Monthly Archives: April 2016

On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part 3

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My last post on the subject – promise!

I’ve heard it said that when one is suddenly face to face with one’s own mortality, the heart’s true desires come into focus with startling clarity. Hopes and aspirations, which may have been forced into dormancy or lost in the daily grind of existence, suddenly push themselves to the foreground with urgent insistence. Having recently experienced the looming specter of my own death, I can report that in my own case this was absolutely true.

Often people in extremis are consumed with the impulse to create a legacy in words, music, or art. Some remarkable souls choose to use their time on Earth to do good for others. During those few weeks when I was traveling through the valley of the shadow of death, I sat on a committee to award a prize for a student who demonstrated a commitment to community service. We ended up choosing a student who, while in no danger of dying, was bedridden with a serious injury for over a month, and spent that time spearheading an ambitious fundraising campaign for men’s health. I know of at least one other person who, faced with a terminal diagnosis, spent the last years of his life raising enormous sums of money for research into a cure for the disease to which he succumbed. Others create bucket lists of extraordinary experiences to have or places to visit before dying.

During the few days when I was waiting to hear the results of my needle biopsy, I tried to formulate a mental list of my own:

  • I would quit work immediately to spend whatever time I had left with my family and friends. There was no place in particular I wanted to go, and no exciting adventure I wanted to have with them. I simply wanted to be with them.
  • I wanted to play with cute baby animals. “You’re probably going to have to get me another puppy,” I announced to my husband, “and then take care of it after I’m gone.” God bless that long-suffering man – he remained stoically silent.

“Good Lord, woman. Get a grip!” I thought to myself. “Get a goal that’s not so pathetic!”

I tried, I really did try to rouse myself to come up with a list that was less trivial.

I recently re-read one of my favorite novels of all time – Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. It’s a novel teeming with striking, memorable characters. One of my favorite characters is Lizaveta Epanchina, a blustering, tyrannical, warm-hearted eccentric who is both the soul and comic relief of the novel. She reminds me so much of my own larger than life mother. Epanchina beats her breast in agony over her own unconventionality, but it’s a trait she obviously values and seeks out in others. I’ve always been struck by a scene in the novel in which she picks a fights with her daughter Alexandra, because she’s so annoyed by the banality of a dream she has, which “had the peculiarity of being as innocent and naive as those of a child of seven.” As I struggled to come up with some worthy goals, I imagined Lizaveta Epanchina clutching her head in despair at my list, or maybe even boxing my ears in frustration.

I managed to scrounge up one more item for my list:

  • Eat delicious food. I live in Charlottesville, a culinary mecca filled with award-winning chefs and restaurants for which people cross state lines. But by delicious food, I was thinking of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Funyuns, and Andy Capp Hot Fries. I could visualize myself snarfing these from a bowl balanced on my stomach while I lay bedridden, watching bad reality TV.

Alas, this episode in my life has revealed the truth to me. I am no Lizaveta Epanchina. I am her daughter Alexandra. Now I know what my greatest aspirations are: to live a normal life, to spend time with my family and friends. Oh, and to eat some Funyuns every now and then. I’m so grateful that I can.

Related posts:

On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part 1

On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part 2

Goddess of Wisdom

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It was a particularly rough morning with my 16 year old son.

As I drove my 10 year old to school, I muttered despairingly…

“I just don’t understand WHY he’s so crabby!”

From the backseat I heard my daughter say, “It’s hormones and Monday, Mom. Hormones and Monday.”

On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part 2

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At the rather bluntly named “Breast Care Center,” a nurse escorted me back to the same room, where I had learned I would need to have a needle biopsy just a few days earlier. I couldn’t wait to get it over with. The sooner they got the pathology results back from the biopsy, the sooner I would know one way or another what my life would be like for the next few months, or perhaps years.

The nurse told me that a doctor would come in and talk with me in a little while. She left a clipboard and a brand new marker sealed in a plastic pouch on the counter and walked out. As I waited for the doctor to arrive, I idly wondered if the marker was for me to doodle with in case I got bored.

