Monday, July 13, 2015

A shiny pink colon

I know a thing or two about colons, both grammatically and physiologically, and I'm a big fan of each. In writing, a well-placed colon makes us stop and pay attention to what's coming. It's dramatic and sometimes even a bit sexy. Not so with the other colon. Although it can make us stop and pause (and run to the nearest toilet), it's rarely dramatic nor sexy. Let's face it: Our colons are poop pushers, and nobody really likes to talk about poop. (That is, unless they are any of the three males living in my house.*)

My mom died way too young because she was embarrassed to go to her doctor when she started having poop problems. I'm still so angry with her about that, 20 years later! Even more, she didn't just die, she really suffered. For years. First through painful surgeries, then the indignity of a colostomy bag, then countless rounds of chemotherapy that left her bald and weak. And let's not even talk about the pain she endured as cancer ravaged every one of her systems in her final months. These things were not her fault, I know, but my sadness and anger over her death only deepen when I think that it could have been prevented, either by her going to the doctor sooner or by the doctor asking the right questions about her damn poop.

Now I have a colonscopy every 5 years to make sure my own colon remains shiny and pink and healthy. In between those checks, I'm like a poopologist, paying meticulous attention to how many times I go to the bathroom in a day, size, shape, color -- you get the gist. I even ask my husband and children embarrassing questions about their poop, and I don't get at all upset when a kid calls me into the bathroom yelling "Mommy! You gotta see this one!" I eat as much fiber in a day as possible, sneaking oat bran into pancakes or beans into, well, everything. (And yes, I take Beano so as not to embarrass myself and all those around me.) And I drink water like it's my job because I hear colons really appreciate that.

Yet as today's colonoscopy -- my third -- edged closer, I found myself tensing. This creepy, hateful voice in the back of my head kept whispering "she was only 4 years older than you." I would push that voice away, punch it in its ugly face, but it sneaked up more than once in just-before-sleep thoughts or even a couple times in the middle of reading a manuscript or checking my emails. Like a mosquito buzzing viciously around my ear. Even yesterday as I was going through the "prep" (which is a polite way of saying super-intense laxative-induced toilet-hell), I found myself thinking, oh God, what if they find something? What if I have to have surgery or go through chemo? I can't be sick to my stomach like this for more than a few hours! Nobody in this house can take care of getting their own snacks or remember to scoop the litter box, for Chrissake, I CAN'T DIE! (Yes, I spiral like that -- from medically prescribed and controlled diarrhea to brutal, cancerous death in minutes.)

We all know our fragile little lives can change permanently and incomprehensibly in an instant. We read all the time about dramatic and horrible things like car crashes, running accidents, or random violence that cut young lives short. But what about occasional dizziness or difficulty pooping...things we totally don't think about in our ultra-busy days? It happened to my mom. In the last two months alone, two of my dearest friends have been diagnosed with brain tumors, seemingly out of thin air. How is that possible? One minute you're planning a birthday cruise to Alaska, the next you're on a surgical table with someone poking in your brain. What the hell? And let's not forget that I sat with Honey in the hospital just a month ago, mere hours after a glorious sunshiny hike along the Maine coast, wondering if this was the bout that would do him in.

In a blink, a snap, before you even know what hit you. It all happens too damn fast. And I'm all too aware of the genetics that I carry -- the cancer and the diabetes and the high blood pressure -- all of them game-changers. They're all sitting here with me now, in fact, hanging out on my shoulders and tickling the hairs on the back of my neck as they so often do, the jerks.

Yet here's the good news: On this day, at this moment, my colon is shiny and pink and happy. No abnormalities noted and a discharge paper that reads "See you in 5 years." I'm going to grab my kids and my husband into a gigantic, awkward family hug this evening, and we're going to pray in gratitude for my shiny, pink colon. We'll pray in gratitude for the "butt camera," as Zippy termed it, that has set my fears at ease for now. And we'll pray in gratitude for the endocrinologist and nutritionist who are helping Honey to battle his genetic trash, too. We'll also pray in gratitude for my friends with their fancy brains, because we know that they are resilient and strong and they will teach us how to be so, too. We'll pray in gratitude that my mom lived a brief yet gigantic life, that she touched so many others with her smarts and her generosity and her love -- and we'll be grateful that because of her fight, we now know how important our poop truly is.

* It should be noted that the three males in this house who love to talk about poop were completely horrified by the colon photos I showed them this evening. And you may thank them for talking me out of posting those photos here. Even though they are gloriously beautiful to me!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Grow old along with me. Pretty please.

