Stupid Tits and Other Cruel Childhood Memories

Here is another pain in the ass assignment I had to write for my intercultural communications class.  I’m not sure I count this as writing, because after panicking about doing this last-minute, I decided to follow my son’s sage advice, “Relax Mama, don’t stress.  You don’t have to work so hard on it like usual.  It’s ok to do some half-assed work once in a while.”  I don’t know what dark place this memory barf came from, but it turns out I was a giant asshole when I was a kid…

English was my first language.  I grew up surrounded by many foreign languages, however, listening to my Chinese mother exclaim, “PAH-suh-woah!” when I would jump out and surprise her.  Literally, it means “scare-death-me.” The equivalent of “You scared me to death.” Or she would rub her tummy before a meal, roll her eyes and say, “Woah UH suh la!”  Again, the words literally meaning, “I hungry died.” The equivalent of “I’m starving to death.”  Because I was raised hearing the language formed in that way, I didn’t find it confusing. I just had to dial back my thinking to very simplified word combinations. The thing you say when you see a person after a long period of time – “Long time no see!”  That is a literal Chinese translation, “How jo bu-jen!”  We regularly spoke a hybridized version of English and Chinese in our home.  In Chinese, the Chinese language is called, “Jung-wen.”  We called our special language “Jung-glish.”    When I began to learn Chinese formally in school (unfortunately with my own mother as the teacher), I rebelled in teenage fashion and used my English to twist the Chinese.  Many Chinese words are homonyms; they are pronounced identically, but with a different tone to indicate the different meaning.  The casual word for Father (the equivalent of “Dad” in English) is “Baba”; with the emphasis on the first syllable. And the word for the way children say “poop” is also “baba” but the tone drops down and up on the first syllable and then the emphasis is on the last syllable.  Speaking Chinese is like singing a language. Unfortunately, meanings can be easily changed with different tones, and the “Ma” for mother can turn into “Ma” for horse or “Ma” to mean scolding. So as a teenager with an American attitude, being forced to suddenly transform into a proper Chinese daughter, complete with filial piety, I made horrible jokes like, “Dad was in a race and he stepped in dog poo as we are cheering him on. ‘Go Baba Go!  OH NO, Go-baba!  Go-baba!’” My parents were not amused. When we were young, we were cruel. My mother would lose her temper and start yelling at my sisters and me; and while she spoke fluent English, she never could say one word properly.  She never could say “stupid.”  It was always “stupid-tit.”  She would yell that we were acting “stupid-tit!” and my sisters and I would drolly reply, “Mom. We aren’t tits.”  I kick myself every time I remember those times.  Her accent (pg. 273) was strong in my early childhood, and we looked down on it, thinking the reason must have been because she didn’t learn her English well enough.  Later on, she would look me straight in the eye and say, “Considering I was born Chinese, I would say my English is pretty damn good. English is actually the most difficult language to learn in the world.  And it’s not just the words – sometimes I just don’t get you Americans. Be careful before you judge.”

 

Now the tables have been turned.  It is 40 years later, my mother is no longer living, and I am married to German man who spoke no English when we first met. He and our oldest daughter actually learned their English together when she first started speaking.  He is fluent now, and my German has not progressed past the level I learned in boarding school 35 years ago.  When I write letters to my mother-in-law, I pass them to my husband to proofread, and I always see in the corner of my eye, his shoulders begin shaking as he tries to suppress his laughter.  “WHAT!” I huff. He wipes tears from his eyes and giggles, “Honey, your letter is so cute…like it was written by a kindergartener!”  I felt just like my mom must have felt.  German has words like “Wintersturmwonnemondwende”.  It means “Delight at the changing of the seasons.”  They crammed all the individual words together; it literally means, “Winter-Storm-Bliss-Moon-Turning.”  Languages are complicated!  And as the NPR broadcast Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong pointed out; when learning a language, we are not just learning the words, we are “learning whole cultural systems.” My stupid teenage antics were perfect examples of what not to do with my newly learned Chinese language; as I matured, I learned to be more mindful (pg. 289).  I learned to treat the language with the dignity that the Chinese people have for thousands of years.  I grew to appreciate the synergism between Chinese and the culture that my mother was attempting to share with me. I was the younger generation that was disappearing into the American culture, and she wanted to use her native language to pass down her culture to my generation (pg. 266) before we lost our ties with our heritage. The information learned in this chapter, teaching us about mindfulness (pg. 293) with learning new languages, explaining how words can be misinterpreted for many reasons, and how to be aware of conversation taboos (pg. 293) would have been quite useful in teaching the teenage version of me how to use my second language competently in an intercultural context (pg. 293)

Today is Just a Day

Mothers’ Day has always been a day of conflict for me. When I was a little girl, and my elementary school teachers would help us make cards and gifts to bring home for that special day, I always presented them to my mother, heart bursting with pride, hoping she would see how much I loved her by how much glitter I glued on the construction paper. Of course, my mother was an artist, a world-renowned artist. “Thank you, that’s nice” was the best I could hope for, and one raised eyebrow at my stick-figure drawings told me my artwork was not so nice. I recall most of my time with my parents filled with my yearning for a mom and dad like my friends’ moms and dads; parents who enjoyed their children and who wanted to be parents. My parents always reminded us that #1 all three of us girls were meant to be boys to carry on the family name, and #2 my mother was especially careful to let us know that she never wanted children (we interfered with her blossoming art career) but she did it to make our dad happy. My childhood heartbreak gradually hardened in my teenage years, into a resolve to find or make a family that would love me as much as I loved them. I stopped paying attention to Mothers’ Days because the only mothers I ever met who I wanted to thank, already belonged to other people like my friends. Oh, how I coveted their moms. My best friend Kirsten’s mom even let me call her Mom while we lived in Shanghai. For years, that gave me the greatest comfort.

Finally, I grew up and had the baby I always dreamed of loving. The moment our eyes made contact, I felt hit with a bolt of lightning; THIS was what I was meant to do, to be the most loving mother to this baby girl. Every single bad memory of my family took a back seat to my new priority. As a first time mother, I had very little to help guide me. Not only were my parents completely disinterested in being grandparents, I was quite certain any grandmotherly advice was useless, coming from a woman who never wanted her own children. As my baby grew into toddlerhood and her independence grew, little conflicts arose. Tempted to lose my temper in the face of tantrums or naughty behaviour, I always stopped myself with one thought, “What would my parents do?” A very twisted version of What Would Jesus Do…whatever the answer, I made a deliberate choice to do the OPPOSITE. My parents would have spanked a toddler who drew on the walls, spanked a child who wanted to wear her underwear on the outside of her pants, spanked a child who talked back. My father always told us that children were cabbages until they were old enough to carry on an intelligent conversation. I chose to learn about the concept of Time Out, let my child choose her own clothing, and learned how to use my words. I am sure it was much more frustrating and time-consuming to do it the long way, versus the shortcut of beating. But I have very clear memories of the leather belt with moons and stars cut into it, that would beat my bare legs and bottom until those moons and stars were imprinted on my flesh. I will never forget the fear and dread when my father would tell me exactly how many smacks with the belt I would get; most of the time in the double digits. I would know it was coming because if I talked back or lied or did anything wrong in my mother’s eyes, she would screw her face up in rage, point her finger at me, and scream, “Just WAIT until your father gets home!” And when I was a teenager, and the only thing I did was roll my eyeballs, as teenagers do, she didn’t even wait for my father. Her teacup full of hot green tea would come flying at my head. Maybe that’s why I became a goalie in soccer in high school; I learned to not flinch in the face of flying objects, to take the impact on my body, and to keep going.

As the years passed, the negative connotations I associated with Mothers’ Day slowly faded. Gradually, Mothers’ Day ceased being about my mother, a reluctant mother. I started to see that it was a day about any human being, man or woman, who CHOSE to care for another. My own children brought me homemade cards of construction paper, glue, and glitter, on the breakfast tray in bed. I have saved every one of them. My oldest, Emily, ever since she could write, has written silly poems and hilarious rap songs. I cherish every one of them. Even when I went into labor with my youngest, Simon, little Emily made colourful little posters to tape on the hospital room wall to cheer me on, “Laber is Fun!” I still have that little poster, misspelling and all. “Laber” isn’t all that fun, after all, but this family sure is. Last year, my husband cared for me and the children while I battled breast cancer; he became the best example of a mother I have ever known. I look around my life, and there is no more room for bad feelings on Mothers’ Day.

This morning, for the first time, I woke without my husband and my oldest child on Mothers’ Day. Markus is out in Seattle, working hard to make a new home for our family to move to next month. Emily is in Phoenix with her best friend to celebrate her graduation from university. Feeling slightly sorry for myself, I opened my eyes to find my two younger children, Hanna and Simon, holding a tray of breakfast and a coffee in a Love Cup. “Happy Mothers’ Day, Mama, we love you!” A feast of eggs and kale and onions, and their happy faces beaming at me while I ohh’d and ahh’d. Simon told me, “My gift to you is that I am going to scoop poop in the yard and mow the lawn!” And they both promised to help me clean the house for company tonight. That’s a minor miracle right there. I opened my email, and there was a letter to me, from my Emily. Not her usual funny rap or poem, this is what she wrote:

“Hi Mama Bear!

This isn’t my usual rap, because I felt that I had a lot to say that wouldn’t be very easy to rhyme. It’s Mother’s Day! You’ve gone through three “labers,” none of which could have been all that fun. You’ve raised one semi-adult who has so far managed not to perish out in the real world, one sassy teenager who loves to shock us all with her rebellion and independence, but who will one day undoubtedly shock us with incredible success, and also one hilariously weird boy who has the exterior of a hardened thug, but who’s insides are filled with love and an amazing sense of kindness. On top of all of this, you work hard to maintain the most beautiful marriage that I have ever seen.

