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Ordinary Worlding

Dear Mom,

I can’t believe how much time I have let get away from me since my last posting.  Take work, add a healthy dose of holidays and a great run of AFC football craziness, and time flies.

You have been with me every day, of course, so you already know the reasons behind the empty echo chamber that has been my writing lately. And you also know they aren’t all bad, or even mostly bad.

One of the themes in our conversations over the years was how to live a good life. Because you were my mother, you were proud of my ambitions. But they frustrated you, too. I have always been one of those “all or nothing” people. If I was chasing after a goal, it became an obsession. Every waking moment not being spent on that goal felt like a waste of time.

When my goal became to write and publish a book, and to do a butt-ton of other writing besides, that mindset became a little overwhelming. Those are long and arduous endeavors even when they are labors of love. And when you have a full-time-plus job in the kind of field where your work doesn’t always – or even usually – end at the moment the clock says the office is closed, tackling such a big project can completely fill the rest of your remaining hours.

While I was going full-speed ahead on the book, I felt happy. More than happy. I felt drive and purpose and determination. For some, those are the definition of happiness.

But in that way that only a mother can do, you saw something missing in me even when I was on top of the world. You saw that I resented anything and everything that took me away from my writing world. Working. Cleaning. Eating. Sleeping. Taking care of other obligations. Hell, sometimes even doing fun things that weren’t related to writing felt “off.”

I wasn’t capable of being fully in a moment that wasn’t spent wordsmithing. Even if my body and some of my heart was there, my mind was far away.

You saw that, and you called me on it. And we’d talk about how I didn’t mean to be that way, it was just that I felt like my life wouldn’t be complete until I was where I wanted to be. It wasn’t good enough – I wasn’t good enough – unless writing enabled me to quit my job and become a full-time author. I was trying so hard to free myself from my existing obligations so I’d have more time for the things I loved that I forgot how to enjoy the limited free time I DID have.

You liked that I wanted something more. You hated that I couldn’t appreciate all I had until I got it.

“You have to learn to be ordinary in an extraordinary world.” You told me that over and over again.

At first, I didn’t like that advice at all. I didn’t want to be ordinary. I thought it was your way of trying to nicely say that maybe I didn’t have what it took be a writer, and I’d be a happier person if I pulled my head out of my butt and got on with other things.

Then you got sick.

It was over that time – those awful and wonderful and beautiful and ugly moments that we had left – that I started to understand what you really meant. During that time period, I didn’t think about my book or any other type of writing much at all. How could something as inconsequential as finishing my book or writing a blog matter when we were all fighting for your life?

It couldn’t.

And so in those months, freed of all thoughts of what I wanted for my OWN future and focused completely on yours, I truly learned to live in the moment.

The obligations that annoyed me, like going to work or the grocery store or cleaning? Those became precious moments of normal living. My office was no longer a prison that kept me from writing. It was a place where a band of kind coworkers looked out for me and supported me. It was a place where I could solve problems and get little bits of something done – how good that felt when everything else was spinning out of control!

And the times we had together? When you felt good, they were beautiful and I wanted them to go on forever. I didn’t care if I never typed another sentence as long as we could talk and watch some football and eat some wings in your living room, and you were laughing and truly enjoying the game and the food was tasty to you instead of making you feel sick. Even the bad times – the doctor visits and procedures and days you felt like shit, mattered in a way that nothing ever had before.

I spent the first few months after you went away in a zombie state. I worked and ate and slept and cleaned and did things with friends and family, but most of the time I was hazy. I was functioning, and that was enough. If I crawled out of the protective mental bubble that was allowing me to do that much, I was afraid I crumble into a lost little ball of freakitude. I didn’t think about writing, and I didn’t care that I wasn’t thinking about it.

Gradually, with your spiritual guidance, that has changed. I am present in my life again. My laughter is real more often than not, and so are my tears.  I feel true frustration at work when I have a problem to solve, because I care about getting things done again. I feel true satisfaction when I get them done. I feel love and appreciation for family and friends and animals in a deeper sense than ever before, although I always did value them above all else.

