Friday, December 16, 2011

The Meaning of Christmas

I have been neglectful in the parenting of my children, it has become apparent.

First, my 6th grader announced that her classmates laughed at her because she didn't know who AC/DC is. Time to start cranking up the classic rock station instead of Tween Radio on Pandora! In fact, that very day, I put it on in the car and gave her a quick synopsis of The Wall.

 "So that's where you and Daddy get that, "How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat, thing!""

Yes; that's where we got it.

Next up was Ozzy Osborne and Crazy Train and then she told me she didn't much like this kind of music.

"It's too loud, Mom. It sounds like they are screaming at each other. Can you stop singing, please?"

So much for that. We hadn't even gotten to Rush or The Who or The Rolling Stones. Whose kid is this?

Even worse, however, was my fourth grader's lack of understanding of pop culture. She claimed she had never seen A Charlie Brown Christmas. I found this hard to believe, but she insisted that it was true. In fact, last night as she watched it with Hombre, I heard her exclaim (loudly, of course), "So that's what you mean by a Charlie Brown Christmas tree!"

Clearly I have some work to do.

My girls may not "get" a lot of pop culture references (after all, we have no cable!), but they do understand the meaning of Christmas, at least "our" meaning of Christmas.

Hombre's and my families are religiously diverse: Catholics, Jews, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, non-believers, lapsed believers and everything in between. One reason we all get along so well is that we (generally) have tolerance and respect for each other. Our flavor in this unlikely stew is Unitarian Universalism. We have raised our kids in this tradition and to do so requires a willingness to answer a lot of questions.

Unitarian Universalism's guiding belief is that each person must engage in her own search for truth and that there are many paths to the divine. There is no pre-written script to read from nor a designated recipe for salvation. For more about what UU's believe, go here.

My children know the story of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus and they know that many people consider Jesus divine. They know that before there was Jesus, many people celebrated the Winter Solstice on a date that falls, not coincidentally, close to December 25. They know that during this "dark" time of the year, other cultures and religions have celebrations involving light, such as the miracle of sacred oil that lasted for eight days.

For us, the Solstice is a celebration of the divine rhythm of nature and the universe. It reflects our hope and trust in the cycles of the seasons. For us, the story of the birth of Jesus shows us how all children, even the most humble and poor, have the spark of the divine within them. Even a child born in such circumstances can have an important message to share and each child born is truly a gift to all of humanity.

Yes, we perpetuated the Santa Claus myth and we fully enjoyed it. This will be the first year that we have no believers in the house and that's okay. My kids understand that, just as we all have the spark of the divine within us, we can all be Santa Claus by sharing gifts and kindnesses with others.

Of course, they also know that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Taking Care

I spent my birthday with Mom and Dad. I left home very early for my 98 mile drive to their condo, so I could pick them up and take them to the cancer treatment center. Dad was scheduled for both PET and CT scans. Chemo had been completed and it was time to think about radiation. Dad takes the tests and procedures all in stride and insisted that I needn't have come.

"This isn't the way you should spend your birthday, Margaret."

"It's fine, Dad. I am really glad that I get to spend the day with you and Mom. I'd just be home by myself anyway."

"I can handle this just fine."

Except I was afraid he couldn't. Ever since Thanksgiving he had had a cough. Enough of a cough that he wasn't sleeping well and sounded terrible. Dad has tended to get bronchitis following nearly every cold for the last 10 years or so. With his resistance low from the chemotherapy and half a lung gone, the last thing he needed was to end up with pneumonia. He needed to let someone take care of him. He was still worn out from our trip south to clear out their house.

Ever since we had returned from South Carolina the week before, it had been just he and Mom at their condo. He had jumped right back into his old routine without a second thought: shopping, cooking and taking care of her. Even though he had not been feeling well when we were away. Even though he slept nearly the whole way home, with a bag nearby in case his nausea got the best of him.

"I've leaned on you kids enough. I swore I'd never be a burden to you."

But it isn't a burden to take care of someone you love; you just do it. You do it because you want to do it; because it feels right to do it. I guess that's the way he feels about taking care of Mom, even though it is exhausting to be always on alert for her stumbling; to make sure she takes her many medications; to be continually repeating what you have told her already so many times; to always be the one both navigating and steering the ship.

At the clinic that day, as the radioactive solution emptied into his body, one of his oncologists stopped in to have a look at him. Although the doctor said his lungs sounded clear, we asked for antibiotics. We met little resistance, given his history. Mom had come with us, of course, and we asked the doctor to have a look at her, too. The radiation had left her neck raw, the skin peeling and cracking. It was making her miserable. He wrote prescriptions for a Z-pack and some special cream.

"I don't know why they need to do a PET scan. I told them we don't have any pets," he says to the nurse, with a sly look.

She laughs. She knows both of them well, having seen them daily during Mom's five weeks of radiation treatment. I like the way she jokes with them in a familiar way. It almost felt like a friendly visit, if you failed to notice the IV bag hanging by Dad's chair. Mom and I sat with our magazines while they took Dad away for the scans. She is worried about him.

"I don't like that cough at all. He needs to rest. He doesn't need to do everything - I can cook."

I know she doesn't remember her recent attempt to heat up a cold cup of coffee in the microwave that resulted in all four stove burners turned to high.

"I know, Mom. He worries about you. I think after all the years of you doing everything, he figures you deserve to be treated like a queen."

"He does take good care of me."

By the time we get out of there, stop and have the prescriptions filled and get back to their place, it's three o'clock and we're starved. We have our usual: soup and cheese and crackers. Both Mom and Dad are exhausted. I persuade Dad to lie down and rest. I need to get out of there and head home. I know my Hombre and my girls will have birthday plans for me and I don't want to disappoint them by being late. Before I go, I get the cream for Mom's neck so I can put some on her. One less thing for Dad to do.

The directions read, "Apply using sterile procedures." What the hell does that entail? "Spread cream on affected skin using sterile swab or gauze, wearing gloves." I search the bathroom. The q-tips in the dusty jar in the cabinet are definitely not sterile. No gloves. I spot a box of sterile gauze pads that, while not new, are unopened. Bingo. I use copious amounts of hand sanitizer, carefully unwrap a gauze pad and open the jar. I scoop out enough that I won't have to "double dip" and as gently as possible (for this bull in a china shop) I pat it onto Mom's raw neck. She squirms: "That burns." (There is a reason I chose law school over medical school, and that's all I have to say about that.)

Finally done, I give Dad detailed instructions on how and when to apply more cream. After hugs all around, I race out the door. No sooner am I in the car, than I remember that I am chaperoning the 4th grade field trip the next day. Oh, shit. I won't be able to go to the store and the day after that is December 1st and I haven't had a chance to pick up the chocolate-filled Advent calendars that are a tradition in our family. The girls will be so bummed. On my iPhone, I track down the nearest World Market, only about 15 miles out of my way.

I finally pulled into the driveway about 6:30 that evening, completely exhausted. Hombre wasn't home yet, having stopped to pick up my favorite Indian food for my birthday dinner. The girls screamed when I came in.

"Mommy, mommy, you're home!"

"Happy birthday, Mama!"

"Look, look what we made you!"

From-scratch vanilla cake with homemade chocolate buttercream frosting. It was the best cake I have ever eaten. Something tells me that my girls enjoyed taking care of me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Making Sense of It All

I recently returned from 8 days away from my family, by far the longest time I have ever been away from either my Hombre or my girlies.  My Dad, one of my brothers and I drove to South Carolina to clear out my Mom and Dad's house, which has been sold.

