First to Fly

The world just got a little luckier, today; a little brighter. My oldest daughter, Emily, graduated from Mount Royal University this morning; her beautiful face beaming with joy. With this degree, she adds one more First to her list; one of many. She was the First person in my life that I ever worried about. I was told she had Intrauterine Growth Retardation when I was just 16 weeks along in my pregnancy; she just stopped growing. My OB/GYN told me there were only 2 possible outcomes: she would survive and be a midget (no joke), or she would not survive; my placenta was only working at 50% capacity and she wasn’t getting the nutrients she needed. He told me that we could induce labor when I had reached my 23rd week, and hope to give her the care she needed to thrive; but I had to at least get my pregnancy past 23 weeks because the state of Texas would not allow medical intervention for preemies born before that mark. With that goal in mind, I was put on total bedrest so she could have the full attention of my body and all the oxygen and nutrients that I otherwise would have used if I were up and running around. We played music on my tummy, I wrote and painted in my journal while talking to her, we read her poems, and I read books to her that I checked out of the library by the shelfful; all murder mysteries (I’m so thankful they had no negative effect on her). We watched every episode of Murder She Wrote and The Scarecrow and Mrs. King, from beginning to end. And I ate cheese; so much cheese. We can thank the Women, Infants, Children program (WIC) for all the blessed cheese, milk, and Life Cereal I could possibly consume. It worked. Every week, I had an ultrasound to check on her, and they gave me a sugary drink to get her to kick. I was told, if I could count 10 kicks in the span of one hour every day, she was doing ok. We had a C-section scheduled for the end of my 36th week, but days before the scheduled time, Emmy decided to jump out on her own; she was my First big surprise! She was my First child, and when I looked into her eyes, I realized that she was my First love as well.
My doctor laughed when he reported her weighing in at 6lbs 14oz; he said it was good she was a preemie, because if she had gone full term, she would have been a 10lb baby…all that cheese! It turned out that Emily was his First baby patient to bounce back so perfectly from IUGR; one more for her brand new list of Firsts.FullSizeRender

As Emmy grew, I followed the advice in all my baby books, preparing for every step. Well. Most babies start babbling “mama/dada” by 6 months and 2-3 word sentences between 18months and 2 years. They also typically begin walking around 9months. My baby? She started with the “mama/dada” and moved straight into full sentences. By her yearly exam, she hadn’t begun to walk, however, and I worried. The doctor looked me in the eye and reminded me, “Emily asks for anything she wants – she can clearly communicate to you…what motivation does she have to actually get up and walk to something she would like? She asks politely for the toy from her bedroom, and you run off to bring it to her. Stop. She won’t like it, but she will eventually learn that she needs to get what she wants by walking to what she wants. All will be well.”

FullSizeRenderShe learned her First little lesson in life; sometimes you have to get what you want by rising to your feet and pursuing it on your own.

Then we moved to California and I needed to work, so poor Emily had to go to Daycare for the First time, crying all the way; crying every morning. We eventually fell into a routine and a morning ritual that would calm her down by the time we arrived at the Daycare Center. Every day we would drive from our tiny apartment in Seaside, to the Daycare Center at the Defense Language Institute. Along the way, to distract her from her sadness, we would say, “Look, Emmy! There is the big tree! And as we passed it, we said, “Hi tree! Bye-bye tree!” “Look Emily, there’s the ocean! Hi Ocean! Bye-bye Ocean!” And our favorite was, “LOOK! The Car Tunnel!” As we drove through it (the last thing before entering DLI), we would call out to the lights in the tunnel, “Hi lights! Bye lights!” She learned that those things would remain there while she was in Daycare, and we could do the reverse routine on our way home. To this day, I’m not sure whether Emily does this or not, but I still whisper under my breath when driving through any tunnel, “Hi lights!, Bye lights!” Unfortunately, one of the worst Firsts she had to put on her list was that we worked such horrible hours in the hotel industry, and she was always the First to be dropped off at Daycare and last to be picked up. Through it all, though, she managed to keep her sunny smile and we enjoyed our days off together.