When I was first processing that you had been diagnosed with breast cancer last year, they were some of the scariest feelings I’ve ever felt. First off, what kind of universe did we live in if someone as caring, sweet, and undeserving as you could possibly be dealt an early entry into Heaven? I realized we had all taken you and everything you did for us for granted; something I still sometimes catch myself guilty of. You are the only constant I’ve had in my entire life and I’ve literally known you for forever. How am I supposed to ever be expected to navigate through this stupid world without you to call and complain to? Without you to cry and scream and vent to, without hearing your 100% honest advice on something as small as what to buy at the grocery store, all the way to making life-changing decisions that I’m too weak to deal with on my own? That’s why when you were diagnosed, I never really considered it an option that you could ever disappear from my world. Nothing was strong enough to take you away from me, because you are mine and I couldn’t let that happen.

This was a very idiotic and naive approach to your newly discovered cancer. Because I wiped away this possibility, I did not embrace the seriousness of your illness, nor how important it would be for me to move back home. Even when I finally did, I look back and see how little I contributed to the family, how much more I could have done to lessen the burden of your surgery and healing. I know I can’t make that time up to you, but I am sorry for being a noob.

I have so many amazing memories of times we have shared. Obviously we have had some really bad times, horrible screaming fights and sometimes deafening bouts of silence. You’ve said before that you have blocked out most of your negative memories from your childhood, because they were too painful to keep around. But I think that the reason I remember less of the bad and all of the good is not because the bad is so bad, but because the good is so great. You and Papa have given us such an amazing life, full of the most love and laughter out of family I could ever imagine. I love when we’re all out for dinner, and half the conversation is purely brought-up memories that make my mouth burst out with laughter, and my heart burst with all the love we all share.

You are the coolest, funniest, most welcoming and biggest hearted mom (and person) I have ever known or even heard about. Even without ever meeting you, my friends give you rave reviews. I’m so sorry it took me so long to realize that I chose the best possible person to not only raise me, but to be my very best friend. I love you the most and I hope you always know that.

Happy Mother’s day Mama!!

Love,
Emmy”

Mothers’ Day is not a happy day for many people. But I believe you do not have to settle for what Life dishes out to you. If you can survive to adulthood, you can make the changes you need to find happiness. Leave the bad behind, or if you choose to keep it in your heart, use it to make your life better. There are some shitty moms out there getting some pretty damn good love from children that deserve more. Stay strong, kiddos. There is love out there, and it doesn’t have to come from your bio mom. If you can’t find it, you make it yourself. The more love you make, the more love just bubbles up and overflows.

This is it. I am here. I made it. I am the mother I always wanted, with the children I always wanted, in the family I always wanted. Dreams do come true. Happy Mothers’ Day to those who can, and I wish a Future Happy Mothers’ Day to those who will make it so down the line.

Greetings From Space Mountain (Ch.6)

When I was a little girl, our parents took us to Disneyland. It was the 70’s and, for all you suffering young folks, I don’t remember standing in any lines for rides back then. Most of the time, if we wanted to, we could just stay on and ride over and over. Space Mountain was famous for being the newest and scariest roller coaster ride ever, and my dad wanted the whole family to try it. My mom straight up refused to go, while my little sister and my big sister quickly decided to stick with her. My dad looked at me and said, “Let’s go, Sue-Sue. This will be fun.” Sure, how bad could it be? And even if it was really bad, I knew I just had to hold on for 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Those were the longest 2 minutes and 45 seconds of my life. I hated every moment and just knew I was going to die. Unfortunately, my dad had so much fun, he grabbed my hand and pulled us onto another car to ride it all over again. I ended up squeezing my eyes shut, taking a death-grip hold of the safety bar in front of me, and prayed for the light at the end of the tunnel. I had passed the point where screaming would alleviate the terror; it was all I could do to breathe. Last Tuesday, April 15th, was Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday, in which I underwent a skin-sparing double mastectomy with free TRAM reconstruction. I was told there would be pain after the operation, that I would be looking at weeks of healing time, but that there would be pain medication and everything would be just fine. Pain? I laugh in the face of pain. Ha. Ha. Ha. Hold onto the safety bar, folks, this ride was about to get ugly.

My alarm rang at 4:30am. I walked to the hotel room bathroom in the dark, and took the last shower I would have for a week (I really should have taken a little more time to soak that up; I never knew just how disgusting I would end up feeling). All towelled off, I stood quietly while Markus carefully re-drew the blue Sharpie lines on my breasts and abdomen that my surgeon had drawn the day before. When I was completely re-drawn, we stood there, looking at each other, and he stooped and placed one soft kiss on each breast, and drew a little heart over my right one. I never said a word, but each time our eyes met, he read the worry in them, and told me, “It’s going to be ok. We’re going to be ok.” We drove through the dawn to the Misericordia Hospital, where we rode the rickety elevator up to the 5th floor. Through the warren of dark narrow hallways, we found the room for me to check-in at 5:45am. They had me change into another lovely hospital gown, made sure that I had nothing of value on me – no jewelry, piercings, contacts – just naked and plain me. Then we sat and waited until 7am, when I would be wheeled away. We sat and eavesdropped on the other women who came in for various surgeries. One woman came in alone, and told the nurse that she was to have a hysterectomy. When asked if her husband would join her after parking the car, she sadly said, “No, he has to go home and get the kids ready for school.” Markus and I both reached out our hands at the same time and grabbed the other’s hand, and he shook his head sadly. I was so lucky to have him there with me through everything. Our nurse, a portly older woman named Tamara, came in on us and started chatting. Markus asked if he had to say goodbye when the stretcher came for me, and she whispered, “This is what you do – you tell them that Sue is very anxious and I will tell them that you need to accompany her. Then you, Markus, just stick next to her side until they tell you you can’t go any further. That’s the best I can do for you.” I felt like a fairy godmother had just given me a secret key to escape the evil forest. Then a stooped old asian lady came into the room calling for me. She introduced me to her young trainee, and said they would be walking me to the operating room staging area. That was a first. So off we walked, back through the warren of hallways. We ended up in the same room where I had waited for my sentinel node biopsy surgery, 10 days earlier. Finally, familiar territory.

There, I was told to hop up on a bed, put on the shower cap, and wait to meet my anesthesiologist. While we were waiting, Markus turned to me and said, “Hey, let’s not wait for you to say your star wish until you’re falling asleep in the operating room. Let’s say it together. Right now.” And he grabbed my hands and we silently wished our wishes, “Please watch over my family and keep us together, in love, happy, healthy, faithful, and having fun AMEN.” My drugged theory during my sentinel node biopsy that all anesthesiologists are asians, was shot down when the guy ended up showing up. Short white guy. Dr. B (can’t remember the name, just that it started with a B) checked my teeth, asked me the usual questions (“are they all your own?”) made me open up my mouth as wide as I could, then patted me and said he would see me in the operating room. This time, things would be different. Instead of putting in the IV and giving me a sedating drug before going into the room, I would be wheeled in where I would meet the TEAM of anesthesiologists and nurses who would take 30 minutes setting me up so I could be safely comatose for the operation. We were told it would take maybe 8 1/2 hours from the surgery start time (8:30am) but maybe longer, so Markus should come back around 5pm, or call the hospital to check in. Before they wheeled me into the room, a tornado of a man rolled around the corner, roaring “She’s BAAAAAAAAACK!” and descended upon me to plant a big kiss on my forehead. Dr. Olson, my big lumberjack general surgeon. He would be responsible for removing my breasts, taking Barnard with them. Then Dr. Schembri came in, cheerfully shaking hands all around. Dr. Schembri explained that while Dr. Olson removed my breast tissue, he and his partner, Dr. Mehling, would be working on the abdomen area, cutting away the tissue, blood vessels, and muscle they would need to use, and then carefully sewing that area back together. And once Dr. Olson was done with one breast, Dr. Schembri would move up to reconnect the blood vessels from the chest wall to the newly placed abdominal tissue, building my new breasts. Then he clapped his hands together and said, “Are you READY?!!! I had my coffee this morning, I’m ready to roll!” I heard echoes of my dad saying, “Let’s go, Sue-Sue. This will be fun!” Kisses good-bye to my furry man, with him whispering in my ear, “Don’t worry, you are waking up from this one too, I promise. And I will be there waiting for you.” And off I was wheeled to the operating room.

Inside the operating room, I was introduced to the Charge Nurse Mary, and her staff, which included other senior nurses, and my anesthesiologist whispered to me that either I was someone special, or the hospital was keeping a close eye on him; that he had never had the pleasure of having to work with as many senior nurses as he had today. I asked, “Is he very naughty, Mary?” And she said, “For sure – we’ve got to watch this one…” and they all laughed. 30 minutes later, IV in, all checks checked, and it was all stations go. I got the mask on my face, and the Dr. B. cautioned the nurse, “Now, we don’t want’ to suffocate her, let’s press a little more gently.” PHEW. A few deep breaths, and I was gone.

