Circus Monkeys

Somedays, I feel like the ringmaster standing center stage and directing all the monkeys and tigers with a scarlet baton.  I wave the directions towards hoops and stages, then bow when the show is over without a hitch as the crowd cheers for an encore. Then there are days like Friday, when I am not the star of the show nor am I the ringmaster but merely the worn out custodian sweeping up crushed popcorn and elephant droppings.

The high school was in utter chaos as I rolled in with dark half-moons under each eye. While still exhausted from the previous night’s shenanigans of my friend/colleague’s flight being continually canceled by United, I was told his substitute called 40 minutes after the bell to say she wasn’t coming. I pulled all the seniors from the first-period class, who were harassing another kind teacher, and squished them into my English 11 class. After teaching two classes at once, I got a call to cover the next period which should’ve been my break and planning. There were two fights in the building – one upstairs and the other downstairs later in the day. I almost skipped lunch, and my coffee ran cold before I could finish it.

As I climbed into my car, I was shaking from exhaustion and wished I could teleport home. When I got there, I curled into my cold sheets and waited for both Shiloh to be dropped off and Kevin to get home after letting Luna out to pee. An hour later, I woke up to Shiloh screaming “엄마! 엄마!” momma! momma! Downstairs, Shiloh was sitting clad in only a diaper in Kevin’s arms, his high chair was stripped of its cushion and the rest was covered in fresh vomit. Kevin took Shiloh away as I knew he is sensitive to vomit stench. I cleaned up the puke with paper towels and Lysol disinfectant spray, put the dirty dishes in the sink, grabbed a dry towel from the basement, gave our little monster a bath, brushed his teeth, Kevin read him a book, then we put him to bed. Then I grabbed the soiled clothes and cushion and threw them into the washer.

Our house looked like a war zone which only barely survived the work week of two working parents, a toddler, two cats, and a dog on Prozac. After lighting an overpriced candle, I sunk into the couch after ordering food via my Yelp app and just took a breath. I found it ironic that this weekend was Mother’s Day as I felt like I was barely making it. Some days are a breeze and everything goes right. I have energy enough to give Wonder Woman a run for her money, but then others, I look forward to 7:30 when the house quiets and I can sit with my eyes clothes and no one needs me. After rough days, sometimes the best moments are when we are all asleep – like the next day when we were still exhausted and Shiloh and I fell asleep on my mom’s couch.

We really do run a circus in our home, but these are my monkeys and our circus – and tomorrow we will put on another show.

 

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Orange Peanuts

I regretted getting the wrong cart. It squeaked and stuttered on the waxy floors of the grocery store. Shiloh jerked the wheel of the plastic car attached to the front of the cart, speeding his way to an imaginary finish line. “Koom Koom!” he cried, announcing to the other shoppers that he was speeding down aisles of produce and packages.

It was our turn to bring snacks for church Thursday small group, and I tried to get as many kid and gluten and dairy-free items as possible. Throwing the last item into the cart, a cold box of lemon and cherry flavored Italian ice, my eyes were caught on a bag of candy orange peanuts. I knew they were not in the least healthy, a combination of puffed sugar and food coloring, but nostalgia carried the bag into my cart.

The carrot colored sugar foam transports me back to a living room of my childhood on Dickerson Street. Of wild Appalachian mountains and catching lightning bugs in clear plastic cups and milk jugs. Of lonely limbo of being too old for the children but too young for the adults. Of eating sweet Christmas ribbon candy and chocolate boxes with the mystery flavors revealed by finger punctures. Of badminton tournaments and water hoses spraying. Of times and people now gone forever.

As I taught F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line this morning, “You can’t repeat the past?… Why of course you can!”, I disagree with Mr. Jay Gatsby. Once in a while, a wisp of times past curls around my present. The laughs echo and turns my chin backward. The relationships which crumbled beneath the gravity of life only left weathered ruins for us to remember. The rusty swings. The dying fireflies. A different future than we all thought we’d have –

We can only sing the lyrics of yesterday and stomp to the rhythm of today.

