Friday, May 21, 2021


Before a scan
the horizon feels a bit
cRoOkEd  .  ,  .
Love is heavier
more vivid
Words bend on the page,
trip in my throat,
hide in my brain.

Are you hiding in the tumors?
I ask them.
But they don’t answer.
Maybe they motion to each other
to keep quiet.
Or maybe they are right there
mocking me
from underneath their most powerful shell
of my fear.

Before a scan
the calendar 
becomes a jellyfish.
Solid but amorphous
or liquified
or gaseous
Benign, perhaps,
but maybe a monster
that could swallow me up.

Before a scan
everyone sunbathes seaside
while I try to scream,
There may be a child
drowned in the waves!

But I don’t scream.
I know they can’t hear me
from where I sit
On the precipice
that is invisible
to everyone but me.

Before a scan
hugs earn an extra instant and
kisses offer a tougher lip.
The sun burns more easily,
and the moon paints
that are, somehow, 
more precise at their edges.
The picnic basket 
is a more complicated lover
and enemy
and a headache
is an approaching tsunami.

Before a scan
the whole planet slows down 
and the universe speeds up--
or maybe it’s the other way around--
tides are stronger
and weaker
and stronger again.
We are suspended above it all
and yet alone
with a candle
and a match
somewhere in the sand.

Before a scan
the big white whale 
in the basement 
ready to swallow us up
and spit us out
with an answer.
Or not.

There is no map
and the only truth
that remains 
in the waves

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Prepare for Landing

Our flight to Rome was set to depart at 6:30 p.m. on the Monday of April vacation, 2019. Norwegian Airlines had a deal that was too good to pass up and thanks to my mother's heavy subsidy, we took the kids on their first trip to Italy.

The flight was delayed in Boston. Then delayed some more. We ate dinner to waste some time. The delay continued. "Technical problems," they told us. We wandered the terminal, bought the kids more snacks, and wandered some more. Sometime after midnight, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner finally took off into the dark sky. 

Despite that the first half of the flight was relatively smooth, I was still a nervous wreck. I hate to fly (oh, have I already mentioned that)? Well, I do. But I love to travel, so unless I want to go by boat to Europe (I do not), the plane was necessary. 

I admit, I freak out on planes at nothing. Any sound, movement, bump, or flight attendant facial expression and the adrenaline will rush through my veins. But then this happened. I froze. Just froze. 

Yes, at an altitude of approximately 41,000 feet, the pressure system gave out in the cabin. We would learn later that the part of the plane that was broken and had caused all the delays was the air pressure system. Unfortunately, the "fix" lasted to only about halfway across the ocean. Fun times. 

Now, when the pressurizing system fails midflight, the usual solution is that airbags drop down, right? Well, that didn't happen. Broken, too, perhaps? (I would read later that yes, there was an issue with this happening...) So the pilots did the only thing they could do: they took the plane down as fast as they possibly could (again, I would learn all this later). I would say I have never been so scared in my life but there had been a few others times (anaphylactic shock to chemo comes to mind). Yeah, so at the time, this took the silver medal of life's scariest single moments. I remember looking at Brian and thinking that we would be dead in seconds. I remember being mad, which is funny because that is an emotion that I feel relatively rarely compared to most other people. 

Obviously, we didn't nosedive into the ocean. Instead, the plane leveled off at 9,000 feet, then climbed to 15,000, where it stayed for the next two-and-a-half hours. But lets revisit the 20-ish minutes after the "rapid descent"...

For that whole time, a message covered part of the in-flight info screen on the seatback. The message read, "Prepare for Landing." There was just one small problem, however: we were clearly over the ocean. Nevertheless, I was relieved that we had a chance to prepare for a water landing. Brian and I decided that I would keep close with Teddy and he would take Annabel. For that 20 minutes, with no word from anyone in the cockpit or any of the flight attendants (who had taken their seats), we prepared to land in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Finally, the pilot came over and explained the malfunction (I debated deleting the "finally" there as it implies pilot fault in the delay but I know they were busy up there saving our lives and all). Anyways, the captain explained that we would need to stay at a low altitude for the rest of the flight and we would need to divert to Paris to make an emergency landing there. And that's what we did. The airport in Paris was slightly nightmarish but finally, about 20 hours after leaving Boston, we left Paris en route to Rome. When we got there, the whole plane erupted in cheers. 