Mom did not come with us. She was still in the midst of radiation treatments for her recurrent cancer and her health is too fragile for her to make such a trip. It was probably for the best anyway. This was and still is her dream house. The wallpaper she so carefully selected nearly 30 years ago had been stripped and the walls painted a neutral gray while she has been in Ohio these last eight months. The furniture was not all returned to its previously precise placement by the workers, nor were pictures and artwork re-hung. I can only imagine how disturbing it would have been for her to return to her home and find all not as she had left it. No, it was better that she did not come with us. Besides, we had a big job to do. There would be no time for her indecision and contemplation of the artifacts she had carefully folded, wrapped and tucked away; no time for her lengthy retelling of their origin and significance; no time for  her reliving the events memorialized by them.

Dad, ever the optimist, had originally planned on going alone. He thought he could do it himself in a matter of a few days. My siblings and I quickly vetoed this plan, having had many opportunities to observe the packed-to-the-gills state of the closets, drawers and shelves in the house.

We embarked six days after Dad's final chemotherapy treatment. He had blithely assumed he would sail through this one as he had the others, but he did not. This one hit him harder, with severe fatigue and nausea, dry mouth and lack of appetite. The stress of his worries - about Mom, about the closing on the house, about his health, about saying his good-byes - took their toll on him, too. He had trouble sleeping and an odd rash broke out on his face. He faintly offered to help drive during the two-day trip down and did not protest when we declined. My take-charge Dad was only too happy to relinquish the decision-making about what to give away and what to keep. He was relieved, in fact, to do so.

My parents survived the Great Depression, which provides all the explanation needed for the state of closets and cupboards. We tried so hard, my brother and I, to imagine which of her belongings Mom would most want to have around her in the limited space of their new apartment. Which mementos meant the most? Which would she even remember she had after all these years? We found elbow length evening and everyday gloves from the time when ladies wore gloves. We found her dissection kit from college biology classes. We found the dance card from her senior prom. We found her grade school autograph books, with all the silly little nothings that ten-year olds, even in the 1930's, said to each other. It was funny; it was agonizing.

We tried to set aside things that would be meaningful to our siblings. Hospital discharge papers of my younger sister, complete with newborn footprints; letters home from my older brother while on a long-ago camping trip through Canada; the note to my Mom from my six-year-old older sister upon the birth of her new little sister; cards celebrating the birth of another sister. And so on. It was an awesome responsibility, sorting the history of our family and trying to anticipate what everyone would want.

While a constant parade of visitors, old and dear friends and workers filed through, my brother and I sifted. We tossed the baskets full of strips of fabric clipped from pants that had been hemmed, the endless supply of  rubber bands from produce and inevitable recycled plastic containers. We laughed over the old pantyhose cut into strips to tie up plants and uncancelled stamps torn from envelopes and squirreled away for re-use. Box after box filled with hotel shampoo and lotion bottles, bars of soap, shower caps and shoe shine cloths were discarded. Drawer after drawer contained the ubiquitous free address labels sent by charities seeking donations, along with old shoelaces, twist ties and notepads. We couldn't just dump entire drawers, since there may well be (and often were) old photos tucked in there, or letters or cards or all three.

Mom had been an avid cook, crafter and sewer. We found pile after pile of recipe clippings and household hints, along with decades' worth of cooking and decor magazines. Craft supplies filled entire cupboards in her laundry/sewing room.

It was frustrating and exhausting. I couldn't understand why she saved all of this stuff, this junk. Somehow, after seeing it all there, in her home, it finally clicked. She had grown up in a time of such scarcity, such lack, that she simply had to be prepared for the next Great Depression. She would be ready. Her ingenuity would be her salvation and her family's salvation. As for the craft supplies, who among us can easily accept that they have done the last of something they once loved to do? The last round of golf, the last fishing trip, the last knitted sweater? Who can just give up, throw in the towel (or the embroidery hoop) and say, "I'm done"?

All week long, as my Dad said his goodbyes and sorted his own history, he would look at my brother and me and shake his head.

"You two drew the short straw this time, didn't you?"

Truthfully, I don't see it that way at all.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I am so pissed off right now.

The news this week has really brought me down. Two seemingly unrelated threads are really the same old story: a person in power (usually male) having a sense of entitlement toward other humans in positions of significantly less power (usually women or children) and bystanders doing nothing to stop the illegal activity.

Presidential candidate Herman Cain first had "memory loss" about his abuse of women in professional settings. Once his memory (partially) recovered, his acolytes and the media went into attack mode:

"She's blonde."

"She's attractive."

"She's a single mother."

"She's had financial troubles."

"If this were true, why didn't they come forward sooner?" (We know that at least two did!)

Um, maybe because they knew they would be attacked - LIKE YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW.

I don't think I know a single woman who hasn't experienced inappropriate behavior in some form by male colleagues. There is a very large sub-set of this group who have experienced such behavior directed at them by a male superior. It has happened to me. More than once. And no, I did not report it. Why? I am certainly no shrinking flower, but in each instance, the potential cost of such action was too  great. Put simply: I needed the jobs. I had to support myself and my family. I knew that if I spoke up I would be forever marked as "difficult", "not a team player" or even worse, written off, fired, let go at the first opportunity. The legal community is small and word travels fast. I could not afford the potential, likely, backlash.

The people working around me saw these episodes or knew of them. Certain men have reputations in the workplace. When I was a young lawyer, partners that I worked for witnessed judges and other lawyers making vile, humiliating comments to me and did nothing. They were men who would never have said such things to me themselves, but they did not defend me or support me. They ignored the episodes as if they never happened or maybe they were especially cordial afterward - buying me a coffee or lunch. This was their way of saying "thanks for taking one for the team," but it was the kind of thing they would never have to "take for the team." I would tell myself, Don't let the bastards get you down. You are tough. You can deal with this. And so I did. Just as the women abused by Herman Cain did. That they endured does not make his actions legal nor absolve him from responsibility for them.

And just how does this relate to Jerry Sandusky molesting little boys in the locker room at Penn State? Because, once again, we have a person in a position of power imposing his illegal desires on other human beings, this time those with not just less power, but with absolutely no power. And even worse, we have witnesses, not just to the rumor and innuendo that surely must have been rife in, of all places, a locker room, but to the actual physical acts.

We know that a 28 year old assistant coach saw Sandusky, naked, anally raping a naked little boy in a shower in the locker room. We know a janitor saw Sandusky orally raping another naked little boy in the shower in the locker room.  Neither witness stopped the illegal acts. Crimes were being committed against children, and witnesses did not stop them! If you saw a thief grab someone's purse, you'd yell, "Stop!" wouldn't you? So why wouldn't you say, "Coach - let that kid go. That's not right."

We know the assistant coach reported the incident.We know that officials at the university took the step of taking away Sandusky's keys to the facility. That sends a message, doesn't it?

Joe Paterno is revered at Penn State and elsewhere. If he was such a great guy, why did he let this happen? And he did let it happen. Sandusky's known activities go back to the early 1990's up through at least 2006. The assistant coach told Paterno what he had seen. Paterno knew what the university's response had been to that report. He knew Sandusky had a charity that effectively "groomed" under-privileged boys. He could have fired Sandusky. He could have gone to the police and asked them to investigate. He could have insisted Sandusky get help for his "problem." He did nothing and he was the power in that organization, make no mistake. What 10 year old boy could stand up to a system like that? What hope could he possibly have had that someone would believe him and make it stop?

Children are not chattels. They are human beings. No one has the right to do these things. There are laws against sexual activity with minors. And yet, in Joe Paterno's locker room it was allowed to happen. That's not such a great legacy, is it, "JoePa"?

What was it Jesus of Nazareth once said? "Whatsoever you do to the least of my children you do unto me"? Yeah, something like that.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Like Sand through the Hourglass

This time it was her heart that landed her in the hospital.

