- Breast Cancer
- Normal Stress
- Abnormal Stress
- Seasonal Allergies
My son is entering puberty. He’s going to be in a bad mood for several years and grow more hair. He will be hormonal, irritable and confused but when the years long transformative ordeal is over he will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person.
His adolescence coincides with what is supposed to be my second adolescence, or midlife crisis — or middle pause since I’m a woman. I’m also in a bad mood but my hair will thin. I’m hormonal, irritable and confused, but hopefully when my years long transformative ordeal is over I will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person. But chances are I will just be more wrinkled and neurotic.
My son and I grapple with the same existential questions: Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life?
Cliche dictates most people in a midlife crisis buy a sportscar. Or they get divorced, have a makeover or fall in love with youth culture. I think a midlife crisis is the natural outcome from realizing more of your life is behind you than ahead. You think, This is it? But I haven’t ________________ yet. So you make decisions designed to shake things up. But here’s the irony about shaking things up — it teaches you what your limitations are and maturity comes from accepting limitations.
I think the best part of my midlife crisis (so far) is cultivating a what the fuck attitude. I don’t mean the exasperated/befuddled “what the fuck???!” I usually exclaim. I’m talking about fuck it/why not/what the fuck do I have to lose kind of attitude that is remarkably liberating. It enables me to try new things like this hobby called blogging, or sign up to be the oldest student in graduate school this coming fall.
But previous to this I kicked off middle age with something drastic and insane by having a baby. While most of my friends prepare for an empty nest I’m preparing for preschool (again). My daily life has more in common with someone decades younger than me than it does with the lives of my friends. I potty train, play Candyland and know which one is Shimmer and which one is Shine.
We started thinking about having another baby while our oldest son was fighting brain cancer. We even discussed it with him. One day we asked if he’d like a baby brother. He said, “No thanks, we already have one of those.” Then he thought about it and said, “A baby sister might be nice.” He told us we should have more children, that we were the best mom and dad in the world.
Having more children didn’t seem crazy at that time, but it took a few years of fertility treatments before we finally had our daughter. We stuck with it because my husband and I knew one thing for sure — we loved being parents.
For those looking to shake up your shit, I totally recommend having a baby. Nothing adds new life to your life like adding a new like to your life. Plus, it’s the most optimistic thing a person can do. It requires a certain amount of faith in the future. You have to believe things will get better (or at least not worse). We decided to have a new baby at the lowest time of our lives, when we needed to find joy and attempt to lessen our pain.
Those last five words bear repeating because therein lies the optimism: attempt to lessen our pain. This is a very hopeful statement. It recognizes that we could change, over time, the debilitating pain we felt after our son died. The word “attempt” means we still had some strength in us to try something. The word “lessen” is significant because it’s not the word “heal” or “end” or “fix.” It lacks totality, as it’s impossible to fully heal, end or fix the grief after losing a child. However it acknowledges we had some power to change our situation — to make it more or less of what it was — but our pain would never be gone. The words “our pain” need no explanation.
I’m learning that second adolescence is a time to recycle one’s attitude and priorities. A time of physical change and readjustment. A time of questioning and repair.
Inevitably, I think about my mistakes. I can trace back and see several points when I made the wrong decision — my college major, quitting a job/taking the wrong job, not trying this or that. (I also see moments when I made the right choice — marrying my husband, having my kids, taking a risk on this or that). I can’t change the past, but I can attempt to lessen the impact of my mistakes (there’s that word again). I can rid my life of things that aren’t useful anymore — I’ll keep what I use and use what I keep. I’ll also detach (physically and emotionally) from people who drain me. I no longer have the patience or energy to pretend to be anything I’m not.
Oh, and I faced a breast cancer diagnosis this year (the ultimate Fuck You). Getting diagnosed with cancer puts everything into focus. It’s like perspective on speed. It forced me to face myself, let go of certain things and make decisions I had been putting off.
But all this middlepause makes me tired. From now on my motto is more midlife, less crisis.
My daughter is at an age where she talks a lot of nonsense. Her stories lack focus. Not to be too critical but they generally lack a beginning, middle and end. But hey, she’s not even potty trained so there’s still hope her skills can improve.
