Do as I Say, Do as I Do

There was a teenage boy walking to his bus stop just a few hundred yards from his house. In the distance, he could see a boy his age pounding a folded umbrella on the head of another teenage Asian boy, who had his arms up to protect his face, begging the boy to stop.  Running as fast as he could, the first boy reached the bus stop when the umbrella broke because it was hitting the Asian boy so hard. The first boy grabbed the umbrella away from the hitter and flung it as far as he could so the hitter would leave the area to get it. He asked the Asian boy what happened, and the Asian boy replied that the hitter was boasting about the greatness of Trump and the Asian boy said that Trump was racist, misogynistic, and would be a dangerous president to have (this was the day before the election).  The hitter apparently could not come up with a coherent response so he angrily began hitting with his umbrella. The first boy asked, “why didn’t you fight back? You needed to protect yourself!” And the Asian boy replied, “My parents taught me to never hit; to not fight.”

The bus then arrived and everybody started boarding.  The bus driver told the hitter that he couldn’t bring the broken umbrella onboard  due to safety issues.  The boy cried, “But I only JUST broke it!” And the Asian boy piped up, “BECAUSE HE WAS USING IT TO HIT ME.  He was attacking me at the bus stop!”  The bus driver said nothing; did nothing; just waved the boys to their seats.  The first boy was dumbfounded that an adult in a position to right a wrong; whose job it is to make sure school children are safe, said nothing at all.

When they arrived at school, the first boy encouraged the Asian boy to report the incident to the school, since they didn’t know if there would be more aggression from the hitting boy wanting to finish the job he started.  They walked to the school safety officer (a police officer assigned to the school) and the Asian boy said, “I was just assaulted by another boy.”  And the first boy said, “I witnessed it.”  And the school proceeded to do exactly what they were trained to do.  They interviewed the boys, had the boys write out statements, identify the aggressor through photographs in the yearbook, then the Asian boy was sent to the nurse while the school contacted his parents to report the incident.  The first boy got a tardy slip and he went to his classes and finished his school day.

Later on that night, over dinner, the boy told his parents what had happened.  They had all just been discussing how many of the boy’s friends said they liked Trump, but when the boy pressed them about their views, it turned out that they were just parroting their parents and didn’t truly understand the dangerous consequences of Trump becoming president.  Then the boy said, “This happened today…” and the story about the bully at the bus stop came out.  The parents were shocked; the father wanted to contact the school, while the mother worried about how the Asian boy was doing.  The boy insisted that his Father not call the school, because he thought the Asian boy’s parents would be causing enough fuss.  The boy worried about the repercussions of his intervention.  He wondered if the bully boy’s parents owned a gun.  He planned to have another friend drive him to school the next day, just in case the school did nothing to punish the aggressor and he was waiting at the bus stop wanting revenge.  Both parents did this:  they praised the boy for being brave; for standing up and doing something; for not being afraid in the moment, of the bully, and protecting someone who could not help himself.  They told him they were glad that, even though he was strong enough and he really wanted to, he didn’t throw the bully on the ground and fight him; that defending yourself is different from using the bully’s type of violence to pound him into the ground.  And they talked about how the other kids at the bus stop stood around watching the whole thing and didn’t even say anything.  The family talked about how similar Trump’s rise to power was to Hitler’s, and how many of Trump’s followers were very similar to Hitler’s followers.  They worried about history repeating itself, and how easy it would be for people like the bus driver and the other kids at the bus stop, to look the other way while a bully was hurting someone who could not protect himself.  They talked about how quickly something can escalate into violence when people with violence in their hearts are given permission to act out their aggressions on others.  They ended their day going to bed with worry in their hearts, for the possible future that could throw their country against the world and against their fellow citizens; a frightening future that could reach into their home and put them in danger.

This didn’t happen in an inner city neighborhood; this didn’t happen to a stranger that I never met, whose story is far away and hard to care about.  This happened in a prosperous suburban neighborhood in the whitest county in the nation’s 20 most populous counties.  This happened here, just steps from my house.  The boy walking to his bus stop was my 16 year old son.  He was brave; did everything we ever taught him to do.  He stood up for what was right and defended someone who was being attacked by a bully.  But he was outnumbered at that bus stop.  There were many other kids who witnessed the bullying before my son could make it there and intervene.  Why didn’t they do something?  Parents, why aren’t you telling your children to speak up and take action?  Why aren’t you sitting them down and having this SPECIFIC conversation about standing up to bullies?  As parents, why aren’t we being good examples to our children by practicing what we preach?  Post-election, we now have a bully that will be in charge.  He will most likely advocate and encourage other bullies to attack the vulnerable in our country.  It is up to us to protect the ones who can’t fight back.  It is up to us to get involved in our government and do what we can to resist the dangerous changes. And let me add to the phrase we all know so well, “If you see something, say something, and DO something.”

Studies have shown that it only takes ONE person to speak up in a dangerous situation to move others to join them and defend what’s right.  I am speaking up right now.  Join me.

 

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.

Walking and Loving Each Other Toward a Cure

I wrote this 7 years before my own diagnosis, while we lived in Hawaii.  It still feels good to remember.  And it feels good to have such loving friends who mustered up a team to walk together in Calgary, in my name, last year.  Whether we find a cure or not, this togetherness and love is always a good thing:

Saturday, March 17, 2007, I forgot many things. I forgot my nephew’s birthday, I forgot it was St. Patrick’s Day, I forgot it was my husband’s only day off, I forgot myself. The only thing I could remember was that I was going to try something very important that day – I was going to try to stay up from 6pm until 6am on Sunday, and to walk in memory of Mom, to walk in support of Aunt Barbie, Doreen, Debbie, Jon, and all the other cancer survivors being helped by the American Cancer Society.