Mom hadn't been feeling well for close to a week. Nothing specific; some nausea, vague discomfort, a little swelling, poor appetite. A night of vomiting. Then she was a little short of breath and finally she just couldn't lay down on the table for her radiation treatment. Her blood pressure was way up. The ambulance was called and rushed her to the hospital. She came home 4 days later and about 16 pounds lighter with three new medications added to the roster. She also has a new diagnosis: "secondary pulmonary hypertension." A condition for which there is no cure.

The last time she was admitted, it was congestive heart failure and out of control blood pressure brought on (we think) by an untreated UTI. Before that it was a bad fall.Who knows what it will be next time. As my Dad often says, "Getting old ain't for sissies."

She has finally acquiesced to using the walker, although it's clear she finds it cumbersome. She tolerates having her oxygen on around the clock and accepts without complaint Dad's daily checks of her blood pressure and oxygen saturation level.

"He's always fussing over me," she'll say, shaking her head.

Along with her discharge from the hospital, the "Hospitalist" ordered home visits from a nurse, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist.  The nurse visited for the first time Saturday, while I was there. She went over Mom's history, her symptoms and her medications. She checked Mom's vital signs and talked about warning signs that warrant a call to the doctor. We talked about her cancer.

"Is she getting chemo?"

"No, right now she is just getting radiation on the tumor in her neck."

Mom pulls aside the collar of her blouse and gently presses down near her clavicle. 

"I think it's getting smaller; don't you Jim? Doesn't it look smaller to you?" She looks at me and I nod, even though I can't see any difference.

"So just palliative care then?" asks the nurse.

My Dad looks stricken. He nods, his voice thick, "At this point. But if things change we may reconsider."

The topic changed to her health care power of attorney. Yes, she has one; no, she doesn't remember who. The hard copies are at their home in South Carolina.

"Do you have a "DNR"?

Mom looks blankly at the nurse.

"No," my Dad says. Mom still looks blank.

"A Do Not Resuscitate order. That's so if your heart stops - do you want them to bring you back?" the nurse asks.

Mom doesn't answer. She is confused. She doesn't understand. I don't think she wants to make that decision or even talk about it. I don't think she really knows what she wants at this point. The nurse slides a folder across the table and tells my Dad that the forms are all in there along with pamphlets that explain them. She seems to assume that they will want to fill one out.

"You'll want to have copies on you, so if the paramedics come, they will know what her wishes are."

She is cheery, this Nurse Heather. A local, small town girl. She is upbeat and full of chit-chat. I'm not sure she knows about Mom's dementia. It isn't obvious at first. A couple more visits and she'll figure it out. There wasn't really a way for me to bring it up to her politely in front of Mom.

As the complications and conditions grow in number, I am somehow less concerned with the details and more concerned with the feelings. I want my Mom to be treated with respect, to have her dignity. Even if she can't remember, even if she gets confused. I have always hated it when caregivers talk in sing-song to the elderly, like they are babies.  These are people who have lived long lives full of joys and sorrows, excitement and boredom. They have made the important decisions as well as the less important ones. They have opinions.

But does she really need to decide right now, in the middle of this lovely October day, whether she wants them to "bring her back"? Can't she just sit and look out at the lake, watch the birds and enjoy the scenery?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pinched, prodded and poked

I am officially a writer now, because I have struggled over a post for 10 days now and just set it aside to begin afresh. "Everything is better when it's a-fresh," said the produce man to the melon-squeezer. Just as I will drink no wine before its time, I shall publish no post before it's fully roas't. Somebody, please, stop me.

Any-hoo, four weeks ago yesterday, I had the worst dental experience of my life. Let me preface this by saying, I have good teeth. Only 2 fillings in my mid-to -late 40 year old mouth. Well, and a little bonding on one of my front teeth from an unfortunate diving incident at the Holidome in Cincinnati, Ohio during a fraternity formal event I attended in 1984. Never mind about that.

We recently got new dental insurance. The pickings were slim for dentists in our area. Basically, we had a choice of DDS in a box (Aspen Dental) or the guy I ended up with. I took the two girls to him first. I know, I know, it sounds bad, even canary-in-the-coal-mine-ish, but they did fine. Cleanings, exams, sealants and all was well. Curiously, I don't think he laid an instrument on them. It was all done by his babe-alicious assistants. All he did was look into their mouths and give me the names of several of his orthodontist cronies to contact, stat.

The same day, after a very brief, impromptu exam, he suggested that my 2 existing fillings, now more than 20 years old and causing me no trouble by the way, should be replaced because it appeared they were beginning to crack.

"Schedule an appointment and we'll take care of them. Plus, the bonding on your front tooth is worn and stained. It needs to be replaced. We can do that while we have you in here."  He was all smiles and charm.

"Okay", I said. Trust the man in white. I scheduled my appointment.

I arrived at the appointed hour a couple of weeks later. Following her rigorous cleaning,  Righteous Babe #1 applied a topical numbing agent to my upper and lower left gums, in anticipation of the Novocaine shots to come. I'd only had Novocaine twice before, and my recollection was that the injections were annoying more than painful; kind of like mosquito bites. "I've had two babies with no anesthesia, I can handle this",  I thought. I'd always prided myself on my non-chalance about medical procedures, shots and blood-draws.

Dr. De Sade (to which he shall hereinafter be referred) strutted into the room with Righteous Babe #2 at his side. He picked up an enormous metal syringe and with no bedside, rather chair side, chit-chat, plunged the infernal thing into my lower gum line. I felt a vibration run through my body and guttural noises came, unbidden, from my mouth, much as you might have heard emanate from convicts strapped to "Old Sparky", Ohio's now-retired electric chair.

As he continued to depress the plunger, Dr. De Sade asked with furrowed brow, "Does it feel like an electric charge? " I nodded. "That's okay, it takes effect really quickly when that happens." Abruptly and with no apology, he picked up a second syringe and injected it into my upper jaw, directly above the lower injection. He stood and announced that he'd be back in a few minutes. Righteous Babe #2 asked if I was okay. I widened my eyes and shrugged. Truthfully, I did not know.

De Sade returned very shortly, picked up the drill and it began to whine. I closed my eyes, imagining myself elsewhere. And then I jumped.

"She's not numb."

"Did you feel that?"

I nodded.  He picked up a syringe and said, "We'll give you a little more Novocaine," and the plunger once again depressed. I felt a cold sensation in my lower jaw and again in my upper.

"Be back in a minute," oozed De Sade.

Righteous Babe #2 patted my shoulder. "Are you okay?"

"I gueth tho."

She giggled and I stabbed her with my eyes.

"Thith ithn't muth fun."

De Sade returned once again, picked up the drill and began to probe. Again, I jumped, involuntarily.

"She's still not numb."

"Did you really feel that?"

"Yeth," I nodded.

He picked up the syringe. I widened my eyes. De Sade dug it into my lower jaw, sawing it in and out. It was like something from Little Shop of Horrors. I could see the end of the syringe in his hand outside my mouth; I could see the in-and-out motion although I couldn't feel it. Then he administered another shot to the upper jaw. He stood up and said, "Let's give it another couple of minutes."

De Sade announced that Righteous Babe #3 would remove the bonding from my front tooth, since it required no Novocaine and he would come back to do the rest.

Righteous Babe #3 drilled away at my front tooth, periodically squirting water into my mouth and stabbing me in the tonsils with the spit-sucking probe that hissed like an angry copperhead inside my cranium. I prayed silently for it to all be over soon.

When she was finished, Righteous Babe #3 asked how I was doing. I attempted to answer but the whole left side of my face was immobile

"Cah I geh a dink oh wah-eh?"

