A Good Sweat

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I happen to be having a rheumatoid arthritis flare right now, which means frequent inner conversations that go something like this:

My body: Everything hurts.

My brain: Yes, it’s an RA flare, we’ll be fine.

Body: Nope. Pretty sure we’re dying.

Brain: We are not.

Body: We are. We should lay on the couch in the fetal position and not move.

Brain: Actually we’re going to go exercise now.

Body: Nope. Need fetal position. And a doughnut.

Brain: No, we’re going to work out.

Body: But it hurts to move!

Brain: We’re leaving now.

Body: Why on earth would we move when it hurts to move???

Brain: Because it helps.

Body: WHY DO YOU HATE ME?

Brain: I don’t hate you.

Body: Well I hate you. And I want a doughnut…

 

Needless to say, when I get to the health club to work out during a flare, it is often with a body that is cursing under its breath at me. And sometimes that makes it hard to muster a good attitude – especially if, say, I missed my morning group fitness class because I was doing something stupid (like spending several hours trying to understand my cellphone bill, that kind of stupid). You know what else makes it hard to have a good attitude? The stair climber. Or, as I like to call it, climbing stairs to nowhere. Feels ridiculously futile, this climbing stairs in place thing, but when ya gotta sweat, ya gotta sweat, right?

And speaking of sweat…

This might sound like oversharing (and if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’re thinking, “Jen, that ship has sailed”), but I perspire profusely when I work out. I like to think that it’s because I’m just so gosh darned fit, but I don’t really have anything to back that up. All I know is, when I work out there might as well be a sign by me, like the ones they have at amusement parks: “You will get wet.”

So when I’m on the stair climber machine, going nowhere hard, I can seriously soak that sucker. And I’ve mostly gotten used to the looks when people walk by. Especially the poor guys whose job it is to clean the machines. I see them pass by warily, towel in hand, their faces painted in dread as they observe the way I have drenched the machine. One guy actually visibly shuddered, I’m not joking. Between them and all the side eye from the ladies with the perfect hair and makeup, it makes me want to stand on the rails of the machine and announce loudly: PEOPLE! I AM GOING TO WIPE THIS DOWN WHEN I’M DONE, SO RELAX! THE MACHINE WILL BE FINE!

The other day, after spending my morning with every cellphone bill from the last year and a half spread all over my kitchen table, and with still no answer as to why we are being billed for a number not associated with any of our phones, I gave up and headed to the health club and the dreaded stair climber. To add to my lovely mood, there was the RA flare, and those things can make me crabby if I’m not careful. Not as crabby as taking my “escape hatch” prednisone, however. My rheumatologist prescribed it for flare ups, but the last time I took it, I almost got kicked out of a soccer game, so I try to avoid touching the stuff. Instead, I try to eat super clean and work out and do all the healthy things (in addition to my regular RA meds). But for this moment, I will say I was a wee bit crabby.

So here I am with my aching joints and poisonous attitude, climbing stairs to nowhere and getting more than a little irritated at the “Oh my gosh could she sweat any more” looks I’m getting, only to notice out of the corner of my good eye that a guy has stopped walking and is standing next to my machine. Yes, if he had been on my left he’d probably still be there, but he was on my good side, so I knew he was there. And I was irritated. For real! I can’t believe he’s doing this. He’s probably waiting to catch my eye so he can shame me or laugh at me. I hate this. I hate being here on this stupid machine, climbing these stupid stairs with my stupid joints. I kept my eyes forward and silently, angrily sang along with the song in my headphones, until I heard him talking. Exasperated, I pulled out my earbuds and heard, “…you’ve got sweat flying everywhere!” I whipped my head around, preparing my best angry look (and I have some good ones, just ask my kids), only to be confronted with the most radiant smile. This beautiful man was beaming up at me appreciatively, “Look at you! You’re just going at it! I love it!” It was one of the personal trainers at the club, but I’d never seen him before. My mouth hung open for what seemed like a ridiculously long time, before I stammered something eloquent like, “Yeah, I sweat a lot…” He smiled, gave me a thumbs up and a “Keep at it!” And walked away.

To my credit, I did not proceed to trip up the stairs that oddly enough don’t stop moving when you pause to have a conversation – but I could have, I was so stunned. I stood up a little straighter, grinned and kept climbing the stairs to nowhere while dripping sweat all over the machine. But I did it with a very different attitude. Look at me! I am a beast! A BEAST, I tell you! Screw RA and cancer and fake hips and wonky eyes, because I am going at it! I don’t feel crummy often, and it’s very rare for all of my health “things” to come to the party all at once, but when they do, I want someone like him at the party too.

I left the health club with two takeaways. The first was about Mike (I checked his name tag when I high fived him on the way out). I thought about how, when other people saw gross, he saw good. I want to do that. I want to be that for others (I was going to say that I want to be like Mike, but I think that slogan is taken. Bummer, ’cause it would be good here).

The second thought was about Brené Brown’s book, Rising Strong, which I cannot get enough of (thankfully she just released another book, so it’s going to be ok). In it, she talks about the ways we make up stories to explain the things with which we struggle. Only it’s not always a true story that we tell ourselves. She encourages people to say, “The story I’m making up right now is _____,” as a way of honestly examining and owning what we’re telling ourselves about the situation. So on the stair climber, the story I was making up was that everyone around me was disgusted by my sweat. The thing is, I didn’t actually know that was true. Perhaps no one even noticed my perspiration, or they did but weren’t repulsed by it. Who knows? Not me. So why make something up? Here I was, all achy and irritated, expecting the worst – and instead I got the best. It made me wonder: how many times do we brace ourselves and throw on our armor because we know what’s coming, only to find out that… we actually don’t know?