The next thing I remember is moaning into a mask that my arm hurt. The mask was removed, and in a complete foggy state, I tried to straighten my right arm and just couldn’t, crying the whole time. I heard the nurses telling each other that they swore my arm was never bent at more than the correct angle during surgery, blah blah blah, and after I made enough noise, someone took pity on me and knocked me out with something. Next thing I know, I opened my eyes to see the blurry figure of Markus sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed. He jumped up and rushed over for kisses and my now familiar delight, “I woke up!” and then huge waves of pain just broke over me, while every pore in my body seemed to open up and start pouring sweat, drenching me. They had bundled me up with blankets and sheets and what I would consider my personal torture chambers for the next 4 days: electric compression leg sleeves that encased both legs from the thighs down to the ankles. I started kicking at the covers, while crying out that I was HOT HOT HOT HOT HOT, and Markus tore at the sheets until I was lying there in just my wet hospital gown. Still, I was sweating. The nurse explained that the thermostat was turned up to keep the room warm because if my body was warm, it would heal faster. My worst nightmare had come true. Markus knows I hate being overheated, so he ran to the bathroom and made a washcloth wet and started wiping my face and my neck and arms, going back to the bathroom to cool the washcloth endlessly, until I stopped saying the word, “hot.” While he was doing this, the nurse took my hand and guided it to what would be my best friend for a few days, my on-demand morphine button. She told me that I could press it every 6 minutes if I needed it, but to be careful because there was a safety feature that prevented me from overdosing and at some point, I might find that I have to wait a little longer for the next hit. I stopped listening after the few seconds it took for the morphine to enter my IV line. Ah blessed numbness…

I floated in and out of consciousness, always opening my eyes to find my sweet husband sitting in the corner chair. Once in a while, I woke to kisses, or cool cloths on my forehead. Every hour, on the hour, nurses came in and poked and prodded, talked to Markus, then left. When I was finally able to speak a few sentences, Markus made me understand that my surgery had taken, not 8 1/2 hours, but 14 hours. He said he had been worried sick, and nobody really told him anything, because of course, the surgeons were all inside the operating room, working on me. The nurses tried to soothe him, saying that no news is good news. And he had waited and waited. It was almost midnight, and I wondered out loud that he hadn’t been kicked out because visiting hours were over at 9pm. He told me that I was in the only private room on the ward, and the nurses told him that he could stay as long as he liked (he’s a charmer, that one). Eventually, I don’t know when, he kissed me and said he would go back to the hotel and see me first thing in the morning, when visiting hours began at 9am.

The night did not pass peacefully. I had 6 minute intervals when the fire of pain that consumed all but my arms and legs was temporarily quelled. However, I did reach the point when I was cut off, and those were minutes of agony. I thought the clock in the room was broken, because those hands never seemed to move. It was perpetually 2am, and I needed pain relief. My first nurse, Astrid, a plump woman with a sweet round face, glasses, and a shiny black bob, would bustle in and out, take note of my vitals, and ask me what my pain number was. From 1-10, with 1 being no pain at all, and 10 being unbearable. Here I am, proud that I have a high threshold of pain, having given birth to Hanna with no anesthesia (to be fair, they couldn’t find the anesthesiologist, that day, and by the time he got there and gave the epidural, Hanna had already popped herself out of me – she’s not a very patient child, that one). When Astrid would ask me the pain question, I would be embarrassed to whimper, “8…” She finally said, “I can see that you have been pushing the button frequently, it’s apparent that this dose isn’t as effective as it should be; let me go ask permission to up your dose a bit.” And another fairy godmother was born.

Once I got on top of the pain, sometime before dawn, Astrid started explaining what her hourly checks were about. First, she needed to check my vitals- blood pressure, heart rate, blood oxygen level. Ah, so that was what was on my face. I kept feeling like I was wearing glasses that had fallen down too low – it was the little oxygen tubing that pokes into your nostrils and threads back over your ears and then under your chin. It was like a rubber mustache. For a hot and sweaty chick with pain issues, that tubing was annoying. But every time they removed it, a few minutes later my oxygen levels would fall. My breathing was too shallow; my lungs were groggy and still sleeping after 14 hours of being in a medically induced coma. She noted that my heart rate was very high (I kept setting off the pulse monitor’s alarm). I explained that after every test under the sun, my heart had been pronounced different, but fully operational; I just have a fast one. They didn’t believe me until about Day #4, when we all got so sick of the alarms going off that they removed the pulse monitor except for their hourly wellness checks. Second, they needed to open my gown and physically check the tissue on my newly reconstructed breasts. The first time I was lucid and they opened my gown, I stared down at the new girls in wonder. I never expected them to resemble real breasts – I had pictured much worse. Rising up above the surrounding area that was inexplicably covered in pin-sized scabs and 2 large blue circles in between them, they were lumpy, covered in a strange clear bandaging film with football-shaped white bands around where the nipples should have been. In the centre of each one was a clear bandaged window onto…plain skin; Bye-Bye Boobies Day included my nipples. Those football-shaped patches of skin were actually skin from my abdomen. So the nurses would press the outside breast skin and release, watching the blood rush back to the spot they had just pressed. They were checking capillary action (that the blood vessels in the skin were functioning, circulating the blood to keep the skin alive). They then did the same to the transplanted skin inside the footballs. Finally, they produced a mini Dopplar machine – they kind the doctors use to hear your baby’s heartbeat during your pregnancy. Dipping the mini-wand in gel, they turned on the speaker, and gently placed the tip of the wand in the centre of the little football on each breast. After a few swipes, the underwater sound of a heartbeat would blare out of the speaker. This was the sound of the finely repaired blood vessels that Dr. Schembri had slaved over for 14 hours. There should have been an arterial sound and a venous sound coming from each breast centre. There was a bit of a fuss when the left breast only broadcasted venous sounds. But the nurses noted that the operating room nurses and Dr. Schembri could only find the venous sound in the left side, as well, and they weren’t worried. Later, after dozens of these checks, the different nurses and doctors found the arterial beat; it had been skillfully tucked under the vein. And Dr. Schembri later also reminded me what my high school biology had taught me. If the venous beat could be heard, that was de-oxygenated blood exiting the heart, so the artery had to be functioning to have brought the oxygenated blood into the heart in the first place. Anyway, without those precious heartbeat sounds, my breasts wouldn’t survive, and the tissue would die; tissue necrosis. I found myself holding my breath each time they checked, just like at the doctors’ offices for the countless heartbeat checks on my unborn babies. I found myself whispering, “c’mon, show yourself.” Astrid started calling my new breasts my babies. Finally, they checked my catheter. We were all very surprised to find a dark green liquid filling the bag. The nurses asked me, pointing at the 2 blue pencil-erasure-sized dots on my left breast, “Did the doctors inject you with contrast dye during surgery?” I could only shrug and say, “um…I dunno…I wasn’t really there…” Turns out, my trusty lumberjack was looking out for me and was checking out old left breast tissue for any possible tumours before removing and sending it off to the lab. I love having so many guardian angels.

Somehow, I survived that first night, and watched that broken clock for 9am to roll around so I could see my furry man. At 7am the next morning, Astrid came into my room to do the final check of her shift, introducing me to Ryan, a soft white male nurse with a very hesitant manner, who would take over the next shift. She reviewed the previous evening with Ryan, and showed him how to do the Dopplar check. After she left, Ryan said he would return after rounds and change my dressing. Then, Markus entered the room, and the sun shone. Someone knocked, yelled, “BREAKFAST” and put a tray of food on the table next to my bed. Markus went over to lift the lid of the plate, and asked, “Are you hungry honey?” I forgot to say that the general anesthesia had given me a serious case of motion sickness. The thought of food nearly emptied my empty stomach. I chomped on ice chips instead. Ryan popped in to the room to offer me the bane of my existence for the next few days: the incentive spirometer. A paperback-sized clear plastic device, with a rubber tube coming out of it. In the plastic window, there is a yellow disk at the bottom, inside a blue circle. In the centre, there is an insipid smiley-face. Above the smiley-face, there is another circle. The goal, Ryan explained, is to exhale all the way, then steadily inhale through the tubing to keep the yellow disk on the smiley-face, not above or below it. It is designed to encourage deep-breathing, and re-inflation of the lungs post-surgery. If the lungs don’t inflate properly, and accumulated fluid remains, pneumonia could develop. I was supposed to give 10 earnest efforts every hour. I could have sworn I was very diligent, but I underestimated the power of the lingering general anesthetic mixed with the morphine. Markus now tells me I would take one or two puffs, and then nod off fast asleep holding the device, while he softly laughed in his chair. I do remember being woken a few times by his, “Honey, try one more time, okay?” Oh, and while we are on the topic of being laughed at, it turns out my furry man documented my hospital stay with some really unflattering photos. You see, he thought he would pick up the flag and continue on my behalf, posting my updates on Facebook for all my friends and family to see. This was far easier for him than contacting each individual and repeating himself dozens of time. In the early days, I was pretty much miserable all the time. I don’t think I cracked a smile until the 3rd day.

The #1 thing they want you to do after surgery (besides the deep breathing exercises) is to get up and walk. Walking = better circulation, which leads to faster healing. Of course, after 14 hours of being in a coma, with those chemicals still circulating in your body, just sitting on the edge of the bed is a huge challenge. There was a little white board in my room, with the name of my nurse for the day, the date, my pain number, and the day’s goals. On the first morning after surgery, my goal was originally to get up and walk the halls, but when they watched me sit drunkenly at the edge of my bed, they changed that to “sit in chair.” When I did that, feeling like every stitch in my body would rip out, there was great fanfare. You’d think I’d given birth to a baby, or something. The next morning, my new nurse, Sharon, coaxed me out to the nurses’ station outside my room door. They all cheered me on, like a baby taking her first steps. When I reached the counter of the nurses’ station, Nurse Ryan peeked up at me from the other side. I asked whether he was offering candy for the patients who made it to that walking checkpoint, but I forgot that I wasn’t able to smile yet (too much pain) so he actually looked around desperately for some kind of reward to give me. I flapped my hands like a crabby old lady, and turned around to shuffle back to my room, leaning on my IV trolley, furry man hovering, and Nurse Sharon following behind, carrying the pee bag connected to my catheter. A very dignified parade.