 

Uprooting Weeds

Like many Virginians this weekend, I got home on Friday to find several yellow-eyed dandelions eyeballing me from the front lawn of our townhome. The day before I spent near an hour wearing a pair of red palmed gloves strangling those yellow weeds and pulling them out of the grass and the flower bed where crimson tulips were trying to kiss the sun.

Frustrated, I dropped my work bag into the house and grabbed the green garden fork. Just the day before, I was sure I ripped all of them out and was shocked to see how deep some of the roots curled around tulips and green grass. The ground was loose and moist from the night’s light rain, and I easily pulled the remaining four or five dandelions. The last skinny white root slipped out of the ground taking a newly sprouted spring tulip with it. At first, I didn’t realize the loss of the tulip. I finished placing the weed in the pile with its fellows and saw the uprooted bulb lying on the concrete sidewalk to the house. The sweet tulip was too damaged to replant.

On Saturday night, I swung my arm wide to wake Kevin up several times in the middle of the night. It was a nightmare again. In my dream, cancer came back to claim my life, and I asked my dad if I died this time, what color he would remember me as. He said a bright and vibrant yellow. After Kevin woke up and prayed for me in the twilight hours, I realized I needed to metaphorically uproot the fear was lying dormant in me. I dismiss it like I do the dandelions – harmless and seemingly bright above ground. I rename fear “concern” or “caution” and obsess over them, but the uninhibited dreams keep telling me otherwise. It’s run deeper than I thought.

As I move toward working more with Teal45 and trying to encourage others to keep moving forward in spite of cancer’s greedy hands, I first need to take the time to uproot the weeds which are strangling my peace and faith. It’s not pleasant. Sometimes I get caught up in the fear of what I pulled out more than the relief of the extraction to the healthy soil. Keeping my spiritual and emotional garden healthy takes daily maintenance which is daily work. I need to uproot fearful mindsets which don’t align with how I pushed through chemo with scripture. I need to rip out habits or situations which are not feeding the soil of my heart with the right nutrients. Then, I need to make sure I’m getting full sunlight daily in order to make sure my environment and what I’m feeding myself spiritually is conducive to a healthy and bold life.

Time to do some gardening!

Matthew 13:24-30 New International Version (NIV)- The Parable of the Weed
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ 28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ 29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First, collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

Nine – On loss and found

As a writer and mother who can no longer have any more, it is my deep grieving responsibility to tell stories. Since the moment I saw the double lines on a pregnancy stick, I’ve encountered incredible women who have pressed on through heartbreaking circumstances. I am every, and all, and none of these women. This is a tribute to you – brave daughters of God. Though this piece is fiction, your tangible tears have never gone unnoticed.

 

9 weeks

I contort my body to make it look like you’re sticking out more. Jutting my pelvis forward and taking huge breaths, I hope seasoned passersby ask if you’re in there, and I will sheepishly allow the corners of my lips to curl and say “why yes” while feigning shock. I pretend my pants are getting too tight by wearing a pair of American Eagle jeans from college underneath a bell-shaped blouse. It’s a Tuesday, and right on schedule my phone pings with a notification from a lady with a tight and shiny face about what growth stages you are going through. My face crinkles when I open the app because the picture makes you look more like a silkworm than a succulent dumpling. In my dreams, I don’t picture you a hairless wrinkled old man in an oversized onesie. I turn it off in hopes in a few weeks you will look more like us, if you’re still with us. You will be. Just the thought of your sister presses bags of sand on my chest makes it hard to inhale. I have to convince myself sometimes that you’re not in her spot. You’re not in the place where she sat, then fell dead in a crimson clot. I’m your mommy too.