On that day when I didn’t show up at the health club as my best self, someone saw good anyway. We can’t always tell when someone is having a crummy day, but we can, like Mike, choose to see the good instead of the gross – and then take the extra step to speak it.

From one sweaty person’s perspective, I’d say it makes a difference.

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Tell me somethin’ good

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Well as you can probably guess from the picture, the news at Mayo was good this week! That’s me with my amazing team of rockstars: Kathy (the most soothing voice), Kim (the best hugs) and Dr. Pulido (super smart oncologist. Also Einstein). And me? By that point in the day, my eyes had been pretty beat up, plus I was overcome with relief and joy at the good news – so I look kind of drunk. It’s fine, I was so happy I didn’t care. Still don’t. I wore the t-shirt mostly to be cheeky with Dr. P, but it turned out to be a delightful way to interact with everyone at Mayo. When my name was called for my first appointment and I stood to meet the nurse, she excitedly blurted out, “I saw the most amazing rainbow on my way here this morning!” Now, Rich and I left the house at 5:30 am and I had been fasting for my MRI, so I was a little – shall we say groggy? – and I was slow to react. “That’s something good, right?” she insisted. My shirt… “Oh! Yes, rainbows are very good! Thank you!” And so began the “tell me somethin’ good” game at Mayo. Everyone I approached seemed to take it as some sort of a challenge, one that they absolutely wanted to get right for me. Checking in for my blood work, the lady behind the desk earnestly tapped her forehead with her finger while apologetically explaining, “Hang on, I’m trying to come up with a good one!” (She did)

The best one, of course, was from my oncologist – but not before he sent me into a full-on panic first. Typically, by the time I’m sitting in the chair in his room, it’s been a long day. All the tests, all the waiting, all the nerves and emotions come down to this one moment. Waiting for him to come in with results feels like forever, but this time it was especially long. I turned to Rich nervously, “It’s usually not this long. Why is it taking him so long??” He shrugged, because the truth was that yes, it was taking longer than normal, but he was smart enough to know that it might not go well for him if he acknowledged it. “Maybe he had to see another patient,” he offered. But Dr. P. had darted into the room to grab a folder from his desk as we were entering, promising to return as soon as he’d looked at my results – so I knew that wasn’t it. There was only one reason it was taking him longer: my scans showed bad news. This was it, the moment I had been fearing since my diagnosis. I took a deep breath and prayed that I’d be able to handle it with strength and calm.

Suddenly the door burst open to reveal Dr. P. in the doorway, holding his cellphone aloft as it blared the song, Tell Me Something Good by Rufus and Chaka Khan. He grinned and grooved into the room, followed by Kim and Kathy, also smiling broadly and laughing. It took me a half second to comprehend it all… Oh! The news is good! He’s telling me something good! Also, the man can dance! But – good news! “I had to find the song on YouTube,” he said proudly. That’s why it took so long. He wasn’t looking at ominous scans, or rehearsing how he would tell me that I was dying; he was searching YouTube so he could share the good news with a song and dance. I didn’t think I could love the man any more, but there you go.

My tumor has shrunk a bit, and my liver and lungs show no signs of metastases – that’s about as good as it gets, folks. I’ll go back in another 9 months. There was some other stuff, mostly that I might need to get an implant in my eye that releases steroids or something, because the Avastin eye injections aren’t working so well anymore. Totally cringeworthy, yes, but we shall save our cringing for another day. Today, we dance.

But thinking back on my day, and on my nervous moments in the oncologist’s office, I have to wonder: how often is my immediate reaction in a situation to expect the worst? I know it’s a self preservation thing, this bracing for impact when the news could be bad, but sometimes the news surprises us. Sometimes, your oncologist bursts into the room dancing. Sometimes, you get told somethin’ good. I’m going to try to look for that more, even when I’m not wearing my shirt.

As always, thanks for coming along on this journey with me. It’s nice to have company. Have a great weekend, everyone. And look for somethin’ good!

 

The Underwear Always Wins

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I know it looks like I forgot I had a blog. Or decided I didn’t feel like doing it anymore. Maybe I simply couldn’t find the time to blog because I was busy doing AMAZING THINGS. You know, traveling the globe. Writing a novel. Ending world hunger. Becoming an expert at…something. Yeah, as much as I would love to regale you with tales of my exotic exploits, the simple truth is that I haven’t written because I got completely swallowed up by my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done some cool things and had some great experiences this year, but those aren’t the things that have kept me from writing. It’s the underwear. I’ll explain…

I like to call it “Triage” – the immediate needs take precedence over the things that can wait. So in the reality of day-to-day living, that means that if a task doesn’t fall under the category of “This must happen today or I don’t know what will happen but it’s bad,” then it tends to get pushed behind the things that do. Sometimes I’m aware that I’m doing this, but most of the time it just kind of happens. And then suddenly it’s been months since I said I would do this Very Important But Not Important On a Daily Basis thing. I felt a little better about this phenomenon after running into a friend at Target (triage – we needed toilet paper in a rather desperate way. I won’t elaborate). She’s a brilliant writer, and is currently pursuing her master’s in it, and yet she was having the same struggle: “You sit there and think, ‘I could get another chapter of my book written…or I could finish the laundry so everyone has clean underwear tomorrow.’ And the underwear always wins.”

Anyone else feel like that could be their bumper sticker?

“The underwear always wins…”

And here’s the kicker: I’m someone who is supposed to know better. I have cancer, for crying out loud, that was supposed to be my wake up call. The life-is-short-so-do-all-the-things-now epiphany. And initially I did exactly that. I didn’t make a bucket list per se, but I didn’t have to. One stunning diagnosis and I instantly had my priorities in order, along with the motivation to “make every day count.” But as the days stretched on into months and then years, a tentative confidence began to grow, and it whispered, “You know, you might live, did you ever think of that? You have decent odds of beating this thing.” Yeah…better wash the underwear.