Righteous Babes #2 and #3 both nodded. I got up and went to the sink. I turned on the tap and filled a cup. I held it to my lips, as is customary, yet it trickled right out of my mouth. I attempted to swish. It was fruitless. Then I looked in the mirror. A good portion of my right front tooth was gone, giving me a jack-o-lantern-like look, but the left side of my face would not move. At all.  I could only laugh. Hysterically.

"I'm tho thaky," I said, as I climbed back into the chaise-du-torture.

Righteous Babe #2 said, "Oh, that's the epinephrine in the shots. It makes you shaky. It'll wear off."

For the last time, De Sade returned.

"You've got to be numb now!" he insisted.

He drilled. And drilled. And drilled. Above the whine of the instruments, I felt nothing. I briefly wondered if I was ingesting dangerous amounts of mercury from the amalgam fillings he was pulverizing, but I wasn't about to stop him and ask. It was obvious that he wanted this over with as much as I did. Plus, I was not at all confident in my ability to make myself understood, which to be honest, is not a concern I have ever had since I acquired the gift of gab well before age 2.

Righteous Babe #3 reappeared. "She'll do the fillings," De Sade announced as he hurried from the room.

She packed and poked while I held my mouth open. She sanded and polished. My jaws ached from holding them open for so long.

"How do they feel?"

"I haf no fucking ithea."

She giggled. "I guess not. Well, you're all done!" She handed me a mirror. I examined my lovely, newly bonded front tooth and the paralyzed left side of my face, along with the drool spilling over my lower lip.

"Any inthructhionth?"

"You probably shouldn't eat anything until the Novocaine wears off because you could bite your tongue."

"How lonh?"

She looked at her watch. "It's 4 o'clock now." She mused.

(I had been there 2 and a half hours.)

"Probably until 6 or so."

I got up to leave, feeling distinctly violated. I went to the front desk to "check out", only to discover how little my insurance actually covered for the expense of the afternoon's fun. As I wrote my check, De Sade passed by, well beyond the reception desk, in a hurry to somewhere else. He looked at me and smirked. "It'll probably be closer to 7 by the time it wears off."

Like hell. It's 4 weeks later and while my face is back to normal, my tongue is still numb. I still can't tell if the fillings are smooth, or how hot my coffee is until it hits the back of my throat. The numbness alternates with the pins-and-needles feeling you get as blood flow returns to a foot you've been sitting on.

I don't mean to complain. I know I'm lucky to even be able to afford regular dental care. I know it could be worse. It's not life-threatening. Rather, it's like having a pebble in your shoe. A pebble in your shoe every single hour of every single day. It won't kill you, but it will drive you stark. raving. mad. This is the theory behind Chinese water torture.

So yesterday I went to the dermatologist. After an embarrassingly thorough examination of the entire expanse of my pasty Midwestern skin, she announced that a spot on my right (facial) cheek should come off.

"It's a little suspicious. We should have it biopsied. It's no big deal, just a little scrape."

"Okay," I said. Family history being what it is, I'm taking no chances with the Big C.

Her nurse came in, bearing a tray.

"Okay", she chirped, "Let's numb you!"

"Topical?" I asked.

"Oh, no; you'll need a lidocaine injection. Why? Are you scared of needles?"

Not me. I'm not scared of needles. Not one little bit, Dammit.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The $64,000 Question

We knew over two weeks ago that Mom's cancer was back. We knew it was in the lymph nodes in her neck. Last week, we learned that it was not in her stomach. Yesterday we found out that it is in lymph nodes not only in her neck, but her sternum, her abdomen and her adrenal glands. There are suspicious nodules in her lung, as well. "Stage 4 metastatic cancer"; that's what the doctor called it.

He's a good egg, this oncologist; a nice Irish boy. As Mom, Dad, my brother and I sat in the tiny exam room, he enthusiastically described a variety of chemotherapy treatments. Taxotere and carboplatin (what my Dad is getting) are too harsh for her. But there are other treatment regimens to consider. He talks about studies and a drug called 5FU (yes, really) and antibody treatment if the tumors are HER-positive.

We ask questions and he answers them. Mom's system is very sensitive; she has reactions to lots of medications, including most antibiotics. She takes coumadin. She doesn't tolerate codeine-based pain medications. He says the good news is that no cancer showed up in the liver. "If it was in her liver, there wouldn't be much we could do at all and I wouldn't recommend chemo in that situation." He almost makes it sound like things could be worse.

He tells us that we can choose to forgo chemo: "It's a perfectly reasonable choice", he says. He would, however, radiate the tumor in her neck to minimize discomfort, because without chemo it will most certainly continue to grow and will press upon nerves and blood vessels.

What he does not talk about is life expectancy. When I ask about "progression", he carefully skirts the issue. I know there is no crystal ball and if there were, I probably wouldn't like what I would see in it, anyway. When I finally pin him down, asking if he can give us any sort of timeline (he seems to like this term better than "life expectancy"), he says 6 to 13 months. I ask if that is with or without treatment. He says, "With and without."

Dad, a man of quick decisions and goals and action, is ready to commit to something. For him, a plan is a necessary thing; inaction and indecision are torture. My brother and I pull him back.

"Let's discuss this, Dad. It's a big decision."

The doctor agrees. "I will be seeing you on Tuesday for your next treatment. We can finalize our plans then. We have time."

We decide to schedule an appointment with the radiation oncologist right away, to have a look at what can be done for the large tumor in her neck and book the appointment before we leave.

After hugs all around, we start to separate in the lobby, heading off in our different directions. And then I reconsider. I look at my brother. He meets my gaze and nods.

"Let's find a place to talk a bit before we go."

There is an empty room, right off the lobby. Chairs surround a table near a cooler filled with Ensure and there several wigs on stands perched on nearby book shelves. We pass by the magazine rack and Mom stops to look.

"Hey, there's the Field & Stream you were reading the last time we were here, Mom!"

She chuckles. I don't know if she actually remembers or not, but she plays along, lingering at the rack. She picks up a magazine and starts flipping the pages. I take her arm.

"Mom, let's leave the magazines. We need to talk about what the doctor told us. Let's go in here and sit down for a few minutes."

We sit at the table and all that's missing is a deck of cards. Dad looks over at the cooler.

"Have you ever tried that Ensure? God, it's awful stuff. I tried it when I was trying to get my strength back after the surgery, but I couldn't get the stuff down."

Mom fusses with the silk flower centerpiece.

"So, Mom, what do you think about what the doctor had to say?"

She shrugs. "I don't know what to think."

I go into lawyer-counseling-client mode.

"Mom, the decision about whether to have chemo is up to you. For some people, they want to know they tried everything; for other people, the chance of more time just isn't worth feeling rotten.  We have to balance out what is the up side and what is the down side of treatment."

"I just don't know." She pauses, looking down and then back up, at Dad.

"I would hate to think I could have done something about it and didn't, but I have lived a long time. I have had a good, long life."

"Mom," my brother says, "You can always stop the chemo if you start it and it makes you miserable. You don't have to continue it just because you started it."

"I just want her to be comfortable," Dad says, looking across the table at her.

"I guess you just do what you have to do," she says as she shrugs her shoulders again, looking rather lost. She rotates the flower arrangement and examines the container it is in.

Mom looks pretty. She recently had her hair permed and it's short and curly; mostly silver. Her eyes are the same pale aquamarine they have always been. She is wearing her favorite blue print silk blouse. But for the lump on the side of her neck, which really isn't very obvious, she looks fine. You would never know she has cancer.

We finish our discussion with no clear resolution, only the agreement that we will talk among the family and finalize plans by Tuesday.

I shouldn't be writing. I have too much to do. Everyday stuff: laundry; cleaning; parent-teacher conferences this afternoon; preparing for my book club hostessing duties tonight. But I can't; not until I process this latest twist in the road.

