Not a Fairy Tale

Marriage is not a fairy tale. You start out full of hope – he makes you laugh. You think your love will conquer all, that love is all you need, and you’ll live happily ever after. You are wrong.

Within your first year he still makes you laugh, but you realize those little things you found annoying but bearable, like dirty underwear on the floor or the toilet seat up when you sit down to pee, are not so bearable while your bum is falling into the ice-cold toilet bowl in the middle of the night. By the seventh year, your young children are pulling you both in all directions and demanding your time; and while you have joy and laughter, you’re both sleep-deprived and short-tempered at times. By the 10th year, most of the time you two spend in bed involves less sex, less laughter, and more arguing and snoring. One of you might begin thinking it would be much easier to start a new life, away from the sight of dirty dishes and piles of laundry, the sound of nagging, and the feeling that the love has weakened and perhaps this is how it will be for the rest of your life…maybe you should leave. If you’re lucky, you’ll hesitate for a day. If you’re luckier, you’ll remember the laughter and hold off for a few weeks. If you’re luckiest, you’ll decide to work through the hard times and seek out professional help to repair and rebuild. There will be tears. There will be arguments. The children will hear you raise your voices and will see you cry. You might wonder if things will ever go back to the way they were. They won’t.

But accepting that things will never be the same may become the beginning of something new. One night, out on a date assigned by the marriage counselor, instead of realizing that you’re looking across the table at a stranger and getting a sinking feeling in your heart, you might realize you’re sitting across the table from a stranger and feel a quickening in your heart – who is this person and what are they thinking? What are their interests and what do they dream about? Do your interests and dreams align? You’ll find new things to make you smile and eventually laugh. Since this person is new to you, you’ll search for novel ways to entertain him. He will do the same. Because you’re both strangers, you’ll be polite. You’ll speak carefully and try to be considerate of his feelings. Sometimes you’ll remember sad times or past anger and it will boil over into confrontation, but you’ll both want to hold on to the new pleasure in your new lives, so you will start over. A year will pass and the new you will feel more secure. Your children will see you holding hands and having conversations. They will see you supporting each other and working to keep the family healthy.

By the 15th year, just when things are going great, your marital issues might take a back burner to the emerging teenager issues in your children. After butting heads with teenaged fury, you might turn to each other and find strength and solidarity. More importantly, he still finds ways to make you laugh and you hope that this stage will eventually pass. You both realize that you must take great care to nurture your relationship so you can both see this through and come out on the other side still holding hands.

Three months before your 18th wedding anniversary, you might find a lump in your breast. Suddenly you’re faced with losing everything. You look back and recognize that every moment you spent with him, even the painful ones, were precious. You feel desperate to live so you can have more of those moments. So, you fight. You fight crippling fear. And he is there next to you, holding your hand, making you laugh, helping you fight through the pain. He is with you as you both fight for your life. And when you have no more strength or hope, he gives you his. Each surgery becomes less fearful. Each time you wake up in a hospital, he is there with a cool cloth for your forehead and kisses for the rest of you. He reassures you that you’re beautiful inside and out, no matter what happens to your body. And he can’t help himself – he makes you laugh. You laugh until your stitches hurt, you laugh through your tears, and you laugh until you are healed.

In the second decade of your marriage, you could find yourself embarking on a new journey. You’ve given half of your life to your children and it’s time to take care of yourself. Your dream is big, and you know there will be sacrifices. You go back to school. You begin to feel a sense of déjà vu as dinners fall by the wayside and laundry starts piling up. The arguing begins and you wonder if maybe this time around things may not end well. You remember his unhappiness earlier in the marriage, when times were tough and he wanted to escape, and you’re filled with dread. What you don’t remember is that he’s not the same man you married. Time has changed him into a man who wants what’s best for you and the decades have forged in him a strength of character that would make sure your dreams come true. To your delight, he rolls up his sleeves and folds the laundry. Every time you turn around there are fresh flowers in a vase on your desk and handwritten loving post-its stuck on your computer. To your amazement, he’s a fantastic chef and he brings you your dinner while you are studying at your desk, many times accompanied by glasses of champagne. And to your astonishment, he considers it reasonable to contemplate a time in the near future when you will attend graduate school in a different town when you might have to drive several hours just to steal a weekend with each other. His exciting plans to sneak away from the house and race through the night have you giggling like you’ve just started dating.

