Domestic Godess…Naked Plumbing

Please excuse this interruption; your regularly scheduled cancer programming will continue after this mundane reminder that Life continues…and if you are me, Life is weird and good. Sometimes useful things happen when you are totally nude, and if you bare your heart as well, love will find a way to you.

I had a haircut scheduled. An hour before my appointment, I decided I should jump into the shower to wash the unruly mane. Standing in the shower, looking up at the “rain” shower head that our hotel clowns had so thoughtfully installed for us, that only ever dribbled out water a few tablespoons at a time, I snapped. I turned off the water and marched buck naked into my son’s room closet, where I kept our old shower head from our last apartment. I knew that it could turn low water pressure into a normal shower, so I just needed to un-screw the old head and screw on the new one, right? It would just take a few minutes, right? Wrong. Old shower head was rusted on (we have orange well water…it has magical properties). Undaunted, I marched into the kitchen to find a rubber glove from the sink, so I could get a better grip on the rusty shower head. As I was still naked, the march into the kitchen quickly turned into a hunched-over scurry. Rubber glove in hand, I scurried back to the bathroom. I shoved my son’s desk chair into the shower stall, stood up there wearing nothing but one rubber glove, and wrestled with the rusted-on shower head. 5 minutes and many curses later, I realized I needed an actual tool to help me. Very dangerously, I jumped off of the chair onto the wet tile, then slid my way back into the kitchen, sporting my one-glove fashion. I found our multi-purpose tool with the pliers attached, in a cup next to the microwave oven. Up I hopped onto the chair in the shower, and spent another 5 minutes fruitlessly banging on the old shower head, inexplicably wearing that yellow rubber glove on my right hand. I finally figured out I needed something bigger; something from the actual toolbox…in the garage.

Yes, we live in the woods, but the snow plow for the hotel does drive by occasionally. I did not want to scar the snow plow driver for life, so I put on my winter parka to cover my nakedness. Why take the time to get fully dressed for a quick trip across the front yard to the garage; this was just going to take a few minutes, then I could hop into the shower, right? As soon as I stepped outside and the icy wind took a swipe at my backside, I should have heeded its warning. But no, I’m not known for any kind of wisdom, whatsoever. I scanned the horizon of our driveway to make sure the coast was clear, then clunked awkwardly out to the garage in my son’s winter boots. My 2 dogs scampered beside me, perhaps thinking this was another of Mama’s crazy moments, and maybe I would stop and play catch along the way; they were only right about the crazy part. Thankfully, it was only a mild -10° Celsius and just beginning to snow. I rooted through the garage, found the toolbox (which should be stored in the house, dammit!), found a giant wrench, and clunked back to the front door in record time. Correction, I clunked back to the LOCKED front door in record time. Picture naked woman cloaked in a Northface parka with a furry hood, standing in snow boots, in the falling snow, shaking a giant wrench up at the sky, while howling in banshee-like fashion. She slumps her shoulders in defeat, thinking she will just stand there and die of frostbite until her menfolk return from Calgary 7 hours later to recover her frozen body. This would be preferable to walking her naked self down to the hotel front desk and politely asking someone to find a spare key for the cabin. Then, a lightbulb blinks over her head and her head snaps up with the memory of a brighter time when her mind was fully functioning, when she had hidden a spare key in a secret location, elsewhere on the property. Crazy naked woman in parka and snow boots points her giant wrench in the right direction and slips and slides to the hidden key, blessing her formerly sane self. Victory!

Back in the house, I clunked to the bathroom, shed the parka and the boots, climbed up onto the chair, made short work of that rusty shower head, installed the new shower head, and threw the chair out of the shower stall. Ahhhh, sweet hot water cascaded out of the ceiling, and all was right in the universe. It’s amazing how a good shower can restore sanity; or at least the appearance of sanity. At least I remembered to get fully dressed for my haircut appointment.

At the salon, I met a lovely lady named Shawna. My little boy, Simon, has always hated haircuts. Whether I cut it, or someone else cuts it, he always feels foolish for days, waiting for the hair to grow back to an un-embarassing look. This is how he felt until he met Shawna. For the last 2 haircuts, he has come back glowing, posing in front of the mirror, making studly faces at himself. My furry man told me last week, “You can only get your hair cut on a Tuesday because that is the only day that Shawna works. She lives in Valemont (1 1/2 hours away) and only comes in on Tuesdays. She will be worth it. If she can make Simon happy, she’ll make you happy, I promise.” Shawna is a petite young lady in horn-rimmed glasses, hiding behind a fringe of long straight brown hair. There were just the 2 of us in the little salon, and she shyly smiled and reached out her hand to me, “Are you Susan? I’m so happy to meet you!” I haven’t felt that welcomed in this town in so long, I don’t care that she got my name wrong. I was so happy to meet her, too.

When I shook my long hair out of my bun, she gasped, “Oh, what beautiful shiny hair! Are you sure you want to cut it?” I explained that I was due for some surgery and that my husband would have to wash my hair for me for a couple of weeks. I wanted to cut it short enough that it would be very easy for him to care for. She brightly said, “Oh! If you want to come in here, I would be happy to wash it for you? Or?…” I realized it was so much easier to just blurt out that I have breast cancer, instead of dancing around the subject, and told her that the short hair will come in handy for not only the post-op recovery period, but possibly for chemotherapy down the line. Shawna put both hands on my shoulders and spoke to me in the mirror, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I want you to know that my grandmother just finished her treatment for breast cancer and she is doing well, and that the hospitals in Edmonton are wonderful.” Then, knowing exactly what type of low-maintainance hairstyle I will need for my upcoming adventure, she settled into cutting my hair perfectly. We chatted about kids (she has an 11 year old daughter) about safety in small communities, about camping, about both of our husband’s loving to lead us up mountains and on hikes we get lost on, and about living far and away from cell-phone reception, near the North Pole. An hour passed in the blink of an eye, and I looked up to find my face looking years younger, framed by my sassy new haircut. Shawna walked me to the reception desk of the salon, and said this to me, “If you are feeling unwell and just need to freshen up, call me. I will come wash your hair, cut your hair, or even just blow-dry your hair after your husband washes it for you. And it doesn’t need to be a Tuesday. I wish you all the best for your future.” Then she wrote her home phone number on a card and handed it to me, holding my hand for an extra moment in her hand, as I took the card. How blessed am I? Every corner I turn, I meet kind people with loving hearts.

So here is the lesson of the day, boys and girls: a naked plumber in the chill of winter, is not as wise as a plumber fully clothed. But a naked heart in the chill of cancer, can sometimes be the best kind of wise there is.

 

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An Ode to Breastesses (Ch.3)

Your brain can adjust to any situation, no matter how awful. Just because someone is in a grave place, when thoughts of death lurk in the shadows of her brain, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t snap at her kids for arguing at the dinner table, or that she doesn’t look in the mirror and curse the grey hairs creeping into her brow line. Cancer doesn’t turn you into a noble person; it just makes you feel incredibly guilty for having petty thoughts. I’ll share mine with you, since I love to barf my personal feelings at your feet.

