Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mesothelioma and incredible stories of cancer survival

A dear friend was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. She is a very private person and didn't tell our moms' group right away. When she did tell me some months after she knew, I was in shock. I called our fellow moms and friends and even my own family, quickly begging for their prayers. I should have asked my friend first if it was okay to share her diagnosis, but in my dismay and anxiety for her health, all I could think about was building up a community of support in her need.

My friend had recently adopted a daughter. To hear the words "You have cancer" when you have little ones so dependent on you must add to the fear, but it must also give you a fierce fighting spirit.

My friend is back to healthy now. I am certain that if I asked her what helped pull her through that time of treatment and exhaustion and uncertainty, one of the things she would say would be, "my faith". Yes, her family came to her and took care of her household, and her friends surrounded her and offered support, but faith walks arm and arm with hope and does for the spirit what no words, meals or treatments could do. I know this from personal experience. Faith is a great mystery and an astounding buoy in life's turbulent currents.

One of the best things our moms' group did for my friend was to join her for a St. Peregrine Mass of Anointing - standing, seating, kneeling and praying beside her in solidarity, in love, and in gratitude for all the gifts we saw in her that inspired us to walk closer with God.

Recently, a fellow writer named Heather Von St. James contacted me to share her story of battling and conquering a lesser known cancer called Mesothelioma, Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma, a cancer she likely contracted because of her dad's construction work.

The doctor's original prognosis was that she had 15 months to live, 15 months left when her baby girl was only three months old.

As a mom just reading Heather's account of that moment made my heart constrict. We would do anything for our babies. We live for our babies. Heather then writes:

"He then said chemo and radiation could give me five years and I thought of Lily going into kindergarten without a mom."

That is a heart-wrenching thing to read as a fellow mother. My youngest, my baby boy, just entered kindergarten, and those words forced me to imagine vividly Heather's devastation at that idea.

When Heather writes of standing by her baby daughter's crib in the middle of the night many times to watch her daughter sleep, crying out to God in the silence for the great and beautiful opportunity to watch her daughter grow, to raise her and be there for her, I felt a connection with Heather as I pondered what must be the peculiar weight and immense strain of such a diagnosis. Cancer is something we all fear to some degree if we have read much of it or know anyone who has struggled against its debilitating power. But we can understand, too, where Heather's strength comes from:

"It was during those long sleepless nights that something replaced the fear: Determination. I wasn't going to let the cancer win."

The cancer didn't win. Leaving her precious daughter with her parents, Heather went to Boston for an experimental procedure. In the hospital she faced severe challenges with her kidneys not functioning properly, and after she and her husband implored the prayers of many others, she believes she experienced a miraculous healing that kept her from going on dialysis. 

But the battle was still raging. There was time spent away from her little girl and then her husband Cameron as she had surgeries and recovered. There were hours of chemo treatments, "inevitable chemo comas", a blood transfusion, and then the draining radiation treatments that she didn't think she had the strength to finish. When she was finally through with all the treatments, she experienced a profound loneliness plagued by uncertainty. In the face of all of these enormous hurdles Heather's husband, extended family and friends were there to support her and help take care of Lily, her daughter. 

Cameron, Lily and Heather

It has now been 10 years since Heather's diagnosis. After confronting so many challenges and changes and feeling overwhelmed by the process of healing, she found a new purpose in her journey of overcoming cancer: awareness. She began writing and sharing her story. That is the gift God gives to us and to others, to bring good out of our tragedy by talking about it, sharing our struggles and our hope, and by reaching out to and lifting up others who feel desperate, unsure or alone. We then build on hope and raise up a community. That is what Heather is doing with all that she learned in battling Mesothelioma:

"People needed to know about this disease and I started on my blogging journey. I met more and more patients and their families and saw the devastation caused by this disease. I wanted more than ever to give people hope and to inspire them. As my health returned, so did the fire."

You can follow her blog series 10 years in 10 months, beautiful in all its prose, its heart and its photography. You can find more resources on this disease at Mesothelioma.com.

Although Heather still battles fear about her own health and the health of those she loves most in the world, she also says that "fear is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real" as it "builds up to eclipse every rational thought". As a person who struggles routinely with my own fears, I know what she means.

