Mother’s Day

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Me, my mom and my younger sister, 1985?

For many years now, Mother’s Day has been a difficult holiday for me. I lost my mom about a month-and-a-half before Mother’s Day 2000, and since then, the day has been a yearly reminder of the huge void in my life.

But over the past few years, I’ve slowly started to change my perception of this day.

In the decade since I met my husband, I’ve joined him in celebrating his mother, my now mother-in-law. From pretty much the moment I met her, she has treated me like a part of her family. And while she’s not a substitute for my own mom, she has become someone I depend on, confide in and love as I would my own mother. I am so grateful to have her in my life.

I’ve also been so very fortunate to have a circle of lifelong friends whose mothers I consider second-moms. I grew up in these women’s homes, and they’ve rallied around me when my mother passed, when I got married, when I had a baby and when I faced cancer. The love these women have shown me over the years makes my heart swell, and I am so thankful to have the kind of friends who gladly share their wonderful mothers with me.

I’m also truly blessed to have an older sister who’s shown me what it means to be a great mom. Dawn is 14 years older than me, and she’s raised two intelligent, kind, successful women, instilling them with a sense of confidence and a strong faith that sustains and guides them. When I think about the kind of mom I want to be, I often look to her example.

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Me and my sweet boy, photo by the amazing Jordan Brannock

And, of course, the biggest and best thing that has changed my feelings about this day is becoming a mother, myself. My son is my greatest gift, my greatest achievement, my greatest love. He fills my heart with a feeling of pure joy and love that I never thought possible. He inspires me to be a better person, and he makes everything I’ve endured over this past year worth it.

Is Mother’s Day still a hard day for me? Absolutely. I will never stop missing my mom, and the hole that her loss has left in my heart will never be filled. But I know that I am lucky to have some incredible mothers in my life, and I have the opportunity to be that for my son, and for those things I am forever grateful.

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Notes from the OR

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Pre-op fashion

Yesterday’s oophorectomy went well. My doctor didn’t see anything that looked weird (huge sigh of relief), and the procedure was pretty uneventful. I was home by around lunchtime.

My torso scar collection has grown by three, although these are pretty small (and let’s be honest, my bikini days are over anyway). I’m sore, but it’s not unmanageable–much less pain than my c-section or mastectomy.

I’m not going to lie, it was a little sad to take a pregnancy test (standard procedure) and then sign a form confirming that I realized going through this procedure meant I wouldn’t be able to have any more children. It’s weird because even though we’d already made the decision to only have one child, the finality of all this still feels like a loss.

But what I’m gaining–some additional peace of mind–is worth it. At the end of the day, I have to remember that it’s not about mourning children that won’t be, but celebrating the gift of time with the precious child I do have.

Seventeen Years

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My sister, mom and me at the Outer Banks sometime in the ’80s.

I hate April Fool’s Day.

I’ve never really been into pranks or trickery, and there’s something about this day that gives mischief more of a mean-spirited edge. And social media has made it even worse. Every year there are the fake engagement and pregnancy announcements, fake moving announcements, fake whatever announcements. It’s annoying and not really funny at all.

Of course, my hatred of this day is about more than just an intolerance of childish tomfoolery. My mom died in a car accident on April 1, 2000.

There’s something especially cruel about getting the dreaded call from the hospital that there’s been an accident on April Fool’s Day. For a split second I thought, “is this some kind of horrible joke?”

This year, the anniversary fell on a Saturday, just like the day it actually happened. My sister Wendy texted me in the wee hours of Saturday morning, likely awake with her thoughts, to tell me that having the anniversary fall on a Saturday again makes it harder for her. I nodded as I read her words, feeling the exact same way.

Just as it was on that horrible day in 2000, April 1 this year was absolutely gorgeous. One of those warm, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky days that make you revel in spring. As I sat in my backyard looking up at that sea of light blue, I couldn’t help thinking back to that day so many years ago.

It’s kind of amazing that I can remember most of the details of that day as clearly as if they’d happened just last week. I remember the slight nip in the air, what I was wearing (a pastel striped t-shirt from Old Navy and jeans), what I was doing when the phone rang (lying on my dorm bed, waiting for my parents to arrive for a visit). I remember bargaining with God as I careened down I-40 to the hospital in Chapel Hill. I remember realizing my mom was gone when the hospital staff ushered me into a small, private waiting room outfitted with an overabundance of tissue boxes and Bibles. I remember being taken back to see my father, unconscious on a gurney, disrobed and covered with a sheet up to his chest–preparation for surgery. I remember the stunned voices as I called family and friends to tell them the awful news.

