our island, at last

Summer’s final act has brought unexpected joy, and a chance to reflect.

One day last week, it dawned on me: summer is ending, and Earl hasn’t seen the ocean.  I realized further: we hadn’t visited Long Beach Island since before my cancer diagnosis almost five years ago.  The place was calling to me.  It was past time for a visit, no matter how brief.

We made our first trip to LBI completely by accident, probably in the late ‘90’s, a few years after we met.  We wanted a weekend at the beach; why not LBI?  We settled on Beach Haven as our destination, and it immediately became Our Spot.  On one of our first summer weekends there, we discovered that my father’s family had connections to the island, and that my great-great grandfather had owned a home there in the early 20th Century.  Strange coincidence, perhaps, but in hindsight, it made sense, given the way the place got its hooks into me.

In 2003, we were married on the island.  The wedding planning and the day itself were notable for numerous near-catastrophes and violent weather.  But when the storms on the night of our so-called rehearsal dinner had cleared, we were left, the evening of our wedding, with lightening skies, a gorgeous sunset, and memories for a lifetime.

strolling to the bay at our wedding reception

We went back to Beach Haven the next two summers after our wedding, but as a married couple, and with the hope of starting a family burning strong in us both, being there started to feel different.  Suddenly, it seemed, we were adults playing at carefree adolescence.  We were surrounded with people our own age, perhaps even younger, with children of their own.  We talked about what it would be like to come to the island one day with our kids; we didn’t for a minute realize how long it would take for that dream to come true.

But maybe I did.  Here in the midst of this month of ovarian cancer awareness, I am reflecting on my symptoms, all the things that were telling me that something was wrong, for all that time.  Looking back on the months and years leading up to my diagnosis, I wonder if maybe I did know how things were about the change, that life as I knew it was about to end.

A year or so after our last visit to Beach Haven, I was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer.  All dreams of summer weekends at the shore with our children were put on hold  – indefinitely, if not forever.

It’s hard to know why, in all the summers since I finished treatment, we hadn’t returned to LBI.  Perhaps it would trigger too many powerful feelings of loss.  In my bitterest moments after diagnosis, I would think back to our wedding day, the hope and joy that overflowed there, and then think about how cancer had ravaged our dreams, my body.  The heartbreak was more than I could bear.  It was easier, I suppose, to stay away from the place that symbolized everything our life was supposed to be.

Our first summer with our son would mark our return to the island.  With limited time and money, an extended visit was not in the cards.  But our new home on the Jersey side of the Delaware affords us the luxury of little more than an hour’s car ride to the ocean.  So I announced with solemn purpose one evening last week:  I want to take Earl to the ocean, to LBI.  It’s important.

My husband works extremely hard at his job; he treasures his lazy weekend days.  Extended car travel with our 8 month old can be a gamble; scream-fests are always a risk.  But he knows that I work extremely hard, too, and when I pressed my desire to spend a precious weekend day at Our Spot, he got it.

The day could not have been more perfect.  Cloudless blue sky, brilliant sun, cool breeze.  We lunched at one of our favorite spots on Bay Road.  We strolled along Centre Street, past the bed and breakfast where our parents and aunts and uncles stayed and where we had our rehearsal dinner in a driving rainstorm.  We took a quick spin past the restaurant where we had our reception, all the while narrating for Earl the meaning of each spot.

Our time on the beach was pure bliss – Earl’s reaction to the crashing waves and endless water was priceless.  We stopped and rested along a jetty, where Earl took his bottle while gazing out across the watery horizon.  He put his little toes in the sand and squirmed with delight.  Finally, it was happening. – this dream, made real.

tootsies in the atlantic ocean

We ended our day at Barnegat Lighthouse; we climbed 217 steps (me with Earl strapped to my chest) and took in the panoramic views of the bay and the ocean.  The wind blew hard in our faces, but at a hundred and seventy-two feet in the air, my soul soared.

It was a day of magic, one that called up so much of the journey that has brought us to this place of dreams finally realized.

Posted in adoption, Life After Cancer, Vacation | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

holding it all

Life can be extreme.  Our fears can consume us; joy can make us feel like our hearts will burst.  Holding it all, simultaneously, as I was made to do recently, can seem nothing short of defying emotional gravity.

There are these moments, surprisingly rare – but perhaps more often for those of us who have lived with cancer – when we are asked to absorb difficult and ambiguous realities, like an abnormal test result, while at the same time celebrating something amazing, like the adoption of a child.  The tumult of the past few weeks – muted by vigorous, daily running and yoga, and nightly cocktail hour – was not fully revealed until the storm of uncertainty had passed.  That Other Shoe never quite dropped; or if it did, it had turned into a nice soft bunny slipper and landed with a harmless “poof.”  In my ultimate relief, I realized how hard I had been working to maintain my psychic equilibrium, and just how scared I had been.

As I wrote previously, my abnormal Pap test results from June were nothing inherently alarming.  My doctor told me directly, “This is not an emergency.”  But when Life After Cancer has consisted of nothing but smooth sailing, even the slightest glitch can feel seismic.

