Sunday, May 24, 2015

Now We Gather

“What do girls do who haven’t any mothers to help them through their troubles?” – Louisa May Alcott

The sign in pre-op read “Visitors are limited to two at a time”. We weren’t breaking the rule, not really. We came in two at a time. Then another two. And so on, and so on…until there were eight of us visitors in the tiny pre-op room.

The nurses allowed it. I think they could see on our faces that we weren’t going anywhere. We were there to stay. Because that woman in the hospital bed? That woman with the IV and the compression socks and the blood pressure cuff? That woman about to undergo surgery for breast cancer? That was our mother. That was my father’s wife. So no, we were not leaving that room.

My mother was diagnosed with a malignant invasive tumor a few weeks ago. And just like that, Cancer invaded our lives. It’s a two-syllable word that carries all the weight of the world with it. My life is inextricably tied to hers. I know her heartbeat, from both the inside and the outside. She gave me life, she gave me love, and she gave me the know-how to be the survivor that I am.

When she told me the biopsy revealed the cancer, it sort of slid around in my head for a while, carving out tracks all over the place. There was nowhere I didn’t feel it. It took a few days before I could even say the words out loud: “My mother has cancer.”

My eldest sister flew in from North Carolina to be with Mom for the week surrounding the surgery, and my brother drove down from Dallas on the day of the surgery, so all five of us kids were there for her that day. This is mom. The materfamilias. The matriarch. We will always rally for her.

We stayed in that little pre-op room for hours waiting for surgery time. There were chairs for two people (as per the sign), so we rotated who sat down. Some of us sat on the floor, some stood, one of us sat at the foot of Mom’s bed. There was never a question of anyone leaving and sitting in the waiting room. I almost can’t remember what we talked about, but I know what we didn’t talk about.

We didn’t talk about what we were all thinking about: we were all thinking about a surgery that never happened thirty years ago when Mom’s mom went into the hospital for her own surgery and died on the table before the surgery even began. We were all terrified that history was going to repeat itself. Mom was scared. Dad was scared. We children were scared – and we definitely felt like children that day.

I’ve had to send my children off to surgery before. That’s a hard thing to do, entrusting such a small person into the care of strangers who will cut on her. This is the first time I’ve ever sent my mom to surgery. The first time I’ve had to hug her goodbye, turn away from her, and walk out of the room because they were taking her away.

What if she didn’t make it? What if she died in surgery? What if this was the last day I had a mother here on earth?

Unbearable. That's what these questions were. I only had an hour before I had to pick up my daughters from school, so I didn’t join the others when they left the hospital to go to lunch. I couldn’t have eaten anyway. I found a back corner of the waiting room, pulled up my knees, buried my head, and just let all the worry, all the fear, and all the emotion I’d been holding back all morning finally come pouring out.

It took a long time to calm down and when I finally did, the knees of my jeans were soaked. I wished I’d had someone to lean on, someone to hold me while I cried, someone to tell me everything would be okay. Even a random stranger in the waiting room would have been comforting at that point. I just needed a hug. But it was just me, so I pulled myself together and left to deliver the girls from school to home.

On the way back to the hospital I received the text that Mom was out of surgery and it had gone smoothly. She was in recovery. Pure relief washed over me.

She was in recovery for over an hour before they moved her to her room for the night. We all – yes, all eight of us – swarmed up to the room to be there when she arrived. She looked so small, so pale and delicate. But she was mom, and she was alive, and they had cut that entire evil tumor out of her.

They pushed her bed into place and hooked her IV to the wall. In a hospital, everything smells the same. No matter what it is – cups, paper, blankets – everything smells like hospital. But when I leaned down to hug my mother, she smelled like her. Her smell. Her heartbeat. Her life. In that moment, the world was right.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Room with Many Doors

“The future is called ‘perhaps’, which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the important thing is not to allow that to scare you.” – Tennessee Williams

I don’t believe in a single future.

I used to. We’re trained to. When I was a kid, I grew up believing that life was a straight line, that we go from Point A to Point B to Point C and it’s all very orderly, very neat: no muss, no fuss.

After all, how many times were we all asked that question: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” As if we were supposed to know – as children – what our future was supposed to hold for us. But they always expected an answer. And woe be to the child who answered “I don’t know.” Oh! All those helpful suggestions, all those nagging follow-ups.

And then, if we changed our minds, we were…flighty. Flaky. Indecisive. “But I thought you wanted to be a veterinarian?” Hello? I was eight years old when I said that. Are you really going to hold me to what I said when Grizzly Adams was playing on TV?

We grow up, we live, we exist, not in one straight line but more in a series of “choose your own adventure” books. When we reach the end of our present, our current chapter, so to speak, we stand in a Room with Many Doors. Each door has a different future we could have. We always have so many options. Will we like them all? No. Of course not. But they are all there. For us. So many different paths we could choose. So many different decisions we could make. So many ripples that will spread out from making a single choice.