I met my plastic surgeon on Monday. Dr. Mehling (the potential Babe the Big Blue Ox to my lumberjack Dr. Olson) had me meet with his partner, Dr. Schembri. The name is pronounced “Scam-bree” which, to my addled brain, sounds too much like “scampi” for me to ever remember to refer to him as Dr. Schembri ever again. So until I get to know him better, I can only remember his name as either Dr. Shrimpy or Dr. Scampi. He looks like a younger, smaller version of my Paul Bunyon. He even wore a plaid shirt. He introduced himself to me by apologizing for Dr. Mehling’s absence, saying that all 3 men will be operating on me at the same time in the operating room, and the only difference between himself and Dr. Mehling is that he is a taller, hairier version of Dr. Mehling. Later, I got a glimpse of Dr. Mehling, and the description is dead-on. Dr. Mehling looks about 4 feet tall, is super skinny, and has a shiny head as bald as a cue ball. I’m glad I got to meet the furry one; furry men please me. Anyway, Scampi explained all the different options for breast reconstruction to me. Dr. Olson had referred me to them because that is mostly all they do; they primarily work to help women rebuild their breasts after they have been damaged by something awful like a cigarette-smoking, beret-wearing, stinking Parisienne pickpocket named Barnard.

Breast reconstruction has moved light years beyond slapping a ziplock baggie full of silicone into your chest cavity and sewing it up. For you newbies out there, those are called Implants. Babe the Big Blue Ox and his partner Scampi specialize in Autologous tissue breast reconstruction. This means that they use your own body parts to repair your breasts. It’s a beautiful thing. They can take tissue, fat, and muscle from your back, your bum, or your abdomen, and re-connect the blood supply in your chest. If all goes well, you are all you, in the end. Don’t get me wrong, nobody will walk out looking like a Playboy bunny. There are really vicious scars that will make a permanent smiley face across your entire abdomen or your back, and you will not have nipples unless you choose to have them reconstructed in a separate surgery down the line, and get them tattooed to look “normal.” But the goal isn’t to get pretty boobs. The goal is for you to feel whole, for you to feel good in your bra, for you to feel your usual silhouette in your clothes. It’s done so you can tell yourself, “Okay, Barnard took part of me, but I am whole, still.” Yes, there are women out there who choose not to have reconstruction after their mastectomies, but I am fine admitting that my breasts are part of my identity. They may have outlived their function as baby-feeding machines, but I still need them to be me. Without them, I would feel less of a person.

Back to the making of bionic boobies. Scampi and I both agreed that a DIEP flap reconstruction would be right for my body. Free Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator (DIEP) Flap reconstruction is where they will take my abdomen with a small piece of muscle, remove it and and rebuild my breasts. They will reconnect the blood supply in my chest and the tissue will eventually heal and become my breasts. After a short discussion, Scampi asked me to hop up on the examining table and lie down, then proceeded to grab huge handfuls of my tummy as he eyed my breasts. Essentially, he was trying to gauge how much breast he could make to match my current cup size. I had to laugh, expecting him to start grabbing the boobs to compare to the handfuls of tummy. He told me that during surgery, Dr. Olson would be working removing my breasts, while the Babe the Big Blue Ox team would be working on my abdomen, then they would move up to my chest for microsurgery that would take up to 10 hours. As he was pinching and calculating, I stared up at the ceiling and started trying to count how many times I’ve had to flash my boobs to strangers in just the last month. I counted 10 people. That’s more than 3 times the number of people who ever got to play with my boobies for recreation in my entire LIFE. And it turns out that those might be the last times I will ever feel anyone playing with my boobies in the future. The new ones will not have the nerve endings to make playing fun on my end – they will just feel like my arm getting squeezed. Part of the package. The Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin had both legs, his right arm, and his eyeball replaced. I bet he never felt his girlfriend playing footsie with him under the table, but he appreciated the thought, and it never stopped him from playing the rest of the game. Yeah, I’m comparing myself to a fictional person because I have yet to meet a person in real life who would talk about this with me. I’m going to be the first person in YOUR life who will be frank. I’ll keep you posted.

After all of that detail, talking about recovery, about the ickiness of excess fluid coming out of my breasts and my abdomen, of draining tubes into plastic pouches, of possible infection, of fat necrosis, I thought, “hey, there can’t be anything worse this guy can tell me.” Then he drops the bomb: if my sentinel node surgery comes back positive for cancer, they will have to treat my lymph nodes with radiation, so I would have to delay my reconstruction. That means walking around flat-chested until after radiation therapy (about 5 weeks typically) and until I can be scheduled for reconstruction surgery after that. The current delay for plastic surgery is 1-2 years. This is because after a mastectomy or lumpectomy, you are technically considered “cancer-free.” You then get lumped into the rest of the regular plastic surgery patients waiting for new boobs (i.e. the women who just aren’t happy with their little boobies and want big jugs so they can fall out of their bikinis in Vegas). And all those women get bumped on a daily basis for women exactly like ME who have active cancer and want immediate reconstruction; meaning they may wait forever! I knew this in advance (from my research online), which is why I had insisted on mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. By law, they have to perform immediate reconstruction upon request during a lumpectomy/mastectomy because the cancer bumps the woman to the top of the list. And now I find my evil plan could be thwarted by my own sentinel node. Traitor.

Since first discovering the lump in my breast, I have been able to move forward by focussing only on short-term goals. First, it was “just get to the mammogram/ultrasound; it could be nothing.” Then, “oops, it’s something. Ok. Just get to the needle biopsy. The tumour could be benign.” Then, “Oops, it’s malignant. Ok. Just get to the surgeon. It could just get cut out, you could get rebuilt, and you could be normal by summer.” Now, “Oops, it could be in your lymph nodes so you might not get your breasts back for a looooong time.” OK. New Goal: Just get to the sentinel node surgery on April 3rd and wait for a week for the results. They could be negative for cancer. They could be clean and beautiful and cancer-free. Or, as my husbands’s new battle cry puts it: “Sentinal NO!!!!”

So here is my petty thought. I really love my breasts. I love the way they make my furry man’s eyes light up, then narrow with purpose. I loved the tug my nursing babies gave them. I loved the rush of milk letting down to nourish my sweet infants after the initially painful suckling. I love the gentle swell of my cleavage when I am in a beautiful dress and ready to dance the night away. They were works of art in my youth, only second to my legs as my favourite parts of my body. As I have aged, they have headed for my knees, making me a perfect cover girl for National Geographic. But ptosis or not, they are soft, they are lovely. They are where I hug a crying child. They are where I cross my arms or clasp my hands when I am heartbroken or worried sick. They cushion my heart. They still have purpose. Without them, nothing comes between my heart and the outside world, to insulate me. Without them, I feel vulnerable. If I could have reconstructive surgery, I wouldn’t have my original breasts anymore, but I would have acceptable substitutes. I don’t want to not have breasts. So there you have it. I expect you now have the same stunned expression that my husband gave me when I confessed this to him a couple of days ago. He slowly said, “But. You. Will. LIVE.” You see why these thoughts are such shameful secrets? How can my mind betray me by getting so used to the idea of possibly dying from cancer, that it lets itself get bothered by THIS?! I know I should let all the little things in life just roll off my back, considering there are much bigger things to worry about. I can’t help it. Remember, cancer hasn’t turned me into a noble person; I’m as silly as I ever was. And if you know me, you know that’s what I am, a bundle of everything all jumbled up inside. I have serious thoughts, but this little one is in my face right now, and I can’t shake it. Help me out. On the count of three, please join me in chanting my new mantra. 1…2…3… SENTINAL NO!