She uttered some such nonsense the other night while I was cutting potatoes for roasting. She stood next to me and said, “My diffwent mom teached me to do dat.”
Wait, what? Your different mom? And she let you use a knife? I had so many questions.
“She cut potatoes too,” my baby said.
I had to ask, “You had a different mom? From me?” She nodded. “What did she look like?”
“She have yellow hair. Yike me,” she said. I have brown hair.
“What’s her name?”
“Mom.” And then things got weird. “My baby sistahs ahr cute. Dem Beanie and Dot.”
I’ve heard of kids who sometimes talk about a past life and I wondered if this is what was happening. I actually believe in reincarnation — or I hope in reincarnation. When I was pregnant with my daughter I went to my older son’s grave and begged him to come back to me as the new baby. After she was born I looked for signs of him in her eyes and mannerisms. I never found any.
Something similar happened to me in my childhood. When I was about seven I told my mom she wasn’t my real mom. I said I was from outer space and I was going to wait outside for my space mom until she arrived in her spaceship to get me. I stood on the driveway that evening and looked at the stars. My mother stood at the dining room window and looked at me. It wasn’t until years later did I learn how much this freaked her out.
Now it was my turn to freak out. I looked at my daughter’s stunning green eyes. Mine are brown. “Beanie and Dot,” I said. “Are they twins?”
“Yeth,” she answered. “Dem twins.”
“When did you live with them?”
“Me unknow,” she said. Wow, I thought. She unknows. That’s deep.
The subject of her different mom and baby twin sisters came up again when I packed away some clothes she outgrew. “Don’t give dose away!” She protested. “Save dem for my baby sistahs!”
“Will I ever meet them?” I asked. “Me unknow,” she said.
“What was your different mom like?” I asked. “She never say no to me or yell,” she said. Whoever this different mom is I’m beginning to think she might be a lot better at this motherhood stuff than I am.
I only know a few details about “different mom,” like we have the same kind of slipper-socks, we both watch the news, and we both like hugs. I’m curious why she talks about her. Maybe there are things that feel familiar to us and we don’t understand why, so we make up a story to explain it to ourselves, even at a young age. Or maybe my daughter did have a different mom before she came to me, and is young and pure enough to remember bits and pieces of her previous incarnation.
I also wonder what I felt as a child that led me to tell my own mother that I wasn’t her real daughter, but a child from space abandoned on earth with a strange human family. I vaguely remember the feeling of going outside and waiting. Maybe we all feel like aliens in our own homes, different from the people closest to us and have no explanation for what we’re doing with them while we wait to finally find our home.
And maybe beyond the different hair and eye color, my daughter and I have much more in common. After all, what goes around comes around. Like an orbit.
I’ve written previously in “Like Space Mother, Like Daughter” about how my little girl surprised me with her claim she had a “diffwent mom” before me. I have since learned more details.
Her name is Butterfly, she has purple hair and wears skirts. She is married to Brian and they live somewhere cold (I asked her to show me on a map and she pointed to Alaska). Her siblings are baby twin sisters named Bella and Rosy, and a baby brother named Junior. Brian likes to fish and they eat what he brings home. My daughter says she was seven years old when she lived with them. She doesn’t know why she had to leave and live with me. She claims to love me and Butterfly the same.
I find it fascinating that Diffwent Mom’s name is Butterfly. The spiritual and symbolic significance impresses me, as many people believe butterflies represent the soul, and are a powerful symbol of endurance, change, transformation and resilience. The journey from caterpillar to butterfly is one of confusion and struggle before the creature emerges from the isolation of its chrysalis a more beautiful, enlightened, and less fearful version of itself.
The butterfly is a good allegory for recovery of any kind — from loss, grief or illness — all of which I know too well. You probably do too. A lot of people know what it’s like to go through a process of self-isolation and emerge braver and stronger.
I feel badly for Butterfly, if she truly exists somewhere she’s mourning her loss. She doesn’t know how much our little girl is loved and adored. She can’t see that she’s happy and glowing. I relate to her struggle, because I wonder about my deceased son every day. I wonder if his soul was returned somewhere in the world, being loved while he talks about his Diffwent Mom with brown hair who likes to wear flannels, whom he slightly remembers and hopefully misses. If this scenario is possible, I’d wish he’d still love me the same as his present mom.
