Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Day 2,493: Counting Time

Almost 2,500 days ago, I began writing this.

Four years ago today, I received my second cancer diagnosis.

Two days ago, I found out after a series of tests that I need a biopsy of a painful lump in the exact same location as my previous two cancers. I have to wait until a week from today for the biopsy, which might as well be a year. It could be scar tissue, or fat necrosis, or cancer. A round of mammograms and ultrasounds did not help the radiologists determine which it might be, so off I go. If the biopsy is inconclusive, I will go for an MRI. They have already prepared me for that.

About three weeks ago, I found the lump myself, like I did both times previously. I went on vacation right after discovering it, like I did last time. I don't regret that.

For four years I have had no breast tissue at all on the left side. If you aren't familiar with breast cancer on an intimate level, you might not know what this means. It means I have nothing--no tissue save skin and muscle and a saline implant that is half the size of my other breast, since it exists only to hold up my clothes and I asked for it to be that way, so I could be most comfortable. How could a cancer recur here? Well, hell if I know. If that's what it is, I most likely wouldn't be considered a "local" recurrence. It would have to be in my chest wall, on my rib, or something.

For seven years, I have written that this life is not about what we deserve. It is not a contest. As Augie parroted back to me a year ago: you don't have to win. And as I would add, winning and losing isn't the right construct.

For as long as I can remember, I have been acutely aware of my body and its fragility as a carrier of my self. I've never taken credit for my good luck with my body and I've never taken blame for my bad luck with it.

For seven years, I have gone about my business to the best of my ability in the shadow of this terrible disease. It doesn't appear to want to leave me alone. I've done everything I could do and many things it seemed like I couldn't do but did anyway. I've tried. It's difficult to explain how simultaneously impossible and easy it is to live your life in a normal fashion with a loaded and cocked gun perpetually at your head. I used to care about trying to explain it, but I don't anymore. I am sure I am a worse friend than I used to be, a more contrary and pigheaded and angry person than I've always been, if that is possible, I'm sure I should have cared about things over the last seven years I could not or chose not to care about. I'm sure I could have been better, if I had been different. But I am not, and I've done my best, and I will continue to do my best.

For three days now I have been anxious and nervous but not worried, not exactly. That's a different type of emotion, like guilt or regret. You feel it if you think there's something to be done, something you could do differently to change the outcome. I don't feel that, even if many people think I should.

About a month ago, Gabe and I watched the film "Bridge of Spies." I loved the Soviet spy character. He knew he might die in a firing squad or be disappeared. He was asked repeatedly if he was worried. He responded: "Would it help?"

For almost 42 years I have been alive. For almost 13 years I have been married. I have been a mother for over 11 years, which means my children have grown exponentially in the past 7 years we were not promised to have together. I have worked continuously for at least 25 years.

Time is so short, and also so long. While I go about my daily life with my family and friends and work, that is what I tell myself.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Day 2,450: This is Eight



I'm a day late in posting my birthday blog for my son. But I think I can be forgiven--we were enjoying a beautiful weekend away, and I just didn't have time yesterday to finish this. So here it is.



Dear Augie:

Today, you are eight. We are up at the lake in the north woods for your birthday. The last time we were up north for your birthday, it was the first birthday you had ever had. I made you a cake, and it was the only chocolate cake you ever ate because you don’t like cake and you don’t like chocolate (except for Portillos’). Other than that, I don’t remember much. I had just learned three weeks earlier that I might not see more of your birthdays. You had to stop nursing overnight, you were the only one I cried around, and your life changed before it had really started. I’d like to think that isn’t true, but it is.



I have writers block every time I try to write about you. It’s hard to know what to say. I have said that I never used the word “exuberant” until I met you, and that’s the truth—both that you are absolutely exuberant, and that I’ve had the privilege to meet you, again and again. That’s what we do, we meet our kids, every step of the way as they become themselves.

All of the time, it’s a surprise. I’m surprised when we almost hit a deer and the first thing you say is “Isaac Newton’s first law: an object in motion remains in motion.” I’m surprised when you say you don’t believe in God but you believe in reincarnation because you think people deserve a second chance. I’m surprised and saddened at how you see death around every corner, and yet relieved that your sense of death’s reality might stop you from being self-destructive. It’s surprising the thought you put into things. This year, you decided you had to have a small birthday party, in part because you don’t like feeling overwhelmed but also because you didn’t want anyone to feel left out.

