The Best Books of 2014

I’m part of a wonderful group of nine women who make weekly reading recommendations–every Wednesday, all year long at Great New Books. It’s the place to go if you’re looking for a good read.

This week, we have our list of the Best Books of 2014. Have you read any? Do you have any to add to our list? Need gift ideas?

Click on the image below to get started!

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Mastectomy Ins and Outs

It’s been a month since my last post—a month that has both flown by and dragged on like a train with wooden blocks stuck under its wheels.

I’m in Week 6 and I feel much, much better. My final surgery, which exchanges the expanders for the permanent implants, will probably be in January. But for now, my aches mostly feel like regular old soreness, instead of the irritating rip-my-hair-out soreness.

My headaches are gone, which were due, we discovered, to the sudden lack of estrogen in my body from surgically-induced menopause. Once I started taking low-dose estrogen, the headaches disappeared. The vision in my left eye is still worse than it was pre-surgery, but the recommended MRI will have to wait until my exchange surgery because right now I have magnets in my body (on the expanders). And without the headaches, the vision doesn’t bother me all that much.

My sister’s mastectomy is tomorrow and it will be interesting to see the differences in how our bodies respond. I’ve given her all the advice and tips I can think of, which I’d like to list here for anyone thinking of having or about to have the surgery—namely, a prophylactic double mastectomy.

Obviously, everyone is different, which makes a post like this possibly more useless than useful. But since some of this might apply to you, it’s worth reading just so when and if some of this proves useful, you can feel less alone. (Been there, sister!)

Pre-surgery

  • If you’re lucky and have a PPO, see a couple of different doctors so you can get more than one opinion on each of the various topics related to this surgery and pick the doctor you are most comfortable with.
  • Read enough to know what to expect and make a decision, but not so much that you know every awful story that has ever happened to patients.
  • Talk with your docs about the pain management plan for the day of your surgery—this includes the 24 hours after your surgery. Read Here for what happened to me.
  • Plan to have someone stay with you the first 24 hours at the hospital, someone who can advocate for you, make sure your pain is managed, and make sure the nurses and doctors are communicating and following procedures (washing hands, for example, which one nurse told me is required both before and after putting on gloves).
  • Ask your surgeons to take photos of the surgery, if you’re interested. It’s probably the only time in your life you’ll be able to see the inside of your body. I fully realize this might not appeal to some.

Useful Stuff

  • Aquaphor—I started using this way too late. If you have any burning, this is the stuff you need.
  • Fleece with inside pockets for the drain bulbs. In fact, against my better judgment, here’s what I looked like every day:
Photo taken by my daughter just before I grabbed my phone back.

My daily outfit of cozy socks, loose pants, button-down, and fleece. Photo taken by my daughter just before I grabbed my phone back.

  • Lanyard for showers—the drain bulbs have plastic loops on them and at first I clipped one lanyard to each of them and hung the lanyards around my neck but I found it’s much easier to tie one lanyard to both tubes like this:
These are computer wires. Your drain tubes will be grosser.

These are computer wires. Your drain tubes will be grosser.

And then hang the lanyard around your neck.

  • Robe with pockets, for drying off/applying lotion after shower, so you can get the wet lanyard off your neck and dry off the bulbs in the pockets
  • Neutrogena or some other perfume-free soap—gentle on your incisions.
  • Natural shampoo/conditioner for the same reasons as above—I use Burt’s Bees. Also, using a good conditioner means you can comb your hair without using too much muscle.
  • Here’s what I had at my bedside:

IMG_3659My mom bought the masks because my daughter was sick when I got home, but they weren’t really necessary, I was on so many drugs. She also gave me the Altoids to help with mild indigestion I had one day, probably from some medication or another. The water bottle with a straw was particularly useful. That round blue thing is lip balm. Besides magazines, I read easy lit–Mindy Kaling’s book, as well as Shit My Dad Says, both given to me by my sister-in-law, Shannon. They were perfect. Advil was essential after I went off the Norco. And the hand sanitizer made it easy to wash before I applied Aquaphor (somehow not pictured here) or cleaned my drains. That’s a Doc McStuffins sticker next to the water bottle, brought to me by my daughter.

  • If you don’t have a recliner to sleep in, you’ll need plenty of pillows to prop yourself up. Body pillows on each side are good for keeping your arms up, and then when you can start to turn on your side, they’re super comfortable.

AD—After Drains: (My drains were removed at 2 weeks & 2 days post-surgery)

  • Aquaphor—a mastectomy patient’s best friend, I’m telling you
  • Tanks you don’t mind getting Aquaphor on, once you can pull a shirt over your head (I wasn’t wearing a bra at this point—I’m still not but that’s a matter of preference. My nurse said it would be fine to wear one without underwire.)
  • Cardigans—you’ve already pulled a tank top over your head; that’s enough work for one day.
  • Bandaids, for your drain holes (along with a dab of Aquaphor)
  • Melatonin—natural sleep aid. I became so sick of sleeping on my back at this point and I still couldn’t sleep on my sides.