But next week I will make my pilgrimage to the Mayo Clinic for my 9 month check. Next week it gets real again. It always does when I go there. Scans, blood work, billions of pictures of my eye (I don’t think I’m exaggerating, it really is excessive), and then the wait. Sitting in the ugliest waiting room (again, probably not an exaggeration), with my headphones in to drown out the depressing music (see also: my previous rants about Nadia’s Theme), as I wait to see my oncologist and hear my results. My palms sweat more than hands should, and I get this weird feeling in my stomach that kind of feels like falling. My heart lurches every time a nurse comes out to call for a patient. And in those moments, the confident voice that has been whispering for the last 9 months is silent. Because what if I come in to this too cocky? No, there is a necessary fear and trembling with which I approach these days. Just in case.

Scanxiety.

I wish I had thought of that word, because it’s brilliant. It is exactly what it sounds like – although, for me it only applies to the actual day at Mayo. The two weeks or so before my appointments, I’m not so much anxious as I am freaking neurotic. But “MRI’m losing-my-mind” doesn’t have the same ring to it, so we’ll stick with scanxiety. My poor family. I am not fun to be around in the weeks before a Mayo visit. I know it, but I’m powerless to stop it. I actually was so distracted with some big events at the end of May and into June that I didn’t realize we were entering That Time. It finally dawned on me, sort of like for us ladies when we realize it’s a certain time of the month and go, “Ohhhhh, so THAT’S why I hate everyone right now.” My family knew all along, by the way.

So I’m looking forward to getting my Mayo day – and the ugly weeks before it – over with. And not. Because while fear-induced neurosis definitely isn’t healthy, neither is being so confident you have a million tomorrows that you neglect your today’s. It’s good to be a little scared. But not too scared.

The underwear can wait. Maybe that’s my new bumper sticker.

We all have things we want to do, things that get pushed aside because life happens. Because triage. But let’s pick one thing that we don’t want to get triage’d out of our days, and then fight for it. Mine is writing more. I’ve always been someone who works better with a deadline, but I don’t want to wait for a dire scan result to give me the ultimate deadline.

I promise to be timely with my next post, and I have high hopes that it will include a positive report from my Mayo day. I know I haven’t been great about health updates recently, but quite frankly, it’s my least favorite thing to write about. That said, I did realize that I neglected to share with you the biggest news of my last Mayo visit: my oncologist looks like Einstein now. Totally true. His hair has gone white and he let it grow out; that, plus the mustache and it’s full-on Einstein. I’m sorry I missed telling you that, because it was awesome. I will try to be better about communicating these important things in the future, I promise. In the meantime, since I’ve finished this, there is the matter of some laundry…

Happy Friday, everyone. Go carpe that diem!

Now what? To the parents sending kids to college, Part 2

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Hey there, friends! Oh, this week has been a doozy for some of you, hasn’t it? I seriously wish I could hug all of you who just launched a child, I really do. And for those of you that I have seen, let me offer my sincere apologies if you’re not a hugger – I usually figure that out only after it’s too late. There’s nothing worse if you’re the hugging type than realizing mid-hug that the person you are enthusiastically embracing is not, in fact, someone who enjoys that sort of thing. But I digress… As promised, here’s Part 2 of the sending kiddos to college post: what helped me when my son went to school last year. And I know this is a horrible way to start an essay, because it creates absolutely no suspense, but I’m going to tell you straight off that we all got through the year just fine. Really. Everyone survived. It was actually a great year, once we all adapted to our new normal.

And that’s really the thing – adapting. Accepting that there’s a new normal in your household now that you’re a man (or woman) down, and giving yourself and your other family members time to adjust. Yes, time. For those of us who are of the more impatient persuasion, this is the most challenging part. We want to have this figured out NOW. We want things to be all better NOW. And you will indeed figure it out, and things will definitely be better, they just might have to be a little funky for a bit while you work through it. And that’s ok.

From my one-year-out vantage point, I can see a few things that helped me get through this transition time:

Technology is your friend.
Holy crap, I never loved technology more than when my son went to college. I’ve always viewed technology with a wary eye, because it’s weird and awkward to me and I stink at operating anything with buttons. But now? Oh, I am a huge fan. Between texting, FaceTime/Skype, Snapchat and whatever is next that I don’t know about yet, it has become nearly effortless for our kids at college to connect with us. Think about it: back in the Dark Ages when we were in school, if we wanted to let our parents know we were still alive and well, we had to write actual letters (and then find stamps and mail them), or get the phone when our roommate wasn’t using it and, if our roommate or others were in the room, have a very public conversation with our parents (remember when phones had cords? Yeah, me neither…). Now, with only a swipe of a finger across their smartphone, they can ask quick questions, send silly pictures or lament that the calculus test was, in fact, as impossible as they feared it would be.

