Weight loss — with love

I carried it around because I didn’t know what else to do with it. It was the kind of burden that would shock and invade, so I just kept it hidden.

I woke up with lead in my feet. I trudged through the routine of getting dressed, but I did not want to. I wanted to stay home with my shock and grief, but I also needed to go to class. My husband thought it would be better to get my mind off of things for a while each day and that I should attend my master’s summer coursework as planned. I just didn’t think I could do it.

The fearful and slow-moving dreadful morning reminded me of another such morning eleven years earlier three months after he was born. He was born in May, and I knew I would return to work in August. That weight fell on my shoulders minutes after giving birth and stayed strong the full three months before school began.

The first morning I was to leave, my mom had graciously come to town to help ease the transition. We weren’t sure he would take a bottle (he didn’t for me) and we knew he was still struggling with some rough colic. I woke that morning with weight in my shoes. I did not want to leave him for anything, and here I was leaving him for seven precious hours. I arrived at work, listening but not listening. The anxiety burned in my chest as I sat in meetings and simply missed my young baby boy.  

Eleven years later, I attempted to act normal, but I knew I was not succeeding because I kept wondering if I was acting normal enough. Conversations went on around me, and I knew they were happening, but I couldn’t process what anyone was really saying. My burden was too large at the moment: the doctors had said the worst nightmare every parent could dare envision on the darkest day — your son has cancer. I waded through non-normal classes and tried to keep my head above the rising waters of grief. Alone, it was more than I could take.

Then, professor Sowder came in. She had received my email with some of the gruesome details. She was pretty much all business most of the time, so as she pulled me into the hall, I was expecting to go over details like, “are you dropping out?” and “how much class will you miss?” but instead she just hugged me. That hug brought the water back down to waist level. I was still wading in it but not drowning.

Burdens, consuming though they are for everyone at some point or another, are tricky little devils. Sometimes we think we will be spreading the burden by sharing, so we keep a hold of them to protect others. They become our secret dark places, protected by walls like fortresses. Treated this way, the weight of the adversity usually only increases.

As we share with others, sure sometimes bad things happen: we get judgement, incite gossip, and face ridicule. But cancer, though harsh and cruel in all other ways, has one thing going for it. People unfailingly respond with love, and sharing the burden makes it lighter. I wish mental illness was the same. And we have made great strides toward that, but we have a ways to go. I can honestly say that no person has responded with anything less than love in response to my son’s cancer. When mental illness strikes, sometimes people’s walls, fears, and ignorance get the better of them and they respond with harshness, awkwardness, or gossip.

In the end, cancer isn’t much different from an encounter with mental illness, but would Dr. Sowder have pulled me out of class and given me that hug if my son had been diagnosed with bi-polar tendencies? Um…maybe. It’s up to us to respond with love in the wake of any human tragedy, to share the weight of life’s burdens together. I realize we do not live in some Utopia, but we could all stand to lose a little weight.

Calamity

I had to look him in the eye and tell him I was not done with the book yet. It was calamity.

In our Utah location, we are huge Brandon Sanderson fans. He has local ties.  My students who like him, really, really like him — like enough to read 1,000 pages of the likes of Way of Kings or Mistborn.  I prefer a more concise story. I tried Mistborn but just couldn’t get into it. I became a grudging fan when I read his more concise and adolescent-driven Steelheart. My son Q (15 years old) read it and became a junkie. We quickly read the sequel Firefight, and I didn’t think too much more about it.

Well, the third book Calamity was on its way out, due for February 2016. Months prior, my son surprised me and got so excited about its appearance, he pre-ordered on Amazon. In the mean-time he was running book club at lunch and getting his friends to read the first two and lining them up to read his copy of Calamity. Apparently other students were getting on board too, because our librarian ordered three copies, and they might as well have been dust in the wind. Q was kind to me and let me have his copy after him. I was a little bit slow. If I dropped by Q’s table at lunch, I got the puppy dog eyes and the question “Are you done yet?”  I liked it, but it wasn’t something I had to ingest. It’s fantasy about anti-heroes with mystical powers and lengthy descriptions of guns. Not quite in my wheelhouse.

