Moving Home

Big change usually hits me like water-based stain on hard pine. (Can you tell I’m in the midst of a major home renovation?) Half of it doesn’t sink in until hours later. In my case, months. So it still hasn’t fully sunk in that we have this whole new life thirty minutes from our old one, on five spreading acres instead of a postage stamp-sized suburban lawn. It comes to me in small waves, when I look out at our towering spruces, or when I reflect that the last three months seem more like 18. Time goes faster as I get older, but in this small window of time, it has stretched so fully it’s unrecognizable.

This move, I know, will become a “before and after” moment for me, for us. Before the move…after the move. It is the first occasion my second-grade son has had to test his own personal fortitude, his first big life challenge as he adjusts to a new school and new friends.

They say kids are resilient, especially little ones. And they are. But I don’t think for a minute this move hasn’t been hard on my four (now five) year old daughter. When given full control over what color to paint her bedroom, she chose her old room color. When we visited friends on our old block, she was the one, not my older son, who stood on the sidewalk in front of our old house and just looked at it for a full minute. The nest that encompassed her and kept her warm for the first four years of her life was suddenly gone, replaced by a dusty mess half torn apart. It was hard for her to understand that new people now lived there, slept in her room.

For me, this move has been many things—worry and sadness watching my children struggle mightily through the hard moments; determination that this will work—that the outdated house with overgrowth ensnarling it will be transformed into a home that my husband can love. This wasn’t his idea; he moved for me in an act of unselfish generosity, plain and simple.

This move is also the achievement of a dream. As a grader schooler, I searched the real estate ads for farms in Wisconsin and begged my parents to buy one. I wanted land. I wanted to see trees and fields out my window instead of other houses. I wanted to be like Anne of Green Gables.

We never moved, and I grew up. I learned to love the big city of Chicago. I grew to understand that you live where the jobs are, that having a lot of land requires other sacrifices—connection, amenities, convenience. My dream of having land seemed to be replaced by common sense, and also a love of historical houses on small lots near old town centers. That was all good, too.

Then my husband changed jobs. He now worked north, in Wisconsin. What started as “we might have to move to shorten your commute so let’s start looking in Wisconsin” turned into “look what money can buy when you move farther out from Chicago.” And eventually, the dream I thought had died with childhood was reignited and back stronger than ever. It hadn’t died; it was just undernourished. (Childhood dreams are funny that way. I think those dreams are the truest.)

We house hunted over the next couple of years, but didn’t find anything we both loved—taxes were too high, or it was too rural, or the house was falling apart or the schools weren’t great or….. By last fall, we’d actually decided to stop actively looking and stay put, to my partial dismay.

Then two things happened, within weeks of each other. I had a double mastectomy and hysterectomy, and my childhood friend called to tell me she just drove past an amazing property that had me written all over it.

Towering, centuries-old oaks, a barn, two ponds, a creek.

Major surgery, fear, appreciation, time.

When my husband and I first walked the property, something deep within, something sprouting since long ago, felt at home immediately.

Six months later, we watched as the last of our things were packed into the moving truck and the four of us took a selfie on our front steps. We left the home where the children were born and where all the memories we had as a family had taken place.

But we still have those memories tucked snugly in our minds, where they’ve always been. And now we have resilience and change and new frontiers. We have a fawn milking from her mama on our lawn, a coyote napping under the oaks, bullfrogs singing in our ponds, and orange leaves sprinkling down in the sunshine. We have soccer games and creek crossings and a tree swing that flies.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed by dusty drywall and buckthorn and wild, choking vines and light fixtures and wood stain, I take a step back and let this move sink in a bit more. I feel at home.

I’m looking now, and all I see is goodness.

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Ignoring the News to Stay Sane

In the months after I had my first child, I was plagued by a variety of gruesome visions. I’d be walking down the stairs, holding my son in a blanket, and picture myself falling and smashing our heads into the wall at the bottom. I’d be driving to Target with him in the backseat and picture a head-on collision at 50mph. I’d see him wide-eyed underwater in the bathtub, struggling to breathe.

mother-watching-daughterI thought I was going crazy. I thought I had become some morbid, fearful person due to lack of sleep. Then I talked to another new mom.

“I do that all the time, too!” she said. We were both relieved. And we came up with a perfectly logical reason for envisioning the horrific deaths of our children on a daily basis:

We were practicing being good moms.

It makes sense. Our brains were warning us of all the dangers that could happen, so we would protect our children. So we would walk down stairs carefully, so we would drive more defensively, so we wouldn’t run to answer the phone with our children in the bathtub. We were good moms.

Fast forward seven years and my visions have become less frequent, but they still occur. Only now I also see a depressed young man walking into my son’s school and shooting the children as they eat lunch. I see sections of sports stadiums blowing up and cars driving through storefront windows into groups of people. Things like that. Things out of my control.

A while ago, my dad said to me, while arguing that too many of my generation are helicopter parents, “You’re all walking around scared. It’s like you’re shell-shocked.” And it hit me—we are. We are shell-shocked. And maybe we aren’t on the front lines, and maybe it’s disrespectful to suggest we suffer the same as the men and women who are. But we parents have suffered from the slow, insidious, creeping terror of the last two decades.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST AT SCARY MOMMY, WHICH FEATURES MY POST TODAY. THANKS!

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

Boob Voyage

I’m one week from having a double mastectomy and full hysterectomy to prevent the possibility of cancer, since I have the BRCA mutation.