Now, a few caveats to that: first of all, technology is a great way for them to get in touch with us. It is also, unfortunately, a spectacular way for us to bug the crap out of them. Be judicious. For the first few days of school (maybe it was a week, I can’t remember), I followed the advice of others and never texted or called my son – I only responded when he texted or called me. That was hard, friends. But I knew that just as we were adjusting to our new normal here, he was attempting to do the same there, and I wanted to let him figure out how often he needed to connect with us. I did remind him that if he went too long without contact, we would start to worry that he was dead, and since I have raised him to be just as sarcastic as his parents, I did get a few Snapchats throughout the year with the caption “See? Still alive, Mom.” I also particularly enjoyed the picture of the laundry machine in their dorm, with the caption, “The Tide Pod got stuck. Will it still work?” Yes, thanks in large part to the oh-so-confusing task of doing laundry, I heard from him very regularly in the first few months (I won’t get into the text asking how to wash sheets…in January…). Speaking of Snapchat and the like, my son and I had a rule about that: when he sent me a snap, I promised to never respond with a selfie. Yes, that is how Snapchat usually operates, but this simple rule assured him that he could open a snap from me in public without risking the potentially embarrassing picture of his mom making a goofy face. That was our thing. Talk with your kids and figure out what they want. For us, when he actually wanted to see us, we’d schedule a time to FaceTime together. He’d text us when he had a free moment and his roommate wasn’t around, and we’d all eagerly gather around my iPad. And let’s be honest here – it was probably our dogs that he wanted to see most, but we didn’t care. It was fun to see the college student in his natural habitat.

Understand that family dynamics will change.
My son’s not a large kid, but the Riley-sized hole in our family after he left was surprisingly wide. With time we adjusted, but it initially felt like a giant Jenga game where someone had removed a block right in the middle. And while we didn’t topple, our family structure did sway a little as we took stock of the change. I’m ashamed to admit that at first I was so focused on how his absence impacted me that I didn’t notice how tough it was on everyone else – until our daughter had a tough day. A reeeeally tough day. And I realized that when she’s stressed or upset, her big brother has always been the one who could help her the most. He is so good at diffusing her anger when she’s frustrated, consoling her when she’s hurt – and he can always make her laugh. She and I, however, are a little too alike for our own good sometimes. I am the proverbial gas can to her proverbial fire, and without Riley around we had a few flare ups that got out of hand. So we had to adjust. We had to figure out some new ways of relating to each other, and that wasn’t a bad thing. My daughter and I are closer now than we’ve ever been, and I’m certain it’s because we were forced to figure a few things out.

Get yourself a posse.
I met a woman last weekend in line for pizza (true story), and we instantly bonded the second she ruefully shared that she was preparing to send her twin sons to college. Having learned my lesson earlier, I resisted the urge to lunge forward and hug her (but oh how I wanted to! We are sisters now!). We talked at length about how this time is both exciting and heartbreaking for parents, and about the need for support, and she brought up a really good point: we have to actively seek it out now. When our kids are on sports teams or involved in extra-curricular activities, we automatically have a connection with other parents. “I’m really going to miss them,” she said quietly. And it’s true – sitting on sidelines, bleachers or auditorium seats next to other parents, we are unintentionally participating in a kind of support group. Granted, like the dad on my son’s hockey team who used to show up drunk and heckle the players, not all of these other parents are helpful, but they are in a similar place in life. And some of them become close friends. We can still have that now, but we’re going to have to be intentional about it.

When my son went to college last year, I leaned heavily on my girlfriends. I needed the validation of knowing that I wasn’t the only one who was struggling, and I clung to the reassurances from moms of older kids that it was absolutely going to be ok. It took a bit of vulnerability on my part – sometimes I had to be the first to admit that I was finding this whole thing challenging – but as soon as I dropped my guard, others did too. And if they didn’t, if they came at me with scolding or cute little sayings about birds nests, I simply knew that they weren’t the people I needed to be around right then. I know of several moms who connected with other parents from their kids’ sports teams and started meeting regularly – and by “meeting” I mean going out for happy hour – and they’re still getting together now that the kids are starting their sophomore year. It’s genius really, because when you’ve spent enough years suffering the elements on sidelines, you have earned the right to meet inside where it’s dry and comfortable and drink beverages, right? And if groups aren’t your thing, that’s cool. Find individuals with whom to connect. However you do it, get yourself a posse. Because we need each other.

Care packages are a win-win.
It’s not like I had nothing to occupy my time after he left. I wasn’t staring at the wall, thinking “Oh gee, whatever shall I do now?” No, life kept coming at me, and I was as busy as ever, but sometimes when I found myself particularly missing my son, I’d start putting together a care package. It didn’t take a huge amount of effort – I’d put a box out on the dining room table and just add things as I thought of them, until there was enough to send. Care packages are a win-win because it’s fun for us to think of things to include that will brighten our kid’s day, and it’s fun for them because, well, food. And don’t worry about getting it “right” – if they don’t like it, they get to be the hero of their dorm floor by sharing it. If you need suggestions, there are some crazy creative ideas on Pinterest (of course there are). I never did anything too elaborate, because I stink at all things craft-related, and I don’t think my son would have cared anyway. In addition to food, I always put in something funny and a personal, upbeat or encouraging note. I had no idea if they meant anything to him or not, until the end of the year when I came to pick him up and he hadn’t cleaned out his desk. I started opening drawers and emptying the contents into bins, when I came across a stash of every note I had written him during the year, all neatly tucked into an envelope. I looked over at him and he grinned sheepishly, “I liked your notes.”

Celebrate the good stuff.
Amidst all the tearful transitioning, it’s easy to lose sight of all the good that’s also going on. And while some of the best stuff is only visible at a distance, there are little bits that you observe or hear about along the way and go, “Yeah. That is most definitely cool.” New friends, new interests, new experiences – they’re all contributing to the grand experiment that is college, and helping shape them into the adult that they will be. From the mundane lessons like where to get their hair cut, to more important items like where to go when they get sick, every challenge and new experience brings with it an opportunity to grow or learn, even if the only thing they learn is “do NOT do that again.” And if you watch for it, you’ll get the joy of seeing your child grow more into themselves. Celebrate it when you see it, because it’s pretty freaking awesome.

