Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Borrowed time.

It’s been a good day.

Of course, aren’t all days good when you’re living on borrowed time?

I’ve been having major anger issues lately. Sure, some of it might be from this stupid COVID-19 mess, but a lot of it is just me being mad at my own body. Since moving to Pennsylvania nearly a year ago, I have had labs drawn a few times. I don’t even know what prompted my doctor to check whatever mysterious level in my blood it is that indicates I might have an issue with gluten, but check it she did. The first time this level was checked, my blood sugar was also checked and came back crazy high. It made zero sense, because at the time I had been on a diabetic diet for a little over a year. The doctor, of course, defended the lab stating that “this level is rarely incorrect.”

Well, it was wrong. Way, WAY wrong.

So when she told me I “might have celiac disease” I didn’t believe it and asked for the labs to be drawn again. I had no symptoms of celiac (and believe me, I looked them up) so I figured the lab screwed up again.

The results were the same the second time. Long story short, I got referred to a specialist in Pittsburgh who decided I need to have some scope procedure done where they shove a camera down my throat and look at my small intestines. This is apparently the only way to get a definitive diagnosis.

Enter COVID-19.

That procedure has been postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, another set of labs were drawn and still indicate celiac disease. Like it or not, for now I have to live my life on the assumption that I have it and need to be on a gluten-free diet for the rest of my life.

I’ve been pretty angry about it for a few weeks now because it doesn’t affect only me. There are two of us in this house and we are not going to make different meals for each of us, so Mike now has to eat gluten free as well. It sucks.

Today was a good day though. I’m lucky that Mike has embraced this whole lifestyle change. He knows how much I love baking, so he’s made sure I have a plethora of gluten-free ingredients. For the first time since before Christmas, I got the stand mixer out today and baked. It was glorious! I made oatmeal raisin cookies that are not only free of the evil gluten, but also mostly sugar free, and I made flourless peanut butter cookies.

Life is good. 

Thinking about all of this while I was baking got me thinking about my life and the different ailments I have dealt with over the last 20 years. It was July 2000 when I was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid causing hyperthyroidism. After a decade of that flaring up and being treated with medication, I finally had my thyroid removed in 2010. Since then, other than having to take a thyroid pill every day, life has been pretty simple.

Then in 2018 I was told that I was very close to being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. That prompted a major lifestyle change! My doctor at the time didn’t think I could change my eating and exercise habits enough to avoid the diagnosis. In one year, I did just that though. I lost 25+ pounds and changed my eating habits. I was officially no longer on the brink of diabetes.

Life was good again! 

Now this. I’ve always loved the idea that from the day we are born, we are dying. Every day should be lived and appreciated to its full extent. Losing our son to cancer at such a young age also taught us that lesson. 

But damn…sometimes I feel like my body is hellbent on getting me to death faster than I want to go! Never with anything that is guaranteed to kill me. Just this little thorn-in-my-side stuff. 

Here’s where the borrowed time comes in.

I am incredibly fortunate to live in a time when there is knowledge of these disorders and treatment options available. I may not like having to give up some foods, but at least I know that is how to deal with it. If I had been born 100 years ago, I might have had any (or all) of these ailments and not known that I had them at all! Who knows if they would have killed me or not. When my Graves’ Disease flared up, I would sometimes have a resting heart rate of about 110 beats per minute and only be able to get 2-3 hours of sleep per night and that would go on for days until the medicine the doctors prescribed kicked in and got it under control. Without medication, who knows how long my body could have withstood that. 

So yeah…maybe this time that I have now is not time I was meant to have. Instead of wasting time being angry over this new twist in my life, I’m choosing to consider it my next great adventure! Like all adventures, there will be struggles…kind of like taking a beautiful hike in the mountains and getting bit by mosquitoes and falling into a patch of poison ivy. It’s all part of the whole experience, right?

If my body is determined to keep throwing these curveballs at me, it better be prepared for a battle because I love a good challenge!


Bring on the gluten-free cookies!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Feeling lost.

The world is in quarantine. In many places it is a crime to break quarantine. People are out of work. Businesses are suffering. Many small businesses are likely to fold if this quarantine goes on for very long.
I am watching the government with hope. This is a situation unlike any we’ve faced before and I want to believe that they are doing their best to figure out what is right for the people of our country. At the same time, I see so many who cannot hide their hope that this government fails because it is not the government of their choosing. I see our elected officials using this virus to get their own agendas passed and it sickens me. What sickens me more is the glee that others find in those same actions.
This is one of those odd times where I’m glad that Keeghan didn’t live to see this world. I worry for Mackenzie - what kind of world does she have to look forward to? She’s young. She should have hope for the future. All young people should have hope for the future. Instead, this society seems hell-bent on imploding into a black hole of despair and anger.
I like to read dystopian books. I never thought I’d be living in one.
I have to wonder what it will be like in a year. Will this all be over, with everyone talking about it like some great success that we all made it through together. I certainly hope that is how we are able to look back on it. Or will it just be the fuel for more anger and hatred (something we already have too much of). Worse, will we move on from this and forget about it, learning nothing, like we seem to have done with the events of 9/11?
Sometimes it is so hard to live in this world not knowing any of the answers. Why is it so hard for us humans to work together?
The end of this story...or this chapter of this story...is not known yet. I feel like we can each affect it. The problem is that we all have different ideas of who the hero is in the story and...well, I think that the heroes should be us, not those we are expecting to fix everything. Can we do that?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Dear Parents in COVID-19 Quarantine

Dear Parents,

By now, if you weren't already a stay-at-home parent, you probably are, quarantined from the COVID-19 pandemic currently sweeping the world. You might feel like your life has gone straight to hell and that you're never going to make it through this. Your kids might be getting on your very last nerve. Wine has become your best friend and that thing you start looking forward to as soon as your feet hit the floor in the morning.