I am feeling the urge to write again, in bits and snippets. I took a leap of faith and shared the first part of my book with a group of readers. I began playing with the unfinished bits in short spurts and stretches, when the mood struck. I began thinking of other things I’d like to write and jotting down notes.

But this time, those goals have a different priority in my life. They are not all-consuming. I spent most of my holiday break cleaning and reorganizing my home, because it needed to be done and I wanted to. The old me would have resented the hell out of that – it was supposed to be WRITING TIME, damn it! The person I am today enjoyed the act of doing it as well as the end result.

Everything matters now. Life isn’t something that takes me away from my writing. Writing is just one important component of my life.

It is struggling to find its place again, but I feel like that is so much better than when it was shoving everything else that mattered aside.

I am learning how to be more like you – “ordinary in an extraordinary world.” Your life was cut short, but you embraced every moment you had with grace and acceptance and love and enjoyment – and sometimes frustration and annoyance and pissed-offitude too.

You lived seeing the importance in everything around you, and seeing every moment and task as where you were supposed to be and what you were supposed to be doing. You tried to love them all.

That sounds ordinary, but it made you …. and your life … extraordinary.

That’s what you were trying to tell me. That’s how you were pushing me to be. Not because you didn’t believe I could do anything else, but because you knew that only those who live that way can truly have a life.

Writing is finding its place in my new outlook. That feels good too, but no better than the way every other puzzle piece is fitting.

And I’m OK with that.

Love you Mom. Like a Dog.

 

 

 

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I Saw A Ghost

Dear Mom,

I have a confession to make.

You know that book I wrote? The one that consumed all my time and attention for a year? The one that I scribbled scenes for in committee meetings and babbled nonstop about over drinks at the bar every weekend? The one that filled me such inexplicable pride when I wrote “The End” the Christmas before you got sick? The one that actually had me teaching myself how to query agents and going to writer’s conferences and learning about self-publishing?

Mom, I’ve done absolute jack shit with it since you went away. If I’m being completely honest – long before that. I barely touched it the entire time you were sick.

I could give you a million excuses.

Time. But time was always a struggle with the demands of my job, and it didn’t stop me back then.

Heartsickness. I miss you, and some days just doing what I need to do to be a functioning adult with a day job exhausts me. But let’s face it – we both know writing is a healing tool for me, so that one doesn’t fly.

I’m at the hard part. Writing my story was FUN. So freaking much fun. Editing is not. Editing is more like doing math, and I always hated using that part of my brain. But every writer has to suck that up at some point if they ever want their work to be more than something that takes up space on their hard drive.

I’m afraid of rejection. Publishing is scary. As long as I don’t get to the point where the book is truly ready to publish, I don’t have to face the possibility that I suck. But I knew that going in too.

To each and every one of those points, you’d tell me to stick it up my ass. You were always good at pointing out when someone was making excuses rather than diving in and taking a challenge.

The truth is, I think my biggest block at the moment is not having you. I wrote this book, but you were almost as much a part of the process as I was. I shared bits and pieces with many friends, but you were the one and only person who knew just about everything. You read the most excerpts. You knew when I had a good writing day and when I was in a slump. You fell in love with my main character just like I did. Your thoughts helped me keep him and many of the other characters real … or as real as they were going to be given my topic.

You made me believe I could do it. You cheered me on and were so happy for me when I was in that place that writers go when a story has grabbed them by the imaginary balls and won’t let go. You were with me through the manic joy of the storytelling process. You laughed with me and commiserated with me when I was struggling.

You were a reader your entire life. I owe you my love of the written word. We always fell in love with the same books. So when I tackled writing my own, my guiding principle was  “if Mom had this book in her hand, would it be so good she couldn’t put it down?”

I so wanted you and I to go through it going out into the world together. I needed you there if it failed, but more importantly, I WANTED you there if it succeeded. In my wildest dreams, it paid off all our debts and our entire family lived happily ever after. Maybe reality would have been more along the lines of all our friends bought a copy and we made enough money for a nice dinner somewhere. That would have been OK too.

