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“The world breaks everyone, and then some become strong at the broken places.”
My husband receives a call from the doctor who has his biopsy results. The small lump at his jawline is not uncommon- the doctor has been optimistic up until now – cavalier even- but it turns out that his is not benign at all. It is a rare cancer of the parotid gland.
We are about to find out that getting a cancer diagnosis causes one to enter the stages of grief. First stop: denial. How can this be? He is healthy. His medical reports have always been perfect. He is active, a young fifty-five and never felt better.
I’ve forgotten all about Halloween and now it’s getting dark, the time that little ones will start showing up at our door, looking for treats. We have no candy and are in no mood for visitors. We turn out most of the lights and sit in the near-dark living room, allowing this new reality to sit with us. We’ve kept the trick-or-treaters at bay, but we are not alone. There is a wolf at the door, and it is Cancer.
I call our daughters and deliver the news.
My husband is very concerned about disrupting mine and the girls’ lives. Always confident, capable and available, he feels he is failing us with this new and shocking title: cancer patient. Usually such a logical man, this makes little sense. Of course he did not choose this, no one does, and all we care about is him getting better. But the love and protection he has always given us, above and beyond what is expected, is one of the things I love about him. And now I want to protect him, to cure him, to save him. I am simultaneously aware of my inner strength and my mortal limitations.
It is our 31st wedding anniversary and also the day of my husband’s surgery. The surgeon removes the tumor as well as many lymph nodes in his neck. The doctors call it a neck dissection, but my husband prefers to call it a neck fillet. Even in his current state, he maintains a bit of his sense of humor. I am relieved. The past week has been emotionally rough to say the least, but we find reasons to laugh too.
We follow through on our plans to host Thanksgiving dinner at our home. It is a day of family and food and also of forgetting, for a few minutes at a time, that we are awaiting the next day’s pathology report.
We stop at the second floor of Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. We are fortunate to be just an hour drive away from such a reputable treatment center. We ride the elevator to the second floor. “Welcome to the land of the fucked”, my husband says as he looks around.
The oncologist is young, impeccably groomed and impossibly thin. He’s also friendly and kind but maintains the necessary level of detachment. He delivers the pathology report. It has been a successful surgery. No facial nerves were damaged. But cancer was found in one of the thirty-one lymph nodes that were removed. We discuss treatment options.
I gather books and food; I read and cook and freeze and clean. My husband makes calls and fills out paperwork. He deals with insurance details and prepares for his leave of absence from work. He is a pilot and I wonder if the radiation from the cockpit has contributed to this misfortune. Friendly skies my ass. I make a mental note to research this.
We update the people closest to us. We are grateful for their kindness, and for the resources that we have to get through this great challenge as best we can.
Treatment begins. There will be six weeks of daily radiotherapy plus weekly chemotherapy. We have had every discussion, imagined every scenario, asked every question.
The technician brings me back to the room with my husband so I can see the radiotherapy equipment. They place the custom-made mask on his face and lay him down on the table. A giant machine looms above, like something out of Star Trek. The technician is explaining things to me, being both thoughtful and clinical, just like the oncologist. I glance over at the table again, at my husband strapped down now, and my eyes start to fill. I silently demand of myself not to cry before I look back at the man who has been giving me the low- down on radiation. I cannot make his job harder, I think. I cannot make any of this any harder.
Our daughters, sons-in-law and baby granddaughters are all gathered at our home. We are genuinely happy, our hearts full. My husband has a few days off from treatment, which feels like a gift.
One more month of treatment. It will get progressively more painful from here, affecting his teeth, his mouth, his swallowing. I was made for hard things, but watching a loved one suffer is not one of them. I want to curl up in the fetal position at the thought of his pain, but mostly because of the shadow of uncertainty that Cancer has cast upon his life. I gather my strength though, doing my best to stay in each moment. I recall the words of Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now: “Whatever your present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”
Cancer arrived at the end of 2018, unannounced and unwelcome, an intruder in our lives. With all the love and strength and hope we can muster, along with all that modern medicine can offer, I believe we will send Cancer away. I picture my husband and myself, our amazing family, thoughtful friends, and the team of medical personnel, leaning on the door, all of us with all our might. We lock the door.
I believe the new year will bring healing, life, and glorious days. I will welcome those moments, those days, eagerly, as if I had chosen them. God knows I have.