*  *  *

Today, March 10, 2021 is my 41st birthday. But I didn't write the above text today. I wrote it on Tuesday, February 16th. On that day, I also wrote this...

Today [February 16th], I feel like I got thrown back on that plane. A recent MRI on my brain has revealed two "masses." Life feels like it took a nosedive. 

Prepare to land.

Prepare to land. 
But there's only ocean down there. 

I see a neurologist tomorrow. 

*  *  *

Back on February 16th, I ended the post there. I honestly couldn't find any more words. I also knew that I couldn't post it. When I first began this blog, my kids were 4 and 1-year-old. They couldn't read. But now, at 13 and 10, they are literate and can find things on the internet. I could never tell the blogosphere more than what I would want them to know. And they already know what metastatic cancer means. They know that breast cancer coming back in my brain would be a tough uphill battle. 

The hours between hearing "two masses" and the neurologist telling me that the masses appear to be meningiomas (90% of which are benign), were full of indescribable fear and pain. It's a fear that makes my throat get tight. It's a fear that people living with metastatic cancer must feel every day. It's a fear I wish with every cell in my body I could obliterate forever. 

Looking back, I try to think of what helped me breathe in those two days. Love helped. Hope helped. Counting to 10 helped. Science helped. 

But do you want to know what helped most? Human resilience. In those days, I admit that I made lists in my head of friends and family members who had lost parents, children, siblings, and cousins. I thought about how they still found happy moments in life. Of course there was and would be pain between those moments but the hope that my kids, my husband, my family, could move on without me was perhaps the only real peace I found in those two brutal days. 

Since then, I have felt a gratitude for life that I could never articulate. Yes, I am adjusting to the reality that I have two tumors in my head. But I'm the luckiest person in the world that they appear to be benign. My heart aches for people who are not as lucky. It's a heavy, painful ache. 

I have not been brave enough to read the report so I don't know the size or location of the meningiomas. I know that they are in a relatively good place (between the brain and the skull -- in the dura). I know that lots of people have meningiomas and they can go years without having any symptoms. I know that I will be followed closely with brain MRIs every few months. I know that when I have to get the tumors removed, I will be my bravest and the brain surgeons will be my heroes. And I know, for sure, that others have been through infinitely worse challenges. 

Here's the thing I'm left thinking after 41 years of life. When the world shows us fear and pain, we must decide what to do with them. How to hold them in our minds and our hearts. How to find a shelf or lockbox or dumpster for them. Sometimes, it feels like there is absolutely nothing we can do but fasten our seatbelts and hope the pilots know what they are doing. Other times, it feels like just taking the next breath will be our greatest accomplishment. And other times, we brace for a Dreamliner landing in the middle of the ocean, and we believe, as I sincerely did, that we will survive it all. Sure, we will lose all our luggage and our bodies will endure injury. But our souls will make it through. That's today's definition of hope, I guess. 

And so today, 41 years after my amazing mother brought me into this terrifying, beautiful world, I still have fear and I still have hope. But mostly, I have love. Because if there is anything that this year taught all of us, it's that we need connection. We need each other. We need less than six feet between us for hugs and holding hands and pats on the back. For shared meals and naked faces that reveal our smiles. That deep, pure love is what scares me most about this uncertain world. But it's also what I know this life is all about, no matter how many birthdays we are lucky enough to celebrate. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Dear Amanda Gorman

You stood there like a beacon

glowing yellow, black, and red—

younger than most in years

but with each wise word you said

you lifted me up

    and up

    and up—

how’d you find my shallow hole?

How’d you know where to look

to fill the empty in my soul?

Your words were like wings

guiding me out of a grave

Words like purpose, harmony, and bridges,

dared me to be brave.

You told me there was light

through the shade, beyond the tree,

then you said not just to look

for hope’s what we must be

Because of you, I answer

from inside the walls I know too well;

Because of you, I now will share

all I have to tell.

