I got the job back in 2000. Before that, it was connections or good timing or experience that always closed the deal. But for this job, I’m crediting the winning combination of perseverance and a proclivity for gymnastics. Being away from home and in that fresh Brevard mountain air didn’t hurt, either. I’d been at this job search for six months with no luck, so I figured what could it hurt to throw a little creativity and physics at the situation? After twenty-four plus weeks, this baby making project had lost any spontaneity you’d typically associate with such an endeavor. But with an eye on the prize and my husband in the bathroom, I slipped into a headstand, held up by the wall behind the bed’s headboard in this single room North Carolina cottage.
I wanted to pull off this maneuver without an audience because it would appear odd if I were to suddenly break into a headstand after an enjoyable dinner followed by what we’d hoped were well-timed baby efforts. Who does this when they’re relaxed and nearly lulled into a delicious sleep? Shall we go ahead and add in a cartwheel or roundoff for good measure while we’re at it? Bring on the balance beam, too! The wall held me up, and with blood rushing to my head, I hoped gravity would work its magic as I listened for the bathroom door handle to turn at which point the plan was I’d roll back out and slide under the covers, with no one the wiser.
Fast forward forty or so weeks and as it turns out, I did get that job, and a second similar one a few years later (requiring travel to coastal Alabama, but with no headstands this go round). It’s been 23 years now, and even though they never did write me a job description or discuss compensation, I did score a job title, which is a nifty palindrome too. They call me Mom.
I realize there have been scores of moms doing this job for all of time, but my getting to join this esteemed club still feels new and original and particularly tailored to my strengths, yet it’s humbling too, illuminating my many faults the role willingly dredges up. It’s hard to describe, but you can’t say the days aren’t interesting. Every day you get to improvise or run a 10K or both, and you can’t ever predict how it’ll go. And then there are the two sweet humans in your life you helped make and who the hospital let you take home. You try to hold on to their sweetness, especially when things sometimes turn sour, and remind yourself that you’re playing the long game. Other days you lean into it all and feel you are exactly where you belong and marvel at your great luck. You get eighteen years to hold on to them and then you get to let them go, these boys who in a blink have become men. These two are my greatest triumph and treasure.
Never has there been a role with so many others sharing your job description. With no formal training, we are all winging it and failing and succeeding every day–but isn’t that what they call living? This boatload of parental colleagues you’ve met along the way lets you compare notes and share the ride and, along with your children, you learn and laugh together, and roll along through the days unaware of the lifelong friends you’re making.
Time snails along and then races forward, and these children grow taller than you, take the wheel of your car, eat you out of house and home, and then move out of that home. But the story doesn’t end here. The book continues and you become a little less author and a little more reader, and having set the stage for a fascinating plot, you now reap the rewards of settling into the story in a comfy chair with a cup of tea. You are now a reader in your children’s chapters, but still very much the author of your own. With a quieter house and a little more time, you’re in that sweet spot between diapers and Depends, those middle years where the road has opened back up and new choices appear.
You look down at your hands, now marked by wrinkled knuckles, and you see your life so far, and these hands that have been attached to you this whole time, which have moved you along monkey bars, enabled your headstands, and held your babies, they hold it all–all the stories, all the struggles, all the work, and all the wins. And inside you are the little girl, the mother, and the grown woman, each still with places to go.
I’ve gotten back into the workplace for several months now and it’s opened my eyes to how much has changed, how much I’ve changed, and how much more there is to see ahead. Here are some highlights.
There are no stupid questions. Seems everyone’s computer screen in the orientation room was displayed as full screen, but mine was minimized and with a mess of distracting icons crowding the space. Noticing my lag, a helper walked over, “You might want to make your window full screen, ma’am.” I’ve gotten used to this elder etiquette lobbed my way, but this and at orientation no less made me cringe. Is it that obvious? Because inside I’m nowhere near fifty-nine. Accustomed to my Mac’s screen, I’d hesitated a bit. Ahh, yes. Full screen. Ok, this ma’am is all caught up. Since then, the IT folks have helped me with anything else that has cropped up and kept me ticking along beautifully.