They come back.
It’s easy to slip into the “they’re gone forever” mentality. True, it will never be exactly like it was, but they do come back. When they do, they will bring mountains of dirty laundry and eat all your food, and you will love it. Because they will also bring their new, collegiate, almost-adult selves with them, along with a newfound appreciation for everything “home.” A phrase that I never expected to hear from my son, ever: “This bathroom is so clean!” Yes, apparently a level of disgusting actually exists at which boys will notice filth. Who knew?

So let me tell you this again: you’re going to be ok. Really. As I’ve said before, it’s because you raised a person that you actually enjoy having around that you miss them right now. You’re not neurotic or weak or helicopter-y, you’re human. And humans sometimes have a rough time with change. Give yourself and your family the space, the time and the grace to work through it, and I promise, you will come out on the other side just fine. Maybe even better.

To the parents sending kids to college

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I’ve never really understood the whole bird metaphor when it comes to kids leaving the house, but it’s all over the place this time of year. Especially on social media, we can’t seem to escape all the lovely, soft focus pictures of perfect little empty bird’s nests, overlaid with sweet sayings in curly font. The exact words vary, but the general gist is, “Don’t be sad when your children leave the nest! It’s because you did your job as a parent that they are ready to fly. You did it! Yay you!”

And if that works for you, if that makes you go, “Oh yes, I feel sooo much better! Now when my kid leaves, I won’t curl up into the fetal position and sob till my eyes swell shut or a vocal cord snaps, because I will be too filled with joy and pride to feel anything else! Yay me!” …then I’m happy for you.

If, however, those sayings just aren’t doing it for you, if they make you question your sanity and general ability to cope, or cause you to look around for something to hit, I want you to hear me right now:

It’s ok. It is.

It’s ok if you’re struggling, because sending your kid off to college – this almost-adult that you have devoted 18 years of your life to keeping alive – is HARD for a lot of us. Last year at this time, I was where you are. Staring at the growing pile of bedding, crates and various dorm room items in my living room, I kept thinking to myself, “I’m not strong enough for this.” And as I feebly tried to sort through all the emotions duking it out in my body, I realized that it’s possible to be proud and heartbroken at the same time. Proud because I had managed to help raise a great human being, who was ready to go off and make his mark on the world. Heartbroken because I had managed to help raise a great human being, who was going to…leave me.

To be clear, this was entirely about me. I never once worried about my son. He really was ready, and I knew it. It’s just that in growing into this amazing, launch-worthy young man, he had also grown into someone I really, really liked having around. And I was going to miss him. A lot.

If you’re a mom or dad who’s tracking with me right now, you also know the next thing you hear – either from your internal critic (please tell me I’m not the only one who has one), or from an external person trying to be helpful: “Don’t be so selfish! This isn’t about you!” Or, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t be so ungrateful! You should be thankful that your kid can even go to college.” These statements do make a good point about the need for gratitude. But gratitude and grief are not mutually exclusive. You can be thankful and still grieve.

And it really is a kind of grieving. Even though you haven’t lost them, you’ve lost the way things were. When change comes like a seismic shift, when the comfort of the familiar is ripped off like a bandage, grief is a natural reaction. Even when the transition is ultimately a good thing, we still grieve change.

Pride and sadness, gratitude and grief. All coexisting in one, crazy person. No wonder some of us struggle.

Now, I do feel the need to add that I know parents who handled this transition with nary a tear. Yes, some were actually glad to see their kiddos go, but most simply accepted it as a natural progression of things and gracefully adjusted. So it’s possible. If you are the parent of a younger child, and reading this is making you think that sending your child off to college will trigger an automatic crisis, just know you could be one of the lucky ones. But just in case…

We have several birdhouses in our yard, and late last July I noticed a pair of wrens building a nest in the birdhouse right outside the window by my desk. I watched the flurry of activity as they prepared, and observed in delight when, after some weeks of silence, the parents’ arrivals to the birdhouse were met with urgent, tiny peeps. As I perused dorm room checklists from my son’s university, I heard each arrival to the birdhouse. As I returned from yet another college supplies shopping trip, I saw wobbly little heads with disproportionately large, open mouths pop eagerly out of the birdhouse opening. When we finally packed up the car with everything our son would need at college, I could tell the babies were close to fledging. And the panicked thought flashed across my already emotionally compromised brain: if they flew while we were moving our son in and I had to come home to not one but two empty nests, things were going to be ugly. Like scary ugly. Thankfully, God loves my husband and daughter, and we returned to find the little wrens still in the house. They fledged a few days later, and as I studied the empty birdhouse, I had to wonder: what happens to the mom when they leave? So much of this bird mom’s recent life has been focused on growing these eggs into babies, and the babies into wrens that can survive in the wild. Their success in the world outside the birdhouse is a testament to her work, but…what happens to her when they leave? Does she busily turn her attention to other work, or does she just enjoy some well deserved rest as she reaches a wing around to pat herself on the back? Or, does she sit silently and simply miss her kids? It just struck me that with so many clichés and cute metaphors about children “leaving the nest,” very little is said about the time after.

So I’m going to say something. Two things, actually. One to all of us who aren’t sending kids off to college this month, and one to the parents who are.

To the rest of us: this is the time of year now when we are surrounded by parents who are going though the process of letting go. I have to admit, I never saw them until I was one myself. And I thought, how have I missed them all this time? They’ve been moving around me, hurting silently, and I’ve never seen them. I vowed then that I would see them from now on, and I would try to love them a little. Or a lot. Now, not every parent wants someone in their face, asking them huge, emotionally flammable questions like, “So, when does your daughter move in to her dorm?” But a little kindness can go a long way with someone who is either anticipating move in day or recovering from it. See them. And try to love them.

