What I Learned from Cancer

I know, it’s been a while. And dear reader, I know you’ve been longing for my nuggets of wisdom (or lack thereof). It’s not for lack of trying. It’s just that sometimes life gets in the way of my best intentions. I have been getting ready for school (both here at home and for Learning Tree (#best homeschool co-op EVER), vacationing with one of my dearest friends, and trying to generate some income writing.

However, with a new school year comes looking forward to learning new things. The Ultimate Bengal Fan is doing an in-depth study of American History and I love hearing what he’s learned. B-man is telling me all about Ohio History. All this learning at the homestead has me thinking about what I’ve learned and what I continue to learn on this journey called life.

A couple of days ago my Facebook account showed me my memories from past years. My post on August 23, 2012 went something like, “Visit to the GYN ended with finding out I have a cyst on my left ovary. Ultrasound next week. Nothing like 5 years of fertility drugs to give you side effects.” My post was my usual “Who me, worry?” I remember that day like it was yesterday. I sobbed for hours on end. I KNEW I had ovarian cancer. Don’t know how, but I did. My entry into the world of cancer was swift and painful. I’m still looking for a way out that doesn’t involve ceasing to be an active participant in this world.

I do realize, however, that cancer is a great teacher. Yes, that is a positive and seeing as there are so few, it does bear mentioning. I have learned a great many things; some about myself and some about others. All of them have shaped how I look at the world.

1. Cancer is a jealous lover. Remember the movie Fatal Attraction? Glenn Close played a creepy jilted lover. Cancer is a lot like that. It does not go way quietly. Trust me, there’s nothing quiet about chemo. From the beeping of the IV’s to the quiet moans of pain to railing at God and the universe, there’s no peace. And just when you think you’ve got a chance at staying in remission, it rears it’s ugly head like Jack Nicholson in The Shining and says, “I’m back!” No, mine’s not back, but I hold no illusions that I’ll be able to avoid this intruder for the rest of my life. When cancer wants to return, it will. And if it doesn’t, hooray for Dr. Downer.

2. Family is a relative term. Family is more than who you’re related too. My family of origin is relatively small. When I was diagnosed, my mom and cousin Ginny were really the only two people I spoke with. My husband’s immediate family is a bit larger. My mother-in-law made the 3-1/2 hour drive several times to help me after a chemo treatment and took me for fluids. However, there were other people who surrounded me and became as important as those who society would call my “family.” Momma Renie took me to an ultrasound, stayed with me when I got fluids and loved on my kids (and Mr. Dan helped out too), as well as dried a lot of tears. Sister Sue was there as was my niece Sarah to help out with transportation and child care, loving me as only a sister can. Second mom Kelley stepped up and loved on my children as only a mom can while I was at chemo. Coach Cathy quickly became my trusted confidant when I just couldn’t take one more infusion. While my BFF Denise only visited once, she made it count. She came a few weeks before Christmas and helped me bake cookies and put up the tree when she should have been doing that for her own family. My sister in teal, Lisa, whom I’ve never met except on Facebook, called several times with orders “Do NOT quit!” You don’t say no to Lisa. These people surrounded me and my family and loved us in a way that I still find incredible. God puts who we need in our life and they aren’t always a relative.

3. Laughter really is the best medicine. I love good humor (and the ice cream’s not bad either). In my opinion, my dad had the greatest sense of humor. Even now, I’ll say something and my DH says, “That’s a Budism.” There were a lot of days when I’d think of something my dad would day and would laugh (imagine a 6 year old singing “Walking in My Winter Underwear” to the tune of “Winter Wonderland” and you’ll get the idea). My B-man is a natural comedian and it was healing to my soul. I learned that when life is crappy, find humor. Life probably won’t be any less crappy, but if you can make fun of it, it’s easier to get through.