My friend, Doreen, just finished her chemotherapy for breast cancer. She is blessed in many ways: that she has a huge family on this island, that they surround her with love, that she received support and education from the American Cancer Society during her diagnosis and subsequent treatment, and that she is STRONGER than her cancer. Her family decided to form a team for the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life. They used Doreen’s middle name for the team: KA’ILILAUOKEKOA’OKALANI. In Hawaiian, this name means “The Heavenly and Precious One.” If you ever had a chance to meet this warm, loving woman, you would understand how fitting that name is. She has over a hundred relatives on this island, hundreds of friends, has a demanding job as the Director of Human Resources at the Fairmont Orchid Resort, and a husband and three children, yet anytime you have a chance to speak with her, she seems to slow down the spin of the planet so she can spend time with you and give you her total attention.

Cancer really threw things off balance for Doreen – all of a sudden she had something in her life that she couldn’t approach in her usual way. Her usual way is to handle things almost single-handedly, to open another section of her heart and make room for one more thing, for one more cause. This time, she realized that it would take all her strength to fight the cancer. All of us around her, accustomed to leaning on her, had to adjust and ask her to lean on us. Her incredible husband and children, after years of Doreen taking care of them, stepped right into their new shoes with such grace and strength – more blessings for Doreen. And Doreen’s extended family – wow. I feel so awkward and happy at the same time when I am with them because I am not blood-related, and come from a smaller family, yet I always yearned for such a bustling, crazy, laughing family such as hers. It reminds me of childhood visits to Taiwan – aunties and uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, everyone talking and laughing at the same time, playful teasing, drinking, eating, the closest arms grabbing and comforting any crying babies… To be included on her team was such an honor!

On Saturday night, as we all gathered in Kamehameha Park for the 10th Annual Relay for Life in Kohala, I looked around a sea of light blue Team Ka’ililauokekoa’okalani t-shirts, and realized that Doreen had the largest team! With her family, her husband’s (Malone) family, her best friend’s family, and mine, our team came to about 75 people. Doreen’s shirt was purple – all the survivors wore purple shirts. She topped off her outfit with a black-and-white polka-dotted bandana and a great big smile. As part of the opening ceremony, the survivors took the first lap – it was heartwarming to see them smiling and walking with their arms around each other. The “track” was set in a large green field, surrounded by huge, feathery trees that swayed in the gentle wind. Little white paper bags marked the boundaries of the track, with a set of bags spelling out the word “HOPE” in the middle of the field. These were luminarias that people could buy in memory or in support of loved ones. Markus, Emmy, Hanna, Simon, and I bought a candle each for Mom, Aunt Barby, Doreen, Debbie, and Jon. With Doreen’s family candles, we ended up taking up a large part of the circle. Our team was so big we were given two batons to walk with (we were called K Ohana Team I and K Ohana Team II). While those who held the batons walked, the others strolled around the track, visited with family under the series of tents erected for our team, ate our potluck dinner, danced to the live band, browsed the booths, and set up camp. The children ran around like crazy people and played on the playground. Markus and I held hands and talked while we walked around the track in the beginning – that was our date night Later in the evening, the stadium lights were dimmed and the Luminaria Ceremony began. The candles we had purchased to honor our loved ones, were blessed and lit and we carried them to the little white bags we had marked with our loved ones’ names. Call me crazy, but Mom was there. I carried her spirit to that little white bag, and her candle stayed lit until I blew it out in the morning. And it rained – it poured. Only Mom’s and Jon’s candles stayed lit. One of the Uncles and I re-lit our candles whenever they blew out, but we never had to worry about “Nai-Nai” and Uncle Jon. After Markus and the kids went to sleep, and I began to walk in earnest, with the baton in my hand, those little lit baggies kept me going. I would circle the track, reading the messages that different people wrote on their bags.

Through the rain, we kept walking. I purposely didn’t wear a watch – only wore Mom’s wedding ring. I didn’t want to keep track of the time in minutes, I wanted to keep track with memories. So I don’t remember what time it was that I walked my first set of 25 laps, and I don’t remember how long it took me – I was only able to mark the laps with the little rubber bands that the nice old man getting wet in the rain gave me. Every time I passed him, I would hold out my baton, he would snap on the rubber band, I would smile and say “thank-you” and be on my way. And I don’t know what time it was when I was waiting for a team member to finish her walk so I could walk again, and it was raining, and I sat next to Doreen under a watertight tent. She was all snuggled up in a warm blanket, on a sea of pillows on top of a cot. We watched her elderly parents walking side by side, slowly around the track, never faltering, walking for the love of Doreen. With tired eyes, she smiled and told me lovely things about her family, and about her husband and daughters, while her mischievous son snuck his way onto the cot, like a dog at the end of the bed. She told me about her treatment, her upcoming operation to remove her uterus, and how her hot flashes come at such un-opportune times like in meetings with the hotel General Manager…and how she would have the urge to rip off her hat or scarf, but didn’t want to shock the poor man with her bald head. And as we speak, she has another hot flash, and looks so uncomfortable there with her wooly hat on. I told her to take it off and cool down, that I think she is beautiful without hair. So she shyly takes off her hat, and she is just that – beautiful. I don’t know what time it was, but she was eventually tucked in by one of her sisters, and went to sleep. I nervously made my way to the outer tent, where her husband and the other hardier folks were staying awake. They are joking and laughing, speaking so quickly in the local style, so I can only understand half of what is being said. They are very kind, though, and offered me a Nos – an energy drink. Woo! That is when I ran off to do my next set of 25 laps.

It rained on and off throughout the night. We were constantly either taking off or putting on our little ponchos. I finally got kind of sick of that, so I just walked through the occasional showers – it was refreshing. Somewhere along the way, I was in the middle of my 3rd set of 25 laps, when I found myself really slowing down- my hips started creaking…. Sleep deprivation…Malone was a few yards ahead of me…I had been passing people with my speed walking all night long, so I thought I could pass him with no problem. Ha. I never caught up with him Then, Doreen woke up – someone told me it was about 5am, and that the closing ceremony should be beginning, with awards, and the final lap. Doreen took the baton and walked a long time with her sister-in-law. Slowly, but surely, she and her fuzzy white hat made their way around that track – I lost count how many times she went around – it looked like she was having a nice long talk with Malone’s sister.

