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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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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.

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?

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