I told Q yesterday morning that I had only 10 pages left and to send his friend in at lunch to be the third reader. Unfortunately, it’s close to the end of the quarter, and my prep hour was filled with students and grading. I didn’t get to read my last ten pages. So when Q’s friend came in at lunch, I said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t quite finish it yet! Could you come by after school?”

Calamity. I saw the look on his face. I was in trouble. The disappointment showed all over his sweet face. He did make his peace with it when he realized he could collect the rare gem after school. I would post a picture of the cover of the book, but I don’t have it anymore. I probably won’t see it again. For a long time. And that is fantastic because the boys are reading.

City Councilwoman Visit

My college writing 1010 classes are writing an argument. We are learning about not polarizing audiences, truth seeking, and making concessions — basically all the things our politicians are not doing. What examples for our students, not!

The textbook suggests students pick a local problem and try to find solutions. My student’s mother is serving on our city council, and she agreed to come in and talk to the class about what she does. My concern was in thinking of city council meetings I have attended and how blah they are. I hoped my students would stay with her.

I and my students actually thoroughly enjoyed the presentations. She did an excellent job and was very articulate. She posed students with some of the problems the city council has faced and demonstrated how the city used unique problem-solving abilities to attack some of the challenges.  She also told students about the need to be open-minded and willing to alter a stance when confronted with more evidence. She emphasized civility through disagreement.

I highly recommend asking a city councilperson to come as a guest speaker. It was just what my students needed.

Desperate prayers

Yesterday, our church congregation had some time for members to share faith-building experiences, as we do on the first Sunday each month. I had been pondering for a few months what I wanted to share, so I approached the microphone when the time seemed right.

I bravely stood and just shared in a genuine way how

exactly a year ago, the third type of chemo had failed for my son. The doctors had recommended trying the last one on the list. During that time, I prayed aloud every day on my way to school. I prayed desperate, pleading prayers. I prayed for the faith to make good things happen and to see the good things that did happen. I prayed for the chemo to work, but I prayed that if it didn’t I would somehow make it through. I knew these prayers were desperate when I started for asking for things I didn’t even know enough to ask for. I asked for angels, I asked for my son’s pain relief, I asked for more time.

But I also said thank you. Every morning I found several things to be grateful for: people who helped us, the peace I had received, and other people’s prayers. Honestly, I think it was the gratitude that helped me most. 

Today, Q is still in a tight spot, but doctors have found a chemo that works. When I look back on the last year, I realize my prayers have been answered in big ways, but it feels like they were answered a little at a time in my heart.

Hammock time

This morning, I enjoyed some time outside in a hammock with my youngest — a nine-year-old daughter named Jacey. I had been grading a few papers, but when she invited me to hop in the hammock with her, I jumped at the chance. I went in our backyard in a fuzzy robe for a Sunday morning lazy.

As I got into the hammock, I had a terror moment where I envisioned the classic flip backwards reminiscent of America’s Funnies Videos. I slowed down, took my time, and landed safely in the hammock. The only trouble was that the hammock was positioned for our smaller daughters. I felt like I was about folded in half. My legs went up and my butt went down, and my slipper came off.

Nevertheless I was comfortable and cozy. As I read all about freezing cows and hens in the classic Click Clack Moo: Cows that Type, I couldn’t help but notice the cool breeze blowing through the wind-breaker fabric on my backside.  When the story ended, the sun came out. At that point, my daughter wanted the blanket on her face. We nuzzled down inside the Minions fuzzy blanket and just stayed — in a sandwich position — the best position of all for a Sunday morning.

