Sunday, June 30, 2013

What if no one called me Mom?

For the past week and a half, I've been kidless. I'm not used to that, and in the weeks leading up to my "alone time," I worried how I was going to fill the days.

That was pretty much answered for me, what with my mom's unexpected brain surgery less than four weeks ago, a job search that I've taken on like a bull charges a red cape, and a mountain of freelance work that's kept me busy every single minute of the day. As I prepare for my kids' return, filling the fridge, getting caught up on laundry and scheduling out our next months worth of who has to be where, it makes me think: what would my life be like without kids?

See the watermark on this photo?
Yeah, that's because it's not REAL.
I've said it before - having kids was never really on my bucket list, nor was getting married. I never fancied myself as a wife or as a parent. The whole wife thing never really worked out (although I think I'm a pretty good girlfriend, and could be a great wife under the right circumstances,) and the parenting thing was definitely one of those experiences that I learned on the fly - and continue to do so.

Sometimes I'll hear of these people - couples or singles - who are jet setting all over the world, whether for vacation or for work. I listen to others tell me how they picked up and moved to some wonderful location just because they wanted to. Or they have some amazing hobby that either requires constant training, honing, and usually lots of money. My first question is, "Do they have kids?" Because damn. There's no way I could do that stuff with two minors living under my roof - especially as a single parent. I mean, I probably could, but I wouldn't exactly be receiving any Parent of the Year awards. But I'll admit - it makes me a tad envious.

This would be me - thin, maybe blond
and with bitchin' pink luggage.
If I didn't have kids, I'm not sure where I'd be. Before there was anyone of any significance in my life, I was the epitome of a career woman, working at a large medical manufacturer by day, and returning home to my cat in an upper duplex in an old neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee. To me, that was success. Living on my own, making it happen - very Mary Tyler Moore-esque. I'm pretty sure it would have gotten old, but for the time I did it, it was magical.

This may or may not have been me.
But if it were, I'd be badass.
If I didn't have kids, I'd probably by now be in some upper-level job somewhere, having dedicated my life to my career. I'd have an older, charming home in a quaint area of town, with no restrictions such as school districts, sidewalks, or family-friendly neighborhoods. I might serve on the board of some volunteer organization, or at least somewhat immersed in their cause. I'd take vacations to places where I would challenge myself to learn new things such as rock climbing, rappelling or white water rafting. Those of course would be balanced out by girl trips to exotic beaches or wineries and work trips to big cities here in the country and overseas. In my dream job, I'd write for a travel magazine, and they'd send me to fantastic places to live for short periods of time so I could write about the city, the culture and the people.

And I'd probably be looking at people like me like I look at the woman I just described. Wondering, what would it be like to have kids? What did I miss? Did I make the right decision?

That's the good thing. As much as I wonder "what would life have been like without kids," I never wonder if I made the right decision. My life may not have turned out the way I had planned (does anyone's?) but my kids are my constant. My grounding. My answer to any questions I have at the end of the day about why my life is the way it is.

I may not be the model parent. I certainly never wanted my kids to be children of divorce, and that label they carry will always haunt me. I may never have that high-paying, upper-level job in a career that I devote myself to 24/7 (when I'm not flying to some exotic vacation destination.) I may never see all the places I read about, or have all the exciting adventures that I could have had as a kidless person. But you know what? When I thumb through old pictures of my kiddos cradled in my arms, or sitting on my lap, or learning to walk, or getting on the bus for their first day of school or standing proud at their graduation ... or when I look at them now - watching their tall, lanky forms run out the front door with nary a "Bye, Mom," I have no regrets.

THIS is me. Mom of two, beautiful boys.
I have no regrets. I raised two human beings. I'm still raising two human beings. And I can think of no exotic vacation, expensive hobby, high-paying job or fantastical adventure that could possibly compare to the last 16 years of my life. My kids are my life - maybe sometimes too much so of my life, but I make no apologies for that. One day, they will have lives of their own, and will choose or not choose to get married. Choose or not choose to have children of their own. And I'll have plenty of time to work, to travel, and to have maybe not the adventures I've dreamed of, but adventures nonetheless.

I may not ever have the wife title, but I'll always be "Mom." And for now, that's more than enough for me.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I am NOT dying

Let's just get that out of the way. I have no intention of dying anytime soon.

But I recently read this article about a prep-school teacher who tasked her 14-year old students with writing personal suicide notes based on the book they were reading, The Secret Life of Bees. Parents were livid. A friend of mine commented that "back in the day" she was given a similar assignment based on Romeo and Juliet and thought nothing of it. It's certainly a different world today.

