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

 

 

 

Rings, Clothes and Workdays

Dear Mom,

It has been too long since my last letter. Please know that it isn’t because I haven’t been thinking about you. You are always in my heart and there isn’t a day that you don’t cross my mind a hundred times. We have had many quiet conversations in my mind since my last post. But you know me. I can only get the words out through the keyboard when I get downtime and quiet – and there has been precious little of that lately. Working in higher education in August is a telegram from hell for us introverts.

I made it through my first birthday without you, and today is Jamie’s. She gave me the NFL Steelers ring she got you last Christmas, the one you loved so much, and told me you wanted me to have it. Of course I cried – and she knew I would. She even warned me not to in the card, but it had fallen to the bottom of the gift bag so I didn’t see the warning until after I was holding the ring. It is a pinky ring for me. Although your presence here was huge and the hole in the world since you left us is just as big, you were physically so much smaller than me, and that includes our fingers. I think my hands were bigger than yours by the time I started middle school! So I wear it with care and tuck it away safely each night so it doesn’t slip off in my sleep. And when I am typing away at work and it shines up at me, I smile and know you are there.

Hopefully the Steelers themselves will know you are too. They had a bumbling preseason. But we’ve been through that before, haven’t we?

You raised an amazing kid, Momma. Jamie, not me. She holds so much together without you there, and she does it like a trained acrobat juggler. Me? Give me three plates and two are gonna crash to the floor. You raised a weirdo too. Sometimes I look at us and think we are flip sides of the coin that was you.

So other than that, most of August has been work, work and more work. And when I’m not working, I’m recovering from work. I remind myself that this too shall pass – it is just that time of year, and try to breathe and carry on. I have noticed that it is much harder for me to deal with the long hours and the nonstop interaction this year, and it was never easy. Everyone gets so stressed and worked up because there is so much to do and so little time to do it, and we are all sleep-deprived and irritable. I used to be a like a sponge, absorbing all that anxiety and worry and frenzy.

I can’t do that so well anymore. I am in the midst of all the tasks and issues and concerns that have everyone in a frenzy, and I know they are important. But after the year we have been through, part of me swims through them like I’m in a calm lake instead of a river speeding towards a waterfall. My mind says if these are the biggest issues of the day, the worst that can happen is not so much to fear. The consequences are like a scraped knee or a bothersome mosquito bite compared to the jagged scars that watching you hurt and then go left.

I am pretty sure you would like that. My tendency to worry too much about everything at work needing to be right and to be done drove you batshit – if only because you saw how batshittier it drove me. You wanted me to accept that I am a person, not an octupus with 8 arms to tackle 8 different tasks at once, even if that was what others wanted me to do. You’ve finally gotten your wish. I didn’t just decide to stop sweating smaller stuff. I am truly no longer capable of doing so.

Yesterday I finally had a little time to myself, and was going through my closets getting ready for fall – my favorite time of year is just around the corner. There was the shirt you got me with the ferrets on it, and the tye-dye Steelers shirt, and the beautiful black dress shirt you got me that I wore to Grandad’s funeral. There was the sweater you got me that I adore but need to lose five or ten pounds to wear. There was the silvery scarf you picked out for me that I love wearing in the winter. And those were just the tip of the iceberg. Before I knew it, I was sitting on my bedroom floor bawling, surrounded by clothes and desperately needing something to wipe my sloppy face with but of course not wanting to use any of them.

That closet was like a book of memories – each one a Christmas morning or a birthday and then all the times afterwards where we did something together and I wore the gift and you smiled at the way it looked. You always saw me as so much more beautiful than I see myself. That was evident in the things you’d pick out for me. The things I’ve gotten myself that sit beside your gifts in the closet say ” gear for an aging work horse.” Your gifts say “something for a pretty woman to wear.”

I am picking myself up anew each day and trying my best to be the woman you saw in me instead of the one I see in myself. Some days, it works.

Love you Mom. Like a Dog.

PS – GO STEELERS!!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Road Trip

Dear Mom:

Do you remember the little Italian restaurant where we stopped on one of our first road trips to Aunt Dorothy’s house, shortly after she and Uncle Larry bought their “retirement home” at the beach? It is just a little ways past the Bay Bridge, in a strip mall kind of place. You and Shannon and I had wanted to wait until we got to Delaware to eat “beach food,” but we were starving, so we pulled in. The owner was an older man with salt-and-paper hair and kind eyes. He hovered over us like we were a royal entourage, because he thought you were beautiful.

Well, of course he did. How could he not?