I usually write such long posts, but as I said—I get writers block with you. Maybe it goes back to that symbiotic relationship where my potential death brought you to life. Or maybe it’s because we are so much alike, in so many ways that aren’t immediately obvious. And so I could say so many things to you, but I won’t. I will just say this. I want you to grow up and grow old and change, because that is what people do, when they are lucky. But because you are only eight, and you might not remember what you were like back then, I am hoping for you that you do not change these important things about yourself:

Stay empathetic;

Keep giving your guy friends huge bear hugs every time you say goodbye;

Always look up to your sister;

Stay the loudest cheerleader on every team;

Keep singing, and dancing, especially when you’re not supposed to;

Continue to read books like they’re drugs;

Don’t forget how short this all is, and how fragile, because I know you already know.

And as I did with your sister on her birthday, I will give you the last word. For your poetry lesson in your class this year, I asked you all to write, among other things, a poem describing an everyday thing. Many kids wrote about their dogs, their siblings, or their toys, and I enjoyed them all. You wrote this:

Poetry
By Augie Sterritt


Poetry is different
than any other writing
because it can be short, long
or just in that spot where
you think it’s perfect

And that’s what I really wish for you—stay right there, in that spot. You’re already there. Happy birthday, Augie.

I Love you.

--mom

Monday, May 22, 2017

Day 2,442: Cyst

It’s hard to describe. I no longer find myself inexplicably more angry and impatient for two weeks before my annual mammogram. The anxiety lasts for maybe a day before and it isn’t terrible; after all, my right breast has never showed any problems. I am not BRCA positive and I have no greater chance of getting breast cancer in my right breast than most “normal” women. Now that the breast that went wrong is gone, it’s statistically extremely unlikely…

Wait. What the hell am I doing? Am I explaining myself to you? And who are you, and why do you need an explanation? Why am I being defensive? Why do people with terrible illnesses have to explain themselves to people without them? The truth is that I know 3,000 times more about breast cancer than the average person and not by choice and yet here I am, explaining, justifying. I hate this, when I do this. And yet…

Can you blame me? After being profiled in the Huffington Post several years ago for having a lumpectomy, I read comments from readers who decided I was “vain” (even though that surgery was medically advantageous for me since it included radiation) and, even… that I “didn’t really love my children.” You read that right. I never wrote about that here, did I? But yes, a man—of course, a man—who knew nothing of medicine or cancer and less of me, said that I did not love my children because I didn’t have a mastectomy. Let that sink in for a moment. Another commenter implied that I deserved to die, since I cared more about my looks than my life. That person apparently believes you need breasts to survive—since no human being has ever died from breast cancer local to the breast, and metastatic breast cancer gives not one shit whether you had a lumpectomy or mastectomy in the first place. But every single one of those commenters believed that from reading a few lines on the internet, they knew more than people with breast cancer, and the people who have dedicated their lives to studying and fighting the disease, and that they were in a place to pass judgment. And we feel that judgment clearly, those of us who might die young through no fault of our own. And we attempt to educate, to explain. And it’s bullshit.

So cut me some slack. And let me try this again.

It’s hard to describe.

The nightmares are intense, movie-like, and seemingly unrelated. They only last a night. You can’t sleep in, because you can’t really sleep. You go about the morning, unloading the dishwasher, making breakfasts and lunch. You have taken the day off and your husband is coming with you for the mammogram. He always comes with you. This time you end up almost wishing he wouldn’t. You fight in the car, he is wholly unable to comfort or distract you and you resent him for not trying. He claims to be quiet because he’s tired and concentrating on driving and you find these petty complaints enraging. You think he is making this horribly anxious day be about him, and you aren’t entirely wrong, and it’s one of those taboo things people who have had cancer rarely discuss—when the people they love disappoint. It’s real though, and it’s hard.

Once you are finally in the mammography suite, you realize, as you always do, that he can’t come with you anyway. You go inside and are ushered through various people checking you in and then you are separated by multiple waiting rooms. So why does he come? You know the answer, which is that the very first time you ever walked in this room is the time your life changed. You never got to have a normal mammogram as a woman without breast cancer. You don’t know what that’s like, to have this be a routine test. So he comes with you, if for no other reason than someone has to drive home if you need to fall apart.

You are still in the diagnostic camp, though they scan you like it’s screening: just two pictures, nice and easy. You go back to the waiting room. And then, you are called back in, for another picture because “we just saw some tissue there and need another angle.” You ask for clarification and they don’t give it to you and you know they aren’t supposed to tell you anything. The mammography technicians are supposed to be gods of the poker face, all sympathy and no information. That aspect of the job must be much tougher than contorting breasts into metal machines.

You have one more picture taken and go back to wait. And then, a different woman comes for you. She says, “I will take you back to this area and then we will get your ultrasound going, ok?” You stop right in the middle of the hall.



What ultrasound?

Oh my God, she says. They didn’t tell you? I am so sorry-- they are supposed to tell you. They saw some tissue on the mammogram and this is just to clear it up. Oh God, someone should have told you.