Getting the drains out was much easier than I thought it would be, considering you have about a foot of tubing wrapping around the inside of each breast. The nurse snips the stitches and pulls and the tubes come right out. I felt a weird pressure but no pain. I did feel some bearable pain in the 2-3 hours afterward; I’m assuming this was just due to shifting among my expander and muscles.

For those who like a visual, here’s a picture of the drain tube where it entered my side, under my armpit. For those who don’t like visuals, just scroll down quickly and pretend it’s a picture of a butterfly:

IMG_3700

Expander Fills: (For me, these started at 3 weeks & 2 days)

  • For the first fill, my nurse took it easy on me and it wasn’t too bad. Mentally, this was a big uplifter. I’d had my first meltdown the night before, as it hit me these incredibly irritating things inside my chest weren’t going away for another two months, after all the fills and the 4-6 week period after fills to let the skin rest before the second surgery. I got this claustrophobic feeling, starting tearing up, and my husband casually said, “Take a Xanax.” I had some leftover from an overseas plane ride two years ago, so I did. I fell asleep and woke up feeling lighter and more rested.

Here’s what the “fill” tools look like:

IMG_3890

The nurse holds a magnet-finder over your chest until s/he finds the magnet inside you; she marks it so she knows where to insert the needle; she cleans the area, which is pretty irritating just because she’s rubbing; then she inserts the needle, which you might or might not even feel, depending how you’re healing. She’ll fill slowly and stop when you tell her the pressure is too much.

  • Aquaphor, obvi
  • Any leftover muscle relaxer meds you have from surgery. I’ve taken one on each “fill day” and it helps, as do a couple Advil.
  • Rest—naps are still helpful
  • I was told fills get harder each time—I’ve had three now and found that during the fill it is harder each time, but afterward the discomfort goes away much more quickly, though my body can’t take a lot of mL’s each time—maybe 40-50. My nurse has given as much as 120 in one fill. Obviously, the bigger you are to begin with, the more you can handle.

Week 4 — I started driving, parking on the street so I didn’t have to turn around as I reversed. I was sore but it was bearable. Still napped a lot.

Week 5 – I started to really feel better, though I went grocery shopping and couldn’t push the cart well. It was miserable, mentally and physically. It’s worth noting this was one day after a fill, so I’m sure that contributed.

Week 6 – As I said above, finally the soreness is starting to feel like regular soreness and not rip-my-hair-out soreness. I’m still on my back but can sleep on my side more comfortably. I still nap, but I don’t need to every day.

Moments that might freak you out, like they did me:

  • Any complications from surgery—those headaches and eye issues threw me for a loop those first two weeks.
  • Drains—at first I thought, No problem! I got this. But after a week they become utterly annoying. And weeks feel like months at first. (By week 6, though, it now feels like it flew by.)
  • Missing your regular level of activity—4 weeks felt like an eternity so, around that time, I decided, “Sure, I can help pick out a Christmas tree, bring up decorations from the basement, decorate the tree, play with the kids, and clean up all in one day.” The stupidity is astounding, though understandable. Please don’t do that to yourself. I could barely move. Don’t let the return of some energy give you the false idea that you can go back to regular activity.
  • You realize you have these foreign objects in your chest causing you discomfort and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. See Xanax story above.
  • You realize you will be sleeping mostly on your back for 2-3 months. I’ve always been a stomach-sleeper, so this has been hard.
  • At one point around Week 4, I lay on the floor and tried to put my hand behind my head as a pillow but couldn’t do it. Not being able to do this simple thing made me sad. Stretching each day has increased my movement capabilities.

Alright, I’m sure there’s more, much more, but my kids are begging me to play with them, and now that I finally can, I’m going to take each chance I get.

Good luck to all, especially my sister, Katie.

Free Preview: The Rooms Are Filled–Chapter One

In honor of Cyber Monday, She Writes Press and I have put the e-book version of The Rooms Are Filled on sale–99 cents TODAY.

I rarely buy a book without reading part of it first, so I’d like to share Chapter One with you today. (Pasted from a PDF–apologies for any formatting issues.)

Enjoy–and thanks, as always, for passing this on to the readers you know. (Sharing buttons below.)

jpegBy wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.

