Strike a pose

Yesterday, after finishing my lunch at work, I remembered something. Back in September, when the most recent part of my ordeal began, I spent a couple of days in the ER following my lung biopsy. A possible side effect of a lung biopsy is a collapsed lung, and that happened to me – just not right away. They monitored me for a couple hours after the procedure, did a chest x-ray, and all was well so they sent me home.

Since it seems like part of my genetic makeup to always be an anomaly, by the next morning my lung had collapsed. It was a slow leak, like you’d find in an old tire. I returned to the hospital and spent two days in the ER, chest tube inserted and hooked up to suction, until my lung could hold air again. (There is more to this story, but I’m saving it for a humorous essay I’ve been meaning to write for months.)

When I was discharged from the hospital, J and I went looking for a cab to take us home. We walked out of the hospital around 5 pm, which is one of the worst times to look for a cab, because drivers are switching shifts. We wound up wandering the streets for almost an hour until we found a taxi.

Just before finding a cab, we were stopped on the corner across from the hospital waiting for the light to change. I spied the Google Street View car going by, and even though I was exhausted and miserable from our taxi quest, I told J we should pose for a photo.

Yesterday, all these months later, I found us.

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There we are, standing on a street corner looking as though we were on a date, or about to go grocery shopping, or anything else normal – anything else but what was actually happening. Sure, we’re anonymous and blurry, but it’s unmistakably us.

Finding this cheered me up a lot. I’ve been wallowing lately, especially at night, since I’m in that period where the excitement of my January scan results has worn off, and I realize the next scan isn’t until April. I’ve been doing ill-advised things, like searching the Internet for answers I’m not going to find about my chances of survival beyond five years. When you’re dealing with metastatic melanoma in the age of immunotherapy, however, it’s unlikely you will find any accurate answers to a Google search. There continues to be a lot of outdated information out there. And everyone’s experience is so different.

So it helped to find this photo, this document of myself at the beginning of the ordeal. It simultaneously reminds me I am: a) completely normal, and as unremarkable as a fire hydrant, and b) a medical anomaly who has amazed my doctors before with my body’s capacity to destroy tumors, and who will likely continue to do so.

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Serenity, now

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Namaste, by Nomadic Lass on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

It wasn’t a very serene day at work today. The pace seems to be picking up hourly and I am suddenly feeling like I’ll need to figure out what to say no to. After only two weeks on the job it’s strange to be at that point already.

I taught a class this morning I wasn’t extremely well-prepared to teach. A colleague observed me and she probably wasn’t too amused, particularly since I’m taking over responsibility for this department and she’s the one who designed the class in the first place. She was kind enough to step in for a few minutes and save my ass, for which I was grateful. But it was also a good wakeup call for me.

On the plus side, I haven’t lost my speaking skills, and am still able to engage with a classroom full of students in a lively way. That is a relief.

I spent the afternoon preparing for a class I’ll teach on Monday afternoon. I am only about a third done with the prep. I was quite stressed about it when I got on the train home.

The train ride home is pretty magical, though. I always get a seat, which affords me nearly an hour of time to separate from work, doze or read or listen to music, enjoy the limbo of being in between work and home.

Tonight I was dismayed at first when a man boarded and proceeded to spread himself out across three seats next to me – he was quite large, and hyperventilating. Once he caught his breath he started sniffling. This week on the train I keep winding up next to coughers or sneezers. Now a sniffler.

In the moment where I was deciding to either be annoyed with the sniffling or  else let it go, I remembered my kids speaking about chesed (“kindness” in Hebrew, a recent focus at school). So I chose a third way – to be kind. I handed the sniffling man my last tissue. He thanked me.

Then I wondered what else I could do to show chesed. J was home with the kids, and he had made a delicious dinner and ferried the kids back from a sleepover and a dozen other things.

Often when I walk in the door I am instantly angry or stressed out about the chaos in our home (slightly mitigated by the Lego organization scheme, but not entirely). I am grouchy and uncooperative. It’s almost like I’m back on the steroids.

So tonight, sitting on the train home, I decided things would go otherwise. I decided I would get home and immediately find out what still needed doing, and do it. I’m embarrassed that I needed to make such a conscious attempt to be helpful. But it kept me busy, and kept me from getting angry at J or the kids or the clutter.

I didn’t know the NYC subway could bring about such a meditative state, but I sure am grateful. (At least, until the next time the local goes express or the express local.)

