Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Let me pick for you. The good news: My fifth picture book ALWAYS REMEMBER is due out in just a few days. I am excited for a number of reasons. This is my first serious book, and while all my books have a serious point, this one has a serious goal. To comfort those suffering loss. It was written when my dad was dying of Parkinson's plus Lewy body dementia. He pass away in April 2015. I am already getting e-mails from people thanking me for writing on such a difficult subject (death). I have been thanked by families that are in the process of healing from loss and found comfort in this book. I am immensely grateful my book is making a difference.

For those who have read my earlier blog posts, you may remember I was a care provider to my disabled mother-in-law for eleven years. She had suffered a stroke when my son was five weeks old, then went in to congestive heart failure six months later. She died in 2011.

The marathon of caring for the elders started June 2000. It has been quite a journey, and aside from the challenge of trying to keep those around me alive and happy and comfortable, old and young alike, I found great satisfaction in the moments. You know, reading books to my kids in bed, baking cookies on rainy days, spending sunny days at track meets and soccer games, watching my kids laugh at my silliness, listening to my son play a beautiful Mozart clarinet concerto for my father who was in hospice and didn't have long to live, listening to my daughter gush about a great book she just read, watching Jeopardy with the family and realizing my kids are smarter than me. Those moments. Precious moments.

So, the bad news. I have pancreatic cancer. I won't lie. I'm a little pissed. Maybe more than a little. I was diagnosed August 2015 and I am undergoing treatment. So far, so good. I've had successful surgery, but this is a sneaky cancer that is extremely resilient. I am determined to be more resilient.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Out of Sync

I have a canary loose in my chest. Quite frequently throughout the day, the little pissed-off bird lets me know she wants out. There is a thumping, bumping, fluttering sensation pounding at my inner walls. It is the new state of my heart. My heart, moving to a scattered rhythm of its own, decided one day last month to go rogue on me. I don’t know why.

As a result, I quit caffeine. I did it for the only reason I would ever do such a thing – I thought I was going to die. If I thought caffeine was slowly killing me or doing some minor physical impairment to my body, perhaps I would have stayed on it. I love coffee. And I am not just saying that. I am referring to real – true - love. We’d been together for over twenty years. If it didn’t make me feel like I was dying, we’d still be together.

I did go off of caffeine for my pregnancies. But I confess, I’m pretty sure on more than one occasion my babies nursed latte straight from my breast. There’s only so much a mother can sacrifice. And here I am, in that group I never really trusted or fully respected. I’m a non-coffee drinker. Sigh. I miss it. Oh, and the whole decaf thing is just mean. Mean, mean trickery.

It all started with a simple cup of French-press espresso at 6pm on a Wednesday evening. It was a good brew. Sigh. I had planned to work late, novel-write through the night. No such luck.

The squeezing pressure in my chest came on suddenly and lasted about thirty seconds. It traveled down my left arm.  I felt light-headed as the pressure slowly subsided and the squeezing sensation stopped. My arm felt tingly. Shit. I think I’m having a heart attack. I took two aspirin.

I was slightly dizzy as I walked to my bedroom. My goal: A fresh change of clothes before leaving for the emergency room. I contemplated brushing my teeth. Then it happened again. Another horrible, squeezing pressure in my chest, more pain down my left arm. Damn. My daughter asked what was wrong. I told her I didn’t feel well and was going to have dad take me to the emergency room for a test. She burst into tears. Damn.

My husband and I convinced her it was no big deal “just a flu test”. We got in the car. I had another squeezing sensation in my chest, more horrible pain down my left arm. It was the worst one yet.  I told Lee to floor it.

Long story short, it was not a heart attack. I was having premature ventricular contractions. The contractions by themselves are not life threatening. People get them all the time. Because of the severity and frequency, they were concerning. Radiology showed a small amount of fluid around my heart. At first, they were going to admit me to the hospital for further testing. But as the contractions became further apart and lighter, I felt better. I was told the caffeine probably triggered them and that as the caffeine wore off, I might start feeling better. By 2:00AM I did feel better and I was allowed to go home with firm instructions to see my cardiologist within a few days.