I’ve Got MacGyver, Paul Bunyon, and The Suepremes – Barnard Hasn’t Got a Chance (Ch.2)

Today, March 12th, my breasts and I met my surgeon in Edmonton. All I knew about the doctor in advance, was that the name was Dr. D.W. Olson. Images of characters from children’s television shows floated through my mind. I pictured Arthur the aardvark’s little sister D.W. (old PBS animated series), married to Nellie Oleson’s little brother Willie (from Little House on the Prairie), sporting a white coat and chopping off boobs. That, plus the warning from my Nurse Navigator (more on that later), had me a little bit nervous to meet the Knife. “Sue, I want you to brace yourself and not put too much store in the surgeon’s manner. Surgeons can sometimes come across as clinical and lacking empathy. But those characteristics are also the very same characteristics that make an excellent surgeon; they spend most of their time with you when you are unconscious, not chatting with you. If your questions are answered and you feel confident in the surgeon’s experience and explanation of all of your options, don’t let the bedside manner dictate whether or not you choose this one to be your doctor.” Needless to say, I was a fretting bundle of Useless during the drive.

It takes 4 hours to drive from Jasper to Edmonton, so Markus and I kissed the children goodbye and shivered into the car at 6 o’clock this morning. During the boring and seemingly endless drive, we had plenty of time to discuss what we hoped to achieve with this visit, and what questions to ask the doctor while we were in his office. Being in the early stages of my breast cancer journey, I have to be honest that Markus and I are also struggling a bit with our new roles. The furry man wants to be my best cheerleader, and take everything onto his own shoulders. I am much more practical, and I know that even superheroes can burn out unless they take a break or ask for help. These are early days – I want him to mellow out and save his energy for the hard days of clearing drain lines dangling out of my chest, and cooking and cleaning if I need to spend time as a chemo zombie. He thinks I should let go and let him take charge. I think he should reach out and ask a few people to bake some lasagnes when I go in for surgery down the line. Hess Tough vs. Treppenhauer Stubborn…much head butting and growling ensued. Markus is reading a very good book titled: Breast Cancer Husband; How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond. It has taught him invaluable things, like how to read pathology reports, how to write down everything the doctors say to me, and how to stay calm in the face of a frightened PMS-ing wife who seems to be losing her mind. Normally my furry man is the light in my life, keeping me smiling and laughing. This morning, his own worries plus my hen-pecking transformed him into Serious Markus. I hate Serious Markus because then we are BOTH grumpy. In the parking lot of the doctor’s office, I told him I don’t like Serious Markus; that I want my funny man back. He pointed a finger at me (I won’t say which one) and said, “Then stop BOSSING me, woman! Hess Tough sucks when it’s me that gets it. Trust me. I’m going to take care of you. I got this.” Message received; Hess Tough Torpedo Guns have been aimed elsewhere.

Enough soap opera; back to the Journey! A Nurse Navigator is the main angel in a special program that we have up here in Paradise (aka Canada). The Alberta Comprehensive Breast Care Program takes patients that are at high risk for cancer; patients like me that have discovered a lump, or had abnormal mammogram results. We are pulled out of the sometimes confusing mainstream of our national healthcare system, and fast-tracked toward the appropriate doctors, procedures, and cancer centres that we need, cutting to the front of the line of any waiting lists. If further tests come back negative, those patients are bid farewell are sent back to real world. The rest of us keep marching forward. When admitted into the program, we are each assigned a Nurse Navigator; our medical guardian angel/advocate. My personal angel’s name is Diana. She is a nurse, packed with ages of experience in the field of breast cancer treatment. She handles most of my appointments, calling me to tell me when and where, and how to get there. She spent what seemed like hours on the phone with me, as soon as I got home from hearing the worst 3 words I’ve heard in my life, last week, “You have cancer.” My family doctor is a moron and actually could NOT explain most of my pathology report, and “didn’t want to go out on a limb” to explain anything further to me, for fear he would be held liable if I misunderstood, blah blah blah, welcome to Jasper. So I had asked for a printout of my pathology report, took it home, and looked up every single word I didn’t understand, and then I called Diana. She confirmed what I had concluded, and in a very gentle voice, began to tell me about the road I would need to travel to reach wellness. She spoke for so long, reassuring me, sharing what resources this wonderful program had to offer, told me that she would be mailing me a big packet of information for me to read through, including a book to help my children cope with my new illness. She told me that I would be overwhelmed with information, and to write everything down. She told me to be careful about choosing websites to read about breast cancer, and she gave me a list of good sites to explore. On the spot, she booked me in to see a surgeon, and told me that she was there on the other end of the phone if I ever felt confused. And if she was ever away from her desk, she told me that her office was full of professionals ready to help; that there were therapists and social workers on-call if anyone in the family ever needed to talk to someone about how they are feeling throughout this time. How IS it that this beautiful country can create such a brilliant program to take special care of frightened, vulnerable women, without having to worry them about how they would manage to pay for everything? My Nurse Navigator told me, “Mental Health is just as important as Physical Health. Just treating the cancer with medicine would be pointless if, in the end, if you are an emotional and financial wreck. We treat the whole person.” Reason #437 to love Canada.

After the showdown in the parking lot, Markus and I entered the Meadowlark Health Centre in Edmonton. We were immediately greeted by a bevy of sweetly smiling receptionists. Markus and I looked at each other, our faces saying, “We’re not in Jasper, anymore, Toto.” We were 45 minutes early and thought we were in for an enormous wait (one is never seen earlier than 30 minutes past their scheduled appointment time in the Jasper clinic). I didn’t even have time to put down my purse, when a lovely lady came to collect me for a breast exam. I followed her down a long corridor to a private room, where I donned my lavender gown and waited for my aardvark surgeon. A knock on the door, and a perky young blonde with a ponytail entered, with a pimply teenager in tow. She introduced herself as Dr. Olson’s (I found out the spelling was different from Little House on the Prairie, bummer) Chief Resident. Her name is Dr. MacGyver. I kid you not. I’ve got MACGYVER on my team! And she introduced her skinny little sidekick as Mark, a medical student at University of Alberta. Yay, I get to flash my boobs to a crowd! After extensive questioning, MacGyver proceeded to palpate my breasts very carefully to confirm location of the tumour, etc. Then, she invited sidekick to join her from the edge of the room, where he was nervously nodding his head, and asked him to palpate my right breast to see if he could find the tumour on his own. I had to keep a straight face as he timidly reached out and poked at my boob like it was a bowl full of bad jello. Poor boy. Anything I can do to bring added education to the world, I am happy to do. Perhaps it was the first breast he had ever met, because as soon as he thought he’d found it, he jumped back to his wallflower position.