Suddenly, an adorable little boy dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt popped his head into the room. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, and smiled at me from his twinkly Asian eyes. I wanted to pinch his cheeks, give him a lollipop, and then help him find his mommy. He could have been my own son. It turned out he was my doctor.

He opened the marker, wrote something on my chest above the breast in which lurked the “areas of concern,” and then tossed the marker into the trashcan. He explained to me what was going to happen next and then we headed to the room.

Another young doctor and two nurses were waiting for us in the room. I lay on my side on a stretcher and they wheeled me up to the mammogram machine. They clamped my left breast into place and once again I got up close and personal with the cold hard surfaces of the mammogram machine. I couldn’t see anything or anyone, but I felt one of the nurses grab my fingers. She told me I could squeeze hers as they numbed the area with four or five shots of lidocaine. Disembodied voices asked me meaningless questions. I knew no one really cared where I was from, or how long I’d lived in Charlottesville, but I understood that these questions were meant as a kindness and so I gave answers as if they mattered. Every now and then throughout the procedure one of the nurses would give my hip a pat and then let her hand come to a rest there. I usually hate being touched by strangers, but I think I will remember the warm weight of her reassuring hand with gratitude for the rest of my life.

The area numbed up quickly and they extracted a tissue sample and inserted a titanium marker in its place as a permanent souvenir of my visit to the Breast Care Center. As for the tissue sample, they put it in what the nurse described as “our Suzy Bake Oven” to make sure they had enough and wouldn’t need to go in for more. Once they took a few more photos of my traitorous appendage, I was unclamped and wheeled away from the machine.

And now the second young doctor was mashing down my boob with both of his hands…hard.

“I have to do this for the next ten minutes,” he said apologetically, “It will stop the bleeding.”

“OK,” I said and I turned my head away to look at the clock. Making eye contact in such a situation did not quite seem the thing to do. The horrible thought suddenly crossed my mind that the two young doctors who had worked on me that morning, from Asia and India, might easily be one of the many international students who pass through my office on a daily basis for a travel signature or a program extension. I see so many students that it is impossible to remember all of their faces or names. Maybe I helped this young man file for work authorization so that he could be legally permitted to be here pinning down my boob as if it were going to run away. This thought – like so many of the other thoughts that had been racing through my head for the last couple of weeks – had to be shoved away just as quickly as it reared its ugly head.

After the ten minutes were up, I was bandaged and the nurses gave me my post-procedure instructions. It had seemed like an eternity, but the entire procedure was over in less than an hour.

“You’re heading straight home now, right?” one of them asked.

“I was planning to go to work, actually,” I answered.

“No, honey,” the nurse shook her head, “You’re not going to work. You’ve been through a lot and you’re going to be exhausted. Go home, get into pajamas, take some Tylenol and watch a movie.”

And so I did.

Related post: On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part 1

On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part I

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I can’t stand suspense…not in movies or books, not in sporting events, and certainly not in real life. The past couple of weeks have been one long, suspenseful nightmare because I thought I might have cancer. Let me tell you right upfront that I do not.

It all began with a callback mammogram. I got a letter in the mail explaining that it was sometimes difficult for mammograms to produce clear images for people with “dense breast tissue.” Dense breast tissue — hunh?! After nursing three babies, more like droopy, flaccid hackysacks that have lost all their stuffing. But – whatever.

This was not my first rodeo. I had been called back for a second mammogram once before so I knew what to expect. I knew I would be in for a torture session that would somehow manage to be simultaneously futuristic and medieval. I would be asked to mash the side of my face against the plastic and metal of a mammogram machine. I would be made to sling my arm around it as if in a lover’s embrace. A stranger (a lovely and kind nurse, but a stranger nonetheless), would pat and squash and arrange my breast as casually as if she were making a biscuit…if making biscuits also involved mashing the dough impossibly thin between two cold, hard plates. I would endure the torture with stoicism, wincing only when I simply couldn’t bear it.