Marriage is not a fairy tale. You start out full of hope – he makes you laugh. You think your love will conquer all, that love is all you need, and you’ll live happily ever after. You’re wrong. The prince doesn’t wake the princess with a simple kiss, he shakes her awake and she’s grumpy and she might have bad breath and she doesn’t know his name and they have to take time to get to know each other and maybe just maybe they have a chance to truly fall into genuine love. Even then, they don’t immediately go riding off into the sunset without a care in the world. First, they must fight through a wall of thorns, side-by-side, bleeding and crying. Love doesn’t fight thorns. Willpower, grit, and patience get you through that. There might be dragons to slay and fire to fight. Love doesn’t help you fight dragons, courage does. What love does is fuel all of that willpower, grit, patience, and courage. Love is not the How, it’s the Why. Only after all of that, scarred and older, do the prince and princess have a chance for a ride into the sunset and a happy ending. Marriage isn’t a simple fairy tale, it’s an epic legend.

Happy 23rd Anniversary, Markus. I love you!

Just a Spoonful of Sugar

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to sit down and write. What better time than when procrastinating the night before a midterm?

The dreaded Shitty Anniversary has come and gone, of Valentine’s day in 2014 when I discovered a lump in my right breast. It’s a private scary anniversary that I usually don’t share with anyone else because it was just my lump (remember we named it Barnard? HA) and me in the shower alone, that morning, and there really isn’t anything to celebrate. I mean, I guess I could buy myself some chocolates, or better yet, cheese to mark the occasion…

Funny thing, though, this year I actually forgot. Do you know how buzzingly amazing that feels, to realize that I accidentally sailed through the day without a dark thought in my head? In fact, I was just coming off an all-nighter, heading to bed at 5am after working on a research proposal for one of my classes, when I bumped into my furry man who had an armful of red roses and a sweet arts and craft project he had made with his own hands (and his hands bore proof of his battle with the glue-gun – just covered in dried strings of glue). I was woozy from sleep-deprivation and so bowled over with love that I didn’t take the usual moment to link Valentine’s Day with Doomsday 2014. And for the rest of the day, I was either sleeping or running around for my night class; just too busy to think about anything else.fullsizeoutput_76fe Maybe because we decided to celebrate our romantic dinner that weekend due to work and school or maybe because life seems so full and busy now that I don’t have the time to ruminate…whatever the reason, I never connected my bad memory to my new reality this year. That is, I didn’t connect them until tonight.

I’m taking a health psychology class and every week we cover health issues that have some kind of psychosocial aspect to the preventative, treatment, and post-treatment sides of care. Last week we studied substance abuse and addiction and I didn’t really feel a connection, even though I was a child of two chain-smoking parents for 18 years. Cigarette smoking makes me angry and being a hostage to second-hand smoke didn’t do much to contribute constructively to my discussion that week. This week we are studying cancer and other chronic life-threatening illnesses. My assignment tonight? I posted it below. It’s an informal assignment posted to our discussion board online, so we are free to personalize. The page numbers in parentheses are references to our text, please excuse them. Writing this little post for class brought back some bad memories that brought a lump to my throat. The difference this year is that the bad memories feel so far away as to be almost blurred by time. I’m so glad I took the time to record what I was feeling as I lived through that journey – it’s good for me to re-read it sometimes to remind myself that I’ve still got that strength within me. GANBARU, Friends. And I give thanks for the sweet return of the true meaning of Valentine’s day.

 

Chapter 11, Question 3: Use what you have learned in this chapter to write a checklist about positive ways in which people have learned how to cope with cancer. This checklist could be a valuable resource for someone you know (or even for yourself) one day.

