Forgetting

My mom is dead.

Oh, I know – that’s old news.  It’s been a year and a half, for goodness sake.

Today, my husband and I finalized our divorce.  We went to breakfast afterwards, and started texting or calling family members to let them know that it was all done, and that we were okay.

I picked up my phone to call my mom.

And I experienced that jarring feeling that has happened so often as my mind, body and soul remember that she is gone.  This jolt happens less and less often as time goes by – it’s probably been a few months this time. It is absolutely mind-boggling that we could have gone through such a long illness with her, followed by the trauma of losing her, and still – I forget.

I don’t know what this phenomenon is, but I have experienced it before. Many years ago, we suffered the loss of a good family friend, who was really more of a father figure to both my (ex)husband and I.  Even though I had experienced many more deaths in my life, this one was the hardest by far at that time in my life.  I grieved deeply for him, and to this day, I still forget sometimes, still think that I should stop and see him when I’m in Phoenix.  And then there is the jolt, less painful that it was a few years ago, but still like a small blow and a little bit of fresh grief.

With my mom, this blow has been a little harder (maybe a lot harder). There are life events that really seem like they should be shared with a mom, and I don’t have one of those, except in whatever ethereal form she may be residing in.  Most days, this is manageable, has even become normal.

Even today, even in the midst of a major event, the moment passed quickly.  The pang of fresh grief was a bit shorter than it has been at some other times, which leaves one feeling a funny combination of guilt and relief.

But it’s there. I suppose it will always be there, and that’s ok.  It would be weird if I didn’t feel it at all.

I hope that day never comes.

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Coming Up for Air

It has been months – MONTHS – since I have written a post for this blog.  I could tell you that I was busy with selling my mom’s house, and with our move, and with the holidays, and with life.

Which I was.

But that’s not the reason I didn’t write.  The truth is, somewhere around the one-year mark, the wind went completely out of my sails.

I’m not sure what happened, exactly.  True, the house took much longer to pack up than I had anticipated, and the process proved to be akin to torture.  We were exhausted and pushed to our limit with the emotional strain of sorting out what articles of Mom’s life would stay with us, go to another family member, or go away forever.

The sale itself also took longer than I had hoped, by far.  It was disheartening that people would walk through my mother’s home over and over, and after we had come to the painful decision to sell it, no one wanted it.  We dropped the price several times, and finally accepted an offer below what our bottom line had been.  But, it was done, and the man who bought the house was a kind one, full of humor at the closing.  Mom would have liked him, I think.

Somewhere in there was our first Christmas without her, and the first anniversary of her death, December 31.  And then what would have been her 61st birthday just three days later.  All of these milestones passed with us living in our home with no furniture to speak of, our belongings packed in storage except for what we could fit in suitcases.

We were also house-hunting furiously, but as hard as we tried, we could not find our new “home”.  So, we settled on a cute rental and decided to stop looking for a while.  That was a good choice, because I have realized that I actually had no idea what I wanted to do next.

That could be what happened.  I might have run out the sense of purpose I had been existing on for the four years prior.  My purpose had been to keep my mother alive.  And then it had been to make her last years great and memorable to the best of my ability.  And then it had been to support her during her passing.  And then it had been to make her life and her passing mean something by writing about it.  And then it had been to honor Mom’s wishes as I navigated the unbelievable amount of paperwork and stress that comes from being the executor of an estate.  And then it had been to help my children understand what had happened.

Maybe I realized that I didn’t understand what had happened, either.  The world was upside down, sideways – wrong.  And I lost all will to share, to write, to do anything but get up in the morning, make it through the day, and go to bed.

The world is still wrong, but we are settling in to our new normal.  We love decorating our cute little (really little – tiny) place, and we are making a roadmap for our future.  I am excited to write again and look at what lies ahead for us.  I have come back from sabbatical to jump into my midwifery practice again, and that is glorious.  Welcoming new life into my hands is the best feeling in the world, I promise you.

There is still a whole pile of estate stuff to do (I hope it’s done someday), but it’s manageable now that the house part is over.  There is a light at the end of that tunnel, at least. (people, make your arrangements, and use an attorney – it is SO HARD for people after you are gone if it’s not done right.)

