The village family

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I was driving south, when I received “the phone call” from my doctor.  My three children were nestled in their car seats in the back and I did not want them to hear the news, so despite my safety concerns, I turned off the speaker option and picked up my cell phone. I did not even consider pulling over to the shoulder of the road. I was a couple hours from my mommas’ front porch, I wanted to be home.

I was prepared for the results from my two biopsies.  I was already 100% convinced that I had cancer.  I did not demand the emergency dermatologist appointment to be tested for cancer; I made the appointment to find out how comfortable the tumor made itself inside the flesh on my back.  Still, nothing prepares you for the statement:

You have cancer.

There are two phases in my life now, BC and AC, (before cancer and after cancer).

I am an avid story teller, whose vivid details recounting personal adventure now began with the phrases, “before I had cancer, I…”and “after cancer, I…”  These phrases had unfortunately become precursors to my once no strings attached tall tales.

I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma on my face and malignant melanoma on my back.  The basal cell cancer was normally non-life threating and completely removed during the biopsy procedure. My fight against the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, was just beginning.

The only knowledge I was privy to( before my cancer escapade), concerning melanoma, was that it spread to legendary musician Bob Marley’s brain and killed him when he was only 36 years old.  I was two days shy of my birthday, I kept thinking, for my 39thbirthday; I received the dreaded gift of cancer, nice.

Melanoma develops in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin, the color pigment that gives your skin its color. Melanoma accounts for 75% of all deaths related to skin cancer. Melanoma is an asshole!

My big sister was relaxing in the passenger seat of my car while I was discussing the details of my pathology report with the doctor. I was glad to have her company on this road trip even more so, now. I asked her to get a pen and jot down the numbers in my cancer journal. (I know, you all are thinking that I doomed myself by purchasing and labeling a notebook, “my cancer journal”.) I didn’t understand my cancer equation. Stages, phases and Levels…percentages, treatment options, survival rates…names of oncologists at UK Cancer center and then the final question, “am I going to die?”

“Not today,” was her only clear cut response.

I wasn’t instantly relieved but I guess that would have to do.  I had so many thoughts racing through my foggy brain.  I had drummed up emotions that were unfamiliar to me. I couldn’t believe that I actually had cancer. Cancer…real…live…cancer.  I felt so icky, tainted and violated.

When I hung up the phone, I glanced at my sister who said non-chalantly, “it’s just skin cancer, and you will be fine. Wanna stop at McDonalds for lunch?”

Seriously?

When we finally arrived home, I found the comfort and concern I so desperately needed.  I found my village.  My friends and family overwhelmed me with their love and support.  They came out by the dozens, like an army, prepped and ready to help me battle cancer.  They made phone calls, showed up at my doorstep with hugs and sent wildflowers.  They treated me to lunch, shared bottles of wine and more importantly, spent quality time with my children while I recuperated after surgery.  I couldn’t ask for a better tribe. I have never felt so loved.

Not everyone knows what to say or do when a loved one shares their cancer news.  It is not their fault, nor do they mean to come off insensitive or callous.  Everyone processes and grieves differently.  Everyone should be given care and consideration when dealing with your illness.  My sister meant no harm, she was in denial. She stayed in a state of denial for a long time.  She wasn’t ready to face cancer with me and that is ok.  Learning and accepting everyone’s role in your life’s journeys is a vital component to success.

It required a village to help me battle cancer successfully. My friends, who are my family, and my family, who provide me with some of the greatest friendships, did a beautiful job helping me navigate through the storm.  As I mend and learn to live with the cancer cells in my body that may never fully dissipate, they continue showering me with love and support.

It takes a village. My village rocks!

P.S. Wear sunscreen, check your spots and know your body.


Author: Heather Podnar

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Family of one?

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I remember when I turned 25; I had a hard time with the fact that I didn’t have a husband yet. Both of my sisters were married in their early twenties and had started their families. By the time they were my age, they each had 2 children! And for some reason, there was this unwritten expectation that I would, too. But… I didn’t even have a boyfriend.

Over the next several years a lot of life happened. I had experienced deep love; but also loss, disappointment, and heartache. I had to grieve the fact that I didn’t end up with what I wanted. Sometimes what we think we want isn’t necessarily what’s best for us. But it doesn’t mean it’s not painful. And it takes some distance, time, and work to find healing.