Thanks to the timing of our son’s adoption finalization bash, and an extended visit from my family, I had plenty to distract me from perseverating over my impending colposcopy.  The party, ten days ago, was a huge success, and only served to solidify the reality of our new life as parents, and the wonder of our Early Bird.  We were truly left with our hearts bursting, knowing that Earl is surrounded by so much love.

With my Early Bird, at his Big Bash

But what does one do when the party is over, and a trip to the oncologist looms?  Each morning, I rose before dawn to hit the pavement or take refuge at the yoga studio.  Part of this was about keeping my composure during a long stretch with house-guests; likely an even bigger part of it was about reminding (or convincing) myself that I am strong and healthy, that disease is not brewing within me.   I even logged a quick morning run the day of my scope.  Along my route, I held my head high and pumped my arms, smiling at the other runners I encountered.  I was determined to take this feeling of strength with me, right into the stirrups.

Those who’ve been down this road, who’ve been faced with murky medical findings in cancer’s aftermath, know that there inevitably comes a point when the fight becomes too much.  You have to let go, and let in the fear.  For me, it happened  – not surprisingly – at the moment my doctor entered the exam room.  My doctor’s job is to keep me healthy physically, not to tend to my emotional needs, so I did my standard routine of nodding and “OK-ing” as she went through her spiel, including telling me that she’d referred me for a CT scan.  As I listened, dutifully, distractedly, the terror rose in my chest like a tidal wave.  I kept fighting to beat it back, but once my feet were up and the magnifying lenses were trained between my legs, all the ujjayi breath in the world wasn’t going to help me.

Now doesn't that look like fun?

The physical discomfort of the scope may have been the last straw; my breath caught, and the tears started coming.  The same nurse who has always hovered silently during my regular pelvic exams – while my doctor and I engage in idle chatter – reached over and grabbed my hand.  My doctor muttered instructions as she continued with the scope; I continued to cry as quietly as I could, hanging on to the nurse’s hand.  At one point, I did hear my doctor say, “Well, I don’t see anything…everything looks normal.”  But those words of comfort seemed too late, too little, and too remote.  I was miles away, deep in my fear.  And in the grip of that fear, cancer was back.

When the procedure was over, tears still streamed down my face.  I sat up at the end of the exam table, and the nurse handed me tissues.  My doctor’s eyes were level with my own.  She may have touched my shoulder.  She repeated that there were no visible signs of abnormalities during the colposcopy, and explained, matter-of-factly, that it would take about a week for the biopsy results to come back.  She also told me that she wanted me to return in three months, rather than the usual six, for a repeat Pap test.  That news, almost more than anything that had come before, made me feel I’d lost my fight.  Suddenly it seemed that the state of blissful but controlled denial in which I’d dwelt since entering remission four years ago had come to and end.  Once again, I was a cancer patient.

I don’t even remember my doctor leaving the room.  I was left with the nurse, who asked if I was off from work for the day.  I sputtered something about how I’d recently left my job to be with my son, and for some reason felt compelled to explain that we’d adopted a baby in January.  In that moment, nothing made sense.  How could I, with a black hole where my reproductive organs were supposed to be, have a child?  How could I, the ticking cancer time bomb, be a parent to my son?

As my mind reeled, the nurse handed me a maxi-pad (when was the last time I’d used one of those?) and told me to bring pictures of Earl the next time I came in.

In the familiar cold of the hospital bathroom – where so much psychic heavy lifting had occurred for me over the years – I fumbled with my contact lens that had washed out of my eye as I cried.  I stuffed the drape sheet into the trash and put on my skirt.   Thoughts of my husband and son gathered around the edges of my rattled mind.  I had to pull it together.  I took some deep breaths, and told myself, “It’s time to get back to your strength.”

Mercifully, I waited only 24 hours for my biopsy results.  As Earl and I drove home from our mom-baby yoga class yesterday, my phone rang.  The bright sunlight streaming through the windshield kept me from seeing the incoming number.  I picked it up, and heard the voice of an unfamiliar doctor from my primary care office.  He explained that he’d received the biopsy result from Dr. Chu’s exam, and everything was normal.  He’d thought I’d want to know.

I pulled over to finish the conversation.  The doctor reviewed the plan for the CT scan, and asked if there was anything else he could do for me.  I thanked him profusely for sharing the news, and hung up.  The world seemed instantly brighter.  My heart literally felt like it was lifting out of my chest, toward the sun.  “Earl,” I said, “let’s go celebrate.”

Breathing again, feeling hope and optimism return to their place of centrality, I was able to appreciate how truly terrified I had been.  Beneath all of the effort, the diligent fight to remain on an even-keel, there’d been a steady drumbeat of morbid thoughts, telling me that this illusion of health and wellness was just that – a mirage, and it was over.  I would never escape cancer.

There, perhaps, is the hardest lesson from this, my first post-treatment health scare.  Fate has dealt me wonky genes, and if I want to live a long life, and be around to raise my son, I must accept that my reality is one of persistent screenings, scopes and scans.  The poking, the prodding, the occasional ambiguous – or perhaps not-so-ambiguous test result – is inevitable.  Such is my lot.