And please remind me to redo mine when this is all over.  I have two more kids than I had last time I did up my paperwork.

So, I am coming up for air, as the title says.  Air is good, light is good, life is good.  I wonder what is coming up next on our little yellow-brick road?  We shall see.

Oregon, More Baldness and a Raccoon

Mom grew up in a small town called Payette, on the border between Oregon and Idaho, on the Idaho side.  As a child, she would frequently travel with her family to the Oregon coast, where, in good times, they would rent a house on Depoe Bay.

In the year after Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, there was so much going on that we didn’t really have time to think.  She underwent aggressive chemotherapy in advance of her double mastectomy, to shrink the cancer down enough to even do the surgery, as it had invaded the skin of the breast.  As a side-effect of the chemo, she was hospitalized for multiple pulmonary emboli, as well as some other fun stuff, such as pneumonia, kidney stones, and life-threatening leukopenia (very low white blood cell count).  Add to that the fact that I was starting up my new practice in Colorado after our sudden move to care for her (and the accompanying lack of income), and there wasn’t much time to think about anything else.

But after that first intense year, her cancer was knocked down to almost nothing, and Mom was feeling pretty good.  My practice was starting to grow, and I felt some freedom with funds, so I began to think about how we could make good use of this time with her.  I had a gap in client due dates in October of 2012, and I decided to book ten days in a beach house on the Oregon coast.  The trip would be a total of three weeks, including a long stay in Mom’s childhood stomping grounds in Idaho.

In the months leading up to our trip, she continued to get checkups and scans.  Most of that year, things went fabulously, and we were very optimistic.  Right before we left for our trip, though, a PET scan revealed that her cancer had spread again.  Mom was devastated that she would have to have chemo again, and resisted her doctor’s urging to start treatments before our trip.  After much family discussion, we agreed that a month’s delay in chemo was too much of a gamble with her aggressive cancer, and so she got her first dose right before we hit the road.


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In these two pictures from Payette Lake, you can tell that Mom wasn’t feeling as awesome as she could have been, but she had her hair back, and we were having a great time.  She loved road trips, and she was handling the long hours in the car with no problem, while we talked about anything and everything.  This was about a week into our trip, and the side effects of the chemo hadn’t really started yet.

This was the view from our living room in the beach house:

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Mom could not believe that this whole house was ours for ten days.  Her brother and nephew, as well as one of my sisters and her family, stayed there with us.  We had a glorious time, with Mom leading the way on a tour through all of the places she’d loved as a child:  The Sea Lion Caves, whale watching at Depoe Bay, the Newport bay front and eating at Mo’s.

Soon, though, the chemo started to catch up with us, and Mom’s hair began to fall out again.  And so, one of those precious nights in the beach house was spent in tears, as we all sat in the kitchen and I shaved Mom’s head again.  She was heartbroken to lose her hair again, and we were heartbroken to face the unspoken truth that, despite the optimism we had experienced earlier in the year, the cancer was here to stay.

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In this picture, Mom is holding her grandson, my Emmett, wearing the happy clothes she had purchased in Depoe Bay (she loved color).  You can tell she wasn’t feeling well, and she wore the hat because her hair was gone.  Much of the remaining time in Oregon was spent sitting on this couch, looking at the ocean through the picture window, enjoying the wood-burning fireplace, and practicing visualization exercises for her restored health.

Here’s where the raccoon comes in.  Let me preface this by saying that Mom had a really dark sense of humor, and as horrible as what I am about to tell you is, she thought it was hilarious.  There was a raccoon that lived around the beach house, and we had to lock our trash up in a special box outside so that the darn thing wouldn’t get into it.  Unfortunately, on the evening we shaved Mom’s head, the children took the trash out, and while they did lock the doors on the box, they failed to put the trash bags in the bins, and instead left them on the floor of the box.  When we emerged the next morning to go about our day, we found that said raccoon had stuck its evil little hand under the doors of the box and had ripped open the trash bags.  Our trash was all over the quiet road in front of our house.