I used to believe that there was something missing in my life because I was single; that my world was somehow incomplete because there wasn’t someone significant in my life. And that I had wasted my “prime childbearing” years. Sometimes, it feels like there is an expectation that having a family is the “end all, be all” goal in life. When people would ask me if I was married or had kids, they would look at me with pity or disappointment when I said no. And it hurt. Because I felt I had failed, too. I didn’t realize it for a long time, but I was waiting… waiting for my life to start.

I turned 40 this year. Life looks a lot different at 40 than I thought it would when I was a little girl. Those 15 years between 25 and 40 brought a lot of life experience, but not a loving husband and house bustling with children. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a family. I have a community of AMAZING people in my life, and12 nieces and nephews that I absolutely ADORE. I have a few close friends that I offer babysitting services to; not only to give them time to connect as couples, but I get to borrow their KIDS! I finally realized that BECAUSE I do not have the responsibility of my own children, there are a lot more kids that get my love.

Don’t get me wrong, I still would love to get married someday, but the desire to have kids of my own has faded some. I have found that you don’t need husband to know love.  You don’t have to give birth to know how to nurture. That it’s better to be single than wish you were. There does not need to be an “other” in order for your life to be significant. And you don’t have to be related to be family.

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Author: Wendy Hinkle

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Everyone here is family

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Family. The one word that can cause just about every human emotion to well up, but why is it so powerful?  I think for most it’s because for good or bad, right or wrong, our “family” is where we come from. They’re our ancestral heritage, our story, Thanksgivings and Christmases, and God help us they’re our crazy Uncle Eddies we don’t want anyone to know about if possible.

image1The interesting thing about “family” is that I believe the definition has become more diverse and ever widening over the years. The high value once placed in traceable bloodlines and birthright has given way to circumstance, generosity, kindness, or usually all three.  The fact that my daughter is not blood related to me does not define my love for her, how quite silly really (said with Downton Abbey accent).  So why should extended family be any different?

My grandfather who passed away four years ago taught me a great deal about family. Things I continue to understand more even today. As Christmas approaches, I was remembering back to Christmas Eves during my childhood when we would gather with my dad’s side of the family. My grandfather always made a point to be at the front door to welcome each and every person who stepped in. It was usually a group of around fifty or so with all the cousins and some of their friends, current boyfriends and girlfriends, and because there are no strangers in the Martinez home, there were always an assortment of random people I had never seen before who were welcomed as part of the family.

image4One by one they would step in. At 5’8″ and with the strength of an ox he’d wrap his arms full around them, squeeze as hard as possible until all air had left their lungs, and then proceed to lift them off the ground with a, “Merry Christmas!”  That was quickly followed up by, “You’re BEAUTIFUL! We love you! Everyone here is family!”  All of us who knew what was coming took great joy in watching this unfold as unsuspecting newcomers came through the door. Our favorite was always the new boyfriend of one of the cousins who was too cool for anyone there who after putting his hand out to shake my grandfather’s hand quickly found himself airborne. You could tell if he was going to make it ten minutes in this family by his reaction. No smile?  No way. And give him one of the dry tamales at the top of the pan.

image3So what was it that my grandfather was doing during those front door exchanges?  I thinks it’s important because everyone I’ve ever talked to who came to our family events said that they felt welcome and like part of the family.  I think first, he acknowledged and welcomed them – “Merry Christmas!!”  He changed any preconception they had about what they were stepping into, reset it with a twist of self esteem – picked up, bear hugged, set down, “You’re beautiful!” And lastly he established the Martinez ground rules – “everyone here is family”.

While a few of my wife’s family members live in the same town as us now, we actually are several thousand miles from my blood related family. That has been a rough change. Continues to be.  But if the miracle of adoption has taught me anything, it’s that love is the bond of family above all else. So we have grown our Kentucky family.

family_edited2My wife Julie’s post this month on Family included a story about our friend Teresa and her kids. We’ve been through crazy storms together.  After the F5 tornado devastated the Birmingham area where she is from we drove down to see if we could help. That’s what family does. But the reason I know for sure she’s family despite our skin tone difference is that when an officer stopped us to check ID’s and ask us what our purpose was for being there was, she told him, “I’m his jive translator man!”.  Got us past the checkpoint. That woman can make me laugh like no other. She was at my table for Thanksgiving this year again as always and even felt comfortable enough to bring a friend at the last minute who had no where to go. That made my day.