The squeezing sensation has not returned, but has now been replaced by the funny little irregular bumps and thumps that have become a regular part of my day. I haven’t had a sip of coffee since my cardiac episode. With cold and flu season around the corner, it looks like my own personal mix of “mother’s little helper” is definitely out of the question. That would have been real Sudafed washed down with a Diet Coke. No matter how sick I was, the buzz always guaranteed a clean house and new manuscript by the end of the day. Damn.

I’m not known for my medical follow-up. I should probably mention I was born with a couple of heart defects. I had a hole in my heart that eventually closed. I also had open-heart surgery at age four to enlarge my pulmonary valve. At the time of the… shall we call it…  “cardiac emergency room incident”… I hadn’t seen my cardiologist in over twenty years. I told you I’m not known for my medical follow-up.

I did drag my sorry self to see the cardiologist a couple of weeks later. He walked into the room carrying a Starbucks cup and looking a little too cheerful. I have an echocardiogram and a stress test scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving.

And now I’m forced to exercise or be humiliated. You see, the stress test involves exercising on a treadmill while they monitor my heart. I’m in training for it – I’m actually working out regularly on my treadmill at home - since I don’t want a big lecture on how out of shape I am.

And while I wait for my diagnosis, the little canary continues to flutter and pound at the walls of my chest pushing eagerly to get out. It is ignoring my mental pleading to just calm down, to go back to the steady rhythm I’ve known my whole life, to be at peace.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Dog Did Not Eat My Blog

Dear Blog:
It has been a while. I have so much to tell you. First, I must give you my excuse for leaving you so rudely and suddenly, without even saying goodbye. There are lots of cool excuses out there that people use to explain long absences and missing work. I can’t lie. The dog did not eat my blog. Though, I am sure she would have loved to gnaw at the corners of my now nonfunctioning MacBook. My computer died last January. I am using my teenage daughter’s NONMAC computer to write this. But that is not my excuse.

My mother-in-law is dead. I stopped blogging because after eleven-and-a-half years of taking care of a dying woman - she actually died. Things got pretty crazy near the end. The last year was extremely challenging. The last two weeks… well, I don’t think I will ever recover from that. How is it that you never hear about post-traumatic stress disorder for people that have watched someone close to them slowly, painfully die? She died exactly one year ago last Sunday, at home, while under the care of family and hospice. One whole year ago. I guess it is time for me to pull it together and start my life for real this time.

Before I move on, I must tell you the story about my only experience with (human) death and the afterlife. One of the ways I coped with hanging out with a dying woman for many, many, years was through humor. I confess, I made inappropriate jokes about every mental lapse (mine and hers), nasty body function, and rude hospital employee. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that forty-eight hours before she died, as she struggled to stand and clutched the wall gasping for breath, I made my belly button talk. The stress of death can make some people a little chubby. While my mother-in-law wasted away, I had put on a few pounds. So, I pulled up my shirt and squeezed the fat around my belly button and had it speak to my mother-in-law directly. (My belly button has a high-pitched annoyingly cheerful voice, if you are wondering.) It said, “Do I look fat?”

For someone who could barely catch her breath, my mother-in-law did a great job laughing. She actually almost collapsed to the floor. Dying people make great audiences. But that is not my story.

Lonna (her name), died early on a Friday morning. Her daughter was in the next room sleeping. We were taking shifts and for once I got lucky. We had been speculating for years over who would be the one to find her dead. Since I was the primary care provider, and I tend to have shitty luck, I just assumed it would be me. It wasn’t. (I am saying this in a sing-song happy voice, by the way). So, I got the call from my sister-in-law that morning and after dropping the kids off at school, I joined her at the bedside of my dead mother-in-law. I want to say she looked peaceful. Isn’t that what they always say? But Lonna did not look peaceful. If you ask me, she didn’t look all that thrilled to be dead. There was a bit of a, “Shit, that really sucked” look about the mouth. But we were deeply grateful she wasn’t suffering any longer.

We spent the morning picking out the outfit she was to be buried in. There was a small debate about the necessity of underpants. I started making inappropriate underpants jokes that I will not repeat. Then I heard her laugh. From behind me I HEARD MY MOTHER-IN-LAW LAUGH. It was not spooky at all, it was normal. The timing was perfect. The sound of her laughter was totally accurate and of normal volume. It became clearly obvious to me what was going on. We fucked up, she was not dead.

