Lately, I’ve been AWOL. Largely invisible, out of sight and, occasionally, out of mind. My oldest child was due to have a baby and close on her new house at the end of the February. She also has a daredevil toddler to keep up with. In order to be of service, I encamped to the same snowy wilderness George Washington took his Continental Army to in 1779, both of us choosing a frigid home during two of the coldest winters on record.
On counsel from my daughter’s midwife, I arrived on one of the last flights allowed to land before Juno brought airports to a grinding halt. Due to leave the south on a Wednesday, flights headed north were cancelled and re-booked in haste. Twice.
Confirmed for a pre-dawn Monday flight on Sunday, I scrambled to pack, grabbing the bare essentials of my uniform-style wardrobe (I took a coat, a scarf, a hat, one pair of gloves, two pairs of jeans, four shirts, two pairs of boots, one pair of flats, and two exercise outfits that pulled double duty as sleep-wear), and left my computer behind.
It’s amazing what you can learn to live without, but the next time I attend a winter Baby’s Coming Out Party, ‘Puter comes with.
By virtue of being about 15 miles south of the storm’s wrath, we missed the brunt of Juno. There was enough snow and ice to make travel hazardous and to nip the first signs of Spring in the bud.
While in Siberia, I shared a bedroom in a swank-ish two bedroom executive apartment with the aforementioned daredevil. I quickly learned to appreciate the staff of the complex, as they worked late into the night, almost every night, salting and plowing, making sure residents could get to work, walk their dogs, and take out their trash without risking a serious fall.
The birthing experts were a little off on their guesstimates, so four snow-filled weeks later Newbie made her dramatic début, in breach position, requiring a c-section. In the interim, I learned to navigate the area and respect the wind chill, and my tiny roommate grew just enough to use the window sill in our shared space as an armrest for watching the snow plows go by.
It’s was an honor to watch her blossom and a delight when she popped up in her crib like a gopher each morning, calling my name before dawn.
Bab, Ba-bab. Hi.
A voracious crawler, she finally decided walking is a thing, which means falling is also a thing. As I watched her tentative first steps and her hesitation to get back up after tumbling to the ground, I thought about things I want both girls to know.
For one, I want them to know the women in this family have a strong history of taking life’s hard knocks then trying again.
We may be dealt a crappy hand in the gene pool lottery, but no one is giving up the fight easily.
While we hunkered down, the last of my mother’s five sisters passed away after a tough fight against breast cancer. Sadly, the weather and my locale made attending her funeral impossible, so it feels appropriate to share a tribute here.
The oldest of eight children, my aunt was a woman of faith, love and family. The wife of a career military man, she was mother to seven children, all of whom she gave birth to as they moved throughout America, Europe, and Asia.
She also held some challenging jobs outside the home. The one that stands out most my memory is spending 14 hours a day on her feet, standing next to my grandmother, peeling ice-cold shrimp with her bare hands. It was during the 1940s, a time when men went to war and women went to work. My aunt and my grandmother showed up and did what needed to be done to feed their families.
Science tells us it’s possible that giving birth seven times may be what saved her from the ovarian cancer that took the lives of her younger sisters far too early. I wish it had spared the appearance in her breast, that soon metastasized to her bones and beyond.
A very modest woman, the post-mastectomy chemo and radiation treatments took a terrible toll, destroying her upper torso and leaving her with open wounds, but she kept moving forward through it all; getting knocked down and picking herself up, time and time again.
One of our last visits was typical of most during the last few years.
It’s an eight-hour drive between her city and mine. On her way to see a son who lives a few hours north of me, she arranged a stop to meet up with about a dozen members of my family for a long lunch. We are a boisterous bunch and I imagine she was often embarrassed by our hijinks, but she still made a point to gather us together as often as she could and none of us were in a hurry to leave that day.
A devoutly religious woman, her hilarious ‘does not approve’ look was legendary, and made an appearance at more than a few gatherings and in many family photos. In all honesty, it seems she didn’t like having her picture taken very much, because she either had ‘that look’ on her face or her eyes closed in at least 80% of the photos she was in, even though she had a lovely smile.
I may be low-balling the percentage.
She would probably be appalled I just typed “low-balling.”
Knowing I might not get to see her again, I took my camera to lunch in an attempt to try to capture a little spirit of the afternoon. Aware of often not being in the picture myself, I handed the camera off to my son at some point, so this may be his photo and not mine. It doesn’t matter.
What mattered was her determination to keep going in spite of the pain; to spend a few hours with her family; to get the most out of the moments she had left. Knowing the details of her illness, but never seeing the damage, I can only imagine what was going on underneath the striped shirt. It seemed she felt the limits of her life that day and mustered up a smile reminiscent of the photo taken in her youth, seen above.
You can see the joy she felt, from being surrounded by love, in her eyes.
If my calculations are correct, she was 82 in this photo. Terminally ill and in the middle of a long road trip, she did what she always did. She made time for the people that mattered to her.
I’m grateful to be on that list.
As to what I want my snowbound roomie and her little sister to know today:
- The women in our family take life’s knocks and get back up, again and again. In spite of the obstacles, they keep doing, they keep trying, and they keep going, even when those knocks come from a genetic bogeyman you can’t hide from. Keep trying, doing, going.
- In spite of all the big, bad, tragic and scary things going on in the world, stay amazed by the resilience and beauty of the human spirit.
- Enjoy the journey.
- If you are at risk, trying, going and doing aren’t enough. Early detection is essential, so get felt up on a regular basis. Let your doctor get to second base at least once a year. Do it yourself once or twice a month.
- Let your Gyno slide into home plate on a regular basis, because you can’t do this one yourself. Be vigilant about pap smears, make yourself an expert on your ovarian health, and consider surgical recommendations from gynecological oncologists. They see Lady Business everyday and will take your family history seriously. Make sure you ask for and get the recommended scans.
- And, finally, be proactive. If you wait or ignore signs and symptoms, reflexive or reactive responses won’t save you. Be your best healthcare advocate. One mammogram or pelvic ultrasound a year cost providers a lot less than trying to cure a breast or ovarian cancer patient. If you don’t have or can’t afford insurance, know there are resources to help you get the medical advice you need at no cost, but you have to seek them out.
The truth is, whether genetics comes into play for you or not, no one has any idea what the future holds, or how long it may last for each of us. Every passing day finds me more convinced than the last how little I truly know, but about this I am certain:
Update: I wrote this post over the course of a couple of weeks. After it published yesterday, I came across Angelina Jolie’s moving piece in the New York Times. Obviously, her reach is a little longer than mine and I’m glad she opened up about the hard choices she had to make again. (If you missed it read it here.)
If you have a moment, please tell me leave your thoughts in the comment section below. It’s where the best conversation happens and I’m interested in hearing about your journey. What’s your story?
Go. Grab your 1440 minutes. Make it a good 1,