It remains to be seen if I will become any more adapt at holding it all – the bliss of being a mother to my incredible son, along side the fear of cancer returning and devouring this beautiful family we have finally created.  But I am determined to keep trying,

 

 

 

Posted in cancer, Family, medicine, running, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

the other shoe

We survivors possess many unique skills.  Chief among them may be our ability to consciously deny our persistent, nagging fear of The Other Shoe Dropping.  It’s essential, if we want to keep on living in any meaningful, joyful way.

Most people, at some point, likely entertain thoughts like this:  “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.  Might as well live for the moment.”

As survivors, the bus has come and gone.  We’ve been flattened.  We’re peeling ourselves off the pavement, clawing and scraping our way forward, but we’re constantly looking over our shoulders, if only on the sly.  We know that we have to keep moving, but fear fights to pull us back.

The specter of The Other Shoe Dropping, for me, becomes most vivid and terrifying in moments of profound bliss, usually apropos of nothing in particular.  Recently, though, the fear took on a specificity I haven’t felt since the moment of my original diagnosis nearly five years ago.

My six-month check-ups with my oncologist have become yawningly routine at this point.  Hello!  How are you?  You look fabulous.  I’m sorry: my hands are really cold. Little bit of pressure…a lot of pressure.  OK, you can sit up.  We’ll have your test results within two weeks.  Don’t forget to stop at the lab for your blood work on your way out.  See you in six months.

No muss, no fuss.  Invariably, within a few days, I get a call telling me that my CA125 is normal.  In another few days, I get another call telling me my PAP test is negative.  No matter how many times I get these calls, my heart always skips a bit when I see the hospital number on my phone, and a huge smile creeps across my face when I get the good news.

After my most recent check-up, at the end of June, the CA125 call came the very next day.  Undetectable; normal.  Words I never tire of hearing, and news I always happily share with my friends and family.

A week later, the second call came.  As usual, it was my oncologist’s nurse.  “Oh, hi,” she began, the same sunny tone as always present in her voice.  “So, your PAP test showed some low-grade dysplasia, and Dr. Chu wants you to come in for a colposcopy, which I know you’ve had before…”

My mind racing, I immediately interrupted her.  “Um, actually, no, I haven’t.”  I flashed back to the hysterical conversations I had with this same nurse during treatment, as I begged and pleaded with her to please have my doctor prescribe me something for my plummeting mood.  Something, please, to stop me from crying all day, every day.

“Oh well,” she continued.  “It’s just an office procedure…take some Motrin…the doctor wants to take a closer look…maybe a biopsy if she sees anything of concern.”

I was holding my son in my arms; when the phone rang, I was about to put him down for a nap.  As the nurse’s words rang through my head, my heart pounded.  All I wanted to do was cling to Earl, shut my eyes and ears to all of this noise, and go back to the place of bliss where I was the moment before the call came.

Rationally, I should have been able to recognize the “ho-hum” tone in the nurse’s voice.  Rationally, I should have been able to process the fact that my own sister has been dealing with a similar diagnosis on and off for several years, and is very much alive and well, happily raising her own child.  Rationally, I should have recognized that the condition discovered in my PAP test is in no way part of the profile of the genetic mutation that I carry.

Instead, panic slowly seeped in.  I went from “low-grade dysplasia” to my husband raising Earl as a single parent, with me dead in the ground, in a matter of seconds.  I lay Earl down on our bed, and gazed at him, smiling as always, but feeling all of the peace and contentment I have finally come to know as a parent melting away, being replaced with the return of cancer, and the sound of The Other Shoe Dropping.

I’m a parent now.  I cannot afford to stay for even a moment in this kind of hotbed of panic.  Get it together, Emily, I told myself.  I helped myself to a capsule of kava, and after speaking briefly to my husband (who took the news perfectly and appropriately in stride), contacted my sister.  She did a wonderful job of honoring my concern while also assuring me that everything would be fine.  She told me about the procedure, and her understanding of the findings.  Wisely, she urged me to call my doctor and ask to speak to her directly, to allay any lingering concerns.  I did just that, and it made all the difference.

The colposcopy is scheduled for the end of the month; in the mean time, we are about to celebrate the finalization of Earl’s adoption.  I’m running and doing yoga with religious zeal.  I’m stronger than ever, and happier than ever.  I cannot even measure the magnitude of the joy that now burns so brightly from the very core of my being.  I’ve survived the shock of getting my first-ever abnormal test results since completing my cancer treatment four years ago.  Now, it’s back to the essential work of staying present in the magic of this moment.

 

 

Posted in cancer, Family, Life After Cancer, medicine | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

burning doubt – lessons from a yoga mala

At 5:30 this morning, I offered up all of my doubt to the forces of balance and harmony in the universe.  Then, along with about 10 other women, I performed 108 sun salutations – a yoga mala to mark the Summer Solstice.  At the precise moment I was beginning to feel nagging doubt about recent huge changes and choices in my life, the yoga mala brought me to a place of ecstatic surrender, where the only thing guiding me was trust in myself and my own instincts.  Lesson learned.

108 of these: surya namaskar a

The best way, it seems, to shake off doubt is to challenge oneself in new and perhaps peculiar ways.  When I returned home this morning, sweaty and blissed-out, my husband asked, appropriately, “So you just did the same pose 108 times?”   I alluded to the flow of postures in the sun salutation, and then thought, well, there’s the rub.  It’s in The Flow.