But the idea that you wouldn’t be here when the book went out into the world? That never crossed my mind when I was writing it. It was unimaginable. And now it just doesn’t seem right.

The truth is, there is a part of me I try not to acknowledge that is beating the shit out of myself for that. I started too late. I didn’t write fast enough. If only. If only. If only.

All those what ifs have squashed my determination. The urge to work on the book comes now and then, in tiny spurts that fizzle out as soon as I remember something I need to do for work or notice that the kitchen could use a good cleaning.

The part of me that says that since I didn’t “get er done” in time for you to see the doing I shouldn’t let myself experience publishing and succeeding or failing without you has been winning. I don’t want to fail without you here to hold my hand. I don’t want to succeed without you here to say “that’s my daughter. Now take your Momma to a tropical island.”

I’m not writing this just to whine to you. I really do need one of your “suck it up” tirades more than ever, but since you can’t give me one I wouldn’t put you through just listening to me bitch and moan.

See, I have a friend who started writing a book.

He’s had this great story idea stewing in his brain for a while. It is the kind of story that you and I always loved to read. He’s got quirky characters and a unique plot line and let’s just say this shit could be really, really good.

The thing is, unlike me, he is not someone who always dreamed of being a writer. He mulled the possibility over as a potential retirement hobby down the road, but he’s not there yet. He was never one of those people who felt compelled to write or go crazy, like I am. But he got bit by a damn good story bug, and it has him totally infected.

I have a lot of writer friends, but most of them are far away and we just communicate electronically. We sought each other out because we were looking to connect with other writers. Otherwise, we’d never have known one another.

There is just something different about seeing a friend you met for completely different reasons (in this case, work) catch the writing bug and dive in headfirst.

He comes to me with the fledgling first chapters. We talk about story lines and plot twists. We discuss what is enough description and what is too much. We envision what his characters look like.  He can’t wait to go home and start writing again.

And the whole time, he freakin’ GLOWS. I’ve always heard that pregnant women glow. Perhaps they do. But a writer in the throes of a good story coming to life? Those crazy bastards are bright purple neon, baby.

I know, because I used to be one. I used to blind myself in the mirror with that shit.

And when I see the way he looks when I’m reading a chapter or when we’re talking about his book, I see a ghost. The ghost of that girl.

In a way, it feels a bit like how we were when I was writing my book. Only he’s me, and I’m in your role.  Nothing I’ve tried since you left has made that part of me want to wake up until now. But over the last few days, I’ve felt her coming back to life. She’s yawning and stretching and has a long way to go to get her energy back. She probably has a bit of amnesia. But she’s still there.

I still don’t want to do it without you. But somehow, I think this experience is helping me get the strength to do that. Not the strength to finish the editing and go through the crazy train of publication. I know I’ve got the balls for that, when I’m ready. I’m talking about the strength to forgive myself for not doing it while you were here, so that I can.

A year ago in October, I was watching you start a horrible journey that we would all walk with you, until you had to turn onto a path that was only wide enough for you to go alone. This October, I am watching a friend start a wonderful, amazing journey that I took myself a few years back, and it is bringing me joy and a desire to fuel my own tank and at least start taking a few day trips.

I have to believe you have a hand in that.

Love you Mom. Like a dog.

 

 

 

I’ll Never Cut My Hair

004Dear Mom,

Once again, it has been way too long. Time flies when you’re having fun, and even when you’re not. I’ve been doing some of both, and you have been with me all the way.  Which probably hasn’t been much fun for you, considering I’ve been a mental furball.

As you know, a few years ago, Lee was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. When we got the news, we got our asses in gear and made a lot of lifestyle changes.  We weren’t perfect, but we were good much more often than we were bad. We looked good, we felt good, we lived well. Like so many others who go through this, we got a little cocky with our success and slipped up from time to time, but for the most part we stayed on our game.