You cannot even speak. You know why women get ultrasounds. It is to confirm the breast cancer everyone knows is already there. You have had two of these before, and saw four tumors, three the first time, one the second, round and clear as day on those ultrasounds. But those times—you had at least felt the lumps yourself. You knew something was there. This is totally out of the blue.

OK, you say.

God help anyone who is in the room when all you can say is “OK.”

You follow her. She is nervous and talking too much. You feel sorry for her, and realize if you lived with her or loved her, you would hate her just a little bit right now. It is in her being a stranger that her awkwardness reads like empathy. It is because she doesn’t know you that she cannot say “well this is some bullshit” or “Jesus Christ I can’t believe they didn’t warn you” or just “what the fuck.” She is just doing her job and she sees thousands of women like you. Or so you think, until she doesn’t stop talking. And you wonder what the look in your eyes looks like to her. She seems afraid of you, and you aren’t even talking. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s your silence that throws her off.

She describes the procedure to you. You tell her: “I know. I’ve had two of these before, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer twice before.” She changes tactics and tells you about the gel and where to position your arm. You contort yourself so that even though the computer screen is above and behind you, you can see it. You watch her and she watches you watching. She stops talking. After a while the circle comes into view, perfect in its roundness. You see her type “4 cm.” You think that’s impossible, that is huge, all three of your tumors together weren’t that large.

It’s hard to describe what you think about. First, you begin to think about not seeing your kids grow up, but it’s too hard, so you stop. You think about how you will tell your boss, since you just started your job. You wonder if you will have to quit. In the next breath you think “I will have to delete facebook.” You honestly cannot imagine sharing with anyone if this is the third time. Your instinct is to never speak to anyone again. You think about how skinny and fit you used to be and how you are all right now but not in your best shape and yet well, I guess none of that matters now and it never did. You think about the fact that if you have cancer again someone will say it’s because you didn’t have a scientifically unwarranted mastectomy. Someone will say it’s because you gained 10 pounds. Someone will say it’s because you couldn’t not drink whisky sometimes in this political environment. Or, more likely, no one will say this to you, but they will think it. Others will think how unbearable it is for someone to have cancer again and again and they will leave. You are not being cynical. It’s the truth. The cynicism comes in with not wanting to talk to anyone. You think about how you will get through the day because thinking beyond that is impossible.

You think about circles and clocks. She measures your breast and writes down the “time” of the circle. She gives you a towel to wipe off the gel and nervously asks you if you need another. You know that she knows you don’t need one, and you vascillate between feelings of annoyance and tenderness towards her nervousness. You begin to put your clothes back on and you know that your silence, or maybe just the look of silence in your eyes, is killing this young woman just a little bit. She says that she will get the doctor, the radiologist, and it will be just a minute. You nod at her, silent. She reaches for the doorknob and says, quickly and nervously, “it doesn’t always mean anything. They just have to make sure, I wouldn’t assume it’s anything.”

You look at her, curiously. You think, huh. Well, actually, the only times I’ve done this, it’s meant…something. And we all knew what. You smile, and it’s the worst thing you could have done, you can see it in her eyes.

The door closes. You think about crying. And by that I mean you think about it, intellectually. You remember crying. All the time after your first diagnosis, making you feel like someone else. In the changing room after you found out the second time—you cried then fast and furious. You haven’t cried for more than a moment in years and years. You wonder if your husband is crying, because you told him about the ultrasound.

In the time it takes you to contemplate the nature of tears, the door opens. A radiologist you haven’t seen before is standing there: a tall, handsome white guy with perfect hair and one of those big, charming, toothy smiles. “Hello!” he booms, looking straight into your eyes. “You have a cyst, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about, everything is fine! My name is Dr. X.” And he takes your hand to shake it and then holds it with both of his. You can’t help but wonder if he learned all of this in medical school or charm school or what. You get mad at yourself for wondering. You say “I’ve had breast cancer twice and the only times I’ve had ultrasounds was to confirm my cancer. So when you called me back here, I assumed the worst. And I saw what she was looking at—it was a circle.” You realize you have momentarily broken the strength of his poker face and you feel somewhat guilty as he is genuine and caring and that is why he told you right away. “I like to tell people the good news before I even tell them my name,” he had said. You wonder again how he learned that, and half hope it was from some woman screaming in his face when he did things the other way around. You reiterate: “I saw it on the screen.” He recovers well, and just pulls up the images on the computer without even trying to convince you otherwise. He shows you the mass. “You see, it is completely black inside. Breast cancer is gray, or shadowy, or white. This has absolutely nothing but fluid inside of it—NOTHING. We aren’t even worried about this at all. See, here, you are coming back in a year for a screening mammogram!” He sounds excited and shows you the piece of paper releasing you as if it’s an award. He is so earnest, and attentive. You feel a little sorry for him too.

