Posts from December, 2011

Ann’s Diary: No Regrets

The last time I was on a flight to the east coast in the cold was for my godmother’s 90th birthday party. I did that trip in secret, as a surprise, as a treat not just for her but for me–because she’s one of my favorite people on earth. It cost money, time and all kinds of schedule rearranging for my husband and kids, but I did it–with my husband’s encouragement–because it was special, because she was special, and because, thanks to helpful friends and a husband with a heart of gold, I could pull it off.

Now I fly back for her funeral–she died this week after a steady decline–and while it is no shock for an elderly person to pass away, to me it still feels like a sucker-punch to my body and my brain. That’s the way grief goes, I guess. Though I should have been “ready” for her elderly self to let go of this earthly place, her death has juxtaposed this large gaping emotional hole equal in size and strength, I am guessing, to her importance to me during her life. Whatever this awful, suffocating feeling is that I pass through hour by hour, it seems nothing but my unending tears make it subside–though only for a time being. Within hours I’m back in that hole, crying more tears than I knew a tear-duct system could produce in a day.

But what I’m thinking about now, in between breaks in tissue dispensing and hoping this woman next to me doesn’t call a stewardess for help with the weirdo in 6F–is how glad I am to have gone to that party earlier this year. I know in the light of my godmother’s death now, that entire thought sounds obvious– but I could have skipped it. Nobody would have blamed me. I live far away, I have 2 kids, I have cancer, I have a husband who misses me when I’m not there. I could have passed.

And who’d have cared if I wasn’t there? Well, ‘cared’ is too garish a word. Let’s just say nobody would have held it against me–least of all Darlin–if I hadn’t been able to come.

But sometimes showing up is the thing. And I don’t mean to suggest jumping on three airplanes and rearranging life to do it. Nor do I mean to attempt the marathon pace that my godmother did for me—cards, Christmas gifts, Valentine’s day, my birthday, you name it–she remembered it EVERY YEAR, since I was 0–(which puts her as the sole personality in my Godmother Hall of Fame, and I’m a godmother now myself.) But I’m often asked by people hoping to help the newly-cancer-diagnosed, “What should I do? how can I help?” My answer is always the same: “Just show up. You will never regret it.”

And while being there for someone else has been a good thing for the people in my life, it actually matters more to someone else. I’m not talking about the people I show up for, I’m talking about me. It matters for me. When I show up, however I do it– I’m not usually jumping a plane, more like an IDK or a TTYL <3 on my phone–I get as much love and gratitude back as I give. Touching base with someone doesn’t have to be long and involved–it just has to happen.

So, whether it’s cards, gifts, poems, phone calls, airline tickets, texts, celebrating the 9th decade of one of the most precious women to have ever walked through my life–or now, celebrating the life she led and all the love she gave me while she was here–whatever it takes, I try hard to just show up in my life.

So far, I have no regrets.

Posted December 30th, 2011 by
Ann's Diary: No Regrets
Posted in: Ann's Diary

Ann’s Diary: Good-bye

This blog was written in October, 2011 but not published until today. It is dedicated to my godmother, for whom it is written, and who died this week at age 90.

I don’t know if you’ve ever said good-bye to someone knowing you’ll never see them again?

I don’t mean because you met them on a plane and you had a great chat but you live in 2 different states 3 thousand miles apart with no real reason to ever bump into each other.

Or when someone helps you pump your gas and you say “thanks” and they say “you’re welcome” and you both say “bye”—

I don’t even mean when you say “good-bye” and you hope you never see them again–like an old romance who broke your heart and you see them at a reunion and you wish you could duck under the table until the coast was clear.

What I mean when I say “saying good-bye to someone you won’t see again” is the kind of good-bye that comes when you know that person is dying.  And you know you won’t likely be there in the next weeks or months when they finally say they’re through with living in this world and they’re ready to go on to the next.

I had this experience today. I had to look into the eyes of someone who means more to me than any other person in the world, save my own mother and father.  I had to look into those beautiful, fading hazel eyes and squeeze her as tightly as her 93 pound body could safely handle and say good bye. And I have to tell you, it sucked.