When we pulled back the blanket, we watched the clouds flow swiftly in the darkened sky, and the smell of rain was subtle. I had my spring moment, and I let it wash over me, just as if we had waited for the rain together.

Am I always at a hospital?

Yesterday, I got a call from my mother-in-law that my sister-in-law had been taken by ambulance to the hospital.  Apparently after she had been to dialysis, her fistula had opened and started bleeding out. I told her I would figure out which hospital, how severe, if she should drive the three and a half hours to come see her.

I wound up at the local emergency room, checking in on her, relaying the information to others. She was quite a sight but seemed in good spirits. My husband’s family is plagued with kidney disease, and with my son’s cancer fighting, hospitals are all-too familiar to me.

Twelve years ago, my father donated his kidney to my husband.

We were looking for a donor a little bit half-heartedly because my husband couldn’t stand the thought of asking someone to go through the inconvenience, pain, and pain of whipping out an organ and gifting it to him. When my father bacame serious about being the donor, he and my husband made the man-jokes of “yeah, I guess you really don’t want her moving back home, do ya?” Haha.

I looked at my dad, my lungs barely able to hold air and my insides twisting around, and I said, “I don’t think I can bear to have you in one hospital bed and Jeff in another!”

He was the strong one in that moment and said, “I guess you don’t really have a choice, do you?” After the transplant, we brought him a plant. Lame, I know. But some thank yous just can’t be gifted.

So last night, I sat in yet another hospital chair and reflected on how its been my lot to witness the sufferings of many of my closest family. I get to be the strong one, but I have help.

DSC_0098Not the best picture of my dad, but it was what I could find today.

Resolved: I won’t be like my grandmother but I will be like my grandmother

My awesome parents were in town yesterday. We took them to dinner. They’ve been through a lot lately. My dad’s youngest brother passed away in October, his mother in January. He is the oldest of seven, so much rested on his shoulders in a short amount of time: bills, homes, junk mail, take off life support? Yes, Yes. Dinner seemed the least we could do.

He is in good spirits though. We got to reminiscing about Grandma Mildred who died in January. I said, “I’ve been sharing her poem with my classes. I absolutely love it.”

My dad smiled. “Oh? That’s great.”

“Yeah, I just have a difficult time with how Grandma never said, ‘oh, you’re an English major. Let me show you some of my poetry,’ or anything.

Both nodded. They knew. My mom said, “She just didn’t really listen to us. She barely listened to the first sentence about anything and then started racing off on what she wanted to say.”

“She was also fiercely independent,” I offered. We chuckle at Mildred’s quirks. These truths we’ve told and shared, but now that she’s gone, it feels more like giving her credit and memorializing her than the half-truths shared at her service.

mildred

Here’s her poem (I didn’t know I got some of my literary talents from her until her funeral):

She died when I was almost eight,

and she was almost eighty,

Had crossed the Plains when only three,

Raised half of her large family of twelve;

Diphtheria claimed the rest

    in one brief dreadful reaping.

 

How I remember still

    and I always will — 

The waist-tied apron that she wore,

Long, nearly reaching to the floor

     as did her somber skirts.

But, oh how useful it would prove 

     to gather wood or chips,

Some peas to shell, the new-laid eggs,

    a rain-chilled chick,

Those amber apples she would pick

    then sit and peel to dry

Or bake a spicy apple pie.

 

Its ample folds would cradle sleeping babe

    or a disheartened child

Who lingered there to succor from her store

    of love and lore.

Its roomy pocket held such treasure — 

   balm for childish hurt

And a corner was a handy spot to dry the rivulet from tearful eye,

Or wipe a smudge from tender cheek

   or scratch-stained knee.

Blue-checked gingham was for everyday,

A white-starched lacy one for Sunday best.

I know that she was wearing one

   when she was laid to rest.

 

And I vision her in heavenly pursuit

   armoured with her apron

Full of celestial, queenly fruit.