9 months

My hands wave over my belly, waxing on and waxing off body butter like a Thanksgiving turkey as a prayer against purple lightning bolts. This is what people say to do, and I’ve never been this far along so I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but your da da says your exit route is paved with plum colored directions. This may be shocking, but Mommy hasn’t seen her hoo-ha in months, so we will have to trust him. You should know this by now with all the hip-hop versions of nursery rhymes you don’t know yet coming through on 101.1 Womb, but your da da is a goof. We finished your room with a brown eight dollar lamp from Walmart to match the two plush monkeys we ordered online which arrived in a gray airmail envelope from some province in China. One of the monkeys had a pink bow, but don’t worry, Mommy took that one and put it in her closet.

9 days after

This is not how it was supposed to be. Everything from my ribs down still burns when I pee. I use all of my extra strength to avoid the grotesque reflection of a deflated balloon in the mirror when I step out of the shower. It’s 6:12 AM, and I want you to stop needing me every few hours. I know you cannot survive without me, but I can’t be the only one you need right now. Just please, let me be human. I’m tired too. Why can’t I see beauty in your eyes? All the stories of love at first sight filled me with anticipation, but all I can see is your sister who didn’t make it. Why didn’t she make it? I know there is no one to blame, but the truth is, is I don’t know how to be your mommy. People say this is all natural, but as I settle back into bed and you curl your lips around my tender breast all I am feeding you are tears. I’m sorry I can’t be stronger for you. I’m sorry it wasn’t love at first sight. But I’ve never done this before, and a big part of me is so mad because I thought I was meant to do this before you. You’ve finally stop trying to drink from me, and I know you’re only trying to live. But so am I.

9 weeks after

We are finally in routine, and I don’t feel like a complete failure. It’s 3:17 AM, and I already have the bottle ready for you as you make small whimpers from your corner of the room. Clicking on the bathroom light, I navigate the diaper and wipes in the sliver of light and pray for urine. Thank God. You’re still sleep-drunk as we snuggle, and I hide my failure in the darkness by placing your cheek against my warm empty breast and place the clear nipple into your searching mouth. As my eyes adjust to the haze of light, I run my hand over your dark auburn hairs. These are Mommy’s soft straight strands. Your da da didn’t give you his coarse ebony locks. There goes your two customary bubble burps before your last sip.  As you finish, I wipe your tiny Cupid’s bow with my thumb and watch as you slowly fall asleep. Before I turn off the light, I see you for the first time. I grab your fingers and toes and cup your cheek and curl you towards me. Mommy made these hands, and Mommy made these toes, and Mommy made these eyes, and Mommy made this mouth. The tide of emotions crash into me, beating against the regret and guilt, and breaking up all the stories they told me. My pillow smells like you, distinct and undeniable, of cotton, milk, and pink lotion.

I would know you anywhere.

How to be Brave – An Apology Letter

We all wrote in the middle of the field. The chilled breeze whipped around cotton sweatshirts, backpacks, and used composition notebooks. I tried to keep the prompts light until after lunch, and I’m still in shock I was crazy enough to take all my classes out. On the senior English writing pilgrimage, students sat among the trees then encouraged each other in a circle to speak out their apologies. I never asked them to stand in the middle and share. They just gravitated to the center of their universe.

It was my favorite prompt all day: “At the end of every stage in life, it is always good to tie up loose ends. Quietly, write an apology letter to someone to whom it is due in your life. It doesn’t matter if you ever share it, but it’s important you write it”.

Then as students sat away from each other, the air began to fill with the splashing of tears on grass. Nearly 95 high school English students in my three classes returned their tears to the earth as pens scratched on college-ruled lined paper.

When they were done, I wanted to show them how to be brave. So after calling them back to the circle, I said aloud to them, to the air, and to Shiloh, my apology which was scribbled in purple felt tip pen- knowing they would see both strength and immense weakness. This is not eloquent – it’s just raw. And right or wrong, it’s what burned in me as we wrote and as I spoke it into the air.

Dear Shiloh,

Mommy wanted to say sorry. I get mad when you pull my hair, but honestly I let your tiny fingers pull an extra second longer just to remind me I’m still alive and all my strands are secure. You see, I know the science. I know you will not remember the first time I held you that I smelled like sweat and morphine. Or that you breathed two days into this world before I got to see the irises of your eyes. 