In between sleeping, ice chips, morphine hits, and walking, I was visited by a parade of doctors and nurses. First, came Dr Schembri, so proud of my new babies. He, himself, seemed almost surprised that they turned out so well. Doctors on their rounds, popped into my room just to see his handiwork. I kept hearing “Wow, no bruises! Would you look at that? They are so beautiful!” It turns out, my surgery is the most complicated surgery the hospital does, and last year, they only performed one of that kind. And I found out from all the different doctors and nurses, that if you needed a mastectomy, Dr. Olson was the best in Alberta. And if you needed the immediate reconstruction as complex as mine, Dr. Schembri and Mehling were the best in the province. So basically, I was probably the luckiest woman on the planet that day my angel Diana referred me to them. Dr. Olson blew into my room, bringing in laughter and sunshine. He told me that even luckier, the brand new Director of Surgery had observed my operation that day, and was particularly interested; would I mind being their poster child so they could look into getting more funding for other cancer patients to have the same opportunity I had? Misericordia Hospital is very old, and there is only the one private room on the ward. My lumberjack’s vision is to drum up the funding to provide more awareness to not only the younger patients like me, who researched this treatment and pushed for it, but also for the older patients or the ones who come into the cancer scare completely clueless. He wants to have a dedicated private room for the cancer patients who undergo this procedure, considering the hourly intensive care that is needed post-op. He said, “I want to give you a tv, maybe get the room painted in a comforting colour, give your husband a comfortable chair to sit in, instead of this one. I told him, “You and Dr. Schembri gave me back what I feared cancer would take away forever. I could never thank you enough. Whatever you need, I will be there for you.”

When I first woke up from surgery, weighed down by pain, I never could see past it; I thought it would never end. I was forever trapped on Pain Space Mountain, in an endless loop of crushing pain. When I first coughed, I cried, until the nurses taught me to press a pillow on my tummy before each cough, so it wouldn’t feel like my stitches would rip out. My breasts, even though I couldn’t feel touch on them because the nerves had all been severed during surgery, would sometimes just throb and burn. Each breast had 2 tubes coming out under my arms and my abdomen had 2 tubes coming out just above the pubic line. This side sleeper had to find a way to rest flat on my back, with an arrangement of pillows all around, to prop my arms and legs. When they took out my catheter, I had to re-learn how to pee, like a baby. After 10 minutes of sitting there, with Markus hovering in the doorway of the bathroom, I finally shooed him away, and thought about how to trick my body into relaxing. It would be too painful to get up and turn on the water faucet in the sink, so I turned to the roll of toilet paper beside me, and started focusing on it, on the paper rolling out, on the texture of the paper, even rubbing it on my face and (ew, I know) smelling it, and before I knew it my body slowly relaxed and remembered what to do. Every 12 hours, they injected me with a blood thinner that burned going in, leaving behind a bruise. Because of my sentinel node surgery, all needles had to go into my left side. My left side started to complain that this was an unfair arrangement after a day or two. The worst part was when it came time to disconnect me from the IV machine and my on-demand morphine. If things got really bad, I could ask for a shot of morphine, but boy did I pay for that. The morphine stung like fire going into my arm or leg, and no amount of hissing or Lamaze breathing could make it better. Every day, my furry man would patiently wait on me, hand and foot, encourage me to walk, cheer me on when I did, ask me what I needed, and bring me anything he could to make me happy. And all along, I couldn’t bring myself to smile. I was tired, I was hurting, and it felt like it would drag on forever. I wasn’t permitted to shower until Friday, so I was a sweaty mess, with oily hair and itchy skin. They gave me body wipes to use, but without warm water to rinse with, I never felt clean. My first shower was something I actually cried for. Well, I cried for lots of things, and I cried with frustration when I couldn’t make Markus understand me. Thank God for his patience, because I found myself losing my temper and sobbing in frustration about the dumbest things. I didn’t want to be bossed about eating – I just wasn’t hungry and just wanted ice chips. I didn’t want to be asked all day long, “do you need to poop?” NO I don’t need to poop yet! When my ex-best friend morphine caused me to hallucinate that I’d had breakfast with an Amish boy and his mother, I demanded to know where they had gone when I woke up in the morning. It was a struggle for Markus to stop his giggling while trying to soothe me. It wasn’t until later that my homecare nurses told me that the residual general anesthetic in my system was mostly responsible for my roller coaster of emotions. The nurses in the hospital kept telling me I was going to check out of the hospital and go home on Sunday. On Wednesday, when they said it, I silently said, “Bullshit” in my head. On Thursday, I said, “no way” in my head. On Friday, after all day of walking up and down the hallways with Markus, I thought, “Hmmmph. We’ll see.” On Saturday, when Markus and I were on our walks through the halls, and he made me laugh for the first time by showing me to a room that he said the hospital arranged especially for me; a room that was full of plumber clowns trying to snake a drain while standing around scratching their asses and wondering what to do, I finally thought, “maybe I can do this.” All along, my furry man would tell me, “Baby steps. Every day you’re getting better. Compared to Tuesday night, you are light years ahead!”

And Sunday came and we were sent home with a full prescription of antibiotics and painkillers, with instructions to return to the city for a follow-up with Dr. Schembri in 2 weeks. They took out 2 of the drains from my breasts, so I only had 4 drains for home. They arranged for public health nurses to visit me at home every day to change my dressings and make sure I had what I needed to heal. And my instructions were to REST. I wasn’t to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk, no vacuuming, no housework of any kind. Just gentle walks to the bathroom, lots of sleep, and lots of protein to help the healing process. How hard could that be? My friend Lori and her husband Rob were at home to relieve our adult daughter Emily so Em could run back to university to sit for her final exams. Rob was cooking Easter dinner for the kids, and Lori would run them back and forth to school every day while she worked out of a temporary office at the hotel. Markus had taken that entire week off of work, in order to make sure I was comfortable and had anything I needed.

The drive home on Sunday felt like the longest drive in the history of road trips. The painkiller I was prescribed was called Tramidol. Perhaps I had developed an immunity to painkillers, but it didn’t feel like it did much to numb me. I had to hold the seatbelt off of my abdomen and my chest, as I was instructed to keep all pressure from those areas. Markus had purchased two pillows, so I made myself as comfortable as I could, I popped 2 Tramidol and 2 Gravol (to make me sleepy) and tried to nap the whole way. Poor Markus would try to warn me about bumps, but we drove over so many, his efforts didn’t provide much relief. We stopped at every possible rest stop because I was full of water, and my furry man gently helped me hobble into every washroom. I think it took us 5 hours to get home, but when he quietly woke me and pointed, I could see our 3 children waiting patiently for us on the trampoline in the front yard, with “Welcome Home Mama” colourfully drawn in chalk on the driveway. I unfolded myself out of the car, received very gentle hugs from the children and my friends, then I was ushered to bed by the furry man. The very first thing I noticed in my own bed, was how very still and silent it was. In the hospital, the mechanized beds had a loud motor that rumbled every 30 seconds and adjusted the mattress into a different position (to prevent bedsores). The electric compression leg sleeves inflated and deflated without stop for 4 straight days, the pump making an additional rumbling noise. The nurse’s station was right outside my hospital room door, so every time a patient hit their call button, an alarm would ring at the nurses’ station. At home, all I could hear were the quiet voices of my friends and family at the dining table, enjoying their Easter dinner, saying their prayers, and then a loud, “God Bless Mama!” before I slipped into sleep.

It was difficult adjusting to life without around-the-clock nurses. Markus and I had to sit down and figure out the schedule for the medications I needed to take, and then set my phone to ring so I could be reminded to take the meds on time. Markus also had to milk, empty, measure, and record the fluid in the 4 drains coming from my body twice a day. And on day 2 back home, I hit a brick wall of pain an hour before I had to take my 5 o’clock Tramidol dose. Markus came to sit beside me in bed, to try to distract me until 5pm rolled around. I tried breathing, hissing, huffing, then I finally gave in and started just crying. At that moment, the kids came home from school, and my son Simon poked his head in the room, “What’s wrong, Mama?” Markus explained, and Simon crawled into bed next to me and gently put his head on my shoulder, patting my arm. Between the two of them, we made it to 4:55pm, when Markus proclaimed we would cheat and gave me the pain meds 5 minutes early. Blessed blessed relief. The next morning, he called the doctor’s office to ask about the dosage, wondering what to do when the prescription ran out (it was only 5 days’ worth). He was gently told that by the 5th day, my pain levels would have receded to the point that extra strength Tylenol would be sufficient to make me comfortable. They informed him that Tramidol was a narcotic, and they only ever prescribed 5 days’ worth of it to any patient. But if I was indeed in dreadful pain by the 5th day, we were invited to call them to see what they could arrange for us. They suggested I take ibuprofen in between my doses of Tramidol. On Day 3, when 4pm rolled around, Markus very wisely suggested we sit in the living room and watch our favourite television show that had recorded while we were in the hospital. 5 o’clock appeared as if by magic. On Day 4, I figured out that I needed to take ibuprofen at 3pm so I wouldn’t have the hour of pain at all. And I began to substitute 1 Tylenol for 1 Tramidol to wean myself off of it completely. Sure enough, by Day 5, the pain was bearable, I had a routine with my showering and the home care nurse visits, and I found myself with enough energy to hobble around the house and eventually the garden.