We drove past that restaurant on our way to Aunt Dorothy’s last Saturday, and my eyes filled with unexpected tears. I knew the weekend would be an emotional one for me. It was our first trip to “the retirement home” since your passing, and my first-ever visit without you. It would be my first time seeing my aunts and cousins (your sisters and nieces) since the funeral – and I can’t look at them and not see you any more than they can be with me and not feel your presence. Plus, spending weekends at Aunt Dorothy’s was always “our thing,” a mother-daughter tradition we started building that was cut short.

We should have had twenty more summers of laying on the beach by day and drinking wine on her porch at night. There should have been twenty more autumns and springs of making a trip to shop til’ we dropped at the outlets, twenty more nights of gearing ourselves up to get into the hot tub in spite of the evening chill that would nip at us when we got out of the water.

But we don’t, and I was a little afraid that when I went for the first time without you, the reality of that would break me and I would spend the weekend in tears.

As it turned out, there were some tears, and not just from me. We can’t talk about you without our eyes filling.

But there were a lot of smiles and laughs. You know why? Because you were with us.

You were with us when Aunt Dorothy and Aunt Cindy got to see Deb for the first time since your funeral, where she gave the “Love you like a Dog” eulogy that was balm to all of our spirits.

Your were with us when Uncle Larry wiped the mock sweat off his brow as he emptied trash or carried a load of laundry. You loved picking on him.

You were with us when Chrissy’s precious new dog – who is shy and skittish around strangers – slowly warmed up to Katie and I over the weekend. I felt like I’d won the lottery when she came up of her own accord, plopped down beside me, and gave me a lick.  You were there when Katie told me that you are the reason she became a girl who would always want a big dog by her side, and how she’d text you seeking your advice when her four-legged family members had medical issues. Every time a dog finds the best-ever forever home because he chooses Katie as his person, it will be because of your influence.

You were with us when we had Thrasher’s on the Boardwalk, hunching over our buckets of vinegary fries so the seagulls wouldn’t swoop down and get them.

Your were there when the frogs sang in the quiet of the evening as we sat on the porch, and when the hummingbirds flitted around the feeders in the muggy morning air.

You were there when Deb and Shannon and Laura and I slept in the living room, sprawled on air mattresses and the couch. Laura was on the couch – the one where you told me you’d gotten one of the most relaxing sleeps of your life a few years ago.

You were there in Aunt Cindy’s stories of being a little girl who would sneak into your closets to play with your shoes.

Miss you!

Miss you!

You were there in Baxter and Julie’s eyes. They both loved you and couldn’t wait to get cuddles and pats from you when we visited.

You were there in the sound of the surf and the smell of the saltwater.

You were there when I drank wine on Aunt Dorothy’s porch.  How many “just one more glass and then time for bed” glasses did we drink, sitting right there?

You were there in the shops we visited in Rehoboth Like me, you weren’t much of one for “regular” stores, preferring to shop online to braving the crowds. But we loved the quirky little shops there. You loved finding the perfect gifts – clothes for Jordyn or jewelry for Jamie.

You were there when we went to the outlets. They were the only place I remember being able to talk you into spending your money on yourself rather than someone else. I’ll never forget the smile on your face when me, Chrissy and Aunt Dorothy talked you into splurging on that purse you REALLY wanted.

You were there, and so there was a lot more laughter and smiles and hugs than there were tears – although of course there were some of those, too. And I realized that bits of pieces of your mannerisms and turns of phrase and appearance and just … you-ness … live on in Aunt Dorothy and Aunt Cindy, in Laura and Katie and Chrissy as they do in your daughters and granddaughter.

If family is there, then you are there. Each of us is a glimpse of you, and I think you smile when you see the bits and pieces come together in one place.

Thank you for being with us this weekend, Mom. Love you. Like a Dog.

 

 

The Things I’d Tell You Over a Beer

Dear Mom,

One of the things you always used to say to me was that I had to learn to appreciate “being ordinary in an extraordinary world.” It has taken me a long time to get that down. Hell, I’m not sure I actually DO have it down.

Sometimes the “ordinary world” in these parts is pretty scary. I can’t walk in a convenience store around here without having to listen to some guy with his buttcrack climbing out of his low-riding shorts cussing at his baby momma on the phone while he buys his Slim Jims and cigs.  Our “ordinary” in this neighborhood feels like a Jerry Springer casting call sometimes.

But here is where I am, and since it isn’t really feasible for me to go anywhere else anytime soon, I am really trying to find the beauty and the happiness in each and every day.  In the past, I’d share all those things with you. If you weren’t experiencing them with me, I’d be texting you or talking about them with you on our “beer nights.”