Finally, we were all called to the main tent, and awards were handed out – so many I can’t remember. Best costume, most money raised, team that walked the most, individuals who walked the most…I actually won something! I walked 60 laps, the most on K Ohana Team II. Woohoo! One lady raised about $14,000! Including donations I expect in the mail, I raised about $400. Humble beginnings. I hope to double that next year.

Finally, we all stumbled out of the main tent, to do our final lap, and found ourselves greeting the sunrise. By then, things felt very strange and fuzzy…I don’t know if it was the good feeling in my heart, or the lack of sleep, but I left with the determination to do this every year. When my mom got sick years ago, I was a selfish teenager. When she got sick again, I was a selfish adult. I did next-to-nothing for her. All my good intentions amounted to little more than a few trips to chemotherapy with her, a few visits to her house, and in the end, long letters sent from my home in Hawaii. When my friend Debbie got sick, I prayed for her, but she lived down the street from me, and I still did nothing to help. When my friend Jon got sick, I prayed for him, I took care of his children or his dog while my friend Georgie, his wife, flew to Honolulu to be with him for his treatment, but that only happened a couple of times, and they live right next door. When Doreen got sick, I vowed to do more, to make a difference in her life, to be there to help her to the doctor, or cook for her, or whatever she needed. I only ended up taking her to the doctor once, I never cooked, and I never cleaned. I asked myself, when am I ever going to grow up and do what I say? When am I ever going to do more than talk or write? On Saturday, for the first time in my life, I feel like I made a real difference in the world. It looks so stupid in writing when it is on this piece of paper, but even though that $400 was just a drop in the bucket when you look at the $25,000 price tag for one chemotherapy treatment, my presence did something. All of us gathered on that grass on Saturday night, we put something out there in the world – a pulse of love so great – it was felt by others. I saw it in Doreen’s eyes as she slowly looked around her and saw the warm hearts all gathered in one place for the love of her. I saw it through the filter of my own tears as we lit our Luminaria and thought about our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends – it was on each of our faces as we quietly walked around and around.

It has been days since we walked together. When I came home, I slept for a whole day, not speaking except to help the kids with the essentials. I found myself not able to express myself – it was as if those 12 hours had taken more than my physical strength. I could only remember the night inside of my head, couldn’t talk about it, almost as if the memories were too precious to let them escape from my lips. This morning, I realized that if I didn’t take the time to write this, to share this, I would be doing what I have done all my life – I would have all the good intentions of helping without actually putting those thoughts into action. I can’t do that anymore. I need to share this experience with everyone, because it is important. I know it is annoying for people to ask for money to help causes. I felt the same way. I don’t expect my efforts to cure cancer. But the American Cancer Society does more than fund cancer research. They help the victims with the cost of medicines, with the cost of transportation; with loving counseling for the victims and their families…these are things that anyone might need someday. Nobody is expecting a huge donation. We are all regular people with other needs in our lives. But a good friend with a newborn baby managed to send $20. Just the action of finding an envelope and stamp and putting that together is huge, considering our E-society. And Simon, my little boy, age 6, earned $3 helping me with laundry, and put it into my donation box, instead of his piggy bank. Markus’ family in Germany sent actual Euros in an envelope – the bills just fluttered out when I opened the letter. My big sister couldn’t wire money from Australia, so she sent it via PayPal. So resourceful, these people with loving hearts and active intentions. And my next-door-neighbor? The friend who I didn’t have the wherewithal to help? His family walked over a check for $100. My best friend, over the ocean, whose own Mom died of cancer, sent me a donation in honor of both of our moms.

As for me, I am sure I will continue to be lazy when it comes to putting my good intentions into action. I am sure I will make everyday commitments and fail in some way. I am sure I will continue to procrastinate when it comes to doing what I must. But in one way I have been changed forever. The love that was shared on Saturday night, by Doreen and her family, by the cancer survivors, and by their supporters, that is permanently in my heart. That love makes me stronger – it strengthens my resolve. I am going to continue to help. Even if I don’t have a lot of money to donate, I will donate my time. I will walk again. Next year, I hope the team is even bigger. And if any of you are able to make it, I hope you will walk with me. Do it for someone you love, do it for someone you don’t even know. Just don’t forget to do something, no matter how small.

How Blessed to Have an Uneventful Day Together

Don’t give me fancy flowers. If I never have another rose, I won’t be sad. Don’t give me chocolates or romantic dinners in gourmet restaurants. For the rest of my life, if I never eat another chocolate or attend a gala dinner, I could still be happy. All I want is his warm hand holding mine as we walk down our path together. All I want is for him to take my face into his hands and pour all his love from his eyes into mine. I like to think that he was molded up in Heaven while I was a lonely little girl, staring up at the stars at night, wishing to find a family that would love me the way I love them. But he was already running around in his lederhosen by then, growing up all the way across the world, in the mountains.

I used to take our time for granted. Weekends sometimes felt a little boring, sleeping in, reading quietly, making dinner together, working in the garden. I used to think maybe my life was too quiet, too uneventful. Then we got a little shake up with that cancer thing last year, and we found ourselves wishing for boring, wishing for a worry-free life. Last year’s wedding anniversary was a “I’m alive! We made it! Yay!” anniversary, where we just clung to each other, grateful for the chance. Today, we have had a whole year of enjoying every day, a whole year of savouring just sitting on the back porch together, in the sunshine, listening to the quiet breezes drift through the forest. We learned how to fish, we went camping, we took long wandering walks in the woods. This has been a year of deep content. I am truly thankful.