Only when I stopped moaning about the pain, did Markus finally show me the photographs he had taken to document our journey home from surgery. Only when I was smiling and laughing every day like my old self, did he show me photographs of me directly after surgery, pain etched on my face even in unconsciousness. He showed me the pictures of me and my Medusa hair, me sticking out my tongue stained green from the jello, posts he had updated on Facebook, to tell my friends and family I was still alive and kicking. And finally, he showed me the photographs of my incisions, of my new belly button, of my new breasts. When I began to cry, looking at what seemed to be an impossibly broken body, he gathered me close and whispered, “You are still beautiful and sexy and loveable. I still want you and can’t wait for you to heal so I can play with my new toys. And you know that little blue heart I drew on your right breast on the morning of your surgery? It was still there when you came back to me after surgery was all done. You are still you. We are going to get through this and live long and happy lives together. And I will be here loving you the whole time.”

Well, it’s a good thing I have him on the record about our long and happy future together. After 2 weeks of healing, on April 30th, we packed up the 2 kids and drove back to Edmonton to meet with my lumberjack so he could tell us the final pathology results on the breasts he removed. I stayed awake for the entire drive, and marvelled at how well I felt – no pain at all. Even the teenagers were getting along in the back seat. The sun was shining and it was a balmy 21°C on a Wednesday afternoon. I just knew everything was going to be okay. We left the children in the waiting room, and Dr. Olson oohed and ahhhed over the incredible handiwork of my plastic surgeons, and then he gave me the sandwich. All you parents out there, you know how you’re supposed to give your kids criticism in sandwich form? A compliment, followed by the area they need to work on, followed by a compliment? It’s supposed to work in management too, but I was never very good at it. Dr. Olson is very good at making sandwiches. He made me a Dagwood. We were all on a high in his office, talking about how amazing this surgery was, how symmetrical I turned out to be (I guess it’s not always easy), and how hard the plastic surgeons ended up working on me (they had to re-construct my left side twice; Dr. Olson said a lesser man would have given up). He then clapped his hands and said “let’s get down to the nitty gritty on the pathology. The good news is awesome – we thoroughly inspected the left side, and the results were ‘unremarkable’ with is science lab-ese for ‘GREAT no cancer.’ Your right side was mostly as we suspected: your tumour measured 1.4 cm. It is estrogen and progesterone receptive, so you will be needing hormone therapy and chemotherapy. Your. hair. will. fall. out. But there is an amazing wig program through Cross Cancer Institute – I’m not just saying this. They can make it look like you’re not wearing a wig and help you with the emotional side of things too. It’s only temporary; you can do this. But the great news is that your nodes are clear so there is a high chance that the cancer did not travel. So no radiation. You have a chemotherapy treatment facility in Hinton, so you will only need to come back to Edmonton to meet your oncology team at the Cross Cancer Institute, then receive your ongoing treatments in Hinton. I am going to send your file over to them right away. You go home to heal, and you should be getting a call from them in mid-May to book treatment in June.”

Further reading of the pathology report revealed that sneaky Barnard had little babies growing in my right breast. DCIS is Ductal Carcinoma in Situ. Basically, it’s breast cancer that stays in the milk ducts and grows. I had grade 2 DCIS in the right breast, in addition to the grade 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. It dawned on me that things could have ended very poorly if I had taken a more conservative approach to the surgery. It was a huge relief to me that I pushed ahead and made the radical decision to have my bilateral mastectomy. If I had given in to my big sister’s pressure to do as my mother and aunt had done and just had a lumpectomy, I would have been looking at multiple surgeries down the line, ending in a mastectomy anyway. I feel like that Sesame Street scene: “One of these things is not like the other…One of these things is not the same.” Each of us women is different. Our cancers are not the same. Our treatments are individualized for us based on our particular pathology and our medical history. I am not my mother, I am not my aunt, and I am not my grandmother. My adjuvant treatment will be formulated for me by my own oncology team. Sometimes you have to plug your ears, ladies, to the well-meaning advice of those who are not your doctor and think they know best for you. It’s between you and your doctors, and nobody else gets a say (although I suspect Markus may have slipped a bribe to the plastic surgeons…my new boobs are feeling bigger than my originals…).

When we started this awful roller coaster ride of cancer, I needed a goal to reach for; a short-term goal that I could think about while hissing through pain. I really couldn’t think of anything besides summertime in my garden. One day, Markus caught me wistfully reading posts on Facebook, about my high school friends having a mini-reunion in Washington state; our Taipei American School graduating classes were only handfuls big, and we all ended up being very close over the decades. I had planned to attend, before I discovered my lump, and had given up attending because of my surgery. My furry man cupped my face in his hands and said, “You are going to attend. I will get you there. You just heal and follow all the doctor’s directions, and we will get you there, I promise.” I should lean more on my furry man. He was absolutely right. I was given the green light to fly to Washington the second to last weekend in May, and surround myself with loving friends, before returning home for chemotherapy. That’s Goal #1. Now I need to think about Goal #2…

I’m still reeling a little bit from the news. I sent Markus and the kids to play at West Edmonton Mall so I can take some time to absorb and understand while resting in the hotel room. I have a copy of the pathology report, and after lots of research on breastcancer.org and other trusty sites, I estimate the chemo time to take 3-6 months. Hair should start to re-grow within 6 months of my last treatment. So let’s put that in terms I can understand better. Tomorrow is the 18th wedding anniversary for my furry man and me. By our 19th wedding anniversary, I should be toasting champagne with some peach fuzz on my noggin. By our 20th anniversary, we should be travelling through Europe with a full head of hair, and Barnard far far away in the rearview mirror. And between now and the beginning of my adjuvant treatment, I will heal, I will attend my high school reunion and hug all the grown up kids who knew me when my hair was so long I could sit on it, and I will have one wicked pre-chemo party. Perhaps Goal #2 should be to celebrate our 20th anniversary on the Eiffel Tower, hair blowing in the wind, thumbing my nose at Barnard?

Well, I’ve got a month to gather my strength, a month of delightful days like today, full of family, full of sunshine, and full of each day feeling better. The more happy I cram into myself, the less room there is for Barnard or his damn babies. The more happy I cram into myself, the easier it will be next month, as I walk into the Cross Cancer Institute, to hear the voice of my dad in my head, saying, “Let’s go, Sue-Sue, this will be fun!” One more round on Space Mountain, here we come!

A Grown Up Moment

Most of the time, I feel the same Sue in my head; the teen that refuses to grow up all the way, who wants to argue with everyone in the world about the craziness that surrounds her. I hate it when my kids force me to be a grown-up and boss them around about their homework or their chores. I really hate it when my furry man reminds me oh-so-gently-and-carefully, of my grown up responsibilities (I have a small iTunes addiction, and eBay occasionally wants to party with our bank account). But there are moments that flash in front of my eyes that make me feel my age. Unfortunately, they aren’t always moments of wisdom or great meaning.

Tonight, for example, I was filing off the ends of my fingernails that I had been too lazy to trim for weeks, down to my preferred length of nothing ( I hate it when fingernails tap on the keyboard – I like the thump of the pads of my fingertips; very satisfying when I’m mad-typing). I had a sudden memory of being in 2nd grade or 3rd grade, in our apartment in Moscow, staring in fascination at the 4-inch nails of a friend of the family, Aunt Linda. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life. They were blood red, oh-so-shiny, and matched Aunt Linda’s lipstick perfectly; she put Joan Crawford to shame. I wanted my nails to be just like Aunt Linda’s nails so badly, my teeth hurt. My mom was very much against make-up of all kinds, and wouldn’t even let us play dress-up with make-up. Of course, I took every opportunity to paint my nails with magic markers at school, only to come home and have my mom scrub my hands raw with a Brillo pad and her trusty can of Comet (“Comet, it makes your teeth turn green. Comet, it tastes like gasoline. Comet, it makes you vomit. So buy some Comet, and vomit, today!”). But that didn’t stop the yearning. For decades, my nail ideal was always the image of Aunt Linda’s glamorous scarlet nails.

Standing in my bathroom, at 9pm tonight, after an exhausting day of detangling hundreds of ornaments and a dozen strings of lights from my dry-as-tinder beyond-dead Christmas tree (that viciously stabbed my hands full of teeny-tiny pine-needle holes), I had to chuckle out loud at the thought of Aunt Linda’s fingernails trying to live my life. Raising 3 kids —who am I kidding, let’s lump the dogs and the husband and round it up to 6 kids— who really has the luxury of 4-inch nails? And now that I have access to the best salons and am able to treat myself to any colour manicure on the planet, do you know what colours I find myself getting? Clear. The aestheticians sigh and shake their heads when I walk in…here comes the boring lady, just thankful to have her cuticles trimmed and a chance at adult conversation…

So there is my daily reminder that I am getting older. This was a little one. I am still severely disturbed by the biggie I had earlier, when I couldn’t read some small print and realized I might be heading to Reading Glasses Land. I’ll write about that one on another day; my newly filed fingers will thump quite satisfactorily on the keyboard for that story, because just thinking about it blows my mind. I might just slip into a post-mid-life crisis moment and have to run to the salon to get myself some 4-inch red lacquered nails…

Clown Appreciation Day

 

sigh. It seems I have underestimated the clown crew. I know. The world has stopped spinning on its axis. Normally, you mention the guys at our hotel who come to the house to fix the plumbing or anything else, and I will keel over laughing. They travel in herds, piling into and tumbling out of their miniature pickup trucks (the clown cars), and stand around scratching their heads and banging on things with monkey wrenches. Today, I tried walking a mile in their clown shoes. For weeks, we have been dealing with a front screen door that flies off the handle. Actually, the handle flies off the door. The whole assembly came kind of loose, the handle fell off, and the simple solution of duct tape wouldn’t work because it needs to rotate. So, the Treppenhauer solution was to pick it up off the floor, stick it in the hole, and yell at the kids for slamming the door. The furry man hates to ask for help from staff that is overloaded with work in the hotel rooms, and is the first to admit that he is very good some things, but fixing door handles is not one of them; so the door handle stayed broken. At least he changes light bulbs, washes dishes, and assembles book cases and bicycles. I have a very distinct memory, when I was a child, of glaring at my dad while my mom changed the lightbulbs in the kitchen. I said, “Normal dads help their wives with changing lightbulbs and other things around the house.” His first sentence was always the same response when I complained about our weird family, “First of all, Sue-Sue, we have never been normal and we never will be; get used to it.” But THEN he said, “Your mother and I have an agreement. I work outside the house and bring home the pay check; she handles everything inside the house. Light bulb changing falls within the house.” This was after we spent an entire year of living off of the income from my mom’s art gallery and painting lessons, while he was on sabbatical earning his Master’s degree (so the “agreement” worked when it was convenient for him). One of my earliest resolutions in life was to NEVER make that kind of agreement with anybody. Oh, also to never marry a rude person who doesn’t love me enough to lend a helping hand without my asking.