I want Butterfly to know that I understand, and she doesn’t have to worry because I’m loving our girl enough for both of us. If I could write Butterfly a letter, I’d tell her she did a good job fostering our girl’s exuberant and silly soul which arrived intact, along with her big personality and feelings. She came with an overflowing capacity to charm and spread love, which fills my heart with joy every day.
My daughter talks about Diffwent Mom and “baby bwaddah and sistahs” several times a day. I think she was a protective and doting big sister because now she frequently wants to give them her leftover food, outgrown clothes and baby toys. She talks about their favorite foods, activities and colors. I’m fascinated by her stories, especially the details, like Junior won’t eat macaroni and cheese but her sisters love it. Her sisters have brown hair but Junior has no hair (“but him still cute”).
I’m oddly comforted when she talks about life with Butterfly. It gives me hope that maybe our souls, no matter where they travel in the world, never forget love. If that’s true, then my son will never forget me. My daughter’s fantastic tale about a possible past life makes me believe my deceased son could still remember me. His Butterfly.
So I’ve been super busy and I’m a little late catching up on This is Us…
I didn’t cry when Jack Pearson rescued his family from the fire. I didn’t cry when he went back into the burning house to save the dog and a pillowcase filled with memories. I didn’t cry when Rebecca crumpled into a heap when she saw Jack died alone from a heart attack in his hospital bed. I didn’t even cry at his funeral.
I’d say I held it together pretty well during the the most traumatic episode of This Is Us. Until…
That damn scene in the car salesman’s office. Someone please explain to me why I fell into breathless sobs during a scene about a car?
But it’s not a scene about a car. It’s a scene about everything…
As soon as Randall spilled the soda all over the back seat and Jack turned around to glare at him my eyes welled up, but it was Jack’s voice-over that got me crying. The notion that every stain, every scratch on the family car is a “battle scar.” I get this, because so much of family life is a battle — small ones usually, but sometimes the battles are huge and they leave scars on our flesh, fabric or fender.
For years our family lived in a huge sprawling city and so much of our lives wound up happening in our car. That car — a 2002 silver Mitsubishi Montero Sport — carried us through fifteen years of everyday errands and epic, cross-country road trips — oh, the amazing road trips! The spills and throw up and sand and mud and crumbs and stains! Plus the life moments and great conversations and arguments and plans!
That silver Mitsubishi Montero Sport was the first new car we ever bought. We needed a car larger than my Corolla SR-5 after the birth of our son. We needed something with a functional back seat. I remember being pregnant and waiting at a red light, looking at all the large SUVs that surrounded me. I thought, my little car can get swallowed by one of these things. I wanted something safer. In the words of Jack Pearson, I wanted us to be okay.
The plan was I’d keep the car sixteen years and then give it to our son. Sometime during the car’s fifteenth year, after it outlived our son for five years, I accidentally drove it going 5mph into a pole in the parking lot at Kohl’s. Nobody was hurt but the front end caved in. Our insurance company said the car wasn’t worth much (to them) and totaled it out.
My husband wondered if I hit the pole accidentally on purpose. (No.) He asked if I realized we were getting close to the time we said we’d give it to our son (I did.) He wanted me to get my eyes checked. (I didn’t.)
But maybe there is such a thing as accidentally on purpose.
Every once in a while in family life something comes up that marks the end of an era — a birth, death, graduation or moving houses. In a smaller way, even changing cars. Jack Pearson tells the car salesman that the Wagoneer he’s about to buy will someday tell his family’s story just by looking at it. I get this — we had a whole story planned for our Mitsubishi — but it never happened. Our car’s intended story never came to be.
I hate change. It’s exhausting. Our bodies age and change. Our hair grows and thins. Our clothes fade and fray. Our relationships…well, don’t get me started, those constantly change. Our family changes, and this is the hardest one for me to get used to. I miss the past before all the changes happened. I miss my parents. I miss my son. I miss the way things used to be.