I wish she had a strong opinion about what she wanted. I wish she felt one way or another. I don't feel right steering her. It should be her choice. But what if she can't make the decision? Could she ever forgive us if we said,  "no chemo" and she went quickly? Would she forgive us if we said "yes" and she got sicker and felt awful? And what about Dad? He is beating the cancer that attacked him and he needs our support, too.

Yesterday was a hard day, but it was also a day for celebration. It was Mom and Dad's 62nd wedding anniversary.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Pull

A week or so ago, I was at my Mom and Dad's condo, which is about an hour and a half from home. We had just gotten in the door from Dad's most recent chemo treatment, when my cell phone rang. It was 2:45, so I knew my 6th grade daughter was calling to let me know she got home and in the house okay.

"Hi Mom, I'm home."

"Thanks for calling, honey."
(I can tell something is wrong.)

"Are you going to work on your reading project, now, before your sister gets home?"
(She starts to cry. Actually, she starts to wail.)

"Mom. I accidentally left my poster in homeroom and then I was getting my bag all packed up at my locker and this kid hit me in the nose with his lunchbox. He said it was an accident but I don't believe him. I know I had my planner and my supply pouch in my bag but they're not there! I don't know what to do!"
(More wailing)

"Okay, it's okay," I say in my most soothing voice, hopefully low enough that my parents don't hear.

"Get a piece of paper and quickly write down what you remember is due tomorrow while it's still fresh in your mind, okay?"

"Okay, but Mom!"

I scan my mind, trying to recall the assignments we discussed last night.

"You have your final reading log due tomorrow, right?"

"Yes! That's what I mean - my jump drive is in my supply pouch and I don't have it and I worked on it today at school and all my work is on it!"
(More wailing.)

This is not the first time that there has been a crisis of some sort while I have been away from home, but this is the first one that was not resolvable entirely with words of wisdom or a quick call to a mom-friend for a ride to or from somewhere.

"It's going to be okay, honey. Let's get this figured out. The big assignments are all for one teacher, right?"

"Yes, but-"

"Okay; her email address is on the school website, right?"

"Yes, but-"

"So, why don't you start by sending her an email right away and tell her what happened?"

"Mom, she won't give me extra time. She won't. She said so today in class. She said the projects have to be turned in tomorrow and there's no way I can get it done!"
(More wailing)

"Don't ask her for extra time. Just let her know what happened, right away. At least she will know that  your project might be late and she will know why and she won't think you were just goofing off, right? She knows you; she knows you are good student and that you always turn your work in on time, right?"

"Okay, Mom. I'll do it. But this is my most important project this grading period!"

"Just give it a try. Then call me back."

I went back to the table where my parents were sitting, eating a snack after the long appointment at the cancer treatment center.

"Who was that?"

"Oh, It was B, letting me know she's home."

"Have the girls already started back to school?"

"Oh, yeah, Mom - it's October. They've been back for a while."

"Oh, of course! I forgot."

"Is everything okay, Margaret?"

"Yes, Dad; she forgot a couple of things at school. She's a little upset."

My Dad looks pained:  "I'm sorry you have to be here. I hate to be a burden on you kids."

"It's okay, Dad. She'll be fine."

My cell phone rang again. It's B.

"Mom, I sent the email. I checked my bag three times to make sure the jump drive wasn't in there and it's not. I don't know where it could be!"
(Hysteria rising.)

"Okay, good. Let's think. If someone found it, they would take it to the office, right?  Why don't you call the school office and ask if someone turned it in?"

"But, Mom, even if somebody turned it in I can't get it today and tomorrow will be too late!"
(crying resumes)

I look at my watch. She's right. Even if I left right then, I would not be able to get over to the middle school before it closed.

"Let's try it anyway. What have we got to lose? When you call, ask how late someone will be there, okay? Just tell the secretary what happened and ask if someone turned anything in, okay? Give it a try."

"Okay, Mom, but I don't think it will do any good."
(Grumbling under breath.)

"Is everything okay? Was that B again?" my Mom asks.

"Yes, it was. She's fine. Working through it."

Mom and Dad continued their snack. Dad got up to check his email, which is mostly dirty jokes from his geezer buddies.

My phone rang again.

"Hi, honey. Did you get a hold of someone in the office?"
(Projecting chipper optimism.)

"Finally. No one answered the first two times I called, but the third time the secretary answered. She said no one brought anything in yet, but there is a lost and found box that things are put in and I can check it in the morning."
(Heavy sigh.)

"Well, it seems to me you have done all you can. Sweetie, we know what a hard worker you are. If one assignment is late, it won't be because you didn't do your best work. These things happen. No one is upset with you about this, okay?"

"I know. I just really wanted to get an A+ in honors reading. It's my favorite class."

"You may still get an A+. And if you don't, you don't. It won't be the end of the world. I promise."

"I know."
(Heavy sigh)

"Guess what?"


"You don't have any homework you can do, do you?"


"I guess that means you can goof off the rest of the afternoon. See - it's not all bad!"

"Oh..... yeah! Tell Papa and Gram I hope they feel better soon! Bye Mom!"

And that was that.

I sent her off to school the next morning, worried. She bounced in the door after school, smiling.

"So - how did it go today? Did your stuff get turned in?"

"Yeah; Mr. Williams found the poster and took it to the office and Mrs. Miller got my email and found my stuff in the hallway right by my locker. She let me eat lunch in her room and finish my assignments before class."


"What can I have for a snack? I'm starved to death!"

I told her later how impressed I was that she solved this problem for herself and that she held it together even though I wasn't there to help. She laughed and said she didn't; she said she cried all afternoon but her smile told me she was proud of herself.

I think scientists have gotten it all wrong. They shouldn't be focused on cloning farm animals. They should be cloning mothers, so we can be everywhere at once.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


When I was a kid, I wanted desperately to be Jewish. I read every one of the All of a Kind Family books multiple times. I knew the characters like they were my own family and I liked them much better. The holidays! The cooking! The traditions! It seemed like such a comforting life compared to mine, which included daily mass, nasty-tempered nuns and catechism that left little open to interpretation, if you know what I mean.

The only Jew I knew firsthand back then was my sister-in-law, who was so much nicer to me than my actual sisters were, that I was certain there was something special about Jews. As far as I know, there was only one Jewish family in the little southern Ohio town where I grew up. Since I went to the Catholic schools, we never had much of an opportunity to mix. Once we started having holidays that included my sister-in-law's family, I discovered wondrous new foods like creamed herring, noodle kugel and lox. This only added to the allure of Judaism.

As I worked my way through 12 years of Catholic school, I never lost that fascination. And Catholic school for me was no bed of roses, either. I never really got the "sit down, be quiet and play along" part. Couldn't keep my big mouth shut.

I was busted in 5th grade for trying have a seance under the fire escape on the playground at recess.

"But I was trying to summon the ghost of Bloody Mary! She was Catholic."

Oddly, that argument did not help my case. That may have been the time I was ordered to kneel in the hallway in front of a life size, technicolor replica of the Pieta and hold my hands out at shoulder height,  "So you can see how Jesus felt when he was dying for your sins."
The nuns had discovered that writing out lines, over and over, hundreds of times ("I will not argue with Sister Cecelia. I will not argue with Sister Cecelia. I will not argue with Sister Cecelia.") didn't have much of an effect on me.

Then there was the time that Sister Jude found my tarot cards. That didn't go over particularly well, either, as I recall.

Things were a little better in high school, but not much. In 10th grade, we had a unit in our religion class titled "Respecting Ourselves" (Hah!), taught by a handsome young priest. I will never forget his apoplectic look when I raised my hand and said, "Can we just cut to the chase here? Exactly how far can you go without it being a sin?" I knew it was the question on everyone's minds and I was less afraid of hell than the others, so I had to be the one to ask. I knew they would all thank me later.