“Too tight?” the nurse would ask as she turned a knob that would cause the boob vise to clamp down ever tighter.

“Yes,” I’d gasp.

She would loosen the crank a touch, but then with a cruel, deft flick of her wrist, she would tighten it right back to its original position.

“I saw that!” I would think bitterly each time it happened.

Never mind. It would all be over soon enough. I’d receive my benediction and be dismissed to go on with the rest of my life. Only this time I wasn’t.

I knew something was up when the nurse escorted me to a back room I’d never seen before and told me that a doctor would come talk with me soon. I was pretty sure she was trying to avoid making eye contact with me. The doctor spoke to me in gentle, soothing tones. She told me that there were “areas of concern” that would need to be further examined. I would be scheduled for a needle biopsy. Once the pathology report was back, if there was evidence of cancer, we would discuss my treatment options.

 

Flying through the air with the greatest unease

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It’s not every day that you get to try out something you’ve only ever seen performed at a circus! When I assembled the kids on the couch to announce that my sister had arranged for them to have a trapeze lesson over their spring break, this was their reaction:

Why is Auntie Sissy so awesome?!” my son exclaimed in wonder.

I don’t know if I’m more scared or excited,” my daughter said.

As we drove to the venue, I confirmed to my sister that I had gone online to fill out the requisite forms.

Do you mean liability forms?” my son asked from the backseat.

Mmmhmmm” I replied as nonchalantly as I could.

The Trapeze School New York in Washington DC is in a hangar-like building, right across from Nationals Park and the Navy Yard Metro.

The kids got strapped into their super tight – forget about breathing – organ-crushing belts.

After some brief instructions, they chalked their hands and got ready to climb an extremely tall ladder:

In the video of my 13 year old’s first try on the trapeze, you can hear the teacher instructing him to jump on “hep.” He can’t quite bring himself to actually jump off the platform the first time, so the teacher gently repeats the command.

The boy never did get his knees over the bar, but days later I discovered that he had done something far more remarkable.

We were reminiscing about his amazing trapeze adventure when I asked my son,”Was there ever a time during the lesson when you thought – Nah, this is way too scary. I’m not going to jump.”

“Yeah!” he replied.

“But just the first time, right?” I asked.

“No. Every single time I got up to the platform, I seriously thought about not jumping and just climbing back down the ladder.”

I’ve always told my kids that you can’t be brave without being scared. If the level of fear they felt is commensurate with their level of bravery – I think they should all be draped and festooned with medals right now! I had no idea that he was so scared…I was so proud of him for climbing that ladder and taking that enormous leap of faith over and over again.

Speaking of scared, you might be wondering where my 10 year old daughter was while all of this was happening. She was lying on the ground – with the saddest look on her face. Kind of like the fish we had seen in the aquarium the day before:

For the first hour, you could see that she was at war with herself. She couldn’t bring herself to give it a try and was getting more and more upset as her brothers took their turns. Finally, one of the instructors came over and said that doing the trapeze is all about gaining a sense of accomplishment by pushing through fear. He suggested that her goal for the day could simply be to climb the ladder.

She pondered this, but was intimidated by the thought of taking even that step. One kind lady, a trapeze veteran, walked over and offered to climb up right behind her to spot her from behind. She kept resolving to try it, but would change her mind the next second. We kept reassuring her that she didn’t have to do it if she didn’t want to, but finally, she decided to go for it! We whooped and cheered for her when she made it to the top of the ladder! We could hardly wait for her to climb back down to give her a congratulatory hug… We were surprised to see that the instructor at the top was rehooking her harnesses.

And then this happened:

When she got back down, I asked her why she had decided to go for the swing.

“I think the instructor at the top didn’t realize I was just going to climb the ladder. She just assumed I was going to jump. So I did.”

Flush with the thrill of her accomplishment, we all asked her, “Do you want to go again?!”

“No.”

And I could totally respect that!