You DO have something to wear. Up at zero dark hundred to draw a bath–well before my shamrock plant has even thought of opening–you find your makeup bag so you can sketch some semblance of awake onto your face, and cobble together whatever might be whispering business casual in the hall armoire. Then it’s out the door to see if you can travel six miles in under 30 minutes. Some things haven’t changed: Atlanta still bleeds traffic.
Go to bed! The first few days after work found me lying prone on the bed in my son’s empty room for several hours surrounded by cats, bored from coexisting in silence all day, hovering and hopeful that I would infuse the place with some energy. Sorry kitties, the tank’s empty. On any given evening, if you were to do a midnight drive by, you’d likely find our house ablaze in lights, very likely the only one on the street like this, the one with no sense. What are we doing except feeding fatigue? I actually fell asleep at a stoplight on my way home the other day. It wasn’t for so long that someone had to honk to wake me, but still, my eyelids closed for a pregnant pause, and for a second, I forgot where I was. I am finally learning that sleep is no longer some out of reach luxury. You’ve got a job to do, girlfriend. Get some sleep.
Put down the cookies. Always simmering on the back burner, my sweet tooth has flared up again and I broke down and bought some Oreo thins which I’d planned to use in the crust of a raspberry pie I wanted to make. But until pie making commences, I’ve been snacking on them. The other day, sated with cookies, I pulled the familiar, I’ll just lie down for a second on my bed routine, this time in my room. I was curled up for a most delicious catnap when I woke with a startle. It seems a little stream of drool had trickled out of the side of my mouth and onto my cream-colored bedspread. Not your run of the mill translucent drool, this was Oreo cookie drool. Lovely. Ok, people, nap time is over. There’s a bedspread to clean.
Structure is underrated. I’ve started and run my own business before, and I remember that you wear a lot of hats. Most days you’re Fred Flintstone propelling your own car with your own legs, also focusing on where you’re headed, finding clients, getting gas, repairing equipment, and orchestrating and paying for it all. In a larger work environment, engines are built into the cars so you can focus on all the rest. It’s that same feeling after someone took the first shower and you start yours when the water is already hot. You’re free to lather, shampoo, exfoliate, shave or even sing, but you don’t have to wait on the water to get hot or wrestle with the mechanics of getting it out of the showerhead in the first place.
The plumbing’s changed. Here, we boy moms consistently find sparkling clean toilet seats in the delightfully DOWN position nestled behind blonde wood louvered doors which extend to the floor. These toilettes it seems doubles as bidets. If you sit a little too long emptying that bladder, the sensors assume you’re all done and kick in and present you with a startling complimentary splash. Similar to the carwash you get if you fill your tank, here you get the freebie if you are too leisurely emptying yours. Also, there’s piped in music, which isn’t awful. Think tea at the Ritz versus Muzak.
People need people. Working alongside people together yet separate inside a thick cloud of silence leaves me feeling isolated and tends to sap any creativity and energy I brought with me. For me, collaboration and connection, even in tiny doses, is the missing link. I have discovered a non-negotiable absolute for my environment if I’m to pursue something more regular. I only know this because of what happened Monday, which was shaping up to be a fine, full day until I got into an impromptu chat with two colleagues, also recently back in the workforce. We briefly compared notes on work challenges and family and whatever else needed to spill out into the open in that moment, and then got back to our respective afternoons. The rest of the day rolled along pleasant and productive enough, yet something had shifted. I felt better about everything, in large part due to this wonderful newfound sense of belonging as if I were in the right place after all, and everything made sense–the work, the people, me. I’ve worked plenty of places, but I’ve yet to discover an easier, more perfectly controlled experiment which speaks volumes about myself. I need to interact with people, if only for a few minutes each day, if I’m going to be happy.
Life is short. Get the frames. As most nearsighted 50 somethings have learned, the distance from book to computer screen to farther away requires different strength lenses. I’ve avoided getting progressives because I’ve heard so many whine that you must retrain your brain to look up then down and here and there, and they’ve all sounded so unhappy and this nuisance has left them full of regret. As a result, I’ve spent a decade too long flipping my glasses up to read and putting them back down to see far away, yet never finding that middle distance clarity you need to see a computer. Until now, and I will add I am in love with my new frames.