That all changed when you got sick. Part of that was life becoming so crazy. Who wants to think about counting carbs and reading labels when the world is turned upside down? Who wants to exercise after a long day at work and in doctors’ offices? But it wasn’t just that. When you are living in fear of the inevitable, your vision narrows. You are no longer looking down the path with the long haul in mind. Your eyes are on the ground as you try not to trip over something treacherous in the moment. So instead of eating healthy meals throughout the day, we’d often go without eating at all and then realize at bedtime that we were starving and run out for cheeseburgers and fries. Often, there was no spare time. But even when there was, we’d spend it curled on the couch numbing life’s hurts with alcohol and HBO binge-watching instead of exercising.

Although you have been gone for four months now, we still hadn’t gotten back to form. The pain is still there – it always will be. And when you develop bad habits to cope with life, they stick around.

So Lee started feeling sick, and ended up in the doctor’s office to assess what damage we’d done. Over the last two weeks, we’ve gotten right back on the horse with the diet and exercise. And we waited for all the test results to come back to see where things were.

While we waited, I realized something. It wasn’t just him we had hurt. We’ve hurt me too.

Since you’ve been gone, I’ve remained in the same survival mode I was in when we were dealing with your pain. I have not cared about my body. I have not cared about my stress levels. I have not cared about writing, which is akin to air for me.

On the surface, I have been functional. I have gone to work and done my job as successfully as someone who has to manage Peoplesoft generally does. I’ve done many lunches with co-worker friends, venting and laughing. I have gotten together with family and non-work friends. I have gone to the bar and I’ve cheered for the Steelers, hoping you could hear me too. There have been glimmers of life in a lot of those moments. But a big part of me has been robotic, putting in the time, doing what needed to be done, and trying not to hurt.

Trying NOT to hurt, instead of trying TO feel okay. Trying to exist instead of live. Trying to fly under the radar and be a quiet little mouse, because somewhere in my twisted brain a voice was saying that maybe as long as I didn’t try to soar too high I wouldn’t get shot down again.

When Lee got sick, I started caring what we put in our mouths again – for fear of losing him. I started wanting us to exercise again – for fear of losing him. I was not ready to go through the heartbreak that is illness in a loved one again, and definitely not ready for anything worse than that.

And as we have made changes, I’ve been able to see that I was also in danger of losing me. Being the girl who works until she’s numb then binge watches shows that take her to another time and place … anywhere other than her own life … has been oddly comforting and maybe even temporarily needed. But it isn’t who I want to be. It isn’t who you would want me to be.

Once, many years ago, you told me you’d had a bad dream. In it, I was meeting you at the bar, and you were there waiting for me.  But when I arrived, you were stunned, because I had cut off all my hair.

“You weren’t you anymore,” you said. “You looked like shit, and you didn’t act like you at all. Don’t ever cut your hair off.” I promised that I wouldn’t.

And I didn’t. But I think the way I have been living since you left has been sort of the same thing. I still had long hair, but I had cut off the part of me that experiences and feels both the good and ugly things in life so intensely that I don’t just want but need to write about them. It took fear of a loved one being unwell to get me to start making changes. And making changes helped me see that I still don’t want to cut my hair.

We got Lee’s prognosis from his doctor yesterday. Given his blood sugar levels when he first saw him, his doctor was surprised to report that he is one healthy mo-fo. He now doesn’t want to see him again until November, and says that if he continues eating in a diabetic-friendly manner and exercising, he believes that he will ultimately be taking him off his metphormin because he won’t need it anymore.

His good news came the week before I attend the same work conference I was at least year when you went into the hospital, where we would eventually get the news that turned the world upside down.  I didn’t realize until his doctor’s visit was over that I had been holding my breath, fearful of history repeating itself in some twisted Stephen King novel version of “Groundhog Day.”

The opposite happening felt like a message from you – telling me it is time to stop being afraid to fucking fly – that life will happen as it will happen even if I hide from it and binge on Boardwalk Empire, so I might as well do something with it instead.