But I want more. With your favourite food, you crave it until you overindulge and then can’t even stand the smell of it. With your favourite music, you play it until you get sick of it. Everything in my life to this moment has been that way. Except this love. This love has made us work hard for 19 years, but the joy and passion we create is ambrosia. Through tears, through frustrations, through misunderstandings, we learned how to be good people, to be kind to each other. And as each year passed, our roots went deeper, intertwining. Our union has produced 3 of the most beautiful precious beings we could ever give to the world. And our struggles, from petty things like snoring, to having serious talks about how one parent might have to go on without the other…raising children alone…those struggles have shown our children that love is everything. Love isn’t just flowers or romantic dinners once a year. Love is every day. Love is putting in earplugs if the snoring is too bad. Love is taking out the garbage. Love is taking turns being the soft parent when the other has to be the hard parent. Love is admitting when we are wrong and apologizing. Love is in the cold washcloth gently wiping away the sweat and tears of pain. Love is never forgetting to tell each other how we are treasured…every day.

So I have it, this love. I am fully aware of how rare it is, how most people may never find just the right person, or just the right way to dance with that person. I know we earned this happiness; it didn’t just fall into our laps. We earn it every day. And just like from a well-tended garden, our love is wonderful produce. There is no more taking for granted. Each minute slows so we can savour it. I take photographs so I can look back and remember that sunny day better, the smiles in the photo bringing me to to that very moment. Having this love comes with insecurity, worry over the future. I see the silver coming into his hair, I hold my breath before my 6month wellness checkups; I have daily reminders that it won’t last forever. Then, my blood tests come back clean and we celebrate. Or he earns a promotion and we celebrate. Or it’s just Friday and we celebrate.

Today is a special day. 19 years ago, on a pristine beach in Carmel, flanked by baby Emily on one side, and the most handsome groom I could ever imagine on my other side, I didn’t think I could ever have a happier moment for the rest of my life. Never have I ever been so glad to be wrong. Time has softened us, has greyed and wrinkled us. But that man I married has transformed into a man that glows from within. He is so beautiful my heart hurts. Sometimes I feel his eyes on me, and I look up to find the love shining from him, so palpable I feel I could reach out and hold it in my hands.

On Sunday, Markus flies away to Seattle to begin his new job. The kids and I are staying behind while they finish school. I struggle with the pride I feel for the rewards he has earned from his hard work, while I am already missing him so much my heart hurts. We are each other’s touchstone. When the outside world is too harsh, we turn to each other and there is comfort. When there are times to celebrate, we turn to each other for the big hugs and the jumping up and down. No matter what the situation, we turn to each other. For 22 days, we are going to have to settle for some virtual hugs and love through Facetime and emails. Between now and Sunday, I will be giving him kisses for him to keep in storage. Today won’t have fireworks or chocolates or flowers, it will be even better than that. Today will be pure love; just cherishing the quiet reading, holding hands, walking the dog, and whatever else a perfectly uneventful day will bring. Happy Anniversary to my Love. May we always be hungry for more.10849840_10152580707443131_566979218348613696_n

Signs of Life (Ch. 8)

I have had a curious kind of Spring; topsy-turvy. Instead of new life growing in nature all around me, I found a lump in my breast and cancer growing within me. As I journeyed through the acceptance of my disease and the aggressive treatment I chose to undergo, my view of my future changed. Instead of assuming I would have decades to watch my kids grow up, I thought, “what if I don’t?!” and tried my best to be more loving and affectionate. Instead of waking up in the morning and wandering around in my pyjamas with my hair standing on end, I thought, “what if I lose this hair in a few months, and look shitty even if I try to look pretty?” and showered, styled my hair, and put on makeup. I looked at my enormous garden space and accepted that I would have times when I wouldn’t have the strength to dig in the dirt and pull the weeds. I begrudgingly admired the beautiful hanging baskets full of flowers that my furry man went out and chose (something I wanted to do desperately) because I knew if we waited until I was feeling up to it, the season might pass us by. All that time, I was waiting for the surgery incisions to heal, so I could meet the oncology team at the Cross Cancer Institute and forge ahead with the chemotherapy I was told I would need. All the while I wanted my body to heal quickly, I also wanted time to slow down before I had to head into a summer of unknown chemo side effects. There was nothing I dreaded more, now that I found out I could survive general anesthesia and Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday.

While I healed, we had follow-up visits in Edmonton, with my plastic surgeon. As the stitches on my breasts faded, and my transplanted tissue started to feel smoother and look as close to normal as I could hope for, and as my abdomen incision slowly closed, my doctor always asked the final question during our visits, “Do you have any questions or concerns?” And Markus would ask, “How soon can she travel?” Dr. Schembri’s eyes would crinkle as he smiled, and he would say, “If you promise to stay in your chair and not do any gymnastics while you are there, you should be just fine to go to your high school reunion.” We have been asking this question ever since we met him. The only high school reunion I would ever go to is not just for any old high school. The high school kids I always want to reunite with are from the Taipei American School. We were a tiny little school in Taiwan. Our experiences growing up there have cemented our friendships, and I am never quite as comfortable in my skin as I am when I am with a group of TAS graduates. This recent reunion was an idea that my friends Dacia and Kerri had come up with last year. Any time you bring a few TAS graduates together, anywhere in the world, we call it a reunion. Dacia planned the reunion at her parents’ B&B in Anacortes, Washington, a little spot of Heaven in the San Juan Islands. Through the winter, we put our heads together and had so much fun planning and chatting about it. When I got hit with Barnard in the Spring, I realized that surgery would probably take a huge bite out of my plans for the May reunion. One more shitty thing that I came to accept this Spring… Until Markus caught me reading the Facebook page for the Anacortes reunion wistfully, and told me, “We are going to get you there. This will be your reward for the surgery and kicking Barnard’s ass. You do your job and rest properly like the doctors order, and I PROMISE you we will get you to that reunion somehow. Being with your friends will be good for you. You’re going.” And that is where the Question came in during our visits with my surgeons, “How soon can she travel?” So ever since March, when I first met with the surgeons, we worked toward the May 24th goal of the Anacortes TAS Reunion. A better carrot, there never was. On May 24th, 1 week shy of the minimum 6 weeks recommended recuperation period, I hopped on an airplane in Edmonton and headed out to Anacortes. Missing only one piece of luggage, I met my best friend Duncan Hsu (I call him Punkin Poo and he calls me Poo Pest – my favourite nicknames from childhood) at the baggage carousel in Seattle, and spent the next 2 hours driving to Anacortes while catching up on the last 3 years we had missed together. Arriving on the sleepy little island of Anacortes, Dacia, Kerri, and my other friends tumbled out of the cozy little house, and their hugs took away all the residual pain of both the surgery and the worry of cancer. We spent the entire weekend laughing non-stop. There was crying, but only when it was time to say goodbye. My friend John made an announcement that he was going to join my CIBC Run For the Cure team, The Suepremes, and fundraise for the Canadian Breast Cancer Society. He passed around his hat and said that he would shave his head at the end of the weekend. He raised hundreds of dollars, and I did indeed shave his precious head at the end of Sunday evening. I had to catch an airport shuttle at 1:45 Monday morning, so I never went to sleep on Sunday. And when it was time to go, each friend hugged me and wished me well, knowing that I was flying home to meet with the oncologists in Edmonton, to face chemotherapy. Collectively, their love and support floated me out the door and up into the sky back to Canada.