And then, as you are leaving, the technician pauses at the door: “it’s just that we can’t say anything. We have to wait for the doctor.” She looks at you imploringly, and leaves.

You understand her now. She knew you were fine, and could not tell you. She knew how scared you were and that she had the information to give to you to alleviate that fear and she could not give it to you. And you realize: This is what she does for a living, every day. Every day she stands inside people’s fear and suffering and bears witness to it. She sticks to her part, and it is hard for her. It is hard for the doctor too. But, most of all, this is hard for you. It’s ok to admit that, and to claim it: This is hard for you, most of all.

You head over to the oncologist and he agrees to see you 90 minutes early which is unheard of, but you realize he has the results of what just happened. Your blood pressure is high, through the roof for you, and the nurse just laughs and doesn’t seem concerned at all. Your doctor comes in, this man you have been dancing with for seven years, and does the same cursory exam and asks the same questions and tells you the same things: “you look great. Come see me in six months. Enjoy your summer.” When you ask him about the cyst, he tells you it’s common, you are just starting your period this month, it’s nothing to worry about. You look at him and he at you and he says something to you that you know he doesn’t say to everyone: “They are very conservative. You wouldn’t be in my office if it was anything.” You know these are the same words another technician told you years ago: “If they were worried, you’d be on the (biopsy) table right now.” They have never messed around in this place. Unfortunately, they have never been wrong. You ask him if there’s anything else you should do, knowing he will say no, and he says “Medically…you’re fine. You look great,” and he walks out the door.

Medically, you’re fine.

That’s it, you realize. That’s his way of empathizing. His stone face and monosyllabic voice and total unconcern with any of your problems save CANCER, all of that masks the fact that he, too, does this every day. He watches women fear and suffer and die. He has to tell people they are dying. He can tell the difference between suffering you will live through and suffering you won’t. He knows the toll it takes on the people who go through it. He knows it and the technician knows it and the radiologist knows it. They just handle it in very different ways, in very imperfect human ways.

And you are reminded again that they are all very good at this and also no better at this than you.

As I said before, it’s hard to describe.

It’s hard.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Day 2,424: Seven Years and Counting



Seven years ago, I sat down and wrote some things, because I didn't know what else to do. Here are a few of the lines I wrote back then--before I knew what was in store and that I would have to go through it all again--in no order of importance:

I never thought that I would write a blog.
The question I have now is, where is that do-over button?
You can ask me to change everything in my life, but you can't ask me to do it all at once.
I have breast cancer.
I need to tell myself and both my kids that I will beat this thing and be around to argue with them when they're teenagers, so they can hate me and resent me for some reason other than dying.
Your body's just on loan, after all, and sometimes you go through a major financial crisis with it.
After all, the world keeps spinning.
It was strangely comforting to find out that people are still assholes.
I have never taken my health for granted.
I've dodged a lot of bullets and lived a happy, mostly healthy, life.
I don't want to think my luck has run out.


I had no idea what to say, what to do, what to write, what would happen, who I would become, or whether or not I would survive. I had no idea that I would have to do this twice, at least. And yet, looking back, it seems that I laid the framework on that first day for everything I was going to try to say over the next seven years. There was just no way for me to know that at the time.

I never thought that I would write a blog.

And, looking back, I'm not sure I was ever very good at it. Is this venue really a blog? These long rambling essays, which always appear to be about one thing but are in fact about something else entirely--usually the concept of false meritocracy, and how no one "deserves" the life they lead, good or bad, and often about how what we should be striving for is that one perfect moment of grace, not of beauty or success or even goodness, but grace, making ourselves lowly and unassuming and understanding--are these blog posts? Does it matter? I never thought I would write a blog, but I never thought I would need to. This blog did so much for me. It allowed me to write down stories for my children, to write long love letters to them. It enabled me to tell people what was going on with my health without having to go through the painful process of actually talking to them and seeing the terrified looks in their eyes--or, worse, the discomfort. It brought me closer to my husband, as I said things here that I would never say out loud, not being overly sentimental. It taught my family and friends things about me that they never knew, because I kept so much to myself all my life. It helped me understand what the hell had happened in my life, and why it mattered. I wrote about one kind of trauma and learned how to write about all the others. This blog made me feel that I was good at something. This blog gave me a reason to write about things that seemed small or absurd--stories about people puking, kissing my gynecologist, waiting for an elevator, talking to a technician, and so many others--that were actually some of the most profound moments in my life. This blog has provided me with a lot of opportunities for last lines, and I'm good at those.

The question I have now is, where is the do-over button?

Ah, but there isn't one. And if there was, I know now what I didn't know that I knew then: I wouldn't use it. Any guilt or remorse for the way I am and the way I have behaved, any sense of how I should have been better, has never come to me. I didn't come here to apologize.