So we will stay on this path, looking ahead instead of keeping our eyes on the ground. I’m done dishonoring your memory by being a mouse.  I will connect. I will write. I will strive for great things. And when the hurt of missing you comes, I will no longer deal with it by being a robot. I will scream and cry and cuss if I need to – and screw the world if it thinks I’m crazy. Because I will laugh too, and reclaim the gift I was given of being the girl who could write even bad shit in a funny way.

And I promise you, I will never cut my hair.

Love you Mom. Like a Dog.

I

 

 

 

A Different Kind of First Birthday

Dear Mom,

froggieThe fact that I’m turning 44 in a few days is really bugging me.

At first, I wasn’t sure why. After all, 44 is such a nondescript age. It isn’t one of the “zero-year” milestones everyone freaks out about, but that honestly didn’t bother me much at all.

Thirty was no biggie for me. You had a lot to do with that. You threw me a huge surprise 30th birthday party. I showed up at your house for what I thought would be a routine visit to find all my friends and lots of family there – just to celebrate ME! We spent the day eating crabs and hanging out at the pool and drinking beer and having so much fun. It didn’t feel like I was leaving my twenties behind me at all.

Well, truth be told, I wasn’t. You had the years mixed up and threw my “big three-oh” surprise party on my 29th birthday. Thanks to you, I was convinced that thirty was going to be nothing more than an ass-kickin’ good time a whole year before I actually had to go there! What was really funny about the mix-up is that because you were 20 when I was born, our “milestone” birthdays always fell on the same year. How we laughed about the fact that you tipped me over the three-oh mark before you hit the five-oh!

Turning 40 only bugged me because I reflected on how much further I had wanted to be in certain areas of my life than I was. But this turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. It gave me the kick in the butt I needed to stop saying “I’m going to write more someday” and actually start writing. Within two years, I was published in three different small venues and well on my way to finishing the first draft of my book. I’d call that the best mid-life crisis ever.

So why is 44 such a big deal? My 43rd year has not been a bed of roses, and part of me hopes the door DOES hit it in the ass on its way out of here. It was a year of horrible news, of doctors and hospitals and seeing you suffer. Ultimately, it was the year we lost you.

Yeah. Hey, 43? Sayanara, mother-f***er is what the angry, forward-motion part of me is thinking.

But the nostalgic sentimental part of me is holding on to 43 with a white-knuckle grip, clinging and wailing like a psycho girlfriend when her man wants a night out with the guys.

You see, Mom, 43 is the last age I will ever be that you were here on Earth with me. Forty-four is the first age I will ever have to do completely and utterly without you.

Screw the possibility of a few more gray hairs or crinkles at the corners of my eyes.  I honestly don’t give a shit about that. I just don’t want to let go of the last year you were here with me, even if it was a sucky year.

And yes, I am still sane enough to know that’s some dumb and maybe even crazy crap. Age is nothing more than a bunch of arbitrary numbers humans assigned values equaling weeks, months, years and decades. Nobody gives a shit what age-number you call yourself where you are now.

But although I know it is dumb, it is what it is. It is how I feel. I don’t want to have the first birthday that I don’t get a text from you that somehow is EXACTLY what I need to hear on that day of that year. I don’t want to turn the first age I will be in forever where you and I don’t celebrate at some point – even if not on the exact day – with some Steelers preseason football and some beers.

I don’t want to, but I will. We humans do a lot of things we don’t want to do. There’s this whole thing called “Monday” that is proof of that.

I will, and I’ll be fine. In this strange new way that has to be enough now, you’ll be with me through 44, just as you have been every day since you left. I guess I just wanted you to know that the first birthday I’ll have without you really hurts. After all, you were the one who did all the work and went through all the pain on that day 44 years ago – all I had to do was scrunch up my face and cry and breathe and pee. It is your day as much as it is mine.

The intent of this blog is to honor you by being upbeat and happy and focusing on the good both in each new day and in my memories of you. But for my birthday, I am giving myself permission to whine just a little bit.