I adore fall. I’m your classic pumpkin-loving, sweater-wearing, apple-picking New England gal. Minus, unfortunately, the pumpkin-spice lattes. I can’t stomach the sugar or caffeine in those suckers, much to my dismay. But lattes aside, fall is my season. I was born in the fall. My husband was born in the fall. Our twins were born in the fall (okay they were born TWO days before the first day of fall, which I’m counting as fall) and I expect they’ll grow up to love pumpkins and wear sweaters and pick apples.
Yet, despite all of this, I have no plans to dress my 13-month-old twins in costume for Halloween tonight. Not because I don’t love Halloween (I was one of those annoying kids who dressed up and went trick or treating well into my early teens). But rather because finding/making/buying costumes for my toddlers, who are not old enough to remotely comprehend what Halloween is, just did not make it onto my list of priorities this year. Yes, I have a list. And everything on it is either important to me, important to my family, or otherwise important to someone or something that matters.
Keeping the kids healthy and happy? Important. Grocery shopping? Important. Family time? Important. Paying the bills? Important. Date nights with my husband now and then to keep our marriage from being eaten alive by the fine art of parenting twins? Important. Sleep, exercise, occasionally eating something other than the crust off my girls’ peanut butter toast? Important. Voting? Important. Laundry? Semi-important. My super awesome seasonal pumpkin-carving job that I absolutely LOVE? Important.
Scrambling to dress my girls in costume for the sake of some cute photos? Not important.
“But they’re twiiiiinsssss!!!!” I know. That actually just makes it much more difficult and less appealing to dress them up. Twice the effort, twice the price, and almost zero chance of getting a single decent photo in which both of them are looking at the camera, let alone smiling. And then what? I’ve spent valuable time (and precious, limited energy) doing something they will forget by the time they wake up the next morning and that I will remember simply as a stressful couple of days of neglecting my own needs for the sake of a few lousy pictures.
I had a moment of mildly reconsidering this decision and even searched around for child-friendly Halloween events that might make dressing up a little more worth it, but all events are taking place either after their bedtime or during their nap time and let me tell you – Almost nothing is worth getting in the way of either of those.
So bring on fall in all of its beauty and splendor, but I’ll pass on Halloween this year. My girls will be in bed at their usual 6:30pm bedtime and I won’t be far behind.
A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is someone with the genetic trait of high sensory processing sensitivity. HSPs make up about 15% of the population, and have uncommonly sensitive nervous systems.
To me, the theory that many children who have attention deficit disorder are HSPs whose brains are trying to cope with the onslaught of sensory input, makes a whole lot of sense but is a topic for another blog post.
When the volume is turned up on the already very stimulating world, what is a highly sensitive person to do for relief? As you can imagine, or as you know if you are an HSP, this sensory overload can be overwhelming.
Here are my two broad and general tricks-of-the-trait, none of these ideas invented by yours truly, but rather adopted as habits that I’ve been naturally drawn to for their positive effects:
There are many gifts to sensitivity, yet another topic for a new post. But these gifts cannot be realized unless we are tuned in to our bodies, our feelings, our own needs. And when we do tune in and honor our unique temperament, not only are we living with more integrity and peace, but we also have more to offer this noisy, beautiful world.
Many years ago, I went through a phase when I sort of wished I lived on a farm. But when I dug deep into this desire, I realized I only thought of “farm” as a noun, and not as a verb.
To farm – the verb- would mean getting up at the crack of dawn and feeding or milking various animals, collecting eggs and gathering vegetables and swatting mosquitoes. And that’s just the first hour of the day.
I figured that I really just liked the idea of a farm – the adorable red barn (that would never need repairs) and the acres of lush green with little animals grazing (it would never snow) and most of all the farm fresh food that I would turn into healthy, delicious meals at the end of every day.
I would love the scenery, the spaciousness, the sunsets, the quiet. It would be a great place to raise our children, I thought. The nature! The freedom!
But I wanted a farm without actually having to farm. I’ve had a bad experience with chickens. I like to spend my early mornings writing. I don’t exactly love getting dirty.
“I think you want to be a farmer’s wife”, my husband said.
“Probably not even that”, I responded. ” I have issues with canning.”
Once I tried fermenting some vegetables. When it was time for me to loosen the lids on the jars I’d carefully placed in the basement, I could not get them off. I was home alone with my future sauerkraut and simply could not get the lids off, not matter how I tried.
I worried the glass jars would explode. I imagined shards of glass and shreds of cabbage bursting violently into the air, the smell of vinegar and rotting vegetables taking over our home.