You can ask me to change everything in my life, but you can't ask me to do it all at once.

This is one of the most adult lessons of all. We have to learn to suffer and celebrate incrementally. This is especially true if other people rely or depend on us. We can lose it, but not entirely. I wrote about my struggles in this blog, but I downplayed them at the same time. I wrote about cyclical depression, and even PTSD. But in other ways--I didn't. I didn't necessarily detail how it felt to feel so adrift, all while having to keep so much together. I never wrote much about the absurdity and the physical difficulty of starting a new job based in another state just weeks after an amputation and into the first round of chemo. I didn't write about how I never drank before cancer, or how I felt like leaving everything behind. I had trouble relating to people, who had trouble relating to me. Even when I did write about the hard things, I rarely just said it: This is hard. This is hard. I don't know how to do this. No one knows how to do this, or anything else. We're here for a minute and then we're gone and that is true all the time, every day, and I am always aware of it and always have been and it's hard. I had a mark on my back and a bullet at my head and I learned to live with it. I've always lived with it, which helped. But you walk differently, you talk quieter. You change. Some people never forgive you for it, but death is so close you find yourself unable to remain angry with them. You remain angry in general, however, all the time. Your anger defines you. Wait, that's not true. My anger defines me. I won't generalize to you. You are probably an altogether lovelier person than me. I might have had to do things differently, but I did things. I stayed...me, for better or worse. That means that I stayed angry and stubborn and impatient. If I have good qualities, I think I maintained those too. I morphed into the Katy I am today, but there was a core Katy there all along. I changed, but incrementally.

I have breast cancer.

If you haven't had to say that you have cancer, you don't know how hard it is, and I hope you never learn. I said it right away, and I was never in denial about it. It might still be true about me. I hope not, but I don't know. Breast cancer changed my life, in almost every possible way, and yet...it didn't. Breast cancer is a disease, not an injustice, it is a thing that happens to so many people that there is no reason it wouldn't happen to me. I have always said that, from day one, and I still fully believe that. The tragic things that happen to people happen to me, they happen to you. They don't happen to someone else. We are all someone else. It isn't a game, and it isn't a contest, and the goal isn't to win, it is to survive and to feel empathy for others.

I need to tell myself and both my kids that I will beat this thing and be around to argue with them when they're teenagers, so they can hate me and resent me for some reason other than dying.

We're getting there. They are 11 and almost 8. Can you believe it? They were 4 and 11 months old when this started. Their lives were forever altered by having me as their mother. My son in particular does not know how to have a mother who did not have cancer. His frame of reference is built on that. His night terrors and anger and wisdom beyond his years come, in part, from that. My daughter thinks about resilience differently, and often. She is overly fond of long hair. She doesn't seem to give a damn what other people think about anything. I think some of those things are related to growing up with me. My kids aren't afraid to talk about death, and dying. They don't believe in God but my son believes in reincarnation, and there are so many things about him that make me almost believe it too. My daughter believes you can talk to people when they're dead. But why wouldn't she? I've written here that she has told her brother: "She will always be our mom. Even when she's dead." But she also yells at him for coming in her room unannounced and is getting moody in her preteen years, and he is always going on about how "we don't understand what it's like" so I feel like we are making progress, and they have a mom, not a cancer mom, after all.

Your body's just on loan, after all, and sometimes you go through a major financial crisis with it.

This--this has been a defining theme in my life. Every part of my body has stopped working at some point, through cancer, epilepsy, my car accident: my legs, brain, heart, arm, lungs, hair, my eyes. I don't see a body, of any kind, whether conventionally attractive or not, as anything but a vehicle for mySELF, which is not defined by my body. My body is not a temple or a work of art. It is not a battlefield. My body has hurt and people have hurt it. I have felt great physical joy and accomplishment. But my body is just a body, and it is not here to be celebrated or condemned outside of the context of being the shell that means I am not dead. I do not take credit for it nor do I feel guilt because of it. I do not feel inferior or superior because of my body, and neither should you. My health is a stroke of luck, along with my illness. I no more deserve to die than I deserve to live. This isn't about what we deserve.

After all, the world keeps spinning.

It does, no matter what is happening in your world, which is impossibly small and not altogether interesting. So...write about the wider world, write about the people you witness. Take your place in this dizzy messy space, and learn to make light of it.

It was strangely comforting to find that people are still assholes.

They still were, still are, always will be. It gives me something to fight.

I have never taken my health for granted.

And neither should you. I've cheated death five times but I don't feel proud, or cheated. The first time I was four. The second time, nine. The third, 24, and then 34 and 37. The only thing I learned is that any age is too young to die, or that at least I hadn't yet reached an advanced enough age not to feel that way.