After the breast exam, MacGyver asked me if I had any questions from my pathology report, and I said that I am an American, so please forgive me, but I didn’t understand why my tumour was measured in millimetres, yet all literature about breast cancer discusses tumours in centimetres. She and Mark smiled at the ignorant American, and kindly explained that it was because my tumour was smaller than a centimetre. Well, duh. That shows you just how flustered I am these days. Then MacGyver started talking about hormone receptors, and I was like, “WAIT. Your pathology report doesn’t match my pathology report!” As if it could be possible to have an even lower opinion of my Jasper doctor, it turns out he only gave me HALF of my biopsy results. When I had asked about hormone receptive or not, or HER2 and triple negative, he flapped his hands at me and told me they would tell me that after my surgery, when they had removed the tumour and examined it further. One more medical lesson learned: DON’T BE A SHEEP!  So MacGyver told me that my tumour is estrogen receptive, which is well-treated with hormone suppressant chemo. Hello, Menopause. Then, MacGyver and Pimple Boy left to find the doctor.

After a few minutes alone, I heard a booming voice coming down the hall, “WHERE IS THE AMERICAN!” and a bearded lumberjack in glasses swept into the room, replete with plaid flannel shirt. He reached out his hand and said, “You must be the American! I’m Dr. Olson. So pleased to meet you! What on earth brought you to Northern Alberta?!” I explained about the furry German man and Fairmont, but that actually I’m only American on paper, having grown up all over the world. And he laughed, “AAAHH, a nomadic type – so I can’t even ask you where you’re from, eh? There goes my next conversation starter.” He blew my worries about cold, clinical, aardvark-Nellie-Olsen-sibling-surgeon right out of my mind. Tension melted out of my shoulders almost immediately.

After another breast exam, Dr. Olson (aka Paul Bunyon) went out to get my husband. I could hear them in the waiting room, Paul Bunyon calling out, “I’m looking for MARKUS! And upon meeting him, declaring, “So you’re a FAIRMONT man! Yes, your wife and I have been talking about you. She told me everything. Come this way!” He arranged us in the small exam room, “Sue, you’re the Queen,” (how did he KNOW?!)  “so you get the throne. Markus, you sit next to her. MacGyver, you sit in this chair. And Mark, you’re going to have to pretend to be the patient for the day and hop up on this exam table; UP you go.” Then he sat down on his stool, faced me, and said, “Ok. Now let’s get serious. We have much to discuss, and you have some decisions to make.” In the blink of an eye, Paul Bunyon turned into a doctor. He explained that there were many choices for an average woman in my shoes. Breast cancer starts in the milk ducts; most breast cancer stays in the ducts, just growing bigger. Mine is invasive, and has escaped from the duct it was born in, and has microscopically begun to get around in there. With a relatively small tumour, likely no cancer in the lymph nodes, many women just need a lumpectomy and radiation, and they may never have a recurrence of breast cancer for the rest of their lives. He explained that radiation is typically 5 minutes of focused X-rays, 5 days a week, for 5 weeks. There may be skin changes, there may be slight burning, there might be some fatigue, but it would be nothing like my mom’s radiation 30 years ago (she used to laugh about how one of her nai-nai’s had a very nice tan from the radiation). Then he said my situation was slightly different, with the family history of breast cancer. He said, “yours could have been a hereditary thing, or it might not be. You can take a genetic test, like Angelina Jolie did, but you also need to understand that currently, who ever takes it and gets positive results, will be refused life insurance applications forever, and their children will also never be able to qualify for life insurance. It will be permanently on the records. Those rules might change in the future, but that’s how it is for now.” Whoah. He followed that with other possible options for me. I could have a skin-preserving mastectomy on one side, with reconstruction to include an implant to match my “generous” other side. I asked about a bilateral mastectomy for my peace of mind. He said it could be done, but that would have to be my request. He said he could do that and preserve the nipples, and I asked “what about the odds of recurrence of cancer in the nipple, I heard it was a considerable risk?” He replied, “Well, true. The nipple is the front door; all the milk ducts and glands lead to that – it goes to reason that cancer might appear there in the future.” I said, “I could always get nipple tattoos…” (Look at me, wild woman thinking about tattoos!) and he pointed his fingers at me and said, “YES, you can. And there is nipple reconstruction too. You have LOTS of choices.” My mind spun as he offered even more on the breast treatment buffet table, the whole time my furry man scribbled furiously in our Journey Journal (we knew that we would forget 1/2 of what we were being told). Regarding reconstruction, there are fillers made of man-made materials (saline/silicone implants), and fillers made with Suzy Creamcheese-made materials (my own skin, muscle, and fat, from back, abdomen, butt, or inner thighs). During this discussion, he mentioned, “You have ptosis.” We looked blankly at him. He said very tactfully, “Well, when women have, er, generous breasts, over time, they tend to lose volume and they are not as perky as they used to be…” I was like, “OH! Yeah, after 3 kids, they are not at all what they used to be. That’s okay, they fed 3 children; they did their job.” And now I have a proper word to use when referring to my gravity-stricken breasts. “National Geographic boobs” is too much of a mouthful. I have ptosis. Sounds more mysterious.

Toward the end of our appointment, having weighed all the possibilities, I decided that I would opt for a bilateral mastectomy, with immediate reconstruction. Bracing myself for my doctor’s disapproval of what even my own sister has deemed an irrational decision, I was so grateful to hear him respond, “This is your choice. It is your body, it is your fight, and only you can decide this. There is something to be said about the breast cancer phobia that someone with extensive family history like yours might be feeling. It weighs heavily, and if this brings you peace of mind, that must be taken into account and respected. So skin-saving bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction it IS!” He turned to Markus, pointed a finger, and said, “Write this down, Scribe. ‘Dr. Blair Mehling.’ I will set you up to meet him after you have a sentinel node biopsy.” If Dr. Olson is my lumberjack Paul Bunyon, then I suppose his plastic surgeon friend, Dr. Mehling, must be Babe the Big Blue Ox! Can’t wait to meet him…wonder if he will have horns…

A sentinel node is the very first lymph node that the nasty little cancer cells would bump into on their way out of the breasts, as they try to sneak into the rest of you. If there are cancer cells in that first lymph node (the sentinel…the lymph node on guard duty, get it?) then it shows the cancer is on the move; more lymph nodes need to be biopsied, and your adjuvant treatment (follow-up treatment to surgery; radiation, chemotherapy, etc) is adjusted to be more aggressive. The more information the doctors can glean from the sentinel node biopsy, or from any tissue with cancer for that matter, the better armed they will be in the fight. Before the operation, they will (brace yourself) inject a radioactive dye into my right nipple. Guys, hearing or reading that for a woman, brings a similar feeling to you reading about injecting radioactive dye into the little buddy in your pants. OW. Then, they will put me under general anaesthesia and use a Geiger-counter like a metal detector to probe into my armpit. The first lymph node to light up is the sentinel node. This good soldier node will be cut out and sent to a lab for analysis. If there is cancer, we will regroup. If there is no cancer, rejoice and full-steam ahead with our booby going-away party!