If you don’t get help here, please get help somewhere. This subhead is from an ad years ago for a drug treatment center in Atlanta. The idea is if you don’t come to our institution for help, get help somewhere. This instruction holds true for most things, including one’s career. At this stage of my life, I am appreciating how there needs to be a place outside your four walls where you can go and think clearly and solve problems and contribute, and cogitate on things that matter, things outside of your own life. You’ve invested years in your family and your home and all the trimmings, but there is still more out there, more to understand, invest in, contribute to. Yourself included. And if you haven’t yet found it, keep looking.
Not sure what’s ahead, but this sure feels like a start, and I’m grateful.
After this week’s shitshow, social media is saturated with grim statistics reminding us yet again that our country is unique in the worst of ways. “The U.S. is the only country among its peers that has seen a substantial increase in the rate of child firearm deaths in the last two decades (42%). All comparably large and wealthy countries have seen child firearm deaths fall since 2000. These peer nations had an average child firearm death rate of 0.5 per 100,000 children in the year 2000, falling 56% to 0.3 per 100,000 children in 2019. The U.S. numbers keep moving in the wrong direction.” In fact, for 2020, the average child firearm death rate in the U.S. per 100,000 children was 5.6, a whopping 1800% more than peer nations.
This week Nashville got its turn. A head of the school, a pastor’s daughter, and four other irreplaceable souls, half of them children, all gone in a blink. We don’t know what to say, but still, we collectively murmur, hug your loved ones, we need to come together on gun control, sending you thoughts and prayers. It’s one thing to get a deadly disease, fight like hell and still die from it, or perish in a car collision, or drown. It’s another to be at your school on an otherwise ordinary Monday morning and not get to see another day. Why? Because another troubled individual was having another bad day and reached, in this case, her boiling point. After the fact, as is often the case, people come forward and admit that the shooter did, as it turns out, seem odd, was troubled, had made threats, had recently purchased an unusual quantity of firearms, etc., but we never could have predicted this. Or could we?
As a parent I can’t imagine–though with these climbing grim statistics every parent of school aged children now must—running through that school parking lot desperate for answers, knowing that future grieving parents are among you and that parent could very well turn out to be you. Or the scene at the nearby church where children, school staff and law enforcement gathered to sort out the mess they now found themselves in and connect children with their families. I imagine that church will stand out as a clear memory, at least for the adults in that room, of being a safe haven in the most horrible of horror shows.
One child was about to turn nine, and with two children of my own, I well remember the buzz of the planning and excitement, the friends we’d invite, gifts I’d wrap, singing Happy Birthday to You and presenting a made-from-scratch cake blazing with candles. The best part was seeing the shining wondrous joy stretched across my sons’ faces. These grieving parents must now go forth carrying only memories of past birthdays, and one set of parents also gets to grieve their child’s ninth birthday celebration that wasn’t. It’s all so unnatural, this deadly interruption, and it makes me wonder how many lawmakers who refuse to ban the purchase of semi-automatic weapons have lost their own loved ones in a similarly horrific scene. I have to think very few because it’s unfathomable to have this horror visit your own family, but yet you’d sign up for more?
When I look into the kind faces of the people who perished plastered on my tv screen, I see entire networks of colleagues, friends, neighbors and families, all bearing the weight of this week’s terror, a weight that will remain long after the last funeral. Despite locked doors and emergency protocol, the rock paper scissors game has semi-automatic weapons winning every time. It took mere seconds to shatter the locked entry, seconds for shards of glass to rain down like the endless tears that would soon follow.
Some say it’s a mental health problem and we need to do more. Others say it’s not guns that kill, but people. However you explain it, the statistics continue and they’re grim. As of late March, the Gun Violence Archive has counted 130 mass shootings in the United States this year, and we’re not even a quarter into the year.
We won’t forget the image of the young girl on the bus, her little palm pressed into the window, and the adult-sized fear and sadness hijacking her innocent face. No one deserves this kind of day, but it’s clear this isn’t the last of them. Those communities who have yet to be hit can’t imagine they’ll be up next, but after Monday’s terror, it feels inevitable.