But Heather's story is at its very core one of hope, with gratitude for the support of her husband and all her family and wonderfully rich with the presence of that great companion of hope: faith.

May God continue to bless and guide Heather on her journey, and I ask that you please check out her blog series and, especially if you know someone who is struggling with Mesothelioma, some other cancer or any serious illness, that you generously share it with those you know and love.

Beautiful survivor Heather and her husband, Cameron

Friday, September 18, 2015

Me, a brown eyed girl

I feel like I'm in Groundhog's Day. Every day in the car for several days now, I have heard the same song playing on a variety of stations. Only it's not "I Got You, Babe" by Sonny and Cher. It's Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl".

It was one of my favorite songs when I was a little girl. My sisters both had blue eyes, exotic. I was the plain brown-eyed one. That song made me think it was special, not boring, to have eyes the color of freshly turned soil.

My siblings teased me about that song. I used to tattle on them for watching any inappropriate television or listening to suggestive music, but here I was, the baby, listening to a song that said, "Sometimes I'm overcome thinking about....making love in the green grass."

One time, indignant at their teasing as I danced around to my happy song, I stopped and shouted at them, "Making love means hugging and kissing, that's all!" Leave it to me, a young devourer of classic literature with archaic language to make such an argument about a song written in the 1960s.

They all smirked back at me, so I turned to my dad for backup, "Isn't that right, Daddy?"

My dad smiled and said, "You're right, Hoodoo." Then he told the older kids to stop teasing me about my favorite song.

I don't hear that song much at all anymore, so I guess the universe has been trying to tell me something this past week with repeated emphasis. What could it be? Well, considering that I have not slept at all well this week and am very mad about it; that I have allowed my calamitous thoughts to attack my brain and pillage my reason for over a month now, an auto-thought disorder; that I am beating myself up today for forgetting a second night in a row, despite lying awake until almost midnight, to reward my son for his lost tooth, the benevolent message might go something like this:

Be happy. Be happy, for crying out loud! 

BE happy, you brown-eyed girl. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Short, mostly unedited: Gratitude

This morning at my children's school, the wind suddenly picked up, rushing toward me...well, like a movie moment.

I lifted my face and watched the trees, and I was suddenly very grateful. It never fails that a strong wind reminds me of the presence of God the Holy Spirit. And so I thought, Thank you Father for my life, for my health, for Matthew my husband, and Berto, Analisa, Gabriella and Daniel Samuel our children...even though I am having trouble being happy right now, I am still so very grateful...

Thank you for everything. Please keep doing what you're doing. And help me be happy.

When I reflect a bit, I am awed by the fact that I get to know my children - four beautiful, kind, talented, intelligent children. Maybe I'm amazed, in the words of Paul McCartney. I hear their praises often. I'm not surprised by the admiration they receive, even though they behave better for others usually, but I am struck by the great gift of having had a part in bringing them into this world, a not unsubstantial part. Nevertheless, when people stop me to tell their impressions of my children, I want to say simply, it's God. I try, but he made them what they are. I have a part in it, but I would not do it nearly so well devoid of his grace and guidance or lacking the courage to keep going and working at motherhood even when I think I am not doing it well at all, that I'll never learn how to be a truly great, on-task mother.

I want to complain about the incessant work of a larger family sometimes. I want to ask my husband and children if they realize what I do, if they notice, if the kids will ever listen about putting things back where they belong instead of leaving them littered about our home. If they're thankful. I want to cry, Look at me! I'm doing a lot for you here! But I also want to shut my mouth, to not say it, to not demand the recognition. Shouldn't I appreciate what others do, too? Anyway, when it is demanded, it is always given grudgingly, and these tasks are my job, even when they spread into the evening hours as they perpetually do.

So, thank God for my vigor, that I can do every day what needs to be done. I am very grateful.

And there are great little things that bring me joy right now. For instance, the smell my tomato plant's leaves leave on my hands after I have pulled them between my fingers. They started as a mushy tomato on my counter, a tiny vine curled in its heart. I sliced it open and submerged it and its juices in my rose planter. And now, look, it has grown so tall in a few weeks!