A letter to Young A

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high-five by Martin Fisch on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Dear Young A,
You? You, my sweet baby bunny? There is no way you can be five years old today. It’s not possible that it has been five years since I, bursting with child, ascended the very steep hill from the ice-covered parking lot (which was cheaper than the covered garage) to the hospital birthing center to get you out. Not possible it’s been five years since we brought you home, just 14 hours after you were born, right in time for you to meet Young J (your lifelong friend and great admirer) and for me to put him to bed with a lullaby.

So much has happened since then, Young A. Most recently, you learned how to read, even though we kept doubting you knew and thought you were just memorizing your books. Then this weekend you cracked open a fortune cookie and read your fortune all by yourself. “Now is a good time to finish up old tasks,” you read, with a satisfied, cookie-flecked grin.

Old tasks. What old tasks can you possibly attend to, my baby boy? Perhaps you could learn to stop crapping your pants when you’re having too good a time to take a break. Or maybe you can get back to finishing your milk again, my picky little bugger. Perhaps you can let your long-suffering big brother give you a kiss goodnight again, instead of the hugs you cruelly limit him to lately.

None of this comes close to evoking a true picture of you, my dear, sweet Young A. When you aren’t whacking your brother on the head, or inadvertently hurting your parents, you happen to be the nicest, most loving, eagerest to help and most empathetic little person. You adore learning. You love to cook. And dance. And make up songs which rhyme, even when you have to scat your way through three-quarters of the line.

You aren’t someone I would ever want to hurt in any way. And yet, without meaning to, I did. I got sick, and that made you worry about me. I’m not sick right now, but the memory of it is recent enough for you to still talk about it, to still nervously pick at your thumbs or your lips until they bleed, to mention dreams of monsters keeping you up at night (even if they aren’t, really, that we can tell). I could apologize forever for the uncertainty this caused, the way my illness shook your foundation. But it wouldn’t help, not really, because you’ve  lost some measure of faith in me and it seems impossible it will ever return.

Tomorrow you will wake up, and see the birthday banner we hung for you. You’ll open some presents and maybe eat some cake for breakfast. And then I’ll need to do something I haven’t done, improbably, ever. I’ll have to go to work on my kid’s birthday. You don’t have school, and you’ll go on a fun outing with your brother and a lovely babysitter. God knows, I’m not the first parent in the world to face this. I know. But I’m trying to get all the crying out of the way tonight. For your sake, and mine. You don’t need to see me diminished in any way, if I can possibly help it. If it takes all year, I will make you trust in me again.

And yes – I’ll go to work, because you have informed me you want to take another trip on an airplane this year, and you know I will earn money that can make that happen. I will go to work to earn wings for you, for all of us.

Love,
Mama

The future is now

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Power Plant Sunset, by Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

The future was when I stopped waiting for the email to come in to HR stating that my work email could be activated. It was supposed to come at noon. It may have arrived at 12:05. I should not have gotten to HR early. After that, I had to take a form to one office to get my email activated but still had to trot across campus to get my ID card. This is how a career restarts – not with a bang but a round of bureaucratic errands.

Have I done work? I have redirected a few people lost in the stacks, because that is what my office looks out on:

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That isn’t what I was hired to do, of course (contrary to what a lot of people think library work consists of). But in a library it’s never a bad idea to be helpful, even if that essentially involves reminding people the order of the letters in the alphabet. Repeatedly.

I did finally get email and reach out to the people I’m supposed to be helping (students and faculty). I got a couple nibbles right away, which was good, even though one of them seems poised to turn into a cautionary tale. Today I will meet with a professor of economics who is poised to unleash 48 of her students on the library with a need for 30 years of time series data that may be impossible to find. I get to convince her that won’t be a good use of anyone’s time, in a way that doesn’t sound like I am primarily concerned about the well-being of the library staff they’ll hound to death if they are given this impossible assignment. My office doesn’t look out onto an outside view, but hers is in a basement, so my empathy is already summoned.

Speaking of basements, the college where I am working has a fun network of underground tunnels that get you from building to building without encountering the elements. (I should ask my colleagues if the tunnels were originally intended for civil defense.) Yesterday in the tunnel I passed someone who is on the faculty now, but years ago taught some great gym classes I took at my former place of employment. She remembered me right away. She encouraged me to go to fitness classes. I hemmed and hawed. It’s my first week. I don’t even have a babysitter yet. I’m just here for the semester.

The fact is I probably should do something physical. It’s only been four days and I already can feel the parts of me that are prone to seizing up doing so. I don’t always sit at my desk in an optimally ergonomic way. What I have been doing, however, is trying to shed my very poor habits acquired after years at home with kids: too many snacks too often, large portions of food, “why-not?” intake of cookies. There is a water cooler I’ve  made very good friends with already (though its function is functional, not metaphorical – I have yet to run into a colleague there).

What I haven’t been thinking about at all is cancer. Which means I haven’t listened to this all the way through yet. I will at some point. Maybe after my next scan.

The great return

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Pennie Long, by Dominic Alves on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I got a job. Yes, it’s only temporary, but it is at a library I like, with colleagues I respect (and some of them I already know), and I am beyond ecstatic to finally contribute to our household bottom line once again with something more than just making a good meal or staying on top of the laundry.

I won’t lie, I am also looking forward to the commute. I have a huge pile of books I want to read. Maybe I’ll start listening to one of those newfangled podcasts all the kids are talking about.

The last time I was a commuter, I was pregnant with Young J, and then later I was anxious to get home to him at the end of the day. I won’t have anything close to the same anxiety now (it will probably be replaced by new anxiety).

Will I miss picking the kids up from school? Yes, especially seeing them hug each other almost desperately when they reunite at the end of the day, with such fervor that parents sometimes ask me if they always do that. J and I may have made a lot of mistakes in raising them, but they certainly do love each other. (Will I miss the constant clamoring for sweet treats? No.)

I’m so grateful to have a chance to re-engage my mind in something other than making lists of things to do around the house, many items of which I have yet to check off. I’m leaving a legacy of chaos here, sure, but it’s a loving sort of chaos. At least, that is the story I will tell myself.

Fish out of water

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The Great White Sturgeon, by SF Boater on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I’m alone in a hotel room! Darkness has arrived and I’m decompressing from a whole day spent in a windowless conference room playing the role of professional outsider.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been volunteering at my kids’ school. My mom volunteered at my school when I was a kid – she organized events like International Night, or collected lunch money. I’ve done my share of PTA work, but being part of a small, progressive school community can also offer novel opportunities to get involved.

My kids’ school is participating in a network of similar schools which each have designated teams to identify needed change in the school, and to implement this change by learning the principles of design thinking and adaptive leadership. The trick is, I am the only one in the room who is “just” a parent. Everyone else is a teacher or school administrator of some type. This was beyond intimidating for me last year, but I’m well past that now, finding myself giving advice in group discussions to heads of school who may even actually be listening to me, despite my utter lack of credentials.

Last year, our team’s work led to the very exciting apex of changing the way Young J’s classroom is set up, to accommodate kids like him with special needs. I spent a day at school with Young J, producing a “journey map” of his day, making notes of where things seemed to go differently than anticipated. Our team set up a prototype of a new classroom configuration, and had the kids test it one morning. It was incredibly satisfying to have that kind of direct and lasting impact on my kid’s learning environment.

That was last year, though. This year, our team, now reinforced by an extra member, has struggled with a number of things while trying to identify a new challenge to address. One of the many challenges was my disappearance from team meetings while I was sick last fall. Today, we had to create a team timeline showing the highlights and lowlights of our work thus far this year. I drew a line that went deep into the negative side of the graph for November, and punctuated it with a sticker of a face showing extreme disgust. It felt good to do that, and to see that that was then, and this is now.

Our team continues to have a number of challenges to its progress this year. We have all day tomorrow to grapple with them. But I am beyond happy I’m no longer one of them.

Meanwhile, back at home, J is leading the kids through the next phase of a design thinking exercise I started this weekend with Young J, focused around reducing the chaos in our house created by Legos. I spent some time interviewing Young J the other day, asking him how he thought the bricks would best be sorted and stored. We sorted a portion of the bricks that way, and then I ran a prototype in which he took an instruction booklet and tried to construct a vehicle by locating the pieces within the new categories we’d sorted them into. I took notes. I decided that sorting by color, an idea I had previously dismissed out of hand as being excessively fussy and Pinterest-y, actually did make some sense in terms of ease of locating certain pieces.

I texted J as my meeting wrapped up today suggesting that he have the kids sort the bricks by color. He’s spent the whole day with the kids, ferrying them here and there, and I assumed he would tell me to stop pestering him. Next thing I knew, he texted me a photo of Young A surrounded by bricks sorted by color and in containers! I could thank the design thinking gods, but first I need to thank J for following along and helping me achieve my vision, as hare-brained as my scheme may seem.

Thank you, J, Young J and Young A. You complete me.