In the years since her death, I’ve tried to mark her anniversary in a positive way. Some years I’ve volunteered or participated in a charity walk, others I just try to do fun things to keep the mood light and my mind off the sadness.

This year, I spent the day with Rodney and Alex. We ate pancakes for breakfast, snuggled in bed watching cartoons, went to swim class, went to our neighborhood Easter egg hunt and played in the yard. Nothing particularly remarkable, but without a doubt a good day.

I think this is what my mom would want–her loved ones moving on, living their lives. She’d want to be remembered–and she was–but I don’t think she’d want me or my sister to dwell. I told Wendy this when I returned her text. I asked what she had planned–a trip to Virginia with her boyfriend to see an art exhibition–and told her my plans for the day. And then I told her I loved her.

I know somewhere out there in the ether, my mom was glad.

 

 

I Gotchu

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Me and my baby

One of the most exciting stages of parenthood is when your child learns to speak. There’s something almost magical about a baby going from this drooly, crying blob to a little person able to express himself verbally. It’s a long process, but one with lots of fun stops along the way.

In the past year or so, my son’s vocabulary has exploded. He’s almost two-and-a-half, and since uttering his first word (“mama,” for the record), he has become more of a chatterbox with each passing day. Much of what he had to say before was merely baby babble. And he still engages in his fair share of gibberish, but more and more, his words are actual words, and they’re assembled in phrases and sentences. It’s pretty amazing to witness.

Much of his current vocabulary revolves around cartoon characters (Mickey Mouse and the Paw Patrol are big topics of conversation in our house), his favorite foods (hot dogs, grilled cheese, apple juice) and there are a couple words he’s uttered that I’m mortified he knows (we blame dad’s potty mouth for those gems). But for me, there are two phrases he uses often that just about melt me to the floor.

“I pick you,” is the toddler version of “I’d like to be picked up.” He almost always holds his hands up to me as he says it, and there is nothing sweeter as a mama than to have your baby stand before you with his arms raised, essentially saying he chooses you. Does he necessarily mean it in a literal sense? No. But in a way he does because my arms are the ones he wants wrapped around him.

Which leads me to my current favorite toddler phrase–“I gotchu, Mama.” This is usually uttered late at night, little arms wrapped around my neck, head resting on my shoulder, or in the morning when he wakes up in the bed next to me and clutches tightly for a groggy hug.

If I could bottle the feeling it gives me, I’d be a millionaire. It’s the salve that cures the trivial woes of the day. It’s the balm that heals any hurt feelings. It’s what dries my tears of fear, worry and anxiety when the darkness comes. Hearing those sweet words whispered in my ear as my child clutches me lovingly makes everything better.

Having cancer has changed me as a parent. Yes, I still have my bad days/moments and get frustrated by crankiness, tantrums and misbehavior. But I tend to pause and savor the good moments a bit more nowadays. I know how important these moments are–even the littlest ones–and I’m so thankful to be here for each and every one of them.

 

Ultra-Sad

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Last month I started taking Tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker often prescribed to women with breast cancers that are estrogen receptors, like mine. This medication helps block the hormone from feeding cancer cells, and works to reduce recurrence.

As one would expect, though, any medication that tinkers with hormones can have some wonky side effects. I’d heard some horror stories–side effects so bad that the patients had to discontinue or find an alternative medication–but my side effects have been pretty minimal, thus far.

That said, I started noticing some mild pelvic pain a couple weeks ago. Nothing major, just a little pain/pressure, mostly when I was walking or active.

Old me would have just ignored it and moved on. New, paranoid cancer patient me lets very little go unchecked. Though inconsistent, the pain persisted for more than a week, so I called my OB-GYN’s office to let them know (per the instructions on my Tamoxifen patient leaflet).

Yesterday, I went in to have everything checked out.

Going to my OB-GYN office is kind of a sad experience for me nowadays. The place is teeming with women at various stages of pregnancy–the newly-pregnant, with their nervous significant others in tow; the second-trimester gals, all cute belly and glowy faces; and the almost-done ladies, bellies about to pop with that third-trimester look of being completely over feeling like a beached whale.

I’m done having children. I’d made that decision long before my cancer diagnosis. But I still can’t help feeling a pang of jealousy when I see these women. I loved being pregnant, and there are days that I would love to be pregnant again, but that’s not in the cards for me.

This visit only intensified those feelings. After my exam, my doctor sent me to the ultrasound room for a quick look-see just to be certain everything was kosher.