I had often thought that if I ever had the opportunity to teach an upper level writing class (high school or above,) I would assign my students to write their own obituaries. What better way to dig deep into their souls and write about the topic that's one of the most difficult to write about - yourself.

What I'm getting to is this. So often we wait for something tragic to happen to tell people how much they mean to you. Or worse yet, important words are left unsaid, never to be heard by the ears that need to hear them most.

I recently "borrowed" a counseling session because I just needed an ear for an hour. I was overwhelmed. I had just lost my job, my mom had unexpected, life altering surgery, and I was struggling with trying to keep it together while still caring for my kids. As the counselor talked me down, he said something that I won't soon forget: "Keep short accounts." He kept repeating it. Keep short accounts. And while I understand this phrase has more to do with cleansing and forgiving, I think what he meant in addition to that was, "Don't leave anything important unsaid."

So I'm going to say it. Now. Before it's too late for anyone to hear it. Consider this a "suicide note for the living." Too personal for you? Check out now. Intrigued? You might make my list. 

Top props go to my parents: You guys have been through heaven and hell and back with this family and with each other, and you've survived over 55 years together. I hope you realize what a gift your marriage has been to your children. There are no two people in this world I more admire than you two, Mom and Dad. If I can ever be half of what the two of you are or find half the love and commitment that you both have for each other, I will consider myself truly blessed. You have my infinite love, respect and admiration.

To my oldest son: You were my first everything. You and I were a team in those early years, and I love every 6 feet 2+ inches of you, from the top of your long, curly-haired head to your gargantuan feet. You have been my challenge, but you have never ceased to make me proud of you. I never knew a mother's love could be so fierce and unconditional until I had you. During finals week, I sent you a note that said, "If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves." Astound yourself, son.You have already astounded me.

To my youngest son: You have given me a new outlook on life. You are kind, compassionate and genuine, and you make me look at the world differently with your warm heart and your caring outlook. I love that you still want me to snuggle with you, play basketball, toss the football, or watch you on the trampoline. I look at you and wonder what you will be, and hope the world doesn't jade you. You make me smile every single day. Never lose that light and that ability to see the good in people. You will make a difference in this world - you already have.

To the father of my children: I wish life had been different. I wish I had been able to roll with the changes. I wish we would have tried harder. But I know God put us together to create these two amazing kids, and I am so thankful that even though we are divorced, I can truly say that you are one of my best friends. Note that you still drive me absolutely crazy, so don't get too comfortable with that.

To my sister: I have looked up to you since I was a baby. I have never stopped. Know that I admire you so very much. I am so sorry for any bumps in the road we had along the way, but know this: I think you are an amazing mother, nurse and friend. You give of yourself so much every single day, and there is nothing you wouldn't do for someone you love. I am very lucky you are my sis.

To my younger brother: I am sorry I bullied you when we were little. You may laugh, but I carry that in my heart every day and will take it to my grave. You are one of the smartest people I know, and you have a heart of gold. You, too, would do anything for anyone - and you do. You are more like your father than you realize, and I would be very lucky to find someone like you (who obviously wasn't my brother.)

To my older brother: You have taken care of me when I needed it most, whether you knew it or not. I so respect you for what you have achieved over the course of your life, but most importantly, for the parent you are. How many daughters can say that their dad is their best friend? You are an AMAZING dad and that will be your legacy on this earth. Thank you for your humor and your wisdom - I cherish both of them.

To my friend who has been there for me like no other for so many years (you know who you are): Who would have known when I came into the neighborhood that I would haunt you for years to come? You are my rock - a shoulder to cry on (and I've drenched it for sure), a confidante (we can never fight because we have too much dirt on each other) and the person I can laugh my ass off with. You are the epitome of a great friend and you have never, ever let me down. I can only hope that I am half the friend to you that you are to me.

To the redhead who tells it like it is: Who knew life would put us together? You are WAY wiser than your years and one of the funniest people I know. You keep me grounded and have been there for me whether it be at the next desk or via iChat. You will have an amazing life. I admire you more than you know.

To the friends I've made over the past few years: I cherish you. I really do. I so want the very best for you. From the blond with the baby on the way to the mom of the sweetheart who's just been born, to the matriarch and all the CO gang, to the woman who found this house I call home to the crazy, loveable KJo fanatic and all the friends I communicate with on Facebook who keep me laughing, I adore all of you. I am not the kind of person to have a ton of friends, and I think I've hit the jackpot with the few I have in my circle. You guys rock.

To the ex I'm still getting over: You warrant mention only because I want you to know that I was all in. ALL IN. But I wasn't as high on your priority list as you were on mine. Simple as that. I know you'll never understand that, and that's OK. But I wasn't going to do it again to play second (or third, or fourth) fiddle. I'll wait, thanks. All the money in the world won't compare to having someone by your side when you're old. I'd rather be broke and loved than rich and alone. But I sure did love you. 