You see, Mommy couldn’t hold you because Mommy was trying to survive a seven-hour surgery escaping from a two syllable “cancer” to express a one syllable “love” to you. I don’t know if I loved you at first sight because I was trying so hard not to drop your tiny body as the room spun from the IV drip. Everything is a haze of needles and warm hospital gowns, and I’m sorry to say I was relieved the nurses took care of you because I couldn’t even stand. I’m jealous other eyes got to see you before mine opened again, and for days others got to marvel at you before me. It’s not fair.

I’m sorry it took weeks after you finally came home at a two AM feeding, one hour before the next pain pills were due, to really look into your eyes and realize I loved you. 

I know it’s no one’s fault I had cancer, but I don’t know who to blame for stealing our time. 

Everyone kept saying just do what you can and that you won’t remember. But I do. The image of your father holding you for the first time while his new bride was dying on an operating table is still tattooed in my mind, and it has not yet begun to fade – the ink still shines.

I hope when you grow up and read this you will be proud. That you know I did my best, and I’m still scared some nights cancer will try to rip us apart again. 

I cannot give you another sibling – and I’m sorry for that too.You will never be able to compare noses and hair because the place where I held you was diseased and ripped out to save my life and forever losing others. 

But I teach your brothers and sisters every day. They swing into my classroom lined with posters and too many books I never had, and I claim them as my own because at the core I am a mother to more than one though my body says I can never – I’m done.

I know it’s no one’s fault, but I don’t know who else to blame. 

We cannot get back those months. I cannot give you another sibling, but I can give you the rest of me. They didn’t take it all. See? My heart is still beating.

Sometimes we lead by example – and other times we grieve by example, and there is a fine line between both.

 

Tell you everything else

A few days ago when I was checking my email, a name which is always attached to both my surgery record, diagnosis, and chemo regimen was in the inbox, Dr. Stephanie Wethington. Though I’ve had countless doctors and nurses treat me, it all began with her saving my life during surgery and separating my body from the metastasized ovarian cancer.

She took the burden of telling my husband who just held our son for the first time and my parents that I had ovarian cancer. I know it’s her job, but it doesn’t make it easier and the kindness she showed was beyond anything we could’ve asked her. I’m grateful she took the burden of seeing my family’s first reaction to the news and saddened she wasn’t able to also share in the moment of a clear CT scan, when I burst into tears of relief in the last office I saw her with my report in hand. Stephanie still checks up on me because a disease which tried to sever my ties to the living world entwined me to the core to others.

I can’t say I’m happy cancer happened. I’m not. The very thought turns my stomach more than Cisplatin or Taxol. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I know the cold bathroom floor is still the most comfortable place. I’ve spent too many weak twilight hours huddled on cool tile. But I’m constantly tugging on these red strings of fate in a scarlet spider web only a breath of death could’ve illuminated.

For all those who treated and are treating me, I don’t want to talk about how my body is feeling or if I’m worried about the neuropathy, or if I’m having scar tissue pain, or if I can sleep through the night, or how my blood work is looking. I want to tell you everything else.

My husband, our son Shiloh, and I are all good and healthy.

Shiloh is almost two, has eight teeth, is as strong headed as I am, and loves cars.

I finally have longer hair than him.

He doesn’t remember his mommy hooked to machines or bald.

We moved out of our apartment and into a town home where I’ve never been sick.

I rescued a Husky named Luna from the shelter. And although she eats Tupperware tops, poops on our deck, chases my cats, and is on anti-depressants like me, she’s the best impulse decision I’ve ever made because we’re both recovering from something.

I’m back in the classroom again and a student wrote me a letter this week. It said I was her favorite English teacher EVER, and she doesn’t know what she will do without me next year. I’m so happy to be back teaching high school.

I’ve started my second masters in Creative Writing and plan to publish a collection of poems about ovarian cancer and maybe a novel or two.

Most of my scars are white.