—Proverbs 24:3-4

One

Michael watched the paramedics work on his father. He stared at their backs, black uniforms hiding John Nygaard except for his booted feet, which now rested the same as when he slept in the hammock, toes pointing out. Michael had been in the barn when his mother yelled, milking the cow after school. He ran out and kneeled over his father, who had been mending a rotted fence post just outside the barn door when he collapsed. And then, minutes later, the ambulance cut across the yard, over the patches of snow, and the paramedics circled his father, blocking Michael out. Anne held Michael back and hugged him tight; he could feel her rounded belly behind him. He was jealous, did not want strangers around his father in this moment. John’s head lay too near a patch of cold mud, his jeans wet from the slush. They weren’t being careful.

He thought of dry pine boughs laid on the ground, like the ones his father laid for him in the forest clearing. He glimpsed his father’s limp fingers, dry and cracked white, rolling with each compression, each bit of forced life. Even at nine, Michael knew this was absurd, just one day after Michael’s first outing with him, his first visit to his father’s clearing in the woods.

John woke Michael early yesterday morning, a Sunday, and Michael knew where they were going. He had always hoped his father would bring him, yet never dared ask. Jumping out of bed, he threw on several layers over his long underwear as his father filled a thermos with coffee in the kitchen. John handed Michael the rifle before they left.

“We’re going to Ebersold’s first,” said John, in response to Michael’s questioning look.

Michael followed his father in the snow. The great Minnesota Northwoods grew up around them, black branches piercing the sky in frozen prayer. His bare fingers wrapped around the rifle, one hand on the butt end, one hand on the barrel. It was the same rifle his father taught him to shoot last year at the age of eight, mostly at pop cans in the backyard. He handled and shot a gun expertly now, though he still asked his father to wring the necks of the birds still alive in the tall grass.

The woods were cold and dark. The snow looked blue under the black sky, and the only sound came from their boots crunching snow into ice. Not even the squirrels had scurried down the trees yet. It was the period before dawn when the whole world slept.

After many minutes, the sun’s rays scattered through the tree trunks ahead of them. Michael watched the brown plaid of his father’s broad back sway side to side, side to side, as he pushed ahead in the snow, dragging along a stick that made a tiny trench beside them. The swaying made Michael dizzy, so he looked away and saw Ebersold’s field through the trees to their right, its fresh sheath white except in the middle, where it still soaked red.

John stopped. A piece of bait lay alongside the trail ahead of them. He stabbed around the bait with his stick. A steel trap snapped, and Michael started.

“They laid more,” said John. “Let’s go.” He threw the stick, the trap’s teeth clenched on like a dog, into the trees. “Goddamn Ebersold.”

Michael had heard it before, how Ebersold had been leaving his sick and butchered cattle in the woods for years, letting wolves clean up his messes. “Then he’s angry,” John always said, “when those wolves cross an invisible boundary onto his farm and take the food they’ve developed a taste for.” John was known as a radical,

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The Rooms Are Filled

and some farmers called him a tree-hugger. He regularly scoured the woods for traps, especially in late fall when wolf pelts were at a prime and therefore the number of wolf traps multiplied, or in spring whenever he heard of the loss of a calf or sheep. John usually left the traps where they were after he tripped them, but sometimes he hid them in hollow trees, forcing the owner to search. He told Michael he felt like a wood sprite, invisible and secret, though the truth was every farmer in four counties knew who was behind the work. Once, a trap had a note taped to it: “Hi, John. Have pity.” His father placed the note in his pocket for later storytelling before tripping the trap with a stick and neatly placing it on the side of the trail, careful to brush any dirt from the teeth.

Most farmers were kind to him; they didn’t care how softhearted John Nygaard was. And most of them wouldn’t have asked the Fish & Wildlife Service to lay traps, as Ebersold did when one of his live- stock was killed two nights ago.

Only a few dozen yards farther, John stopped again. “Damn it.”

Michael peeked around his father’s body. A wolf lay ahead, its front leg broken in a trap, its huge paw slack. The wolf saw them but did not lift its head. Only its eyes moved from father to son. Plumes of warm breath rose from its nostrils.

“She’s probably been out here all night,” said John.

Michael looked at her black-tipped ears and spine, the lighter underbelly. “Do you know it?”

“It’s the grandmother.” John glanced briefly at his son before grabbing the gun.

“Why?” asked Michael, his voice tight.

“They’ll euthanize her when they get here. Who knows how long that will be.” John moved forward.

“But why don’t we try to save her?”

“It’s a wild wolf, Michael. The only way we can help her is by shooting her. If you don’t want to watch, walk back a hundred yards and I’ll come to you.” He placed a hand on his son’s head. “I thought you were ready.”

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Jessica Null Vealitzek

Michael wanted to be ready. But he did not like that to save the animal, they had to kill it. She wouldn’t know he and his father were not like the rest of them.

But she seemed to have been waiting. She watched Michael, and he stared back. A feeling stirred in his belly, at once of longing and being at home.