— Grandma Mildred

I love how the poem says that her Grandma lived her life — she lived a rich and full life after tragedy.

The lingerers

All the time the bell rings and students leave. That’s just what happens. We move them through their day like 11th grade Pavlov Frankenbots, scooping up enough points to get A’s.

Yesterday, though, one of my students had started braiding the other’s hair while they listened to me read to them all about Huck’s adventure of dressing up like a girl and getting ‘found out’ by the shrewd Judith Loftus. Since the braid had to continue (nobody can go around high school with half-braided hair; that would be ridiculous) and the day was ending, they just lingered and wondered aloud to me about how they thought Huck might be in trouble. I assured them that he would make it out okay, and then they laughed out loud with me as I re-hashed and acted out the ball of lead in Huck’s lap incident. We took joy in the novel. We weren’t dissecting it, quizzing on it, analyzing it, or writing about it. We were merely laughing at how Huck could be so smart and so dumb at the same time.

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I then went to a collaboration meeting centered around the book Hacking Assessment, and we had wonderful discussions about how grades are killing student motivation. I thought yeah, Kelly Gallagher and this Hacking lady would be proud of me today. I tried not to kill the love of reading — and I think I succeeded — at least with two hair-braiding girls who did not leave my classroom as robots.

Wheelchair Envy

Here’s the plot of my slice today: I was pushing my son, Q (we really call him Q; it’s not a pseudonym), in his wheelchair into school this morning and, smiling, made eye contact with a driver of another vehicle.

How does something so simple grow into a story? Backstory:)

I saw a look on the driver’s face of pity. I’ve seen this look before. It does not bother me at all. I sometimes see complex emotions cross the faces  of strangers when we are out and about pushing Q in a wheelchair.

Back:

Q has been fighting cancer for almost five years. The errant cells grow inside his spinal chord, mostly.

Back:

Once they grew down low in his spinal chord. He laid on my bed after school for a rest and never walked without assistance again.

Back:

Once they curled around his brain stem. That prevented him from being able to swallow. Experts told me that those tiny little devil cells in his brain stem could also prevent him from doing other important things such as breathing and staying alive.

Back: he was a normal ten year old boy.

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Present:

I happily push him into the school building. I do not feel sorry for myself, but I can tell that other people do.

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Slice of Life March Challenge — Green with Envy

I was driving down the highway with my brain full of complexities — silly complexities, when I noticed a patch of green in the field. I had been looking for something green for about a week. I always love that one moment of spring when I find the first green thing. Well, I smiled to myself, there was my first green moment of this spring.

The winter here was snowy and long, punctuated by a nine-day drought of happiness, sometimes called an inversion. During an inversion in our mountain valley, a high pressure system moves in and camps out on top of all of our cold, smoggy air and just clamps it down so tight, I can’t see trees or horses or anything until I’m about right on top of it, and the temperature gets to be a balmy 20 degrees in the day, when the sun is supposed to be out. We just have to assume the sun is still there at about day three of this muck.

I wanted an inspiring green moment after a winter like that, but what I got was a spring drive-by at 50 miles per hour, with ACT training, errand-running, and conference presentation-planning going through my head at 70 miles per hour, give or take.

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Why did the first sign of spring have to live outside my world of fast driving and fast living? I wanted to slow down and discover it, not just drive past it. I also noticed that my first sighting wasn’t the only green field.  I saw green everywhere in my sprint back to the school. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited, but somewhere in there was mixed some disappointment — disappointment in the fact that I was too busy to enjoy it and take it inside me. I seem to remember that in previous springs, there is one patch of green here one day, and another the next day, and a little more hope hunkers down with each sighting. It seemed this year that each field had turned green overnight, and I found myself envying those who saw the first green patch, followed by another on another day, and those who allowed their green moment to re-start their heart. My real green moment for this spring will come. I just have a little more inversion socked in around my heart. I don’t think it will take much, though, to get outside to let spring come inside of me.