The truth is real, I must declare, 

despite so much neglect—

The truth must reign forever more;

its absence we regret. 

And the truth’s that when you found me

I was buried deep in dirt,

my tired bones they ached,

my beaten spirit, Lord, it hurt. 

Then your words traveled down

    and down

    and down

to the dark where I’d recoiled

Your verse gave me strength

    and hope

    and faith

despite the many lives of toil. 

You took my hand and promised me

that the light is really there;

You told us we could be much more

than the burdens that we bear. 

Thank you, young beacon, for spreading hope

and peace throughout the land.

Thank you, young poet, for convincing me

we have the strength to stand

and declare to all this nation:

it's time that freedom rings

no more suffocation—

let's all end the suffering.

And the words that we will sing

will echo far and strong

until we finally work together

to right the nation’s wrongs. 

Pure light, you showed the world

that our voices will be heard

because nothing starts to right a wrong

like a truthful, youthful word.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Eight Years Ago

Eight years ago,
my kids were at the zoo with their dad. 
A one-year-old little girl 
and a four-year-old little boy. 
A warm August day. 

Eight years ago, a doctor, 
days from retirement,
told a woman he had just met
that she had cancer. 

"Will I see my kids grow up?" 
I asked him. 
He didn't look at me. 
But part of me believed him. 

Eight years ago, 
I had to call my mother 
and tell her
that word. 
Without hesitation, 
she flew home. 

Eight years ago, 
I shook. 
Couldn't eat.
I listened to the air conditioner
late at night
scared that it may swallow me up. 
Part of me wished for that. 
Maybe it would be easier. 

"HER-2 positive," 
the doctor told me.
I stared out at my backyard. 
"I wasn't expecting that," he said. 
I wasn't either. 

Eight years ago, 
I waited for surgery. 
Five excruciating weeks. 
Sheer torture 
until they could tell me how far 
the Intruder had invaded.  

Eight years ago, 
August changed. 
Summer heat 
a reminder of fear. 
a reminder of the ignorance 
of the before 
and the abyss 
of the after. 

Eight years ago, 
I waited. 
I tried to breathe. 
And somehow,

Eight years ago, 
I took a seat at a keyboard and typed. 
Typed and typed and typed
as if those keys would save me. 
And they did. 

*   *   *

I recently purchased a new collection of Zora Neale Hurston's short stories that have been long neglected. The editor of the collection, Genevieve West, explained in the introduction that when Hurston was just a teenager, her mother died and her father married a woman that Hurston despised. Hurston left home and school, and wandered to different places, working hard to support herself. 

As West further explained in the introduction to Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, at the age of 26, Hurston took advantage of a Maryland state law that guaranteed anyone under the age of 20 a free public education. She did so by pretending her birthday was ten years later (1901 rather than 1891). So began the formal education of my favorite writer of all time. 

In 1925, Hurston wrote to a friend, "My type-writer is clicking away till all hours of the night. I am striving desperately for a toe-hold on the world." (West, xxi) 

Twelve years after she wrote that letter, Hurston published her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Chapter 3 opens with one of the best lines I have ever read: 

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

I have tried to decide whether the year I found I had cancer was a year that asked me questions or a year that answered them. Now I've decided. Asked. Definitely asked. 

Two-thousand-twelve asked me so many questions, from what parts of the human body make a person a person, to whether one can parent a child in death, to what love really looks like. And the last eight years have answered. 

Only they didn't answer in the ways I thought they would. They answered by telling me that there is no clear answer to anything. In the best case scenario, we will get a toe-hold on the world. That's it. That's what I know eight years later. 

I know that life is hard. So very hard, for every single one of us. I know that the world is always in motion. Swift, scary, beautiful motion. I know that love and trust require work and patience and forgiveness. I know that nothing is ever certain; and that uncertainty, while suffocating, can also include contentment. I know that I am here now, with nothing more than a toe-hold on the world. 