4. You are always stronger than you think. I can’t tell you how many people tell me that I showed amazing courage during my illness. Honestly, it didn’t occur to me not to be any other way. I had two young sons who needed a mom and a husband who, despite being an incredibly gifted engineer, has a tough time keeping things rolling at home. They needed me. So I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually, you find a rhythm even if it’s just walking from the bed to the couch, while stopping to get a cup of coffee. It’s like Nike Just Do It! I think God will let me know when it’s time to stop. Until then, you fight like hell.

5. Life is full of choices, not all of which you can control. We all make choices every day. What to wear. What to eat for dinner. What time to go to bed. Those are easy. The hard ones aren’t as easy. The toughest choice I had to make was when Dr. Downer told me that he recommended two additional chemo treatments beyond the 6 initially prescribed. My DH and Mom were supportive, but Coach Cathy cried with me. I was all ready so beaten down. I chose to do number 7, but drew the line at number 8 when my body was so broken that another treatment would have landed me in the hospital. Dr. Downer ultimately decided number 8 was not an option given my body’s physical state, but I’m not sure what my decision would have been if it had been presented to me. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make that choice, but lots of other teal sisters do every day. The choice of living while being poisoned or dying from the Beast doesn’t really seem like much of a choice.

6. God is always in the storm. I never felt closer to God than when I was battling cancer. Being in the pit, you decide to shun God and “punish” Him or hang on for dear life. There’s a song I love which goes something like this “Sometimes He calms the storm with the words ‘Peace, Be Still.’ He can, but it doesn’t mean He will. Sometimes He holds us close and lets the wind and waves go wild. Sometimes He calms the storm and other times He calms His child.” He calmed this child in ways I never thought possible. Yes I was nervous, but never afraid. God had this and I was just along for the ride. I vividly remember placing everything in His hands and walking away before my surgery. Unfortunately a few weeks after chemo ended, I snatched it all back. I need to remember that control is an illusion. How I chose to respond is what matters. That applies to everything, not just the Beast.

So I have, like my quote, begun to grasp that the unexpected happens. Courage, grace and humor go a long way to making life more tolerable. Those same attributes will help me as I continue on this journey and as I move onto my next. I am meeting with a dietician this week to get a definite weight loss plan in place. The weight has got to go. I got rid of cancer so now it’s time to get rid of the flab (vacation pictures can make you realize what you really look like). The Beast wants me to keep the fat. You know I hate listening to the Beast so the flab has got to go.

Here’s to lessons learned. May we never stop learning.

Fog as Thick as Peanut Butter

I’ve always loved Yukon Cornelius of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer fame. He was so blissfully ensconced in his search for silver and gold that he tended to be oblivious to what was going on around him. He came up with one of my favorite similes – “This fog’s as thick as peanut butter.” When Hermie (another great character) corrects him by saying, “You mean pea soup,” Yukon proudly tells him that he prefers his fog to be like peanut butter.

Today, my fog is as thick as peanut butter – chunky with low sugar (my personal favorite). Actually it’s been thick for a few weeks now, but today it’s beyond what I’ve experienced since chemo. I could write it off to stress. After all, my mom and the B-man both had surgery within a week of each other. While both are, thankfully, fine, stress wreaks havoc on my chemo addled brain. My stress tripled this morning when my hubby left for a conference in Las Vegas and a much deserved break from the madness at home.

I didn’t realize how much having my hubby gone would throw me until the boys and I headed out for church this morning. Since getting my smart phone two months ago, I’ve been able to feed my addiction to Dunkin’ Donuts coffee every Sunday on my way to church. I have their app on my phone and can just tap and pay. I have no idea how I lived without this. But I digress. When we go to church, we have our route that swings us past Dunkin’ Donuts then up to church. Today, I tried to turn down the wrong road not once, but twice. What makes this even more frustrating is that it’s the same route I travel to go to our co-op. Fortunately, I did get my coffee and made it to church with 10 minutes to spare. God is good.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to stay focused on anything else today. I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it is to write this today. It’s not because I can’t find the words, although they are elusive today. It’s because I can’t stay focused long enough to actually explain it. My brain is like a pin ball and my skull is the table. Thoughts are banging against the walls racking up points, then missing the final flipper. Fortunately, some are being caught and are being flipped back into play. God help me if my brain decides to “TILT.”