I think it was in 11th grade that we covered history of the church. They left a few things out in our curriculum, focusing more on martyrs and less on inquistors. I never bought into the whole stigmata thing. In my mind, the poor hygiene of the Middle Ages probably explained it. Still, I remember one exchange with my religion teacher, a priest, quite vividly. Thinking like the salesperson I was later destined to become, I noted,

"Father, the church could attract a lot more members if it would just be little more flexible about certain things."

"Miss Pauken, the Church does not need to be flexible because it is the CHURCH. The ONE, HOLY,  CATHOLIC, CHURCH."

(Well, if you want to be that way, I'll just save my marketing strategy for someone else. Sniff.)

Now that the Catholic Church is facing massive church closures and dwindling membership, maybe the Vatican would like to hear my latest idea. (Drumroll, please.)


Yes, I said accessorize.

For too long, all the good stuff has been reserved for the priests - the chalices, candelabras, vestments - you name it. If you want to generate enthusiasm, get the bling out to the people! Once again, Jews have gotten it right. Take a look at the The Source for Everything Jewish catalog. I have purchased gift items for friends and family from it; it's a great resource. There is so much cool stuff. Catholics need an equivalent. Make being Catholic fun again!

There is a game called "Kosherland" in the catalog. Why couldn't Catholics have something similar, say, "Martyrland"? You select a little avatar and make your way through a treacherous, winding path, beset by blood-thirsty monsignors, helpful saints and nuns wielding rulers. Collect rosaries, crucifixes and prayer cards as you go along. Draw cards to see what happens next:

"Burn mark on the back of your hand mistaken for stigmata - move 10 spaces ahead."

"Caught staring at Colleen Gallagher's bustline - go back 5 spaces for impure thoughts."

"Prayed the rosary every night for a week, move 5 spaces ahead."

"Accidentally bit down on the communion host - go back to start."

The focus always seems to be on the "major" holidays. Christmas is over-commercialized already, but what about the other holy days? Maybe an "Immaculate Conception" special edition set of champagne flutes? Pentecost fireworks? Feast of the Assumption "cloudlike" pavlova dessert mix? Spread the joy throughout the year.

One local Judaic store in Cleveland used to stock "Famous Jew" trading cards. Why not "All Saints" bubblegum cards? I can see it now:

"I'll trade you a Saint Dymphna for a Saint Anselm; I've got 3 of her already."

"Oh, man, I got Saint Francis of Assisi! The gum is shaped like a lamb!"

For the lady of the house, there is china. The Lenten dishware set would include mismatched, cracked and chipped plates, while the four-week Advent set would have three weeks of purple dishes and one week of pink.

The possibilities are truly endless.

I am still fascinated by and respectful of Judaism, with its emphasis on family, tradition, self-reflection and compassion. Although I no longer attend mass and don't identify myself as Catholic, I still respond to the beauty and mystery of its rituals and value its tradition of outreach to the poor. Plus, there are some pretty fabulous religious educators out there, too, like this one.

I don't know if I need the Catholic Church at this point, but I am pretty sure it needs me.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Charity Begins at Home

Warm and fuzzy mothering was not the stuff of my youth. After all, there were 6 of us and it was the era of hands-off parenting. Throw in chronic depression and a family-owned business and there wasn't much time for intimate talks about bruises to the heart. Motherly advice in my family consisted of a few nuggets of wisdom repeated often enough that, like the location of its birth-beach to a sea turtle, they are forever imprinted upon my psyche:

"God helps those who help themselves."

"Charity begins at home."

"Don't say anything you don't want the world to know."

"If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all."

Interestingly, the last two commandments apparently did not apply to Mom. She's never hesitated to verbalize her observations and opinions about those nearby and she seems to assume that those about whom she opines are as deaf as my Dad is.

"What? Why are you giving me that look? She can't hear me. I was just saying.... (disgusted sigh)".

Mom's discreetness filter has always had rather loose "mesh", but as her dementia worsens it has grown looser and looser. At Dad's recent Chemo #2*, while my sister took Dad back to have blood drawn before the infusion began, Mom and I sat in the waiting area. It is a large room, in a nice new cancer treatment facility and, thankfully, was sparsely populated at that moment because it has acoustics like Carnegie Hall.

"Look at that woman over there. Do you think she is wearing a wig?"
(Hand in front of mouth, palm facing outward; eyes directed toward the suspect.)

"So many of these nurses have tattoos. They look like tramps. Why do they do that to themselves?"
(Rhetorical question; no answer expected.)

"Everyone around here looks so sick."
(Scanning the room.)

I engage in an internal debate. By shushing her, will I draw more attention to her remarks? Did anyone else actually hear her? Will they know that her comments are not intended to be hurtful? How can I divert her- FAST?

"How about a magazine, Mom?"

I hand her the only publication within reach: Field and Stream. I kid you not.

She takes it and gives it a once-over. "I don't think I've ever seen this magazine before."
(Probably not, safe to say, and if she had, she wouldn't remember it anyway.)

She flips the pages. "Look at this! Deer urine? They sell deer urine?"
(It was worth a try.)

I see my sister waving us over. They are ready to start Dad's infusion. I help Mom up and reach to take the Field and Stream from her hand.

Gripping it tighter and glaring at me, she says, "I'm still reading that."
(Alrighty, then.)

Mom's unsteady on her feet, so she holds onto my hand as we walk the corridors to the treatment room. I slow my pace and look down at her. Her hand is softer than I can ever remember it being. She is dressed nicely, in a blue print silk blouse. Although she never wore much makeup and no nail polish, Mom has always taken great care with her appearance. She walks slowly, slightly stooped over. When did she get so fragile; so old?

The treatment room reminds me a bit of the set of  The Office. It is a large, high-ceilinged, open room. There are "work stations" throughout, each with recliners, IV poles and side chairs with low walls separating the "stations". Here and there are stands with a variety of wigs and hats. There is a low buzz of discreet, superficial small-talk ongoing.

When the nurse spots us, she steers us to the one private treatment area. It is enclosed in glass, but has full walls and a door as well as two recliners. I wanted to kiss her. I couldn't imagine three hours or more in the bullpen.

Dad was already settled into one recliner. He banters with the nurse inserting his IV while we get Mom settled into the other recliner. Mom points toward the outer room.

"See those wigs? They are free if you are having chemo. I told your father he should get one."

She smiles at him. He looks over at her and chuckles.

"I think I might like that better," he says, pointing at a cherry-red snood festooned with sequins.

Later, back at Mom and Dad's place, we get them fed and settled in. Dad is understandably tired and achy.

"I have no complaints; just a little tired, that's all."

Mom's ankles are swollen; her blood pressure is up and her oxygen level is low. We get her situated, put on her oxygen and put her feet up. I pull a bottle of nail polish from my purse.

"How about if I do your toenails, Mom? They look like they could use it."

"Oh; that would be nice." She leans her head back and relaxes.

**Cue Mambo #5 - "A little bit of taxotere in my veins, a little bit of something for the pain...". Credit goes to my sister for this one, which we performed, together, live at the North Coast Cancer Center just yesterday. Really. We did.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Now I'm not naming names, but....

I have a "thing" about names. The names of towns and cities affects how I feel about them. Take Elyria, Ohio for example. I'm sure it's a perfectly lovely place but it sounds like a disease to me. Malaria, Diphtheria, Elyria.

"Tell me, Doctor, what is it?"

"Mrs. Jones, I have bad news. You have a severe case of bacterial elyria. There is no known cure."

(Followed by much wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

Medication names affect me in a similar way. Why must drug makers use names for pharmaceuticals that sound like they have been plucked from the roster of this year's incoming kindergarten class? Celexa, Cymbalta, Allegra.