Including Mom’s hair.

OMG!  I know, the horror.  Yep, it was pretty much as bad as you think it could possibly have been, crawling around, picking up bits of my mother’s hair from wet Oregon asphalt.

Luckily, we were comforted by the sounds of Mom laughing uproariously in the background as we suffered.

She’s probably laughing right now at the memory as I write this.  I hope she is.

No Words

This post is kind of a non-post, I suppose.  I realized today that it has been two months since I last blogged, and I am writing to let you all know what has been happening in these intervening weeks.

I believe I have mentioned in previous posts that I had begun the process of packing up my mom’s things.  This endeavor evolved into the decision to sell her house.  Being the pragmatic, motivated and energetic person that I normally am, I met with our attorneys and decided that this was the most logical course of action.  Though we are living in said house, and have some emotional attachment, of course, we have moved many times, and I truly thought it would be no big thing.  A month or so, and we’d be out.

That was in August.  We finally finished packing up the house in October.  I cannot even begin to tell you how hard it was to pack up the house of a loved one.  It was all-consuming, drained every ounce of time and energy that all of us had.  We cried every day, we worked from waking to bedtime. Some days, I got a reprieve in the form of seeing my prenatal clients or flying out the door to attend the birth of a baby, but most days… it was just this continuing march through what became near-despair, hoping there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  Forget time for writing, even if I had had the spirit to do so.

Sounds dramatic, right?  Well, the clinical explanation is clear:  I didn’t see my friends enough; I didn’t get enough sunlight; I didn’t get enough exercise; I didn’t eat right.  These things alone can drag you down.  But more than this, the daily question, as we were touching all of Mom’s things, packing away her treasured possessions, changing the quirky things she loved about her home with paint and landscape work – were we doing the right thing?  To sell this house, this place that had held so much love and so many life events.

In October, we got our reprieve.  We took our annual trip to a beach house in Lincoln City, OR, to celebrate Mom’s life.  I have a post in progress about this trip.  When we left for Oregon, we joyfully (well, maybe not joyfully, but with so much relief to be done!) put her house on the market and drove away, counting on, in this hot market, being under contract when we returned in three weeks.

Ha, ha.  Just kidding – we are back in Colorado now, and back in the house. No one is interested, so far, in undertaking the updating that needs to be done.  We live in an affluent area where people kind of expect to have it perfect when they move in.  We are moving the price all around and doing more work on it, and struggling with the same questions.  Are we doing the right thing?  Should we just price it low to sell and move on?  Or should we keep it?  Around and around in circles.  Oddly, this is the most stressful period I’ve experienced in years, even in comparison to Mom’s death. What makes it so?  I think there are just too many choices before me, too many decisions that rest upon me.  Though I know I am so lucky to have these choices, I can’t help but think how much easier it might be to just have one option.

Perhaps the difference is that death doesn’t leave us a whole lot of options.  We simply have to ride the train to its inevitable end the very best way we can.

Get in the Picture

When we were planning Mom’s memorial service, we struggled to find pictures of her.

Throughout Mom’s life, she was never comfortable being photographed. There are very few childhood photos of her remaining (she was kind of a chubby kid, she said), and through my whole life, I recall her waving the camera away, saying she was “too fat”, or had “bad hair”, or “I look so bad in pictures!”

And now that she is gone, we only have, maybe, twenty or thirty pictures of her throughout her life.  I dearly hope we find more as we keep going through her things.

My mother was a beautiful woman, but that’s not the point.  She was our mom, and no matter what she looked like to herself or to the outside world, she was beautiful to us.  I’m a tiny bit angry, actually, that her low self-image robbed us of the photographic memories we should be poring over now, and yet, I am leaving a similar void for my own children.

I am not a natural picture-taker to begin with, perhaps because it just wasn’t something that was a big part of our lives when I was a child.  I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t take enough photos of my first two kids when they were babies, and there are nearly no pictures of myself from my twenties.  Now, I am in my late thirties, wondering why on earth I didn’t have more pictures taken when I was young and gorgeous.  Now that I am older, with more lines and sags as the years go by, I constantly have to remind myself: I will never again look as good as I do now – take those pictures!