This is the first time I’ve been “on my own” since ovarian cancer struck. Actually, the year I met the Beast was the last time Hubby went to this conference. I’ve asked him to not be so generous this time and leave the Beast in Las Vegas this time. I’m not in a big hurry to meet up with ovarian cancer again. Honey, if you read this while you’re there. I don’t need anything. REALLY! I’m good. No guilt. I’d much rather have more mulch for the landscaping. Honest!

I think not having the safety net of my hubby has thrown me. Granted The Ultimate Bengal Fan is now 12 and the B-man is 9. They do a great job of reminding me to do things. Actually, I think they enjoy it. They only remind me of the fun things. The Fan needed a haircut, but didn’t really want to waste his time getting one. He didn’t remind me. He did finally get one, when I was driving past Great Clips and saw their $5.99 special. It actually worked out better than I thought since it saved me $9.00. B never reminds me to make vegetables for dinner. Let’s not even talk about bedtime. They do remind me about promises to go out to lunch and pizza night. I guess it’s about priorities – theirs not mine.

Just when I was feeling like I was going to be smothered in peanut butter, I read a study that had been published in Great Britain. Apparently chemo brain is real (GASP – Really?). Chemo affects the brain’s ability to focus for more than just a brief period of time. You can no longer order your thoughts (as in putting them in order, not telling them what to do. Apparently I can no longer to either) and your mind drifts even when you think you’re on task. How crazy is that? I’m surprised I can type coherent sentences after reading that.

While the study does confirm what I knew to be true, it does seem to provide me with a sense of relief. I’m actually not crazy. I have a legitimate reason to forget things. I can play the cancer card without feeling like I’m duping people. While I hate to play the card, sometimes a girl’s gotta’ do what a girl’s gotta’ do. I rarely play it though. I tend to forget where I put it.

In the future, I will be using the GPS on that phone. I have a new purse with a special pocket just for it. Hopefully, it can find the closest Dunkin’ Donuts. Until then, hand me a spoon. I need to get through this fog.

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.

The Land of Discontentment

I have been feeling very discontented. It took me a while to latch onto the right word, but discontented sums it up nicely. After sitting on pins and needles for 2 months because of a unexpected rise in my tumor marker, I have been given a thumbs up by my oncology team. I’m back on quarterly testing for the foreseeable future. Thankful, yes but certainly not content with status quo. After over a year in the 7 range, I’m in the 10’s now. Well below the threshold of 35, but not where I was. I’m certainly not content with that.

I’m convinced that stepping on a scale is the fastest way to the land of discontentment. It’s the bullet train of emotion. If it drops, you go to the land of euphoria. If it remains that the station, it’s either a relief or a puzzler. If you gain, you zip straight into discontentment. I gained 4 pounds. I’m not surprised considering the vast amounts of junk food I’ve consumed the last 10 days. I bought into the lie that I could walk the dog 4 days a week and eat whatever I wanted. I walked from the land of healthy into the land of discontentment. I’m not happy, but it’s not unexpected either.

I talked to my devoted husband last night about this nebulous, discontented feeling I have. He was puzzled since he has left the land of discontentment and is on the island of contentment. Seems we’re never in the same place at the same time any longer. Could be that was one of the stops I missed on the train.

When I’m bothered by something, it never comes up and slaps me along side the head. It’s always this cloudy, endless black hole in the back of my mind. It takes a while for the black hole to collapse so I can put words to the visual. My visual today was a huge mass of wires with me tangled in their web. My land of discontentment is covered in computer cables, e-mails and the hundreds of other electronic gizmos that clamor for my attention every day.

I had high hopes for myself when I ended chemo. I wanted to be a different person. I wanted to be the fun mom, the sexy wife, the fabulous friend, the great housekeeper and organizer extraordinaire (quit laughing Mom). None of it happened. I’m still just a Mom, an overweight wife, a so-so friend and my house looks like I have a perpetual windstorm blowing through it. I didn’t change, at least in the ways I hoped I would.