Two weeks ago, I resigned from a job I’ve had for nearly nine years.  At first, I was elated.  I felt strong and clear-headed about my decision.  I’d been frustrated and discontented with my work for years, and had been longing for a change but felt paralyzed at the thought of trying to make something different happen in my professional life.  I was stuck, which for me is one of the worst feelings imaginable.

Then Earl arrived.  There is no better way than welcoming a child to precipitate change.  Like it or not, everything changes.  Sleep schedules, free time, attention spans, priorities: all of it.

It didn’t take long to realize that what I wanted more than anything was to be with Earl all the time, to devote myself completely to loving and nurturing him.  I didn’t want to give up my career as an attorney forever: just for now, like a sabbatical (oh, how I envy my sister her career in academia at times!)  In this moment, in these precious, fleeting early months of Earl’s life, what I want is to give myself over to this monumental love, this task of caring for this beautiful new being.

The realization came almost immediately after we brought Earl home.  Still, I fought it for months, pushing ahead with finding a childcare provider, while simultaneously moving my return to work date back as far as it could conceivably go.  (At the beginning, six months at home seemed like an eternity.  How quickly things change.)  I see now that I was struggling with my competing impulses – of wanting to be home with Earl full-time, and of wanting to preserve my sense of identity as a professional.  I always assumed that I’d be a “working mom,” (what a ridiculous phrase), so when it struck me that my heart was telling me otherwise, I felt a kind of tearing at my sense of self.

Once the decision to resign was made, I was resolute.  I talked to countless people about it, and never waivered in my certitude that I was doing the right thing – for myself, for Earl, for our whole little family.  (I cannot over-state the importance and benefit of having a fully supportive spouse.)  The day I strode into my office, copies of my resignation letter in hand, I was triumphant.  Few things have ever felt more right.

But somehow, last week, after the rush of finally doing this thing that I’d dreamed about for so long, and which promised to give me the freedom to fully devote myself to my son, doubt began to creep in.  I suddenly saw an endless stretch of days ahead, Earl and I lying with books and toys on our bed, laughing and babbling and snuggling together, with no end in sight.  Would I get bored?  Would Earl?  By choosing to leave my job and stay home with him, was I denying him the chance to socialize and interact with other children?  Would I end up smothering him with too much love and attention?  Was I making a bad choice based on my years of anger and sorrow about not being able to have a child, rather than on what is best for the child I finally do have?  Would he get sick of me before he even started pre-school?  Would I go slowly nuts, transforming from attorney to desperate housewife?

In these new days as a stay-at-home mom, I have a lot of time with my thoughts.  I have Earl, and the dog, and NPR, but there are long, quiet moments, when I find myself drifting, missing the rush and bustle of Center City (well, not when it’s 100 degrees), feeling adrift in my new role.  Doubting what I am doing.

But yesterday, things began to shift.  I started the day by sleeping through my 5 AM alarm for my 6 AM yoga class, which left me feeling disgruntled and annoyed.  Then I quickly remembered the Yoga Mala, and rushed to pre-register.  I recognized the backed-up, uncomfortable feeling that had been plaguing me for days, and sensed that 108 sun salutations might be just the ticket to getting unstuck.

Then, I started imagining the moment in the future when I will be ready to go back to work, and thought about the kind of environment I want for Earl when he’s ready to start socializing and learning in an out-of-home setting.  I did some research on childcare centers in our area, and found a few that are highly regarded and that look promising.  Awhile later, I stumbled across the latest blog entry from a beloved young cancer sister, which left me feeling so humbled and grateful, and reminded me of how inter-connected my life is with the lives of so many others – even when I feel like I am drifting on a suburban, air-conditioned island, alone with my infant son.

And this morning, at 4:30 AM, I woke with purpose.  It was time to do something daring, something just for myself, that would take me back to my center.  I was waking before dawn on the hottest, longest day of the year, to remind myself that anything is possible, and that my instincts are powerful.

The mala was, as promised, transformative and vigorous.  Halfway through our 108 sun salutations, I was drenched with sweat, my eyes stinging, my newly cropped hair hanging in my face as my headband slid off.  Halfway through, I felt my belly start to churn with hunger.  Not once, though, did I lose my focus.  Not once did I feel like I couldn’t make it to the end.  As we created more and more energy, I grew lighter, and more assured, and my doubt burned away.

I came home to my son and husband feeling completely right.

Posted in Family, Life After Cancer, Philadelphia, Work, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

this is why we write

Recently, a lovely young woman who just completed treatment for her advanced ovarian cancer told me that reading my blog was “the first time she felt hope.”  She offered these words so honestly, with such straight-forwardness; I was quite taken aback.  For years, I have tried to understand why I write, have tried to justify the self-indulgence.  Finally, I heard a reason.

When we face this monster, we need each other so desperately.

It’s now four years since I finished treatment for Stage III ovarian cancer.  June 11 was always a Big Day in our family – my dear husband’s birthday.  In 2008, the date took on an added significance, one that I felt profoundly in the years immediately following, but which seems to be growing more muted with time.  Perhaps because now, with my son, I have something to truly allow me to focus on the future, rather than feeling constantly caught up in the past, tripping up on the memories of my cancer experience.