I called my husband to ask if they might indeed explode. He has a chemical engineering degree, so obviously he should know.
He told me they wouldn’t. I didn’t think he sounded sure enough, so I kept a safe distance, treating the jars like angry house guests that might blow their tops, quite literally, at any moment.
I’ve long since given up my farm fantasy. I can buy locally grown produce at farmer’s markets, at least in the summertime. I can find beauty all around me, in the plants and trees and art. It is easy for me to seek out quiet. I continue to spend my early mornings writing.
Occasionally, I still wonder what it might’ve been like to raise our daughters so close to nature, on some vast piece of land that feeds the soul. But I’ve also wondered what it would’ve been like to raise them in the city, surrounded by culture and diversity and subway systems.
Alas, every choice means saying no to something else.
And every farm needs a farmer.
Mother: After my third daughter was born, the realization began to seep in that I would have three sets of eyes, watching me, learning what it means to move through this world as a female. As overjoyed as I was with being a mother of girls, and I truly was, I also wondered if mothers of boys had it easier simply because their offspring was the other.
It was not as if the enormity of the responsibility as role model hit me all at once, exactly. It was more like a slow drip drip into my gut.
While in the thick of caring for a young family, it becomes alarmingly easy to begin to forget oneself, one’s potential, ambitions or dreams, outside of family life. Family can become synonymous with Self.
And although I was blissfully focused on raising my daughters, (okay, it wasn’t always bliss- it was damn hard sometimes too) years turned into decades, and I would later wonder if I might have robbed them of the chance to see a mother with a career, pursuing goals outside the home, making money, earning a living.
Sure I would eventually pursue my creative goals while they were still young, but until they were nearly grown, it never took up more than a very small space in my life.
What if it wasn’t enough to be a female role model who was happy, had a healthy body image, a solid and loving relationship with their father? What if I was suppressing a deeper longing for fulfillment and leaving something very critical out of the equation?
Those were questions I would ask later – and I know it is a privilege to be able to ponder this.
At the time though, with a new baby girl added to our family, I just kept loving them all, and occasionally slipping away, for a few hours, a day or a weekend, to write down my thoughts. These thoughts would eventually, over the course of many years and words, lead to the birth of a creative vocation.
Did being such a later bloomer in this way deprive my daughters of something? (because this is what mothers always ask, right? How did I do for them? Was it enough? And don’t mothers of daughters demand an answer of themselves more so than mothers of sons? Or maybe not, I don’t know. I will never know.)
And would I have done it differently for myself?
Maybe? I don’t know.
Everything seems as it should be today, so probably not.
Does it really matter?
Mother: Being highly sensitive is both a gift and a curse. The gift is in the fine tuned intuition and the creativity. It’s in feeling everything, the good and the bad and knowing that the body never lies. The curse is also in the feeling everything, which can overwhelm the senses. It took me well into adulthood to appreciate that I had a built- in compass for life, and even then I often ignored it or overrode it with fear, the opinions of others, or the sheer act of disconnecting from my own source of power.
But being a mother has been the ultimate lesson in mothering myself. All the things I wanted my daughters to know- about following their inner guidance, honoring their unique gifts, and forging their own paths in life, as well as self- care and simplicity, routine and courage- were the very things I needed to cultivate in myself as well.
Much of raising Brittni -and to a large extent my other daughters as well-involved encouraging the balance of challenging sensitivities with honoring them. When do you push yourself outside of your comfort zone and when do you say no to overwhelm even if everyone around you seems to be handling it–whatever it is? I guess we all have to question our tyranny of shoulds- I should be able to handle that, I should go, I should do it, I should want that, I should be satisfied with this, I should, should should. And at the same time, some limitations are self imposed and beg to be tested. I think it comes down to knowing when something is our own desire or goal versus a perceived expectation from someone or something else. If it’s a heart desire, then push yourself! If it’s someone else’s or society’s unimportant expectation? Think twice.
Also, it became quite clear that self-care- adequate sleep, a healthy diet, time in nature, alone time, and a decluttered environment -were important to my own and my children’s wellbeing. My takeaway? Be your own good mother. And then parent from that place of abundance.
Despite the things I figured out early on though, I cannot help but look back at all that I didn’t know, or more accurately, all that I figured out along the way, sometimes late in the game. I would do it all again in a heartbeat, this motherhood gig, with all its intensity and heartbreak and joy and miracles. I would start over with a wealth of knowledge and experience, and the wisdom of a mother who has been through it already.