Similarly, I took a moldy, sprouting sweet potato several weeks ago and buried the whole thing in an empty planter. It grew wildly within a few days, so much so that we wondered if it would take over our house, climbing up the stucco columns to eventually smother the whole structure.

I have trimmed it since, but its vines seem to prefer to trail the earth anyway.

These plants, as well as my red roses, make me happy, simple pleasures, because I seem fated to kill green things. Yet here I am succeeding, and I love to stroke my living greenery, grateful that I have made things grow through my care.

My own life has grown tremendously through my efforts and with the presence and love of others since I became a wife and mother. It's growing still, swelling with blessings and experiences and lessons learned after countless mistakes and a few frightening, startling intervals. I cannot fail to be grateful for it.

Sometimes I just need a little reminder, like feeling a refreshing wind pick up on a cool September morning.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Short, mostly unedited: Again, Hello Nowhere

I work with my hands. Right now they have several tiny cuts and a couple rough blisters from sweeping our back patio and back yard borders and mopping floors. There's a callous under my wedding ring. For the past couple days they have ached off and on. And they are always dry. I wash them constantly throughout the day after dishes, laundry, before preparing food, after picking up the yard, after touching the dog or the kids' dirty socks and shoes that litter my living room. I should thank God for these hands that work so well they bear the marks of their labor perpetually. Nevertheless, when I touch my husband's bare skin, I am always self-conscious about my rough working hands.

His? Well, they are a desk job's hands. Always smooth and supple. No callouses, no scratchy fingertips.


My words pour out of me, their genesis in my tumultuous thoughts. I try to bite them off, chew them up, keep them from coming out, but, inevitably they come. Forget bottling up my words that feed off my emotions! I need to let them go. Release them like a continual balloon message for heaven, doing no harm to me or others here on earth. But I am flooded with words that come from thoughts that gnaw on my feelings that roam in packs. I should be grateful for words and thoughts and feelings that can inspire my writing, but I wish I could just let them go, could sneak out to find some peace away from myself. I am not using them for my writing in any productive way right now. I am stuck all day with them, alone together in this house.

As for him? He is calm unless I ruffle him. He has few excess thoughts, fewer excess emotions. Considerably less words.


The days now are not what I envisioned they would be. I thought I would feel a greater sense of purpose in my writing. I thought I would complete a thousand projects. Storm the halls of creativity and contemplation. Be content, inventive and energetic. Be studious...purposeful! But I am floundering. Feeling still incompetent, not doing anything full throttle as a wife, mother, writer, friend, volunteer. My days are full and empty. They seem to drag and pass quickly. And I am still who I was. The woman who writes too little, cleans too infrequently, doesn't spend enough time with her kids or respond to their needs or wants as quickly as she should. I am still the Nowhere Woman.

And he is going somewhere constantly, surrounded by people. But he's earned it.


What can a woman with rough hands, too many thoughts, emotions and words, and long, fast, dragging days do? Well, she can thank God she is alive. And she can thank Him

for her children

for her husband

for her health

and her many words that she must wrangle every day to ward off explosions

for her family's abundance of food

for a life in the United States of America

for her husband's excellent desk job that provides so well

for her time, her sweet time with beautiful human beings

for her volunteer work with children, done by the grace of God

for her chance to fight to be the writer she knows she should and can be

for all the abundant, beautiful, enriching, magical, mystical, natural and supernatural LOVE she has known every day of her life.

And she can and must remind herself that, from herself and for herself - in the pithy words of John Lennon - all you need is Love.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

His breath was sweet

Her breath was sweet.

I had always wondered what that phrase meant when I read it in very old English poems or heard it in the hypnotic lyrics of Celtic music. Why, particularly, would the lover mention the fair maiden's breath? Certainly, it must make a kiss more pleasant, but who ever heard of truly sweet breath, to taste and to inhale the scent of?

I was destined to discover.

When I met the one I had no desire at first to kiss. It was no chemical attraction to the tall, quite lean man with no facial hair and light brown eyes that contrasted strangely with his black hair. (Black, I called it. He claimed it was brown, and that the sun clearly revealed its true shade to the discerning eye.)