Even while in the midst of treatment, as I flailed about, trying to process the fact that my husband and I would never have a biological child, I told the world firmly, “we will adopt!”  I just kept saying it (people would often ask about our family plans even as I was going through chemo, perhaps not realizing what a hot-button issue it was), in the hopes that declaring our intention would somehow make it true.  I was devastated and terrified, but at the same time was determined to just keep imagining that somehow, one day, this would happen, that we would build our family, even if not in the way we had originally planned.

Between the chemo and the steroids and all the other havoc being wreaked upon my body, it was easy to live in a fantasyland, to hurl myself into an imaginary future of babies and a full head of hair.  But it was just as easy to picture the world collapsing in on itself, and see myself disappearing into nothingness.  Most of the time, it felt like I was already halfway there, being steadily erased from my own life, until one day, there would be just a faint smudge, reminding the world that I used to exist.

Recovery seemed to go on forever, in a kind of horrific slow motion.  Time stopped.  During treatment, there are at least markers and milestones to let you know you are moving toward something.  Once it ended, it often felt as if the limbo would never end.  Life in the immediate aftermath of cancer is suspended animation.

We eventually came unstuck.  I can readily trace the beginning of the rebirth to my inaugural week with First Descents in Wyoming, a year after completing treatment.   (More on this in a later post.)  Without that lift, that assurance, that embrace, my husband and I might still be spinning our wheels.  I might still be toiling in a job that left me defeated and uninspired, waiting endlessly, at age 40, for the chance to be a parent, and then waking up one day to realize that I had let cancer win after all.

It’s almost three years now since Jackson – since donuts and mountaintops and dance parties – and the serenity, the stillness, the joy at my center is something that I actively take stock of and give thanks for each and every day.  The woman who scratched and clawed her way to the imaginary, illusory cancer finish line on June 11, 2008, could never have seen this moment, could honestly never have believed it would be possible to feel this strong, this grateful, and this alive.

Facing a future of unknowns is all any of us have.  Walking away from a decade of work in child welfare feels momentous, a little scary, but completely right.  I don’t exactly know what it means to “follow your bliss,” but I do know that becoming a mother, and feeling my heart filled to bursting with love for this little boy, has been the most powerful transformation I have ever undergone – and I’ve been through a few.  During the long days of my illness, everything was reduced to its barest essence, to the simple fact of trying to remain alive.  Today, what propels me forward is this overwhelming drive to give my child all of the love, energy and hope that I can muster.  I have been blessed with this improbable opportunity to be his mother, after all this pain, all this waiting, after nearly careering over the edge.  I owe it to myself and to him to do this with all of my heart.  The weight of my responsibility to him is ever-represent, and so bound up with the fact that he quite nearly never happened.

Yesterday, my aunt called.  She’s a fighter like no other I have ever known.  She carries the same genetic mutation that I do, and has been through multiple cancer diagnoses and countless surgeries to correct complications from her various treatments.  She’s recently come through yet another round of surgery, and as always, has battled like hell to keep up her strength and spirit.  She’s doing beautifully now, and in typical fashion had just come off the tennis court.  I feel like we are members of this terrible, amazing, secret society, sharing an understanding of adversity and resilience that is otherwise almost impossible to express.

We talked at length about Earl, and at one point I said, “Not a day goes by when I take this for granted.  I am grateful every moment for the chance we have been given to be parents, to raise this beautiful boy.”

It is true.  Every angry cry, every lonely moment, that led us to this place has made being here, finally, that much sweeter.

In the end, then, there is hope.  The road is long, uncertain, treacherous.  Some of us make the hairpin turns and live to tell the tale, and even one day realize our dreams.  Many of us do not.  But those who are still on this journey, who are wondering how to face the fear that hovers so close, need to hear our stories.  We may not realize it, but in telling them, we don’t just remind ourselves of what we have endured, we give someone else the courage they need to believe.  Our stories are hope.  We are living proof.

 

 

Posted in adoption, fellow fighters, First Descents, Life After Cancer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

no time to waste

Four years ago, during a heatwave not unlike the one we are now experiencing, I lay confined in the partially air-conditioned recesses of our rented home in Northern Liberties, hanging on to the edges of the life with which four months of cancer treatment had left me.  Reality was warped.  Between the heat and the ravages of chemo, everything was askew, half-melted.  I was skeletal, irrational, terrified, bald.

There was no way, from the depths of that despair, I could have foreseen the reality I now inhabit.  My husband and I are finally homeowners, and though we had to leave our beloved city for the quiet of the South Jersey suburbs in order to realize our dream, we now have a level of financial security that had previously eluded us.  My physical and emotional stamina are greater than at any time in my life before cancer.  And, most remarkably, we are parents.

Four years ago, during those steaming days in the city, when every step along the sidewalk or climb to our third-floor bedroom felt a Herculean task, I clutched desperately to the ghost of the child I would never bear.  It was a wound, a trauma, from which I felt certain I would never recover.  It seemed hopeless that we would ever build the family we always dreamed we would have.

Yet here we are.  Our son has proved more beautiful, hilarious and mesmerizing than we ever could have imagined.  He has lit up our lives and our hearts with a love so enormous, it still seems unreal at times.  The happiness  – true, soul-tickling happiness – is palpable.