Sound about right?

Well, get over it. What you're dealing with is difficult, for sure, but I'm here to tell you there is an entire population of parents in this country who are viewing your "horrible plight" and rolling their eyes in disgust. I am one of those parents.

We are the cancer parents. People who have dealt in the past, or are dealing currently, with having a child with cancer. Children whose immune systems are completely shot due to chemotherapy and/or radiation. Parents who know that something as innocent as touching a door knob and then scratching their nose is enough to cause a fever and a week in the hospital on IV antibiotics, praying the entire time that it doesn't get worse and that the antibiotics do what they're supposed to.

My 10-year-old son, Keeghan, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2006. After weeks of intense chemotherapy and 32 whole-brain radiation treatments, all in a span of 6 weeks, his immune system was nonexistent. We were a military family, however, and had to move from Texas to Washington, DC. Two cars, three adults, and a 12-year-old sister managed to get Keeghan moved without ever spiking that dreaded fever. We were an army of Germ Warriors, always ready with hand sanitizer and a hand to lend to open doors so that he stayed free of deadly - yes, DEADLY - germs.

I emphasize that word for a reason. The first funeral I ever attended for a child - and I have been to a few, sadly - was for a 7-year-old little boy. It was not the cancer he was fighting that killed him. No. It was the sepsis he contracted when his immune system had nothing left and he was somehow exposed to some germ...probably something innocuous that you or I could fight off easily. His little body was so depleted from chemotherapy though that he could not fight it off.

Seven-year-olds should not die.

Because of cancer, I had to homeschool both of my children. I began homeschooling when they were in 5th and 7th grades. To say that it was difficult is laughable. I had no idea what I was doing. I figured it out though. Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

- I did not have to actively "educate" them from 8am to 3pm - the hours that they were normally in school. They did not receive seven hours of one-on-one attention from their teachers at school; therefore, why should I think they needed that much from me? We spent as much time as was needed on the lesson. If they finished a reading assignment in 30 minutes when I had an hour blocked off for it, that was ok.

- some subjects can be taught without a textbook, under a blanket while cuddling on the couch. Oftentimes with a cat in the cuddle somewhere. That's ok, too.

- flexibility is key. Because Keeghan was going through chemo, some days were better than others. If he wasn't feeling up to math, we didn't do math that day. Go with the flow of the child.

- making activities fun creates wonderful memories that you will never forget. Trying to keep things regimented creates horrible memories that also will not be forgotten. Trust me when I say that it is better to have the wonderful memories years from now than it is to have the horrible ones.

You might think what you are dealing with is the worst thing you've ever experienced. Cancer parents would beg to differ. My son died in 2008. We just passed what would have been his 24th birthday. My daughter is now 26 and on her own. I am watching from the sidelines as so many of you "suffer" through this quarantine with your children and I am jealous. I am so incredibly jealous of this gift of time home with your children that you have been given. You have the opportunity, right now, to create lifelong memories with these incredible little humans you created. Don't pass it up. Don't look at it as some kind of punishment. This virus spreading around the world is a horrible thing. There are positives to be found in it though if you only take the time to see them.

Take advantage. If for no other reason, take advantage of this time for me, so that I can experience it vicariously.

Please.

Friday, March 13, 2020

COVID-19 and politics should not mix

I’m so exhausted.

No, I do not have coronavirus.

I am exhausted from listening to the many different arguments surrounding this current COVID-19 pandemic.

I gave my husband a ride to work today. On the ride home, I listened to a local morning show on the radio. Callers were arguing for and against how our government is dealing with this outbreak. Should we have halted flights from Europe? Did we ban travel from China quickly enough? Was this virus created by the Democrats to interfere with the election this year? Was this virus created by the Republicans to interfere with the election this year? Everyone has an argument to support their stance on the subject and they all believe themselves to be absolutely correct. No news there. Isn’t that the beauty of being American? We can think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions and make decisions for ourselves based on those conclusions, whether they are based in true fact or not.

Where the whole thing went south for me was when the host of the radio show got irritated with a caller who was defending the president’s decision to halt travel from the EU for 30 days. He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah...I see now. You’re one of those Trumper Fan Boys.” The caller was (understandably) offended by that comment and said so. The host then said, “I don’t care if you’re offended. It’s true. I can hear it in your voice. As far as you’re concerned, Trump can do no wrong. You’re part of his cult.”