But feeling self-conscious in front of the camera is a habit that was taught to me from an early age by my mom’s example.  I have likely taught this to my daughters, as well, but I am trying to turn it around.  Thank goodness for the smart-phone that lets me snap picture after picture of my beautiful kids and post them to social media sites and my blogs to hang on to for me.  Sharing these photos of my kids with the world doesn’t do anything to get myself in the picture, though.  I am always comfortably behind the camera, like so many other moms.

My friend Jennifer McLellan, creator of the blog “Plus Size Mommy Memoirs” wrote this post on this subject http://plussizebirth.com/how-to-look-perfect-in-a-picture/ and it kicked off a wonderful thing called the “Capture Motherhood Campaign” . I saw her present on this topic at the Denver MommyCon this past June, and her opening words asking us what our favorite childhood photos are moved to me to tears so instantly and powerfully that I almost had to flee the room.

Of course, our most treasured photos are not the ones of ourselves, but the ones with our loved ones in them.  My most treasured photos are those rare ones that my mom is in with me.  Like this one.

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And this one, from just a couple of years ago, when she was undergoing chemo.

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My heart breaks that there aren’t many more like this, and that there are precious few photos of myself with my oldest children when they were little.  But I make the commitment today to put myself in front of the camera with my kids – or without them, doing things I love to do so that they can have these memories to hold on to someday.

Here’s a little start.

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I should probably lose the shades in future photos – I want my great-grandkids to know what my eyes looked like. 😉

 

 

The Treatment Plan and Baldness

Shortly after my family arrived in Denver and moved in with my mom on January 1st, 2011, she began her treatment plan.  I, and often my sister Bree, accompanied her to her frequent visits with the Kaiser oncologist, during which we sketched out a roadmap of what the next few months would look like.

You’d think if you had that much cancer in your breast, the obvious answer would be to undergo a mastectomy post-haste.  But, because the cancer involved her entire breast, including the skin, the doctor recommended that Mom begin with aggressive chemotherapy to shrink it before we moved on to surgery.

I should touch on the brief  “no chemo” conversation we had.  As I’ve mentioned before, Mom was pretty heavily into natural health, and she had said more than once that if she were to get cancer, she would likely want to go a treatment route other than chemo, as she felt that the chemicals would do so much harm to the healthy parts of her body and immune system, and diminish her quality of life.  The aggressiveness of her cancer, though, left her with few options.  It was pretty clear that if chemo didn’t begin right away, she would likely be dead within months.  And, I have to tell you, we can talk all we want about what we would do in this and that situation, but when death is staring you in the face, it’s so very hard to say no to conventional wisdom.

So, she began two types of chemotherapy, an oral medication that she took at home, and infusions that she would receive at the Kaiser facility downtown.  For the first couple weeks, we were amazed by how good she felt.  I had never before this been up close and personal to a person in chemotherapy, but, based on anecdotes, I had been expecting lots of nausea and vomiting. and extreme fatigue.  I had been anticipating her being bedridden, and having to have IV’s placed for fluids.  But these things did not happen on this first round.

After a time, though, it became apparent that the treatments had a cumulative effect, and that each time she went in for an infusion, she would feel a little sicker and have lower energy.  But, she was still very functional.  At some point, we began to notice that her hair was shedding a little bit, and then more and more, until one day, all that she had were little tufts of hair that were left in odd places around her head.  We wondered why every last hair didn’t just fall out?  Having those odd ones left made the experience all the weirder.

Mom started wearing stocking caps everywhere, including to bed, so it took a little while before my children realized that their grandma had lost her hair.  My son, Hayden, surprised her downstairs in her basement bedroom when she had her cap off one day, and there was an awkward “naked head” moment.  This was so interesting, because I know Mom had no intention of keeping any piece of her experience from the kids, but I think the side of her that was self-conscious about her baldness wanted to keep this part private as long as possible.