I am about to turn 44 years old, but I still want my Mommy. Life is really, really, REALLY hard without you. I feel lost and so lonely without you here to tell me to get over myself in one breath and admit that I got a good bit of my crazy from you in the next.  I am blessed that there are so many people still here that I love who love me back. I have a loving partner and father, sister and niece and grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins and oh so many amazing friends.

But no one … no one … ever knows you like your mother and stills loves you anyway.

There. I whined my whine and cried my cry. For you, I promise that on my actual birthday I will DRINK my wine and laugh instead.

Miss you so much, Mom. And love you. Like a Dog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redefining Hope

I love blogging. I truly do. But I wonder now and then about the point of it. Not about the actual writing part – the fact that I need to write letters to Mom is obvious to me. But where she is,  she doesn’t need them to be on the internet in order to get them. I like to think she sees them as they’re pouring out of my head, that she knows my words like old friends and that maybe it is  her quiet advice that makes me go back and re-write a sentence that sounds like it was written by an 8-year-old in the throes of a sugar rush.

So, why not just keep these letters between us? Why throw them out here? Is it because, since my book is stalled, I am desperately seeking validation that I am a writer? Am I turning these letters into word-selfies?

“Look at me!! I can write stuffs!”

Ick. That assessment is probably somewhat spot on. Writers like to be read. We’re smart enough, good enough, and gosh darn it, we want people to like us.

But because of Mom’s cancer, I also know there is much more to it than that.

I remember the October day we got her diagnosis like it was yesterday. Doc G, her oncologist, is so tall. He spoke slowly, like each word was a heavy weight he had to lift. His face was solemn and unsmiling. Over the next several months, I would learn that Dr. G always looked and sounded that way. There would even be times when I appreciated his measured honesty and understood that he could be no other way and still continue to do the job he does. But in that moment, as he loomed over us in one of those white doc coats that always made my heart race with anxiety even before Mom got cancer, he looked to me like a harbinger of doom.

Mom had gone into the hospital with pneumonia. Scary, sure. But not nearly as terrifying as the cause that had been rooted out. Pneumonia is a spider that can be squashed. Stage IV lung cancer? It is every monster that ever hid under any of our beds, and some new ones we could never have imagined.

Dad and Jay and Jordyn and I were out in the hallway with Dr. K, her pulmonologist, shortly after we got the news. We’d get to know Doc K well in the coming months too. In some ways he’s as serious and solemn as Doc G, but there’s also a soft-spoken warmth to him. Months later, Mom and I would be sitting in the emergency room because of fluid-build up in her chest. They would be talking about admitting her, and Doc K would come to the rescue and do the thoracentesis procedure that she needed to remove the fluid. It was evening and it was an act of kindness on his part to do it then and there rather than have them check her in and schedule it for the morning.

But Mom was exhausted and in pain, and cranky. So when he arrived, she wasn’t thinking about that fact that he’d come to us in the emergency room after finishing up his long day at the office – that he put off going home to his own family so that OURS could go home too. She was just annoyed that it had taken him so long to get there.

“Bet you’d have come faster if I had big boobs,” she told him. I never thought I’d have a doctor look to me, lost for words and seeking help to find them. But he did. I just shrugged and said “That’s my Momma. She gives us lots of shit too. I think it means she likes you.”

That night in the hallway, our little family didn’t know any of that was to come. Doc K was just the shorter, quieter member of the Doom Squad. But we needed something – anything. They were throwing around words like “palliative treatment.” I didn’t know what the fuck that was, just that it sure as hell didn’t sound as good as “cure.” Dad looked at Doc K, and I have never heard more of a raw plea in his voice than when he asked “do we have any hope?”

And Doc K looked at an exhausted man who had just basically been told his wife had been given a death sentence.  He took a deep breath and his eyes were sad as he replied “You will all have to learn to redefine ‘hope.'”

I went home that night utterly confused. Hope was fucking hope. How did you redefine it? All those jokes Mom and I had made about what a mess we’d be when I was her age and she was in her 80’s, and the two of us were still sitting at the pub tying one on and bickering or laughing? That shit wasn’t happening, according to the White-Coated Doom Squad K and G.