To my dog: I don't know why I have you. I am convinced God crossed our paths. You're the perfect dog for me, and even thought I don't let it on, there is nothing better than walking into an empty house and having you bound up to me with that wagging tail and big old drooly grin. Love ya, Domino.

There you have it. Lovefest done. Am I embarrassed? A little. But I know if my writing doesn't scare me a little, it's not worth writing. And this is worth writing.

Keep short accounts. Go. Do it. Whether you write it, say it, or sky write it. Say it now. Why not make the people whom you love feel good now? You may never get a chance to say it in the end. To me, having the ones I love NOT know how I feel about them would ultimately be the true tragedy.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

As a matter of fact, it is brain surgery.

The family caravan to the OR.
On January 4, 2012, I wrote a blog post entitled Tales from the Waiting Room. Today is June 4, 2013, and I’m sitting in the exact same spot as I was one year and five months ago ... waiting. 

I feel like in the past few years I’ve learned more about the human body and various things that can go horribly wrong with it than I ever thought I’d want to know. I’m not complaining – it’s actually interesting, but a little disconcerting when it’s going on in the body of someone you love. 

What I am complaining about is how someone can live her whole life trying to eat healthy, exercise regularly, take vitamins and do all the other things you’re supposed to do to keep your cholesterol down, your blood pressure down, your weight down, your skin out of the sun, your muscles toned, your heart healthy … then all that gets thrown out the window by some random seemingly insignificant ache or pain that ends up rocking an entire world. 

In retrospect, it’s been a blessing how things have happened (as hard as it is for me to admit that.) It began with a nagging backache that just wouldn’t go away, which after various treatments, led to a CAT scan, which revealed a cancerous kidney. Kidney cancer? It doesn’t run in our family and there were no symptoms other than a backache, yet the resulting nephrectomy (told you I knew all these big words now) showed a kidney the size of a small football and one amazed surgeon.

Maybe because of her healthy, active lifestyle, doctors were again amazed when she left the hospital only two and a half days after having a kidney removed. Even more spectacular, she got on a plane to Florida less than six weeks later. Not much keeps this woman down. 

But there was more in store. A routine, follow-up CAT scan six months after what we call “the kidney incident” confirmed my belief that if you look hard enough, you’ll find something. Test after test finally revealed cancer. Again, not hereditary. In fact, one of the rarest of all gynecological cancers out there.

This road wasn’t quite as cut and dried. After much research and discussion, weighing of pros and cons and consults with doctors and nurses alike, a game plan was reached and we all tried to settle in to a “new normal”, which now consisted of other words I don’t normally toss around like “carboplatin,” “doxil” and “CA125.”

It’s tough to watch someone go through chemotherapy, especially when it’s for a disease you really don’t see. You don’t know if they’re getting better. You don’t know if the poison being dripped into them several times a month is doing its job or making things worse. You worry that quality of life is being sacrificed for something that may come back. Which it did. Chemo, Round 2. Life’s not getting any easier, and I see that optimistic spirit and energy tempered by a feeling of “enough already.” But her oncologist said, “I’ll tell you when it’s time to stop fighting and it’s not yet time.”

At one point another doctor told her, “Hey, at least you’re OK from the neck up.” That was before the splitting headache that came out of nowhere. The vomiting. The feeling that her skull was being ripped off her head. The trip to the ER. Another CAT scan. Another MRI. An angiogram. And now, as we sit here in the same waiting room we occupied almost a year and a half ago, brain surgery. 

It will be fine. She’s in the best place she could be for what’s called an orbital zygomatic craniotomy. I think that is by far the best series of words I’ve learned in the past two years. She was told she’ll be here for two weeks. She negotiated seven to 10 days. I’m predicting right now that she’ll be home in five, six tops.

She’s worried about the scar, and how she’ll cover it with her hair. She’s worried that because of this she’s going to miss her last round of chemo (which she will.) She’s worried about her family and feels bad that we’re sitting here … waiting. But there’s nowhere else we’d rather be right now. 

Our family is strong – from the matriarch to the patriarch and everyone they brought into this world.  We rally together during times like these and I can’t imagine what I would do without a family like this.  Now that I think about it, despite these challenges and the seeming unfairness of it all, we are lucky. She is lucky.

It’s not brain surgery. Well, yes it is. But after writing this blog, I realize it’s not brain surgery to realize how blessed I am to have the family I have, with strong wills, unconditional support and sometimes a little inappropriate humor. It’s those things that get us through times like these … sitting here in this little room … waiting.