But I digress; back to my Clown Appreciation story! This morning was the last straw. I was shivering out by the the car, waiting to drive the kids to school on a freezing wet fall morning. The kids were yelling at each other about something as they were leaving the house, and Hanna slammed the screen door. Clunk, the inside handle fell off, and the outside handle stopped functioning. Of course, the actual front door is wide open, blowing in ice-cold air to the house that we can no longer enter. Both kids turn to me, mouths open, eyes bugging out. They glance at each other with, “Mom’s going to kill us” expressions, and immediately launch into each other, bickering about whose fault it was. Ever the practical pioneer woman, I smack the backs of their heads, shoo them into the car, wrestle with the guilt of overworking the furnace in the house while we drove to school, and accept that I will have to punch in the screen of the screen door and crawl into the house very awkwardly, upon my return.

Kids kicked to the school curb, I returned home with great resolve. Today will be the day that I stop relying on others. Today will be the day I am completely self-sufficient. WE don’t need no steenking clowns! I will take that door apart and I will put it back together as good as new. When I was in 1st grade, my big sister had a calculator. My memory is a bit rusty, but I may have been playing with it and I mayyyyy have broken it. There was much yelling, I think I got a spanking, and the calculator was discarded. I snuck to the garbage can, pulled out the calculator, and proceeded to completely take it apart. Then, curiosity satisfied, I put it all back together again. Much to my surprise, the calculator powered on and functioned perfectly. I ran to my sister and crowed, “LOOK LOOK! I fixed it! You threw it away, so now it’s MINE!” Of course, that’s not how things work in the Hess house. She sat on me, wrestled it away, and repo’d the calculator. I think that event may have been my initiation into the decades-long policy I had in childhood, of “Lie First, Be Sneaky, and Try Not to Get Caught.” This also gave me false confidence in myself, and I spent my entire life telling myself that I was good at fixing things. This confidence has led to many repairs, but who is to know whether those things were truly broken, or just needed screws to be tightened or batteries to be changed…

First obstacle: entry into the cottage through a screen door whose handle is no longer functioning. My life is full of good things to be grateful for. Let me take this moment to be thankful for living in the middle of nowhere with no neighbours to observe the total humiliation of me lifting my leg into the screen that I punched out (thinking that I could step into the door in a dignified way), realizing when I’m on my tippy-toes and in much crotch pain that dignity doesn’t exist in my world, then hopping the extra inches needed for the rest of my obese self to tip over and fall sideways into my house, onto my 2 happy golden retrievers. This all took place with the soundtrack of me yelling, “AAAAAAHHHHHHHOWWWWAAAAHHH!” Lying on my back, dogs licking my face, I wondered, “Would this ever happen to a hotel engineer?” Somehow, I thought not. They probably have special clown tools to make the handle-less door open without undue humiliation. sniff. The dogs agreed. They had never seen a hotel engineer fall through the front door, before. Mama, on the other hand, seemed to be a very fun klutz, indeed.

Later, after a game of Candy Crush to make myself feel like even more of a failure, I looked at the door and thought, “This can’t be harder than taking apart a calculator.” Second obstacle: tools. Apparently, we have 8 screwdrivers in our home, and not a one is a Phillips head screwdriver. 30 minutes later, frustrated from digging through the garage, fuelled only by an espresso consumed hours prior, I resorted to breaking into my son’s treasure box and stealing his jackknife. He’s a mini-survivalist, and his jackknife has all the tools to go hunting, including a saw to cut down trees to build a campfire after his prey has been gutted and skinned. Sure enough, there was a gadgety thing that had a tip like a Phillips head, so I unscrewed the door handle. Victory! Expecting the assembly to open up for me like a picture book, it was a very unhappy surprise to have a jumble of metal bits fall into my hand. It was like having a handful of puzzle pieces, and no box to show me the picture of what the puzzle was about. There was much swearing. Much swearing and slamming of the door with the flappy screen and a hole where the handle used to be.

5 more games of Candy Crush failure (what the Hell, Level 134, why you hate me so bad?) and my resolve returned. After all, a door handle has a finite number of parts, they can only fit into each other a certain number of ways, and like a multiple choice test, I KNOW the answer is right there in front of me. I can fix it and make the handle work, right?Another half hour of my life on the toilet, and I managed to reassemble the parts and figured out how to insert them into the door to make the little thingy on the side of the door squish in and out. Highly technical terms, I know. Also, my legs fell asleep; “on the toilet” was not a figure of speech. 5 minutes of hopping up and down to get out the pins and needles, while explaining the handle mechanics to the dogs (they are a very appreciative audience; the Mama Show is their #1 form of entertainment), and I was ready for my door-handle home run.

Word of advice to all DIYers: take pictures; lots of pictures. This way, when you go to, say, put a door handle back on a door, you don’t tighten the screws and discover that you’ve put it on backwards and can no longer shut the door all the way. All puffed up and full of myself, I swung the screen door shut, expecting a satisfying, “click” as the latch closed. “THUD.” The handle stuck out so far it banged into the door frame. Aha. Thank God I have dogs, not parrots. By now, they’d have learned enough new vocabulary words to be cursing like pirates.

The whole time I was struggling with the door, it was wide open, inviting the dogs to forage in the front yard, gathering as much mud as their coats and paws could carry. They then snuck all of that into the house behind my back, while I was cursing and threatening the spring mechanism inside the door handle. As I screwed the handle on backwards, then kicked the door a few times, my furry fiends were quietly doing doggy finger-painting on my white kitchen floor. Let me stop right here and ask the former tenants of this cottage: what kind of a bozo installs white tiled floors in a mud room and a kitchen? Perhaps they were the same dumbasses who thought rhubarb would be a lovely ornamental plant to have growing all around the flower garden. My dad used to play the guitar when I was little. One of my favourite songs was called The Cat Came Back. It was about this poor old thing whose owner went to drown it in the river, and it just kept coming back and following him around. Zombie cat. Rhubarb is that cat. I dug it all up from my flower garden; roots like orange baby parts – tendrils shaped like arms and legs. But no matter how thorough I thought I was, I kept having rhubarb shoots sprout up in the flower beds, all summer long. Zombie Rhubarb.

Obviously, I haven’t had the coffee necessary to stay on task, and it is possible I am not-so-quietly losing my mind out here in the big woods. Let me pull your attention away from the Zombie Rhubarb and my mud-covered floors, and direct it to my newly repaired screen door handle. As good as new. It only took me 2 hours and 10 Candy Crush lives. There might be a few new dents in the door, but I see them as badges of courage. Oh, and my little boy’s jackknife also had a very nice doohickey that helped me re-insert the screen into the door. I have officially completed a job that I would normally have called the clown brigade to do. I guess that means I am an honorary clown? You know, I don’t have clown shoes…I think I need to go shoe shopping…Shoe shopping would be an awesome way to avoid dealing with the doggy finger-painting masterpieces on my very smart white tiled mudroom and kitchen floors…or maybe I’ll bake some rhubarb pie…

I Want My Fingers Back – Lunchtime Fun

Yesterday, driving home from school, my little boy, Simon, looked sad and announced that after a year of living in Jasper, he was “sick of this place.”  He started by saying that his gym teacher always put him on the weak teams because he is the tallest and strongest kid, but that it rarely tipped the scales, and he was tired of losing with her pre-arranged teams.  Then he was really quiet for a while.  I asked if something else happened today, and he said he didn’t do very well on his math test.  Then he was quiet again.  Again, I asked if that was all that was bothering him, and his face fell and he said that when he went to eat his lunch in the classroom today, other kids made fun of his beef and vegetable soup.  I guess it looked gross when it was cold, and some small-town brat, stuffing a boring turkey sandwich into his face, wouldn’t shut up about how ugly and weird it was, and who the heck brings soup to school for lunch, anyway?  Sometimes, I could really punch someone in the face – go ahead, call the cops.  Simon warmed up his soup in the microwave and replied, “yeah, it might be ugly, but it sure tastes delicious!  How’s that turkey sandwich taste…every day of every week? Is it as yummy as it tasted on the first day of school LAST YEAR?!”  I was so psyched to hear he had a good response to the little turd’s comments and that he felt confident about himself, until I could see that it was just bravado, and that he was deeply embarrassed by the whole thing.  I said, “Honey, I could make you turkey sandwiches every day too – you just tell me what you like!”  And he said, “No, Mama, I like your lunches.  They’re healthy and they taste good.  I just hate jerks. I hate it that they think everything has to be the same – that they think I have to have a stupid turkey sandwich, I have to wear the same Halloween costumes they do, and I have to play hockey to be cool.  I hate playing hockey!”  We pulled into the driveway and sat in the car for a little bit, complaining about a bunch of things.  The rule is: we can swear and complain in the car, if nobody can hear us.  It’s the only place where we can have some privacy, so sue me.  After he was done crying and I convinced him that he really would hate homeschooling with boring Mom teaching him how to do math the wrong way, I told him a story about truly disgusting lunches from my childhood.  But first I had to tell him a ghost story.