The last time I was in this part of the office, I was one of those pregnant women, excited to get a look at my unborn child. I absolutely loved getting ultrasounds. It was so cool to see my little guy moving around inside me. That blurry black-and-white screen was full of promise and excitement.

Not so much this time. As the tech went to work, I watched the screen nervously, this time hoping my womb and surrounding area were empty. She made a few measurements, and when I asked questions, she gave me some vague answers–standard protocol for ultrasounds. But sensing my terror, she reassured me when she was done that it looked good.

My OB seconded that opinion when we met in her office shortly thereafter, going so far as to say that my uterus and ovaries were “textbook perfect.” Too bad these model parts are where no one can see them!

I left the office with a sense of relief tinged with sadness. Though my decision to be one-and-done was already made, a part of me still mourns the end of this chapter of my life. And I’m angry about the no-turning-back finality that my cancer adds to that ending.

 

Couch Life

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Earlier this year, my husband and I bought new living room furniture.

We didn’t intend to make such a large purchase–we were initially just looking for an oversized chair to replace a lumpy sofa that had long outstayed its welcome. We went to a local furniture store that I love and found the perfect chair in a display right inside the front door. At first, we were only going to purchase that one piece, but it also had a matching sofa and the deal was just too good to pass up.

As the salesperson gave us the pitch on the set, she showed us that both the chair and couch were actually recliners. The couch has a dual-electric recliner feature. We weren’t in the market for recliners, but we liked the look and feel of the furniture so much that we decided to pull the trigger any way.

This past week, I have been SO thankful we purchased this furniture, particularly the couch. It has been my home for the past seven days, since it’s pretty much impossible for me to get in and out of our bed. With a pull of a lever, the electric mechanism sits me right up, or reclines me into a relaxed position. For someone whose arms and torso are extremely sore, this is pure magic.

I’m just over a week post-op now. I’m still really sore, and these drains are still driving me nuts. Each day is a little better, but I’ve still got a long road before I feel halfway normal again.

I had my first post-op appointment with my plastic surgeon yesterday. She looked at my mangled chest and said everything looked good (relatively speaking), and she celebrated my clear path report with me. She also gave me the terrible news that I’m not getting to ditch these drains until the end of the month (long sigh).

The day before yesterday, we went to my in-laws’ house to see my son. He’s been staying with family since my surgery to give me some time to recover. This is the longest I’ve ever been away from him, so it was a pretty emotional visit for me. I cried when he walked in. I cried when he gingerly hugged me, trying to be gentle to keep from hurting “mommy’s boo-boo.” I cried half the way home (we left him there for a couple more days to give me more time to recover).

But, he’s coming home tomorrow. I am over the moon! I have had moments of excruciating physical pain with this surgery, but nothing compares to the emotional pain of being away from my child.

This time tomorrow, I’ll have company on my couch, and I cannot wait.

 

Mastectomy, Simple, Complete

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Yesterday I met with my surgeon to discuss my upcoming bilateral mastectomy and lymph node removal/biopsy. I now have a surgery date, and it’s very soon.

When I got home last night, a notice from my insurance company awaited me, informing me my surgery had been approved. In the section with the coding for the procedures, it said: “Mastectomy, simple, complete.”

While it will be complete, nothing about this is simple.

When I received my diagnosis back in July, I immediately feared I’d need a mastectomy. I’d run through all the scenarios in my mind by the time my doctors told me a much less invasive lumpectomy would be just as effective. Cue the relief.

Of course, that was before I found out my BRCA2-positive status. That changed everything.

Now I’m facing a bilateral (double) mastectomy, along with the removal of some of the lymph nodes in my left armpit (the side where my cancer occurred). Those nodes will be checked for cancer cells.

I’ve opted for a nipple-sparing procedure with reconstruction. This basically means that all the tissue inside (which reaches up nearly to my collar bone and around the sides of my chest) will be removed. Then, the plastic surgeon will insert expanders, which are essentially deflated implants that will be injected with fluid over a period of weeks to allow my skin to heal and prepare for the insertion of the permanent implants.

My surgeon said the recovery process will last 3-4 weeks. And several of those weeks I’ll have drains on either side of my chest to remove fluid that builds up in the space between my healing skin and the expanders. I’ll have to empty these daily. Blech.

Obviously, my mobility will be seriously affected during recovery, and I won’t be able to drive for at least two weeks after. I guess I’ll finally have a chance to catch up on all those Netflix shows I’ve been meaning to watch.