I was a bit overprotective of Emily. I remember when we met my husband, Markus, for the First time; he was shocked that I wouldn’t even let her climb the slides at the park. He proceeded, over the years, to teach her how to climb trees and how to ride a bicycle, She had her First adventures because he entered our lives. My girlie girl in the ruffled dresses suddenly became rough and tumble and trailed after him like a puppy. He became her First idol.IMG_5059

Eventually, after dating for a year, we flew to Markus’ hometown in Bavaria to meet his family. We were so nervous. The only advice his parents gave him before going to America, was “Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with an American Woman!” They’d had bad impressions from another American Woman through a different member of their family, and wanted to make sure Markus didn’t make a similar mistake. Well whaddayaknow, not only did he fall in love with an American Woman, but she was a Divorced American Woman…with a Child from her Previous Marriage. Oh the scandal! Needless to say, I was incredibly stressed, ready to jump down anyone’s throat who dared to say anything unkind to my baby. I shouldn’t have worried so. Emily worked her First magic spell that day at the Munich airport. One look at her, and Markus’ mother fell to her knees and exclaimed, “Call me Oma!” Emmy celebrated her 3rd birthday during that enchanting visit, returning home having wrapped each family member around her little fingers.FullSizeRender

Emily’s First time at a wedding was when we all got married. I say “we” to include her, because we recited our wedding vows to her, promising to love her always and to be a family together for the rest of our lives. I don’t know if she fully understood the solemnity of our promises; she spent most of the time swinging from our joined hands; about all that can be expected from a 3yr old.1935903_1236780639152_630307_n

Oh, let me not forget to mention another First…On the morning of our wedding, I went to get my hair done, and on the way home suddenly fell ill. I may or may not have pulled over into the parking lot of a 7Eleven and, being too embarrassed to get sick on the pavement of a parking lot, I barfed all over the inside of my car. I made it home, a smelly mess; shaky and feverish. Markus cleaned up the car, cleaned up his bride-to-be, dressed Emmy, fixed up her hair, and whisked us away to Monastery Beach, in Carmel, to be married by our good friend Colette. At the wedding dinner at Il Fornio (fancy for the 3 of us), I sat, white as a sheet, while Emily and Markus tucked in and devoured their meals. All of a sudden, Emily sat up and picked up the barf baton, and she ran with it; right there in the restaurant dining room. Markus made it almost to bedtime before he succumbed. I
think we had only one day off before returning to work, and we spent it taking care of each other; in sickness and in health, indeed. I could say that was Emmy’s First family drama, but I decided to pass that over, and instead chose: First Time Learning What Not to Say. That weekend, I brought my car to the car wash and asked them to detail it. I was in the middle of pointing out the gunk in the gaps between the gear shift and the seats, when little Emily popped her head in the door and squealed, “YAH! We gotta clean that UP! Mama barfed ALL over the place – it was SO GROSS!” I wish I could say that was the First and last time Emily has made me want to laugh (or cry!) and the last time I’ve wanted to pretend she was someone else’s child because of her “oversharing.” We’ll not reminisce about the pitchers of “Painkiller” potion that we imbibed in the Caribbean, after snorkeling last year, and the cute young man that enchanted her…and how she thought she was whispering her admiration of him to us, as we trailed behind him back to the ship, but she forgot to turn down the volume…ahhh, good times.

 