And before you say “oh goodness, why did she have to say the s word? Isn’t that a little strong?” I have to let you know that I grew up a good girl, went to church every Sunday, was schooled Catholic and believe in God–but when I got breast cancer I realized that SUCK had a very important place in the English language, and it was right after the world CANCER.

So forgive me if you can–because today I found another place where that word goes perfectly–and it’s right after that moment where you have to say good-bye to someone you love more than anything in this world.

This person I’m talking about is my godmother.  She’s been my godmother for 46 years.  She’s been my next-door-mother for 4 decades plus–she’s helped me tie my shoes,  changed my diapers, spoiled me rotten with colored balloons, cards on my birthday, LLBean fleeces, potted plants, and jewelry.

She’s called me, cajoled me, laughed with me, made me drinks.  She’s heard me cry, she’s made me laugh, she held me when I cried, she hugged me when I hurt.

And one very special day, in the sun porch of her home, she looked into my teenaged eyes and told me I was a star. And for some reason, I believed her.

And I’ve never, EVER, forgotten it.

On this last day I spent with my godmother there was drama—because we’d had a snowstorm and our neighborhood had lost electricity overnight.  It was planned with her daughter that if the power went out, I’d go check on her mother/my godmother–whose name is Darlin–because at 90 years old and with congestive heart failure, she needs to breathe with the help of an oxygen machine. The machine needs to be plugged into electricity to work. If there’s no juice in the wall, it stops working. And Darlin could stop breathing.

So it was planned, and it so happened, that the electricity DID go out–and I ran over to hook my godmother up to her battery-powered tank…so she could breath until the power came back on.  I stayed the night, I pulled up a down puff and snuggled in the next bedroom–because my mother and Dad were safe next door but both Mom and I–and Darlin’s daughter Marie–needed Darlin safe.  I could easily do that if I just stuck around to make sure the air flowed.  It was simple–as I said to Darlin, “we’ll have a sleepover. Just like kids.”

The next day, I had to pack my bags and ready myself to return to my home state–3 thousand miles away.  Which meant I had to say good-bye to my godmother.  I really didn’t want to do that.

Because in the past, every time I’d said good-bye I knew I’d see her again. My godmother is a strong, beautiful woman of grace and determination. She got her college degree in her 60’s, lost her husband–my godfather–in her seventies, yet lived on and flourished as much as you can after losing your best friend–for 2 more decades.  She took classes, she volunteered, she traveled.  And I watched it all in awe.  And I learned from her.  I learned to keep going, keep swinging, keep living. And I, like her, never let life beat me down. After all, Darlin always came back swinging. And so, as I battle metastatic breast cancer,  do I.

In these last years, when congestive heart failure stole my godmother’s breath away, she hooked herself to an oxygen tank and arrived at cocktail parties, grandchildren’s weddings and the cherished Maine beach her family visited all their lives–looking fabulous in outfits I could only dream of looking as good in.  And don’t even get me started on her matching shoes.

And through it all I always saw in Darlin’s eyes that desire to continue. And I was always–ALWAYS– so thankful to see that.

But this last visit, I saw something else in Darlin’s eyes.  It wasn’t exactly a choice to move on as it was a realization that it might be time. She was still smiling and still lovely, ever the hostess offering me coffee by day and cocktails by night–easily and graciously.  But those eyes of hers told me a new story.  They were silently saying to me, I’m getting ready to go.

I confess to not looking too long into those hazel jewels because I didn’t like what I saw.  But I knew it was true.  I knew.

The morning I left Darlin was sitting on her couch, breathing deeply from her oxygen machine, and smiling. She looked at me and laughed her Dorothea–that’s her real name–laugh and, while not adding drama to the already theatrical oxygenated overnight we’d passed together, acknowledged the crazy night we’d spent.  “Thank you for saving my life last night, Ann.”