Michael stayed. He could not take his eyes off the animal. He was still looking when his father shot the gun. There was nothing but the echo across the fields and a flutter of gray fur where the bullet entered. No reflexive movement, no birds in flight. As they walked away, Michael still watched her, calm in the white and red snow.

**

The paramedics had stopped moving. They were looking at him, at his mother. One of them put his hand on Michael’s head, and Michael saw his lips moving. Then they were carrying John to the ambulance, and Michael was walking with his mother to the house.

The two of them stood in the doorway and looked in at their kitchen, at the large old farm table in the center. A yellow-checked kitchen towel lay crumpled in the middle of the table, a block of cheese half cut with a knife still inside it. She’d been preparing lunch when she looked out the window and saw John on the ground. She’d been about to call out to him to run into town for bread.

“Are you hungry? We need bread,” Anne said to Michael, as if it was the oddest thing. How could they still need bread?

Michael watched his mother’s eyes dart around the kitchen as she held her stomach with both hands. He watched her breath grow deeper, each one more pronounced than the one before, as if the air might run out. She bent over, then kneeled on the ground. He knelt beside her and threw his arms around her shoulders, holding on as together they heaved up and down with their crying.

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The Rooms Are Filled

Michael’s room was cold when he woke. He pulled the quilt up to his chin and contemplated lying in bed a bit longer. But the sun’s light was peeking over the curve of the earth, pushing ahead of the sun itself, and Michael knew that soon the farmhouse would be bathed in white sunrise. He needed to gather eggs and lay hay for the draft horse by breakfast. They didn’t need the horse—his father owned a tractor—but John had felt sorry for it when its owner, an old bachelor down the road, died and the bank came to sort out and sell what was left.

Michael loved this moment of the day. As he stepped out into the yard, looking to the cold fields and the trees in the distance, this moment felt as if it were his—across the land, across the seas, across the world. His. He imagined the sun warming each living thing, the birds and squirrels and trees, all stretching up from slumber. And he was the only one to witness this waking of living things, as if for the very first time, on the very first day.

When he returned to the house with the eggs, his mother was ready with melted butter in a warm skillet.

“Over easy this morning,” she said. “No milk yet. I’m letting your father sleep in a bit.”

Michael watched his mother cook, the back of her brown hair slightly wavy and pulled back into a low ponytail. Though she was a small woman, she had the honed muscle of a farm wife. She’d had a scholarship and studied English at the University of Minnesota in the mid 1960s, but after graduation she got married. She devoted herself to taking care of the home and farm and trying to have a baby. Born in farm country, she was happy there.

Michael’s father came out of the bedroom pulling on suspenders. “Morning,” he said. “It must be half past seven.”
“Quarter to eight,” said Anne.
John leaned down to kiss her forehead as she scraped the eggs around the skillet, tendrils of steam rising and dissipating in the sunny kitchen.

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Anne looked at him sideways and smiled. “Shall we tell him?” she asked.

“I can’t believe you haven’t already.”
“I was waiting for you.”
“Tell me what?” asked Michael.
His parents turned to him. But each was waiting for the other to begin and so the kitchen remained quiet.

“Tell me what?” Michael repeated, moving forward in his seat.

“You’re going to be a brother,” said Anne, and Michael squealed.

John kissed Anne on the cheek, then picked up Michael and swung him in circles until the kitchen became a white and yellow blur.

But that was two days ago, no, three. No, maybe three weeks, or months. Michael couldn’t tell, didn’t know how to mark the passage of time anymore, could only think of previous moments not in the linear past but in a whole mixed-up sphere that he wanted to sink into the center of and grab hold. Change happens quickly, Michael learned. Suddenly something is true. It wasn’t, and now it is.

He pushed the covers off and forced himself up to sitting, placing his bare toes on the cold wood floor. When he entered the kitchen, his mother was at the counter preparing lunch already, a fresh chicken and pickled carrots she’d canned last fall. Breakfast sat on the table.

“Do you want help?” Michael asked.
“No. Just sit and eat.”
“Are you feeling better?” This didn’t sound right to Michael; it wasn’t enough of a question to show all he meant to ask.

“Better.” She paused in her work and looked out the window into the morning. Michael could see from her profile that she’d been crying. “I was just noticing the snow on the pines across the road. It’s full of meltwater that froze again overnight. Makes it look like clouds all along the branches. Lovely, don’t you think?”

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Michael looked. “Sure, it’s pretty.”

She resumed cutting. Harder, he thought. “I don’t think there’s any place lovelier in the world. I don’t ever want to leave it.”

A cat scratched at the door and mewed.
“Here,” said Anne. “Give her these chicken scraps.”

Michael opened the door and leaned down. “Hi, girl.” The cat grabbed a piece of skin and trotted away, and as Michael rose he could see his father coming up the walk. John looked tired as he stomped the snow off his boots, but he smiled as he stepped over the threshold past Michael and into the kitchen. He walked up behind his wife and put his arms around her waist as Michael watched. She laid her head back on his shoulder for a moment, then continued cutting the chicken.