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More relevantly, Emily’s First day of school was epic. Markus and she walked to the elementary school just a couple of blocks from our house, a few days before school started, just to get the lay of the land. She was hopping up and down from excitement. One of the classroom doors was open, with a teacher working inside, and Markus told Em, “This is a kindergarten classroom – this might even be YOUR classroom! Doesn’t it look fun?” Emily, jumping up and down, “oh yes! OH YES!” The teacher came to the door, smiled at Emily, and asked her, “What is your name?” And Emily, in classic Sound of Music style, marched one step forward, said, “Emily!” and marched one step back, grinning her front-teeth-missing goofy grin. The teacher, Ms. Wendy Tuffli, fell in love with our silly girl, and after they went home, she did her own marching into the school office and told them, “That girl? Emily Something? I want her.” They transferred Emmy into her class, and Ms. Tuffli became Emily’s First teacher. You should have seen the glorious look on Emmy’s face on the first day of school, when she found out who her teacher was. Ms. Tuffli was Emily’s First inspiration (and Goddess to be worshipped). She was not only someone Emily adored; but she was, and still is, the ideal teaching model for Emily to aspire to be. I hope that one day in the future, a few days before school starts, when Emily is getting her own classroom ready, she gets a knock on the door from Ms. Tuffli.  That would make another perfect First day of school for Emily.

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Emily’s First time becoming a big sister happened while she was in kindergarten. She adored her baby sister, Hanna. But again, another unfortunate First came along. Emily caught the chicken pox and passed it on to 2 week old Hanna. Emmy had head-to-toe itchy scabs, but Hanna only got one giant pock mark on her jaundiced forehead; it made us giggle to see them together.

Emily met her First lifelong friend, Natalie, while we lived in California. They met at the swimming pool and it was friendship at First sight. We actually moved to Pacific Grove because of that little lady. They both went to Forest Grove Elementary School together, and celebrated their First Communion together. Last year Emily flew out to Arizona to cheer her on as Natalie graduated from university. First Besties are the best Besties.FullSizeRender

Before we moved to Pacific Grove, we also have to note that Emily had her First, and only, Around the Corner Friend. My friend, JJ, lived around the corner from our house, and Emily and her daughter, Emma, played together almost daily. We called them Em&Em. JJ introduced us to the Friendship Sandwich, and the girls shared their First friendship sandwich together; a very cool thing. You take a giant loaf of French bread, like a baguette, cut it open and load on everything you could ever dream of in a sandwich. Then, the 2 friends chow down on their respective ends of the sandwich until they meet in the middle. It was a big hit in our house.

This might be the best First of all. From the time we married and I changed my name, Emily was the only one left in the house with the surname Pierce. For a time, her birth father permitted us to hyphenate her last name, after she became sensitive to the family name differences while learning how to write in Kindergarten. But instead of making things better for Emily, things became harder for her. Hanna was born…Johanna Treppenhauer. Then Simon was born…Simon Treppenhauer. She grew sadder and sadder. Back in preschool, one day, one of the preschool teachers insisted that Emily needed to refer to Markus as her “Stepdad,” instead of “Papa Markus.” Emily argued that  she had 2 Papas: Papa Scott and Papa Markus; and what was a Stepdad anyway? After the complicated list of all the proper labels for different members of families of divorce was explained to her, and after being told that, according to her stupid stupid stupid preschool teacher, Papa Markus was not actually blood-related to her, she came home a sobbing mess. Why wasn’t she blood-related to Papa? What WAS blood-related, anyway?! Was Papa not her Papa because he was a Stepdad instead? That was Emily’s First heartbreak. I can’t say I reacted well. There was much inner-cursing of the preschool teacher, much outer crying for the loss of happy innocence. We tried to tell her that labels were not needed in our family, and that Papa was Papa because of the love in our hearts, but she could not be consoled. Sudden I remembered my father, when I was little, swearing himself as Blood Brother with a close friend, and the ceremony that was involved. I jumped to my feet and cried, “QUICK Emmy! Peel your knee scab! Markus, peel that scab on your arm!” And I grabbed their limbs and squished them together, scab to scab. Gross, but effective. I now pronounce you Blood-Related. And that alone could have been the best of all. But there is more. When Emmy was in kindergarten, things began to develop into a very difficult and messy situation with her birth father. She began to have nightmares after a couple of years. When we could not find a way around things, we took legal action to protect her. In the end, her birth father gave us permission for Markus to adopt her. She was turning 10 at that time. She spoke to her birth father and thanked him for giving her the greatest birthday gift she could ever have asked for; to be able to share the same last name as her brother and sister, and to finally feel 100% part of the family. Emily’s First day as a Treppenhauer was a great day.FullSizeRender

Years passed, our family grew, and we moved to Hawaii. The Big Island was the First place we ever lived where Emily blended in – she had a wonderful 5 years there, living like an island girl, making friends and loving the sun. I think she may have left a large part of her heart back there.