Life immediately preceding Earl’s arrival was joyful, but not like this.  Something profound and fundamental has changed.  I want to be able to differentiate the essence of my connections to my child from those of new parents – whether biological or adoptive – who have not had cancer.  Not because these feelings of mine are better or stronger, but because they are pushing and pulling me in ways I could never have predicted, and because they are urging me to take hold of my life in an entirely new way.

I spent many years and many thousands of dollars being trained as an attorney.  I sat for the Pennsylvania bar exam three times before passing.  This profession did not come easily to me, as it does to some.  Through school, and through much of my career in practice, I have wrestled with its strictures and tedium.  Even before my cancer diagnosis almost five years ago, I entertained thoughts of leaving my job, if not the law profession entirely.  These feelings of ambivalence are not new.

But now, I am a mother.  Now, I have been given the extraordinary and almost implausible opportunity to raise a child – one who even at less than five months of age has shown us qualities and gifts that truly astound us.  Now, the ordeal of my past illness – and the specter of a new diagnosis – bring the meaning of my choices about continuing to labor at a job that leaves me drained and largely unfilled, while paying someone else to help raise my son – into stark relief.

The light in my heart that ignited the moment we met Earl has been burning fiercely, powerfully, over these past months.  I feel an invincibility, a purpose, a conviction that far eclipses even my proudest moments in my work as an attorney.  For over ten years, I have toiled in child welfare, trying to plug the bursting dam of social and economic inequity.  It is a tide that will never be stemmed, and it has left me poured out, and often hopeless.

Every new parent understands and struggles with the insane speed at which her child grows and changes, and every new parent most likely longs to spend as much time as possible with his child.  I don’t profess to be saying anything new, as it pertains to the universal dilemma of working parents.

But four years on from my last round of chemo, cancer’s legacy continues to reverberate with an intensity, and insistence, that I simply cannot ignore.  I have already lost months, if not years, of my own life, to cancer.  I do not know when it will strike again.  I do not know if I will be given the chance to raise my child to adulthood.  What I do know is that being a mother, raising Earl, is the most deeply gratifying and meaningful work I have ever undertaken, and I want to give my child every ounce of energy, every single moment of my attention, that I possibly can.

We all grasp, on some level, life’s fragility.  We all tell ourselves, intellectually, that we know we could go in an instant, and that we ought therefore to savor every second we have.  But having dwelt so long in the darkest fears of my own end, having watched myself nearly wither to extinction and then somehow, miraculously, be reborn, I cannot for an instant deny this truth.

I am a mother now.  There can no longer be half-measures.  I sit with my son each night before he goes to sleep, and rock him gently while his bedtime playlist soothes him.  I take his tiny perfect fingers in mine, and my heart fairly bursts with the wonder of it all.  Sometimes, the tears just flow.  In each of these moments, cancer is present.  The heartbreak it brought me will never, in a million years, be forgotten, or even repaired.  The shadow that it casts over my future cannot be ignored.

Each moment is precious.  Each one.  There is no time to waste.

 

 

 

 

Posted in adoption, Family, Life After Cancer, Philadelphia, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

lucky me?

Many weeks ago, as I walked the neighborhood with my new baby snuggled in his Moby wrap, a woman coming out of her car stopped us with a smile.  She peered in at Earl’s tiny face.

“What a beautiful baby,” she said, all sincerity.  She kept smiling as she walked toward her front door.  “Lucky you.”

Those words have been reverberating inside my head ever since.  Luck seems an especially strange concept now, as I consider how life has transformed since becoming a mother, and how that transformation is tied to my status as a cancer survivor.

What is luck?  What is fated? How does one incredible blessing – welcoming a child as beautiful and magical as ours – balance against the curse of what preceded his arrival, and the fear that more cancer may be lurking around the corner?

When I was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer, people would say, “You’re lucky they caught it so early,” when in fact “they” had not.  Even as my treatment progressed and my prognosis improved, it was difficult to understand how my situation could be construed as in any way fortunate.  In those long, dark months, it seemed my entire life had been exploded – any conception of a future, of living fully, was obliterated.

The months unfolded after treatment finished; once the paralyzing depression was brought under control, once joy was rediscovered, and once I saw what was happening to my friends and acquaintances with cancer, the reality of my good fortune slowly asserted itself.  People my age were dying – lots of them.  My genes are wonky, and I’ll be getting colonoscopies like clockwork for the rest of my days (however many of them there are), but once I emerged from the post-treatment darkness, I understood with clarity that this was not my time.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the death of my friend Sarah Feather, after a prolonged fight with ovarian cancer.  She left two beautiful boys and a devoted husband – not to mention countless friends and relatives.  She was blessed with love beyond measure; for whatever cruel reasons, her good fortune did not extend to her cancer struggle.

Recently, I’ve come into come contact with several other young women battling advanced gynecologic cancers.  I’ve listened to their stories, and shared my own.  From this place, as an ecstatic mother of a beautiful boy, living fully and happily, it feels strange – but necessary – to harken back to the days four years ago when the darkness was all-consuming, when fear ruled the day.  I want to give these women hope, but their fortunes remain unknown.  There is nothing I can do to change that.  As the words tumble forth, as I try to offer consolation, I feel my hands are tied.