Maybe we should turn the tables on Merck and Pfizer and name our kids for the drugs we need, thanks to the little darlings.

"Meet my five year old twin boys, Xanax and Prozac and my 3 year old daughter, Valium."

"Oh, no reason, we just liked the names."

I am all for naming the drug for what it sets out to accomplish, but honestly, "Levitra"?  I feel dirty just saying it. They may as well have named it "Longschlong." I think it was for Cialis that they created the very subtle television advertisement that showed a studly, yet sensitive looking man passing his football through the center of a tire swing. Nothing subliminal about that one. Next up: darts hitting the bulls eye, followed by oyster shucking with a stiff blade.

It's trendy now to use geographical names for children: Dakota, Cheyenne, Savannah. But where, I ask you, are Newark and Zanesville, not to mention Poughkeepsie? On the other hand, it might create problems if you have, say, a Paris, a London and a Calcutta:

"Of course we love you all equally! What would make you say such a thing?"

I feel sorry for teachers. The latest in baby-naming seem to be the insertion of various punctuation marks, such as apostrophes, into names.

Personally, I blame it all on Prince. I mean, "the artist formerly known as Prince".

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ding-Dong, Cancer calling!

Attitude isn't everything; it's something, but it's not everything. If it were, then all the valiant people who have fought cancer with everything that they had with which to fight, would have won. To even say such a thing diminishes the spirit of too many courageous souls who did not survive it. And what about the ones who weren't brave? The ones who were scared and angry and whiny and lonely and depressed? Are they somehow less deserving of health?

But the ones who fight it with grace and nobility, they are inspiring, aren't they? My Dad is one of them. At 84, with half a lung gone and with a heart working at about 30% capacity, he has sailed through his first chemo treatment with hardly a symptom. He jokes about losing his hair - "All 5 of them." He says to the oncologist at his follow up, "I really have no complaints." And he means it. He visits the audiologist to be fitted for new hearing aids. He intends to need them for a good long while and I have no doubt that he will.

What rattles my father is the notion that there is even the slightest possibilty that he may not be here to take care of my mother. Mom has dementia. Whether it is Alzheimer's or not, I do not know and I am not sure it matters. What matters is that a former champion bridge player stares at the hand of Uno cards in front of her and struggles to make sense of them while my girls politely look away and wait for her to take her turn. That the woman who was a very good and proficient cook, is now puzzled by the buttons on the microwave. That the expert needleworker has unraveled and re-knit the same few rows of stitches countless times over the past many months. She's angry that my Dad sold her car; "I still have a driver's license. Look at it! It doesn't expire until 2013!" She's weary of doctors: "Why do they keep looking for something to be wrong with me?"

Some days she seems to recognize her limitations, on others, not. When we were on the phone a couple of weeks ago she said to me, "I have a kind of personal question for you, if you don't mind." She hesitated. "What kind of soap do you use? I know there is a kind I like, but I don't know what it is called. You have sensitive skin like I do  - what do you use? I need to tell your father what to buy." She no longer cooks at all; Dad does it all. He shops, cleans, does the laundry and monitors her medications.

The family has insisted that Dad get help since he has been recovering from surgery and going through chemo. My siblings and I have all made time to pitch in and help as we can, but the day-to-day remains with him.

Last week, the doctors revealed the results of the recent biopsy of lymph nodes in my mother's neck. They found cancer cells; cancer cells of the type that were removed along with half her stomach 20 months ago. Cancer cells of the type that we thought we wouldn't see again because they "got it all". Mom seemed pretty matter-of-fact about it, but Dad, the eternal optimist, was shaken. We still don't know what the treatment plan will be, as the consultation with the oncologist won't be for a couple of weeks.

Last Friday I accompanied them to yet another doctor for yet another procedure. This time it was to be a scope of Mom's stomach to see what is going on in there and if there are any signs of cancer at the site of the previous surgery. While Mom was being prepped and we were alone, I talked to Dad about what Mom's treatment might entail.

"Dad," I said, "Mom's health isn't as good as yours to start with. She may not be a candidate for chemotherapy."

"I know that," he said.

"It might be, Dad, that they will focus more on keeping it at bay for as long as possible and making her comfortable than on curing it, like they are doing for you. It may be that it has spread so far that it can't be cured."

He hung his head a bit and his lip quivered. He looked away and blinked. "I suspect that may be the case."

We turned to watch the news on the TV in the waiting area.

Afterward, as they waited for the health care aide to pull up the car, I asked my Dad if he had food on hand for dinner, as my sisters had made and frozen quite a few meals for them.

"No," he said, "I am going to the store when we get back." He glanced at Mom.

"I'm going to get some king crab legs and fix them for Mom tonight. I think she'll like that."

Oh, she definitely will. Maybe attitude isn't everything, but it is a lot after all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On the Highway to (Hormone) Hell

There is something wrong with a Mother Nature who allows both wrinkles and pimples on the same face; both gray hair and mysterious new chin hairs, both hot flashes and heavy cramps. Wouldn't you think Mother Nature would be a little more even-handed? Maybe even sympathetic? These days it seems like I've got way too much yin going on here for my own well-being, not to mention that of my family.

Ironically, or perhaps not for dear Mother Nature, as I enter the grand finale of the estrogen fireworks, the younger females in the house are feeling theirs begin to spark. B has been on this journey for a couple of years now, but it really hit fever pitch this year.

You've heard of women's cycles synchronizing? I'm moody; she's moodier. I'm weepy, she's weepier. I've got a pizza-face and she's borrowing my Clearasil. Poor Hombre is perplexed by all of this. His formerly sweet and somewhat sassy daughter routinely leaves the dinner table in tears. Any cross word results in an accusation: "You don't have to YELL at me!" Followed by more tears. Followed by, "I don't know why I'm crying, but I just can't stop!" Somehow, I remain my perfectly even-tempered, well-modulated, reasonable self. Yeah, right.

It also makes for interesting shopping. In the 30+ years that I have been hosting "Aunt Flo", I have, as I would assume most women have, developed certain clear preferences that make shopping easy - a box of these, these and these and I'm on my way. Well, that system is no more, since I'm buying for two. They now have "thong" panty-liners. Say what?! There are "Tween" size and "body-shape". Pre-wrapped or not. In lurid colors or discreetly pink. It can take hours to analyze the selections and make a choice. B prefers to let me do the buying without her. A on the other hand, loves to peruse the merchandise. The first time she was with me for "the purchase" she asked, in her unusually loud and deep voice, "MOM - DO YOU USE PADS OR TAMPONS?" Several other women in the aisle smirked at me with sympathy as they scurried away. They were probably afraid she'd ask them the same question.

When B had her first period earlier this year, we were more than ready. We had thoroughly discussed, over and over, what would happen and what to do. She had been packing supplies on every sleepover for months. After the first day or so, she decided that she needed something a little more substantial for night-time, so back to the store I went. I bought a couple of different boxes and told her to give them a try. About 15 minutes later, I heard her calling me from the top of the stairs. She was cracking up. She held out a large sanitary pad and said, "Mom! Look - it has wings!"and let it flutter down to the foyer floor. We laughed so hard, tears ran down my face. (She is too young to have seen the "The gosh-darn thing's got wings!" commercials).

Then to my surprise she said - "Get Dad! He's got to see this!". Hombre was so touched to be included in this tender moment that he teared up.

A week or so ago, A asked me to look at her armpit; she thought she saw hairs. I saw nothing, but gave her a noncommittal, "Hmm."

"I guess I'll be starting my period soon, too, won't I Mom?"

All I could think was, thank god we had the dog spayed. I don't think we can stand any more hormones in this house.

Friday, September 9, 2011

4th Grade Politics

They say all politics is local. I'd say all politics is elementary, at least it should be.