“We have to go into town today,” said Anne, “to the funeral parlor,” and Michael lost sight of his father, saw only his mother still at the counter. She put down the knife and washed her hands at the sink. “Forgive me, Michael,” she said, as she walked to him by the door. “I forgot myself.” She pulled his head to her chest. “How are you?”

“Okay,” he said, but again it wasn’t enough.

**

“Let’s go, Michael. I’ll let you drive,” John would have said.
And Michael would have jumped up into their old, light blue truck and placed the county phone book on the seat so he could see properly. His left leg would get the clutch down just far enough.

As it was, he sat next to his mother and looked out as she drove.

The road was hard-packed earth with patches of gravel and ice. They passed the neighboring Mulvey farm with its tall silo, passed the sled hill he raced down on a steel shovel with Pike Mulvey, both boys holding their legs in the air, thigh muscles burning, until they dug in their heels to stop just short of the lake. It was the same lake

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where, last spring, Pike caught the biggest northern anyone remembered ever seeing. Many thought it was mostly his father’s doing, but his father always claimed he’d been down the shore trying to un- snag his line from a willow, hadn’t even known Pike—then called Daniel—had a line in the water. How an eight-year-old got such a fighter as a northern onto land was suspect, but then Pike, since the age of five, had won every arm-wrestling match at school and could carry a kitchen cord of wood on his own.

The road upped and dipped over the farm fields like a ribbon for the seven miles to town. Michael had heard this land described as monotonous, but he found a home in every hill and gully. A stand of white pines signaled they were nearing the gas station, followed by the market and the post office. The town was two blocks long, nothing much—the larger town, with the grain elevator and clothing stores, was ten miles beyond—but the funeral parlor was here, as well as a beauty parlor, several bars, and a one-room movie theater that sometimes had current releases.

All of these things were still here. Only his father wasn’t. Michael could not reconcile the two facts, could not make them match, and so he felt like he was floating through something that wasn’t real. It all should have passed with his father.

Anne pulled over at the post office out of habit, something everyone did no matter his or her errand, something Michael had done with John many Saturdays. He grabbed the door handle but then looked over at his mother. Anne had turned off the truck but held onto the key in the ignition. She stared ahead, and Michael waited for her to move. She restarted the truck, and Michael let go of the handle as they pulled back onto the road. When they arrived at the funeral parlor, she left the truck running to keep him warm. “You wait here, Michael. I’ll be a few minutes.” But when the heavy oak door closed behind her, Michael scooted over and grabbed the wheel.

The one-story brick post office had a perfectly flat roof that leaked in the middle. Customers were used to walking around a

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white plastic bucket placed in the center of the room. It was still there, Michael noticed. Still there.

Pike’s father, Bob Mulvey, leaned an elbow on the counter and chatted with Mr. Sogard, the clerk. Bob was middle-aged, though something about his eyes made him seem older, a leathery tiredness surrounding shallow blue pools. Always the farmer, he wore denim overalls with his work shirt and mud-splattered boots, his finger- nails caked with dirt, slop, and blood. He was not unique among the men in this area, at once tender and rough, naive and hardened. Men like this surrounded Michael and made him feel safe.

“Michael,” said Mr. Mulvey, and he straightened.

The clerk smiled kindly as he passed over a couple of envelopes. Michael grabbed them and turned to go.

“Tell Pike hey,” he said over his shoulder, but Mr. Mulvey stopped him with a gentle hand on his arm. “We’ll be over again later. Tell your mother.”

When Michael returned to the funeral parlor, Anne was still inside. He parked the truck and scooted back over to the passenger seat. Out the window, a cardinal sat on a telephone wire, piping its hooo-wit. Hoo-wit. Hoo-wit. Hoo-wit. A loud and clear whistle, calling out, calling to. And Michael began to cry, the tears falling like the fast-dripping icicles along the gutter of the funeral parlor. They fell without forethought, almost without knowledge, like the moment just after his father’s death. Just yesterday, but how could that be? His mother emerged, squinting in the sunlight, and pulled her old wool coat around her growing belly. When she opened the door and saw Michael sitting in his tears, looking at her for help, she stepped up and pulled him to her, his nine-year-old legs trailing behind him.

It was late afternoon by the time they drove up their gravel driveway, the white farmhouse coming into view between the pines and bare oaks. Michael usually had chores before dinner, and he wanted to do them. He stacked the wood his father chopped yesterday morning and salted the walkways between the house and outbuildings so

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the melting snow wouldn’t freeze overnight. He raked the chicken yard and set aside the extra corn he found for the squirrels. He imag- ined the purple silhouettes of his father and Mr. Mulvey in the fields, discussing where and what to plant come spring.