As we waited to adopt our son, blind faith was the order of the day.  Any sense of control was illusory.  We turned our trust over to our agency, and hoped that somehow our story, our wait, would connect with a mother looking for the right family for her child.

What has happened for us, becoming parents to Earl, is beyond miraculous.  Was it luck, or something larger?  Did the Fates award us extra credit for having endured cancer, and bless us with a magical baby?  Almost everyone who meets our child remarks on his extraordinary beauty, the intangible aura that surrounds him, the brightness in his eyes.  Cancer deprived us of the chance to make our own child.  Perhaps, then, we’ve been given the chance to love and raise this little boy, as some kind of cosmic balancing of the scales.

Instead of being angry about the toll that cancer has exacted on so many young people and their families (which I usually am), I prefer in this moment to be naïve, and hope that everyone who has confronted the nightmare of cancer will one day know such a reversal of fortune, and be given a second chance to live the life they have long dreamed.

 

Posted in adoption, fellow fighters, Life After Cancer | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

invisible touch

In an unexpected twist of fate, the presence of these writings in the public space of the Internet has revealed deep and difficult connections between my status as a cancer survivor and an adoptive mother.  I owe this in large part to encountering a new voice whose intelligence and insight confirm that some of the most remarkable people are touched by this wretched disease.  It seems a cruel cosmic joke.

My new friend raises the issue of challenges unique to parenting during and after cancer, and decries the lack of resources available to those of us who inhabit this peculiar space.  Her situation differs from mine in that she was just recently diagnosed during the caesarian birth of her second child, and is now faced with raising two children while undergoing rigorous treatment and recovering from major surgery.  Still, even though I am four years out from diagnosis and am now happily parenting my adopted son while feeling fit and strong, I feel that the menacing legacy of my cancer (and the prospect of a new diagnosis down the road, thanks to my HNPCC mutation) connect me to this stranger.  Facing cancer changes everything, including our status as parents.

Invisible Sleeping Woman, Salvador Dali, 1930.

Yesterday, writing to my friend, I found myself stuck on the dual invisibility I now claim, as a cancer survivor and an adoptive parent.  During our wait, Mike and I tended to imagine our eventual child being African-American, in which case the fact of his or her adopted status would have been plain to the world.  We expected to be a conspicuous adoptive family from the very first moment.

Our son, though of mixed racial background, in his first weeks has been identified as “white” on more than one occasion, a fact which has served to mask his adopted status, and has given rise to at least one moment that drew the invisibility of both his story and mine into stark focus.

Earlier this week, we were out at a local coffee shop.  While there, a nosy, chatty woman inserted herself into our space, and asked how old Earl was.  When I said, “5 weeks,” she replied immediately, “You look great.  I guess you just bounced right back.”

I smiled weakly and didn’t respond.  I wanted to say, “Actually, I have no uterus or ovaries, and my son is adopted.  Not that it’s any of your damn business.”

On numerous occasions since I stopped “looking” sick, I have wondered how my cancer history is masked.  I have reflected on the assumptions people make about my health based on my appearance.  It’s the inevitable flip-side, I suppose, of having spent so much time with the fact of my cancer written on my body for all the world to see.  Now the invisibility of Earl’s adopted status is heaped upon the invisibility of my cancer history, and I am left in moments like the one I just described feeling like the person I am doesn’t fit into anyone’s world view but my own.

The queasiness I felt when confronted with a stranger’s assumption that I had given birth to my child (which of course implicates my status as an infertile cancer survivor) may explain why I have balked at the notion of suddenly being part of the “mommy club.”  I cannot suddenly relate to people by virtue of our shared status as mothers; I came to this place along a tortured and difficult road, and cancer looms large in my history and will always be a part of my life as I undergo regular screenings and surveillance.  The unbridled joy of being a new parent is finally mine, but it is laced with an inarticulable poignancy I am still struggling to define.

 

Posted in adoption, fellow fighters, Infertility, Life After Cancer | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

mitt romney steals my baby or, adoption anxiety

My sister-in-law was in for a quick visit this weekend.  It was fabulous to see her and finally be able to share parenting stories.  For the past eight years, we have watched her raise her own children, always feeling a bit like outsiders looking in.  Now we’re all part of the same club.

The afternoon she arrived, she asked me where things stand legally with our adoption process.  I explained that while our son’s birth mother has irrevocably terminated her parental rights, there is an unknown birth father out there, and that his rights can’t be terminated for another two months.  She asked, appropriately enough, if that was causing me anxiety.

“No,” I said firmly.  “There’s an infinitesimal chance that he would ever find this baby, and even less of a chance that he’d have any interest in parenting him.”

“That’s good,” she responded.  “Because that would be a really long time to have that kind of uncertainty and anxiety hanging over you.”

Flash forward to this morning, when I woke from a vivid dream that featured the emergence of our son’s biological grandparents who (quite unrealistically) somehow managed to interfere with his placement and have him put in their care.  The punch line is that the grandparents turned out to be Mitt and Anne Romney (apparently I am as afraid of the Romneys stealing our country as I am of our son’s biological family stealing him from us), but in spite of the humorous twist, the dream was terrifying.  I cried uncontrollably as my son was handed over to this menacing Guy Smiley.