A announced on Tuesday that she planned to run for student council representative from her class. She thought she would like to meet with other kids to decide how things should be run at the intermediate school.

At dinner we talked about my student government experience in high school and in college. I was VP of Communications at my alma mater, Miami University. "Let Meg Pauken Do Your Talkin' " was my slogan. I told her about my nightly canvassing through all the dorms on campus, the student center and the library. We talked about the responsibility and the honor of being elected by your classmates to represent them. We all remembered canvassers visiting our home during the 2008 presidential primary and general election seasons.

After dinner, she wrote a short stump speech:

"Hi. My name is Anna. I am 9 years old. I have one sister, 2 cats and a dog. I would like to be on student council so I can help decide how things should happen at school. I like science and I like to think about how to do things better. I am good at thinking of new ways to solve problems. Thank you for voting for me."

We talked about the fact that she might not win, but it was awesome that she was brave enough to go for it.

Wednesday afternoon she bounced in from the bus. "How did it go today?" I asked.

"Fine. I didn't win but I'm not upset about it."

Ever the consoler, I offered, "Well, you haven't even been in school with these kids for 2 weeks and since you were new in the middle of last year, I'm sure a lot of them don't even really know you yet."

"Oh, no, Mom, I don't think that had anything to do with it. I got 2 votes but I almost got 3. One girl was going to vote for me but she got my name confused; she thought I was somebody else.

"The kid who won, he deserved to win. He had a really great idea. He is going to get them to put in a water filter because our water tastes terrible. He said it made somebody throw up. That's a great idea - it really does taste bad. Plus he gave everybody a dum-dum."

"So, do you think you'll try again next year?"

"Oh, yeah, I will, but I'm going to bring some candy to give out next time."

Who needs a course in government? She just learned about listening to the constituents, developing a relevant platform and campaign tactics all in the first two weeks of school. Can I say I am proud of her grace and pragmatism in the face of losing? I just wish she could teach that to the big boys in Washington!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dealer's Choice

I don't think my parents intended to raise a family of card sharks; it was just a cheap way to entertain six children. We would gather around the dining room table for hours-long games of hearts, spades and poker; dealer's choice, of course. We learned five card draw, blackjack and seven card stud, along with seemingly endless variations. One of my mother's favorites that quickly became mine was a seven card stud labeled "Deuces, jacks, man with the axe; a pair of natural sevens takes all". We were allotted 100 pennies each for bidding and quickly learned the benefits of maintaining a poker face, since we got to keep our take. I may have overplayed that; siblings mention a tendency I had to allow a tear to slip down my cheek when I had an especially good hand.

Later, as players graduated and went off to college, we focused more on euchre and pinochle. Family lore is that I became such a good euchre player that when I went to OU for little sibs weekend, I beat all the college kids. Allegedly this was a point of pride for my mother, who never actually said it to my face. You wouldn't want to give a kid a big head.

My oldest sister started at Ohio University in the fall of '69, the same year I started kindergarten. The next in line joined her in the fall of '71. The fact that I played competitively with them and their friends may have had more to do with the oddly shaped "vases" being passed around than with my card skills, but I couldn't say for sure.

I do remember quite vividly sitting in for various Knights of Columbus at church functions when the beer hit their bladders mid-hand. I always hovered around the card tables and occasionally someone would wave me over, "Here take my cards while I go to the john. Don't lose the game for me, now!". There would be much joking when the Knight returned. "Let her play for you; we did better when you were gone!" I loved the attention. I was the only kid at the table and again, I don't know that it was my skill so much as my relative sobriety that carried the hands,  but whatever; it was fun.

Last week, my Dad, my "glass-nearly full and I'm not thirsty - here you have it" Dad, and I talked about his upcoming cancer treatment. He had half a lung removed just six weeks ago and starts chemo next week. It will be followed by radiation treatment. We talked about the home health care aides that have been helping out and my mom's reaction to them. ("They all have tattoos, Meg! Every one of them!" )We talked about the sale of my parents' home. We talked about their ultimate move to assisted living. We talked about his need for new hearing aids, about the Indians, about my girls and their busy lives.

We did not talk about the biopsy being done just then on my mother's enlarged, hardened lymph nodes; about the fact that they might indicate the return of the stomach cancer we thought had been cured or even worse, lymphoma..

And then my dad said he was sorry. He apologized for "bleeding all over me". I told him I was grateful that I could be a sounding board for him, that I was available and willing to listen. That it was only fair: after all, he had  to listen to me complain about various boyfriends and other miseries for many, many  years.

But he was finished talking, at least for that day. I knew it when he shook his head a bit, patted my knee and said, "We have to play the cards we're dealt, Margaret, we have to play the cards we're dealt."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

George & Gracie

The nurse leaned over my mother as she sat in the recovery area after outpatient surgery. She was adjusting the pulse oximeter on her finger to see if she was getting an accurate reading of Mom's oxygen saturation. My father hovered nearby.

"I have one of those at home so I can check her stats. I usually like to see her in the mid- to high- 90's. She uses oxygen just at night."

He pats Mom's hand. "She's put up with me for 62 years now. We have six kids." Mom smiles at him; her inscrutable, Mona Lisa smile.

She leans back and closes her eyes. Kim, the nurse, says, "Wow! That's impressive. You must be doing something right. Do you use oxygen yourself?"

"No, I only put it on her at night. She's fine during the day."

Kim gives me a quizzical look.

"Dad. She wants to know if YOU use oxygen."

"Oh! No; I don't need it. I have a concentrator at home for her and I keep a pretty good eye on her. I check her and if it gets below 92-93%, I put it on her for a while."

Mom opens her eyes. "Laura? " Kim asks, "How are you feeling now?"

"Pretty good, pretty good." She looks over at Dad. "Did you know we've been together for 62 years? I've had six children."

Kim smiles.

The one that can hear, can't remember. The one that remembers, can't hear. At times it's like a Vaudeville routine and at other times, it just makes me cry.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dancing in the Driveway

What a difference a year makes! It is day 4 of the new school year. Both girls in new schools with (much, much) earlier and different start times; riding the bus instead of walking; making new friends every day. There have been tears, anxiety and some sad and lonely days but there has also been a sense of calmness and order that was missing in many ways at their old school. We all have adjusted and are still adjusting, but I have stopped stressing about whether we made the right decision to  uproot them, sell our house and move.

Last night we went to the open house at A's new school (intermediate - grades 4 and 5). Hombre and I were overwhelmed by the packed gymnasium full of parents and the full roster of teachers in attendance. Even the superintendent was there! There was no tension in the atmosphere; no complaining, no rolling eyes, no grumbling. As we left the gym to head for individual classrooms, we saw photos posted on the walls of the kids arriving on the first day - just last week, and already printed and posted! We met the PTO out in full force, with cookies and drinks for all. We felt the other parents' excitement at the start of the new year. Best of all: the genuine enthusiasm of A's new teachers.

A's classroom teacher spoke enthusiastically about a book she read over the summer (The Book Whisperer) that changed her view about teaching reading after having been a teacher for 11 years. She bubbled over about it and about her plan to turn these fourth graders into passionate readers. A's "switch" teacher (for social studies) was equally energetic. She blogs daily about the happenings in the classroom because a weekly newsletter just doesn't seem like enough communication. How can these attitudes NOT carry over into the classroom? How could they fail to impact the minds and spirits they work with every day?

We left the school feeling both incredibly lucky, but also slightly guilty. Every child deserves this kind of attention and high regard.  Every student should feel so special, so important: her teacher spent her summer developing a new reading program!

And so this morning, as I waited outside in the driveway with A for the bus to come, we danced. We danced and twirled and giggled and laughed. Because we were both so very happy.