The pain, lack of mobility and even the disgusting drains (have I mentioned how gross they are to me?) aren’t what I’m most worried about, though. Per usual, my son is my biggest concern.

I won’t be able to lift much of anything during recovery, which means picking him up is a no-no. This is problematic because my son is very attached to me. I pick him up multiple times a day. And on top of that, he’s constantly in my lap, falls asleep on my chest and ends up in bed with me most nights. All of that will have to change. Like the end of breastfeeding, I know this is going to be a fairly difficult adjustment for him. He won’t understand. He will cry. And I probably will, too.

So, yes, this mastectomy will be complete. But it is far from simple.

Birth Day

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Our first family photo

Two years ago today, my baby boy was born.

Like most parents, I cannot believe how fast the time goes. It feels like just yesterday that I was pregnant. Looking at this photo, it’s hard to believe that little peanut is now a rambunctious two-year-old boy who sang “Happy Birthday” to himself this morning.

I remember the day he was born so vividly. I was three days overdue and was induced because they didn’t want me to go too long past my due date because of my age (35 is ancient in child-bearing years). The labor process via induction was long and painful. At first, very little happened. Then I got pitocin and the doctor broke my water, and things got real (and by real, I mean seriously painful). Contractions on pitocin are no joke. After laboring for a while on my own, I could no longer take the pain and got an epidural (a magical, wonderful thing).

Even after all that, he wasn’t progressing enough, and my blood pressure was rising, so the doctor made the call to do a c-section. I was disappointed because I wanted to do it on my own, and also afraid because a c-section is fairly major surgery.

But, it all went well. Even though I was terrified, the moment I heard Alex’s first cry made every bit of it worth it. I relived that moment this morning as I held his wiggling toddler body as he slept next to me in our bed, marveling at how much has changed in just two short years.

So, happy birthday to my sweet boy. I love you more than you will ever know.

 

Hitting Close to Home

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The Modern Love column is one of my favorite features in The New York Times. For the unfamiliar, it’s a weekly essay series that explores the topic of love in all its various forms. It’s often heartbreaking, revelatory and even sometimes funny.

Last week’s essay, though, struck me deeper than any has in the past. The writer is fighting metastatic breast cancer that recurred in her spine, the tumor actually breaking one of her vertebrae.

Not only is she fighting cancer, but she’s also my age. And she lives in my city. She’s the mom of two little boys, and she worked as a writer and editor. The parallels between our lives were striking. Except, for one–I am lucky enough to have a good prognosis (at this time, at least), while hers is far more grim.

I have cried so much for this woman I don’t even know. I’ve cried for her husband. I’ve cried for her babies. I’ve wondered if our paths have crossed at the cancer center. I’ve wondered if we have any mutual friends. I’ve wondered if there’s any way I could connect to her, to tell her I’m so sorry, to give her a hug, to ask if she needs anything.

There’s one paragraph of this beautifully-written story that I keep coming back to. In talking about her sons, the author says this:

Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right with in all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.

The tears are welling in my eyes right now reading this. She absolutely captured the feelings that a mother has when facing the specter of death. I know exactly how she feels. I can handle anything else about my diagnosis and all the scary possibilities that come with it, but the possibility of not being there for my child is the one thing I cannot bear.

So, I cry again for her, and for her boys. And I hope that somehow she can feel my love and empathy floating across our city to her.

Toddlers Don’t Care

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Last night was a rough one at my house. And for once, it really didn’t have much to do with cancer.

My son is almost two years old. And, yes, he is in the throes of the “terrible twos.”

Toddler parents–you know what I’m talking about. The screaming. The refusal to sleep. The teething. The utter nonsense.

Last night was a perfect storm. He’s cutting about three teeth right now (two of them molars), he’d napped about 20 minutes total and it was waaaay past bedtime. Yet, instead of going to sleep like everyone else in the house longed to, he had a full-on meltdown the likes of which I haven’t seen in ages. So. Much. Screaming.

In the olden days, I’d soothe him with hugs, a calm voice and most likely, the boob. Of course, those days are long gone. The hugs and calming voice did nothing. It finally took strapping him to my body in a baby carrier (thanks, LILLEbaby!) and walking him around outside in the dark, a technique I hadn’t been forced to use in many months.

These nights are hard. And like everything else, they’re especially hard when I’m tired and a little loopy from chemo. I pray tonight is better. I pray he goes down without a fight (and sometime before 10 p.m.). Because even though I’m tired and a little out of it, toddlers don’t care.