**

When the funeral and visitations were over, when pie was eaten and stories told, frozen casseroles wrapped and placed in the freezer, and sorry visitors trickled to none, Michael’s mother sat him down at the kitchen table. “We have to move,” she said.

No, Michael thought. No. No. No. “We can’t,” he said. “We can’t move. This is our farm.”

“Yes, but we have to leave it.”

He shook his head. “This is our farm! You can’t make me do this, too!”

“We’ll have a new house, in Illinois. A town called Ackerman— where your Uncle Kevin lives.”

“I don’t care. We don’t have to go.” He kicked his foot again and again under the table.

“Yes, Michael, we do. I have to work. Kevin’s hired me as a waitress.”

Michael looked at his mother then, his quiet and strong and schooled mother. She could never wear some silly outfit. She could never take orders on a notepad.

“We’ll leave by August, in time for you to start fourth grade.”

“I’m not going.” He believed this. He would find a way. “I’ll stay with Pike.”

“We can’t survive otherwise. We’ll barely have anything left after paying off the mortgage. Things will be tight, but better than here.”

“Nothing’s better than here.” He kicked harder and hoped he’d find her leg.

Anne placed a hand over his. “There’s no way around this. We’ll have to go through.”

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Michael saw that her eyes were wet and that she was about to cry, but he ran to the barn and left her sitting at the table. He stroked the cow’s neck and talked to his father, still so present in his life that he could hear his words, his voice. He saw his father rub his eyebrow and pick at the hairs as he broached the tender subject.

“She already found a nice little house to rent,” his father said. “You might like it.”

He looked away. “You know I’m not going to like it.”

“I know you, Michael. I know you’ll be alright.”

“What about the cat?”
“The neighbors will feed her.”

“Who’ll take care of the animals?”

“The new people will buy them.”
Michael watched the cow and the horse in the stall beside it and envied them. They were home and always would be.

“Why does someone else get to live here and not us!” he cried. He could hear his father, could see him, but could not run to him as he so wanted. He laid his head against the cow but pushed his cheek too hard, so the cow sidestepped and Michael stood upright again.

“What about the wolves? Who’ll find the traps?”
“It’s been troubling me, too, Michael. But wolves have been around far longer than we have. They’ll make it far after, I suspect.”

“Stop it! You don’t want us to leave!”

His father only said, “There’s nothing left to do.”
Michael dropped down into the hay and grabbed a bunch in both fists. “I’m not leaving you.”

“You don’t have to.” His father moved closer, and Michael believed for a second that he could touch him.

“You’re coming?”
“Wherever you go.”
Michael could almost feel him, his face turned up toward the wide barn doors and the warm outside. He closed his eyes so he could imagine hugging him.

“Your mother lost me same as you,” his father said. “Don’t be hard on her.”

For weeks after, whenever he was not at school, Michael sat in the barn. He watched his house, a thing he knew was wood and nails, but he wanted to hug it, wrap his arms around the large chimney his father had built before Michael was born, hauling rocks up from the lake. He wanted to hug the front steps where his father and mother used to sit talking, dark shadows against the white house, while he caught lightning bugs in the yard. Michael wanted to hug the doors that led to hard-packed earth in the cool cellar, his favorite place on humid summer days. His friends were scared there might be ghosts, but not Michael.

He looked at the fields behind the house, the trees beyond, and the lake he knew was after that. His mother had said their new home was in a suburb, with many houses side by side on every street. They would have a yard, though she did not know how big. She worried whether she could have a garden.

“I’ll come visit,” said Pike one Saturday as the end of the school year approached. They’d planned on riding bikes to town, the day being the kind of sunny that warms without causing sweat. But the move was too imminent, and Michael could not bear to spend even one afternoon away from home. So they played catch in the backyard between the house and barn, in the shade of an oak tree. The farm cat sat atop the picnic table and watched. As Michael caught the ball, he tried not to look at the rotting fence post next to the barn behind Pike.

“Will you?” asked Michael.

“Sure. I can get my dad to drive me. Or maybe there’s a train from Minneapolis.”

“I’m sure there’s a train. Or a bus.”
“I’ll come,” said Pike.

On a warm day in May, Michael came home from school to find Mr. Mulvey sitting on the front step, elbows on his knees. He twirled a long stem of grass in his fingers. Michael sat down next to him

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The Rooms Are Filled

on the old wood and watched a garter snake disappear under the house. He liked it when Mr. or Mrs. Mulvey stopped by to visit; he liked anyone who had known his father.

“Your mother had a miscarriage,” said Mr. Mulvey. “The baby’s gone.”