At this point, I’m excited simply because I’m close to getting it over with. Looking back over the last six months, I’ve gone through a full range of emotions and I just wanna get off this roller coaster and be done with it.

Interestingly, I’m forcing myself to write this because I know writing always makes me feel better. But it’s one of the few things I actually don’t want to share on this blog. Perhaps it’s too personal, even for me. In an earlier post, I promised I’d write about it, since it’s as “true” a story as any on this site, but I haven’t felt like it.

So I’ll be quick about this (no editing!) and make a list, and hopefully, as often happens when I write, I’ll feel better. And maybe someone who is going through the same thing will read this and feel better, too.

Things of note.

  • Last week, I got my period. And I realized, “I’ll never have my period again.” And while that would often be cause for joy, it made me cry. Another thing to say goodbye to. (Other times I’ve cried include the moment it hit me that I will have no more children and the moments I’ve thought about losing parts of my body.)
  • Often-present sense of guilt that I feel this sad and emotional about my surgeries, since I don’t actually have cancer. There are groups devoted to the support of people like me, and while at first I thought that was a bit overboard, now I get it. Plus, there are other cancers I still do have to worry about, that I can’t have surgery to help prevent.
  • No, I am not excited about getting a “boob job,” since that’s not what I’m getting, not really.
  • The number of doctor appointments associated with this process is between extraordinary and extra-extraordinary.
  • For a while, I was scared about the surgery itself, more scared than I’ve ever been about anything. I “knew” I wasn’t going to make it through and that was going to be the end of me. I’ve had surgery before, but was never this scared. Fortunately, I’ve passed that phase. If my mom can have a hysterectomy, I can too. This took some mental work, a good reminder that we can change our thinking. Just picture it differently and the picture will change.
  • I’ve never doubted this is the right decision. I’ve definitely freaked out about surgery, but I would freak out even more if I had to get screened for breast and ovarian cancer every six months. As it is, I’ll have to be regularly screened for pancreatic cancer and melanoma.
  • One of the hardest things to put to words is how much I value and appreciate the love I’ve been shown by family and friends. The words “value” and “appreciate” are so ordinary. I’m almost uncomfortable with the wonderful things that have been said to me and done for me. And they remind me that while this isn’t the situation I’ve hoped for, the reality is this: I can largely do something about the shitty situation I’ve been placed in, and that isn’t the case for so very many people. On top of it, I can do something about it surrounded by people I love, and that’s not the case for some, either.

So, really, at the end of the day I feel lucky. Because out of the range of shittiness that can happen in one’s life, I’ll take this any day of the week.

My sister masterminded a surprise “Boob Voyage” party for me, which was awesome in and of itself, let alone considering she will also be having a double mastectomy, one month after me. That’s the kind of people I roll with.

Enjoy some pictures of the party, and I’ll see you on the flip side (meaning after the surgery, not after life).

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Courtesy of my mom and sister.

My mom, me, my sister, and my aunt all carry the BRCA mutation.

My mom, my sister, my aunt, and I all carry the BRCA mutation.

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A table full of some of my favorite people, in a room full of even more of my favorite people.

My husband and sister.

My husband and sister.

I'm quite touched by the number of men who came out to my Boob Voyage.

I’m quite touched by the number of men who came out to my Boob Voyage.

And finally, one of the best cards I’ve ever received, from my friends John and Michelle:

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Endnote: it took some strength for me to call this Boob Voyage, though appropriate. As some of you might remember, I don’t like certain words such as “blog” because they’re too flubbery sounding. Same goes for boobs. But Breast Voyage sounded too serious.

A First-grader’s Account of a School Lockdown Drill

I wrote the following Facebook post last night, and it sparked a discussion that I’d like to continue here:

At dinner tonight, here are the sad, inevitable, horrifying words that spilled out of my first-grader’s mouth, four days into the school year (being a writer, I couldn’t help but discreetly take notes as he talked). I’m sharing them because I think they’re important–whether your own child says them out loud or not:

“There’s one thing about my school that makes me not want to go back. It’s this thing called a hard lockdown where in case there’s a bad guy in the school who wants to take a child or has a gun we have to go into the bathroom. And we have to be quiet for like three hours. Well, sometimes it might just be ten minutes but sometimes it might take a lot of hours. And we have to face the bathroom door and sing a quiet song so he doesn’t hear us.

“But our teacher said he’d have to get through her first. And we have like 19 kids in our classroom, and we could tackle him, too, couldn’t we? Kids can tackle adults. There are 19 of us. We could do it, right?

Photo Credit: BRETT MYERS/Youth Radio

Photo Credit: BRETT MYERS/Youth Radio

“I was so good and happy in school, in kindergarten and the first part of first grade, until they talked about the hard lockdowns. I thought that it would happen.

“But I guess it never happened in kindergarten and that was a whole year.”

When my son finished talking, I told him: “Just like they need to prepare you for tornadoes and fires, they need to prepare you for this. And just like with tornadoes and fires, it’s very unlikely it will ever happen. There are some bad people in the world, so we need to be prepared, but there are many, many more good people.”

The Facebook discussion brought up a whole host of questions: Why weren’t parents told about the drill? What is the right way to prepare children for the very rare possibility an armed nut will enter their school? How do we talk about it afterward with our children? What role do parents play in school drills? What details do children need to know? Should it even be called a “lockdown”?

Please join the conversation and let me know your thoughts in the comments below–has your child had a similar drill? What is your school’s policy regarding parent notification? What words do you use with your child when talking about it? Does your school have a discussion with children after the drill?