To the parents who are about to do this Very Big Thing: it’s ok to be sad. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have that right. Yes, you’ve raised a great kid, and yes it is time for them to launch. You can be proud of that and still grieve their physical absence in your life. It’s not selfish to miss them. And I can honestly say, as someone who took it pretty hard, that it does get better. You learn a new normal, and in this new normal you move forward. You’re going to be ok, I promise. In the meantime, however, be gentle with yourself.

I’m working on a Part 2 to this post, talking about the good and bad (mostly good) from the first year. Spoiler alert: it gets better, and everyone survives. And if you want the full portrait of a crazy lady, you can flip back in this blog and read the post I wrote last year, after we sent our son off to school. It only took me a month or so to stop sucking my thumb and start writing again. So there’s that…

Hang in there, friends.

Pride cometh before a…wall

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“What hurts?” The triage nurse in the emergency room asked, “My ego,” I groaned weakly.

The day had started out so well. No, the day had started brilliantly. I was having one of those mornings where I felt completely on top of my game; focused, efficient and supremely productive, I was nailing it. I am a master multi-tasker, but even I was impressed at how well I was juggling tasks. Like a logistics expert, I had crafted my daunting schedule to the minute, and as I darted nimbly from one event to the next, my only struggle was finding a free hand with which to pat myself on the back. I was on fire. And I was going to win Friday.

Then I walked into a wall.

I had just dropped my car off at the dealership to get new tires. At my direction, my daughter had left just five minutes after me, and was due to arrive any second to pick me up and take me with her to her doctor and orthodontist appointments, with a brief stop in between to purchase a new curling iron so we could do her hair for the school show that night. As I thanked the service rep and turned to leave, I saw a text from Tessa saying that she wasn’t sure if she was in the right place or not. She had taken a picture of the exterior of the building where she was, and I squinted at the picture on my phone as I took off for the exit at my usual brisk pace. I looked up from my phone as I approached the glass door, and just as I was reaching for the handle, something struck me in the face with a force so hard that it knocked me back a few steps. As the deafening sound reverberated in my ears and a stinging pain spread across my face, I realized: it wasn’t a door. I had walked into a glass wall.

If you’re like me, your first reflex is to pretend everything is fine. “I can’t believe I just did that!” I exclaimed with a faint laugh as I turned to check how many people had seen my act of supreme stupidity. The service rep I had just spoken with came rushing over, “Are you ok?” “I’m fine,” I instinctively responded, again with a casual laugh. Because people do this all the time, and it’s no big deal, ok? I’m fine. FINE. He looked embarrassed for me, “But you’re…” I could now feel the warm liquid spreading down my face and dripping off my chin. “….bleeding.” Well there goes the ruse. Damn. You can’t pretend everything’s fine when there is blood gushing down your face. It just doesn’t work. As the humiliation washed over me (along with the blood), he lead me to the bathroom, where I got to see what I had done. Damn again. There was a cut across the bridge of my nose, blood coming from one nostril, and my whole face was beginning to swell. I gingerly cleaned myself up, grabbed a bunch of paper towels and held them over my nose as I slid out the closest exit and into the waiting car.

Tessa was, of course, horrified when she saw me. “What happened??” She gasped. “Would you believe I walked into a wall?” She looked at me, speechless, and I nodded. “No joke, I did that.” She exhaled slowly, trying to figure out what to do. “Soooo, should we cancel my appointment? Should I take you to the hospital?” Her appointment! Crap! She had been waiting for weeks to see this specialist, and if we had to reschedule, it would be weeks more. No, we’d go to the appointment, and when we were done she’d go to the orthodontist and I’d have Rich pick me up and take me to the hospital. There. All figured out. She shook her head, shifted the car into drive and pulled out of the dealership. Because when your mom is crazy enough to walk into walls, you don’t argue. You just go.

How not to make a good first impression on your child’s doctor: show up with a broken face. Yes, I did that. Actually, it wasn’t too bad, since the receptionist took pity on me and hooked me up with a bandaid before we saw the doctor. The bleeding had stopped, and the bandaid was big enough to cover most of what I’d done. When we got in to see the doctor, I explained briefly that I had just hurt myself and assured her that I’d be seeking medical attention after the appointment. And then I sat there, with a bandaid on my nose and a swollen, stinging face and pretended everything was fine. I don’t know if the doctor bought it or not, and I don’t care, but we got through the appointment.

When you arrive at the ER with only a broken nose and a cut that has stopped bleeding, you wait. Because the ER is for people with life threatening, serious issues, not for clumsy people with lousy depth perception. At least they don’t have a separate part of the waiting room for us, so thank goodness for that. And at this point, I think it was safe to say that I was not going to win Friday after all, so why not sit and wait? They gave me a bag of ice — oh my goodness, can I just interrupt right now to say how FREAKING AWESOME ice packs are? Greatest. Things. Ever. I still have about 10 in my freezer from my last hip replacement. I swear, they are better than drugs. Ok, enough gushing — the point is, I had a lot of time in that waiting room to think. And by think, I mean whine. Rich was super happy that he canceled his appointments for this, I’m sure.

“Seriously, who does that??” I groaned as we sat there. “Don’t beat yourself up,” Rich reassured, patting my hand. “I charged face-first into a wall,” I shot back at him. “Ok, don’t figuratively beat yourself up. Your eyesight isn’t great, what can you do?”

Was it my eyesight, though? Or the fact that I was sprinting through my day? Probably both. Not only was the door closer than I thought, turns out it wasn’t even a door to begin with. So the vision might be worse than I want to believe. But I was also walking fast, with my eyes on my phone and my mind already on to the next thing. And if I’m honest, I find myself doing that a lot, this living ahead of myself. I think a lot of us do it actually, because that’s how we get everything done. We even take great pride in it: “Look how much I accomplished today!” Yes, the triumph we feel when we can go down that list and check off all the boxes is so satisfying, it’s almost like a drug. You think that was good? Wait till you see what I’m going to get done tomorrow! Yep, living in hyperdrive is seductive, but we can’t stay there. Our bodies can’t sustain that. Eventually something’s gotta give, and we hit a wall. Sometimes literally.