When I landed in Edmonton on Monday afternoon, I took a taxi straight to Dr. Schembri’s office for another visit. He does a little victory dance every time he examines me and sees his precious babies, “They’re PERFECT! So PERFECT!” He told me that the sections on my abdominal incision would take some time to fully heal, as it was healing from the inside-out, but that I am indeed Wolverine, as Markus labeled me; my body is healing like a superhero. Knowing I was meeting with the Cross Cancer Institute the next day, to discuss chemo, he said to give him a call in 3-6 months and we could talk nipples. I can’t wait to make that call and get him on the line and say, “Hey there…let’s talk NIPPLES.” I don’t know anyone else who has ever made such a phone call. That one is going to give me a giggle, that’s for sure.

Markus and I rendezvous-ed at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald later that afternoon, and we braced ourselves for our afternoon at the Cross Cancer Institute the following afternoon. Actually, I mostly just slept, having exhausted myself during my reunion weekend. On Tuesday, we dilly-dallied our morning away, and reluctantly made our way to University Avenue and the Cross Cancer Institute. In the parking garage, we passed ladies on their way back to their cars, scarves covering their heads. I couldn’t swallow past the lump in my throat. Markus grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly and we slowly walked into the lower level of the institute. The very first department we passed was the Wig Department and the rooms where they conduct makeup and beauty tips for those undergoing chemotherapy. I resisted the urge to peek into the door, thinking I would get the chance to see plenty later…

Upstairs at the main registration area, we realized that we were over an hour early, but I stood in line and filled out the paperwork anyway. They made me a special red plastic I.D. card that I would need to bring to every appointment or treatment. I did not like that card. That card was my fear made tangible. I stuffed it into my purse, hoping it would get lost among the mess of receipts and lipstick that lived in there. Then, the registration lady gave me to a volunteer, who was told to bring me to my appointment area. As we walked through the centre, the volunteer pointed out the various areas to us; the lending library, the information department that would be very helpful with resources for families, the 2 cafeterias, the gift shop, the pharmacy, and the labs. The facility is huge. Finally, he deposited us into our waiting area, where a nurse had me fill out more paperwork and instructed me to change into a trusty hospital gown and robe. Then, we were shown into a room where we were told to wait for our different visitors.

Our first visitor was a heavily pregnant young nurse named Magdalene. I kid you not. For someone who has recently lost some of her faith in this unfair scuffle with cancer (if good things happen to good people, and I try my best to be good my whole life, how the Hell did I get cancer, EH?! Explain THAT one, God…), this was a little bit of a punch in the stomach. I had to take an extra breath to answer her questions, as my mind kept whispering, “Mary Magdalene was a best friend to someone who had so much more to suffer than you, Sue.” After Nurse Magdalene left, Markus and I made silent eye contact until our next visitor. She was a soft-spoken representative of the Cross Cancer Institute Tumour Bank. After all of my tumour was removed during the mastectomy, and the appropriate amount was sliced and sent to pathology, the leftover bits had the potential to be deposited into the Tumour Bank to be used for research in the fight against breast cancer. She was there to ask my permission to use the tumour for research, and to make the deposit official. As I signed the papers, I wondered, who ever would NOT give permission? If they could make some use of Barnard and somehow benefit future cancer patients, why on earth wouldn’t I sign? I just had to give a few tubes of blood to accompany Barnard to his future home in the Tumour Bank, and GOOD RIDDANCE to Barnard! That was a very cool feeling, knowing a bit of me was going to stay in the institute and perhaps help others.

Our final visitor was a Nurse Practitioner by the name of Margaret Ann Vlahadamis. She was very dry and stood over by a white board across the room from us. Markus took my hand, and we held our breath. With a very stern look on her face, NP Vlahadamis said, “First of all, before I write all the details and numbers on this board, let me tell you this: based on your tumour’s stage and grade, the oncology team has determined that you will need no radiation and no chemotherapy.”

no. chemotherapy.

There was a ringing in my ears, and I shook my head…what was she saying? Focusing on her lips, I could see her saying, “Breast cancer is fought with several different types of treatments. There is surgery, there is radiation, and there are many types of chemotherapy. You should know that your double mastectomy was a major treatment by itself. Your cancer was completely removed. The pathology revealed that it was a 1.4cm Stage 1, Grade 1 tumour; very slow growing. Your 3 sentinel nodes revealed no lymphatic spread, and during surgery it was found that there was no lymph vascular infiltration within your breasts. It is hormone receptive, but HER2 negative and not Triple Negative cancer. You were very fortunate to catch your cancer early, and for the next five years, you will only need to take one Tamoxifen pill each day. You will have 6 month wellness visits with your family doctor throughout that time, where you will be checked for possible metastasis of the breast cancer into other parts of your body. And that is all.”

Stunned, not believing this could possibly be true, I actually ARGUED with the poor woman. What about my extensive family history?! Won’t that increase my odds of recurrence? My cancer surgeon had warned me to expect chemo. How could it be that I’m all done, that there is nothing further to suffer through?!