When she was halfway through 10th grade, we moved to Banff. Her First time in a foreign country; her First time learning the importance of being diplomatic (“Whaddaya mean I can’t loudly argue with my social studies class about America? We’re GREAT!”). And another not so great First. For the First time, Emily struggled with school. She struggled so hard that she started to hate it. It took just one inept teacher, and the damage was so bad we worried she wouldn’t make it to university. Not surprisingly, Emily decided to take a gap year before going on to college. She felt so awful about school. I may have thrown a few tantrums about her decision. In hindsight, it was good for her to take that break. She worked in town and tried to save for college, all while growing bored and looking forward to the changes university would make for her life. Then, Markus was transferred to Jasper. All of a sudden, Emmy would have to live on her own for the First time. This was also the First time our family had to move to a new town, leaving one of us behind. Broken-hearted, we still urged her to stay where she was and to see it as practice for living at university in the Fall. She was brave. She was braver than I have ever known her to be.

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And she did it! All of a sudden, it was Fall and her First day of school all over again. I drove down from Jasper to help her move into her dorm. Car packed to the ceiling, we made that journey together. I thought I couldn’t possibly be prouder of her than I was that day.MqfU7WEHRwybSiJSyEVl9g_thumb_48b3

I’ve never been more wrong. Today, I look back at her life and think, “she’s accomplished so much! How can she ever top this?” But she already has. Through Emily’s shining example of perseverance in the pursuit of a higher education, I have been taking my prerequisite classes for nursing school, with a goal to start next year. Markus is going to enroll in university this Fall, to work towards his MBA. Hanna is finishing up her first year at the University of Washington. And Simon will begin his Junior year in high school this Fall, with an aim to start university in 2019. There is going to be a brief moment over the span of the next two years when all of our lives will align, and every single member of this family will be enrolled in a university at the same time. Emily is my First inspiration. I know this seems like a lot just to say, “Happy Graduation,” but there is so much more I didn’t even have time to include. One day, I want the opportunity and time to sit down and write out all the bright details of her wonderful life. From her giant gap toothed smile on the first day of kindergarten, to this, her beautiful, serene smile on her last day of school; what a transformation. Whenever that time comes, I just know there will be a mountain of new adventures to share with the world. Emily will be off to her Master’s program at the University of Calgary in the Fall; one more First day of school. Please join me in my cheering: BRAVO EMILY!!!

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Stupid Tits and Other Cruel Childhood Memories

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

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

 

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

A Little Snippet of Family History and My Culture

I had to write a few paragraphs in my Intercultural Communication class, today.  The question was assigned by my teacher, a unicultural white woman, who, surprisingly, continues to mistakenly believe that all of her students come from families of one race, one religion, one culture, and who remain in the same town they were born in.  This is not the first time I have had to step away from the herd and be the odd man out. Would the real 3rd Culture Kids please stand up, please stand up, please stand up…

“Question: Identify two elements of your culture’s history,  Think of: the geography of the locale you were enculturated, historical events within your culture, myths, heroes (not marvel/comic), or stories that have impacted how you think and you see the world today.  Analyze the impact of these two elements on your psyche today.”

This is what I wrote (pg references were just to terms in the textbook):

Elements in my personal culture’s history exist due to a blend of cultures: Chinese and American (Midwestern United States). Although raised in different countries, in entirely different circumstances, both of my parents shared the values they placed on strength in the face of adversity and family as the center of all in the face of change; these are the values I have continued with my own children.

Both of my parents’ constructions of worldviews (pg 195) could trace their origins to their individual cultures’ histories (pg 195) and the emphasis they placed on behaving to make our ancestors proud.  Although raised as an American living overseas most of my life, and possessing a culturally differing perspective of historical events than my mother and father had, I share these values due to the independent, protected environment we built around our family as we travelled.