“So what happened?” The doctor asked once we were in the exam room. “I hurt myself pulling an old lady from a burning car.” She just looked at me. “I got in a bar fight.” Again, the look. “Fine, I walked into a wall.”

Five stitches and a broken nose. I didn’t just not win Friday, I lost Friday. Big time. And maybe this was the 10-run rule that mercifully ended it early before I could do something worse. Although, as I sat there, that didn’t seem like much comfort. I laid back and gingerly placed my trusty ice pack over my face as Rich answered texts from friends for me. “Why do they all keep asking for pictures?” He said, shaking his head, “That’s mean!” “No,” I laughed, “They’re curious. And they’re moms, they don’t gross out easily.”

Speaking of grossing out easily, I would be the exception to the mom rule. I do gross out, and I know this about myself, so when the doctor proudly asked if I wanted to see my stitches, I politely declined. Disappointed, she left the room, but later poked her head back in to check if I’d had a chance to look at them yet. “Nope, not looking,” I answered stubbornly. “They look great!” Rich enthused, feeling bad for her. Just then a nurse walked in and chirped cheerfully, “Oh, look at your stitches! They look like whiskers! How cute!”

I snapped a quick selfie for my curious friends before they bandaged me up and sent me home. The whiskers/stitches are dissolvable and the broken nose should heal on its own (although when cleaning out my purse a few days later I found an otolaryngologist’s business card, so it’s possible I missed something as I was slinking out of the hospital). I woke up the next day with black-ish eyes, but between my glasses, the bandaid and some very good coverup, it wasn’t very noticeable. And I discovered that my skin tone is a perfect Bandaid Beige, so that’s a bonus. For what I did to myself, it actually doesn’t look very bad. The funny thing is, I live in Minnesota, the Land of Polite. I can see people looking at my bandaid when we’re talking, but no one dares to ask about it. I’m guessing they think I had a nose job, which should make for some interesting reactions when the bandaid comes off. I can hear the whispers now: “Worst. Nose job. Ever…”

Later, I was looking back at some of the text conversations between my friends and my husband on my phone. One had asked him, aghast, “OH MY GOSH, WHAT HAPPENED???”
“Well, you know how birds sometimes fly into windows?
It was a lot like that.”

And that, my friends, is pretty much it. It’s a sad tale, but I would like to think that it’s a cautionary one as well. If I can prevent any other bird friends from meeting the same fate, I will consider this a worthy sacrifice. So please, learn from me and don’t try to win Friday. Or any day, for that matter. The seconds we save by being über efficient will ultimately cost us when we go so fast that we live ahead of ourselves. “Living in the moment” is such a clichéd phrase, but I’ve never heard of someone who was living in the moment walking into a wall. I’ll admit it: I take an immense pride in being one of those women who gets it all done. And it’s kind of my personal “F You” to cancer and hip replacements and rheumatoid arthritis to be able to carry on like none of those happened. I think a lot of us are like that – we press ahead at our crazy pace, in spite of whatever challenges we’re living with that day. Because screw those challenges, that’s why. We’re bigger, we’re stronger, and we can get everything done.

So my personal challenge to myself right now is to slow down. Just a little bit. Try to not muli-task the crap out of every day and be a little more careful. And I’m already finding that really hard, even with a sore face to remind me, so this is not going to be an easy fix. But maybe, just maybe, there can be some improvement.

Happy Friday to all, and keep your heads up, birdies!

 

The Riddle

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REALLY sorry I’ve let it go so long! Any of you on Facebook with me know that I’m fine, but for my non-Facebook friends, I’m sorry I left you hanging. I am indeed fine. Actually better than fine, but you’d never know that from my silence! Sorry ’bout that. I know I said in my last post that I had scans at Mayo coming up in December, and I fully intended to remind everyone as the day drew nearer, so that my prayer army could saddle up, but I kind of forgot about one thing: finals. Yep, as the parent of a college freshman I can totally say this is my first rodeo, and I’m still learning. And what I learned this time is that you simply do NOT schedule scans when your kid is in the middle of final exams. First of all, it’s just not nice to add worrying about Mom’s health to a list of stressors that includes things like calculus and chemistry. And second, what if the news was bad? We certainly couldn’t tell him in the middle of finals. But if he knew I had the appointments he would ask about the results. And I suck at lying. So we had no choice but to keep the Mayo trip on the down low. Lesson learned.

The day went great, by the way. My liver, lungs and blood all checked out splendidly, so the cancer is staying put in the eye for now (and hopefully forever). My oncologist was positively giddy at how well the Avastin injections are working, and for good reason – I was supposed to be pretty close to blind in that eye by now, and I am definitely NOT blind. It’s sketchy, and I would be in trouble if that was the only vision I had, but sketchy vision is way better than no vision. Plus, as luck (and symmetry) would have it, I have another eye. And that one works just peachy, so it’s all good. Barring any weird hemorrhages in the radiated eye, everything should stay like that from here on out, which is pretty sweet. And my oncologist didn’t give me any crap about my RA meds! Woo hoo! So he and my rheumatologist can go on disliking each other, but I don’t have to get in the middle of it. I like that. A lot. I don’t have to go back to Mayo for 9 months now (and before you say it, I already checked – no final exams then).