 

When I was in Kindergarten, my dad took a year’s sabbatical from the Foreign Service, in order to get his MBA from Harvard.  We bought an ancient house with a barn, in a tiny town called Groveland.  Despite being penniless, with Dad going to school and the family living off of Mom’s art gallery, my parents prided themselves on throwing the biggest, scariest Halloween parties in the neighborhood.  There were no superheroes or cute little witches at those parties.  My parents’ goal was to get you to pee in your pants from terror.  My dad would tell ghost stories in the stable of our big haunted barn (don’t argue with me – it was truly haunted), and at the end of some of the spookiest, he’d have my mom jump out of the shadows wielding a Chinese cleaver, screaming something bloodcurdling.  Parents would call my dad, days later, complaining that little Bobby or Suzy was having nightmares….and my dad would chuckle.  The only story I can remember was about a boy named Johnny, who was given some money from his mother, and instructed to go to the store and buy some sausages for dinner.  They were very poor, so there was just enough money to buy the sausages and nothing else.  Well, the little boy passed the sporting goods store and his eye was caught by the fancy new jackknife he in the window.  He had wanted that for ages, but his mother had told him they didn’t have the money for luxuries.  Well, now he had cash, so he ran in and bought the little beauty.  Playing with his new knife, Johnny then followed the tantalizing smell of fresh fudge to the candy store.  There, he spent the remainder of his money on creamy fudge, pulled taffy, and gobs of gumdrops.  Stepping out of the candy shop, alternately stuffing his face with gooey candy and picking the sticky sugary bits out of his teeth, he remembered the sausages.  What would he tell his mother?!  There was no avoiding the huge spanking he was going to get; she would be so angry with him…  As he slowly turned towards home, dragging his feet, he noticed the local funeral parlor was open, a funeral in progress.  Out of curiosity, he stepped inside, drawn to the open casket in the viewing room.  Laid to rest in the satin-lined casket was the fattest man he had ever seen.  The man’s chin had several layers, his belly rose up in an obese hill above the bottom half of the open casket, the buttons of his waistcoat straining to hold in the enormous stomach.  His arms had been crossed in a peaceful pose, his large hands clasped together, plump fingers as swollen as…sausages.   Pulling out his shiny new jackknife, little Johnny hesitated for just a moment, then quickly sawed off all of the dead man’s fingers, leaving just the thumbs attached.  He popped the fingers into the paper bag that had held his candy, stuffed the bag into his pocket, and ran all the way home.  Johnny felt queasy handing his mother the bag of “sausages” and even queasier at suppertime when his mom served up his franks and beans.  Saying he didn’t feel well, he rushed up to his room and burrowed under the covers, the rich fudge and chewy taffy gurgling and rolling over in his stomach.  He drifted into a fitful sleep, dreaming of fat knuckles and funeral parlors.  In the middle of the night, he heard some noise downstairs.  Footsteps coming up the stairs.  Big, heavy footsteps.  And he heard a deep, raspy voice whisper, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny yelled, “MOM!!!!” and his mother rushed into the room, turned on the lights, “Are you okay, honey?”  Johnny gasped, “You didn’t hear that, Mom?  There’s someone in the house!”  She rubbed his back, tucked the covers around him, and soothed, “No honey, go back to sleep.  Everything is fine.” Little Johnny kept his eyes open for the rest of the night. The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and Johnny dragged his tired body through school, dreading bedtime in his dark room, later that night.  After dinner, he tried to procrastinate, but his mom sent him right up to bed. Lights out, a few hours later, the house fell silent.  Then, Johnny’s eyes popped open.  He’d heard it.  Heavy steps on the stairs.  Deep and raspy, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny was too scared to scream.  He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.  The footsteps thumped up the stairs and creaked on the top landing, at the end of the hallway leading to his bedroom.  Low and raspy, the voice groaned, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny flipped on the light to his room, and the sounds disappeared.  Shaking, he sat on the edge of his bed until the sun came up and it was time to go to school.  Bags under his eyes, he trudged to school, wondering what the next night would bring.  Later that night, after dinner, Johnny offered to clear the table, wash the dishes, ANYTHING to put off bedtime.  But his mom said, “Oh sweetie, you’ve been looking so tired lately, go on up to bed.  I’ll clean the kitchen.  Sweet dreams!”  Poor little Johnny slowly put one foot in front of the other and forced himself to get ready for bed.  Drawing the covers up under his chin, he lay in bed, dreading the fall of night.  Finally, long after his mother had gone to bed, Johnny heard the footsteps on the stairs.  “I want my fingers baaaack.”  Footsteps slow and heavy on the landing.  “I want my fingerrrrs back.”  Heavy creaking footfall down the hallway leading to his room.  I wannnt my fingerrrrs baaaack.”  Stillness outside his room, in front of his closed bedroom door.  Then the door handle began to turn, slowly, the door creaking open in the dark.  “I waaaannt myyyy finnnngggerrrs….”  BOO!  Simon’s head nearly jumped through the roof of the car.  

 

Laughing, I told Simon that he was lucky his mom packed nice lunches like soup or chef salads.  When I was little – 2nd and 3rd grade – we lived in Moscow.  It was 1976, the Cold War, we were living in Communist USSR, with very limited food choices.  The Russians could prepare beets 14 different ways, and do amazing things with potatoes, but my mother couldn’t even manage to cook a pork chop.  Her version of American food was to throw that pork chop in the oven and cook the Hell out of it.  It would come out as hard as a hockey puck, served with some steamed rice and maybe some canned corn (if we were lucky and the commissary in the American Embassy had canned veggies available that month).  We made do – with enough salt, the pork chop tasted just fine.  But for lunches, we were shit out of luck.  My sisters and I went to the Anglo American School, along with all the other children from the various foreign embassies in the city.  The school was very small, there was no cafeteria, so we ate brown bag lunches in our classrooms.  I remembered being so embarrassed, pulling out a cold, hard, pork chop.  Or a chicken leg.  Nothing else. No drink. No fruit. No utensils.  I’d envy the sweet little son of the Kenyan Ambassador.  Every single day, his cook would lovingly prepare a delicate, fresh crepe, spread with honey, and rolled up tight.  Pancake honey roll.  I would drool for it.  On my pork chop days, the little boy would tilt his head, smile and say, “trade?” and I would give him a big hug and savor his delicious lunch.  Who knows, maybe he was bored with the same-old-same-old every day, or maybe he loved pork chop hockey pucks.  Either way, I would cross my fingers for pork chops for lunch every day so I could have my pancake honey roll trade.  Unfortunately, there were days when I wouldn’t get pork chops.  There were days I was lucky to get a lunch at all.  Mom was an artist – a night owl who could stay up for days on end to finish grand paintings.  Her art came first, and feeding the children fell somewhere on her list of priorities near the bottom, under “Drink coffee. Smoke cigarettes. Brush teeth.”  She would drag herself out of bed in the morning, stand there with a cup of coffee in one hand, the other hand leaning on the kitchen counter, eyes squinting through the smoke curling up from the cigarette clenched between her thin lips.  Needless to say, we didn’t get pancakes for breakfast.  My dad bought a giant case of Nabisco Shredded Wheat and a case of Carnation milk powder when we first moved to Moscow.  There was so much of it, I don’t think we ever finished it.  Every school day morning, Mom would boil the kettle of water, crush a shredded wheat biscuit in a bowl, dump some milk powder on top, and pour the hot water over it all. That was my breakfast.  Mom would growl, “It’s 40 below outside.  You need something warm in your stomach.”   We were required to eat everything on our plates, or get it for dinner, then breakfast the next day, upon threat of a beating.  Usually, by the time I worked up the courage to choke down the hot cereal, it had cooled to a pile of inedible mush.  No amount of sugar could help it.  I gag just remembering it.  So on the BAD mornings, my mom would would open the fridge lean on the door, just staring blankly inside for lunchbox inspiration.  I’ve had the waxy ends of hard smelly cheese for lunch.  I’ve had raw onions and a hunk of salami.  But those are epicurean delights compared with Russian mystery-meat hotdogs, drenched in ketchup and wrapped in tin foil.  The hot dogs had a funky smoke flavoring, they were floppy and skinny, and looked just like real fingers. The effect, when the tin foil was opened up and the ketchup dripped out, was horrifying.  Nobody would sit with me at my desk during lunchtime, on I Want My Fingers Back lunch days.  On those mornings, my sisters and I would watch my mom wrap up our I Want My Fingers Back lunches, with sinking hearts, and we would grab slices of bread to hide in our pockets.  Later in the morning, on the school bus, I would help my little sister, who was in Kindergarten, open her metal lunchbox, and we would throw our bloody little packets of tin foil out of the school bus windows, squealing when the cars would run them over and they exploded into hotdog roadkill.  At lunchtime, we would pull the stolen bread from our pockets and chew slowly, dreaming of pork chops.  Ah, talking about the Good Old Days of my childhood always works wonders on my children when they think their lives are tough. 

So this morning, I woke up at 6am, made a pot of short-grain sushi rice sprinkled with a bit of sugar and rice vinegar, pulled out sheets of nori (dried seaweed), and a jar of furikake (seasoned flakes of nori and roasted sesame seeds).  I prepared Simon’s favorite lunch: sticky rice balls rolled in furikake, and sushi rolls with little pieces of roast chicken in the middle.  I lovingly wrapped them and placed them in a bento box with 3 baby mandarin oranges, and paired that with a thermos of his favorite juice.  Turkey Sandwich Boy can stick it where the sun don’t shine.  And if his tiny little mind can’t handle my son’s delicious lunches, I just might send Simon to school with a little tinfoil packet of I Want My Fingers Back to offer as an alternative to his turkey sandwich.  Does anybody know where I can get my hands on some Russian hotdogs in this town? 