Wrong. We checked, she was for-sure dead. My sister-in-law didn’t even hear her laugh. Ghostly stuff usually freaks me out. Not this time. It seemed normal. As I move forward from this experience, and finally get on with my own life, I do take comfort in knowing that after everything I went through, and no matter how many people I just offended, at least the dead person thought I was funny.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Art of Learning

My daughter, newly twelve, jumped up from her homework one night and said, "Hold on a moment, I need to check something." She proceeded to twirl. And twirl and twirl. With her arms flung out and her back slightly arched, standing on her toes, she twirled in my living room for almost a minute. Then she paused and began twirling in the opposite direction.

When she finally stopped, she stood, swaying gently, looking pretty darn dizzy. Then she said, "Nope, doesn't work."
"What doesn't work?" I had to ask.
"If you spin in one direction and then spin in the other direction, you still get dizzy."

I love how kids think. My other child, nine-year-old Alex, is trying to teach our dog to read. He taught Princess to sit, shake, stay, come. So, of course, the next step is obviously reading. Ask any well-educated dog.

He started with teaching her the word "princess" but then came to the conclusion that even if Princess could read her own name, she wouldn't be able to let him know because she can't talk. Now Alex is creating signs with commands on them, so she can respond with an action. Clever, huh? I found his pile of written commands on the counter this morning. "sit" "stay" and of, course, the much desirable and lesser-know command, "poo."

I love how kids think.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Vicis Rabbits

The letter started like this: 
I have never had a bunny in my life because my mom's bunny peed on her lap and so then on she hated bunnies. I like them but they look vicis because they are all shaky. 

This letter came home with my son, one of his classmates wrote it in response to the show-and-tell bunny we'd brought in earlier that day. That bunny was scared out of her mind and was definitely shaky. Fortunately, not vicious. But I see the kid's point.

Somehow, I have developed a reputation for being the bunny lady. Okay, fine, yes, I do like rabbits. I own a lot of rabbits. But it isn't a crazy love-affair sort of deal. I find them cute, amusing, and at times vicious. I am not immune to their flaws. Also, I have way too many of them. A common side-effect of owning rabbits I hear.

When I set the bunnies loose in my backyard four years ago, I was warned terrible thing could happen. Raccoons could eat them. They could escape into the wild unknown world of moving vehicles. Dogs could carry them away. No such luck. 

We still have the same seven rabbits. I was silently hoping a few would be picked off and we'd have a more manageable number over time. But the bunnies are fatter, happier, more content than ever. They do occasionally get loose, but are easily herded back into my yard with very little effort.

I got a call at six in the morning recently from one of my neighbors. The same neighbors that own a Rottweiler and don't like kids. They do, I found out, like rabbits. So does their dog.

Snowflake, a sweet faced neutered male rabbit of mine, had dug under the fence and was hanging out in their yard early that morning. I woke to the sound of a snarling dog and screaming lady. I had a feeling it had something to do with the rabbits and I pulled the covers over my head and tried to go back to sleep. I guess my neighbor had other ideas. By the time I picked up my phone, she was still pretty upset.

"Your rabbit is loose and my dog almost ate it!" she said into the phone. 
 "The rabbit escaped?" I tried to sound surprised.
"It ran back into your yard. I filled the hole already. He could have been killed." Neighbor lady was not happy.
"Oh. Yeah. Well, don't worry if your dog does eat a rabbit or two. We have seven. I don't even think the kids will notice. Don't feel bad if it happens. It's okay."
"IT'S NOT OKAY WITH ME! I don't need to see that sort of thing," she replied before hanging up.

Well, when she puts it THAT way, it does make me seem a bit heartless and strange. What does she expect when she calls before I've had my morning coffee? Without my coffee I tend to be vicious and shaky. Not a good combination. Ask any nine-year-old.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Mailing it in

I'm shocked my husband and I have any friends left. The problem is, we are tired all the time. And we're forgetful and perpetually overwhelmed. Translation:  We're terrible about returning calls, we're too tired to entertain, and our long distance correspondence is nonexistent. The whole gift-giving thing around the holidays pushes us well beyond our capabilities. We once showed up to a holiday dinner at a friend's house, after mentioning we would not be exchanging gifts that year due to a job layoff, to find beautiful gifts waiting for us. It was too late to make a mad dash to a store, so we sucked it up, ate their food, accepted their generosity and left. Awkward.