In December and January I saw my rheumatologist and orthopedist, and everything is going well there too. The one disappointing thing from my one year post-op appointment (hip replacement for anyone who forgot. That includes me, because I mostly forget about my bionic-ness), is that my orthopedist’s idea of “light running” is even lighter than I imagined. Like taking 9 months to work up to 3 miles, and it all has to be on a treadmill – that kind of “light.” I have to see him again in a year and at that point he will decide if I get to ever run outside. So I haven’t even started the treadmill running, because what’s the point? If I’m going to be inside on a machine going nowhere, I can ride a bike to nowhere or climb stairs to nowhere and still get…nowhere. The point of running (to me, anyway) is enjoying fresh air, scenery, the company of others, and maybe racing (especially if there’s a fun t-shirt and/or cold beer at the end). So that didn’t work out like I had hoped. I knew it was a strong possibility though, so while I’m bummed, I’m not surprised. The hardware is looking good on the x-rays, and things are working so well that I mostly forget I have it. I do have a leg length discrepancy from the new parts, and it’s made my pelvis a little wonky, but the doctor didn’t seem concerned about it. So I’m not concerned either.

I’m still working with a nutritionist, trying to find out which foods make me feel the best, which ones tick off my RA and how to best fight cancer through what I eat. The key is to boot the things that harm, without going overboard. As I explained to my internist, I’d hate to give up dairy, then later find out I’m dying and have my first thought be, “I could have had cheese!!”

So that’s the scoop on my health – pretty doggone stable, and I like it that way. It’s boring, but it’s the good kind of boring. And speaking of boring, allow me to explain the picture at the top of this post (no, it’s not the photographic equivalent of a butt dial, I actually meant to take the picture): it’s the waiting room floor at my oncologist’s office at Mayo. I hate it, I really do. And it’s all I get to look at when I’m there, because the very first thing they do when I get there is turbo dilate both of my eyes. So no texting, checking emails, reading magazines or books. Just staring at the floor for hours (and I’m not kidding about the hours thing – this last time I waited for 2 hours to see my doctor. Super fun.). I think what bugs me the most about the floor, aside from the incredibly drab colors, is the fact that there is no discernible pattern. I’m a Type A, organized, child-of-an-engineer kind of person. I like patterns. I like knowing what’s coming. And this room, this cramped space with the ode to brown decor and stale air, is where I would most like to know what’s coming. I arrive at the Mayo Clinic hours ahead, sometimes even the day before, and I go through test after test, until I finally arrive at this place, where we wait to hear news that will be either exhilarating or devastating. And while we wait, I stare at this stupid, senseless floor with no pattern. It occurred to me this last visit that having cancer is a lot like looking at this floor, like trying to find a predictable sequence where none exists. I can read up on my cancer, and I can research treatments and survival percentages. I can eat perfectly, sleep enough, exercise regularly, and do everything in my power to increase my odds of beating it, but I can never predict what it will do. I can’t tell you why I even got it in the first place, either. I think that’s why I don’t like the floor. It has no pattern.

And I think that’s true of a lot in life, not just cancer. For those of us who yearn for the stability of predictability, when life throws us a curve we’re shaken. Sometimes we’re shaken in a good way, nudged out of our comfortable, protected space and into a place of growth and possibility. And we are ultimately glad to be in this new place, even if it was rough getting there. Sometimes though, we flail and gasp for air, desperately grasping for anything that feels solid and safe. And predictable.

In December, on my two-year “cancerversary,” two teenage boys in our town were killed in a car accident. On a day when my family and I were celebrating that I was alive, two families and an entire community were trying desperately to wrap their heads around the unthinkable. Days later, I went to Mayo for my scans, terrified as always, but also bearing the sobering thought that I had already lived longer than those boys. It made no sense. It was out of sequence.

When the unknown is merely theoretical, we can give it poetic names, like “embracing the mystery.” And that’s great when the mystery involves only lovely things. Like, will we have cake or cupcakes? Wine or cocktails? But when the unknown could involve heartbreak, loss and grief? That’s harder. Faced with that, who wouldn’t want to turn to the last page of the book to see how it ends? Ok, ok, I know people who wouldn’t. But I’m not one of them. I like knowing things ahead, so I can prepare myself. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown calls it “foreboding joy.” And it’s not a good thing. If we live our lives preparing for the worst, we prevent ourselves from enjoying the best.

Of course, if we always knew what would happen, we wouldn’t need faith. We wouldn’t need one another. We wouldn’t need a lot of the things that ultimately make our lives meaningful. So we “embrace the mystery,” we “wrestle with the unknown,” we reach for one another, dare to try new things, take chances…and we don’t wait to find out that we’re dying to live.

So I’m trying to change how I view that awful, beige floor. Sure it’s ugly, but it presents a challenge, a helpful exercise if I’m willing to look at it that way. As with life, when I survey its patternless expanse, I can allow myself to get frustrated at my inability to make sense of it. Or, I can choose to stop trying to figure out the puzzle and instead make the most of my time in it.

I had a friend who passed away from colorectal cancer years ago, and I remember how she and her husband loved the song “The Riddle” by Five for Fighting. At the time I really didn’t understand the appeal of the song, but it makes better sense now. I read an article about the songwriter, and it told of how he took 18 months and over 100 drafts to write the song – a song that started out as a meditation on the meaning of life, but ended up being about his relationship with his young son. And that is about as close to an answer as I think we’re going to get for now. Relationships. With our Creator, and with each other. Spending our time well while we’re here.

“There are secrets that we still have left to find,
There have been mysteries from the beginning of time,
There are answers we’re not wise enough to see,
He said, ‘You’re looking for a clue? I love you free’…

Here’s a riddle for you, find the answer:
There’s a reason for the world,
You and I”

So I’m trying to make my peace with the patternless floor.

It’s still ugly though.