So many countries have wised up and been better for it. Twenty-six years ago, a gunman entered Dunblane Primary School in Scotland, killing 16 kids and a teacher. The UK govt responded by enacting tight gun control legislation. In the 9400+ days since, there have been a total of 0 school shootings in the UK. In our own schools, the curriculum needs to drastically change, move away from these deadly lessons, and foster an environment where our children, educators and staff can safely teach, learn and thrive.
Can you imagine?
Imagine there’s no heaven It’s easy if you try No hell below us Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people Livin’ for today Ah
Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion, too
Imagine all the people Livin’ life in peace You
You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only one I hope someday you’ll join us And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can No need for greed or hunger A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people Sharing all the world You
You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only one I hope someday you’ll join us And the world will live as one
Aren’t we done here? I’m one thousand one hundred ninety-eight days post lumpectomy (believe me, you’d count too), and by the looks of things I’m breezing along—religiously scheduling and attending annual mammograms and scans, daily popping my treatment pill, going to New York and whining, wining and dining with my breast friends (aka breasties), and even raising money on a cancer walk. By all accounts, I am evolving into an unremarkable cancer patient. Scratch that. Survivor. I’ve done the rose smelling, looking forward to things, looking back trying to flatten the bumpy reality of this ride, and done my damnedest to remove the cancer distraction, survive, and get back to the work of evolving.
I’m doing all the things. Taking the daily ten-year pill (Anastrazole) to block estrogen from feeding any mf-ers who dare sidle back up to the table for a meal. The twice a year insanely expensive (thank God for insurance) Prolia injections, which for half the year halt my bone sloughing activities so I can climb out of osteoporosis, which I can thank aforementioned ten-year pill for. So far my spine has graduated into osteopenia and hopefully the hips will study hard and make the grade too. And then there are those mammograms we women all loathe, but the highly uncomfortable smush we must enlist.
A friend who also didn’t sign up for this sistership remarked about the surprising fear you get when there is something new. You spiral all over again hyperventilating over endless frantic Google searches. Some fear is healthy and helpful because it enables you to react quickly if you need to (fight or flight) but being an expert anxious overthinker who can slide into panic mode on a moment’s notice is not.
Take Tuesday, for example. I’d been noticing some swelling on my left side where all the hell had broken loose in late 2019, and it seemed the asymmetry was subtly increasing. I don’t need symmetry, but I do need consistency. Once cancer enters the scene, change, the only constant, is above all not welcome. Since my annual MRI was the next day, I slipped into an exceptionally nasty rabbit hole, you know the one where you start bawling those sad guttural notes and realize you won’t have the chance to finish several important projects you finally had the guts to start, but which you’ve only just begun. You’ve drifted back to that island alone, back on the torn raft, and once again you can’t bring yourself to glance back at the shore where you’ve left everyone going about their enviable ordinary lives which, from your vantage point, look sparkly, exceptional even.
You replay all your decisions. Why didn’t I just get a double mastectomy and be rid of this troublesome attention-seeking tissue, which per my doctor wasn’t a better option since lumpectomy+radiation = mastectomy when it comes to outcomes. You lament all the things you never stepped up to do because you let self-doubt win out. You won’t get to see that beautiful blue paint you picked out for the house you’re renovating, whose renovation has been at a standstill for three months, or live to see the day the new upstairs toilet is plumbed down the hall from your bedroom so you can stop sleepwalking the 22 stairs down to the bathroom in the far corner of the house. Your empathetic cat jumps on your lap and looks into your teary eyes trying his best to calm you, stretching his 16-lb body over your chest, his sweet, adoring attempt at a hug. Bo, my lovebug. You appreciate it, but it’s still your problem and yours alone. That’s the lone journey that is cancer.
I broke down to my breast friends in a sad teary video unlike any I’ve left. Historically I’ve been the optimistic one, you could say annoyingly cheerful even, and letting this other woman run amok and star in her own video was a risk I was willing to take. Someone needed to join me on this ride back out to sea. The response came in sweet videos from these ladies who get it.
The MRI was as they always are. Expensive, a lesson in patience and stillness, and as always, I can’t understand why those socks they give you with your gown aren’t donated to people who could use a pair of socks, any pair especially these which are warm and have treads. I’ve asked and they’re thrown away. Maybe I will live long enough to spearhead a hospital sock campaign to gather them all up and distribute them to the sockless? Each time I request classical music to accompany the MRI’s knocking/phone off the hook/discotheque soundtrack, and because so far it’s worked, why switch music and tempt fate? Afterward the technician said they usually read them quickly, so I figured maybe end of day I’d hear something.