My best friend Marty just left my house after dropping off dinner for the family. I’ve been sick in bed six days during my wife’s first week on a new job and I knew if I asked him for help, he’d be there. Why?  Because he’s family. My kids call him Uncle Marty. Not because it’s a cute nickname we came up with, but because they know and believe him to be their uncle. When I hold his precious little girl, Bella, and tell her Uncle Michael loves her, I assure you, it’s because my heart sees family when I look into her sweet eyes.

Family has different meanings for everyone. For me it’s about love, grace, some mercy, showing up when it matters, and food. There should always be food.

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Author: Michael Martinez

A family united

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Words can uplift, inspire, and strengthen others. Words can heal, redeem, and forgive.

But words can also cause pain. Words can blister the soul.

Three years ago, a woman and I were casually talking about families. She knew that my ex-husband and I have a young daughter, and that we share custody. At one point, the woman described our family situation as “a broken home.”

One of the definitions of broken, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, is “disunited by divorce, separation, or desertion of one parent.”

When my daughter was a toddler, her father and I chose to end our marriage, but we promised each other that we would make every effort to create a happy, secure life for our precious child. Since that time, we have worked hard to remain respectful to each other, knowing that she depends on us to bring positive energy into her daily life.

The problem with the word broken, when used to describe a family, is that it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Merriam Webster confirms that a broken family is one that is disunited. But in choosing to use the word broken in describing a family, a person excludes the ways in which that same family might be united.

Since my daughter is related to her parents by blood, there is a biological connection that unites her father and me. She has some of her father’s characteristics, plus a good dose of some of mine.

He and I are also united by memories of my pregnancy, our daughter’s amazing birth, the delight of watching our little girl take her first steps, and the challenge of potty-training.

After the divorce was final, my ex-husband and I agreed to take a united approach to co-parenting. We try to be consistent in our rules, expectations, and forms of discipline. We are aware that our daughter might try to get what she wants by pitting one parent against the other. Oh, but we’re smarter than that! Neither one of us wants to raise a child who grows up to be manipulative, so we choose to support each other’s decisions.

We feel united, too, by our desire for our daughter to do well in school, to love the process of learning, and to value hard work.

We are united in our effort to help our child develop a healthy outlook on relationships and to realize that many marriages can (and should) last a lifetime. But we also want her to understand that tragedy and heartbreak can still occur, and that once in a while, people have to make agonizing decisions.

It’s true that divorce is painful. And a single word, like broken, can be painful to a family branded with such a label. Luckily, however, forgiveness and healing have the power to move us beyond the pain of divorce, as well as the pain of words, thus allowing us to grow and experience peace.

Merriam Webster indicates that one of the meanings of peace is “harmony in personal relations.”  My lifelong aim is to nurture a family that reflects the attributes of peace.  As Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”


 

Author: Casey Miller

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December Theme: Family

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Family

Is there a word that carries more weight than ‘family’? Filled with nuance, for each person it means something a little bit different. Even at different times of life for each of us as individuals it may mean something different. It’s complicated, varying and often difficult to even discuss.

As a child our family is our whole world – for better or worse. Later it may become the thing we long to escape. We may spend our whole lives running from that childhood image of family or we may spend our lives desperately trying to recreate it.

In this season of holidays, it seems appropriate to explore the idea of what family means from a variety of perspectives. Some of our family is thrust upon us by nature of our birth. Some we acquire through marriage and adoption. Others come as friends whose lives run parallel to our own. Some of my favorite family is the unexpected kind like my friend Teresa.

When my husband and I moved to Kentucky we rented a house online before we arrived. With a moving truck, two cars and two kids in tow we arrived from California with only a weekend to unpack before I had to start a new job. There was no time for house hunting or selecting the perfect spot. We found an acceptably priced house in a reasonable location. For California apartment-dwellers it seemed like a mansion with three bedrooms upstairs plus a whole downstairs and even it’s own yard and a garage! Plus it came with a washer and dryer right in the house. No more Laundromats. It seemed like heaven.

With a lot on our hands with little kids, a new job for me and the new experience of being a stay-at-home dad for my husband, it was a few months before we started meeting our neighbors, but as summer nights began stretching out and the kids begin playing in the yard, we met our next door neighbor Teresa and her two children. This was a family who had gone through rough times and Teresa and I are from two very different subcultures. I had learned a lot about African American culture when I lived in LA, but it still hadn’t prepared me for this Alabama woman with a quick wit and non-stop stories.

As summer turned to fall and then to winter, I discovered that my years in California had stripped away my tolerance for cold, snow and ice. It didn’t help that Kentucky was having one of the worst winters in years. One night when I returned from work, it had snowed, melted and then frozen in classic Kentucky winter style and the driveway and yard was a sheet of ice. Our driveway was incredibly steep so I parked on the street as usual and attempted to walk up the driveway. Wearing my dress shoes from work, I began making my way up the driveway only to fall after just a few steps. I started again and fell again. Repeat. Repeat. I considered calling my husband and asking for him to come outside, but pride prevented me. As I stared at the driveway I thought my only solution was to crawl up on my hands and knees. Just as I began to consider this thought over to my left I caught sight of Teresa and her teenage son tromping through the snow with a snow shovel. Before I knew what had happened they cleared a path up the driveway and then each grabbed an arm and literally dragged me up to the garage. We were all laughing so hard at how ridiculous it was that I couldn’t even feel embarrassed.

From there we grew closer so that even when we moved to a new neighborhood, we stayed in touch. From very different backgrounds we became family over time as we each gave to one another in different ways. I visited her daughter in the hospital when she had surgery and brought her milkshakes. Teresa helped us pack and move our house. When the terrible tornados hit Alabama a few years ago, we gathered supplies and my husband and Teresa drove down to deliver them to her family’s church. When I had a work trip to Paris, she showed up at my house the night before with new clothes for me because she was so excited for me and wanted to give me something special to take.

Knowing her extended family lived in another state, we began inviting her family to our holiday meals and now they have become our expected extended family. Last week at Thanksgiving dinner, I brought up the story about the driveway and Teresa and I laughed again about it. She told me how she had been standing at the window watching me and didn’t want to seem strange jumping in to intervene with a neighbor she barely knew, but then realized that she had to do something.

I’m so thankful she took the step to jump in because my life has been the richer for having this unexpected family. Although our relationship has been strained at times by the complications of interacting with one another from very different positions of race, class and experience, my life, and I hope hers as well, is so much better for what I’ve learned and gained.

For me the word ‘family’ has many different connotations as it likely does for you as well. I look forward to sharing a variety of stories about family this month from each of our contributors. Feel free to share your stories as well!

A door to gratefulness

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In the human mind, there are secret doors that suddenly appear during times of horror and chaos. I am convinced of this. The soul can enter those doors and travel to places that go beyond rationality – safe places of denial and disbelief that can shelter a burning candle in the midst of a world of darkness.

On a cold February afternoon in 2002, my spirit began such a journey. As I lay uncomfortably in a hospital bed, nine months pregnant with my first child, I pushed the call button.

A nurse with long, feathery blond hair soon appeared. She had been caring for me for several hours now, so I had grown accustomed to her warm smile and long painted fingernails.

“Beverly,” I said calmly, “I want you to come over here and listen for my baby’s heartbeat.”

She stood motionless, several feet away from my bed, her feet cemented to the floor. Her eyes widened a bit, and I could tell she was searching for something in my eyes. “Has the doctor talked with you…about the results?”

I nodded.

There was a long pause. Then I stated my request again. “Beverly, can you please listen for my baby’s heartbeat?”

In that moment, something happened between us that few people will understand. In that moment, instead of pulling me to shore against my will, Beverly chose to jump into the water and swim alongside me.

“Absolutely,” she replied, and she walked over to the monitor. She rubbed a device gently across my belly – taking her time – her brow furrowing slightly.

“I’m not hearing anything right now,” she said, almost sounding perplexed. But her words “right now meant everything to me, and she knew it.

“Okay,” I answered, and she left. I started caressing my belly, talking sweetly, saying I love you to my precious baby, pleading for movement. As the minutes moved forward at snail speed, my thoughts explored a wide range of possibilities, continually problem-solving.

Hours later, I pushed the call button again. Beverly came into the room.

“Can you please listen for my baby’s heartbeat again?” I asked her.

She smiled respectfully. “Yes, I can,” she answered, and conducted the same procedure that she had done hours earlier.

“I’m not picking up anything, Cassandra,” she said. I examined her face carefully. She didn’t shake her head resolutely or give me a look of resignation. She accepted my disbelief wholly and completely, without a hint of protest. When I sighed, she sighed.

“Okay,” I said, and she exited the room.

I don’t recall how many times Beverly and I went through this ritual, but each time I extended the invitation to her, she always agreed to participate. And whenever it became appropriate for her to tell me that she couldn’t hear the baby’s heartbeat, she would relay the information in a way that left some room for me to breathe, to think, to wonder, to hope, to pray, to feel.

That evening, after my (then) husband had stepped out of the room for a little while, I began talking to God. The lights were dim.

“God, if you could resurrect Christ, then you can resurrect this baby.” In an inexplicable mixture of hope and madness, I whispered my petitions aloud, over and over and over again. I begged, I implored, I beseeched.

Prayers like this have been uttered by millions of parents through the ages, across a diversity of races, cultures, and religious traditions. The words might be different in each context, but parents will reach out to the universe in a similar manner – always begging the stars, the sky, the sun – to breathe life back into the flesh of a dead son or daughter. In this sense, whether you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or an atheist is irrelevant. Horror is horror, and somewhere along the way, there are agonizing pleas for mercy.

The last time Beverly prepared to listen for my baby’s heartbeat, I had moved beyond disbelief. I was aware that I was now wishing for a miracle that would probably not occur. Like trying to make a basket across a mile-long court, I knew what the odds were, but I chose to take a chance anyway. As Beverly rubbed the device across my belly, I took aim (so to speak) and threw the ball as hard as I could across that imaginary gymnasium.

“I’m not hearing a heartbeat,” Beverly said. The ball, of course, never made its way to the back board. The buzzer sounded. I gave up.

I let out a little scream and began wailing. She hugged me. I cried for several hours, shedding tears in front of my (then) husband, the doctor, my parents, my brother and his family, my in-laws, a pastor, and a chaplain. Beverly herself cried on several occasions during my hospital stay. She even called me from her house after she got home from work that first night. “I know I’m not supposed to call a patient from home, but you’re just on my heart in a big way,” she said over the phone.

Having a stillborn baby at nine months gestation isn’t common. Unfortunately, though, stillbirths aren’t rare. What is unusual, though, is the way Beverly chose to respond to me during the first few aching hours of my journey of grief. Each time I looked away from the cruelty of reality, she looked away, too. When I was ready to face it, she faced it with me. When I finally reached a point of bitter acceptance, she broke down and accepted the horrible truth along with me.

Thank you, Beverly. I am eternally grateful for you. But I’m also grateful to all nurses who watch tragedy unfold on a daily basis, yet continue to hold out their hands and hearts in service to their patients. Nurses like Beverly intuitively give people what they need, whether it makes sense or not.


 

Author: Casey Miller

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Grateful for a legacy

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Spoiler alert: marriage is difficult.  Some marriages fail.  Quite a few of them actually as it turns out, and for a very long list of reasons.  Yet some of them don’t.  Countless books have been written about it, all filled with theories based on anecdotes, scientific research, biblical foundations, and sometimes just rambling garbage of someone who isn’t even qualified to be giving directions to the gas station.  Side note: those sell best.  One of the things I am most grateful for in my life, is that my education of what makes a marriage last comes from wisdom passed down from parents and grandparents who share a combined 164 years of marriage experience.  You read that right.

My parents celebrated their 40th anniversary on Sunday.  My mother’s parents have been married 57 years.  And when my grandfather passed a few years ago, my father’s parents had celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary.  That, my friend, is what is known as a legacy.  They will all be the first to tell you that marriage has highs and lows and everything in between.  There are no perfect marriages.  Marriages take work.  All three of these couples faced circumstances and events that have caused many other couples to call it quits and walk away.  I want to be clear that I don’t believe that divorce should never be an option.  On the contrary, there are very valid reasons.  But my point is that I am grateful, so very grateful, to my parents and grandparents that they have set the example for me that it is possible for a marriage to go the distance.

At 67 years my grandparents kept to their vows of till death do us part.  I believe, and so did they, that one of the secrets of their success was the ability to have conflict, even loud conflict, but end up laughing at each other by the end of it.  I witnessed it more times than I can count and never thought much of it.  Of course usually they fought in Spanish so the grandkids wouldn’t know what they were saying.  But by the end my grandmother would put up her fists like a boxer ready to come out of the corner, say something in Spanish, my grandfather would repeat it back and they’d start laughing.  They said it so often that in high school in my first Spanish class, the teacher, knowing I was half Mexican, asked me for an example of a common phrase that someone in my family used.  I gave the first one that came to mind…the one I had heard a thousand times…that I didn’t actually know the translation of.  As it turns out, it’s not exactly endearing or PG-13 for that matter.  The Spanish speakers in the class fell out of their chair, and I was sent to detention, having no clue as to what had just happened.  When I got home I told my mom what had happened.  She almost peed laughing.  She told me to call my grandmother and tell her what happened.  When I did I heard my grandmother yell at my grandfather, “Hon!  You got your grandson in trouble at school!!  You and your mouth! I should…” and she trailed off while he cracked up.  Laughter.  The ability to laugh at themselves and each other.  My parents practice the same thing.  It’s not a coincidence.

So I am grateful to my parents for their marriage and the love and wisdom it holds within it.  I’m grateful to my grandparents for the same, and that they were able to pass it on to their children.  I plan to do the same.


Author: Michael Martinez

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Grateful Journey

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My anxiety, coupled with my vocal, overzealous nature, often lead me to “jump the gun”.

A few months ago I was drying off after a shower when I noticed a little black dot on my back that seemed out of place.

I have been covered with freckles and moles since childhood. They dance along the bridge of my nose as if they were painted on melodically by the sun.  I embrace my complexion. My skin is a nice blend of my heritage. I have the freckles from my Irish side and a coral hue to my skin from my Indian ancestors.

My complexion reminds me of my grandmother, Opal. We share the same map of brown dots from our head to our toes. I remember growing up, several times when she was adorned with band aids due to skin biopsies. She spent long days in the blazing sun, in her precious garden. She canned her fruits and vegetables with pride.

Grandma Opal wore long dresses and a wide brimmed hat outdoors, but she still managed to keep a tan year round.  I don’t remember any of us talking about sun screen or skin cancer. Does anyone talk about skin cancer?

I reminisce while reaching for my phone to google “skin cancer”. I am overwhelmed with ghastly images of tormented flesh.  I visit cancer websites and learn the abc’s of mole identification. My mood races between fear and sadness as I realize that I have spent the last 30 some years damaging my skin, my largest organ, on purpose.

Swimming, tanning and outdoor activities in the midday southern heat were a staple my entire life.  My father installs in ground pools, we have had the pleasure of a pool since I was 4 years old.  Every move, every house, came with a pool.

I kept a suntan, a healthy terracotta glow, year round. I visited my first indoor tanning salon when I was 13 and I never looked back. I vacationed at the beach and used my tan lines as a gage for the trips success.  I fell asleep on a raft in Mexico and on a houseboat in Ohio, receiving my 2 worse cases of sun poisoning.

I tanned before dances, weddings and other big events. I moved to Alaska and sought solace in tanning beds to combat a vitamin d deficiency and seasonal depression.

I did not stop tanning until June of this year, a lifestyle choice that will not only haunt me until my death, but may be the reason for my death.

It took me less than 10 minutes to diagnose myself with malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. I cried myself to sleep and called my doctor first thing the next morning.

I demanded an “emergency dermatology” appointment within 8 hours.  Dr. C., informed me that there was no such thing and if I feared for my immediate health, all he could do was authorize an ER visit.  He suggested instead that I calm down, stop “googling” and come see him in September, when I returned to our home base in Oklahoma.

I laughed. He didn’t.  I thanked him for his advice (that I would not be following) and hung up.

I spent the next 62 minutes on the phone explaining my issue to my insurance company, the referral team, another PC doctor and a local dermatologist.

Luckily, my mother-in-laws suggestion to contact her dermatologist panned out.  After I plead my case, the office agreed to fit me in that afternoon.

I sat on the edge of the exam table in my paper gown and prayed.  I did not pray to be cancer free, I prayed that I caught it early enough to destroy it immediately and press on.

Dr. M., a lovely young lady with glowing skin and a perfect smile walked in an introduced herself.

My reply was, “My name is Heather and I have melanoma.”

She seemed thrown for a loop by my assertion, but she obliged me while again I deduced my case.

She scanned my naked body with a looking glass, and a measuring device. She revealed her findings to the nurse, who jotted them down.

Dr. M., inhaled deeply as she ran her index finger over the spot on my back.  She agreed that a biopsy was in order and proceeded to numb and cut my flesh.

I blurted out, “It is malignant melanoma, right?”

“There is no way to diagnose melanoma without a full pathology report.  I will let you know in 10-14 days, what we can conclude”

I swung my legs around the chair to face her. I reached for her hands and begged for more information.

“What is your professional opinion off the record? Pretend we are two chums sitting at a bar enjoying cocktails, if you had to throw out a percentage like a dart on a board, what would it be?”

Please give me something, I am grown. I’ve birthed 3 children and my husband is 4,000 miles away fighting in a war. I can handle this.”

She exhaled and looked me in the eyes.

“Heather, your instincts are probably right.”

A heartfelt embrace followed and we spent some time discussing skin cancer.

Now all I had to do, was wait.


Author: Heather Podnar

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Gratitude, the best present?

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This story takes place on Christmas Day, 2008. It will forever be etched into my memory. Not because I received a material present worth remembering, but because it was the day that I learned the gift of being present. I was heading to Portland, Oregon to spend the holiday with my oldest sister, Tanya, and her family. In the 2 years prior to this visit, I had been battling major depression. I’d been in weekly therapy, read countless books, done serious soul searching and a lot of hard work towards personal growth. But in the months leading up to my Christmas visit, something had FINALLY clicked. Some thought processing tools that I had studied, I was finally putting to use. And it was changing my life.

#1. When we argue with reality, we suffer. A few examples: “It shouldn’t have rained today, now the party will be ruined!” “I shouldn’t be fat!” “We should have a different president!” How do we know that these things should be just the way they are? It’s simple, really. They are reality. Stressing out about what is happening doesn’t change it. It only causes grief. Now, I’m not saying that we have to change our values or stand idly by and watch what life brings us as spectators. Rather, when you have a clear mind, you’re able to act rationally and come up with a plan of action verses acting like a victim.

When it rains on party day, instead of fretting and being paralyzed, you improvise. You ask for help to rearrange the furniture inside, and send out an email to your guests to dress accordingly, bring umbrellas, or boots for puddle jumping! When you decide that you’re carrying more weight than you’d like, you are able to own that it is the result of your own choices. Why should I be fat? Well, for starters, if I am honest with myself, I don’t have the best diet, and my exercise routine is non-existent. So just looking at those two things, it’s pretty safe to say, “I should be fat.” (Now, this is not a judgment on weight, at all. It’s just an acceptance of the reality.) And regardless of whether or not you like whoever is in office, they were elected. All the griping and whining you do about it won’t change that. So get involved in a cause you care about. Help campaign for your candidate of choice next election season.

#2. There are three kinds of business. God’s, yours and mine. I have no control of things outside of my own business. If you’re a people pleaser, like me, you worry about what people think, and work hard to keep them thinking “good” thoughts about you. But the reality is, their thoughts about me are their business. So when I let go of trying to please, I am free to be authentically me. Think about a time when you were really upset. Whose business were you in? Were you mad about how someone treated you? Irritated by a partner’s nasty habit? Sad because a friend disappointed you? We have the tendency to project our own priorities and ideals onto others. So much so, that we become guilty of the very things we despise. We lash out, or distance ourselves, and say things that we regret; we are unable to offer what we long for ourselves. Love. (There is so much work that goes in to learning how to stay in your own business. And I wish I could say it was easy to do once I learned how. But if you’re interested, I would recommend reading “Loving What Is” by Byron Katie.)

Now, what was I telling you about again? OH! Christmas! So my flight was set to leave from the Ontario airport around 9 am. But because the weather had been snowy up in Portland, and it was Christmas Day, I had a gut feeling there might be a delay. I had spent the night at my other sister Kendra’s house, and she was going to take me to the airport. The kids were up and opening gifts, and I hopped on the computer to check my flight status. Yep. It was pushed back a couple of hours. But the first thing I said to Kendra after I told her the news was, “Guess what? I get to spend more time with you!” I relaxed with the family and enjoyed every extra moment.

Once I got to the airport, it was obvious that there were a lot of unhappy travelers. Numerous flights had been delayed that day, and you could just tell everyone wanted to be somewhere else. At the gate, I ended up sitting next to a woman who was visually upset. I turned to her and said, “Are you ok?” And over the next half an hour she unloaded her heavy heart. Her mother was ill, and she feared this was going to be their last Christmas together. We talked about how precious and fragile life is, and that it’s important to tell our loved ones how much they mean to us.

On the plane, the woman in the seat next to me was bubbling with excitement. She was going to see her new grandson for the first time. She and her son had been estranged for a few years, but they had recently reconciled. She was filled with hope. And it was contagious.

Once our flight landed, and I stood in baggage claim watching every last piece of luggage round the turnstile, it was clear that my suitcase hadn’t made it to Portland. I turned around to see a long line of people at the help desk. By the time I reached the front, the poor girl at the counter had received her share of tongue-lashings from disgruntled customers. I looked at her, smiled and said, “Merry Christmas. How much longer do you have to be here? Do you have plans to meet with family or friends?” And her shoulders dropped, and she breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Yes, I’m off in an hour and I’m headed to my boyfriend’s parents’ house.” We then talked about our favorite Christmas traditions and she took down all of my information. For some reason, I just wasn’t at all worried about the luggage.

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Tanya picked me up from the airport and we headed home. It was my first visit to the house they were living in at the time, and when she pulled into the long snowy driveway, and I saw the warm glow of the lights in the house, I realized I was going to have my very first White Christmas! It was about 7pm when we finally walked in, and all the kids jumped up and ran to greet me… still in their jammies. After all of the hugs and kisses were given, I said, “What did you get for Christmas?!”

The littlest guy, Daniel announced,

“We don’t know yet!!! We waited for YOU!!!”

I was seven hours late. Those kids had waited ALL DAY to open their presents…with me. And they were happy about it! I never heard one complaint or gripe. I turned to Tanya and said, “You didn’t have to make them wait!”

“I didn’t! They wanted to!”

It was the absolute best Christmas gift I’ve ever received. If I had been caught up in the events of the day, stressed and upset about my flight and lost luggage, I might have missed the wonder of it all. It’s also most likely that I wouldn’t have been available to the people I met along the way; to be a listening ear, to rejoice in love restored, to offer a little bit of grace. That day, I was blessed by the selfless, kind and loving children my sister was raising. Oh, and the bonus? I didn’t have to trudge through the snow with my suitcase. It was DELIVERED to me!

Linnea and Daniel, the youngest of my sister’s SIX kids – Christmas 2006

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Author: Wendy Hinkle

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Grateful for… playdoh

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“Mom, what colors make brown?”

We’re gathered around my mother’s rolling bedside table at the nursing home. I’m crafting a misshapen duck. My son, tired of making play-doh snakes, has flattened them all.

With six years of parenting under my belt, I ask, knowing the answer: “You’re trying to make poop, aren’t you?”

“Yes!” he giggles with mischievous delight. My mom lets out an unbridled cackle.  She’s always been amused by potty humor.

A silly moment like this was the farthest thing from my mind in 2010 as I sat at rest stop in nowhere Ohio, on the phone with the neurologist. They needed my consent to remove a portion of my mom’s skull because her brain was swelling. A stroke had decimated two-thirds of the left side of her brain. We were on our way back home, a state away, when things took a turn for the worse. I handed the phone to my husband. I heard him ask about “best case scenarios.” I was crying too hard to talk. My son, who was next to me in his car seat, reached his tiny hand to my arm and patted me. “OK, Mommy,” he said gently, through his pacifier.

But nothing was OK. The next four months, I’d put on a brave face and go smiling into her room in the ICU, trying not focus on the shaved, caved-in side of her skull, dotted with suddenly whitish-gray nubs of hair.

I’d regale her with stories of her grandson’s antics, like the time he sang “We will, we will find you, find you” (to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” as father and son were driving around the hospital parking garage looking for me.) I’d tell her about his latest encounter with her cats. He loved to chase them. I knew full well she’d never set foot back in the dream house she built with my dad, who had died suddenly less than two years before she had her stroke. Someone would need to take those kitties.

The next two years were a painful process of emptying and eventually selling her house, hurried weekend trips to the nursing home, worried phone calls about hospital stays with seizures and infections, and blessings of emails from her former schoolteacher colleagues who kept us up on the day-to-day.

In November 2012, just after Thanksgiving, we could finally move her to our state. Suddenly a trip to visit Mom didn’t mean 7 hours in the car, it meant 15 minutes. And it means grandma can see her grandson grow up. We get to do puzzles and draw together. We get to walk with her, as she tools around in her power wheelchair, greeting fellow residents with a happy “Wee!” (She can understand everything we say to her, but the only words she can form are “Wee” and “Bye.”)

She spends hours in the courtyards at the nursing home, dead-heading the knockout roses. Telltale pink petals collect on the footboard of her wheelchair, next to her paralyzed right foot.

Every month she goes bowling, and the activities director tells me she’s the cheerleader for her fellow bowlers. She goes to Keeneland Racecourse and has been known to place a $2 bet on a horse with a good name.

We take her to church, and she plays with her grandson as we wait for the handicapped accessible bus. She turns up the speed and does circles, pretending to be a bull, as the tiny bullfighter teases her.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for bullfights and play-doh poop and laughs. I’m grateful my mom is still my mom. And I am grateful that God gives us these moments together.


Author: Alicia Gregory

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