I've dodged a lot of bullets and led a happy, mostly healthy, life.

I said once that all my life, I've looked over my shoulder from the passenger seat of the getaway car, wondering when the gig would be up. I can hear the sirens in the distance, but they haven't caught up with me yet.



I don't want to think my luck has run out.

I didn't want to think it then, and I don't want to think it now. I didn't think 34 years was long enough, and I'm not about to think that 41 years is. There is no reason for me to be here when so many others who are just like me are dead. It's a harsh truth, but a real one. There is also no reason for me to not live. There is no reason for any of it. Our purpose is not to have a purpose, but to find one. Or maybe that's just more mere-mortal reaching. All I know is, I have lived seven years since learning I might die much too young. And even if that still turns out to be true, I have had those seven years. In that time, my son went from being a baby to being a second grader, my daughter started out a preschooler and is soon going to enter middle school. I've lived to see my kids learn how to do about 95% of the things they will learn how to do in their lives. My marriage has lasted longer after cancer than it had lasted when I was diagnosed. I have bought two new houses in these years, started three new jobs, somehow managed to continue to move up in my career, though honestly, of everything, I don't know how I did that. I spent a year not being able to read a single book in 2014, with extreme chemobrain, and I just...hid it. I don't know how I did that, and my employer never knew. But I digress. I made some wonderful friendships in these years, and lost some too. I lost my hair and grew it back and cut it all off again, and I'm done with it, I'm done with the time and the energy hair takes. I went through menopause and puberty. I bought my first car. I visited cities for the first time, and took my kids with me. I got married again, to the same person. I walked out onto frozen lakes and stood inside of dinosaur footprints millions of years old. I learned how to ride a bike, row a long, skinny boat, make a perfect Manhattan, and cry.

I wrote a few things.

One of the things that I wrote is the first 25 pages of a novel I doubt I will ever finish, though I would like to, before I die. I wrote it, like everything, for my kids. I want to let them know that if they don't remember anything else I told them, I still believe that children are just small versions of adults, with all of their own complexities and suffering and joy. I want them to have something to read that is written not for children, but about children, which is different. I don't know why I want them to know this, when they have not yet read any of these words, and I haven't finished or even gotten into writing the other words. I always said that if I wrote a book, I would just write one. I only ever wanted to write one. Maybe I've become superstitious, and I just haven't wanted to finish it, because I can't imagine both being alive and having done that. I don't know. My book has a great title, a perfect ending, a remarkable backstory, and very little in between except a few good lines. Towards the end, I remind the readers/my kids:

Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worthwhile.

The same could be said for remembering.

Seven is a lucky number. They all are, when they're years.



Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Day 2,367: Eleven



This year, I made a resolution. That resolution was to write more. I broke it.

I’ve been watching and wondering how to raise my children in the world as it is now and as it is going to be. I don’t know how to do it. On the plus side, I guess that has always been true. When I sat down all those hazy years ago to write a letter to my daughter for her fifth birthday, it was an admission that I was raising her in a way that was unlike anything I had expected. For almost seven years, I have been writing in this space, albeit sporadically, of late. I have always said that this blog is a long love letter to my children, so that they might know something about me if I were to die before they had a chance to really figure me out as a person.

Something interesting has happened: Time has passed.

My daughter is eleven years old today. When all of this started, she was four. When she started, she was, well…just starting. She is old enough now for her memories to be solidified. She is old enough to look like a small, skinny version of the self she will look like forever. She’s old enough for me to look back on the way she was when she was two and realize she is exactly the same, as we all are, even while she will never be the same, as none of us will. And I am old enough, and alive enough, to have written six of these birthday letters to her, starting when I wasn’t sure I would make it to write another one, and excepting last year, when I failed to write at all. I feel like I have run out of things to say, not because she has failed to provide enough material, but because I’ve been too busy living and getting through life with her and the rest of my family to stop and think much about it. But I will try.

Dear Lenny:

Today you are eleven. When you are my age, you may or may not remember yourself at this age. You might forget how you still liked to play with your little brother best of all, how you still played along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny and wanted more stuffed animals. You might forget, in a few short years, how much you hated the idea of growing up, puberty, and everything that was coming your way. You might forget that I told you growing up is just what everyone does, and you probably never knew that I agreed with your sentiments and secretly wished I could change everything for you. You might forget, or be unimpressed by, how easily your shy self moved to a new town and did everything new that you wanted to do, without worrying or caring what other people were doing. I remember so little of when I was eleven. I wanted to be like a boy then—they seemed to have things so much better. But not you. You just want to be like yourself. I’ve always admired that about you.