Tonight, I was not in bed writhing in pain. I helped my little one brush his teeth after a bath, read him four books, and put him to bed all by myself.

My thank you is living.

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Cracks in Armor

I went to the Emergency Room yesterday. I started having throbbing pain under my ribs while I was at work and after all that has happened, I’m acutely aware of every feeling in my body – or in some places – the lack thereof.

After arriving home and putting Shiloh down for a nap to cure what is left of our jet lag, I curled up in bed next to my husband and could not fall asleep. It was a sinking feeling – like the covers were drowning me. My mind quickly ran through every scenario while mulling over whether I should bring it up to my husband or call my gynonc. I already planned out how I would survive more chemotherapy, how I would deal with hair loss again, and how I would mourn the normalcy I finally feel.

I’m a rare case – rare clear cell cancer – rare survival rate – so everyone, including my doctor, wanted me to go into the ER just to double-check everything was okay. We all know the numbers. They already called down from upstairs and my wait time was a fraction of what it was for others by the time we arrived. I know the road by heart and can answer all the questions before they are asked:

Yes, all information is the same.

No nausea or fever or danger of falling.

Azithromycin

Yes, Eliquis 5mg twice a day.

Stage IV Clear Cell Ovarian Cancer

complete hysterectomy with gall bladder, appendix, and resection of liver

This is my good arm.

I didn’t call anyone other than my parents – I texted only two people – and told my husband not to tell anyone. I wanted this done quietly – discreetly – and without every checkup screaming the possibility of recurrence.

My ultrasound and blood work was perfect, and I was prescribed pain meds again. My good ole’ friend Tramadol, but I walked out of the hospital with the same ailment I walked in with – fear.

Most days I’m really strong – I prance through the day with a lust for life only surviving cancer could’ve given me. I’m armed with my faith, family, and try to let my light illuminate the darkness around me. But then there are other days when there are cracks in my armor.

I’ve been writing a collection of poems about my journey – in hopes it will give others comfort and a glimmer of a future. I need to find a way to dip into the past without it drenching my present.

 

Road Most Traveled by

Our three sets of eyes opened at 4AM, and we’ve already begun our day. Kevin is finishing eating a sausage my sister-in-law left in our fridge, I’m blogging with a hot cup of coffee on my least favorite cat coaster, and Shiloh is dunking a black and red Jordan basketball in his Fisher Price hoop while cheering “oooooooooh!” to himself.

We’re pulled to sleep at odd hours from our trip to Korea, but I know this whiplash will only last a week. On our last night in Korea, our bodies and lives had already adjusted to Korea – the strobe Seoul lights of my birth city, the simplicity of country life in Cheorwon, and hiking endless stairs with a 16 month old. Though we’re unpacked and the last of our dirty clothes are turning in the washer, we still have the faint scent of the Land of the Morning Calm on our skin.

I knew when we booked the trip that it wouldn’t last. I knew at some point, our life in America would call us back. I knew laying down on a heated floor mat with my mom and my grandma, as our matriarch’s worn wrinkled hands gripped us tight, would have to be stored in my mind next to the most precious nostalgia on the shelf of my life.

As the 27th of March, the one year anniversary of my clear CT scan from stage IV ovarian cancer, ticked away while we stomped around Korea, I hope my footsteps will be forever imprinted on the road most traveled by. I’ve read Robert Frost many times, sometimes I’m simply grateful to walk on a path with other footprints before me. This is the less lonely road, and I’m happy to be able to walk it.

A Year

Today –

I showered by myself without a talc colored plastic chair in the tub.

I chose fitting clothes without regard to my collar making room for a port access.

I went to work and taught all of my assigned classes – 1st pd English 11, 5th pd English 11, and 7th pd English 12.

I will drive home and dance with my son to Kidz Bop renditions of songs with Luna’s paws trying to catch us.

no pain pills – no chemo – no needles – no more – 

On March 14th, 2017, I finished my last infusion of chemotherapy for stage IV Clear Cell Ovarian Cancer.

It’s been a year.

And a tomorrow –

I have one of those now