So much new information was roiling around in my brain. Lung cancer. Stage 4. Chemotherapy. I desperately wanted more information. But I wanted it in the way that I know how to process it. Even in college, I was never good at absorbing knowledge that was coming at me from a talking head. I left lectures with clusters of disconnected data bouncing around in my pea brain. It was only when I sat down and read the accompanying textbooks that I could connect the dots. I learn best by reading. And now, I had to read about cancer.

I looked at my laptop like it was a fanged thing that would bite me. Because even though we had just been hit by this bus and I knew nothing, I was smart enough to realize that when I pulled up my BFF Google and started my quest for knowledge, the bus was going to back up and run over me again. And again. And again. Stage 4 lung cancer statistics are the stuff of nightmares. I had been sheltered from such monsters thus far in my life, but I hadn’t lived under a rock. I knew enough to know that when I started searching, what I would find would be crushing.

I weighed my options. Dive in and get squashed. Shut down the laptop and rummage up a shot, since sleep would not be coming that night or in many to follow. Finally, I typed “Stage 4 lung cancer survivor stories” or something along those lines into the search box.

And I found Craig Blower.

I found his blog, and I read and read and read. And at some point later that night, I found a few hours of the sleep I thought might never come again.

Craig is about Mom’s age. He also has Stage IV lung cancer. In one of first posts I read, he talked about his own first ventures into what the search engines would tell him about his diagnosis, and how his reaction to the gloomy statistics was a determination to live and live and live. To beat the odds as long as they could be beaten. One day at a time.

And that is exactly what he is doing. It is the journey he shares in his blog. I read his story that night with tears rolling down my face, and a total stranger became a lifeline.

At the hospital the next day, Mom was more alert and reflective. She gathered us around her and asked us how we felt about her having cancer. Instead of answering directly just yet, I talked about Craig.

“He has been fighting this for a while now, and he’s winning. And he isn’t just living in doctor’s offices or laying in bed. He does all kind of stuff. He works. He’s remodeling his kitchen. He plays golf. He does all sorts of things with his wife and family. He’s …living.”

So much of those hospital conversations are blurry now. But I do remember Dad looking up at me and seeing a glimmer of hope in his eyes too – the same glimmer that must have come over mine as I read Craig’s story at 3 in the morning.

Now for the cold hard truth part. We all know Mom’s story did not turn out that way. I would learn in the days, weeks and months to come that while there are common threads to every story, individual experiences with Stage IV lung cancer are unique. Mom would rally for a little while, but not to the point that we would ever know “normal” again. Discovering the blog of a Stage IV lung cancer patient who was surviving and thriving did not mean my mother would do the same.

But it taught me to do what Dr. K said I would have to … it taught me to redefine hope. With or without that blog, I would have been by my mother’s side through the grueling ordeals to come. But in some inexplicable way, it gave me what I needed to not just show up and be supportive, but to carry that new kind of hope with me.

It kept me going. If Craig could go to work with his own cancer, then I could go to work with Mom’s. If Craig could fight his battle and write about it in a way that sometimes even made me laugh, I could try to be a humorous weapon in Mom’s battle. I wasn’t always successful. But the blog of a stranger gave me what I needed to at least try.

That is part of the reason why I am blogging again now. It is my attempt to pay it forward. Someday someone dealing with grief over the loss of a parent may stumble upon this blog and take comfort … or even hope …from the shared experience. Someone may smile because a memory I shared triggers one of their own. Someone may feel a little less alone. Or not. But at least I know that by sharing, I tried.

I still subscribe to Craig’s blog and read every update as soon as I get the email. I am one of many strangers in his corner, cheering him on and sending all the hope I can muster his way. He has recently embarked on a new clinical trial, and I’d appreciate anyone who reads this and wants to join me in sending that hope.

As he says, one day at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting it Out

There are a million remedies for stress, anxiety, grief, etc.  Counseling. Medication. Meditation. Excercise. A few shots of tuaca at Hawley’s (Insert your own favorite pub here if you don’t live close. If you are nearby, no inserting. Go to Hawley’s).