As much as Mom had spoken of being one of those courageous women, boldly going about their daily business with their beautiful, bald heads out in the open for the world to see, like a badge of honor, I think the reality was harder to bear then she had realized it would be.  So, she wore hats. And soon got into a program that helps connect people on chemotherapy with donated human-hair wigs.  These masks gave her the nerve to go about in public like a “normal” person, but nothing could really hide the effects that chemo had on her body.

And this was the tip of the iceberg on the chemo roller coaster that was to come.  Mom was so right about the chemicals “poisoning” her body, but they kept the cancer at bay and began to shrink the tumors.  They also almost killed her a couple of times.

The next step would be surgery.

 

 

 

Self-Care: Just Do It

As a natural health care provider, I have long leaned away from over-testing, particularly from exposing my body to radiation through mammography.  The experience of my mom’s cancer, however, has given me pause and the impetus to research the best way to improve the odds of detecting breast cancer in its early stages.

My mom was a pretty natural lady, too, and by the time of her diagnosis at age 56, she had only had one or two mammograms.  She had not had one in a number of years.  Like many of us, she wasn’t really great about following through with regular well-woman exams, either, and so didn’t get very frequent clinical breast exams.

In her case, I don’t know how much of an impact these things had on her outcome, since she had inflammatory breast cancer.  Unlike most breast cancers that begin with a palpable lump, this aggressive cancer begins with atypical symptoms such as pain, redness, skin changes and swelling.  It can be hard to detect on a mammogram and is often initially mistaken for an infection.  Still, according to studies, regular mammograms increase the rate of survival from breast cancer by 15-20%, so I do have to wonder what would have happened if she had kept those annual appointments.

More significant than all of this, though, is the fact that she didn’t do regular self-exams.  Let’s face it: most of us are pretty bad at remembering to do this.  I know I am.  But this piece is so very important for a huge reason:  we need to be body-aware.  In this society, many of us are self-conscious about the way we look, about our weight or our dimples or our wrinkles or our sags – and we look away from our bodies as we pass the mirror on the way to the shower.  For our overall health, including breast health, we need to become familiar with how every part of our bodies normally look and feel so that we will know when something isn’t right.

This is what was missing for my mom.  She didn’t check in on her body on a regular basis, and so she was slow in realizing that something was wrong with the way her breasts looked and felt.  Later, she reported to me that she had felt soreness under her arm as early as late summer that was bothering her enough that she didn’t want to lower her arm all of the way.  By the time the pain was bad enough to make her finally look in the mirror with her shirt off, the changes in her breast were so obvious that she knew immediately that she had cancer.

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I’m sure you’ve heard about the importance of breast cancer screening ad nauseam, but let me throw a little bit in here about what I have learned.  First, it appears that mammography does have an impact on survival rates.  Being the crunchy person I am, though, I am still delving into data on radiation exposure (which seems to be low).  Also, as a crunchy person, I am a big fan of alternative testing, such as thermography.  I have used thermograms as my replacement for mammograms for many years, but it appears that the data is showing that the best result is achieved when both thermography and mammography are used as part of a regular breast health screening regimen.  Note that this regimen is a departure from the norm, so it isn’t for everyone.  But for interested persons, information on thermography can be found in the references below.

Women with a moderate to high risk of breast cancer, based on family or personal history, may consider adding MRI to the mix, as these tend to pick up on breast changes a little differently.   Ultrasound can be used in addition to other testing, as well, but can be associated with higher false positives when used alone.  Regular clinical breast exams with your health care provider are an important part of monitoring your breast health.  And, of course, above all, we need to do monthly self-exams to be on top of breast changes. Instructions can be found below.

Whatever direction you go with for your breast screening, the take-home message is that we are the caretakers of our bodies.  Our bodies need us to promote health and stave off disease by eating healthy food and being active, and by practicing loving awareness of our bodies during health so that we can spot disease in its early stages. We must do this for ourselves and for our families.

You can find all kinds of info about breast cancer and screening on these informative websites:

http://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/testing/types/self_exam/bse_steps

http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@research/documents/document/acspc-042725.pdf

http://www.cancercenter.com/breast-cancer/types/tab/inflammatory-breast-cancer/  

http://www.iact-org.org/patients/breastthermography/what-is-breast-therm.html