From my mother’s perspective, she was born while the Nationalist Party was in control of the government in China.  When the Communists rose up in revolution, both of her parents (my Nai-Nai and Yeh-Yeh) dedicated that part of their lives to serving as spies for the Nationalist government.  My mother spent the first 10 years of her life on the run with her parents, or hiding with her sisters and brother; sheltered by relatives or friends of the family while my grandparents were undercover.  When the Communists took over, my mother, her parents, one sister, and her brother were able to escape to Taiwan. Her oldest sister chose to stay behind with her husband and was subsequently tortured, which haunted my mother until the day she died.  My mother was only 10 years old at that time, but she vividly remembered her parents’ passion to fight against a government that would choose to imprison the academics, the artists, and anyone who did not follow Chairman Mao. Coming from a family of nobility, they all had to start from scratch in Taiwan; my mother publishing news articles and selling her paintings to pay her way through university.  Through it all, as many Chinese did and do, she was fully supported by her family; they were her world. On the other side of the world, my father was raised in the Midwest; Davenport Iowa.  His family, like many Americans, had ancestors who were part of the early settlement of America; his great great aunt was one of the first women to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862.  She staked a homestead in Wyoming, persevered, and against all odds successfully gained ownership of the land.  That land has been passed down to each generation on my grandmother’s side since then; shared equally by siblings. Today, shared by my father, aunt, and uncle, the former homestead is uninhabitable marshland; its monetary value only existing in mineral rights. However, its historical and cultural significance in our family is invaluable.  When I cried as a child, tired of moving to different countries for my father’s job, I was admonished and told, “We are a family of nomads and pioneers; your ancestors survived being uprooted; they grew stronger with each experience. You have brave blood!  And anywhere you move, you are home.  Your family makes it so.” I never truly understood until I grew older.  Only as an adult could I fully appreciate the past and how it helped me to establish my own identity.  It was one thing that I could draw strength from in a world full of uncertainty and change. It was unique and nobody else could lay claim to it; it made me feel special.

Today, I am continuing the legacy; the history and my family’s unique culture that I share with my children.  We also travel the world for my husband’s job.  And each time we move, when one (or more) of my children is sad or rebellious, I tell them, “Be strong.  Your family is made of nomads; strong pioneers who might be frightened of change, but still they fight to survive. You are never alone; we are each other’s best friends until you make more friends in our new home.  Home is not a geographical place; home is where your family is.”

 

Do as I Say, Do as I Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Guten Nacht, Schlaft Gut, Bis Morgen…

One of Markus’ earliest childhood memories began by his begging his Papa for them to go camping together. Nobody in the family had ever camped before, but Papa loved his son so much, he asked to borrow a tent and other equipment from a neighbour, and he and little Markus headed out from their Bavarian home to Papa’s favourite hiking spot in Northern Italy. It turned out that there were no campgrounds to be found, so Papa went into a Bed & Breakfast and charmed them into allowing Papa and Markus to set up the tent in the hotel garden so they could “camp.” A little boy’s dream came true because his Papa’s heart was big enough to leave his comfort zone to make his little boy happy. And true to Papa’s jolly nature, he and the innkeepers remained good friends their whole lives.

One of Emily’s earliest childhood memories is of her Opa (Markus’ Papa) standing with her in his living room, classical music blaring out of the stereo, while they both held sticks and “conducted.” He would affectionately scold her for walking barefoot in the house, without her “Schlapfen” (slippers) to keep her from catching cold.  Every night, he would give Emily “bussies” (kisses) and say, “Guten nacht, shlaft gut, bis morgen.”  “Good night, sleep well, see you in the morning.” At Christmas, he would disguise himself as Saint Nicholas and tell the children all the good things about them, and how they should improve the next year; little Emily stared in awe, totally believing. Markus’ whole family learned English for us, and Emily (a toddler) did her best to “teach” them. She had a special word she made up: Bootanana. Opa would ask, “Emily, what is Bootanana?” thinking he could increase his vocabulary. Then, Emily would point to a chair, “That is Bootanana, Opa.” And then she would point to the window, “And that is Bootanana.” And to Opa’s nose, “And THAT is Bootanana. Everything is Bootanana!” And then they would laugh and laugh. Opa absolutely adored Emily; so much so that I wondered if there would be any love left for brothers and sisters. But when Johanna and Simon came along, he overflowed with even more love. His heart just grew bigger.