I find that I now have little tolerance for people who whine about the piddly things in life. Who cares if you can’t find a place to park close to the door? Wal-Mart’s out of your favorite cookies? Deal with it. Dropped your dinner all over the bottom of the oven? It happens (and I do get upset about it because tuna casserole is a pain to clean up), but it’s just one meal and that’s why God created cereal (I know my DH, I need to take my own advice). Life is a series of choices. Mull over the big ones, give a second thought to the average ones, and let the little ones fall where they may. I’ve learned not to stress over the B-man’s dislike of generic Cheerios. In the grand scheme of things, it’s piddly.

Chemo made me more distractible. My concentration a lot of days is in the negative zone. Half the time I can’t remember diddly and the other half I can’t figure out why I’d want to. My boys accept the fact that Mom has chemo fog. They even say it when I’m standing in the middle of a room, trying to look like I know what I want, when, in fact, I haven’t got a clue. That makes me sad. Should my kids have to understand what chemo fog is at 11 and 8. I know it’s a joke to them, but to me it’s taken a huge part of who I was. I could juggle lists and appointments with the best of them. Now, the idea of juggling anything other than clean socks is scary and I’m not very good at that either. This is discontentment at its finest.

This morning I realized I needed to find a way to clear my head and get out of the Land of Discontentment. I deal with too much noise. Remember the static noise on TV when the channel was out? For those of you old enough to remember life before cable and satellite this shouldn’t be a stretch, unless you’ve had chemo. Then Google it. It’ll come back, I promise. That’s what I hear in my head; all day, every day. I’ve discovered that’s the National Anthem in the Land of Discontentment.

I made a huge decision. I’m unplugging. My Kindle has been turned off. I’m on a Facebook fast. I’m only tutoring 2 days per week. I’m checking e-mail twice per day. I still text, but have decided the phone is a good way to communicate (remember actually calling someone?). I continue to freelance, but will print off my research and work on it in the dining room where I can actually see out the window. I want to write creatively and cross stitch and play games with my kids. I want to move my body as I actually do something in my house. I’m hoping to lasso the source of the windstorm and try to slow them down.

Life is tough, especially in the Land of Discontentment. Cancer is tough, even after you dance with NED (No Evidence of Disease). You spend a lot of time on the Island of What-If, which is across the Channel of Dread from the Land of Discontentment. It’s like have Charon take you across the River Styx. You don’t want to be on that boat, but you can’t see a way off. Cancer taught me that my life isn’t under my control. I like to think it is, but it’s not.

What I can control is how I look at life and what I do with what I’ve got. Yes, I’m in remission from ovarian cancer. Okay, so I eat healthy (well, I start to eat healthy AGAIN) and exercise. I try to tame the chaos in the house. Uncluttering the physical goes a long way to uncluttering the mind and soul. God won’t talk above the static, but He does talk. He needs me to get rid of the static to hear Him.

When I can finally find the mute button, He tells me to just look around and get off at the next train station. There’s always a train headed back to Contentment. You’ve just got to know when to change trains.

Lest I Forget

Yesterday I took my youngest to the pediatrician for some, shall we say, dietary issues.  Basically the boy burps and toots from sun up to sundown.  And while I could regale you with snippets from the conversation he had with his pediatrician, that’s not the reason for my post.  Okay, just one.  Dr. Debbie:  “Braeden, where does your tummy hurt?”  Braeden:  “Right here.” (pointing just below his stomach).  Dr. Debbie:  “Does it hurt when you burp?” Braeden:  “Nope!  It feels good.” (note the emphasis here).  Dr. Debbie:  “And you have to pass gas too?” (so politically correct).  Braeden: “Yes, I fart.”  Dr. Debbie: “Do they smell?” Braeden: “Yep, they’re stinky.”  Now, if you know my son, you should be rolling in the aisles because you can visualize his facial expressions.  For those of you who’ve never had the privilege of meeting Braeden, just use your imagination.

But I digress.  When Dr. Debbie (our pediatrician) walked in, she said “Wow, you’re hair’s getting really long.”  Now, I actually stopped to think why she would even comment on my hair.  It took a couple of minutes for it to actually dawn on me that the last time she’d seen me, I had just passed the stubble stage.  I’d actually managed to forget I had cancer.

So, for the first time in almost 14 months, I had freedom from cancer.  Well, not actual freedom, but close enough!  It was a bittersweet kind of thing.  It was good to be free from the obsession of cancer.  On the other hand, it scared me to think I wasn’t being diligent.  So, of course, I obsessed about it for the rest of the day.  Okay, I obsessed until the Opening Ceremony started at the Olympics.  Then I got to listen to my son obsess about his birth country.

At that point, I traded one obsession for another.  I used to obsess about being an adoptive mom.  When my oldest came home, it was all about all things Russian.  I had Russian toys, Russian CDs, Russian meds, Russian food.  My son, being the good little Russian boy he is, brought home Russian bacteria that was unfamiliar to American screenings and had a raging bladder infection.  Ten years later, we are still battling Russian bugs.  This time they are H.pylori bacteria that are causing an antibiotic resistant ulcer.  Nice to know he brought a bit of the old country with him.

I spent so much time worrying about being the mom of a child who was both adopted and from a foreign country.  I read books, joined support groups and pretty much obsessed about my ability to parent.  When my youngest joined the mix from Guatemala, I now had double the reason to obsess.  Of course, my youngest is the opposite of his brother, so that just added to my drama.  As you can see from the introductory paragraph, my youngest is quite a character.  His older brother is much more controlled (this is an understatement) and has a dry sense of humor.

Then there was the whole multi-racial thing.  Don’t even get me started.  Race is an issue, yes.  My son knows that some people treat him different just because of his skin color.  Fortunately, he lets it roll – most of the time.  Once I heard him say, “Don’t people realize I think they look strange?”  That’s my boy.  And that’s when I quit obsessing.

I have actually managed to move through the last few years “forgetting” they are adopted and not from the USA.  I guess I’ve moved beyond the labels.  People sometimes ask if I see my son’s skin color.  Of course I see it!  But I also see his infectious smile, massive cowlick and stubborn attitude toward school.  It’s just part of his package.

Once I passed over the adoption obsession, I moved onto the homeschool obsession.  Homeschoolers are, by nature, an unconventional bunch.  I obsessed about choosing the right curriculum, co-op, teaching style and extra-curricular activities.  We entered our 6th year of homeschooling this year.  I will say it took me almost 5 years to quit obsessing.  Now my biggest complaint is “Where did all the buses come from?” on Monday mornings as we try to get to co-op.  I “forget” that most people don’t homeschool, which seems REALLY odd to me. Now, I just roll with the punches, just like I do with being a parent.

So I guess it really shouldn’t surprise me that I forgot about my cancer.  I have a pattern of obsessing and forgetting.  I know that I never really forget.  I am cognizant of how my family was formed, that we don’t school the way most people do and that I am very fortunate to be here to blog about this.  I know all these things, I just don’t keep them in the forefront.  Of course, chemo fog helps with this on bad days.

I’m about a month away from my quarterly check-up so I know obsession is right around the corner.  I’ll be thinking about tumor markers and wonder if I will be able to keep the barium down until after the CT scan.  I will be in a major obsessive state until the doctor gives me the thumbs up or down.  His answer will help me decide which can of worms to open.

Oh, and lest I forget, thank you, dear reader, for your comments.  I AM putting my blog into book form.  This is not an easy process especially with chemo fog, homeschooling, freelance writing and my current obsession with “Candy Crush Saga.”  But I am working on it.  Rest assured, I won’t forget.

Ten Years of Life

It’s ironic that the snow is falling and it’s cold today.  I hesitate to use the term “bitterly” because I’ve been where it’s bitter cold and this, I’m afraid to tell you, isn’t.  Bitter cold is taking a breath in through your scarf and the cold still burns your lungs and freezes the mucous inside your nose.  It’s spitting and having it freeze before it hits the ground.  THAT is bitter cold.  This is just chilly.

It was in bitter cold that John and I made the trek 10 years ago today to a military style courthouse in Chita.  We sat in a cold hallway waiting for the translator to tell us it was time for our hearing.  The courtroom was even colder since it had tall windows along one wall that were thick with ice on the outside.  The judge strode in along with everyone else and began barking out the proceedings in Russian.

Now, when we landed in Moscow the first thing that struck me was that the Cold War was still going on.  The airport was painted in a cheery military gray and there were armed guards EVERYWHERE.  In the midst of this, VH1 was on and there stood Mick Jagger on an 8 foot high screen belting out “Brown Sugar.”  I still get a headache from the paradox.

Traveling to a foreign country is a unique experience.  Now imagine doing it with $20,000 in cash strapped to your body.  John and I had managed to split it up so we didn’t have to declare it coming into the country.  We still panicked through customs, especially since we were the last Americans off our plane, the last to have our passports and visas stamped and the last to figure out where the heck we had to go.  Finally we found our translator and she helped us get our luggage and explained the ground rules for the rest of our time in Moscow.

From Moscow to Chita, we were treated to an Aeroflot flight. Now, if you’ve never had the opportunity to fly on a post-Soviet era Aeroflot jet, DON’T.  Seriously, run away!  While standing on the runway with the couple we were traveling with to the region, the maintenance crew started tapping on the front landing gear with a screwdriver.  Now, I am in no way a mechanical person, but it seems counterintuitive to tap on metal and rubber in the cold with a sharp instrument.  My expertise is limited to watching Delta at the gate.  I never saw them do it, so I’m assuming it’s an Aeroflot thing.

We were assured our crew spoke English.  Yep, “Meat or Chicken?” “Water, no gas?” (Sparkling water is the drink of choice in Russia.  This is flat water like what comes from the tap) and “You okay?” were the sole words we heard.  Children were given potty chairs to use.  The little girl in front of me used hers twice during the 6 hour flight.  That was fun, especially since it was stored under her seat by my feet.  I dropped my chicken on the floor.  The plane’s bathroom was an experience.  I quit drinking immediately after I used it an hour into our six hour flight and began about an hour before we would land knowing I could probably hold it until I got to the terminal.  As I waited an man who obviously flew with a flask of vodka let me have it in Russian.  He had tried to ask me a question and my response was, “Sorry, English speaker.”  What a tirade.  Of course, I am one of the few people I know who can say they’ve been cussed out in Russian.

The landing was fun – if you like ceiling tiles falling out on your head connected only by shoestrings.  Yes, shoestrings.  The look on John’s face is etched permanently in my mind.  Normally, we are patient and will wait to exit the plane.  I have never seen my husband move so quickly to get our things and shove us off a plane.

Exiting the plane, that was an adventure.  Imagine walking onto another planet.  That’s what we did.  It was cold (-20F) and everyone is bundled up to their eyeballs.  You walk down the steps and onto the tarmac.  It’s 7AM but pitch black.  Only the lights of the terminal and the runway are visible.  There’s ice fog in the distance.  You are searching in vain for the one person you know speaks English.  Fortunately I am married to a very tall man and Katia (our host and translator) was able to spot John right away.  She led us inside and to a clean bathroom.  After waiting for over an hour for our luggage (yep, it happens in small airports too).

At this point, I am ready to chuck the entire trip.  When I landed in Moscow, which was my first time out of the country, I sobbed – for hours.  I wanted my Dad.  I wanted my bed.  I didn’t care why I had made the trip, I just wanted to go home.  Even though the staff at the hotel spoke English, I couldn’t read anything.  It was in Cyrillic. I had never felt so utterly alone.

Our arrival at Baby House #1 was surreal.  The outside of the orphanage looked like a gingerbread crazed designer had taken over the playground.  The playground was decorated in lollipops, gingerbread houses, sugar plums and anything else you can imagine, encased in a half foot of snow with a thick layer of ice on top.  My glasses were fogged up from the change in temperature. When we entered the building the blast of steam heat caused my glasses to steam up more then defrost.

As we were lead through the Soviet era building to the music room, we met the 3 year olds who had been practicing for their New Years concert.  Despite being cold, their little faces thawed all of us out.  Then the wait began.  This was why we had traveled half way around the world.  After 20 minutes, it was all worth it.  A baby boy with the most beautiful gray eyes and charming smile was placed in my arms.  Despite John’s comment that he had a big, pale head, I was in love.  This was the son God had promised me.  I felt like Sarah holding Isaac for the first time.  This was my child.

As I look over the last ten years, it’s been quite a ride.  Kyle has faced his fair share of struggles.  He has chronic gastritis caused by an antibiotic resistant ulcer as well as some other challenges that are a result of spending the first 5-1/2 months of his life in an institution with only his most basic needs being met (he remained in the baby hospital until there was room for him in the orphanage).  When he was transferred to Baby House #1 the head caretaker, Ludmila, made sure he was cuddled, sung to and loved until John and I got there.  I firmly believe that his intense love of music is a direct result of Ludmila singing to him every day.

Kyle has had to deal with more loss in his young life than most twenty-somethings have ever had to face.  He lost his family of origin and his caretakers before he was 8 months old.  He lost his beloved Papaw shortly before his 3rd birthday.  His Opi died before his 6th birthday.  Our family dog, who fiercely protected Kyle from the moment she met him, died in 2010.  Last year, he had to face the very real possibility that his mom might die.

My son is amazingly resilient.  I know he still fears losing me as much as I fear leaving him and his brother.  Next week, I see my oncologist for my quarterly appointment.  While he never says anything, you can see the subtle change in his eyes.  He is more willing to hug me.  He will actually sit by me on the couch.  He never talks about how scared he is, because he is trying to be strong for me.

This child, who I would willingly give my life for, has put himself in front of me being my anchor to this world.  In the little bit he has said, he firmly believes that we can beat cancer.  Not me, not my oncologist, but we.  He pushes me to be my best.  He reads labels for soy and artificial sweeteners.  He looks for opportunities to lay a teal ribbon.  He sends “hellos” to my chemo nurse, even though he’s never met her.  I always ask the boys if they have a message for my oncologist when I go to see him.  Kyle’s is always “Please keep my mom safe.”  Not cure my mom, not keep the cancer away necessarily.  Just keep her safe.  It’s as if he knows that someday I won’t be here, but for as long as he needs me, do your best to keep her here since I’m not ready to let her go yet.

So with tears streaming (yes, I do cry when I write these), I can hear my son flipping the pages of his beloved Sports Illustrated Kids. Occasionally he will spout off a statistic, but mostly I am hearing the sound of pages turning. While he can drive me nuts, as all kids can, I am so thankful that I have yet another year to celebrate the Forever Family that God blessed me with.  Please God, keep me healthy so I can see him and his amazing baby brother, grow into the strong young men you want them to be.

Happy Forever Family Day, Dma.  Know what whatever happens, your Momma loves you more than you will ever know.

Reflections on a Year Gone By

As I write this I realize I was still in surgery one year ago today, blissfully unaware of what my oncologist was doing inside my body.  My husband and family were experiencing increasing anxiety since the surgery had gone on at least 90 minutes longer than they anticipated.  It would be at least 90 more minutes before John would be able to actually see me.  It would be at least an hour after that before I would be awake enough to know what was going on around me.  I still had a TPA injection, nuclear scan and admittance to ICU ahead of me.  To coin a phrase, this day sucked one year ago.

Today I did some of the things with my boys that I did on the day before my surgery last year.  We bought Braeden’s Halloween costume, then went to Barn and Bunk to buy our pumpkins.  Unlike last year when we had amazing weather, it poured down rain today.  After lunch at Max and Erma’s we headed home to watch Halloween specials we recorded.  Nothing major, nothing out of the ordinary unless you consider that the pulmonary embolism last year nearly killed me.  Now I love those ordinary moments.  We never know how many we have.

October 17, 2012 started a whirlwind I didn’t think I’d be able to escape.  I went from being totally out of it in ICU (those of you who visited me can attest to those 8 minute naps I took between hits on the pain pump) to walking the halls of the gyn floor.  I listened as my oncologist pulled the rug out from underneath me believing that if after 4 days I’d had no bad news, it must be good news.  “You have Stage 1C ovarian cancer.  I believe I got all of it.  You will need to undergo 6 rounds of chemotherapy as a precaution.  Here’s your report.  Let’s talk about it.”  It’s amazing that with the chemo fog I can still remember his words verbatim.

Three weeks later, with port inserted, I began chemo for what ended up being 7 rounds instead of 6.  I endured blood thinners that were injected into my abdomen, compression stockings, nausea, baldness, hot flashes, cold spells, constipation, headaches, ringing ears, blurry vision, neuropathy and a whole host of other symptoms that were supposed to be suppressed by a shoebox full of medications.  I still suffer from hot flashes (as a result of instant menopause from the hysterectomy), cold spells (from the anemia I had prior to the surgery that got worse with the chemo along with the Coumadin I take to thin my blood), constipation (chemo side effect, neuropathy of the large intestine), floaters in my eyes (thank you again, chemo), and neuropathy and joint pain in my hands and feet (kudos, chemo).  I can also add hernia to the list, but with a 12″ scar down my abdomen I shouldn’t be surprised.

I have spent the last few weeks wondering if I’ve been walking in a dream for the last year.  Then I check the mirror.  The salt and pepper hair and hysterectomy scar are the visual reminders I face every day.  The pain is a visceral reminder.  Every so often chemo fog kicks in and gives me a reprieve.  I can’t remember what I’d like to forget.  I really don’t remember much about chemo except that I was VERY sick and scared the crap out of everyone who saw me, except for Cathy.  She knew what to expect.  Chemo friends are like that.

I cleaned out my closet and room last week and packed up all my cancer hats.  They are in a box in my cedar chest waiting for me.  I got rid of my “sick” clothes I wore last year.  I just couldn’t stand to think about wearing them again.  I don’t like having my picture taken.  While my hair finally looks “normal” I’m not allowed to color it yet.  I look strange, old, tired, cancerous.  There’s something sad about the person in the mirror.  She lost a part of herself and gained a shadow that’s always lurking behind her.  I am waiting for the shadow to become commonplace so I can feel normal again.

I still don’t plan too far ahead.  The idea of having to tell my boys that we can’t do something because I’m sick again is more than I can handle.  I have made every soccer and flag football game so far this season.  I have bought Halloween candy.  I am working on losing excess weight to help me get healthy and help the hernia.  We’ve discussed visiting John’s family for Thanksgiving.  I see my doctor every 3 months.  I get my CT scan every 6 months.  Despite the 88-90% chance of being “cured,” it’s a long 10 year road.  And someone has to be in the bad end of the line, not that I’m asking to stand there.

The last year has been a dark, scary one.  I have found that I have people that I can count on and who love me.  God has blessed me with new friends, strengthened casual friendships to something stronger, and made me a better person.  I am more tolerant and less concerned with the little things (unless it’s schoolwork, then all bets are off).  I nap more and feel guilty less.  I appreciate what I have and don’t pine for what I don’t (except for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer – that I drool over in stores).  I hug my husband and sons a little longer and a little tighter.  I say I love you more often.  I am more willing to get rid of the clutter.  I’m willing to try something new since you never know if the chance will come again (hello canoeing).

Life can change in an instant.  I know that now.  I only wish I hadn’t chosen such a difficult way to learn it.