I glanced into the mirror as I rinsed my hands last Sunday morning. The face looking back shocked me: dry skin dotted with acne and a sunspot on the cheek, lines and pores more visible than ever; hair speckled with grays but lacking any lightness ("as we get older, unfortunately our hair loses it's luster," says my rainbow-haired 20-something hairdresser); bloodshot eyes sunken behind puffy folds of skin, crows feet wrinkles forming in their corners; a chin that's quickly moving south and a jawline getting rounder, thanks to the 12 (!) pounds of "winter weight" I'm carrying. (But let's be honest: We know this weight's not going on summer vacation.) I don't like much about this picture.

I shlumped back into bed with a big dramatic sigh. "God, I look old. And I'm fat. And my skin is horrendous. I'm hideous."

"You're beautiful to me. Always," he reassured as he pulled me closer.

"How can you tell? Your eyesight is terrible. You're so old you can't even see me."

He rolled over and wrapped his arms around me, radiating warmth against my back, kissed my neck and ran his hand along my arm to rest on my elbow. He whispered, "I promise, you're beautiful. Always. But...," he tweaked my elbow, "your boob used to be much softer."

As I fell into giggles, he kissed me again. Softly, gently, because he knows I'm fragile right at this moment. We adjusted our round bellies so we fit comfortably next to each other on our sides. I relaxed into that moment as I realized this, yes, this is what it means, the reason we are Us, the reason we are really good together even all these years later. His beard is flecked with gray and his eyes have lines around them, too, but he's so much more handsome; there's wisdom in those grays and laughter in those lines. He gets me. But more, we like each other. We laugh. We roll with the tides of life.

When I picked our wedding song, "Grow Old With Me," it seemed sweet and sentimental: "Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be." I was 24, he was 27. We were so young, we thought we were right in the midst of The Best. Yet growing old together seemed romantic, faraway, idealistic. "Grow old along with me, two branches of one tree."

But here we are, 15 years later, and it's happening. We're growing older together, discovering the best really is yet to be. In fact, the best is happening every day whether or not we're paying attention to it. Two healthy growing kids that challenge and surprise us and fill us with joy; one miscarried baby that shattered our spirits but reminded us how much we yearned to be parents again. Four near-death illnesses that have taught us how to be strong for each other, how to ask for help from those who love us. Two parents' deaths, which showed us that life cannot ever be taken for granted. One layoff, four new jobs, each transition proving that there will never be enough money yet somehow we always live comfortably. One major relocation and life reboot: moving to a new city without even knowing what our rental house looked like, facing foreclosure on our empty house with aplomb, knowing whatever happens next, we will handle it. And every day, through every phase, no matter what, when he comes home, this man wraps his arms around me and I melt. That is my favorite moment of each day. All these years later, I still feel a tiny thrill when I hear the key turn in the door and know he's home. I'm whole.

Today is our wedding anniversary. But he is in the hospital, fighting tremendous pain and feeling scared and helpless. I am at home, caring for our vomiting child and harassing our realtor about our big empty house. It's been a shitty week. I probably should feel sorry for myself, but I don't. Instead I'm looking at photos of us and our kids over the last year, grateful for the smiles and the sunshine and all the excitement and newness we've experienced together. Yes, I hate it when he's sick. It's terrifying and frustrating and maddening. But even when he's not in the hospital I fight back fear of losing him every single day; I often wake in the night to make sure he's breathing beside me. I don't really know how many times I can brace myself for his death before it actually kills me instead.

But this is Us. It's part of who We are. No matter how hard the hardest days are, even the regular days are so worth it -- and the great days, like the time we played hooky and spent the day together meandering through Boothbay, or when we took the kids to the National Zoo in a rain storm -- well, the great days knock my socks off. He is my companion and greatest cheerleader. He is the only person I can be completely honest with. He has given me these amazing children, and when I watch him as a father, I am awed by his wisdom and humor and firm yet patient style. Also, he thinks I'm beautiful no matter what.

So. This is Us. Growing older together. In the prime of our lives, hiking along rocks on the edge of the bay one day, calling an ambulance and clinging to hope the next. Newlywed-me had a slight inkling of how hard marriage can be because I watched my parents struggle through better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health. In fact, I almost broke up with him after my mother died because I was so afraid of loving someone so much that I would feel pain and fall apart the way my father did without her. Thank God I stuck with him! Can you imagine what I would have missed out on? I joke sometimes that I wish I'd known about his genetic disposition to Bad Health Things before we'd married...but really, what good would that have done? I adore this man and I love the life we've created. I would have missed out on everything.

I did not realize way back in my 20s when we got married and picked that sappy wedding song that growing old together would be my greatest wish every single day. I also didn't realize, when I said those vows, that our worse would make us better, our poorer would make us richer, and our sickness would make us healthier.

Happy anniversary, lovebug. Grow old along with me. Pretty please.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I love-hate my house

Our big, empty house still has not sold. We listed it last July at a price that would allow us to break even; it's now listed almost $50,000 below what we paid for it in 2006. And it will likely sell for even lower than that. I feel physically ill when I think about how much money we have thrown away on this place.