Mitt Romney will never, ever touch my baby

Once I had coffee in hand, I shared my dream on Twitter – my instant therapy and way of acknowledging the fears manifested in my dreams while also trying to quickly put them behind me.

Leave it to one of my fellow adoptive parent friends to call me on the carpet, pointing out in her inimitable way that perhaps my sub-conscious mind is working over-time and I’d be well-served to spend a few waking moments trying to process my anxiety.

So here I am, not entirely sure what I should be doing, other than acknowledging openly to the universe that I am apparently more worried than I realized about something happening to disrupt our adoption, about some unseen hand sweeping in to snatch our son from our arms.

There is undeniable fragility in our circumstance, but isn’t it simply of a flavor unique to being a new adoptive parent?  There are a thousand other ways in which one’s status as a new parent can be threatened.  Yesterday, a woman reached out to me on this blog, and shared her recent diagnosis with advanced ovarian cancer detected during the caesarian birth of her child.  I look back to the moment of my own diagnosis, and the paralyzing fear that gripped me.  I try to imagine that moment coupled with the one I am in now, as a rapt new parent; the result is a truly incomprehensible cognitive and emotional dissonance.  I think of the woman currently caught in the confluence of these earth-shattering emotions, and I want to scream and cry for her.  But I also want to believe that she will endure them, and emerge on the other side as a super-human goddess of unrivalled strength and wisdom, someone who will light the way for the rest of us mere mortals.

I mention this woman’s situation not to minimize the significance of my own anxiety, but rather to recognize the reality that we are all hanging in a kind of delicate balance, whether as new adoptive parents, cancer patients, or something else entirely.  The question is simply how to muster the grace needed to maintain that balance, how to dance with love and hope in our hearts while embracing the fears that lurk unseen.

 

 

 

 

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a complicated miracle: parents at last

Yesterday, a young woman reached out to me on this neglected blog, and shared a glimpse of her own cancer journey.  She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last fall at age 25, and is currently battling the post-treatment demons that those of us who have endured surgery, chemo and radiation know only too well.  Her words hit me hard, fairly knocking me right out of the blissed-out delirium that has engulfed me since our son, Earl, came into our lives three weeks ago.

Yes: our son.  Our long, tumultuous path to parenthood has finally led us to our child.  We are ecstatic.  But as with most things since cancer, our joy has a unique flavor.

As I read this young woman’s words, I was suddenly no longer a euphoric new parent, holding my beautiful child, singing to him and kissing him all day long.  Instead, I was back in the hospital, plugged in and drugged out, terrified.  I was alone and heartbroken, lost in the daze of my own trauma, months and months after I was declared cancer-free.  With a few words from a stranger, it all came flooding back.

That’s when I knew it was time to start writing about being a parent whose child came to her through adoption and cancer – a mysterious one-two punch that makes me feel like I’m coloring outside the lines of these two distinct communities that I now claim.

It’s been three weeks since I became a mother.  I’m home all day; Earl is asleep most of the time; perfect conditions for writing and reflecting.  But I’ve been stuck.

On what?

I’ve been writing for years about the trials of Life After Cancer, and more recently, about our path to parenthood.  The waiting, the uncertainty, the residual resentment at my wretched disease for making us go through this invasive, unfair process – waiting for some anonymous human being to select us to raise her child.  All the while, I’ve been surrounded by pregnant friends and coworkers.  It’s enough to drive anyone mad.  What perfect fodder, really, for a writer.

So what’s a cancer blogger to do when her dream finally comes true?  The call comes; the chaos begins.  Our baby is coming!  At last!

I could write about the moment when Mike and I first met Earl, two hours after he was born.  I could describe how we walked into the nursery, led by the kind-hearted head nurse, who instinctively folded me in her arms when I began sobbing hysterically as I looked down at his perfect, squirming little body.  I could tell you how the room spun – not unlike the way it did when I first met with my oncologist and she told me about the disease ravaging my reproductive organs.  I could try to explain how for days it felt like my body wouldn’t stop shaking, how every time I gazed at Earl’s perfectly gorgeous face, the tears would spontaneously flow.

But what would that do?  Everyone knows about “the miracle of birth;” every new parent could tell stories about the first time they saw their child, how in love and overwhelmed they felt from that very first moment.

But this feels different, like something more complicated.  Cancer makes our miracle different.

We’ve spent the past year with our adoption agency in a cohort of other young couples, most who have struggled with infertility.  Other than a few same-sex couples, infertility has been the underlying theme motivating these hopeful parents through the adoption process.  While it’s true that I too am infertile, it’s cancer that made me that way.  It’s because of cancer’s affront to my body that I am now Earl’s mother.

Please don’t mistake me for a cancer Pollyanna:  oh, it’s been such a blessing!  My life has changed so much for the better!  I wouldn’t trade my cancer experience for anything!   I am not that person.

What I am is an adoptive parent whose journey to parenthood has been profoundly shaped by the disease that almost killed me.  For that reason, I never want to lose sight of the nightmare that preceded this dream come true.

 

Posted in adoption, fellow fighters, Infertility, Life After Cancer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment