal blog, so I shouldn’t talk in specifics too often about my school, my students, or anything else. That’s just common sense as far as I’m concerned.
Some opportunities came my way this week at work that make me very excited for next school year. Taking advantage of these opportunities are the steps I’m taking that require me to breathe deep and believe I do have a future…that I should look ahead to next school year and assume not only will I be here to teach it, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll only have the shadow of cancer looming over me next school year instead of being my constant companion as it’s been this school year. Today, I went so far as to ask for something for next year (to sponsor an organization) because it’s something I want to do. Yes, it’s going to be a lot of work, but I can handle it. Next school year is going to be a lot of work. There’s no way around it. I’m taking on a new prep (one of the steps I’m taking), which is a fabulous opportunity and going to be an amazing part of the school where I teach, and I’ll still teach AP English. Now, I’m going to sponsor an organization. It’s going to be a lot of long, hard work, but you know what? I’m not fragile. I can handle it. I truly can, or I think I can. They told me I could be anything when I grew up, so I choose to be the Little Engine who Could. 🙂
Maybe cancer will come back to slap me in the face. After all, the best laid plans of mice and men…But, I cannot keep going the way I’m going. I just can’t. It goes to the whole “you’re not treating yourself well,” and I deserve to treat myself better. I deserve to take some steps, take a deep breath, and say, I can do this. I can look forward a few months down the line because let’s face it, I’m not looking a year in advance, I’m looking down the road to August. That’s a step, though, and it’s more of a step than I’ve been willing to take.
Next school year is going to be awesome, and I’m so excited for it. And, I’m going to tell myself I deserve to be excited. It’s an honor to do what I do, and it’s an honor to be regarded as capable. So, if others see me as capable, I should see myself that way, too. Cancer be damned.