  • Be your own best advocate and strengthen yourself with knowledge. Read about your specific cancer, making sure to use your critical thinking and using .gov, .org, reputable websites for information. Www.cancer.org  (Links to an external site.)and www.cancer.gov  (Links to an external site.)are both excellent sources of information and have links to support groups and forums where you can meet others in similar situations. As a supplement to your local support system, this can be a great way to pass the time when you are up all night worrying about what’s next (p.340).
  • Be informed about your treatment options and don’t be afraid to ask your doctors and nurses to explain anything you don’t understand. If you learn as much as you can before doctor visits, discussing treatment plans won’t feel as overwhelming and you will feel less helpless and more in control (p. 339). Cancer might have control of part of you, but you have control of choosing many different ways to kick its ass.
  • If you have many friends and members of your family offering their “thoughts and prayers” and asking you what they can do to help, swallow your pride and honestly tell them what you need, even if it’s help picking up the kids from school or lugging heavy baskets of laundry in your house. If you’re lucky, your social support will include genuine people who just need you to tell them what you need – sometimes that is simply the comfort of having them come with you to your doctor appointments. If you have a significant other, include that person from the very beginning of your journey – be honest about how you feel while remembering they may be as, if not more, scared as you are. You’ll be stronger if you can lean on each other (p.340).
  • If your cancer treatments do not include mental health therapy, ask for referrals to a therapist who is experienced with helping recently diagnosed patients with traumatic diseases. Your emotional intelligence is a major factor in your survival (p. 336). If you aren’t already self-aware and able to regulate your emotions in a healthy manner, it is important that you find an expert who can help you learn. If they offer guided imagery and mindfulness-based stress-reduction strategies, take them up on their offer – they can go a long way towards improving your quality of life (p. 341).
  • Don’t forget to eat well and to be as physically active as you are able. Your body is fighting its biggest battle and it needs the fuel and the strength to win. The protein, fruits, and vegetables will help you heal after surgery and the exercise will keep your heart strong while helping to combat depression and anxiety (p. 178). But remember, as well, that your body also needs rest to fight and heal. Don’t be embarrassed to admit you might need to nap or that you are tired and would like to just sit and do what makes you happy.
  • There are going to be many times when you will feel overwhelmed and anxious. The American Cancer Society has a hotline open 24/7, manned with supportive people who can find resources for you and help you cope. 1-800-227-2345
  • Not everyone has friends and family who live close by. It can be some of the more tiring parts of dealing with cancer, trying to field all the well-wishing phone calls and emails asking for updates on your progress. I kept in touch with mine by blogging my journey (suelinhess.com (Links to an external site.)). As I faced the unknown,  fought through the ugly realities of several surgeries, and even when I passed the danger and found good health, my writing helped me. It can be cathartic, pouring out fear or grief (p.342). After a short time, I began to find things to laugh about on the journey, and my stories became lighter and more hopeful. In the end, seven of my friends reached out to me separately, to let me know that through reading my story they were compelled to go in for their own mammograms. Four of them found very early stage breast cancer or DCIS (early stage growth that can possibly develop into carcinoma) and only had to have minimally invasive treatments to beat their cancer. Helping myself ended up spreading awareness and helping others – it made me feel stronger and encouraged me to continue pushing forward. This kept my attitude positive and may have helped me increase my post-traumatic growth (p. 338).

What is This Day?

Fourth of July 2018. I am having a difficult time finding a reason to celebrate on this day. I am having a difficult time celebrating the malformation of this once great country, fueled by the hatred in the White House and the bigotry in the hearts of so many of its citizens. I am ashamed of what we are saying and doing to other countries, I am ashamed of what we are doing to the people in our own country, and I am ashamed of my own naiveté. I never thought we needed to “make America great again” because I thought it was great all along.  Until now.

When I first learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance in 1stgrade, facing the American flag in the front of the classroom, with my right hand over my heart, I said it with gusto.  After all, I was part of the “republic, for which it stands,” part of the “one nation,” and I believed in “liberty and justice for all.” My friends thought nothing about their status as Americans, but I never took my citizenship for granted because my mother would tell us stories about how she earned her citizenship after marrying my father.  She earnedit.  She had to pass an extensive written test in English (not her native language) to qualify for her citizenship. When I was a child, the prospect of a simple spelling test would strike fear in my heart; my young mind boggled at imagining having to learn everything I could about the history and laws of this country, for the privilege of living here. That Pledge of Allegiance?  I bought that thing, hook, line, and sinker. My chest puffed with pride, and when I sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” tears sprang to my eyes; I sang it over and over at home so I could memorize every word. “The Star-Spangled Banner” chokes me up every time, even today. They touch me because I am keenly aware of the meaning of the words. We really were “the land of the free, and the home of the brave” because our ancestors fought for their independence, and then they turned around and paid it forward, allowing more of our ancestors to immigrate here. I was a child of the Seventies and an American diplomat’s daughter, living in Moscow during the Cold War.  You can’t even imagine what the Bicentennial meant to us in 1976.  Our country’s 200thbirthday! We could not have been prouder. I grew up with my parents constantly scolding us to behave properly in public because while we were living in foreign countries, we represented all American children.  If we were rude or behaved poorly, the citizens of those countries would think allAmerican children were rude or behaved poorly.  I learned the term “Ugly American” when I was seven years old: an American citizen abroad who makes an ass of himself and the country he represents, by throwing his privilege and entitlement around while belittling those in his host country.  I would never have predicted that this great country of ours would stoop to actually electing an Ugly American to be President.