The caller was not saying anything that could really be construed as wild or far-fetched; only that he thought it was good that travel from countries more heavily affected by the virus is being halted for a while in order to let the virus run its course. The radio host, however, went on the attack. I honestly wanted to call in, because in my opinion the radio show host was being over-the-top dramatic by taking what this caller said and turning it into childish name-calling rather than having an intelligent discussion.

It brought to mind a conversation I had with someone yesterday. I respect this person a great deal, but we are on opposite sides politically. She sees this president as a toxin. I see many of the prominent Democrats in Congress as a far worse and widespread toxin. But here’s the thing that I pointed out to her: she can voice her opinion without fear of being attacked, verbally and physically. I cannot.

My husband jokes about wanting to buy himself a MAGA hat. It isn’t that he thinks they look good or are a wise fashion choice. He just doesn’t like the fact that everyone on the left can scream and yell and cry and stomp their feet and protest and, generally, force their political opinions and feelings and beliefs down the throats of everyone and we’re all supposed to just take it, but he can’t wear something that shows who he supports without fear of physical attack.

What is wrong with that picture?

Of course, because I love my husband and would prefer he not be physically attacked or shoot anyone, I have asked that he not wear a MAGA hat or anything else that shows he supports President Trump. Instead, we just plan to vote.

Back to COVID-19 though. This virus is no joke, to be sure. Neither was H1N1, Ebola, SARS or any of the others we have faced in the past. Do I believe there should be widespread panic and a run on toilet paper? No, I don’t. Of course, why should you believe me? I’m not a doctor. I’m just a logical person. If you take proper precautions - wash your hands, cover your cough/sneeze, stay home if you are having cold or flu symptoms, don’t go into large crowds if you don’t have to - then you are probably safe. Personally, I would not be traveling right now, but that’s just me.

On a larger level, I think closing our borders is a great idea. If there is a possibility that we will have more cases needing hospital beds than we have hospital beds for, why would we be foolish enough to let more people into the country? I care about humanity, but I’ll be honest - the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans should not be AS free or AS readily available to non-Americans in times like these. I should not have to worry that, should I need a hospital bed, one is not available because it is already taken by someone here illegally. That is not saying that I think an illegal alien should not be treated if they are already in the country and become sick. Of course I think all people should be treated, but if we can stop more illegal people from entering the country and possibly taking up beds in hospitals that (I feel) American citizens should have priority for, then yes, I think we should close our borders.

It is absolutely ridiculous in a time like this that people are still playing partisan political games. If you are one of those doing it, just stop. Seriously. Unless you have completely lost your ability to be human, stop. That is not who we should be.

Now, back to your regular programming.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The meaning of family.

It is the last day of the year - my husband, Mike's birthday - and I need to get some things off my chest so that I can leave it behind in 2019. That's how my brain works. Shit will bounce around in there until I get it out, so...here goes.

To start, 2019 was probably the most amazing year our family has experienced together, for all of the reasons that I have happily posted about for the world to see. A year ago, moving out of San Diego to Erie was a dream, something I hoped for but didn't...couldn't let myself believe would ever actually happen because our circumstances just weren't right for it. Circumstances change though and here we are - in our happy place!

Other events happened in 2019 that have been good for me, personally, but that I have not posted about as readily. My mother, Sally, died in May. On the day of her death, I wrote about her. It was something I had planned to do for most of my adult life, because there were parts of her story that no one knew. I grew up hearing from both of my parents about how she was never really accepted into my father's family because she was his second wife. I can't speak for my brother, but I know I never felt like a part of his family either. My mom didn't have the easiest life and I wanted to tell her story. I left out the parts that didn't shed the prettiest light on her.

Her death made me face a few things that I knew, but really only ever talked about to Mike and our daughter, Mackenzie. I never liked my family. I have not liked them in a very long time, but I've been able to avoid saying that because our military life has kept us far away from them. When my husband retired from the military in 2014 and we settled in San Diego, I no longer had that excuse. I lived a few hours away from my parents and still rarely saw them. That was by choice.

When their health began to decline and my brother was required to do more to take care of them, I might have felt guilty for a moment, but it didn't last. I had a job working for the VA and they were not the most understanding employer when it came to having a life and family outside of work. I took time off when my father had to have part of his foot amputated in 2018 due to his diabetes, but then I had to get back to my job. The brunt of the work of taking care of him, and our mother as well, fell on my brother.

The thing I didn't say then that I want to say now is, "Good. That is how it should be."

As a parent, I have tried to look back at the examples I had of what parents should be and everything I learned not to do came from how I was raised. I was the youngest and the only girl. Even though my two half-brothers from my father's first marriage didn't live with us, my mother never let me forget that they already had three boys and "didn't want a tomboy" for a daughter. That's why she said no every time I asked to try out for any kind of sports team.

I wasn't allowed to join clubs after school, because that would make someone have to arrange to pick me up afterward. So much time was already being taken to go watch every single baseball and football game or every track meet of my brother's. Once we were in high school and he had a driver's license, I could not join a club after school because he had to be able to drive me home right after school and then get to whatever practice he had and there was always some kind of practice.

There is one thing I cannot take away from him. He was a gifted athlete. It was a joy to watch him play. I just don't think he realized how many lives revolved around his. He relished how so many idolized him. What's funny is how lucky everyone thought I was to be graced to live in his presence. Oh, how far from the truth that was!

Recently someone made a comment about how I seemed to rarely miss a baseball game back then. That one innocent comment made me so angry! I wasn't angry at that person though. I was angry because it was true. I never missed a game. It wasn't that I rarely missed one. I never missed a game, but it wasn't by choice. I was never allowed to stay home by myself. Even sick, I had to go because my parents would not miss watching him play. I have sat through games with a fever. I've gone to out-of-town games when I really should have been home writing papers or doing homework.

All of those memories came to a head this year when my mother died because I never told her exactly how that childhood affected me as an adult. I hated her for making my life revolve around someone else for so long. It wasn't until I was 24 that I made a decision - to join the Army - without consulting her first or getting her permission. The reason I always had to get her permission prior to that was because I relied on my parents financially. After one year of college, she said, "Girls don't need a college education. Get a job." I did get a job doing the only thing I knew how to do - type. I worked as a secretary, but couldn't make enough money to ever completely be independent. Joining the Army was the one thing that I didn't need their help to pay for, so they couldn't say no.

Since giving birth to my first child, I have used my childhood as the example of what not to do as a parent. Never was my daughter going to be told she couldn't do something just because she was a girl. Once we had a second child, Mike and I agreed that we would divide and conquer if necessary when they were older so that neither child was ever denied an opportunity to do something they wanted to do.

I never told any of them that though. I might make a comment occasionally about my childhood in front of my brother, just to see what he had to say. It never registered with him though. I recently told my father that I am continuing the tradition now that began in his house when I was a child - I am the shadow of the family. Back then, I was the shadow in the back bedroom or in the backseat of the car. Now I am the shadow across country in Pennsylvania. For nearly 30 years, I've reveled in the bliss of not having to deal with them and thus, never having to tell them how growing up in that household affected me.

When Sally went into the hospital in May, I had to actually admit that it really wasn't important enough to me to change all of my plans to get there to see her before she died. I could have. I lived only a few hours away. I couldn't do it though. Mackenzie was graduating college in just a few days (her graduation was three days after my mom died). Mike and I had just quit our jobs. As soon as graduation was over, I was staying to help Mackenzie get packed up because we were all hitting the road for Pennsylvania. To drop everything just to go sit by the death bed of a woman who never dropped anything for me just didn't work for me.

Go ahead and say it. I'm a shitty daughter. It's probably true, but you know what? I'm a damn good mother because of what I learned from that woman.

There was no service for Sally. That was by her choice. I found out a few weeks ago that my father and brother apparently decided to have one anyway. My mom is the only other person besides me to have served in the military and is therefore entitled to be buried at a national cemetery. I would have never known about that service if it wasn't for the fact that my name was listed with the cemetery as a contact; my brother's was not. My father had no clue how to call the cemetery to make any arrangements, so I had handled all of that back when she first died.

This is the part that has been rattling around in my head and the reason I needed to get out of bed early today and write. The service that they planned for Sally with full military honors, presentation of a flag and burial was yesterday. If I had not had to call the cemetery and give permission to do that, because I had told them back in May that she didn't want a service, I would not have even known about it. Bottom line...I would not have even been invited to my own mother's funeral.

Let that sink in for a minute. I've been trying to let it sink in for weeks now, but it just won't.

I've been trying to process why they would go against her wishes and have a service, but then I thought maybe they need that closure. If that's the case, fine. I get it. To try to schedule it and not tell me though...that is beyond my understanding. I asked my brother, albeit by text because I couldn't bring myself to call him, if he would have told me there was going to be a service at all if he hadn't needed me to call the cemetery to give permission for it to happen. He never replied.

Forgive me for a minute, but...that spineless ass never replied! Seriously! What the hell?

Ok, sorry...had to rant for a second. I'd love to know their reasons for not wanting me there. Is it because I wasn't there to help when she was sick, or because I didn't bother to try to see her before she died? My son fought cancer for two and a half years before he died. My father never came to see him in that time. My mother came once, during the few months when we thought Keeghan was cured. In other words, when there was no help needed from her. She showed up and sat on her ass for a week and made us wait on her. My brother came to see us twice. When Keeghan was first diagnosed with cancer, my husband's sister wanted me to have someone from my own family there for me so she bought him a ticket to fly to Houston. And then again after Keeghan died, a total stranger who lived on the base we were stationed at and who had suffered a similar loss previously offered to pay to fly my brother out to Washington, DC to be at the celebration of life we held for Keeghan. Twice he visited and both times were somewhat forced on him.

The bitterness just keeps pouring out, doesn't it? I have not tried to be there to help with my parents. I haven't felt the obligation. My brother should feel obligated though. He has been the center of their universe ever since he was born. Life is as it should be.

I've been trying to process all of this for a while now. If I was only angry, it would be easy. Anger and I are pretty close friends. What makes it all so difficult and frustrating is that it hurts. The fact that they still have the power to hurt me is like the ultimate twist of the knife. This...THIS is why I have made being a good mother my highest priority since I became one. Do I think I have been perfect? Hell, no! But I knew what the choices I made as a mother could do to my children later on. When I someday die, I don't want my daughter to grieve. Parents are supposed to die. I hope to be older than dirt when it happens because I truly love life, but when my time comes, I want my daughter to celebrate the life I had. I want her to always be able to celebrate the life she had with us as parents. I want her to know she is loved. I have no doubt that my parents loved me in their own weird way, but it never felt like love. Looking back, it still doesn't feel like love.

2019 is over. 2020 is a new starting point in so many ways for me, Mike and Mackenzie. This last day of the year is the perfect time to let go of negativity. It is time to let go of anger. It's time to say enough! Enough of worrying about what cannot be changed and just accept it for what it is. Everyone has fucked up people in their lives. I've just never said it out loud before. It's done now. Time to move on and continue living the life I've built, with the family we've built.

It was still dark when I got out of bed to write. The sun is up now...or at least I assume it is. It's gray and windy outside and it has just begun to snow. I freaking love snow. It's going to be a good day. I've found my peace. I hope they find theirs as well.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Find your peace, Mom.

My mom died today.

That is so surreal to type. I've lived 52 years knowing that someday I would say those words, but it is still so strange to finally say.

I've had a strained relationship with my mom for a very long time, but that is a whole other blog post. I've wanted to tell Mom's story for a long time now, mainly because I think she has been short-changed in a lot of ways in life. Now is finally the time.

I can only tell it as it has been told to me. I'm sure there might be some who read this who say it is not correct, but I am telling it from Mom's perspective which is likely different from those who knew her. So be it.

Mom was born in South Dakota in 1942. My grandfather was in the Army. I don't know if he was in the Army when she was born, or if he joined later on. I only know that he was in the Army after she was born because she always said she learned to talk in Louisiana (hence her pronunciation of "towel" as "tal" and "wash" as "warsh" according to her).

Eventually, she ended up in Illinois. I don't know how old she was when she moved there; only that she attended high school in Raymond, Illinois.

When Mom was 14, her mother gave birth to a boy. As Mom told the story, everyone in town knew the child was not my grandfather's. In fact, Mom would freely say that she was the child of the town drunk and town whore (her words, not mine). As soon as the child, Rusty, was born, my grandmother moved his crib into Mom's room and told her he was hers to raise.

That's a lot for a 14-year-old girl. At one point as a baby, Rusty got sick and ran a high fever. Mom spoke of sitting up with him all night long, trying to soothe the miserable baby. Rusty ended up with "brain damage" because of the illness that caused him to always have problems developmentally. He never read well. He could sign his name; that was about it.

Sometime during her high school years, she dated a guy named Cliff. Because she had to take Rusty everywhere with her, they had a toddler chaperone on most dates. Cliff was older and in the Navy. He was Mom's first love. Unfortunately, at some point, he ended up cheating on her and having a child with another woman.

I think that experience put the seed of an idea in Mom's mind though. After graduating high school, she decided to join the Navy herself. Keep in mind, it was 1960. Not very many women joined the military at that time. My great grandmother's last words to my mother before she left for boot camp were, "Only bad girls join the military."

I have always wondered if Mom joined the Navy to escape Cliff and his new wife, to escape having to mother her younger sibling, or just to escape all of it. At 18, she had already been a "grown-up" for quite a while.

Mom went to boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland and later was stationed in Long Beach, California. She had great stories of her Navy time! She worked as a medic (I honestly don't know what her technical title was), and she talked about giving sailors vaccinations in the clinic. Once, a sailor in for shots asked her if it would hurt. She told him that it would not. After she gave him his shot, he immediately said it hurt and bit her on the back of her hand. He bit hard enough to break the skin. She said that she developed an infection from it. The sailor was not punished, but eventually, he had to come through for shots again. When he did, instead of giving him the vaccination he was in for, she gave him a shot of isopropyl alcohol. Apparently, that "stings like a bitch."

Mom was a bit of a badass.

Another story that I heard many times was of a guy who asked Mom out while she was in the Navy. He bragged to his buddies that he would "get in her pants." Fortunately for my mother, one of the buddies told her his plans. Mom played along, going to a hotel with him. She told him to get comfortable and went to the bathroom to "get ready" only to come back out with a bucket of cold water. She dumped it on him as he laid in wait on the bed and then left.

Again, badass.

By the time Mom got out of the Navy, her parents, older brother and his wife and younger brother had moved to California from Illinois. Also, Cliff had been discharged from the Navy and was divorced from his first wife. Mom and Cliff were married on January 1, 1964. She'd finally found her happily ever after, marrying her first love!

On January 31st, just 30 days after getting married, Mom was driving in Byron, California, where she and Cliff lived, and she came upon a car accident. Because she had medical training from her military time, she got out of her car and walked up to the accident to see if she could help in any way. That was how she found out that her husband had died. She only found out that she was pregnant later when she miscarried.

Honestly, I cannot imagine going through all of that at just 21-years-old.

I don't know if she was already working as a waitress at that time or if she began that job later, but three months after Cliff died, while working as a waitress in a local restaurant, she met a new guy. His name was Al and he was recently divorced. He was a few years older than her and had two boys from his first marriage. The owners of the restaurant she worked at were Al's ex-wife's parents.

I don't know if you can say they dated or not, but three weeks after they started seeing each other, they went to Reno and got married. My mother, a 21-year-old widow, became not only a wife again, but also a stepmother to a 7- and 4-year-old.

I did not become a mother until I was nearly 28-years-old and I still felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I cannot imagine instantly becoming a mother to two children at 21!

Add to all of that a new pregnancy. My brother, Brad, was born nine months and two days after my parents were married (and he was one day late!).

Dad had custody of his older boys, but they still spent time with their mother occasionally. Because of the reasons they divorced, it was a strained relationship. His first wife had cheated on him, becoming pregnant by another man. My dad, fool that he is (in my opinion), helped find a family to adopt that child and then took her back. It was only after the second time she cheated and became pregnant (by yet another man) that Dad divorced her.

Needless to say, when the older boys were with their mother, she did not have kind words about my mom. Mom told me stories of the boys coming back from being with their mother and telling her that she couldn't tell them what to do because she wasn't their mother. At one point, the younger boy went through a phase of biting his older brother. At a loss as to what to do, Mom finally held him down and let the older boy bite him back! Was that the best solution? Of course not. Did it work? According to Mom, yes, it did.

Dad told me once that he would sometimes come home at the end of a workday and find Mom sitting on the front porch, crying, while the boys were in the house destroying things.  Again, I cannot imagine what I would do in the same situation.

On top of all of this, Mom never felt that she was accepted into Dad's family. He was the youngest, with four older brothers and an older sister. My mom was not only the second wife, but she was also much younger than Dad's brothers and sisters-in-law. I don't know exactly what the reasons were for her not being accepted into the family and I never will as most of those family members are long gone. His father, my grandfather, was always welcoming of Mom, but he died only a few months after they were married.

The one person she did become close to was my grandmother, maybe because Grandma Kelley was also a second wife. Grandma once told my mom that her "greatest sin was marrying a Kelley." When Grandma was alive, we were always included in family gatherings. Grandma died when I was 12-years-old and I don't remember attending more than a couple family gatherings after that.

Eventually, Dad sent his two older boys back to live with their mother fulltime. Maybe there was some judgment against Mom about that, but those people didn't know the difficulties my mom was dealing with. The judgment was not disguised in any way though. I remember going to one uncle's house because he had a pool. He was always very loving and welcoming when we went to visit. I was so young that I never thought it odd that we never saw my aunt in those visits. We never went in the house and she never came out. Mom would sit by the edge of the pool watching us swim the whole time.

It's a strange thing to be the children of the second wife. You're never really a part of the family and that is so unfair - to us and to Mom.

But Mom survived all of that. We continued on as our own little family unit, separate from everyone else and she made sure we never felt like we were missing anything. She always had our backs and we always felt loved. She was never perfect, and for sure I have had my issues with her over the years, but considering all that she dealt with as a young woman, her strength is beyond question.

Her later years are another story. There are many, many stories that I will tell over the coming months, both good and bad. For now, though, I want to remember the badass that she was.


Friday, August 31, 2018

10 years...

I’ve been writing this in my head for a few months now and every time I tell myself it is time to sit down and get it all out, I find an excuse not to. I don’t even know what it is exactly that I want to say. I’ve just felt this need to write about him.

Today marks ten years since Keeghan left us. Damn it…just typing those words has me in tears. It’s still that unreal to me…so unreal that seeing the words in black and white stab like a knife. Ten years and that is still the same.

In so many ways, it feels like just yesterday that we were on that wild cancer journey. For two and a half years, he fought - we all fought - that damn beast and as crazy as it sounds, I miss it. I miss the way we were The Fantastic Four. The hospital visits always included so much laughter, because no matter where we were, we found reasons to laugh.

I miss the sound of his laughter so much.

It took a while to find laughter again. I won’t lie…I remember very little about the first three years after Keeghan died. I remember so many good friends being there for us in DC. I remember moving to California and being so damn lonely. 

We left DC nine months after his death. In the months between his death and that move to California, I spent a lot of time just hanging out in his room. It was where I went to write, to open his drawers and smell his clothes, like somehow that would bring a little bit of him back. I listened to the radio in there a lot and to this day, there are still songs that take me right back to that desk beside his bed, looking out the window on Chandler Drive. 

We bought a three-bedroom house when we got to California. There was no need to have a “Keeghan’s Room” so we left his bed and mattress in the garage. That lasted about two months I think. One day while Mike was at work and Mackenzie was at school, after a flood of tears and hand-wringing, I said fuck it and brought it all in. I hauled it up the stairs and put that damn third bedroom together just like his room in DC was, right down to the DC United, Baltimore Ravens and Washington Nationals foam fingers hung on the wall. I wasn’t ready to not have his room yet. I’m sure Mike and Mackenzie both thought I’d lost it when they got home that day, but bless them for not ever saying it out loud.

Those two years in California were not fun. We tried, we really did, but we just didn’t get what we had hoped for…what we needed…from living there. Grief is such a bitch. We were all grieving the same loss, but we didn’t know how to be there for each other and it almost destroyed our marriage. I had no idea what it felt like for a man to lose his only son. He had no idea what it was like for me to lose my baby. We neither one knew what it was like to lose your only sibling. We were three people who loved each other beyond measure but just couldn’t help each other. 

Luckily it all came to a head one day when Mike and I got into a fight that almost ended in him leaving. To this day, we cannot remember what that fight was about. I just remember screaming at the top of my lungs at him. In that moment, all of my pain and hatred and sadness and helplessness came out and got directed right at him. It took Mackenzie crying and begging him not to go when he had his keys in his hand to wake me up and make me realize I was about to lose him. From that moment forward, we’ve been solid. Stronger than we’ve ever been as a couple probably. But that day was the catalyst and afterward, I knew I had to get away from that place because I’d been in a fog ever since we got there and it needed to end.

So while moving to California was one of the worst choices we’ve ever made, moving to Japan in 2011 was the smartest. It took us half a world away from everyone and allowed the three of us to heal. The strength of our bond had to change because a major piece was missing. It didn’t mean Keeghan was no longer a part of us; it meant that instead of being part of the circle, he was now the piece in the middle that the three of us circle around. 

Let me make something very clear here though…healing does not mean getting over it or letting it go. That shit pisses me off when people say it. A secretary from one of the squadrons Mike belonged to before Keeghan died said that to me once. “I didn’t realize you were still grieving I thought you’d be over that by now.” Grief never leaves and Death becomes a member of the family. The pain of Keeghan not being here has never left. We just know how to control it better and part of that controlling is knowing who and when and where we are free to grieve. It also means knowing which people are good for your soul and which are not and cutting those who are not out. That sounds harsh, but it is necessary.

My mind scatters when I get on this subject. In the past ten years we’ve dealt with so many people who have said some really horrible things to us. I know they had no idea they were hurting us, but knowing that doesn’t change anything. We were asked not to talk about death in our own home because it made them uncomfortable. 

Hello, this is Death - he lives here!

I’ve been told that I make others uncomfortable. I’ve met new people and had them immediately quit talking to me and start avoiding me when they found out my son died. 

Did they think cancer is contagious?

I saw what was supposed to be a grief therapist in those first couple of years. One session, as I told her about how lonely it was to have new people give you the cold shoulder as soon as they find out your child died, she suggested I not tell people about Keeghan. She said maybe I should tell people I only have one child and then once they had time to get to know me and like me, I could tell them then about my son who died.

I never went to see her again.

I do have a son. Not I did have one. I fucking DO have a son. For as long as I live and breathe, he will be here and real and he will always be my son and I will not deny his existence. 

Don’t even get me started on survivor’s guilt. I’ve heard that phrase so many times and I’m here to tell you, it’s bullshit. It’s an indulgent way for people to make my loss be about them. I don’t feel guilty for living. I don’t even feel guilty for not being able to save him anymore. Moms are not all-powerful. I get that now.

So how are things different ten years later? I look different. Sometimes I let myself be stupid and wonder if he would even recognize me now. I have more tattoos and piercings. My hair is a different style and a different color…would he know me?

Stupid, i know but grief does that to you.

I know he would recognize me, just as I would know him. He was always mine. That sounds strange, but it’s the only way to describe it. When the four of us got out of the car anywhere, Mackenzie always grabbed Daddy’s hand and Keeghan held mine. It never had to be said; it was just a given. He was mine to hold, always. 

That was another of those things that took a while to work through after he left. Even as a teenager, Mackenzie would always do her normal thing and reach for Daddy’s hand when we got out of the car. I didn’t have a hand to hold anymore. I remember walking behind them in the parking lot of a mall in Maryland and completely breaking down because I didn’t have anyone to hold my hand!  

Only a person who has lost a child understands those everyday moments that just destroy you.

There have been times over the years where I have absolutely hated myself for the thoughts that I’d have. At my darkest moments, I hate other parents who haven’t lost a child. I hate the asshole children that I see and wonder why they couldn’t have been the one to die. I hate people who try to give me reasons for why he died…the people who throw their religion at me like their faith in some myth is the reason it happened to our family and not theirs.

I’d like to introduce them to the multitude of parents I’ve met on this cancer journey who shared their faith and still lost a child.

That is one thing that has not changed at all in the last decade. I was not religious before Keeghan was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t find religion while he fought for his life. I have not found a belief in any religion since. My son didn’t die because we are not Christians (or any other religion). He died because he had a disease that has no cure. It happens. 

That is the one truth I have accepted, as much as I hate it. Shit. Fucking. Happens.

I don’t care what kind of life you live, if you pray, eat vegan, grow your own vegetables, live off the grid, or if you eat nothing but KFC, drink bad scotch and get high every day…you can still get cancer. Deal with it.

I sat down to write about how we are different ten years later and, as usual, went off on a tangent. I don’t get to sit down and write nearly enough these days, so this is what happens - I get a mad case of word diarrhea and can’t stop rambling.

So how am I different?

I have less of a filter. I am brutally honest. So much so that I piss a lot of people off and don’t really care. It isn’t that I want to hurt anyone. I just don’t have time to sugar coat or pussyfoot around things. I say what I feel and you can like it or not. Your choice.

I still love just as fiercely as I did then. I’m just less generous with that love. 

I give very few second chances on anything.

I’m still very lonely, even when there are others around. I always feel different than everyone else. Even when I see myself in pictures with other smiling people, I see myself as the one who doesn’t belong. 

Side story…right after Keeghan died, I went back to my monthly bunco group with ladies I had been playing with for months before he died. It was October…so not quite two months had gone by. Understandably, I think I was less “fun” than normal. I remember standing on the edge of everything. It was my first experience of that feeling of being different from everyone. About half way through the evening, one of the women came up to me and said, “If you don’t want to play with us anymore, Shannon, we’ll all understand.” 

I don’t know if she meant it the way I took it, but I took it as, “Hey Shannon, you’re bringing us all down so why don’t you just quit coming, k?”

Whether it was meant the way I took it or not I’ll never know, but that was exactly how I took it and I walked out and cried all the way home. I also quit going to bunco. That has been my MO ever since then. If I don’t feel comfortable in a situation or around someone, I just avoid that situation or person. Life is easier that way.

But none of it brings him back or makes me forget. Nothing makes me forget the sound of his laugh, the way he’d roll his eyes at Daddy’s silly jokes, the way he loved hanging out with his sister. Nothing makes me forget the way I’d lean over him on the hospital bed and make him focus on blowing my hair out of my face to distract him every time they had to stick that huge damn needle in his chest to give him chemo. Nothing makes me forget the ambulance ride in the middle of the night with him seizing the entire way, but still saying my name, “Mama…Mama.” 

Nothing makes me forget the slow way that cancer destroyed him. Nothing makes me forget what he looked like lying on the sofa, lifeless, while we waited for a funeral home to come take his body.

Nothing makes me forget how it soothed my soul to just hug him and know that right then, in that moment, he was still with me.

Ten years and it still hurts so much. I don’t think time can change that.

Then there are the good memories. The funny, sweet memories of Keeghan are what keep me sane sometimes. They usually come out of nowhere and bring a smile. Again, it took a few years to get to that point, where the good memories bring a smile and not debilitating tears. We al remember different things, which is beautiful because the things that Mike and Mackenzie remember remind me of time that I forgot. 

Just last night, Mike reminded me of what a little zen dude Keeghan was. Before cancer became a part of our world, we lived in North Carolina and had a big trampoline in the backyard. There were times when Keeghan would just disappear and we’d find him on his back in the middle of the trampoline, staring up at the big pine tree overhead, just chilling out. He was always able to find an inner peace that the rest of us weren’t. He’d do it in a barber’s chair while getting a haircut too. It was hilarious! His eyes would glaze over and he’d just zen out.

After his cancer diagnosis, his zen place became the pool in the backyard. It was one of those small pools with the inflatable ring on top that you can buy at your local big box store. Mike remembers how he’d come home from work and put a bathing suit on and he and Keeghan would go out back to the pool and discuss his day. Keeghan would lay on his boogie board and float, looking up at Mike and asking him about his day. Their little big of nightly man time.

One of my sweetest memories of Keeghan was as a baby. He was only a few months old. We lived in Illinois and Mike was still in college, working nights as a phlebotomist at a local hospital. One evening, after getting Mackenzie put to bed, I was sitting on our bed holding Keeghan. He’d just fallen asleep and I was enjoying just holding him for a little while before putting him in his crib. 

I leaned down and kissed his forehead and said, “I love you.” In his sleep, he smiled. It was so funny, so I tried it again. “I love you” - another smile. Mike was in the room getting ready to leave for work, so I told him to watch and said it again. Another smile. It was so funny! Finally Mike said, “Will you let that poor boy sleep!” I’ve never forgotten that though; even in his sleep he was the happiest baby.

Of course, he could have been faking sleep. That was a skill he mastered in the hospital. The doctors would come in to see him and he’d appear asleep, so they’d talk to us and then leave, saying they’d come back later when he was awake. Then, after they left, Keeghan would open his eyes and riddle us with questions about things they’d said. We learned very quickly to be careful about what was said in the room when Keeghan was “asleep.”

He was a funny little man. He once tried getting his grandmother to buy him a new bathing suit - or babing suit as he called them at the time - when I had already told her he didn’t need a new one because he had a bunch of them already. When she asked him if he was sure he needed a new one, because his mother had already said he had quite a few, he said, “I collect them.” If I remember correctly, she cackled with laughter and then bought him a new one.

So, so, SO many good memories. Ten years later it is still hard to believe…no, hard to accept that he is gone. How can the world still be turning without his huge personality and heart in it? I wish I could go back to his baby days when he couldn’t say “I love you” yet and instead said, “I sushoo.” 

He was sweet and funny and kind. His life’s goal was to cure cancer. He was meant for such great things. 

I miss him so much.

I sushoo, Bubby.