After patiently explaining that my family history of breast cancer has nothing to do with the treatment of the breast cancer we removed – WHAT?! (they focus on treating the cancer they hold in their hands – on its characteristics, not on what my future could develop). That my cancer was removed completely by my mastectomy and the Tamoxifen would starve any microscopic bits that might be floating around in my body. That my family history of breast cancer would only be a concern for my ovaries and fallopian tubes down the line, and I would need to approach that outside of this visit. Only then, did she patiently say, “This is GOOD news…”

And only then did her words sink in. No chemo and I am done with the fear of Barnard. I turned to Markus with a lost look on my face; all my anxiety was still built up inside – where was I supposed to put it? Markus repeated what NP Vlahadamis said, “This is GOOD news…” I decided to stop fighting it. Even though I was SURE they were mistaken, that this was too good to be true, I decided to play along. I was confident someone would catch the mistake in a few days and call me with the corrected news and tell me to get myself into chemo…So I turned back to her and smiled and asked what I should do next. She told me to take my new prescription to their pharmacy, and she would be calling me in a few weeks to see how the side effects of Tamoxifen were treating me.

In a daze, I changed back to my regular clothes, and joined Markus in the hallway. We kept looking at each other in disbelief, then he would grab me and laugh out loud and cheer. In the pharmacy waiting room, he sat across from me and kept asking, “What shall we do to celebrate?!” We giggled and said, “I can’t believe it!” too many times before I looked around and realized I was surrounded by people who were suffering from cancer, waiting for their prescriptions, who didn’t have any good news for themselves. Sobered, we listened to the pharmacist explain about the many side effects of Tamoxifen (Hello, Menopause) and grinned when she politely whispered about “vaginal dryness and discomfort” and the various solutions for that. I can buy a fix for vaginal dryness on the shelves of my local pharmacy…can’t say the same for cancer, right?

Tamoxifen grasped in my hands, we retraced our steps to the car; past the cafeterias, past the information centre, past the lending library, and finally past the wig department. I touched my hair and murmured, “I’m keeping my hair…” Markus whooped and hugged me.

In the car, he told me that he was getting dozens of responses to his good news post to my friends on Facebook. He urged me to tell my friends and family right away; that everyone would be so relieved and happy for me. How could I tell him that I secretly could not believe the good news? What if I made the announcement, and I got a phone call the next day, crushing me with the opposite news? I flapped my hands and told him I would write it later. I couldn’t even call my own children to speak the words out loud; I was so scared I would jinx things. We bought a feast at the T&T asian supermarket, and brought it home to the kids. The whole family was giddy with the news, while I sat there quietly wondering. Late that night, I cautiously wrote about my day, sharing the news on Facebook, then sat back and waited for the phone call I was dreading. I put off writing in my blog, thinking I would make it officially good news if nobody called me with bad news in a few weeks.

This week, I got a phone call from a private caller. A voice sounding just like my best friend asked for me…so I yelled, “PUNKIN!!!” and there was a long pause…then, “Uh um, no, my name is John Mackey. I am a medical oncologist from the Cross Cancer Institute.” I swallowed my immediate panic, and laughed and explained about Duncan/Punkin and that his voice was an exact match. With a smile in his voice, John Mackey replied, “Well, if Duncan has the same voice as me, then he must have a very nice voice indeed, haha! I was asked by Doug Goss to review your pathology and double check that you are having the appropriate treatment…he said you are a family friend? I just need your verbal permission over the phone before I open your medical file and read it” Still panicked, I mumbled yes and waited…This was the phone call I was waiting for – finally someone realized that they messed up and my cancer wasn’t all gone and I would have to go to chemo after all and lose all my hair and get sick and be tired and maybe maybe I wouldn’t live as long as I wanted to… There was total silence as he read over my file. I think I held my breath the entire time. When he started to speak, I still couldn’t breathe. He said these magic words, “Sue, based on what I am reading, you can be sure that the cancer has been removed and is gone from your body. The Tamoxifen is precautionary – 5 years of starving any possible cancer that could have been missed on a microscopic level. You should feel confident that you are well. Now, let’s talk about your family history and what that speaks to.” I floated as we discussed genetic testing and I complained that testing positive would endanger future life insurance for me and my children. He paused and said, “Um. You have already had breast cancer. That horse is out of the barn. Life insurance companies will discriminate against you and your children because of that, regardless of the genetic testing results.” I had to laugh when I realized I had totally forgotten that I have breast cancer. It feels good to forget. By the end of the phone call, he had recommended I discuss prophylactic removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes with my gynaecologist, and wondered if I was ok with that; with early onset menopause. I reassured him that I was done using my ovaries, that the Tamoxifen will imitate menopause for the next five years, and as my mom went through menopause early, I expected it was around the corner anyway. I thanked him for his time and hung up, posting the funny phone call on Facebook. Immediately, my friend Wendy, who lives in Edmonton and is wading through the cancer war like me and knows every doctor out there, posted, “Dr. Mackey is the best oncologist in Western Alberta. You are very lucky indeed!” Holy shit. So, another guardian angel has landed and now I have officially lost track of how many of them are in my life. How blessed am I.

Today, we went to pick up a friend from the hospital in Hinton, and took a little side trip to the garden centre in Canadian Tire. I chose new veggies to replace the ones that have been eaten by frost in our garden, new herbs, beautiful flowers, and seed potatoes. On the ride home, we listened as our friend told us how lucky she was that although she had fallen off of a 20 foot cliff while rappelling, she was wearing a helmet and managed to not break any bones. I shook my head in disbelief, and then I stopped myself. I need to stop this denying of good news. I told my friend that I was so happy that she was safe, and that I was amazed at what a great adventure she survived. How blessed was she!