With the exception of medication, I have tried them all at various points in my life, and have good things to say about each of them. But for me, there is nothing in this world that beats creating when it comes to healing.

During my Mom’s illness, I wrote nothing. I was in the middle of editing my first novel, which was written when my silly and somewhat twisted sense of humor was in high gear. Watching a loved one suffer squished the whimsy required to improve on my dialogue and scenes, so I left it alone. That was the right choice. My mistake was in not writing ANYTHING.

For me, stress dissolves when I write, even if what I’m writing has nothing to do with the stress. When I don’t write, I become a freak. The traffic noises of workday morning commutes make me want to babble in tongues. If the system I manage at work does something quirky, I want to hide under my desk with my Steelers gnome (he’s my version of a binky). And if, by some horrific twist of fate, I have to go to Walmart and get trapped in an aisle full of big carts and bigger butts, I fight the urge to shout obscenities, cry and laugh like Jack Nicholson all at once.

I can’t explain why writing minimizes those urges. I just know it does. Maybe it releases some of the pressure so I’m not like a warm soda bottle that has been dropped on the kitchen floor, ready to explode if my top is even slightly twisted.

But I think it is more than that. I think the act of pulling something good out of my head and putting it out into the world takes away a little of the power everything I see as “bad” is holding over me. It is funny that I, who am sometimes guilty of thinking I know everything, stopped writing when I needed it most. I had been telling Mom she should journal for years. She never listened, until last fall, when she began journaling through her cancer journey.

She always was smarter than me, even though she couldn’t get me to admit it.

Creating may not put therapists, doctors, yoga instructors and bartenders out of business (a world without bartenders would just SUCK), but it sure as hell helps us all along.

Notice I said creating, not writing. For me, what I create is (hopefully) coherent thoughts and stories out of words on a page. For you, it might be something entirely different.

My partner Lee takes raw stretches of nature and turns them into beautifully landscaped gardens and yards, and can rise to the challenge whether he’s doing it for someone on a Mercedes budget or a ramen noodle one. QUALITY COMPLETE 011

My Momma always created a beautiful home and delicious family meals that could taste like childhood or a trip to Italy, depending on the goal. My sister has followed in her footsteps. I am amazed at the way she kept up the family home and traditions when Mom got ill. I’m the first to admit that if it had been me living there instead of her, their beautiful home would probably look like a bachelor pad by now.

My niece Jordyn can take her camera and ANYTHING and turn it into a photograph that will make you wonder at just how beautiful the world is, laugh, think, or all of the above. Most girls her age take nothing but selfies. She captures everything through her own eyes and shares it with the rest of us so we can experience her youthful, inspired vision. jordynhorse

One of the bartenders at Hawley’s, Kitty, creates beautiful paintings. Her seascapes have brought my brand of peace into my home.

My friend Shannon creates in her kitchen.

I could go on and on. But the point is, each one of these acts of creation makes the world a better place. They don’t take away grief or frustration, but they help balance the scales. So get creating, and don’t worry if you suck. Just have fun. At a staff retreat the other day, we did one of those “icebreaker” exercises. We had to get into groups, and each group was given an index card with a decade on it. We had to draw a picture of an image that represented that decade to us, and then see if the others could guess it. We got the 70’s and decided to draw a dude in a leisure suit with bad hair and a hairy chest. A few people in my group know that I write, so they nominated me as the “creative one” who would draw our picture.

Being able to make pictures with words does not mean you can draw them. I doodle a lot, but I’m not an artist. Still, I took our pack of markers, had someone Google a picture of a skeezy dude in a leisure suit, and went to town.

My end result was raw and cartoonish, but everyone guessed our decade correctly. More importantly, everyone laughed. I’d been feeling gloomy that morning, but looking at my goofy-ass leisure suit guy made me grin. I wish I’d kept him so I could take a picture.

Create. Have fun. Laugh. Put beauty or comfort or peace or humor out there. Your choice. Do anything but nothing. Get it out.

Love you Mom. Like a Dog.