When I was first diagnosed, my friends and family quickly rose to my defence, with the collective battle cry, “You will kick cancer’s ass!” On my Facebook page, one day, my sweet furry man was commenting about that bastard cancer, and autocorrect oh-so-helpfully inserted “Barnard” instead. My cousin Gaby took it one step further and envisioned cancer as the stinky Parisienne pickpocket who tried to steal my iPhone while we were visiting the Eiffel Tower last year (a whole other story). Barnard the Parisienne has developed into a full-blown effigy who is after more than my iPhone. He wears a dirty beret and dangles a perpetually smoking cigarette between his decaying yellow teeth. My Facebook page now has a middle finger salute to Barnard, a toast to kicking Barnard’s ass, etc. Occasionally, someone who hasn’t been paying attention will comment, “Who the heck is Barnard?” Now y’all know. Barnard is goin’ DOWN.

So now the initial shock of discovery is over and it seems this journey is turning out to be more a race of endurance, rather than one of speed. I need to take my own advice that I gave to Markus this morning: calm down a little. I need to save my strength by not using it to panic. Be the turtle, not the hare. I would hate to run out of energy close to the finish line. Now I wait for April 3rd, to have my sentinel node removed. Between now and then, there should be less worry, and more living. There will be a thousand moments of joy; a thousand chances to smile or laugh. And I must be fully present to grab those moments and savour them. This journey is turning out to be adventurous, indeed, with colourful characters to meet all along the way. Diana the Nurse Navigator angel, MacGyver and sidekick Pimple Boy, Paul Bunyon, possibly Babe the Big Blue Ox Plastic Surgeon, and my parade of angels: my CIBC Run for the Cure team; 30+ strong women and men, coming together from Alberta and all over the world, to raise money for the Canadian Breast Cancer Society. I’m Suzy Creamcheese and they are The Suepremes. Say it, SAY IT: I’m a Chinese Diana Ross, baby! Our team would love to raise $9000 by October 5th, when we will come together and walk and run side by side. By that time, I hope to be healthy and well. Here’s the link if you’d like to help us collectively kick Barnard’s ASS: http://www.runforthecure.com/site/TR/RunfortheCureFY15/PrairiesNWT?px=3564263&pg=personal&fr_id=1851

I hope you enjoyed Chapter 2 of Follow the Breast Cancer Road. I expect many of you read, “BLAH BLAH BLAH MacGyver BLAH BLAH BLAH lumberjack BLAH BLAH BLAH National Geographic Boobs” and left this blog with your head spinning. Don’t worry. You and I, we have much in common. I am going through my days in a similar state. “Blah blah blah malignant blah blah blah absolute outcome blah blah blah wait 2 more weeks.” I want more “blah blah blah Mom I can burp the abc’s blah blah blah honey give me a kiss.” And flying monkeys; I want flying monkeys. If I have to be on this road, send out the flying monkeys…I already gave birth to the lollipop kids years ago.

Ganbaru 頑張る! (Ch.1)

(Facebook post from March 2014)

I learned a few new words today. The first words were Infiltrating Duct Adenocarcinoma. In layman’s terms, it means breast cancer. Words that I have dreaded for 30 years since my mom was diagnosed while I was in high school. Statistics told me that the chances of it striking me if my 2nd-degree relatives (grandmother, Aunt Barby) had it, are higher than average. Statistics told me that the chances of it striking me when a first-degree relative (Mom) had it, are even higher. I think my sisters and I held our breaths for years, waiting for one of us to come forward with the awful news because when you have our family history and you add a sister with breast cancer on top of that? It’s like really bad compound interest on a maxed out credit card; you’re probably going to get a call from that creditor for payment … So a few days before Valentine’s Day, I felt the lump, and the first thought was, “Oh no, JoJo and Annie…”

As I was out of town enjoying the best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had, I ignored that lump like it was a whining child in the backseat of the car. I would deal with it when I got back home. As soon as I came home, I saw our family doctor and he sent me straight to Edmonton for a mammogram/ultrasound. My furry man (Markus, my husband) and I kept telling each other, “This could be nothing. Let’s not freak out until someone officially tells us to freak out.” I called my Aunt Barby, since she has been a survivor for 14 years, and she briskly told me, “Now, don’t you go hanging crepe, Sue. Even if the worst is confirmed, so much has advanced in breast cancer treatment in the last 14 years. You can do this. You hang tough and you don’t forget to look out for your furry man. After all, you’re a Hess and you are Hess Tough. He has a slight disadvantage.”

Although there are many critics of some of the wait times in a national healthcare system, it is almost a magical thing to see how quickly people can move in such a system, when things are urgent, here in Alberta. I went in for a mammogram/ultrasound (normally several weeks – months wait), and after a closer look, they asked me to overnight in the city and come in first thing in the morning for a core needle biopsy (normally a few weeks’ waiting time) on the lump and a surprise lymph node that looked “suspicious.” I turned to the radiologist and asked in a shaky voice, “May I see what you see on the ultrasound? Why do you think it’s suspicious looking?” She obliged, showing me the lump, which looked icky and alien, and the lymph node, which turned out to look EXACTLY like the Death Star, I kid you not, complete with the narrow alley that Luke Skywalker had to fly through to blow up the place. I thanked her and held it together until I reached the parking lot and melted into a blubbering mess behind my steering wheel while on speaker phone with Markus. After soothing me and letting me cry for a while, he waited until I calmed down a bit and said one very true thing, “Honey, we have been waiting for this for years, haven’t we? We always knew that this might come up, with your genes. Now that the moment is possibly here, I know we can do this together. Our family can do anything.” So I went back to the hotel room and for the first time in my life, raided the Honour Bar in the room. I binged on Pringles and chocolate and ordered cheese from Room Service. Then I went to bed at 5pm to try to sleep away the time until my morning appointment with the giant needles. Had the craziest dreams from the chips, cheese, and chocolate, and woke up completely unrefreshed.

The needles were super big AND they had a spring-loaded trigger that reached out a mini-claw to snip off core samples of the lump and lymph node. I swear the trigger snapped exactly like my automatic cookie press at home. Each “SNAP” made me jump, and when the radiologist, Dr. Ling, muttered, “darn it” I knew she would have to try again. She apologized and said, “I’m so sorry. I need 4 core samples from each site and these tumours and lymph nodes don’t just sit there nicely. They’re slippery little suckers…like..like…” and I blurted out, “Like bubble tea taro bubbles?” She burst out laughing and said, “YES, EXACTLY! I have never thought of that comparison, but they are JUST like bubble tea…now I don’t know if I ever will drink bubble tea again…” So laughing together and with me doing my Lamaze breathing to stop panicking, I got through that procedure. We taped up the two little tunnels in my breast and armpit, and I drove 4 hours home into the arms of my loving family.

At first, I thought I would wait to tell the kids anything, only sharing if the news was bad. But I made it back home in time to pick them up from school, and Hanna and Simon immediately started to cry, and asked me, “Mama, are you going to die?” I guess not knowing CAN be much worse than knowing. And they jumped to the worst case scenario when they found out I had to stay overnight in the city for more testing. So I decided to tell them absolutely everything. Of course, I had to give them the all the possibilities, which did include possible death, but considering I’ve been having annual mammograms since I was 30, the tumour could only be, at most, a year old. And I caught that sucker all by myself in a self-exam. And I reminded them, I am Hess Tough. We had a big cry and a big hug, and luckily, they went back to being normal children.