Our dysfunction originates from the core of our existence. Our home. It's an unfixed fixer-upper with never-ending projects. Environmental chaos. Our happy home is enhanced by a large, big-toothed "crazy-eyed" dog that barks psychotically at every person who has the unfortunate experience of driving down our street. In reality, our dog is afraid of kittens and truly can't jump the picket fence because of an artificial hip and leg injury from an accident that happened before we adopted her. You'll have no trouble at all outrunning her. Plus, once you are safely inside my front door, you will be fed well and offered an assortment of live animals to warm your feet. Not all of them bite.

As I empty our mailbox of holiday cards and letters, I find myself more than a little surprised by the loyalty of my friends.  I appreciate their ability to look past the fact that my husband and I seldom remember to send thank you notes or birthday cards. We've never sent out a holiday card with a family update. I don't have a mailing list. Alas, when my cell phone dies, so will the numbers of just about everyone I know. I keep no records, and I'm not much of a numerical memorizer.

I do feel guilty. Perhaps instead of sending out a New Year's card (something I fantasize about doing but I have never actually done), my husband and I should send out a blanket apology letter addressing our negligent behavior over the past two decades. Something like this:

Dear Family and Friend(s):
If you are receiving this, it is because we consider you a friend and we recognize that compared to you, our family sucks in the manners department. Perhaps one day we will be able to make it up to you, but please don't hold your breath. In addition to lacking basic organizational skills, we tend to buckle under pressure. 

We know that if you have stuck around through our flaky behavior, you must really care about us. Even though we don't always show it, we care about you, too. If you haven't stuck around but are still receiving this letter, it is because we deserve your wrath and disdain, we acknowledge your hurt feelings, and we want to offer you a sincere apology and let you know that we didn't pick on you personally. We treat all our friends like this. And we're sorry.

So here you go, this is an official letter off apology to all we have offended. I'd suggesting keeping it, perhaps even framing it, because it may be another two decades before we get around to doing another one. And, trust me, in two decades we'll owe all of you another one.

Remember the thank you note you got from us for that wonderful gift you sent? No? We want you to know that your gift and gesture was fully appreciated. We loved it, and probably still do love it. Unless it was wine or candy or homemade cookies, then I'm sure we loved it at some point in time, but now it is long gone and if I remember correctly, it was super delicious.

The clothes, scarves, bath robe, hair accessories and jewelry have all been worn and admired. The lotions and scrubs used and appreciated. The gift cards spent and enjoyed. The toys played with by the kids and probably the adults, too. 

Mostly, though, we want to offer our support if life is treating you like crap. Those are the calls and cards we most regret not doing. To those of you whom this applies, know we keep you in our thoughts and are always hoping for the best.

For those of you who are wondering about us, here's an update:

Grandma Lonna is still kickin and not taking crap from anyone. The doctors keep telling us she is going to die. It could be any day. Obviously, someone forget to tell Grandma because she is back to chugging around town in her Volvo, moving boulders single-handedly from one end of her garden to the other, and attending her twice a week Yoga class. If you're in her neighborhood, remember to look both ways before you cross the street and run like hell if you see her coming.

Our kids are thriving, and sucking every last penny and bit of energy out of us. Alex is a passionate musician and math whiz. He is taking clarinet lessons. We often start our mornings at 6:00AM to the tune of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" in the highest octave possible. We wish you were here to enjoy it with us. 

Erika is still doing gymnastics, training over twenty hours per week. That doesn't include the physical therapy for her knee or the massage and ice treatments before bed. Somehow, she fits in homework and continues to excel at everything she does. Except for ball sports. If throwing her a ball, please don't aim for the face, because that's usually where the ball hits first before she considers catching it with her hands.

Our family's contribution to society - we are doing our best to help with the water shortage. Our landscaping requires zero water and provides tons of free fertilizer. You guessed it, we still have seven rabbits. They won't die. They have eaten everything, and I mean EVERYTHING in my backyard, to include a peach tree and a lemon tree. My idea for making Tur-rabbit on Thanksgiving was vetoed by the rest of the family. Bummer, because I'm pretty sure I could have fit three rabbit carcasses inside the twenty-five pound turkey I cooked. I would have found a way.