There’s no reason I can’t still tell you about them, though.  So here’s our happy hour conversation. It is morning, so I’m having coffee instead of a beer. The funny thing about that is we NEVER talked over coffee. Your rule was that no one should talk to you until you’d had your java. If I spent the night or we were on a trip, we’d have our coffee together in the morning, each staring off into space and collecting our thoughts before starting the day.  Even though we’re both grumpy morning people, it was a companionable silence.

You don’t need your java to get the gears turning anymore, so I get to break the rules and chatter to you in a letter. So here’s what’s been going on that doesn’t suck:

1. I have watermelons growing in my garden! All our gardening successes make me think of you. We’ve had two eggplants, a ton of tomatoes and a few peppers so far, too. But the watermelon is a new thing. Lee threw some random seeds in our “leftover” garden space to see what took. I hope they stay healthy. Last year was our Great Pumpkin Experiment. I got so excited when the pumpkin vines started flowering, but they stubbornly refused to turn into Jack-O-Lantern material. I sure had fun trying, though, and talking about them with you.

2. Coors Light Summer Brew.  I only discovered it because Lee and I stopped at Deb’s over her birthday weekend and I had one poolside.  It tastes like the perfect summer day – warm sunshine and blue skies without our usual scratchy wool blanket of humidity. It has become my thing when I want poolside drinks, and I’m pretty sure you would have loved it too.

3. I got to see Sherry and her family last weekend. I have a tiny handful of friends who have been part of my life so long we had to sneak into bars together, and she is one of them. She’s a year older than me, and I laugh when I think about how we had to sneak me into the Fell’s Point pubs on her 21st birthday because she didn’t want to celebrate without me.

I remember the minute rice, too. Do you? Dad still does. When I told him I was seeing Sherry he brought it up. She came over after school one day when she was a senior and I was a junior. We were hungry, and rummaged in our cupboards and found the minute rice. Dad wandered into the kitchen a while later, to find us standing side-by-side at the stove reading and re-reading the directions and staring at our pot of water like two novice witches casting their first spell. He was flabbergasted that two college-bound girls who spent their days in the “smart kid” classes at school could be so confused over the directions on a box.

Me and Sherry then

Me and Sherry then

As you know, I never became domestic. I’d probably still stare at a box of minute rice with a “duh” look on my face. In my forties now, I have a small handful of things I whip up in the kitchen, and reserve the rest of my creativity for words. If I lived alone, I’d probably subsist on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pickles. But Sherry is a different story. She’s a wife and the mother of two beautiful children. I spent the day with her family at the harbor, having brunch and reminiscing about old times.

Me and Sherry now

Me and Sherry now

Sherry and I can go years without talking much or seeing one another, but our friendship just clicks into place like we never missed a beat. There are a handful of people in your life that are there forever, even if your fates take you down very different roads. Like you, I was never much of a phone person and always “mean to” call but don’t. Facebook saved my introverted ass in terms of keeping up with friends because I can do it all in one fell swoop. But those who are meant to be among your besties for life just are, even if they move to Florida and become mommas while you stay in Maryland and continue to live the life of a grown woman who seems to get herself confused with a twenty-something bachelor when it comes to the whole grown-up thing.

4. This coming weekend, I’m taking a little road trip to Aunt Dorothy’s with Shannon and Deb. Chrissy is heading down too, and so are Aunt Cin and Laura and Katie.

I have to admit this one is going to be bittersweet. When Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Larry retired at the beach, visiting them became “our thing.” I would have no more thought about going to their house without you than I’d consider going to work naked. You and Aunt Dorothy aren’t just sisters, but true best friends. Her house was your escape from reality. Sometimes we’d go down with the intentions of hitting the beach and the shops and going out to restaurants, and once we got there spend most of our time just hanging out on her porch drinking wine and talking . That porch was one of your happy places, and sitting there with you and Aunt Dorothy and listening to your childhood stories became my happy place too.

I see so much of you in Aunt Dorothy, like I see you in Jamie and Jordyn and myself. We all reflect different aspects of you. When she and I were talking on the phone a few weeks ago, a hummingbird came to her feeder, and we figured it was you saying hello.

It will be strange being there without you. But I think it will also be healing to be surrounded by so many people who loved you –  your sisters and nieces and brother-in-law and dear friends, in one of your favorite places. I will bring along some wine and we’ll toast to you.

Love you Mom. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whoopie Cushions in Heaven

Dear Mom,

So, I have a burning question. How long after you got there did you sit on your first whoopie cushion in heaven?