The nurse practitioner I’d called at my breast surgeon’s office returned my call and they could see me in a few hours at 1pm. I wanted them to feel firsthand this swollen asymmetry and maybe an ultrasound would show something an MRI couldn’t? I stopped to pick up coffee and ran into a friend, the same one who’s walked to radiation with me a few times and who’s mostly up to speed on things. Her simple, “How are you?” brought forth from me an abbreviated non-teary-eyed version of my plight, that I was sandwiching an errand between scan appointments. It all felt rather healthy, despite the great unknown I still faced, and thankfully the conversation moved on to lots of other areas like kids, work, house renovation.
“Your tissue is folding around your scars and pulling up causing the puffiness. See where this is?” the nurse practitioner asked. I don’t see anything unusual here.” The tears, thousands of which were still collected behind my eyes from the day before, broke free and this poor woman had unwittingly found herself in a scene. I started hugging her and it was clear she was not a big hugger, but with no choice, did it anyway. I must have hugged her two more times groveling with my, “You don’t understand how crazy this makes me” excuse for carrying on. She added that radiation is the gift that keeps on giving, resulting in dramatic tissue changes that don’t necessarily settle over time. A few more hopeful nods from her and she got the hell out of dodge, and I got dressed, but not before leaving my breasties a video.
With mask pulled off my face to reveal the full red puffiness of my tear-stained checks, I left an update to the tune of “The nurse practitioner thinks it’s okay and the ultrasound looks normal; it’s just my tissue is pulled and puffed up.” Released from prison, I moved quickly through the elevators and parking deck, reaching my husband with my get out of jail card news and then left my sister a voicemail, which was barely audible through the endless supply of tears I’m now able to produce on command. The breast friends fired back multiple videos of relief which gave me a place to land. It’s much more fun to skip out of jail if you’ve got folks cheering on your escape since they too have been incarcerated.
In her video, one of my friends mentioned how fear of recurrence for her is almost worse than the actual initial diagnosis, which I wholeheartedly agree with. We now know too much and with this new knowledge, our mind is an even far more dangerous place to be. She shared the analogy she’d read about (https://at.tumblr.com/somehedgehog/cancer-the-mountain-lion-in-your-fridge/1d3nsa19vdc0) of having had cancer being compared to having a mountain lion in your fridge. It’s there. You can hide it. You can live with it because it’s in the fringe, but sometimes you open it and are reminded that it’s always going to be there.
Home to find an email with MyChart MRI breast w/ and w/o contrast results somewhat inconclusive:
Finding 1: Area in the left breast appears benign. Finding 2: Area in the left breast requires additional evaluation. Additional mammographic images are recommended. A possible ultrasound may be warranted following the mammographic views. Recommend diagnostic evaluation with mammogram and possible ultrasound for left breast swelling.
More calls to doctor to see what they make of MRI and ultrasound findings when seen together, and the surgeon suggested a diagnostic mammogram. When pressed, the PA admitted additional evaluation can result when the patient is voicing a new complaint, aka me, and they take it seriously. I’m glad I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut because I want that comfy place with more eyes on me. I want my file to be stamped “free to go” until the next crisis, ahem scan, happens.
On March 8, I’ll be back at the cancer center for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, and I’ll get same-day results, which my PA expects will be fine. After that, I will begin weekly breast lymphatic massage therapy, a healthy drive up to Roswell where whomever is assigned my high maintenance breast will manually redistribute the tissue and I’ll be more comfortable. Whatever it takes, sign me up.
It’s the eve of my first son’s 23rd birthday, and I am flooded back to that night when labor began and I crossed that threshold into becoming a mother. It would be another year after that when I would write this essay, but today, rereading these memories, I love that they’re still crystal clear. Seems you just wing it when you begin this parenting adventure, and every day as you step up to and into new challenges, you surprise yourself by how much you’re capable of and how far you’ve come. Forgive the cliche, but it really is the best job.