We hope this nonexistent letter, that will never be mailed, and perhaps would be seen as the biggest offense from our well-meaning little family, finds you well and happy. Dear friends, know you are loved and appreciated, and we'd like to wish all of you a wonderful 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015...


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Magic Potions and Keyboard Trolls

I have one hundred wandering hogs that want to go to school, two devious young kids staging a worldwide bedtime revolt, and an autistic kid named Joshua - all with the same problem. They can't make the leap from my manuscript pages to a book. I love to write. I love creating new stories. I love being an author. But so many of my little darlings, my daring story attempts, are unfinished, in need of repair, less than perfect. Rejected.

It's like Harry Potter in potions class. If you don't have the right mix of ingredients, in the exact amounts, you won't get the desired result, the magical POOF! Instead you are stuck with a messy potion gone wrong, resulting in purple hair, or a twelve-legged toad, or worse, some nasty snot-filled troll-like thing stomping on your keyboard. I hate keyboard trolls.

The problem is,  there is no formula for a perfect manuscript. Even the half-blood prince had to write notes in the margins of the flawed potion book. How many of you were taken aback by the fact that the textbook instructions were not 100% accurate? That the wizard still needed to improvise, add a little of this, a little of that, to get the formula to work?  You can follow every piece of instruction, every bit of advice and still no POOF! It seems a bit unfair. It's almost like an actual writer came up with that story element. Oh, wait.

Of course, some stories will magically POOF! and reveal themselves as something special, but just not to all people. When it comes to the craft of writing, POOFS! are subjective. Some written works have a wide range of appeal - like the heavily desired universal mass market bestseller POOF! The magic formula for that is hidden away in the same underground vault that holds the ingredients list for Coke and the original recipe for KFC. 

I'm often asked, "How do I get published?" Published writers still struggle to get published. While many new writers suck, and I can say this because I hugely sucked when I first started, there are plenty of good, unpublished writers out there, too. The phrase I hear over and over at conferences is, "If you have a great, well-written story, you'll get published." I'm not convinced. A more accurate statement may be, "Don't expect to get published unless you start with a great story, write incredibly well, understand voice, pace your story properly, and appeal to your reader. Be unique. Know your market well enough so that you are not writing long when short is in, or quiet when, um, I guess loud is selling. Poetry potions are known to have explosive and sometimes fatal consequences to the inexperienced. Or so I am told."

Oh, but there's more, "Next, make sure the editor reading your work 'gets' your humor and sense of rhythm and thought process. Oh, and your book must have a point. And those reading your story must find your point a worthy point, and not a point that was recently made by someone else, or a point that has been made too many times. Or worse, a point already made by someone who won An Important Award or has the secret recipe for the universal you-know-what kind of POOF! Don't make your point too obvious. Avoid waving a four-foot neon foam pointy finger resembling those used by over-zealous baseball fans to make your point. And, of course, none if this matters if your work doesn't scream I WILL SELL!!! SELL!!! SELL!!! to those considering it for publication." You get my point.

Day-to-day writing is about growth and hard work and dealing with pesky keyboard trolls that result from poorly concocted potions. As annoying as they may be, do not kill them all off. There are trolls that shred manuscripts to bits with their nasty sharp teeth, forcing you to start over. Then there are the trolls that throw wild midnight parties on your unattended pages, leaving them scattered, unorganized, in need of massive repair. Some trolls just nibble the edges of your work, forcing you to constantly search for what may be missing . Trickster trolls are the most challenging. They dance on your keyboard, adding unnecessary words and phrases, forcing you to read your work over and over until your eyes are permanently crossed. Sometimes, overly-enthusiastic trolls with no common sense at all send your work to industry professionals before it is ready, when it is filled with horrible errors and flaws. You have my permission to stomp those trolls to death.

I mustn't forget to mention the nasty, dreaded, keyboard trolls that actually pee in your keyboard and make it look like a cup of spilled coffee. Those trolls, you can also do away with. In fact, I've got one jammed in my garbage disposal at this very moment.