If I Knew Then…

This week, my husband and I celebrate 11 years with our Ultimate Bengal Fan. It doesn’t seem like he’s been with us that long. I now have a much clearer understanding of the saying, “The days are long, but the years are short.” Those early days of mommyhood were so long and I spent much of my time wishing they would pass.

The seemingly endless days of early childhood were tough. Unlike the traditional route, where you have several months to prepare for your child, I had 3 weeks. While my husband and I had spent months jumping through hoops at the state and federal level in the US as well as the Russian government, it was all just paperwork. We had a crib and a few other things, but that was it. When you adopt, you don’t have a due date. It’s pretty much a hurry up and wait kind of thing, at least it was with us. One day you’re living your life and the next you’re scrambling to finish paperwork, buy airline tickets, gathering baby things and generally running like a chicken with your head cut off to take off for a foreign country where you can’t even read the alphabet.

I did learn that I love the people of my Fan’s home region in Siberia. It’s beautiful and the people are hard working and friendly. Our return to Moscow was a bit like being in New York City, only you couldn’t read the signs. It’s busy and crowded. I don’t like crowds. And it is a bit disconcerting to go to the grocery and be greeted by guards carrying weapons. Kroger doesn’t look so bad any longer. I learned that while I may not like a lot of things in the US, it’s still better than many other places and I literally knelt down and put my head to the floor after we landed in Boston (despite being tired, I drew the line at actually kissing the ground. I still had a bit of sense after being up for 26 hours straight). I was not only thankful for my home, but that there were changing tables in the bathrooms. It’s the little things, trust me.

It was that trip, and the subsequent one to Guatemala to bring home the B-man, that shaped me for my future challenges. Both my sons faced challenges stemming from being orphaned as infants, albeit different since one was in an orphanage and another in foster care. I learned I’m much more resilient than I give myself credit for. I learned to think on the fly and that life cannot be put into a nice box, allowing you to pick and choose what will happen. It just goes and you have the choice to go follow the current or try to swim upstream. There are times to be the water and times to be the spawning salmon. You just have to know which is which.

Cancer is like that. You have to know when to fight and when to let it go. I’m not talking about the “calling in the hospice” letting it go. I’m talking about taking a nap, letting the chemo do it’s thing and having a pity party kind of letting it go. It was a tough act two years ago and is still a tough act. I’m still fighting the incredibly taxing side effects of chemotherapy. I still fight neuropathy, bone pain, nausea, headaches and stomach issues. Anemia, which I had filed away as a past issue, has raised its ugly head again. The rain today is making me feel achy and just plain yucky. I am bummed because this is the first Saturday in I don’t know how long that I actually had time to attend a volunteer meeting for the Ovarian Cancer Alliance in my hometown. Instead, I’m sitting here hoping that my hands last longer than the words in my head.

I thank God every day for the gift of motherhood. He knew exactly which children we should have and when we needed them. It wasn’t on our timetable, but His. He knew that I would get cancer, but made sure my precious sons were old enough to understand and help me out, but that I would be around to make sure they would continue on their path to be well-rounded, faith grounded and loved beyond measure young men. My prayer has always been to see them start off in their chosen fields (choosing to see them graduate from high school seems cliché. I want to see them soar). He placed us in a homeschool environment so my boys would be able to be hugged, cared for and blessed by people who were friends.

Every day puts the odds into play. Every day is a gift. Good days are filed away and bad days bring home the fact that the battle continues. Cancer is a lot like a foreign country. If you stay long enough, you learn the language, adapt to the weather and find joy in the culture. If I knew then that I would face ovarian cancer, I might have paused about bringing my children home. But then I wouldn’t know what I know now.

The days are long, but the years are short. It’s what you put into them that counts.

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Educating the World

The past few weeks I have felt like a hamster on a wheel; running but getting nowhere fast.  I’m in the midst of my quarterly doctor and lab visits (2 more to go!), Vacation Bible School (VBS), a major writing project, a sick cat and prepping Braeden for endoscopy next week, all while trying to maintain some semblance of a home and the schedule that goes with being a family.  For those who think being a stay-at-home mom or working from home is easy, I dare you to try it for a week.  I can almost guarantee you’ll be running for the front door within a month, particularly if you really like that extra paycheck.

My choices in life (whether I’ve made them voluntarily or circumstances have dictated them) have generally involved me having to, at some point, educate the world.  When my husband and I chose to adopt internationally, we found ourselves educating people on the nuances of international adoption.  For those who aren’t familiar with our choice, here’s a brief history.  After 5+ years of unsuccessful infertility treatments, we chose to adopt.  The best choice for us was international adoption.  It wasn’t that we were opposed to adopting from the US.  It was simply because that God had decided that these two boys – one in Russia and one in Guatemala – needed us as parents, and we needed them to be our sons.  We traveled and had two of the most incredible experiences of our lives and continue to be blessed to watch our sons grow from infants into young men.  Even before the boys came home, we found ourselves educating our families and friends on international adoption, even as we were being educated ourselves.  Once they came home, the education continued.