But that toe-hold, that tiny moment of connection with a person or with nature or with myself, that's the answer to it all. It's just a toe-hold and eventually, it will slip away. But it's life, and I am forever grateful that for the last eight years, I have been able to live it. Pain, purpose, love, loss, and all. A toe-hold on the world. I think that if we ask for more, we're sure to be disappointed. But if we embrace that toe-hold, there's a pretty awesome vista over our shoulder. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Sunny and School

In January 2017, we got a fish. Actually, Annabel was gifted the fish by her best friend for her sixth birthday. Annabel named the fish "Sunny Sun Sun," although we have since called her "Sunny." We have no clue if this betta fish is even female, but that's beside the point.

For the past three years and three months, Annabel and I have taken care of that fish with love and dedication. Granted, we don't do anything fancy, but I do switch her to a clean bowl every few weeks, Annabel keeps a calendar of her daily feedings so one is never forgotten, and in those nostalgic times when we left home for vacation, we always left Sunny with trusted neighbors. We talk to Sunny, include her in family dinners, and sometimes she even makes it into the count as a member of the family. Even our morning babysitter (slash, lifesaver-angel, Kathy) has a special place in her heart for Sunny.

My students know about Sunny, too. One morning earlier this year, I was teaching my high school juniors when I saw a call from Kathy ring through to my watch. Nervously, I picked up the phone, well aware that my students were all listening.

It was Annabel, sobbing.

"Sunny is asleep?!" I gasped. "Where? Is she at the bottom of the bowl or floating at the top?" I was upset, but my students' giggles convinced me to pretend to smile.

Annabel was bawling. "She's at the bottom." Good. I assumed that fish float to the top when they die so I was hopeful. But I know nothing about fish.

Annabel, still sobbing, handed the phone to Kathy. Within seconds, Sunny was awake / back to life. Praise the Lord.

When I got off the call, my students all seized the moment to take us off-track from the lesson, so they asked me questions about the fish. They told me that when Sunny died, I would have to find a fish that looked the same and replace her. They told me a few of their amusing fish-replacement stories. I listened and laughed, then made sure that they knew I wouldn't let them out of the lesson for long. I remember feeling truly happy that morning. Sunny was alive, Annabel and Kathy were relieved, my students were comfortable, and the morning's lesson persevered through distraction.

*   *   *

I'm pretty sure I have wanted to be a teacher since the day I met my first teacher. Since my first (and best) teacher was my mom, I guess I've wanted to be a teacher since the day I became more than a cluster of cells. Maybe it's because I'm bossy, or because I can't sit still. Maybe it's because white boards and bulletin boards make me giddy. Maybe it's because I love the innocence of kids (yes, even high school kids), or because they are way more fun to hang out with than adults (especially adults who are lawyers - ha!). Maybe it's because when I read something beautiful, I want nothing more than to share it with someone else who will analyze it with me. Or maybe it's because I honestly believe that the hope for individuals and for humanity begins with great education. Whatever the reason, I will never feel a place of belonging as perfect as the classroom. 

Of course, yesterday, we learned that we will not return to our classrooms this year. I wasn't able to sleep the night before and now I wonder if the root of my anxiety was knowing this announcement was imminent. Certainly we all knew it was coming. But for some reason, the finality of the decision formed a heavy lump in my throat that still hasn't gone away. I know I'm not alone. 

I knew that school closing would hurt me and Brian (also a teacher), and I knew it was going to crush our kids, too. So, for weeks, I have made it a point to ease the idea into their minds. I was subtle at first, starting sentences with phrases like, "If we go back..." The first time they each registered that we may not return to the school buildings this year, I could see in their faces that their hearts had sunk. Those sunken hearts were (and are) painful, but they are beautiful, too. Because loving school is a sincere blessing. 

So here we are -- our kitchens, bedrooms, and basements; our Zooms, Nearpods, and Google Meets the "classrooms" for (at least) the remainder of the school year. The reality of that change had me anxious and restless this morning, both for "my kids" (my students) and for "my real kids" (the ones I birthed). 

I am certain of this -- in homes across America and, I'm sure, around the world -- teachers are fighting back the tears. The luckiest of us are grieving the end of the school year with the simultaneous guilt of knowing how fortunate we are for our health, our safety, and our (relative) job security. But please remember, we get our kids as members of our classroom families for just one school year. This year, a virus kidnapped them from us for three-and-a-half months of that year. And there's nothing we can do to get them back. 