After we brought our friend home, we settled into gardening. Markus worked on the flowers in the back yard, and I worked on planting pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and cabbages in our vegetable patch. The sun shone down warm on my shoulders, my knees got dirty, and I sweated. Every spadeful of dirt I dug up was rich with pink wriggling earthworms, and every leaf on every plant glowed green with life. I sat back on my heels and looked around me. My topsy-turvy Spring was over. As I breathed in the warm fresh air, I realized that Summer was here, and I was surrounded by new life. I can dig in the dirt and pull weeds and let my hair get messy. I can plant the vegetables that I know I will harvest in the Fall. And I can look at those hanging pots of flowers that Markus chose, and I can see that hummingbirds have come, attracted to the colourful blooms. Ganbaru feels extra good in the sunshine!

20140607-220432-79472829.jpg

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!

What Not to Wear (Ch.5)

Tomorrow is Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday. And I thought having babies required planning and organization…ha. So far, I have 3 surgeons, 1 anesthesiologist, countless residents and nurses, and one hovering furry man on my Away Team, here in Edmonton. On the Home Team in Jasper, we have our 21 year old daughter Emily as Captain, and Hanna and Simon on Defense. They’re holding down the fort, feeding the dogs, going to school, doing their chores, and trying not to fight with each other while they wait for us to come home next week. And for Home Team support, we have Coach Aunty Lori and Uncle Rob driving 4 hours from Banff to bring Easter and home cooking to our kids this weekend. My freezer is stocked with labeled tupperware full of food I cooked for the Home Team, my hospital suitcase is packed, my furry man has a stocked mini-fridge in the hotel room, and all we had was a pre-admission clinic and a pre-op consultation to attend today. I thought I had prepared myself for everything. Little did I know that fashion actually matters in such a situation. There is such a thing as what not to wear to the plastic surgeon’s office on the day before your planned surgery. Consider this a learning moment for you.

The 4 hour drive from Jasper was the usual scream. This time, though, we broke up the trip with a stop at Tim Horton’s in Edson (for those of you planning on exploring beautiful Alberta, Edson can be skipped. Unless you need to pee or need some coffee at Timmy’s. Seriously). I splurged on a honey-glazed donut. Best 15 minutes of the entire trip. I figured, if there is any time to indulge in my life, this is it. I am going to lose 15lbs worth of boobs tomorrow – one glazed donut is nuthin’!

Back at the Mac (the elegant Fairmont Hotel MacDonald) we got our usual room 538 with a river view and the extra mini-fridge that Markus had requested. He’ll be living here while I am luxuriating in the fabulous Misericordia Hospital all week. Visiting hours are 9am – 9pm and he’ll be coming back to his room for delicious bowls of cereal on many an occasion. We went to bed, but I tossed and turned all night long, thoughts just piling up in my head. I had go to my bedside table and make notes in my phone just to empty out some of those thoughts. I really wanted to sit up and write everything down in full form, but didn’t want the scolding from the furry man. I forced myself to keep my eyes closed, and waited for the sun to rise.

This morning we had an appointment for a pre-admission clinic at 8:30, so we drove to the hospital. I thought this would be a quick meet and greet with my little Dr. Ing from my sentinel node surgery. Nope. A gangly man in full scrubs shuffled into the room, mumbled that he was Dr. Xanadu, and plopped a giant binder on the table. The giant binder was me. Every little detail from every doctor and nurse, leading up to this moment, was in that binder. We spent some time talking about meds, but most of what he was saying kind of went in one ear and out the other…Dr. Xanadu?!!! There was no way I was that lucky. He left the room, and I whispered to Markus, “REALLY?!” Markus was like, “I KNOW! Is that a real name?!” I replied, “I fully expect him to enter the operating room on roller skates, singing like Olivia Newton John tomorrow!” Then another nurse entered and shattered our fantasies when she asked, “Did Dr. Nadu take all your meds?” Damn. You know I’ll be humming Xanadu when they wheel me in tomorrow…

OH, learn to read upside-down, ladies! While the nurse (Peggy) was going over my binder and prepping me for admission, I happened to read a letter from my internist, Dr. Hossein, to my general surgeon. He remarked that the cancer is in my left breast, and that my sentinel node surgery would consequently be in my left breast. STOP! I have breast cancer in my RIGHT breast and had sentinel node surgery in my RIGHT armpit. MORON. I remember during that particular doctor visit (to discuss whether my current meds would cause trouble during surgery), wondering why he wouldn’t make eye contact and why he was such a pig. His desk looked like the messy room of my teenage daughter. The only thing missing was old cheese and oranges tucked into his underwear drawer…I mentioned this to the nurse, wondering if his untidiness was an indication of his carelessness in noting important medical details on my record. She replied that she had heard similar things about him and just shook her head. So be your own best advocate and know your diagnosis inside and out, ladies. And maybe don’t go see Dr. Hossein, if you can help it.

During the pre-admission clinic, Nurse Peggy went into my hospital visit in great detail. We got to meet the little Jackson Pratt drain that I will have hanging from my breasts, my armpits, and my abdomen. She taught us how we will be draining them and measuring and logging the (gag) fluids that will collect in them. The drains look like the plastic tubing that you use to aerate your fish tanks at home. At the end of the tubing (the other end is stitched into your body) is a soft clear rubber bulb, where the fluid will collect. It’s about the size of the bulb they use to pump up a blood pressure cuff. There is a loop on the bulb, and it gets pinned to the hospital gown. Fancy hospital jewelry.

Following that appointment, my honey and I had a romantic lunch in the West Edmonton Mall. Hey, not everything has to be roses and candlelight. When a mall lunch is followed by a restful nap in a Fairmont bed, snuggled against a warm chest, wrapped in loving arms, I challenge anyone to claim that wasn’t romantic.