While we are still asked about adoption, it’s less frequent, especially in the case of our oldest son who was born in Russia.  He looks like the all-American kid, especially when he wears his ever-present Reds baseball cap.  Our younger son is a different story.  Being from Guatemala, he does not “blend in” with the family.  Our immediate circle of family and friends don’t notice his gorgeous brown skin (I am insanely jealous of it) any longer, but others do.  Being Hispanic he will have to face prejudice.  We’d dealt with it once before, while he was in kindergarten at our homeschool co-op, but the parents of the other child were on board with educating their child.  The boys ended up being friends.

This week, I found myself in the position of “educating the world” again.  My normally happy-go-lucky son was the target of prejudice and bullying at VBS.  He stood up for himself and did all right things (told the kid to stop, talked to his crew leader), but it didn’t help.  After night #2, he talked it over with us.  After I calmed down, I requested a crew change and got it immediately.  However, I found myself in the situation of educating the world, when I had to reiterate the whole adoption and “not looking like me” idea.  Seriously, it’s 2014.  This is NOT a new concept.  Yet I did it, not for them, but for my son.  That’s what a momma does.  She advocates for her child in an effort to show them they aren’t strange or weird or anything else.  They are who they are and if people don’t like them, that’s their problem.

Once I cross that bridge, I get to educate the world about homeschooling.  Fortunately, I am not alone in this boat.  I have lots of friends who find themselves having similar conversations.  Actually, I tend to forget there’s a whole other world out there that goes to public or private school.  The boys often have to remind me of this when I ask why there are so many buses on the road.  Yet, I do end up explaining that this is what’s best for our family and, quite honestly, one of the things that kept me sane during chemo.  I had to get up and “do school” with the boys.  It was a reason to get out of bed and stay up.  It was one of the few times I was “normal” during those long months.  My kids have thrived in homeschool and I have discovered that Kyle does much better teaching himself and Braeden has a real talent for science so I can use these to my advantage when teaching them.  I’m not sure they’d be afforded the same opportunities elsewhere.

Of course, my biggest educating moments come with cancer.  Now that I look “normal” again (meaning my hair has grown out to shoulder length and I have color in my face), when I mention that I’m a cancer survivor people assume it was breast.  Then I explain it was ovarian.  Then I either get the look of “Why aren’t you dead?” or “When will you die?” as if ovarian cancer is a death sentence.  And for some women, it is.  If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I was extremely fortunate in that my cancer was found at stage 1.  I underwent 7 grueling rounds of chemotherapy that has given me side effects I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  I am faced with the lifetime of oncology visits, scans and blood work.  I found out last week that the infusion port that was used for my chemo is a permanent part of my anatomy until it needs to be replaced.  My veins are shot.  They were never very good, but the chemo took what little bit was good and ruined them.  Now I get to educate people on my port, why I have it, why I keep it, and all that jazz.  I have never rebounded energy wise.  Yes, I am on the cusp of 50, but it’s the new 30, right?

As I’ve said, ovarian cancer suvivorship is a tight knit club.  Most survivors face at least one more battle, whether it’s 2 years, 12 years or 20 years later.  You walk a tightrope of living life and glancing over your shoulder for the beast.  The scars don’t go away for any cancer survivor.  Unfortunately, most of my scars aren’t visible (I seriously doubt anyone would want to see my surgical scar given my current physical condition, which is a nice way of saying I don’t have a bikini body).  Let’s face it, no one wants to hear you complain after you’ve completed chemo.  You’re supposed to be “cured.”  You look good, why don’t you feel good?  I want to shake people and say “Because I had ovarian cancer you idiot!”  Instead I smile and try to explain that the very drugs that kill tumor cells have side effects which can last years.  I tell stories about chemo fog enhanced with menopausal forgetfulness.  If I’m really irritated, I launch into a highly scientific explanation of bone loss and nerve damage due to the heavy metals in carboplatin and the cell turnover in taxol. I tend to save that for only the truly irritating “experts” who read a lot, but have never had cancer.  It’s fun to watch them squirm.

I used to plan for everything, now not so much.  I look maybe a couple of months out, but that’s it.  My husband did get me to think about how we wanted to spend our 25th wedding anniversary in 5 years (we just made it to 20, but don’t ask me how).  We decided Hawaii might be nice.  I do have a plan.  I plan to have a bikini body and I know my scar will be on prominent display (hopefully it will just be the one).  This will be one time I won’t mind educating the world.  I figure being 54 and having a killer body is worth the hassle of having to educate the world.

Honestly, we’re all educators.  We’re all called to educate in our own special way; by our words, our actions and our choices.  Some of use just educate a bit more than others.