The baby had not yet come, so Michael could not imagine it being gone. He understood that now there was no chance of the baby, that it would not come at all, and he remembered that he’d planned to tell it about the wolves, would have had to because the baby would never have known Minnesota, or their father. This gave him a twinge of ache in his heart, but the loss felt so much smaller than the loss of his father. It was nothing compared to that. And so it didn’t hurt, not really. That made him feel better.

Michael didn’t want to say that, didn’t know what to say, but he knew Mr. Mulvey didn’t expect him to say anything. They sat in silence awhile until Michael remembered to ask about his mother.

“Is she okay?”

Mr. Mulvey looked down at his hands. “About okay as you’d expect, I guess.”

**

Anne had been unprepared for the question.
She filled out the forms a nurse had brought her, and on automatic she wrote in her name, age, address, insurance. She signed waivers for the dilation and evacuation she was about to receive. And then, sandwiched in the middle of the mundane, she was asked what she wanted to do with the baby’s remains. The hospital would dispose of them at her wish, or she could bring them home for burial.

Why hadn’t she thought of this? Of course she should have thought of it. She had been almost five months pregnant. She had felt the baby move. Why had she not thought of this?

Out of habit, she reached for the phone to call John but then pulled back into sobs. A nurse brought her water and tissues but then had no

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Jessica Null Vealitzek

words, knew there were none, and having witnessed many tragedies was not self-conscious about it. She touched Anne’s shoulder before leaving the room. Anne placed her hands on her abdomen and closed her eyes, hugging the baby with her mind and blood and being, loving the piece of John she carried. She cried until the tears were gone from her, and then opened her eyes. Her pain—her intense, heaving pain— had already killed her baby. She could not let it do any more harm. She wouldn’t let it. She’d do better for Michael.

The baby was a girl, they learned afterward, and Michael stood at Anne’s bedside and asked if they could name her Diane. “After the song dad always sang,” he said. “I can’t get it out of my head.”

Anne knew then that they would bury her—just she and Michael and Mr. Mulvey leaning against a shovel in the backyard, standing in the sun. Surrounded by trees and grass and sky, and all the things that would remain. It was the right place for her.

Later, when Mr. Mulvey left and they sat on the grass, Anne grabbed Michael’s face in her hands and watched him for several moments, rubbing his cheeks with her thumbs. His hair and eyes were the deep brown of wet tree trunks. Behind them, inside, boxes of clothes and dishes, books and knickknacks, filled the living room in crooked towers. “I couldn’t have raised two children on my own,” she finally said, but that was all.

The sun burned through July. Michael wished hard and felt hopeful to the end, but the day came, as any day. He and his mother packed up the truck and trailer one morning and said goodbye to their farm, to the places of his father, to the baby. Before he left the house for good, Michael snuck a knife from a box and pushed it hard into the front door jamb. It felt good as he broke through the grain and scratched out the letters. Michael 1983. If he could not take it with him, he would leave something behind.

14

**The Rooms Are Filled CYBER MONDAY SALE — CLICK HERE**

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Tweet: Coming-of-age fiction lovers, take a peek at Ch. 1 of #TheRoomsAreFilled: http://ctt.ec/c5Hug+

The Rooms Are Filled *Sale!*

Morning, all. I hope your Thanksgivings were full of good food and the warm comfort of friends and family.

In honor of Small Business Saturday (what are we writers if not small businesses?) and of Cyber Monday, She Writes Press and I are putting the e-book version of The Rooms Are Filled on sale–99 cents today through Monday.

Click HERE to get it. Or please consider sharing this post with a friend.

jpegThe Rooms Are Filled is based on a true story about the friendship between a nine-year-old boy and his closeted teacher. Here’s what I wrote about my book on Goodreads:

There are many reasons The Rooms Are Filled is dear to me. It was written at home in bits and pieces between breastfeedings, in a midnight daze on the notebook beside my bed, and on scraps of paper in the preschool pick-up line; then, later, during the precious hours the babysitter came.

It is dear to me because it is based on a story my father told me many years ago–his story of growing up in rural Minnesota and then Franklin Park, Illinois, in the 1950s. He was teased  and his lovely teacher, a rumored lesbian, took him under her wing.

But it is also based in my own childhood near Chicago in the 1980s, on my love for that childhood of candy store trips and swimming pools. Of wandering.

It is dear to me because it is my first book, filled with things I love. I am happy to share it with you.

And I’m happy to share it with you, too. I’ll be posting the first chapter in full on this blog on Monday, so keep an eye out.

The Rooms Are Filled 99-CENT SALE

Two Weeks Post Mastectomy/Hysterectomy

I’m a little over two weeks out from surgery. It’s been…a million things, and all those things are still flying around inside my head and hard to sort. I think I’ll write a future post filled with the details for those who might be interested, BRCA mutants like me. For now, though, here’s how the last two weeks have generally gone for me:

First, it was harder than I thought it would be. At one point, as I walked hunched over from my bathroom to my bed four days after surgery, I said to my sister, “I can’t fucking believe I chose to do this.”