“Your life will never be the same,” everyone warned, urging my husband and me to go out on the town in the remaining weeks, even just see a movie, since this would be our last opportunity for a while. I remember the lady in the drug store who glanced at my full belly, then asked if this was my first. When I said it was, she laughed out loud and declared, “You’ve got a big surprise in store for you!”
Along with the loss of sleep, lack of time and exhausting exhilaration, my son’s birth surprised me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. It began to soften my grip on the world I once controlled, and my views on privacy, modesty and relationships changed permanently. I was now officially inducted into this world, connected to everyone and everything in it.
Several hours after my water broke and the birth process began, I suddenly didn’t care who saw me naked, bathed in a pathetic pain, bright lights shining on areas much more accustomed to the dark. Convinced during weeks of yoga training that quiet, focused breathing would ease my labor, I emitted instead dry, throaty vowel sounds like an old lawn mower refusing to start. The labor nurses swaddled me in warm towels so I could weather the storm. And I did.
Once home, the number of calls, cards and casseroles was staggering. Beyond our close circle of people, old friends came out of the woodwork, arms laden with comfort food and sweet little baby things. Some talked of their own children, now grown up and paying off student loans, and told stories of way back when. Some just sat and listened, quietly imagining their own future.
When the visitors tapered off and I’d returned the last dish, a peaceful quiet briefly blew through the house, eventually interrupted by household chores, job responsibilities and of course, baby cries. Days were nights, nights were days, and in between, I did everything I could to avoid walking over that loose floorboard which squeaked underfoot. Funny, it never seemed to wake the cats.
As the weeks passed and I began to get out more, I attracted otherwise disinterested strangers who would smile when they saw the baby, many lingering to admire him. Those particularly bold reached out to touch his soft skin. Most made it clear it was the baby they were interested in, and my attempts at idle conversation were unnecessary and interrupted their private moment with him. I loved their visits just the same.
Back at the office, I’d nurse and type, cradling baby in my left arm and dragging the computer mouse with my right. When it was time to switch sides, I’d return phone calls and nurse some more. Couriers who came by our two-person office seemed confused at first when I didn’t turn around to greet them, but then a baby smacking sound or bobbing head would tip them off. They’d return later in the week, skilled in the new drill, and let my co-worker sign for the package.
Just as groups of dogs and their owners flock to one another in parks, my baby attracted other babies and their parents. My husband and I formed instant bonds with other couples as we compared notes on topics like teething and proper burping techniques, essential information for our baby-centric world. When we would occasionally go out, it was wonderful to see my husband with other new dads cradling their babies and bragging that their child could already grasp a rattle or babble “da da.”
With the new baby came a new fascination with sleep: anywhere, anytime, any amount. On route to work, I fantasized about pulling into the closest motel (alone!) and getting a room for the day with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, where I could savor consecutive hours of delicious sleep, alone and quiet. I bought special bath gels claiming to soothe the baby so he could easily transition to bedtime. I moved the CD player from my office to his room, hoping repeated lullaby rhythms would carry him to sleep. I spent hours searching the Internet for the perfect bedtime CD–forget my own shopping and U2’s new release.
The changes the baby brought extended to every cupboard and crevice of our home. The calming tones in our living room were interrupted every few feet by a primary-colored baby gadget, a pittance for the luxury of a ten-minute distraction. Three-inch socks clung to the inside of the dryer, turning up loads later in the sleeves of our T-shirts. Our promising china collection now mingled with plastic Teletubbies dinnerware.
When we went out to eat, I easily recognized the waiters who were parents or even aunts and uncles from the other ones. The former, usually smiling, knew to promptly bring a basket of bread and extra napkins in preparation for the impending food fest. The latter, via body language and average-at-best service, assured us he was not impressed with our little angel, whose squawking broke the almighty adult ambience. But full of naïve delight, we were just thankful our baby was so enthusiastic about mealtime.
Now, over a year later with more challenges ahead and fatigue still hanging around, I am oddly energized by it all. Our son has sprouted up eye level with the tabletops and scours our floors for things not intended for his mouth. He’s become skilled at catching and pulling the cats’ tails, and his pale, soft hands are filling up with scratches. And even though it’s almost summer and we still haven’t raked the fall leaves, we did finally get out and see a movie.