Counting Change

There’s definitely been something about this year.

I don’t know if midlife crises find us, or if we find them through several culminating, transforming experiences.

Either way, I think I’m in one. Though CRISIS is the wrong word. Much too harsh. Maybe it’s a Mid-life Growth Spurt. Maybe I’ve finally become an adult and this is what it feels like. I thought it happened when I had my first child, but maybe that was just the dig that set it all up—the planting that’s been watered and sunned over the last six years.

This year–I’ll use the school year in this sense–started with my daughter transitioning to a Big Girl Bed and leaving her crib behind. The ends of things have always saddened me, I wrote at the time.

Then my son entered kindergarten. There were times I couldn’t wait for my children to enter school. This, in a nutshell, is the cruel joke of parenthood. I am now, and forever will be, in a constant struggle for space and independence, coupled with lonesomeness in the moments I find it.

I’ve never seen the movie To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, but I thought of that title several times over the last year. Thirty-seven was a big one for me. My year of changes, of feeling older, of seeing the end of the road. That sounds exaggerated, over-wrought. But it’s true. I see that there’s an end to this. I never could before, in that wonderful way of childhood and young adulthood, invincibility and joy. Now, I see that time does indeed fly with great big wings. I know when I am seventy I will look back on today and see softer edges, illuminated by the glow that the past inevitably holds for me. And I will think, “Man, that went fast.”

I turned 38 in February. Unfortunately, whatever black magic 37 possessed did not disappear instantaneously.

It was in that mindset, in April of this year of change, that I found out I’m BRCA positive–I have “the cancer gene,” the BRCA mutation, whatever of the various names for this relatively new diagnosis. I therefore have a much greater chance than the general population of having certain types of cancer, namely breast and ovarian. But also pancreatic, skin, and possibly lung and cervical. And who knows what else; it seems so new and good studies are long and slow, that nothing feels solid. Then again, I’ve been in a bit of denial and I’ve pushed it all off, which is unlike me. But I was diagnosed two weeks before my first book was published and I was determined to keep it at bay until after I could celebrate for awhile.

Well, my book tour is over so now’s the time, I suppose. (Though let’s be honest, there’s no way I’m putting my book too far in the background when it’s less than two months old; it still needs some motherly love.) My sister, also positive (which is actually misleading because in our cases, we don’t even have the gene; it’s missing from our DNA), dove in and learned all she could about the gene and our options. I had a “meeting” with her the other night to get up to speed. I felt slightly numb the entire time we talked, as I have pretty much since I found out.

Once in the car, though, a simple sight broke me: I drove past a father and daughter playing softball in a field. The father pitched to the daughter and she swung the bat  just as I passed and I could have sworn it was me and my father twenty-five years ago. And then time and motion and adulthood and childhood and joy and melancholy converged, and I cried all the way home.

There have been light moments—my sister and I laughed today as we talked about getting double mastectomies together and found ourselves saying things like, “December, maybe? I don’t know, when’s good for you?”

My mother and aunt are also BRCA-positive. Meanwhile, less than 1% of the population are BRCA-positive, according to ABC News. I’ve also heard it’s 2%. Regardless, we really represent in my family. We come to the table. Once your parent is BRCA-positive, you have a 50/50 chance of being positive yourself. So the women in my family flipped a coin four times in a row, and four times in a row we got BRCA-positive. I wish money was involved.

I hope to write about our experiences here; after all, it fits right in with the theme of this blog. But over the next few months, I might not be around a lot, and this is my explanation–to the readers and writers whom I usually visit and comment and correspond with. In this year of changes, there are a few more to come.

DNA

Meet My Mom (AKA: Me)

The other night, I sat watching the Olympics. My legs rested on the coffee table with a blanket draped over them, my arms half crossed and my chin resting in one palm, my hand holding a wadded-up tissue.

Kind of like this, except without the computer:

My son, a budding photographer, took this photo

My son, a budding photographer, took this photo

I turned to my husband to say something and then looked back at the TV. Suddenly, a flash of memory, of hundreds of memories, appeared so clearly in my mind that it was almost like I was inside it: growing up, I had seen my mother make that same gesture–that blanket-draped, chin-cupped, tissue-wadded, TV-viewing gesture–dozens of times.

It’s common to have those moments when you think, “I sound just like my mom.” I’ve had plenty already. But this was the first time I felt like my mom, like I inhabited her body–the her I knew as a child.

I was already sensitive to the I’m-my-mom feeling because of the wadded-tissue thing. I don’t really remember a time my mom wasn’t plagued by allergies, by the need to exit a conversation posthaste to run for a Kleenex. She’s always had a tissue stuffed in her coat pocket. When we go on walks, if it’s too warm for a coat, she stuffs one up her sleeve. She sleeps with one under her pillow.

I never had allergies, so I never had to deal with the suffering of feeling like a little guy with a feather was up inside one nostril, tickling away.

Until recently. Now–you guessed it–I sleep with a tissue under my pillow. I always have Kleenex in my purse or coat pocket. I keep them in the car and various cabinets. I now spend the first fifteen minutes of every day sneezing in the kitchen.

Also, I now say things my mom always said, things like:

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”

“Jesus H. Christ.” (A more formal version of the name, for business cards.)

“For Cripes Sake.” (Not sure of the spelling, since I’m not sure what this is.)

“In or out.” (said sternly on summer days when the children exit and enter the house several times per second)

“I can’t keep my eyes open. What time is it? 9:30? Sigh.”

“But you like [insert food]. Just eat it.”

So the other night on the couch was really just the culmination of what I already knew: in many ways, I’m my mom.

How about you? When did you know you were your mother?

The First Day of Kindergarten, and the Main Character

I read a moving article yesterday written by a man who had recently dropped off his son at college. There was a particular part that got to me—something about how parenthood is like being a secondary character in someone else’s story, and that it doesn’t matter because being a parent is enough of a reward. I related to this, and so I cried—partly, I admit, because it implies that my part of the story, the part when I am the central character, is over. I’ve been feeling this more and more the older I get.

I tried to remind myself that there’s plenty more to do. I half felt it. The world belongs to younger generations. Movies I grew up with are now being remade. Our fashions have made the full cycle to being back in style. I might be on top of the hill right now, but that’s just because I’m about to go over it. Many days, I’d much rather still be climbing up. I’m even a little jealous of my son, who is just planting a foot at the base of the mighty hill. He has so much to look forward to.

Today was my son’s first day of kindergarten. I cried a bit before we left to walk to school and worried my son, who’d been quite fine until he saw tears streaming down his mother’s face. I assured him I wasn’t sending him anywhere evil.

I wasn’t crying because I thought he’d be scared. I wasn’t crying because I was worried he won’t like it. I wasn’t crying, even, because it was the First Big Goodbye. I was crying because motherhood is like having an open wound that anyone walking by can poke, and sending my son to school is like asking for the wound to be stabbed with serrated knives. Maybe not that bad. But close.

I did not cry at the school. I kept it together like a She-Woman for the sake of my little one, since I’d already horrified him. (Though I almost lost it when a neighbor put a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Crying yet?”)

When I picked him up after school he smiled, like I knew he would, and said, “That was really fun.” Any sadness I had this morning whisked away.

And when I got home, an email was waiting for me. One of the authors I’d asked to write a blurb about my book had responded with a very nice note (which you’ll be seeing on the back cover when the book comes out).

I felt very much on top of the hill. And it reminded me that we’re all secondary characters in someone else’s story. Whether we’re central to our own story is up to us.

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On the way into school, the early climb