My initial dream was to continue on for my doctoral degree immediately following my master’s degree. I was accepted at several institutions for this: Texas A&M, Yale, University of North Texas. But then I found out I was expecting my first child and my entire world shifted. Suddenly, I was spinning on a new axis. I was going to have a baby. This was a new dream. A better dream. Something I didn’t know I wanted so much became what I wanted the most. The future I had thought about for so long was changing. Without knowing it, I had walked through a new door.

After I had my second child, Sam, I felt the bumps in the universe beginning. My husband and I decided to divorce a few months after Sam’s birth. A few weeks after that decision was made, my son died in his sleep. Suddenly, I had no future. It was gone. Wiped away. At least, that’s how it felt.

It was – most definitely – the end of my present. Every. single. day I made the conscious choice to walk back into the Room with Many Doors and, once again, chose to enter into the future. Every day I did that. After a while, I didn’t have to remind myself to do it. After a while, I didn’t have to tell myself to keep breathing.

We like to plan our future. It’s great to plan, to be prepared. It’s also important to know that plans don’t always work out the way you think they will. Sometimes the plan goes scarily, horrifyingly awry. Because your plan? Your original plan? That was only one possible future for you. I married the love of my life in 2004. It wasn’t part of the plan for him to die in 2005, but he did.

The future I planned changed. I didn’t give it permission to do that, and it changed anyway. So I was at the end of my present – again – and back in my Room with Many Doors. I had to walk through another door and into another future.

Life is not linear. The future offers us many chances, many options. When one doesn’t work out the way we planned, or the way we want it to, we have the chance to walk through another door. Too often, though, we become so attached to the picture we form in our head of what the future is supposed to look like that we find ourselves paralyzed when confronted with the need to change the image.

We have to remember that the future we plan is but one version of ourselves. Often we won’t know what other versions we are capable of until we are standing in the Room with Many Doors. We won’t know until the next door swings open.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Different Kind of Mother's Day Gift

“Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” – Tupac Shakur

My nine year old is hosting her first sleepover ever right now. There is a room of giggling, squealing nine-year-old girls on the other side of the house who have just stuffed themselves with almost an entire large cheese pizza (little girls can eat a lot). They are now happily swiping polish on each other’s nails and watching Dog with a Blog (one of Disney’s more hideous shows, in my opinion). They just spent two hours coloring every flagstone in my backyard with sidewalk chalk so my backyard is blooming with dusty color. It’s fabulous.

This sleepover came with much drama in the making.

Emma desperately wanted to invite some friends over for a “just because” sleepover this weekend. I tried to tell her it’s Mother’s Day weekend and a lot of her friends may not be able to come because their parents may have plans, but she was determined that it simply had to be this weekend.

So, we sat down and made invitations for the three girls she wanted to invite (I just didn’t think my nerves, my sanity, could handle more than that). We included my number to RSVP yes or no, the drop-off time, the pick-up time, all the details. We made them colorful, we made them personalized. She was super excited.

She handed them out on Monday. By Friday afternoon, no one had RSVP’d. I had no idea who was coming, or even if anyone was coming. Emma was terribly upset because she thought her sleepover was falling apart before it began.

During the week, Emma made a list of activities for her and her friends to do. She didn’t want to just “wing it” at her sleepover; she wanted to make sure there were plenty of fun things to keep everyone going. On her trusty little notepad, she wrote:

1. draw with outside chalk
2. play with bubbles
3. wii
4. paint nails
5. makeovers
6. fashion show
7. color
8. FOOD!!!
9. make blanket forts
10. have fun and no fighting!

I love that she wrote “no fighting” on her list of ways to have fun. She put a lot of thought into this list (especially number 8, can you tell? Three exclamation marks.). But now who was coming?

Early Friday evening I received a call from one of the girl’s parents saying that she wouldn’t be able to attend “after all”. After all? Really? Was she planning to attend in the first place? So our list of possible attendees was down to two. Then we got a call – finally – that someone was coming! Emma just lit up like a sunbeam.

The final sleepover invitee didn’t RSVP until Saturday morning (this is for the sleepover Saturday afternoon). She was also coming. Now Emma would get to have two guests. She was so thrilled I thought her skin was going to explode.

Emma bustled around the house, cleaning, organizing, straightening things up. I ordered pizza for a dinner treat and Emma was practically dancing with joy. Then her friends began arriving and she went into full-on hostess mode:

“Hello, Emily, would you like me to show you where you can put your bags?”

“Oh, don’t mind the dogs. They’re a bit sniffy, but they won’t jump.”

“Come in, Mackey, come in, let me give you a tour of the house.”

She just reveled in her tiny group of people and was so all-consumingly happy that her sleepover had come to fruition.

She’s nine years old and this dream of hers – To Host a Sleepover - that she’s had for a couple of years, has come true. She’s riding high and living her dream. Right now. Right now she knows the glorious, intensely satisfying feeling of wishes coming true.

It's not stargazer lilies. It's not chocolate-covered caramels. It's not even a Coke Icee. This is the best Mother’s Day present I could get: to make my daughter’s wish come true.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Straight...Not Narrow

“A straight oar looks bent in the water. What matters is not merely that we see things but how we see things.” – Michel de Montaigne

There are many legitimate problems in the world that need to be controlled: hunger, disease, poverty…just to name a few of the top-billed. Then there are the so-called problems, or at least what society has decided is a problem, has turned into a problem, and has now worked itself into a tizzy about. I’m going to say it, and so many people will roll their eyes, or huff, or groan, or say, “Ugh, not this again. I’m so tired of hearing about this.”

Some people are gay.

I understand completely that not everyone embraces that lifestyle. And for those people, that’s their right, of course. They shouldn’t be judged for that any more than those who support the LGBTQ community. So often people preach tolerance but are pretty one-sided about it (“You have to believe what I believe! Be tolerant, dammit!”). But we have to understand that not everyone will agree.

The thing is, someone else’s lifestyle isn’t about us. It’s about them, whether they live the way we approve of or not. And that’s hard because we always want to “fix” anything we perceive as “wrong”. The bottom line is that we don’t need to approve of gay relationships any more than we need approval for straight relationships.

I am straight. I am an ally, which means that I support the LGBTQ community. This isn’t a trend. It isn’t a bandwagon. Look past the media hype and the labels and realize that we are simply talking about people. We are talking about people who fall in love, but cannot share that with anyone because of public shame. We are talking about people in long-term committed relationships, people who have laughed and cried and suffered joy and loss together, but who cannot celebrate their love by standing before their friends and family in a marriage ceremony. We are talking about children who know they are different but who aren’t allowed to talk about it because they know their parents won’t love them anymore. We are talking about people who kill themselves every day because society refuses to allow them to have a place. Society says, “You don’t belong here. You’re wrong. You’re unacceptable.” And these people, sadly, tormentedly, listen.

I am an ally. And I am a Christian. The basis of my faith is to love others. My faith is not a weapon that I use against others. Bible verses are not like rocks to be flung at people in an effort to beat them into submission. My faith guides me; it’s a map for my life, for how I live. It’s personal. It would be supremely arrogant of me to expect everyone I meet to believe exactly as I believe. We don’t expect the world to share our favorite color, our favorite movie, our favorite book. We cannot expect the world to believe exactly as we believe. While I am a Christian, I know there are many other religions, and people with no religion, in the world that do not believe what I do. I don’t expect them to. In as much as I believe that I am right, they believe just as much that they are. No one wins those arguments.

We don’t regulate religious views in this country, so why do we try to legislate adult relationships? I know what the bible says about marriage, but remember, faith is personal. It’s the overlay for your own life, not someone else’s. You can’t apply your filter to someone else’s photo, so to speak. Not everyone has the same faith, the same religious views, so arguments about religion, in a country without a government based on religion, don’t wash. When discussing gay marriage, there is often the view from opponents that it will compromise the sanctity of marriage. When just under 50% of marriages end in divorce, I’m not entirely sure what sanctity is being threatened. When heterosexuals marry and divorce repeatedly, just what does that say about the sanctity of marriage? Commitment is commitment. Love is love. Who are we to judge whose love is stronger, or better, or more worthy of marriageable status?

Who are we to judge at all?

I’ve seen many relationships I thought were odd. I’ve seen a 72-year-old man in a romantic relationship with a 44-year-old woman. I’ve seen a 64-year-old woman in a relationship with a 30-year-old man. I’ve known a man who was married nine times who was dating a woman who had never been married. While these relationships might not be my particular brand of feed, I was not the one in them. I have no idea what they looked like from the inside. But you see, these relationships did not affect my life or the lives of the general population. If they made me feel uncomfortable, I did not have to stare at them (staring is rude, in general, anyway).

My mission is to love others. I try to let that guide my life. I cannot change the behavior of the world, but I can make sure that mine is respectful, and open, and that hopefully no one is worse off for having met me. In my life, I am not in control of a lot of things, but I am in control of how I treat people, and while I may not receive respect from everyone, I can make sure that I offer it. It is so easy to belittle and berate others in an effort to build ourselves up, to make someone else feel as small and unwanted as we feel sometimes. But there is no ground for growth there. Denying someone respect because of your personal disapproval only holds you back, not them. So grow. Don’t automatically turn away from someone just because they live or love differently from you.

I love it when I see people in love. I don’t mind if it’s a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. Love is love. And there needs to be more of that.