Baltimore in 2 days with 3 kids, Pt. 2

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It was this kid’s 16th birthday!

We got tickets to the National Aquarium for 9 am…just in time to see the sharks eat their breakfast of fish and squid…They’re kept well-fed so they don’t eat their smaller tank mates:

This giant sea turtle was a rescue. He had to be amputated because of an infection, but he’s doing just fine now.

My favorites were the Jellyfish:

We got a couple of little bitty shrimp at the gift shop for my birthday boy:

We did a quick stroll through the Baltimore Civil War museum, which happens to be right across the street from our hotel. It’s located in what used to be the President Street Station…

And then we walked to Miss Shirley’s for lunch. It was worth the longish wait:

We were excited to take a ride on the Chessie boats:

…but sadly, they were not running.

We took a water taxi instead. It’s a great deal at $14 for unlimited rides all day.

It turned out to be a relaxing way to get great views of the Harbor.

We hopped off to go to the American Visionary Arts Museum, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for years. The description of “visionary art” is a bit vague – “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” Although it was not always the case, in many instances the art was created by people who were mentally ill.

You can’t even imagine how sad I was not to be able to take pictures inside the museum! It is filled with extraordinary art. It also has a spectacular museum shop.

Word to the wise: It was only after we were taking the water taxi back to our hotel for dinner that I realized the booklet we were given when we bought our tickets was full of coupons, some of which we could have used for a lower entrance fee at the museum.

After dinner we went for another walk along the water. We strolled to Fell’s Point, an historic neighborhood with bars, restaurants and boutiques.

By this time, my daughter was flagging and wanted to get back to the hotel. We thought we’d take a short cut back, and blundered into a not so nice neighborhood. Once we hustled our way out of there, we decided to make one last stop at The Power Plant to visit the enormous Barnes & Noble café:

Back at the hotel, we watched another movie and then hit the hay.

And that was Day 2 of our Baltimore Adventure. We were sad to be leaving Baltimore, but excited about the amazing adventure my sister had planned for the kids in Washington DC the next day…

Baltimore in 2 days with 3 kids

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  • We were thoroughly charmed by the two days we spent in Charm City. Here’s our itinerary…

Wednesday

We left C’ville for Baltimore at 9 am.

We drove straight to Fort McHenry, arriving around noon (after one impromptu stop to visit Yoder’s and the petting farm). My 13 year old history buff was especially anxious to visit the star-shaped fort, the scene of the epic battle during the War of 1812, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star Spangled Banner.

Inside the Visitors Center you watch a short movie in which the battle is reenacted. At the conclusion of the movie, the screen dramatically flies up to reveal a huge window overlooking the fort over whose ramparts flies the American flag. Everyone stands up and, hands over hearts, sings The Star Spangled Banner. I have to admit, I got caught up in the moment. There just may have been a tear welling in the corner of my eye. And then I heard my 16 year old say, “This is so cheesy.” And it totally was. But stirring nevertheless.

We drove to the Homewood Suites by Hilton Baltimore, where we would spend the next couple of days. The hotel is in an excellent location, not quite overlooking the water, (at least from our suite), but a very short walk away from the Harbor. They serve a complimentary breakfast every day and a complimentary dinner with wine and beer Monday through Thursday. The food was not spectacular, but decent. There always seemed to be at least one standout item at every meal that was actually delicious: buttery croissants, hash browns, super fresh caesar salad, etc.

After checking out our room and having a brief rest, we headed out to walk around the neighborhood:

We walked over to the World Trade Center and went up to the Observation Deck to get 360 degree views of the city:


We walked back to the hotel for dinner and then headed to Little Italy for dessert  at Vaccaro’s:

We may have gotten a little carried away:

Despite our valiant efforts, we had to bring almost all of it back to the hotel to stash in the freezer.

We watched a movie and then headed to bed. We had two double beds and a sleeper sofa, but my silly girl insisted that she wanted to sleep here:

(She eventually did crawl into bed with me in the middle of the night)!

Day One: DONE!