Ch-Ch-Ch Changes

My oldest daughter, Emily, is coming home for her Reading Week (like Spring Break) from university, TODAY!  She has grown from a giggly little silly girl, through her awkward years, into a woman who works for her goals and makes her own happiness. We blinked, and she grew up.  She always had the most difficult time moving when she was younger; she took our relocations much harder than the younger two.  I remember feeling similar as a teenager, moving all over the world with my family, but never as heartbroken as Emmy would get.  I crawled inside her teenage heart, a little while back, and wrote this from her point of view.  You might think I exaggerate, but I don’t write fiction:

Snow.  Just say the word and instant images spring to mind.  Christmas, sleigh rides, and snowball fights, right?  To someone accustomed to snowy winters, these things might be taken for granted.  To a girl like me, born in Texas and raised in Hawaii, snow and the way of life that accompanies it, were alien concepts. Snow was nothing that felt like home; only sunny days and warm breezes meant home.  That is, until 4 years ago, at age 16, I came home from my school in Kona, Hawaii, to discover that my dad was being transferred to Banff, Alberta.  In my mind, we were moving to the North Pole, and my life was over.  As far as I was concerned, snow was cold, so snow was bad.  And the sun – my glorious sunshine – what was I going to do without it?! Goodbye sunny beaches and hello to snowshoes and grizzly bears.

Looking back, I realize how completely horrible I was to my family during the preparations for the move.  Even on the flight from Kona to Vancouver, I cried the entire way.  After all, every friend I had in the world was being left behind, and I was heading to a country full of strangers; cold strangers.  Every attempt by my parents, brother, and sister to cheer me up with novelty of living in a national park, learning new sports and activities, and chances to make new friends, was met with my cold shoulder (I thought that was highly appropriate, since we were moving to the tundra).  My mom just hugged me and said, “You’ll see.  You have no idea how magical snow is.  It will change you forever.”  Then we landed in Vancouver International Airport and were met with the biggest snowstorm that had hit Vancouver in 30 years (according to the news).  All flights were cancelled and the airport was shut down.  For 3 hours, the 5 of us sat up against a wall, on 10 pieces of luggage, while my dad called around to find a hotel room that wasn’t already taken by the thousands of other stranded travelers in the airport.  My little brother, Simon,  and sister, Hanna were getting antsy, I hated the world and thought this was a very perfect way for dratted Canada to welcome me, and my poor mom was stuck between telling the kids to settle down, and wiping my tears.  In between my sniffles, I heard Simon gasp and loudly whisper, “That lady is picking her nose!  Look!”  Sure enough, a very dignified lady was digging away, and right next to her was a child doing the same.  After much shushing from my mom, with instructions for us to stop giggling and to find another activity, she offered us the video camera for us to keep a video diary of our journey to Canada.  She thought we would be interviewing each other and doing something wholesome and constructive.  We thought differently.  We set out and discovered 8 people in the surrounding area who were publically picking their noses. Then we put together a mock documentary about nose picking and the types of people who like to do that in airports.  We entertained ourselves with this until it was time to pack ourselves into 2 taxis and drive to the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel.  Outside the taxi windows, the snow floated down; giant, fat, fluffy flakes, falling out of the sky.  When the taxis came to a stop in front of the hotel, we all tumbled out and just stood there, with our smiling faces held up to the sky.  My mom said, “Open your mouths!  Catch the snowflakes on your tongue!” and I did.  And I felt the first moment of happiness come to me.  But when I opened my eyes and saw the cloud-filled sky, I remembered that my sunshine was gone. With my returned bad mood, I grumbled my way into the hotel.  The next 3 days were filled with frantic calls to the airlines, little kids worried that Santa wouldn’t know we were there if we were stuck in Vancouver over Christmas, and  me complaining about how cold I was.  But on our 2nd day, we took a break.  The snowplows in the city just couldn’t cover all the streets, so there weren’t any cars.  We pushed our way through snow that was 2 feet deep, to an area on the waterfront where we were the only 5 people in a pristine world of hushed white softness.  We rolled in it.  We made snow angels.  We pushed and heaved and together made an enormous snowman.  There was an epic snowball fight and we ended the afternoon by trudging back to the hotel, freezing cold, but laughing and all holding hands.  Along the way, my parents asked us, “what do you think, will Canada be a good new home for us?”  The little ones yelled, “YES!” but I let go of their hands and stopped laughing.

3 days later, we finally made it to Banff.  The trees lining the street leading to the hotel were twinkling with white lights, and out of the swirling cloud of snow loomed the most beautiful castle:  the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.  We checked into our rooms, and discovered that my dad’s secretaries had put up a fully decorated, REAL Christmas tree, with gifts underneath.  The room was filled with the pungent smell of pine mixed with piping hot cocoa and whipped cream.  Among the presents under the tree were 3 toboggans, labeled for each of us kids. The next day my dad took us out behind the hotel to the sledding hill. I was in an awful mood, being so cold I could barely think, but during our first run down the hill my mood instantly uplifted. The 20 second glide down was just the break I needed from thinking about all the sad parts of moving. I didn’t have to think about anything except the thrill of feeling just a little bit out of control. Trekking up the hill for another run warmed me up to the point that I was actually sweating. I never knew that could be possible! That was my first activity in snow that I actually enjoyed. Later, in the hotel lobby, sipping on yet more hot chocolate, my parents looked at me and asked, “Is this so bad?  Could we make it our home?”  Feeling disloyal to Hawaii, I shook my head and walked to the elevators.

A few days after that, our family explored the hotel property and peeked in at the 100 year old cabin where we would live.  Nestled in the woods, Earnscliffe Cottage was the summer home of Lady Agnes MacDonald, wife of Canada’s first prime minister.  This information went right over the head of my little brother.  He just started squealing, “MAMA!  We are moving to the Little House in the Big Woods! There will be bears and wolves and coyotes and elk and moose and foxes and more animals than we ever had in Hawaii!” Then he and Hanna toppled over and started making snow angels.  My parents looked at me and asked, “How is this?  Do you think we could make it our home?”  I immediately wiped the smile off of my face, shook my head and headed back to the hotel.

In Hawaii, I always took my showers in the morning and headed out the door with my long hair dripping wet.  The balmy breezes and the sunshine would dry it for me.  In Canada, my parents suggested I either shower at night or use a hair dryer in the morning.  Stubbornly, I refused, and one morning went outside, my head held defiantly high, my hair dripping down.  The outside temperature was -30◦.  My little brother had a great time breaking off what he called my “haircicles.”  How on earth could my parents imagine we could ever make this our new home?!

School started.  I hated it.  The girls were mean and the boys were ugly.  The entire high school was the size of my graduating class back in Hawaii.  During Social Studies, disparaging remarks were made about the gun culture in the USA and the fast food, etc, lumping all Americans in with the crazy ones.  I was constantly battling to defend my country, and butted heads with everyone.  Finally, my mom sat me down during the 2nd week of school.  She told me that, as a diplomat’s daughter, she learned a very valuable lesson growing up an American in a foreign country.  If you’re the new kid, close your mouth, put a smile on your face, and remember that you are a guest in that country.  It isn’t polite for a guest to criticize her host, and it is rude to only talk about where you came from, instead of being interested in where you are NOW.  And then she dropped the bombshell; the Rule.  The Rule was:  I had exactly 6 months to indulge in feeling sorry for myself in my new home.  They wouldn’t scold or lose their patience with my moping for 6 months.  But on the first day of the 7th month, I was required to pull myself out of mourning and join Life, whether I liked it or not.  I ranted and raged – 6 months was not enough time for me to get over my horrible situation – there was no way I could do it.  My mom said, “You’ll be surprised, honey.  It will take less time than you think.  Give it a chance.  You have Facebook to keep your old friends while you make new ones.  You also have the 4 best friends that you will ever have in your life right here with you now.  Us.  Remember that your family is your best friend – the one constant we take with us wherever we move.  We can make this our home as long as we’re together.” 

It ended up only taking 1 month. I didn’t notice the time flying by as I learned how to ski, snowboard, and ice-skate.  I stopped saying negative things, and friends surrounded me.  Every night at dinner, my family has a little tradition called Worst and Best. Each person takes a turn and first says the worst thing about their day, then for a happy ending, says the best thing about their day.  In the beginning, I could never think of a best thing, so I would cop out with saying something like, “well, I’m still alive.”  In time, it became increasingly difficult to find any worst things to say.  Then, one night after dinner, we took the dogs for a walk in the gently falling spring snow.  We all stopped under one of the black iron street lamps that was glowing in a small circle of snow-laden pine trees, the snowflakes piling up on our eyelashes as we puffed out soft clouds of breath.  My mom exclaimed, “I’ve been trying to put my finger on why it always feels so familiar, like I’ve been here before…I finally figured it out!  We’ve come through the wardrobe and we are living in Narnia!”  As the whole family laughed, I looked around the warm circle of love that we made in the forest, and I said, “Ask me.  Ask me now.”  My parents knew exactly what I meant, and they said, “Can we make this our home?”  And I replied, “My home is where my heart is, and my family is my heart.  So we are home now.”  Last month, we received our permanent residency in Canada, and one day I hope to be a dual citizen. We’ll never again have the hot Hawaiian sun on our faces, but the sun shining on the snow over here is the same sun – just a little further North.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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