The thing that bothers me more than the Ugly American in Office (our Constitutional checks and balances shouldn’t allow for any President to have a disproportionate amount of power), is my dawning realization that our country is populated by many more racists than I ever could have imagined.  I am not entirely naïve – I understand that racism will never go away completely because there will always be fear and ignorance to some extent in the world. But I really felt things were improving when we elected President Obama – it really felt like great changes were taking place.  Today, I have a sneaking suspicion that all of our forward progress didn’t actually eradicate any racism, it just forced the bigotry underground.  They were shamed into hiding over the years, as racism was publicly renounced. Now that we have an Ugly American in the White House, it is suddenly trendy to raise that particular freak flag, in the name of Nationalism. Wait. Doesn’t that sound familiar?  I seem to hear history screaming…and repeating itself. All the bitter resentment in the hearts of people who were so quick to blame other races for their problems, those embers of anger secretly kept smoldering under cover, fanned to a roaring fire, and fueled by the brazenly racist actions of the current leader…are we sure this isn’t July 4, 1942?

Are you one of the secretly racist? Do you get nervous if anyone with darker skin than yours walks by you on a sidewalk or sits next to you on a bus? Do you blame others for your economic problems? Do you resent having to share the rich resources of your country with others because you feel they should stay in their countries of origin? Check yourself. Chances are, a few of your ancestors left their countries to pursue happiness in the New World. Chances are a few of your ancestors may have murdered some of this country’s original residents just so they could get their hands on a few acres of land. Chances are a few of your ancestors then reached out and brought a few more of your ancestors over to join them in this country. Did you know that the very first arrivals on Ellis Island, back in the 1800s, were three unaccompanied children from Ireland? They travelled here to join their parents in America. Don’t you find it tragically ironic that we have done the opposite with our latest would-be immigrants, separating children from their parents? You may comfort yourself by pointing fingers at ICE and blaming them for these horrendous acts, but if you are U.S. citizens like myself, then you need to accept this responsibility.  This is our country. You did this. I did this.  We did this. Other countries of the world are shocked by this country’s callous attitude towards basic human rights and we should all hang our heads in shame. Not enough of us voted for the right things in November 2016. Too many of us were so caught up in voting against candidates we hated that we neglected to pay attention to voting for the right issues. In our division, we allowed the unthinkable to happen, and now we are living with the consequences. We made this mess, so it is on us to clean it up. In four months we have great chances to vote for people that can represent us and help us with this chore. Your citizenship is not just about the right to speak or the right to pursue happiness; it is also a responsibility to keep this country honest and noble. We have new opportunities every two years, to do such things, but right now we have to take our heads out of the sand and see that we have failed.

So, what exactly are we celebrating today? Surely, you can’t be celebrating the “national pride” that led to the election of a bigot. Surely, you can’t be proud of an Ugly American representing you, giving the impression to formerly friendly foreign countries that all Americans are racist, greedy, and selfish. Surely you can’t be hiding your head in the sand and throwing “hopes and prayers” at these problems like our country tends to do following the never-ending mass shooting murders of school children? Pride in this nation today is unwarranted. Americans who celebrated July 4, 1945 – now they really had something to celebrate – they actually stood up and fought against hateful oppression and won; and they fought that war not only for us, but also on behalf of people in foreign countries. Today, we cannot even protect people in our own country. Independence Day?  Are we celebrating an independence from rational thinking and compassion? I look around and see lots of flags waving, I hear about burgers and beer, and my poor dog experiences the fear of fireworks exploding. This is what this holiday has been reduced to.  It has been relegated to the shallow celebrations of those days of the year that we mark as special while not really knowing why. July 4, 2018. Happy Halloween, America.

Today is Just a Day

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

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

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

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

“Hi Mama Bear!

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Mother’s day Mama!!

Love,
Emmy”

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

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

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