I can see you now, rolling your eyes and thinking “She’ll never be right in the head. Nothing I can do about it – I couldn’t fix it even when I was there. Watching too much South Park broke her.”  Once, you found me and the ex-hubs sitting in your living room cackling over Cartman and the boys meeting Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo. You joined us for a minute, then got up and escaped with your book because you said watching us laugh over a turd in a Santa hat was making your IQ drop.

But you can’t blame my whoopie cushion question on South Park. It was inspired by Ned Hickson. Ned is a blogger I discovered recently. I wish I’d found his blog while you were still here – I think you might have enjoyed it too.  At any rate, he wrote recently about his ongoing fake poo prank battle with his son. I got a good laugh reading the post, and it made me think of Aunt Fuzzy.

Aunt Fuzzy was actually my great-aunt. Her real name was Alma, but I don’t think I knew that until I was 10 or so.  She and Grandmom also had four brothers, and they also all went by their childhood nicknames. The oldest brother, Uncle Darrell, died before I was born. But I knew the others as Uncle Weach (Wade), Bunny (Hugh) and Hop (Frank).

They all lived in West Virginia. As a kid, I visited for weeks at a time each summer, bouncing from house to house, escaping Baltimore and tasting country girl life. Staying with Weach meant rowboat rides on the Cheat River, fishing in his backyard pond, and roller-skating at the old building he’d turned into a community rink. Staying with Bunny meant milking cows and weeding vegetable gardens as big as our entire neighborhood back home and horseback riding with his daughters Cindy and Mindy.

Staying with Aunt Fuzzy meant fart jokes. Her personality was a perfect match for her red hair and sparkling eyes. She was short, but larger than life. She lived to laugh, and nothing made her laugh more than farts.

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Me and Aunt Fuzzy

Mommom told us stories about growing up with such a prankster for a sister. Their father, Great Grandad Ruggles, was gone before I came along. But Mommom portrayed him as a good man who liked his booze and got  cranky after a few drinks. When Aunt Fuzzy started dating Uncle Don, she didn’t ease him into getting to know her cantankerous father. Instead, she invited Don in and hid a whoopie cushion on the couch so he would sit on it. Great Grandad looked up from his drink with a scowl and asked his future son-in-law what the hell was wrong with his insides.

Uncle Don knew that marrying Aunt Fuzzy would mean a lifetime as the brunt of fart pranks, but he did it anyway. Like most women, Aunt Fuzzy’s purse held her wallet, keys and lipstick. But hers also contained an arsenal of items capable of producing fart sounds.

When I was 8 or so, I went with Aunt Fuzz, Uncle Don, Mommom and Grandad to Ponderosa or some similar buffet-style restaurant. While we were at the salad bar surrounded by strangers making their own dinner plates, Fuzz reached into her purse and squeezed something that produced a noise like a rectal emission. She made a wide-eyed shock face and cried “Don!” in a mortified voice.

Me and Uncle Don

Me and Uncle Don

He should have been used to it by then, but Uncle Don turned red as the beets on that salad bar anyway.

She didn’t limit her fart torture to Uncle Don. Everyone was fair game. She got me too. Once, we visited her and Uncle Don after they had relocated to Williamsburg. We all went to the Pottery Factory. I was a self-conscious preteen who wanted to fade into the background. But there was no blending into the scenery when Aunt Fuzzy tooted one of her horns and called you out as a fart machine right in the middle of a bunch of old ladies while they oohed and aahed over hand-crafted bowls and jars.

My most vivid Aunt Fuzz memory is one that I think actually pissed Mommom off a little. Aunt Fuzz and Uncle Don had come to Baltimore, and we were all sitting around in the living room. The local weatherman, Marty Bass, was on the news. Mommom excitedly mentioned some event (at her work, I think) where she was going to meet him and get his autograph.

Fuzzy wasn’t impressed. She looked at the weatherman and started crooning “Marty Bass has gas in his ass.” That sure put a damper on Mommom’s brush with local fame.

Marty is still around, and I hear Aunt Fuzz sing-songing that line in my head every time he pops up on TV.

She passed away when I was in my early 20s, but her love of laughter lived on in all of us. And in some of us – like me – so did her potty humor.

I knew you wouldn’t mind me asking you to share a space on “your blog” with Aunt Fuzzy, Mom. We talked about her so much over the years, laughing at her antics over drinks at the pub or a cabin campfire. It makes me smile to think of you two chatting again now.

But that brings me back to my opening question – have you sat on a whoopie cushion in heaven yet? Because if you can reconnect with loved ones in the afterlife, I know damn well that Aunt Fuzz has one waiting for all of us, and that it didn’t take her long to give you yours.

Love you Mom. Like a dog.