The last week has been miserable, waiting and wondering. I used the time to read up on anything I could find about all the possible outcomes, all the types of breast cancer, all the potential treatments. I tried in vain to find cases of a negative biopsy on both a tumour and a lymph node. The very worst part of all was not telling anyone. I didn’t want to worry my dad if it turned out to be benign, I didn’t want to put my sisters into a panic, I didn’t want to burden friends, and even though I am the first to share everything with friends and family on Facebook, I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.

Normally I give up Facebook for Lent. Yesterday, I realized with a start, “TOMORROW IS ASH WEDNESDAY.” How was I supposed to go through this ordeal in this Godforsaken place, with most of my friends and family so far away, without my touchstone? With Facebook, I log in and see that you’ve had your morning coffee, that you share my teenager problems, that you laugh at the jokes I love, and that you care about me. I have conversations and I give sympathy or lend a helpful shoulder for anyone to cry on. It could be 3am here in Canada, but my friends in Taiwan, my cousins, friends, and sister in Australia, my old friend in Turkey, and my other loved ones around the world might be awake to have a chat. For the first time, I realize that this would be the wrong Lent to take a Facebook hiatus. This would be the time I would need my friends the most. I bargained with myself, “If the news is good, I’ll give up my FB connections for Lent. If the news is bad, I’m going to ask my friends and family to lend me their shoulders.”

So here I am, on Ash Wednesday, letting you know that you won’t be getting a Lenten break from Suzy Creamcheese this year. One of my closest friends, Laurie, called me from Arizona tonight, marveling, “Sue, what timing you have. Here we are on Ash Wednesday, getting ready to begin a spiritual Lenten Journey, and you have ahead of you the biggest journey of all. Don’t forget that you are not alone, that you can glean strength from all those who love you, and from your faith.” And then I started reading some more and I learned the best new word of all: Ganbaru (頑張る). It’s a Japanese word which some say means “to do one’s best.” But to the Japanese people, it means more than that. It means to do more than survive; it means to “commit oneself fully to a task and to bring that task to an end.” And I hope my furry man, my sweet precious children, my family, and my friends, will Ganbaru by my side. I’m going to do my usual oversharing. I understand that some of you don’t know me as intimately as most so this might gross you out. Don’t worry if you need to bow out and block my feed for a few months. I will see you on the other side. And I am determined to do that – to get to the healthy side of summer. With you to keep me company on this journey, and Ganbaru and Hess Toughness…this shitty little disease hasn’t got a chance.

A Grown Up Moment

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

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

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

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

Clown Appreciation Day

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chronicles of the Rodent Slayer

My day began early. The howling dog scratching around the furniture told me there were mice to catch at dawn. Thinking I just had a mouse-filled glue trap to dispose of, I ambled over for a peek, sipping my cup of coffee. Empty. Hercules, the Rat Catcher’s Companion, was frantic, scrabbling on the hardwood floor, trying to get behind the side table next to the couch. Slowly, I started to realize that there was a mouse on the loose, and I would have to flush it out or never have a moment’s rest. At this point in the story, I could skip to the happy ending and retain my dignity, but I need to record this for historical purposes. This is proof that practice does not make perfect, that mouse-hunting (and housekeeping, for that matter) should be left to the professionals, and that nothing of importance should ever be attempted without a least 3 shots of espresso. Not only that, if I don’t write this down, I might forget to tell the furry German man when he comes home from work this evening; this is money in the bank for me. He keeps me around to do the dirty work, so this event must be documented for my job security.

The more I thought about how I would need to go about capturing that runaway mouse, the more I realized how much I would dislike a confrontation with a feisty rodent, unencumbered by a sticky glue trap. Over the past few years, I have built up a false confidence in dealing with rodents, only because I have always had the advantage. I threw down the glue traps, the mice or rats got stuck, and I used the BBQ tongs to throw them in the garbage, whilst feeling all-powerful and in charge. All of a sudden, all confidence shattered with the realization that I was NEVER in charge. I abandoned the howling Hercules in the living room, and locked myself in the bathroom. Standing there, shivering, in my pyjamas and bare feet, I considered my options. If I took action, moved the couch away from the wall, and let the dogs chase the mouse towards its doom, there was a chance the mouse would choose to run onto my bare foot and crawl up the leg of my pyjamas. Just picturing that gave me the heebie jeebies and I actually hopped around the bathroom to shake off the image. The other option was to ignore the mouse; who knew if it was even really there? After all, the dogs have been wrong before. They bark at the wind, don’t have the sense to be afraid of elk, and have even been known to eat their own poop. Why should I trust them? On the other hand, if I chose to ignore the mouse, and it decided to take a tour of the house in the middle of the night, my luck would have it crawling up my bed covers to visit my face. Visions of Pa, in Little House on the Prairie, waking to the sounds of a mouse chewing off his beard to line its nest, floated through my head. I was pretty sure I would hate waking up to half a head of hair, knowing the mouse was lining its nest with my shiny locks…

Okay, decision made, I pulled on my thick socks and trusty shitkickers. I armed myself with a sturdy broom. And then I felt a moment of brilliance come upon me. I should gather all the glue traps from every corner of the house, and place them on the floor, all around the couch. That way, no matter what direction the mouse chose to run, I would catch him without having to lift a finger, right? I’m a genius! So I searched the house and found 7 glue traps. I placed them strategically around the couch, all the while telling the dogs, Hercules and Cody, to take care to avoid stepping in the traps. Right there, I should have stopped myself. My dogs don’t speak English. Not only do they not speak English, Cody is the world’s worst golden retriever. He hates water, hates all physical activity, and doesn’t retrieve. He mostly dances around (you think I exaggerate – but picture prancing horses at the circus – that is Cody) and pretends to be a golden retriever, while his brother Hercules is actually playing fetch, hunting chipmunks, and attacking the water sprinkler in the yard. Immediately, I lost one glue trap to Cody’s tail. 5 minutes later, with the help of a pair of scissors, Cody had a bald patch on his tail, and I think my yelling convinced him to stay on the other side of his brother ( who I thought would catch the mouse if the glue traps failed).  If there ever was a more perfect time for an intervention by a guardian angel to save me from myself, that was it.  Alas, my guardian angel must have been on a coffee break.  It was just me and the dogs against the mouse; a pack of fools versus the evil genius.

My triumphant moment arrived. Broom positioned to protect my legs from climbing rodents, I prepared to move the couch and release the hounds. I even counted down for the dogs, “Ready, set, GOOOOO!” And all chaos broke loose. The couch was shoved away, the dogs leaped, the mouse zig zagged BETWEEN glue traps, I hopped up and down screaming, “GET HIM GET HIM!!!!” and the dogs proceeded to catch 2 of the remaining glue traps, while the mouse scurried into the corner of the living room where several framed pictures leaned (did I mention that we are still moving in and the house is cluttered with crap that needs putting away?) My house is Disneyland for mice. So many places to play, so many fun things to do, so much good food to eat.