You and I talk around things, not because we don’t trust each other, but because we are too much alike. Other people’s emotions are painful and embarrassing. Being held can seem a burden. I know. Believe me, I know. And so, we emote in a roundabout way:

You casually tell me that you are supposed to write an expository paper on the topic of resilience. You don’t say anything else. I ask you why you are telling me this. You say, well, I thought I could interview you. Is there a time in your life when you felt like you had to be resilient? I couldn’t help but be sarcastic: “Hmm, I wonder…what could I pick? I suppose I should pick cancer, though that isn’t the only thing I could think of.” And you refused to look at me while you asked me the questions and I gave you relatively short answers. You never showed me what you wrote. I learned from your teacher that she was so impressed with your piece that she asked permission to share it with the class.

A year and a half ago, I started writing a novel. I got twenty five pages in and then I stopped, and I haven’t gone back to it. The setting is all wrong. You asked me what it was about and I didn’t know how to tell you. I wanted to write a book that wasn’t for children in the way that books are written for children today as if they are a different species rather than small versions of adults. I wanted to write this book because of a story I heard two men tell on an Amtrak train when I was 25. I wanted to tell the story because I saw a picture of a house online and that was enough for me to go on. I was writing the story but the protagonist was a boy, and so I was ashamed to tell you about my novel, as I knew you would think I was writing about your brother when the protagonist was really me, but I couldn’t have my story be about a girl, because I didn’t want it to turn out sad.

I’ve written all of these things to you, including all of these letters for all of the birthdays you’ve had since you turned five, except for last year, when I was too lost in my own feelings of—what was it? Depression, I suppose?—that I didn’t write birthday posts, or much of anything at all. It is odd to admit that you have never read this blog—not any of it. It is past time for that to change. Perhaps you should start with the posts I wrote expressly for you. If you never remember anything else I’ve told you, I want you to remember these things:

One: Always have hobbies and interests no one can take away from you. You should fill your life with things that don’t require other people, places or things. You need at least one of these. I have writing, walking, baking, and listening to music when I’m alone. You have sewing, running, reading, and so many other things. Those are for you, so you will never be lonely, never be bored.



Two: Always read the last line first. It won’t spoil the story. In fact, it will help you know if the story will be worth working through. The most important lesson is to know how to end things gracefully.

And so, when I’ve written to you, I’ve said a bunch of things, always saving the most important for the last line or lines:

At five: If I ever get to a point where that’s all I can ask for, and the last thing I know is that you and your brother are there, it would be enough. I love you.

Six: And so it goes. There isn’t much left to do but turn anger into hope, and turn resignation into faith in your abilities to adapt and thrive. So for my daughter, a brilliant and funny and empathetic and beautiful little six year old girl, I wish for the best of birthdays and a hundred more. I wish for the opportunity to spend many more of those birthdays with you. I wish the world was an easier place. In the last six years, you have definitely made it a better one.

Seven: … And she said, in front of the entire first grade: Because I love you. I will always remember you when you were seven, Lenny. Always—no matter how many more sevens I've got.

Eight: But I am doing this for her, for them. I am taking account of things they might be too young to remember or too innocent to comprehend. I am remembering for them. So, Lenny, know that I love you. You aren't just golden today, but always.

Nine: That's what I want for you in this ninth year, which changed everything for me thirty years ago. I want you to know what that means. You will always be yourself. There's only one Lenny. Don't let anyone forget it.

Ten: (empty space where words should have been)

And, before we get to eleven, I want you to have some last words.

You finally showed me that resilience essay. In it, you wrote: When we started learning about resilience, I could tell my mom had been resilient…Resilience to me is the ability to see past and bounce back from life’s setbacks. To overcome struggles and see meaning in life.

You wrote about me and about famous and resilient people in history. And then you chose this ending, which astounded your teachers: “Resilience cannot be learned or found: it is a choice we make, a path we choose to take, a trait we choose to acquire.”

I don’t even know if I actually agree with you—but it sure sounds good.

For the last five years, I have taught poetry to your class for your birthday. For the last two years, one of the styles we learned was haiku. Haiku are wonderful because the beginning is also the end. Last year, in fourth grade, you wrote this:

lilac trees, purple
and white, birds nest up high in
the sky, sweet bird songs

and this year, for your birthday, you wrote:

in early March air
I sit outside, enjoying
my eleventh year.


Eleven: Me too, honey, me too. And the third thing I want you to remember is that there is an exception to reading the last line first. When you have children, you never want to read the last line. You never want to know how it turns out. You don’t want to see the ending. There’s nothing that could happen in between that would make it not worth working through.

I love you. Happy eleven. --Mom

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Day 2,325: I Once Knew a Patriot

I was born in 1975 and the short arc of my history has lasted just 41 years, longer than I expected by 37, 32, 17, 6, or 3 years, depending on how you look at it. During four decades, administrations and social movements came and went, and injustice and inequality remained--though progress was made, it came in fits and spurts. The rights some had didn’t extend to everyone, neither in theory nor in practice. But in that time, no matter how tumultuous, some constants remained.