One of my earliest memories of Paul (Papa/Opa) is hearing his booming laughter. Markus’ big sister Steffi would make silly jokes, and the whole family would burst into laughter, Paulie’s (pronounced “Powlie”) face would turn beet red, all the way up to the top of his shiny bald head, as he fought to catch his breath between giggles, tears streaming down his face. Sometimes, when he would call us on the phone wherever we were living, he would say something just to make me laugh, because he said the sound made him happy. He loved his God, he loved his family, he loved to laugh, he loved his music, he loved his FC Bayern futball team, he loved his wine, he loved his food. He loved.

Today, Opa slipped away from us, leaving behind aching holes in our hearts. After a painful and confusing time of struggling against his glioblastoma and his Alzheimer’s, he fell into a deep sleep, never to awaken. Throughout his life, the strength of his faith stayed true and unwavering. To the end, I believe he was comforted with the knowledge that he would be loved all the way to Heaven. And in Heaven, he would be healed and strong again. Our loss, Heaven’s gain. We miss you, Opa. You will always be loved.  Guten nacht, shlaft gut…

Signs of Life (Ch. 8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no. chemotherapy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Me Worry? (Ch.7)

One of the things you’re told to do before going in for chemotherapy, is to get your shit together and make the two medical appointments you dread: the dentist and the gynaecologist. During chemo, your immune system may be weakened, and an infection from a cavity could throw a wrench in the works. As well, chemo can sometimes throw off the results of a pap smear, so it’s best to get one BEFORE beginning chemo. Yee. Haw. Suzy Creamcheese gets a cavity search.

Luckily, the little dental clinic in this town is nothing like the medical clinic. The receptionist is crazily friendly, grabbing my book out of my hands and exclaiming that she LOVES this author and she knows I will love it too, and do I like mysteries? And what good ones have I read lately? And as I listed the names of my favorite authors, she actually wrote them down. So cute. Then the dental hygienist, who looks exactly like my friend Mandy Jackson, brought me to a comfortable chair in an office with giant picture windows looking out to the mountains. She gently took my x-rays (truthfully the most uncomfortable part of a dentist checkup – I shouldn’t complain), and introduced me to my dentist. Of course, I promptly forgot his name (thank you, Hashimoto’s), but he was very friendly and informative. When he understood I was heading into chemo next month, he focused right away on the molar in the very back of my mouth, on the left side. 3 years ago, I got a root canal and apparently the filling part wasn’t done well, and there was a teeny tiny hole in it. The x-ray showed a shadow at the end of the root of the tooth, and the dentist suspected it was slightly infected. However, to confirm it, he would have to send me to a specialist, which could take a month before anything could be done. Then he paused. I blurted out, “Do I really need that tooth? It looks like it’s mostly crown anyway, with just a little bit of roots – would you consider just pulling it out?” His eyes widened, and he said, “Well, I wasn’t sure if you would be able to see it that way…if there is any tooth that needs to be pulled, I would say that would be it, unless you had the luxury of seeing the specialist and taking the time for more elaborate dental work. I think you have more pressing matters coming up, and with your positive attitude, we can get this pulled on Monday and have at least 5 days to monitor if anything goes wrong – are you up for it?”

Am I up for it? Yank away, my dear dentist, yank away. There is no way on this earth, that a pulled tooth could hurt any worse than my surgical adventures thus far. And it’s not like it’s my front tooth. I would not be keen on looking like Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, no sir. So May 12th is Molar Monday. Hello, Jello! And maybe if the Tooth Fairy is feeling very generous, he could leave a little blue box under my pillow, instead of a quarter?

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