Okay okay. Time to regroup. Hercules and Cody looked at me, panting, one glue trap dangling from Hercules’ left ear, and one glue trap attached to Cody’s front left paw, lifted up to me in an offering. Both of them had such eager looks on their faces, asking me, “Aren’t we great? Aren’t we manly hunters?” Resisting the urge to yell, “YOU SUCK!”I reached out my shaking hands and patted their heads. Eyes on the mouse corner, I once again used the scissors and gave the dogs 2 more bald patches so I could remove the glue traps from their fur. Those glue traps sure are good at dog catching. Hercules, freed from his glue trap, guarded the corner while I ran to get a flashlight. I had to be sure the mouse was there, and not crawling towards the bedrooms. DOH! The bedrooms! Quick detour to shut all the doors in the house, then returned with a flashlight. Climbing up onto the easy chair (yes, still afraid of leg-scaling mice), I leaned over and shone the flashlight between the picture frames. Sure enough, 2 beady black eyes stared back at me. And you know what? He wasn’t even breathing fast. I was the one hyperventilating, while he stared me down, daring me to make a move. That was when all of the spirits of my housewifely ancestors came rushing into the room, brooms collectively raised in solidarity, causing me to take up my broom and start hysterically waving it around and banging it on the floor, yelling expletives, cursing the mouse and all of its relatives. The mouse made a mad dash for the other side of the room, with Hercules on its heels, and Cody danced around in circles, gluing himself to 2 of the remaining 3 traps. And I lost the mouse. In the struggle to stop Cody from more dancing (he glued his own tail to his ribs, and when he finally obeyed my scream to “SIT!” he promptly sat on the back edge of the glue trap stuck to his back right foot, effectively glueing his butt to his foot), I lost track of where the damn mouse had scurried. My living room looked like a bomb had exploded, my dogs looked like mangy mutts that had been attacked by killer giant moths, and I had been beaten by a mouse. Resigned to my plight, I told the dogs that we were losers, cut Cody loose from his trap, let them out to the front yard to chase chipmunks, and made myself a pot of tea.

As the tea was brewing, I tried to make a plan for living with a mouse on the loose. I thought about wearing my shoes to bed. I also thought about wearing a snow suit and a bike helmet to bed. Every few moments, I tossed out some trash talk to the mouse, to keep it on its toes. “Don’t get too comfy out there, mouse! I WILL find you. Oh, and by the way, if you really want to visit someone in the middle of the night, maybe go to Hanna’s room, instead of mine? The eatin’s good under Hanna’s bed. I’m just sayin’…” Nothing. Not a squeak, not a scribble-scrabble sound. All I knew was that the couch it was originally hiding under was safe to sit on. Nothing in the house was safe, just that couch. So I perched myself on the couch, criss-cross-applesauce to keep my legs mouse-free, and wrapped my hands around my cup of tea, in surrender.

Minutes passed. My heart rate returned to normal. I began to make peace with the thought of a mouse wandering around (after all, I knew there were hundreds of his kin living in the cellar and in the walls). I began to accept that he had won and I had lost. Mid-sigh, sipping my tea, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. The mouse was making its way to the kitchen. He didn’t even have the decency to run. He sashayed over the threshold of the kitchen doorway, tail held high, and ducked under the refrigerator. Not believing my good fortune, I sat frozen for a moment. Then I jumped to my feet, grabbed the last surviving glue trap, and ran to the kitchen. There is only one way in and out of the the path to the fridge, so I wedged the trap in the path, and returned to the living room. If the gods were smiling, I would need to do nothing more. Sure enough, by the time I had finished my cup of tea, I could hear the scrabbling sounds of a glued animal (the dogs had given me enough practice to know that sound anywhere).

Confidence returned, I sauntered over to the fridge, and used the BBQ tongs to pick up the spoils of war. A plastic shopping bag shroud, a few words of blessing (“haHA! I told you not to mess with me!”), and the enemy was tossed into the bear bin outside. I am victorious. I am all-powerful. I am Woman, hear me ROAR!

Still, I just might wear the bike helmet to bed tonight. There was a stretch of time unaccounted for, where the mouse may have had an opportunity to send a message to its brethren. If he did call in the troops, I’d best be prepared. Maybe the bike helmet AND my shoes…and a ski mask…Does anyone have any more glue traps I can buy?

Being the New Kid is Getting Old

I can’t believe I did this, but after making 2 giant lasagnas and slicing 2 giant watermelons for a potluck for my high school daughter’s Quebec Exchange program and all the participants’ families, I dropped off the food and hightailed it home.  I was fully prepared to be brave and sit with my daughter and her “twin” from Quebec, and maybe meet some of the other parents; maybe make a friend.  But when I got there, I got a big slap in the face.  Teens can be cruel, and adults who don’t know any better, can cluster together to shut out the new girl.  

I pulled into the parking lot, to a chorus of mocking teen boys calling out, “SUE’s here!  Everyone watch out! OOO, It’s SUE!”  My daughter had already warned me that it was her class joke that I take away my daughter’s phone when she is disrespectful or her grades drop – they call each other “Sue” as an insult, or if someone is not being nice, they say, “watch out, or Sue will take away your phone.”  Ha. Ha. I’m fine with the idea of all of them doing this, since I am quite convinced that I am making good parenting choices and the phone is a good tool in disciplining my daughter.  But when surrounded in real time, by a big group of teens that are whispering and laughing, while looking at you sideways?  That’s a whole different story.  I’m glad I never taught in high school, and I feel great compassion for any teacher who is the butt of these kids’ jokes.  

So you’d think my daughter would be happy to see me and make me feel better.  Nope.  She runs up to me and demands, “I hope you brought me a change of clothes!”  When I said, “no, but I brought a lot of food – will you please help me unload the car?”  she became upset and flounced away.  

I asked one of the parents where I should enter the building to bring in the food for the potluck, and she answered, “THROUGH THE DOOR.”  Seriously.  So I hefted the huge lasagna into the front door, found the entree table myself, and went back out to the car for 2 more trips of food.  This entire time, there are dozens of people milling about, hugging, chatting, taking their places at the many long tables set up for the dinner.  

When I tried to think about sitting down with total strangers who didn’t even make eye contact with me or smile, my heart just jumped up into my throat.  I went up to my daughter and whispered in her ear, “is it okay if I sit with you at dinner tonight? I feel a little nervous.”  And she said, “Mommmmm, I want to sit with my friends, and they will all just make fun of you and that would mess up the dinner. Maybe you can just go home and bring me some clothes?  You don’t have to stay for the dinner, but you can bring me the clothes when you come back to pick up the dishes.”  

That did it.  Flashback to 1st grade in Monterey, 2nd grade in Moscow, 4th grade in Kuala Lumpur, 6th grade in Reston, 7th grade in Shanghai, 9th grade in Kent, 10th grade in Bloomington, 10th grade in Taipei, Freshman year in university, 1st year in England, 1st year in Texas, 1st year in Carmel, 1st year in Pacific Grove, 1st year in Hawaii, 1st year in Banff… Maybe I have a lot of practice being the new girl, but tonight I felt knocked down and stepped on.  Tonight I felt so lonely that my throat hurt, even with 50 people clustered around me.  I can only plaster the smile on my face for so long before my cheeks start to hurt and I just want to run away. So I put my head down, got into my car, and headed for home.  