The press prided itself on holding public officials accountable, and were not prosecuted for it. We had religion and we had federal policy but they were not one and the same. Our highest public officials did not expect nor require adulation. Power transitioned peacefully, elections were held on time, losers did not refuse to concede, and most of the time, the Supreme and other Courts did not appoint politicians over the will of the people. Foreign governments did not interfere with our elections. Generals did not control our cities. Conflicts of interest mattered, and politicians at all levels could be held accountable. Individuals and communities protested, and sometimes, people were jailed, beaten, or even killed. When this happened, it was a blight on the country’s image. Sometimes, social progress was borne out of those struggles. Sometimes, it wasn’t. Civilians who worked for federal agencies were just that, civilians doing a job, and neither Congress nor the Presidential Administration wielded power over their livelihoods or ability to communicate with the public at large or public officials anywhere. Science was a goal, one of the highest and most esteemed professions; as students we learned about “scientific methods” in order to understand what was true, what was provable, and, even, what was important. Science was not seen as dissent, as going rogue. Academia was revered, being smart and learned was seen as a benefit to society. Enabling children to attain high levels of education was a goal we were bad at doling out equally…but it was a goal all the same. Society sought to fight the specter of nuclear war.

We had truth and we had lies and we had a general understanding that there was a difference between them, which was important.

It used to be different.

And when it was different, I knew a patriot. I’m writing this here to let you know that I remember.

I once knew a patriot who was a nun who knew I was an atheist and liked me anyway. She was so fierce in her activism for the poor that her order eventually forced her out of Chicago to a small town in Iowa, where she would be less conspicuous. I asked her why she would be asked to give up her calling just because she was so good at it, and I thought she might cry when she invoked God’s will. She is just one face that comes to mind as I think about the patriots I’ve known. There are hundreds more behind her face, and thousands behind the memory of the hundreds, and millions more besides.

I once knew a patriot. In fact, I knew quite a few.

I once knew a patriot who stood up for the rights of the disenfranchised. He came from Wales. She came from Mexico. He came from Haiti, India, Cuba, the Netherlands. She came from Ghana, Puerto Rico. He and she came from Bronzeville and the Bronx, the plains and the panhandle.

I once knew a patriot who dedicated her life to studying and attempting to eradicate inequality. She had been raped. He had had a drug problem. He was a Rhodes Scholar. She graduated high school at 15. She spoke seven languages fluently. He was a doctor. She had had an abortion. He had cancer. She didn’t have legs. He had been in prison. She had to escape her abusive family. He had been homeless. He married a man. She didn’t see the point in getting married, to a man or a woman or anyone.

I once knew a patriot who protested war. I once knew a patriot who criticized the President. I once knew a patriot who didn’t believe in God. I once knew a patriot who was devout but not Christian. I once knew a patriot who wrote poetry instead of doing other things she could have done. I once knew a patriot who didn’t trust the police. I once knew a patriot who didn't believe in patriotism.

I once knew patriots, people of all walks of life, who did what they could to make the world a little less cruel, who spent their lives trying to be better and make something better.

I once knew a patriot who wrote things down.

And just because someone comes along and says this is all a lie, or calls him or her by another name, doesn’t mean that the truth isn’t true.

I once knew a patriot. I remember.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Day 2,318: Inauguration Poem

According to Wikipedia: "January was named after the Roman god Janus. Janus is also the Roman word for door. The god Janus had two faces which allowed him to look forwards into the coming year and backwards into the past year."

Janus

By Katy Jacob

1. The Door

It's not just the
opening or closing,
but all of it,
the slow, torturous creaking,
frigid air being let in,
the space the rats walk through,
the slam, the memory of steel
in the soft rotting wood,
the whole thing unhinged,
a knock knock knocking
incessant in the night,
it’s an opaque passageway
to everything unseen,
no way in and no way out,
and winter’s black boot
on the other side.

2. God of Two Faces

It isn’t a story of opposites,
not so much comedy and drama,
black and white, weeping and rejoicing.
No, it’s the way the welcome sun
blinds you from the snow,
the lakes that turn into
roads and resting places,
the extra light that lets you
see every bit of mud and decay;
it’s everything that’s trapped beneath
but will be dead by spring thaw.
It’s not so much looking forward and back
as it is not knowing where to look
or how or with whose eyes.
It isn’t the shock of the jagged scar down the middle
reminding you that our faces are nothing but newborn bones
but how easy it is to look, and to look away.

It’s a door, it’s a man with two faces, it’s
a God from an empire that destroyed itself,
it’s as similar and distant as
any other Friday in January,
the beginning of something unknown,
and the end of something else.