I looked at her beautiful face and saw way more than a woman exhausted from 9 decades of life on this planet and a scary, weird night’s sleep–and I saw so much more than a woman I adored.  I saw all the years she’d helped me grow, taught me strength, showed me compassion and told me I was a “somebody”–even in the moments I didn’t believe it myself.  I didn’t see that I saved her life last night. I saw that she’d saved me in my life many times over. And I saw what I always knew to be true–that I was so lucky to have known her.

Which is why, as she claimed I’d saved her life, I replied immediately and without hesitation,

“And thank you, Darlin, for saving mine.”

Posted December 28th, 2011 by
Ann's Diary: Good-bye
Posted in: Ann's Diary

Ann’s Diary: Defining A Holiday

There aren’t too many Christmases that I’ve so truly understood the meaning of the day as this one.

It started this Thursday, while I was watching Christmas movies, snuggling on the couch at 8 a.m. watching “Charlie Brown Christmas” with my 3d grader. That’s the movie where Charlie Brown goes and buys a regular, run-of-the-mill wooden Christmas tree, while the ‘gang’ suggests (and demands) he buy a hip, cool, state-of-the-art aluminum tree. Of course, being Charlie Brown, he doesn’t, and they make fun of him, and he gets all upset–and after a long, drawn out exercise, he finally stands on a stage and shouts–“can anyone explain what Christmas is all about?!”

I have often wondered that too–not that this Catholic school girl doesn’t know what December 25th is all about: but with the passage of time, the kids who get everything, and the P-C-ing of the Jesus-birth day, I admit to getting a bit vanilla about the whole thing. I say “Happy Holiday” so I won’t offend anybody–and I don’t think that’s wrong. I just don’t want to deny what I grew up with as right–that Christmas is about the gift of Love that was given to humankind in the form of Jesus, the hope of eternal life.

So, we watched the TV special while Linus, Charlie Brown’s pal, reminds him, on a stage in a spotlight with his blanket at his side, that Christmas is about shepherds and a star and an angel and Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, and about a gift of Love. Whether or not your religion has you believe the story that Linus told, the final truth of it–that there’s good in the world if we all try be good–holds true, whatever God you believe in. After all, every true religion is, at its base, about Love.

That very same day, having watched Charlie Brown figure out “what Christmas is all about”–I went on to my email and found out, via Facebook, that there’d been a tragedy in my community. A family had lost their little child to a freak accident. This sweet boy had done what thousands of other children do on vacation–gone on an outing with friends. And in a sheer, frantic, twisted moment not understandable to any normal being– died. Devastation. Horrific. Unexplainable.

Of course I wanted to help. Not that I know this family, but I figured–damn, this is a moment that anyone with a child–hell, anyone with a pulse–can understand. Just let me in, I thought–I want to help. And then I read the name of the parents of this little boy–and I got a kick in the stomach harder than any wretch I’ve ever felt. I knew this mother.

But chances are she didn’t remember me. That’s because, back last year when I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I was desperate to find a second opinion. I needed to know that the course of action I was about to take at the hands of my brililant oncologist was the best I could take–because my life depended on it. And to that end, I searched out the next best breast cancer oncologist to look over my chart and tell me that in fact what I was doing was the best course of action. And I found her, at the other medical establishment in the city. She was a hugely busy and in-demand doctor. So many sick people needed her to help them live. But I got in–and she’d given me the most important hour of my life, assuring me I was on the right track. I was likely one of 15 people she saw that day, she couldn’t possibly remember me…

And that woman was this little boy’s mother.

I’m not going to go on because there is so much sadness and grieving to be done–and I will not invade this family’s privacy.

But you have to know that ever since I heard about this tragic, indescribable, unthinkable horror, all I can do is think about this doctor–this mother–this wife–this woman. I just want to cradle her and her family in my arms and tell them it will be okay–even though it won’t be–not for a long, long time–if ever at all. Yet that’s what I want to do anyway, because–hell, you’ve got to be kidding me…..this? Burden? Tragedy? And at Christmastime, no less?