Maybe, at some level, it’s possible I wanted to end an era. How could our Mitsubishi outlive our son? Maybe, at some level, I didn’t care that my attention was focused on looking across the parking lot for the exit rather than seeing what was looming immediately in front of me. One rule of Karma is there are no accidents, but don’t tell that to my insurance adjuster.
I understand what it’s like to want to be okay. At first it seems like a mediocre goal — one even I can reach. But it’s not easy. I should know. I’ve been trying to be okay for years and I’m not there yet.
Could it be possible I slow-crashed my car to get closer to being okay? Sure, there are easier, smarter and better ways to change cars.
But like I said, it’s not really about the car.
It’s been a week.
Here’s what I remember — Everyone is very calm in pre-op. The nurses have wonderfully sweet voices. Anesthesia has the biggest team, and I was visited by no less than three anesthesiologists who told me they would “take care of me” in the operating room. My surgeon is a rock star, a notion that is reinforced by her using a Sharpie to sign her name on the boob she would remove from my body. I remember scootching from the gurney to the table. Then that’s it.
There’s an empty space where my breast used to be. I refused to look at it for two days. When I finally did I thought, “So that’s what it looks like to get mauled by a tiger.”
Except there was no tiger. There was a scalpel.
I accidentally looked at it on the second day. It’s ugly. I’m not going to lie. It’s purple and scarred and folded/caved inward. There are sutures and lines and bumps and dents. And it hurts. It fucking hurts all up in my armpit. I’m on Norco for the pain.
My husband looked at it on the first day. He said, “Baby, remember it’s a start. When this is over you’ll have healthy and beautiful bionic boobs.”
I read about a phenomenon that occurs, mostly in veterans and amputees, who don’t fully realize a part of their own body is missing called Phantom Limb syndrome. This is how I feel walking around the house. I’m sure it sounds strange but I don’t feel like I’m missing a breast. I feel like normal — until I accidentally brush my hand along my chest and I don’t find a breast there. It’s like I need a neutral third party — my hand — to tell my brain something is missing. My brain can’t seem to figure it out on it’s own.
A good friend said if I want to spread the tiger story around town she would back me up. So next time you see me ask about the safari. Ask me what it’s like to fight a tiger and win.
I got to kill the fucking tiger. And I have the scars to prove it.
So I knew this day would come. I was told two months ago it would happen. That’s a long time to prepare. Or, if you’re me, it’s a long time to ignore reality.
The reality is I have DCIS breast cancer. Just one boob. The one on the right. So the next time you see me you can stare. It’s okay. I’d stare at your boobs too if you told me where your cancer was.
DCIS is the kind of breast cancer you want if you ever get breast cancer. At least this is what my doctor told me. It’s non-invasive, which means it’s confined to the breast and doesn’t metastasize in the body. They call it stage 0. It is 99% curable.
The cure is a mastectomy.
Whoa, right? Seems drastic for something some doctors call “pre-cancer.” I think so too. But the alternative is watching and waiting for it to become invasive cancer and this seems even more stressful. I’m not a cross-my-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best kind of patient. I’m a do-my-research-and-find-the-best-experts kind of patient. Which is why I’m having everything done at a major teaching hospital instead of a cornfield.
So here’s the plan. This Saturday is my birthday. I plan to get drunk and eat ice cream. I bought Malibu Rum and Sangria so I can pretend I’m on vacation, and a tub of organic mochaccino ice cream. In my drunken and dairy-bloated state I’ll probably convince a photographer friend of mine to take classy photos of my cleavage. (Is there any other kind?) Sunday I will detox and then it’s onward to Mastectomy Monday. I bought new pink satin button front pajamas and something called a Brobe, so I’m set. After I come home stoned on opiates I will lay in bed and watch Oscar screeners and possibly binge watch Game of Thrones. I hear I’m among the three people left on earth who never saw an episode.
I’m not happy about being out of commission for a week. Pretty sure chaos will ensue. But that’s minor and temporary. What I can’t shake is the feeling I’m running out of time. I’m not talking about mortality. I’m talking about my wholeness. The clock is ticking on the amount of time I have left to feel like “me.” After Monday, I don’t know what I’ll look like or how I’ll feel. After Monday everything will be different.
But until then, it’s booze and ice cream.