It wasn’t the nicest thing to say to my sister, because she is following me with the same surgery next month.

Seven years ago, I had an emergency c-section—the slicing open of my abdomen after it had been constricting on and off during 13 hours of labor. That was pretty painful. My abdomen was extremely sore and bruised and it was hard to pull myself up to sitting for about three weeks.

In my head, I’d compared this surgery to that and I was oh-so-wrong. A double mastectomy is like having Alex Rodriguez take a swing at your chest with a metal bat. Seven times.

I knew the surgeon would open the breast, scoop out the cancer-susceptible flesh, and insert an expander—a sort of placeholder, since I’d chosen not to do full reconstruction at the time of the surgery.

What for some reason I did not know is that the expander is placed under the muscle. I’m fairly small-boned and small-chested, which meant the surgeon had a difficult time pulling the muscle out enough to insert the expander. My surgery ended up taking about two hours longer than usual. I can only imagine, fortunately, the slicing and pulling that was required. No wonder Alex Rodriguez came to mind afterward. (There has been almost no pain from the hysterectomy.)

After the Surgery

I’m hesitant to rip apart nurses because nurses are in my family and, mostly, nurses rock. However, 75% of the nurses working on the 3rd floor of Unnamed Hospital in Highland Park, Illinois from November 4-7 did not rock.

By, “they did not rock”, I mean:

  • I was allowed to remain in severe pain the entire first night of my stay. They had me on no medication save the morphine button in my hand, which I was allowed to push every ten minutes. But since it was, you know, 2am and the previous day I’d had major surgery, it was hard to stay awake to push the damn button. Whenever I did wake, in severe pain, I was told, “You’ve got to push the button to stay on top of the pain.” When my husband and I got angry enough, the nurse finally called the surgeon to get me more medicine.
  • Unfortunately, the same story continued the next day with a different nurse. The new medicine was prescribed to be given every six hours. But by hour four, I was in a good amount of pain. I was told, “Sorry, you need to wait two more hours.” After two rounds of this, again when we got angry enough, she called the surgeon.
  • One nurse put on gloves, typed on a computer, then came and inspected my incisions with the same gloves.
  • I told that same nurse that despite the catheter, I had the very uncomfortable feeling that I needed to pee extremely bad. She sort of shrugged and said sometimes that happens. So I endured the sharp pain in my bladder for an hour until the nurse came back, this time with another nurse. I told that nurse of the problem, she looked at the catheter, discovered it had a kink in it that was stopping all the fluid being pumped into me through an IV from exiting my body, and fixed the problem.

But possibly the most troublesome thing about the last two weeks is that I awoke from surgery with worse vision in my left eye, accompanied by severe headaches and slight nausea about every other day. We’re not sure if this is caused by the lack of hormones, the medications (I’ve tried a few), or the surgery itself. TBD.

All of this sounds like a lot of bitching. Some days, I am pissed. But most days, I’m happy to have the surgery over with. I’m thankful I had the choice to take a big step to prevent me from getting cancer. I feel grateful for the notes and flowers and pumpkin breads and soups and cookies that have been sent to my house.

And I feel deep love from my family. My whole family has been helpful—mom, dad, stepdad, sister, brother, in-laws, aunts, uncles. But there are always standouts, right? The two standouts in my story are my mother and my husband.

My mom, balancing her work bag, her change of clothes, and my daughter's laundry

My mom balancing her work bag, her change of clothes, and my daughter’s laundry

My mom has been at my house almost every day. I was out of my mind for awhile on all the narcotics, but now that I’m more with it, one of the pleasurable side effects of major surgery is that I can sort of feel like a child again. She doesn’t let me get up from my comfy chair. She takes the kids to school. She makes me breakfast. Of course, I have to chat an awful lot with her, but that’s been nice, too. (Love you, Mom.)

Every day for two weeks, my husband cleaned my drains, administered my several medications, helped me shower, brought me everything I needed, reached for all the things I couldn’t, woke with me in the night when necessary, and took care of all of our children’s needs at night and in the mornings and during some parts of the day, too, as he also worked from the dining room table. He did all of this without complaining to me one time. Not once. He never huffed or snorted or rolled his eyes or breathed deeply. He didn’t pause in rising to help me up, in retrieving Chapstick, or bringing water. It turns out there’s a lot you can’t do after a double mastectomy, and he did all of it for me.

I’m trying to think of a joke to make because that’s what we do–if it gets too serious and emotional, my family jokes. But I can’t think of one. So just a big thank you and I love you to Alex, who turned out to be the best nurse.

Alex coloring with Clara while I recovered

Alex coloring with our daughter while I recovered