This house has in fact been a major source of stress and anxiety since the moment we signed the papers. When I think about our first winter there -- when I look at photos of my sweet Happy, just 18 months old opening Christmas gifts on the bare tile floor because we couldn't yet afford an area rug -- I taste the sour fear that we wouldn't be able to maintain the place, let alone pay the mortgage every month. It's ironic that now that we're in a better job situation and not even living in the house, we still face major financial hardship because of this building.

The annual first-day-of-school pic
in front of Bachmania
We've been house-poor for almost a decade, never really able to make the improvements we wanted in the 8 years we lived there. We bought the house at the peak of the market, just before the big real estate crash and recession, and the monthly mortgage payment has always been too high, more than we could really afford. I held my breath every time we turned on the heat or a/c: Old house, old systems, and I've been constantly worried something huge would give out and we wouldn't be able to replace or fix it. Miraculously, we've eked it out, even through job loss, an expanding family, and significant changes in income. Just before we moved, we sunk more than $10,000 into the place, replacing the master bathroom the week before and the entire roof the day after we moved out. I haven't even seen what that new roof looks like. Surely it's spectacular, as far are roofs go.

It wasn't really the right house for us from the start, an ugly split-level like all the others around it, lacking character except for the large semi-private yard. It didn't have the right space for large people with growing kids either. The kitchen was too small; the garage served as our pantry. The bathroom had a Jacuzzi tub that was too short for my long legs. The ceiling in the family room is low enough that if I wore heels, I had to bend my neck slightly at the bottom of the stairs. The master bedroom was just big enough for our bed and dressers, barely room enough for two 6-foot adults. There were cave crickets in the laundry room, for heaven's sake!
I spent many hours reading and
drinking wine on this deck.

Ironically, despite the ill-proportioned rooms, it was too much house for a busy young family. Cleaning inside took hours, and maintaining the yard took entire afternoons in the spring, summer, and fall. Most weekends, by the time the yard work was done, we were too tired to enjoy the yard. And now I'm actually paying someone to do the yard work, which I hate even more because I'm still not enjoying the yard!

Here's the punchline: I miss that poorly laid-out, time-sucking, money-draining house. I miss sitting on the beautiful deck shaded by 60-foot trees in the late afternoon. I miss eating tomatoes from my garden. I miss sending the kids out back to play together on the swing set. I miss working in my little desk in the back corner of the sunroom, watching the family of cardinals in the weeping cherry tree. I miss hearing the high school marching band in the fall; in fact, that was the sound that made us want to buy the house in the first place. I miss each of us having our own space to spread out, Happy drawing in the sunroom, Honey watching football in the family room, Zippy playing by me in the dining room while I cooked on a Sunday afternoon. I miss a fire crackling on Christmas morning or the entire family gathered around the table singing happy birthday. I miss sprawling on the sectional sofa with bowls of popcorn on a Friday night in front of a dumb kids' movie. I miss waking to the hum of the neighbors' lawn mower, or watching the fireflies twinkle in the trees outside our window.

I miss our neighbors, who were always friendly and happy to see us. I miss having a bunch of children for Happy and Zippy to play with whenever they stepped out the front door. I miss walking to the park or library whenever we wanted. I miss the moms at the bus stop each morning and the way my heart would swell when I saw all our kids bound off the bus together in the afternoons. I miss catching up with friends at the swim club on our street or seeing familiar faces in the coffee shop on a Friday morning.

We could cram a lot of people in
for birthday parties.
Stupid house! I'm so mad that I miss you! I never liked your structure, your small rooms, your upkeep, your expense. But you were our home for a long time. In fact, I lived with you longer than any other house in my life. Your belly was where our older son learned how to walk and where I rocked my younger son as a newborn, staring out the front window at the small Japanese maple and basketball hoop in the front yard. Your backyard held countless family cookouts, hosted neighborhood friends for campfire marshmallow roasts, grew delicious vegetables, and served as final resting place for our beloved cat. In your rooms we rode out two hurricanes and two extreme winters. And you always provided space and warmth for our family and friends. You really sucked at being a house, but you were really good as a home.

Being responsible for a big empty house 500 miles away from where I live is wearing me down considerably. I have missed out on a lot of sleep worrying about the house and wondering why it's not been purchased yet. I feel every person who walks through and doesn't make an offer hates it, and I do take that personally. But I understand because I, too, hate this house! I would like nothing more than for an asteroid to land on it.

I know, however, that when the day comes that we actually sign it over to a new family, I will weep.

Monday, April 27, 2015

All that is right

This afternoon I called the police because I witnessed a man beating a woman on the street. I saw a few dozen homeless folks waiting outside the soup kitchen, as I do each morning and evening. I turned on the news and writhed as I watched reports of Baltimore burning, another rage-fueled episode in our country's churning racial struggle. This story eclipsed, at least for a little while, news of the devastating earthquakes and avalanches in Nepal that have killed thousands in one of the world's poorest countries.

I spent a lot of time today noticing things that are wrong with the world, until at last I grew weary and sad. Then I came upstairs to bed and saw this, and I quickly remembered all that is right on our beautiful, fucked up planet.

Love wins. Every time. It has to. It simply must.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The universe will right itself

Dear Grace,
The story of your birthday party has touched me: the friendships between you and Justin and between your mom and Tammy, the outpouring of support from friends and family and strangers, photos of you smiling and dancing in your beautiful teal gown. You don't seem comfortable with all the attention, but as your name suggests, you bear it graciously and gracefully and gratefully. In the short time I've known your family, I have admired your mother's humor and poise, and I've enjoyed your brother's quirky brilliance. And now I know and respect your resilience and wisdom. 

I thought over and over while reading and processing your story, "I can't imagine what that family is going through." But I realized today that's not true. I lived this hell that you're in now. And truly, the fact that it took me a little while to realize that may a testimony to the fact that someday, you too will heal. You may never feel whole and you will carry deep scars, but you will heal.

Here's how I know: My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer just before my 18th birthday, during my first year of college. My brother was 16, my sister only 8. My mom was 47 when she died almost four years later, just a day short of her 48th birthday. Doctors gave her four months to live when first diagnosed; she fought and scrapped and struggled for almost four years. And so did the rest of us. We supported her in every way we could: we prayed, we ate weird foods and juice combinations, we held her hand through experimental treatments, we took lavish vacations to try to forget. I fought with my mother often during her illness, usually over petty things but sometimes over huge hurts; looking back I know I was angry with her for ruining my college years, and she was surely angry with me for being young, healthy, and away. 

We never, ever talked about her dying. Not once. Even though death lurked around every corner, every decision, every sleep. I can't even look at photographs from that time because she looked sallow or swollen or hairless or scared, even when smiling. My mom stopped treatment around May of my senior year so she could be well enough to see me graduate from college. She looked beautiful that summer, gray wisps of hair growing back in, color returning to her cheeks. We children naively thought she had kicked it, she was getting better. Only she and my dad knew she was dying, finally. She wanted to go out with grace and love. And she did, in August, just four very fast months. 

Watching someone you love suffer is one of the most horrible pains you will endure. I know your dad is strong and brave, and I know he fights valiantly for the sake of your family. But you, my sweet girl, you are even stronger. In one of the articles about your party, you're quoted as saying that someday the universe will right itself, like perhaps you'll win the lottery or have flowers brought to your deathbed when you're nearing 100 years old. I smiled when I read this. Because you know what? It will. The universe will right itself. You have a long, beautiful, fulfilling life ahead of you. And you know what else? You know how to persevere, how to lean on others when they offer to help, how to enjoy small moments as they are happening. These are lessons that many full-grown adults won't ever learn -- or will learn too late after things fall apart. The universe will right itself. Twenty years from now, you will remember this party with mixed emotions. You may not really want to look at the photos. But over and over throughout your life, you will draw on the strength you've gained. You will remember the examples that your parents have set for you, how your father fights with every ounce of himself and your mother stands tall and wraps her arms around you all. You will remember that love exists even in the most horrible moments, and you will remember that humans are mostly kind.

My mother was diagnosed nearing my parents' 25th wedding anniversary. This put a particular urgency and poignancy behind renewing their wedding vows. Remember, she'd been given only months to live, so we decided to do it up! We filled the church with friends and family. My brother and I sang their wedding song, my sister carried flowers. Their best man surprised them by flying in from Canada. We had a huge party in our backyard -- music, lights, catered dinner, lots of beer. People from throughout my parents' past and present gathered to celebrate them. To celebrate life! To celebrate love! To celebrate the here-and-now and to show the scary-future "hey, you ain't so tough." We had a happy, care-free day during a terrifying, pain-filled time. One of my favorite photos of my parents was snapped on this day: my mom in her white skirt, laughing over a frilly cake with my dad, tanned and beaming in his summer suit. Her green eyes shone bright that day, and that's how I want to remember her. 

This party will be that memory for you, I hope. A celebration of life -- yours and your father's -- and a time when people could come together and show you how much you are loved. Remember the way he smiled at you during that dance. Remember the lightness and the joy in that room. It will buoy you.

You are resilient, Grace. You will grow and shine and keep on living, even in the face of horror and despair. The universe will right itself for you as it has for me. I know it will. In the meantime, please know how much you are loved.


I wrote this letter to Grace after reading this article about her Sweet 16 party, which a mutual friend had crowd-funded for her. I know both families casually, know that each endures pretty significant health stressors, and feel humbled by the way they all carry on with humor and unselfish acts of love. We never really know what those around us are carrying. Yet another reminder to be kind, always.