At 2:30pm, I called the surgery appointment desk to find out my surgery time for tomorrow. I was asked, “Who is your doctor?” I replied, “I have multiple doctors: Olson, Schembri, and Mehling.” She exclaimed, “OOOHHHHH, you must be Sue!” My cousin Gaby always teases me when I’m at home when I visit the hotel for something and I try to blend into anonymity, not wanting to use Markus’ job for asking favours. She puffs up and puts on a royal voice, “Don’t they know who you ARE?! You need to say, ‘Don’t you know who I AM???!!’” and then we all dissolve into silly giggles. Well, it seems Gaby called ahead to the Misericordia Hospital… The nurse said, “Sue Treppenhauer? You’re going to be our first patient and the big one all day. Come on in at 5:45, honey.” At least there won’t be any rush-hour traffic…

The last appointment of the day was for a visit to my plastic surgeon, Dr. Schembri (remember Dr. Scampi?). This was the first time my furry man was meeting him, and it didn’t occur to me how very awkward it would feel. First of all, I was handed a gown and a pair of very teeny tiny panties to change into, gown open in front. Then Dr. Schembri (the furry little boy who looked like he just graduated from university) came in wielding a blue Sharpie, and started drawing lines all over my breasts and abdomen. Then he started showing us (by tucking in my nipples and squeezing the breasts) how the lines would guide him in reforming my reconstructed breasts. A light went off in my head, and I was like, “HONEY, did you ever see Mad Magazine when you were a kid?” My German furry man looked at my quizzically. I had to explain how the back cover of the magazine had a picture that you had to fold a certain way, and if you did it just right, you ended up with a totally different picture. By the time I was done explaining, Dr. Schembri was laughing hard and nodding his head, “Yup! That’s exactly what I’m doing!” Then he had me lying down so he could draw more on my abdomen and do the whole grabbing-giant-handfuls-of-fat thing again. I can’t even imagine what my husband was thinking. After that, I had to stand up in just my teensy panties and subject myself to a photo shoot. Dr. Schembri swore he wouldn’t share them with anyone. Markus didn’t make the same promise, however. yikes. When I was allowed to wrap my dignity in my front-opening gown, we sat down for a talk. He explained to us that he would see me around 7am right before surgery, and my lumberjack would be there too. While Paul Bunyon was removing my breasts, Dr. Schembri and Dr. Mehling would be working on my abdomen, removing the tissue and blood vessels needed to reconnect to my chest. Once Dr. Olson had one breast removed, Dr. Schembri and Mehling would move up and begin connecting the blood vessels and working on that side of me. Then he stopped and looked at Markus and said, “Okay. I have to tell you. About halfway through all this, we will be taking a break to have lunch. It’s going to be a long day, and we will need some food. I’m only telling you this because I neglected to say it with another patient years ago, and I bumped into the husband while I was in the cafeteria. He looked at me in a panic and was like, ‘Wait. Who is working on my WIFE!!!’ If you see me in the cafeteria, Markus, I promise Sue will be ok. I just need to get some nourishment. She will be being taken care of, I promise.” You never really think about that stuff, do you? Finally, Dr. Schembri handed a blue Sharpie to my furry man, and asked him if he wouldn’t mind going over the lines after I take a shower in the morning, in case I washed anything off. He has no idea what a stupid move that was. It took everything in me to convince my furry man not to draw on me last night, before going into the office today. He wanted to draw smiley goodbye faces on my breasts. Now that he’s had to sit through watching a furry teenager-looking-man squeezing bits of me that are Reserved for Treppenhauer Use Only, I wonder if I’m going to have No Trespassing written all over my boobs in the morning…

So here is where my fashion advice kicks in. For this last day before Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday, I had chosen to wear a v-neck blouse that showed my cleavage in all its glory. I figured my girls deserved one last day in the sun before going to Heaven tomorrow. That’s all very well and good, but if you expect to be covered in blue magic marker, you might not make a similar fashion choice. As soon as I put my shirt back on, Markus burst out laughing. I had what looked like a blue tree growing up on the skin of my chest, blooming out of my cleavage, just above the v in my v-neck shirt. There was no covering it up. We headed out to the parking lot, passing turning heads (“hmmm, interesting tattoo on that lady…”). We had planned on a quickie splurge on junk food for my Last Supper, so we walked into McDonald’s. Now, with all the freaking weirdos of the world eating at fast food joints, with tattooed and pierced faces, screaming babies, etc, you would think I would blend right it. Not. And they didn’t even stare inconspicuously. It was straight on ogling. I was so embarrassed, I sat in the only booth facing a wall, waiting for Markus to bring our deliciously salty french fries and my chocolate shake. With his crinkly eyes and laughing face in front of me, I could momentarily forget my appearance. On the way back to the car, I saw a few more heads turn, and pulled my sweater off and held it up against my chest. Markus opened the car door for me, then went around to sit in the driver’s seat. Driving back to the hotel, I held my sweater to my chest to cover up the blue markings, totally embarrassed by the funny looks people had given me, dreading walking through the hotel lobby. Markus turned to me with a fierce look on his face and said, “FUCK them. They don’t know how lucky they are to NOT have a reason to have the blue markings on their chests. Fuck. Them. Let them stare. I am proud of you.” Then he turned back to the steering wheel and drove me back to the comfort of our hotel room. In the elevator, he took one picture of me, after teasing me about my blue tattoo, telling me that I was going to want to remember the funny things. And a v-neck shirt for today was certainly funny, if not well-planned.

In the hotel room, I sat down to write this last entry for my blog, before I meet fabulously new drugs tomorrow. You might not hear from me for days, even though I know Markus will update my friends and family on Facebook. The hospital nurse told me that the powerful anesthetic would alter my senses and my judgement for days. She cautioned me against making any important decisions on legal matters, and I’m guessing writing my blog might fall under that warning. While I was plugged into my writing music and I was swimming in my words, seated in our hotel room easy chair, I saw a movement at the edge of my field of vision. I looked up to find my furry man with a shy smile on his face, standing there shirtless, with my identical blue Sharpie markings all over his chest. Solidarity at its finest. What is love? Love is coaxing someone to laugh through the fear of becoming Frankenstein. Love is being there to relieve pain. Love is furry. And right now, while my heart is brimming over with it, I will bid you goodnight. It’s time to cup my breasts and to say thank you for a wonderful 30+ years of life-giving nourishment, of sex appeal, of giving comfort, and Love. Tomorrow is Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday. And ByeBye Barnard; don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

Image

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: