Friday, August 26, 2011

Elbow grease

You know what cancer took away?  That extra bit of energy and motivation that defines a midwesterner.  You know who has officially reclaimed her energy and motivation?  Me, right here.

This was one heck of a trying week on the home front.  The adjustment to preschool/daycare is progressing, but not without wounding us.  Thursday was by far the roughest; I think both kids expected this whole preschool/daycare thing to be temporary, and plus they were exhausted from the stimulation and stress of the previous three days.  All of the stress and exhaustion translated to extreme crabbiness and sleeplessness at home.  I needed extra patience, extra empathy, and still more patience.  But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Ian is having a ball at the U, which helps the rest of us keep our transitional suffering in perspective.  And the kids are adjusting already.  When I picked Azalea up today she said, "Mom, at first I didn't like preschool very much, but now I LOVE it!"  Eleanor's light is not as bright yet, but she too is turning the corner.  The first few times I picked her up from daycare, she was quaking with fear and half sobbed the chant, "Go home now, go home now!"  This was very hard for me to bear.  But today she was consolable, and I witnessed her having fun before she saw me in the doorway.  Already the wounds of being torn from daddy's care are healing.  The best part is that I don't foresee any scars, but it was a tiring week nonetheless.

Despite the changes on the home front, I totally rocked it on the science front.  I finished a manuscript last Friday and had numerous discussions about it this week.  All week I chugged along on an analysis project that I've been de-prioritizing (isn't that just a fancier and more justifiable word than "procrastinate"?) all summer, and it's almost done.  Also, I had this great idea for a review article and I've already acquired collaborators and outlined the manuscript.  And finally, I'm working with a talented bench scientist to keep the research side  of things moving forward.

In my view, my biggest accomplishments for the week are the things that I was physically unable to do during cancer treatment.  I cleaned the bathroom, INCLUDING THE TUB.  Yea.  Not gonna lie, our tub only gets cleaned semi-annually, but I justify this because it doesn't suffer daily use.  You can judge me, whatever, but the point is that I cleaned the tub this week (so now is the time to visit).  Also, I began a deck-refurbishing project that I had promised in June.  For my mother-in-law's (Lori's) birthday I had said that I'd refinish her deck.  She has been so wonderful, helpful, and supportive throughout our relationship, but particularly during the whole cancer business.  I therefore decided to do something special for her birthday, which I thought could be cleaning and sealing the deck that she hates.  You may ask, if she hates it why would I refurbish it?  Well, it would be a huge project to replace the deck with something else, and it's actually a very nice deck if you can look past the moss and mildew.  So tonight I purchased supplies at Ace (the helpful place indeed!) and scrubbed in the dwindling daylight.  The results were instant, dramatic, and gratifying.  I broke a sweat, drank a beer, sprayed some water, had a ball.

Lori has a mantra about "chop wood, carry water" that means something about the fulfillment and joy that comes from everyday Work.  I really felt that this week.  There is joy to be had in seemingly mundane tasks, and experiencing a health crisis brings this brand of joy to the forefront.                   

Monday, August 22, 2011

We survived!

Oooo it was hard dropping off those ladies at preschool and daycare this morning!  But I can conclusively say that everything is going to be okay, as evidenced by the following.  When asked how her first day at preschool went, Azalea enthusiastically replied, "Awesome awesome!"  And although Eleanor had a "sad" day, she took an excellent nap and serenaded our dinner with a new song.  My logic for taking comfort is that if she was too upset then she wouldn't have been able to sleep at all, and she wouldn't have enjoyed the song enough to remember it.  And Ian discovered the most convenient bus to campus and made it to all of his classes on time.  Plus, one of his professors cursed three times during the lecture!

It's going to be a great semester.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lessons from the oncology waiting room

Today is the memorial service for Dr. Phil O'Berry.  He is so famous in our town that his memorial is being held at the student union on campus.  He used to be the director of the research institute at which I'm employed, but I didn't know him then.  I met him in the oncology waiting room, both of us near the end of our respective chemotherapies.

At first I was jealous of Dr. O'Berry, because when the nurses called him back they would literally call, "Doctor O'Berry?".  I would think to myself, "Hey, I'm a doctor, too!"  It's not that I actually wanted to be called "doctor", but I was trying to be sensitive to a potential gender issue.  I've settled on it simply being an age and respect issue because after visiting with him, I too had trouble just calling him, "Phil".  He definitely lived his life larger than just Phil.  He commanded respect.  He was Dr. O'Berry.

One of the last times I saw Dr. O'Berry in the waiting room was my last chemotherapy before my mastectomy.  I was telling him how nervous I was, and probably how tired I was of the whole cancer treatment business.  And that's when he told me to never stop brushing my teeth.  He told me that he had been fighting colon cancer for seven years and was supposed to have died five years ago.  He told me that it got really bad when he quit brushing his teeth.  I took it as a metaphor for "never give up".  I think he meant that there's no sense in sitting around, waiting to die, and as long as you're living you have to brush your teeth.  So brush your teeth and live another day.  Most of these are my words, but if I had to attribute a direct quote to him it would be, "Never stop brushing your teeth."  

When I mentioned to my co-workers that I'd met Phil O'Berry, a fountain of O'Berry greatness spilled forth.  I couldn't believe that I had met this somewhat famous person and had been totally ignorant during our interactions.  Apparently he was an amazing scientist, the best director the center has ever had, and a wonderful father to both biological and adopted children.  I wanted to tell him how highly everyone thought of him, but I was at the end of my weekly chemo treatments and didn't know if I'd run into him again.  Also, in our previous conversation he told me he'd be going into hospice care soon.  So I wrote him a note and left it at reception for the next time he came in for a treatment.  I told him how great he was and how much I appreciated his conversations.  He wrote me back one time, and that was the last I heard from him.  

Today was his memorial service, and I decided to skip it.  I know, I'm a heathen.  I should be there showing my support for his family.  But instead I am enjoying the glorious weather with my fantastic family, heading to an amusement park to end our summer with a "bang".  I'm telling myself that Dr. O'Berry would understand, but I still feel a pang of guilt about it.  

(We're riding the hot air balloons.  Uncle Andrew is the filmmaker, with Aunts Hilary and Holly and Cousin Kael in the adjacent balloon.)

Rest in peace, Dr. Phil O'Berry.  I'll never stop brushing my teeth.  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I won't belabor Ann Arbor

I had the most wonderful time on my trip to Ann Arbor.  I am so glad that I went.  It has been said by many that the lengthy drive would have deterred them, but not me.  I love a good road trip, especially with a friend.  My dear friend and former neighbor Darci accompanied me on the trip, to help with the drive and be my date to the wedding festivities.  (I totally mis-typed "date" as "data" several times before getting it right.  Nerd salute!)

I had checked out four books on tape from the local library and brought an entire case of CDs, but none of these were necessary on the way to Ann Arbor.  Darci and I talked the WHOLE nine hours.  I suppose it's a testament to our friendship, but I can't discount the fact that the conversation may have been a direct result of our mom freedom.  There were no kids to keep in line or take care of, and we could talk about whatever we wanted.  It took about three hours before we realized we could curse.  "Geez" be darned.

It was so great to see Maggie  (the bride).  She and I met in graduate school, and we became particularly close after I had Azalea.  I know, that's not the typical way it goes with friends and babies, but Maggie is special.  She would adjust her schedule to do various morning activities with Azalea and me, such as meeting at Lazy Jane's for the best scones in the universe.  It was the power of our bond that drew me on this road trip.

Upon arrival, I quickly learned that Maggie's hairdresser had canceled the wedding hair-do session, and no replacement could be found.  I am actually only semi-proficient at doing hair; I can twist and braid, but I'm lost with any electric hair tools.  However, I didn't want Maggie to be more nervous than she already was, so I confidently said that I could do her hair, no problem.  Fortunately she has a friend and a cousin who are excellent with hot hair tools, so they blow-dried and straightened out the business for me.  Then I set to work with the twisting and the pinning.  When it was all said and done, it looked pretty darn nice (but it's a good thing she wasn't sitting in front of a mirror throughout the process because there were some hairy [pun intended] intermediate stages).  As per her vision, it was twisted across the back, ending in a left-ear-proximal triple-twisted bun with some curls coming out of the middle.  It was finished with three modest white flowers at the bun-ear junction.  And the best part is that it didn't fall out while she danced!  Ultimately, stability was my top design concept.  

Before I did Maggie's hair, I offered a different service to Maggie's mom.  She was standing in the hallway looking like a ball of nerves.  I asked her how she was doing.  She shrugged.  I said, "Would you like me to rub your shoulders for a minute, to help you relax?"  She looked off into the distance and after a pause said, "Let me find a place to lie down."  Ha!  I followed her to the guest bedroom, where she laid down on the bed and pointed to her lower back, saying that it was quite sore.  I started to rub her lower back, but apparently not low enough.  She shoved my hands to her tailbone.  I rubbed and rubbed, and then she was ready for the shoulder rub.  I didn't mind at all, and indeed I had offered.  But it struck me as hilarious to be taken up to such an extent.

The best part of the wedding was the people.  There were 40 people at the rehearsal dinner, who were the same 40 people at the wedding, who were the same 40 people dancing at the reception.  I was so impressed by this, because often it seems you have to invite more than 100 people to get a full dance floor at the reception.  I thought this really spoke to how well Maggie and Sam knew their friends and family, and to the high quality of people in their lives.  There were many people whom I'd never met, but I felt like I'd known them forever.  Instant connections, instant fun.

I'll end with a photo of my road trip accomplishment.  You didn't think I just sat there whenever it was Darci's turn to drive, did you?  I started making the girls' winter hats for the season, and I finished Azalea's.  I've made an awful lot of hats in my day, but this one might be my finest achievement.  Fancy!


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Big changes

It's been an exciting week here at our house.  Azalea and Eleanor started practicing at their new preschool/daycare!  They will begin attending full-time on August 22nd, which is the day that Ian starts going back to school full-time.  Our house is full of excitement right now.  Big changes coming our way.  It is very, very fun.

Eleanor will be a butterfly.  She is one of the most verbal of her classmates, and possibly one of the older kids.  She will not be long with the butterflies before becoming a ladybug.  In the meantime, the butterfly teachers are fantastic, and Eleanor has already found some favorite activities.  Today was her third practice, and she stayed with the butterflies all by herself for a whole hour.  She didn't even cry!  I think she'll do well with the increased socialization once she adjusts to the new faces and things.

Azalea will be a dragonfly.  Today was her first practice with the dragonflies, so Ian stayed with her.  He was VERY impressed by the education-quality of the dragonfly care.  As a mechanism to dismiss the kids to the next activity, the teacher asked them to name what letter certain words started with.  When an "A" word came up, she piped up, "And MY name starts with the letter A!"  It was a proud moment for both father and daughter.  Tomorrow she will have a practice all by herself.  She is SO ready for this change.    

Ian and I think the hardest part about the daycare transition will be the sister relationship.  Azalea and Eleanor are best friends, but now they will be in separate classrooms.  I think this will be good for the big girl, but the little girl might suffer at first.  It will be good that the learning is tailored to their respective ages; I just hope we've laid the foundation for the outstanding sister relationship so that it continues.  Forever.    

I must say that the most adorable part about all of these changes is Ian.  He is so, so excited, and that makes me excited.  And I am so proud of him:  he found a new GI bill for which he qualifies, and it is paying 80% of his tuition plus a monthly living-expense stipend!  Wow.  What a rockstar.

Me?  Thankfully I don't think I have any changes, except supporting my family members through theirs.  I am biking to work almost every day (no more lung tightness--that's a pleasant change), and my hair is so long that I really ought to get a haircut (another pleasant change).  I am being productive at work and home, from manuscripts being reviewed at scientific journals (change) to having the toy room all organized and tidy (change).  My range-of-motion is even good enough that I can reach the top shelf (change).  I feel so good that I'm taking a road trip this weekend to Ann Arbor for a wedding (change).

I still have herceptin treatment every third Wednesday, but it's not so bad.  I bring a project, and I have lots of friends at the clinic.  It's almost a social engagement.  Almost.  My last treatment will be the first Wednesday of November.  Let the count down begin.  And then we'll start a countdown until port removal, which will be at my discretion but probably not until at least October 2012 (40% chance of recurrence of inflammatory breast cancer in the first 1-2 years, therefore why rush the port removal?).  Ah, port removal.  The best change of all.

Poke tally:

port  36
right arm 12
tummy  6
left arm  6
right breast 2++
left breast  1+
superior vena cava 1
T9 vertebral body  1

Friday, August 5, 2011

Ooooo, that tickles

For the second day in a row I biked to work, which is certainly a small victory for me on my recovery road.  I live less than three miles from work and the ride is marvelous.  Over half of it is on a dedicated path.  It was refreshing today when the weather, as opposed to a new ailment, threw me for a loop.  The hottest July since 1955 finally broke when it became August, and with the break in the heat came afternoon rains.  Don't get me wrong, I love afternoon rains, but they bring a dilemma to a cyclist:  to wait it out or tough it out?  It is with great delight I report that today I toughed it out.

Splashing in puddles is good for the soul no matter the age.  Azalea and Eleanor love to don their kitty and cherry galoshes, respectively, and hunt for the best puddles in the neighborhood.  Their affection for splashing is boundless.  Why do I not have a pair of galoshes?  I do not know the answer to this.  Perhaps there is a social convention against adults marching in puddles, so what better way to splash than at heedless speeds on two wheels?

Do you know what rain feels like when it hits your shins?  It tickles; a faint and pleasant sort of tickle.  Biking in the rain is arguably the only time one could ever experience the tickle of rain splashing on shins.  This is not an experience to be missed.

A trademark of biking in the rain is the kick-back of water and grime from the street up and around the rear tire onto your lower back.  I of course have never had a fender, and this particular property of biking in the rain used to drive me crazy in college when I had people to Impress.  I no longer have people to Impress; indeed, today my grime stripe was a badge of honor.  It tickled, it gritted, it clung, and it only existed when this living, breathing human is pedaled her bike through the rain.

I was so incredibly delighted by biking in the rain that I actually laughed out loud while speeding down the biggest hill on my route.  Laughter begets laughter, and this held true even within myself.  I laughed at myself laughing.  I laughed at myself for laughing at myself.  Then I passed a stalled car and laughed at how crazy I must have looked to the driver.  I decided my anti-rain-in-the-eyes squint also would appear like laughter, and that made me laugh even further.  Fortunately I was nearly home so I could pass on the laughter contagion before it snuffed out.

Today was a bona-fide rain storm, not a sprinkle, so you can imagine that I was soaked through when my journey ended.  It was a warm enough August day that I was not cold.  I nonetheless changed my clothes when I got home, otherwise I would not have dried for hours.                         

Carpe diem.

Monday, August 1, 2011


As I danced through the best weekend ever, I didn't think about how lucky I was not to have cancer.  I didn't think about how un-tired or un-sore I felt.  I didn't think about how I should be appreciating and savoring every moment.  I was my normal (which is arguably abnormal), active self.  I simply rocked my weekend.  I'll spotlight a daily highlight below.

Ian had organized a man's camping weekend and Lori took the girls, so Friday night I had the house All To Myself.  This was, in a word, fantastic.  Some people might have watched movies til 3 a.m. or invited friends over, but not this girl.  I rearranged my house.  Well, not the whole house, but those quadrants occupied by 2- and 3-year-old squatters.  In preparation for my Big Night In, Ian took down Eleanor's crib.  As you'll recall she turned 2 two weeks ago, and she actually hasn't slept in the crib for 6 months or so.  So I converted the crib room to an upstairs toy room.  The downstairs toy room was minimized and optimized.  A donation pile was created.  A good time was had by all.  Epilogue:  the girls love their upstairs toy room, and the parents love the banishment of small or overly vocal toys to the upstairs.

The girls and I went to visit Aunt Jacque for the weekend.  Anna watched the girls for a few hours while Aunt Jacque and I went to a day spa.  Oh my goodness, we all had such a great time.  The girls were delighted by Anna in the life-sized doll house in their backyard.  Meanwhile, Aunt Jacque and I had  full-body massages, exfoliation, and sea weed wraps.  We went to the beauty school in town and thus got an excellent package deal.  I had never experienced either of the latter two services, and both were...interesting.  The problem with the exfoliation was that it was awfully close to painful.  In contrast, the sea weed wrap was divinely soothing and moisturizing.  The problem with the sea weed wrap didn't manifest until about 20 minutes after we had left the salon.  We picked up 11-year-old Brielle and she immediately pinched her nose at us.  Closer olfactory investigation revealed that our skin emanated a stink like a dog that had swam in the ocean yesterday and wasn't quite dry yet.  Oh man, it was a hard-core stink.  But it was all part of the experience.  I'd definitely do it again, I'd just bring some perfume along next time.  The best part of all was having a date with Aunt Jacque.  Everyone needs an Aunt Jacque.   

On the way home, we stopped by to visit the triplets and company.  I know, they live in Columbia, but they were in the area visiting family this weekend.  It's only been a month since I've seen them, but they all have new tricks.  Lucy is walking, Eva is talking, and Alex is tipping over things three times his height.  The best part is that I think they remember us Allens.  Well, at least a little bit.  The girls and I got tons of smiles and even a few cuddles.  Ooo I just love the triplets!  

I put an exclamation point on the weekend when at nine o'clock on Sunday night I baked a beet cake.  That's right you heard me.  Indeed, 1) it was awfully late for baking, 2) it was awfully hot for baking, and 3) I baked beets into a cake.  The cake is topped with cream cheese frosting; the fact of this cake really speaks to the power of cream cheese frosting.  

Welcome back, hbomb.