Hindsight is like one of life’s cruel jokes. Here you go, it says, now you know exactly what to do! Oh, but time’s up. Sorry.
But I do get to share my journey of motherhood, from the earliest days right up to today, as my oldest daughter is expecting her daughters. And writing it down, with all the perspective that experience allows, is the next best thing to doing it all again.
My husband and I sat waiting to be called in for my first ultrasound, giddy and eager and at least half an hour early to our appointment. Classic cutesy new parents-to-be. Entertained by the rambunctious three year old boy gallivanting around the waiting room under the watchful but tired eyes of his father, we exchanged giggly whispers about how our baby would be that age someday.
I was just nine weeks along in my pregnancy, but so far I felt like I had been doing everything right. I was already reading parenting books and watching documentaries in my spare time. I had done hours of research into birth options and local hospitals and birthing centers. I had scheduled myself to join a “birthing circle” in a few weeks during which mothers would share their birth experiences with wide-eyed and bushy-tailed mothers-to-be. I knew I wanted a natural, un-medicated childbirth and had found myself a certified nurse-midwife who came highly recommended by the local crunchy moms on the online parenting forum I was already actively part of.
All of this preparation and organization is not my typical approach. With anything. In fact, I am pretty consistently a disorganized and last-minute kind of person. I get things done, but I get them done when they need to get done and not a moment before and certainly not in a linear, orderly fashion. But I was determined that my pregnancy was going to be the exception. I was going to be on top of things. I was going to be a proactive and thorough and responsible adult. I would not let my scattered disposition get in the way of what I envisioned would be a picture-perfect start to my journey into motherhood. None of this was easy and it pretty much meant that I had not cooked or done laundry in weeks, as trying to be on top of my mommy game while also experiencing all of the lovely first trimester nausea and fatigue took everything I had. But I was willing to do what it took and so far things were looking up.
Finally my name was called and I laid down on the table and lifted up my shirt and the technician did her thing. I was probably the zillionth pregnant woman she had seen that day as she seemed to be on automatic pilot as she quietly slid her instrument back and forth across my abdomen. My husband and I eagerly watched the screen, waiting for her to explain what we were looking at. She didn’t say much of anything until she asked me to go the bathroom to empty my bladder. Apparently I had taken my instructions to show up with a full bladder a little too seriously and was blocking her view of my uterus. When I got back she tried again. I was admittedly getting a little nervous at this point as she was still rather quiet. I looked over at my husband and he gave me a reassuring smile. Finally, in the tone one might use to ponder aloud their options for lunch, she said, “There’s two”…
Two. I could now see two shrimp-like shapes side by side. How had I not noticed that? I could not speak for several seconds and instead looked back and forth between the screen and my stomach in utter shock. How on Earth are two humans going to fit inside of me?!?”. I was busy trying to wrap my head around this seemingly impossibility when I heard my husband blurt out, “Two babies!?” as though he wanted to make sure she wasn’t just confirming my number of ovaries. The technician, who had yet to so much as smile, let out a chuckle. “Yes”, she said. “Twins.”
And that was the end of my short-lived period of feeling in control. Silly me. I should have known it wouldn’t last. Since the day I found out I am growing two humans, I have switched to a hospital with a great NICU, switched from a midwife to a doctor and then, upon learning what type of twins I am having, was transferred from that doctor to a high-risk specialist. I have learned that my due date is basically irrelevant as going past 37 weeks is not an option – and that’s if I even make it that long, which is apparently not very likely. I have transitioned from losing myself in cleverly written natural birth and parenting books to sifting my way through acronym-laden “moms of multiples” forums trying to learn all the strange lingo that is used when discussing twin pregnancies.
Suddenly my chances of needing a C-section are significantly higher. Suddenly hiring a doula and creating a birth plan seem pointless. Never mind the fact that I am about to become the size of Alaska as I approach my third trimester; I am more concerned about how the heck one goes about breastfeeding two infants.
I’ve heard parents say they made sure “everything was perfect” for their first child only to let go of this unattainable standard by the time their second child entered the picture. Well I am halfway through my first pregnancy and I think I have already gotten to that point of fully accepting imperfection. I think I took a high-speed train to the land of lower standards. I don’t know yet whether I am relieved or anxious about this fact, but, despite feeling elated and fortunate and already in love with my two little girls, I know that my days of being one step ahead of the game are already over.