I wish someone could wave a magic wand and a door would open to this town.  Well, I say that, but I guess my real wish is that I didn’t have to have any interaction with any more people in this town.  

You don’t believe me.  If you just met me, you don’t believe me.  I’m smiley, I ask questions, I make conversation; of course I must be outgoing and personable, right?  But if you really know me, you know that inside I squirm at the idea of getting thrown in among strangers.  When I was little, being the new kid was always fortified by the strength of my sisters.  Every 2 years we moved to a new place because of my father’s job. But my sisters and I could be the new kids together.  Now, I usually have my own kids, or my husband.  My husband, especially, is very sensitive to my stranger panic, and he will hold my hand and introduce me, then whisk me home at the earliest opportunity.  The kids have lately complained that I am “anti-social” so I have been making great efforts.  But this town is shut tight like a clam.  They don’t really want help in the schools, which is the best way to get my foot into the door and meet other parents.  How many times can I knock before my knuckles start to hurt?  And after a year and a half, is it okay if I just give up and retreat to my books and my family?

I know I am being completely unreasonable, and my friends would tell me, “Don’t be silly – they are all your future friends just waiting to meet you.”  And that is very good advice.  It’s just that tonight I didn’t quite believe myself when I tried to whisper that out loud while driving home, face frozen in a tearful grimace.  I know I need to wipe these stupid childish tears and check my makeup and find a decent shirt for my daughter, and get back into my car to return to the potluck.  I just need a few more minutes to breathe and dig really really deep to find a shred of courage to grasp.  Just a few more minutes.

I Want My Fingers Back – Lunchtime Fun

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

 

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

 

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

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

An Ode to my Precioussssssss

I have survived turning 45.  Normally, age is not an issue for me.  The days leading up to the grand event did not portend impending doom, or even anything that mattered.  Growing up in my family, birthdays for children were of no consequence.  Actually, anything having to do with children was considered of no consequence.  My father used to think he was so witty, saying “Children are cabbages.  They’re not worth speaking to until they are educated and old enough to carry a reasonably intelligent conversation.” Such lovely sentiments that no level of brain-fog can erase from my aging brain, unfortunately.  On the plus side, the family I have been lucky enough to choose for myself, believes in Love and more Love, and my husband and I pull off some amazing family birthday celebrations.  That said, I still have a difficult time getting excited while anticipating my own birthday; I focus on our family tradition of the Birthday Boy or Girl giving a gift to each member of the family.  It makes for a very fun round of opening gifts at the breakfast table. And the rest of my birthday energy is spent preparing for the others’ birthdays during the year.  

So the days leading up to my big day were uneventful – only peppered by my silly husband grabbing my face in his hands and declaring, “I can’t BELIEVE you are going to be 45!!!  45!!!  So Old!!!” several times a day.  He’s two years younger than me, so he likes to think of me as a cougar.  Puh-leeze.  Between the face-grabbing and his jumping up and down with glee over some secret surprise, it was hard to ignore the looming date.  My oldest daughter, Emmy, was also home from university.  She must have been in on the secret too, because they would occasionally make eye contact, then giggle and clap their hands. Silly people.  

All I wanted for my birthday was something so enormously extravagant that I knew we couldn’t afford it. It was something so over-the-top I couldn’t even mention it out loud. Since I am a practical person, if I want something I know I can’t have, I try to put it out of my mind. Why think about it, if it isn’t going to happen, right?  Window shopping?  I hate it.  Why go into a store to look at stuff if you don’t have the money to buy it?  Some women love diamonds, some love shoes.  I like those things, but I LURVE technology.  Nothing puts a gleam in my eye like reading about processor speeds and RAM…sigh.  Over the years, I have been slowly seduced to the Dark Side by Apple.  It started with my first iPod Shuffle, and led to my iPad and my iPhone5.  Occasionally, I would surf the Apple Store site and illicitly drool over the Mac Books, closing the windows if someone were to walk by—feeling like I’d been surfing for porn.  But instead of splurging on big tech toys, we decided to help our children with university, and I had to settle for my old Dell laptop, keys sticky from my husband’s honey-bread mishap and his spilled latte.  First World problems, right?  Just close that window and move on, Sue. If asked what I wanted for my birthday, I replied, “plants!”

6:30am on the morning of February 22nd (yes, we get up for birthday celebrations BEFORE breakfast on school days) and I am gently kissed awake.  I open my eyes to the family singing Happy Birthday in the dark.  Quietly, my little boy puts his hands on my eyes and leads me through the dark to the kitchen, where pink and red streamers float from every surface, with pink and red hearts dangling all around.  The dining table is covered with gifts on one end, and our traditional German birthday candle ring on the other.  The birthday candle ring is a wooden circle, with holes to hold candles and little wooden pixies with felt clothes and hats (we call them our mannschgerl).  Instead of the number of candles needed to celebrate my birthday, the family made the smart move to light a “4” and a “5” candle.  More singing, and a very strong cup of espresso, had me sitting very happily for a few minutes, while my husband made me breakfast.  Then, the gifting began.

This was the year of scarves for me.  I am not a very fashionable person, but my good friend, my daughter,  and my big sister have unwittingly put an end to that!  I now have silk scarves, pashmina shawls, and floaty concoctions to drape for every occasion.  Look out, Jasper, I am changing the dress code… 

In between my lovely gifts, I handed out tickets to my family’s favorite hockey team’s game in Calgary, some love cups (the only kind of coffee cups we like in this house), and a iPad Mini to my oldest daughter (another addition from the cult of Apple).  I smiled because they smiled, and my heart grew bigger and bigger.

Then my husband made me cry by giving me a coffee cup that he had decorated himself.  A homemade love cup.  On it, he’d painted hearts and a love poem.  That was that, I thought.  The perfect ending to my perfect birthday.  I should have noticed the children holding their breath…and my husband’s suppressed smile.

Opening the wrapper on the box they handed me, I saw the words, “MacBook Pro.” No.  That couldn’t be right.  Blinkblinkblink.  The box still read “MacBook Pro.”  I thought maybe a pair of shoes wrapped up in MacBook Pro box?  A HaHa gift?  Lifting the top of the box, I saw the glow of brushed aluminum, and the apple…that yummy yummy apple…Christmas in February!!!!  

I am still in awe.  The touch pad, alone, is a wonder.  The retina display should come with a choir of angels that sings “Hallelujah!” every time I open the laptop.  This is all very bad.  I think Tolkien was mistaken.  Gollum wasn’t corrupted by a stinking ring.  He was given a 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display on his 45th birthday.  And soon he forgot about his Love.   He forgot to make dinners and pick up kids from school.  And he shriveled up and moved into the underground caves of the dwarves.  I’ll make sure to leave my forwarding address to his spare room…jussst don’t give it to that filthy Bagginsesssssss.  What.  Did you think Ode to my Preciousss was about my husband?  What husband?  All I can see issss my Precioussss with the 2.7 GHz processor and the lurvely retina dissssplay…

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