I know, I know. I, too, love the quotes about the school buildings being closed but all of us still being teachers. Many teachers are working as hard as ever before and we are excited about the opportunities to learn new ways to teach our students. But there is magic in a classroom. There is an electricity that is lost in remote learning: a pure, exhausting, unpredictable, invigorating spirit that cannot be created in even the best of virtual lessons. 

*   *   *

When humble moms and dads I know make self-deprecating jokes about unsuccessful "home schooling," I try to remind them that we are not "home schooling;" we are "crisis schooling." Athletes training for the Olympics (and others, of course) "home school." Right now, we are just trying to get through a global crisis with as much sanity and love as possible. And maybe for a split second, I buy what I'm saying.

Crisis schooling.

But then my mind starts to race. Crisis schooling. I beat myself up for not doing enough as a teacher or as a parent. Crisis schooling. My lessons for my students have been subpar, and Teddy is back to playing video games for hours every day. Crisis schooling. Sometimes I convince myself that things are good enough in my own house, but then I'm still worrying about others. I worry about hunger, and abuse, and the traumatic stress of kids being forced to care for the sick, the young, and the old. No schooling. Just crisis. 

Part of me is jealous of the people who still think that some of us are overreacting. But I can't unsee what I have seen in the countless articles and posts I have read reporting from the front lines. And those images are terrifying from the comfort of my own home. I can't fathom what patients, their families, health care workers, and so many others are enduring right now. Because compared to them, teachers have it pretty easy. And my heart hurts. 

*   *   *

So where does that leave us with good ole, Sunny? The poor old fish can barely swim up to the surface to get her food anymore. She pretty much lives in a vertical position and it's clear that one day soon, her nose will just float to the surface and her body will follow until she's horizontal, and no longer breathing. 

Sunny Sun Sun: April 22, 2020

But here's the one tiny thought that organized my anxiety enough this morning to take me to the "New Post" button...

A few weeks ago, I heard Annabel talking to Brian about Sunny. She said: "When Sunny dies, we will have a funeral for her in the backyard but no one else can come." (The kid shares my passion for social distancing right now.) She was strong in her assertion. Confident in her decision. And accepting of this reality. I know that may sound like nothing but in that moment, the world felt just a bit lighter. 

Here's the thing. I don't know what home schooling, crisis schooling, or future schooling looks like. I didn't know what to tell a junior student who asked me yesterday on a call, "Will this virus end our senior year?" All I told him was that I did think the virus would change what he had always assumed his senior year would look like. And change is hard. 

That's it, really. Change is hard. For many people around the globe, this pandemic is not the first time that their entire world has changed almost momentarily. Cancer flipped the world upside down for me and for countless men, women, and children long before COVID-19. For others, a different physical or mental disease changed everything. For yet others, the entire world changed with the death of a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or (gulp) a child. People's worlds have changed in an instant with paralyzing falls or experiences in war. With divorce, or assault, or mistakes that cannot be fixed or forgiven. With tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. With poverty that broke them. For millions of people, including myself, this pandemic is not the first time that the universe has made us question our ability to survive. 

While I still believe that hope is the most important life raft in a turbulent sea, I also get frustrated at the simplified message that "we will get through it." Many of us will, and the number of survivors increases with education, hard work, strong leadership, and cooperation. But like cancer, this virus is a beast, and some of us won't beat it, no matter how strong we are or how hard we pray. 

That's what my upside down world taught, and continues to teach me: in the end, none of us get out of here alive. I don't know the first moment when I learned that. But I do believe that whenever that moment was, it was the first moment I really started to live. 

Which leads to me to the end of this circuitous message: my nine-year-old knows that her beloved fish, Sunny Sun Sun, will die one day soon. That means that she knows that the world changes, and that the future will bring pain. She also seems to be building the confidence and the skills to face those changes and that pain. She's had awesome teachers and decent parents but I'm pretty certain that none of us created a lesson plan to teach her these life lessons. But somehow, in her old school, home school, or crisis school, she learned about compassion and resilience. And truthfully, I can't think of two more important virtues for any parent or school to teach, no matter what a classroom looks like today, or in the scary, uncertain, and promising future.