And then I got mad. I wanted to throw out my Christmas movies. I wanted to chuck them all—the “Its A Wonderful Life”, the “Holiday Inn” and the “Charlie Brown Christmas.” I mean, what’s a “Charlie Brown Christmas” in the face of this?

Via email, I reached out to friends to ask what I could to to help (though in the face of such a horrific situation, “things” seem so insignificant.) Yet as reality will have it, there are still things to be done. Tragedy waits for no one. There are bills to be paid. There are ringing phones to be answered. There is laundry to be done. And there are meals to be made. If you’ve ever been through a tragedy you’ll feel my horror in realizing all this: that though your world’s falling apart, the laundry still needs to get cleaned, the toilets need to be scrubbed and the food needs to be bought and cooked before it can be eaten. This, if you will pardon my phrase, sucks–but it is the way it is.

So I subscribed to the “meal train”–the internet site where people could join in to bring a meal to this family and help out in an unobtrusive way. I looked at the sign-up sheet and there it was in helvetica font: Christmas Day. Meal available. Okay, I thought, sign me up. Though my friends will attest to the fact that I do not enjoy the kitchen nor any work that must go on in there, I hit “yes” faster than I’d ever opened a Christmas stocking in my youth. I’ll bring Christmas dinner to this family, I thought. For goodness sake, it’s the very least I can do.

After that, I got an email from the coordinator of the ‘meal train’, saying “Thank you for signing up for this day’s meal. (The boy’s mother) is so grateful to not have to cook Christmas dinner.” I sat and looked at that email for a more than usual amount of time before I realized what I felt. Good heavens, a meal on Christmas is peanuts compared to what they’re enduring–and then…

I was transported right back to the couch I’d been sitting on that morning, as Linus stood on that cartoon stage and let the Peanuts gang know what Christmas was all about. That this time of year isn’t about bright trees, or cool gifts, or being hip in the face of a holiday. It’s about reaching out, having hope, giving love–and precious life.

I stared at my computer screen–crushed in the reality of what one family was dealing with this night in my town– and immediately understood that the message of Christmas wasn’t just the message of a 1960’s animated TV special. Here I was, slammed up against the biggest “isn’t-there-anyone-who-can-tell-me-what-Christmas-is-all-about” moment of my life. And I instantly–and forever–in that moment understood what Linus was saying.

I’m sure the meal coordinator was a little confused but hopefully she figured it out–as I typed back my response to her thanks for my Christmas-day offering to the family who’d lost so much:

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Posted December 25th, 2011 by
Ann's Diary: Defining A Holiday
Posted in: Ann's Diary

Ann’s Diary: 40 points

Let’s just cut to the chase: my tumor markers ARE DOWN 40 POINTS. I just got back from the doctor and that’s what she said.

Never one to bury the lead when I was a journalist, I wanted to tell you FIRST and FAST.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled program–

which for me, now that my breast cancer fears have receded for the time being, includes some of the following:

exhaling.
smiling (real smiles.)
laughing.
relaxing.
unclenching my jaw.
breathing in.
calling my family.
hugging my husband.
hugging my friends.
raising a toast.

and last but not least…

THANKING YOU ALL….

for hanging in there with me.

Posted December 13th, 2011 by
Ann's Diary: 40 points
Posted in: Ann's Diary

Ann’s Diary: When No News Isn’t Good News

The old saying is “no news is good news” but today that line is proven false–at least for me.

I’ve been on the drug Zometa for almost this whole year and though I’ve suffered a little set back I know Zometa has been helping me beat off the cancer beast. Now a new study “proves” I’m right–Breast Cancer Survival Boosted By Bone Drug.

I go for my infusion (drip) of the Z–as I call it–tomorrow–and I’ll be skipping in like a girl on the playground as I do. Bring it on, baby.

I will also get a new tumor marker reading this week–and I’m praying those rising numbers have at least plateau-ed–I will definitely let you know–

hoping once again to give you good news– and prove that old saying false– for a second time this week.

Posted December 12th, 2011 by
Ann's Diary: When No News Isn't Good News
Posted in: Ann's Diary, News