Though I did not feel the instant magnetic pull so religiously touted in every silly romance book, I played with him, played with my words, kept him guessing about my still emerging feelings. Or so I thought. Now I realize he saw the game and the individual maneuvers.  He saw the story I was projecting as I rode the wave of my thoughts onto our patchy experiences. For the most part he was unflappable. Not so for me. I was trying to invent and choreograph the story, reacting to my own dictation.

We held hands, and I remember it well, an important moment. Curious, no doubt, by the progressive standards of "romance" now. Where, alas, is the I want to hold your hand experience anymore? Barely worth a mention on the way to more intimate things, perhaps skipped over all together, all the subtlety of romance, the slight but jolting touch, the sensation of fingers gliding against fingers, the arm loosely around the waist - all in death throes in a hyper-sexualized but romantically insensitive world. But I remember we held hands. We were teased about it, because we had so stoutly asserted that very day that we were mere friends.

The first kiss happened shortly after, only he kissed my upper back, because I turned my mouth away, unsure. Too nervous, I didn't notice the taste or perfume of him yet.

I can't pinpoint it at all, but during one of our kisses while we were dating, I realized: his breath is sweet. Not the breath from his mouth but from his nostrils. As he exhaled with his mouth on mine, the scent of his breath was sweet, entirely unique, incredibly alluring. And I knew what those long-dead composers meant. It wasn't an empty idealized statement that had no basis in reality, such as the exhausted we made love all night line in a thousand different love songs from heavy metal to easy listening. This particular vignette of love I had experienced with my own tall, dark, handsome man.

During the many kisses that we shared thereafter, did he wonder why I sometimes lingered, my lips locked on his, not moving against his own but pressing there firmly as I breathed deep?

His breath was sweet.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Short, Mostly Unedited: To Fulfill or not to Fulfill

After just over two weeks at home in this house most of the day by my lonesome, I have come to a slightly greater understanding of myself and what I need as a person.

I need purpose, and I need fulfillment, whatever the heck that really means.

All I really know thus far is that housework is not fulfilling for me. I really thought it could be. I have wanted a clean, orderly house for so long. But, nah. It really does nothing for me to do, fold and put away loads of laundry all in ONE day. It really does nothing for me to trash a bunch of old receipts, recycle papers and get all of the trash out of the house on trash day. I have yet to get a high from really mopping my floors for the first time in months or maintaining an orderly, clean kitchen.

Housework is not fulfillment.

Yesterday, I spent the day folding laundry while listening to a self-help podcast. That is not fulfillment. That is desperation. Dangerous desperation. In fact, no one should ever read, listen to or watch self-help media unless they have a good friend or selfless family member sitting next to them who can hit them up side the head every few minutes while warding off their own desire to doze. Yes, I got my laundry all taken care of while in the throes of other people's problems, but I also got a severe case of soap-opera head during which I imagined I had, have had or will have all the problems discussed by the expert and his woeful guests.

That is not fulfillment. That whiffs of paranoia.

But I don't just want to abandon this house. I do not believe a job would necessarily be fulfillment. Working outside the home just so we can have extra money has never appealed to me. I am not money-driven, and a job just to pass the time would not be fulfillment for me or my family.

My husband - good, steady man that he is - says he wants me to do what will make me happy. My dad suggested I write a book. My big sister Vinca advocated volunteering more and catching up on my sewing.

I don't sew (well), but I would love to write a mystery novel. Though I have read dozens of them, for some reason I still feel ill equipped to write one. But I need a challenge. I need a new adventure, and that would be a great escape, something to test my mettle, my fortitude as a writer.

Volunteering? Absolutely, I should give some of my hours to helping others. I did in fact volunteer at my kids' school this week, and I was struck by just how important the work is that is done at the side of a little student who needs more attention, more assistance. I was impressed by the idea that such kind and patient intervention could make a huge difference in the life of a child who may be struggling in more ways than one.

Fulfillment. Defined as satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one's abilities or character.

Don't we spend our entire lives chasing it? People start gardens, embark on new careers, simplify, volunteer, bake compulsively, have a mid-life crisis, buy time-shares, push their children to succeed, travel, and, yes, write novels or take up painting to seek fulfillment.

I want to fully develop my abilities and my character. As Dad would remind me, it's such hard work, though. Persistent work. Continuous work. I have to work really hard for my fulfillment in becoming a better writer and a better person. (Perhaps being a conflicted person would help with my writing, but being a calmer, humbler person would certainly help far more with life.)

Do I have a point? Yes, I know. All my posts seem to be circling like vultures over this one idea of, Where do I go and what do I do now? But, you see, I received a blow when my baby left me for kindergarten. Part of my purpose and fulfillment evaporated; my identity changed, and I felt a little deflated. Top that with the fact that I did not work as hard as I should have on my writing this week and that I felt trapped inside my own head in an empty world throbbing with anxiety, and you'll understand why I have gone on and on. I need fulfillment in a brand new way now. The time has come for something new.

And I can't just stay here. My world, the one that feels like it shrunk, freeze-drying over my stagnant goals this week, needs to expand again. I need to join a writer's group or at least hang out at a book/coffee shop while I write sometimes. Staying here every day, all alone, all day could drive me batty if I never see another friendly, creative face.

I'll figure it out. I'll seek my fulfillment like all my fellow humans.

I'll start my mystery novel.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mother, let thy children go! (and then cry a little)

Today was the first day I didn't walk my Daniel Sam to the tot lot at his school and then spend half an hour watching him play and hugging him periodically when he came and held his arms out between the rails of the kindergarten playground.

I've been sad on and off for the past two weeks since Danny started kindergarten.

The first few days at home alone in this house, the silence I had been craving for so long was so oppressively void of companionship that I was driven to distraction. I missed having a little person in the other room as I wrote, watching PBS and opening packages of cheddar cheese or calling for me to play cards or get him something. But on the flip side of that was my counting of the hours to gauge how much longer I had in peace to write and complete projects. For I have quickly learned that the hours still fly, no matter the tasks or noises that fill them.

An era of my life is over. Just writing that I can feel the tears surfacing. Have I relished my time with my little ones while they were little? Many a time an older woman in the grocery or discount store admonished me to do just that, to savor the moment, their age! But have I? Did I? So many times it felt like I was chaffing, like I was negotiating for more freedom, more peace, more quiet.

Now I may still say to my beautiful children often "Come on, Babies!" or "Time to go, Babies", but I know that none of them are actually babies anymore. Not even my forever baby, Danny Sam. He may kiss me and press my hair into his face in front of schoolmates, but he's not a baby any longer.

There have been many instances these past two weeks when I felt the change in my life and mourned the passage of time:

when Daniel's eyes got moist as he was lining up to walk into his classroom for the first time

when I walked through the mall in the middle of the day to return clothes All By Myself, feeling like I'd lost part of my identity

when Daniel lost another tooth

when I read some of my old posts about the kids to edit them and didn't remember the things I wrote about, then wondered how many opportunities to record their wealth of funny or adorable antics I had squandered

when I couldn't remember the hilarious way in which little Daniel ribbed his big brother, just as brothers should, several days ago

when I talked to the volunteer coordinator at my kids' school and told her I now had time to volunteer regularly, because all four of my children attend school

when I read Dear Boy by Susannah Lewis yesterday and got all choked up

when I dropped my oldest boy, Berto, off at middle school again this morning

So often as mothers we want to get past this stage or that in the lives of our children, because it is just so demanding or exhausting. But when we do get past it, because it slides almost imperceptibly into our rear view or parades out of sight with lots of fanfare, we wish we could have experienced all the joys - and, yes, even the challenges if it means we could have coped better - of that developmental stage a little longer. Sometimes, we wish we had simply appreciated it and soaked it in more, all its messiness and all its glory.

But then we remember that our middle schooler still says "I love you" when he gets out of the car; our eldest daughter still holds our hand and talks to us on the walk to her classroom; our tomboy of a second grader still offers her cheek for a kiss and calls us, "Mama"; and our littlest, the forever baby, excitedly runs over to us, grinning, when he gets out of school.

Then we realize there are things to savor now and more joys and heartache to come, and we'll survive, for what a blessing it is to watch them grow up.

And some day, God willing, there will be lots of grandchildren.


I now more fully understand just what my dad was writing about in his popular post, The Wonder (of so many) Years.

You might also enjoy:

My Super Bright Children

Short and Sweet: The Big Bro