Thursday, October 22, 2015

Intermingled Thoughts

My journal has become passing thoughts scribbled on the backs of grocery lists and clumsily typed iPhone notes that say things like "Avalon likes touching cold cups" and "Now I can hear her heart anytime I want to!" 

was paying an SDG&E bill the other day and found, scribbled on the backside of the envelope, the words: "There is the serene ocean and her dangerous currents and there are the car alarms of the world " written in my second grader handwriting, some mid-sentence letters looking just as uppercase as the first. I think this has to do with a thought I had about how there is magic in life, like a human growing from the size of a seed and sprouting into someone that can hold hands with someone else who was also once the size of a seed in their own mother's stomach; there are big problems, like Maddie's cancer, and then there are the inevitable little annoyances such as sitting down to read a book after your child goes down for a nap and most of your chores are finally completed only to have a car alarm go off for the entirety of that quiet time. 

Yesterday I took Avalon to her last lactation appointment. At least, let's hope. There were a bunch of infants learning how to latch properly and even one who was fresh out of his tongue un-tieing procedure, numb-tongued and crying like a goat who'd been kicked in the neck. In my time visiting the clinic I have dealt with an over-supply problem, fast-letdown, mastitis and then an undersupply problem that resulted from stress. Before we left she said, "Now go and enjoy nursing!". Avalon was the oldest baby there by a few months, but, as our elevator door began to close and I watched the lactation consultant bustling around her office helping the next new mom, I couldn't help feeling like we graduated from something that made us both more grown up. (I write my problems down specifically in case anyone else out there is struggling and needs support--quitting or sticking with breastfeeding because, honestly, both are equally tough and good choices if you ask me). 

I am now making some milk to set aside and save for Maddie in case she has trouble keeping things down while she does chemo. I think it will be best mixed with an In N Out milkshake. Today I nursed Avalon in the hammock chair in our backyard while listening to some bluegrass music and the wind. (I write that down because I want to remember it).

Last year at this time, I had just found out we were going to have a baby. I felt like it was the culmination of years spent dressing plastic dolls, teaching preschoolers how to wait their turn and nannying kids I probably would have adopted if given the chance. I was also freaked out about a life alteration I had only observed as a bystander and, maybe most of all, struggling with the reality that I couldn't celebrate Halloween like a drunken idiot impersonating her current hero or favorite brand of beer (one year my friends and I were a six pack of Coronas. I had a lime drawn on my shoulder in neon permanent pen for six days). 

Now Avalon is here in a way that fills the whole house. She wakes up in the morning and smiles this smile as I approach her crib that her face barely seems to have room for, so consumed by joy that I almost have to look away so I won't cry. Her breath smells like warm fruit yogurt and sour cream. Normally I despise those smells, but I purposefully inhale her breath all day long. I write down other things in my scattered journals about how I always want her to be so accepting of me being in her personal space. I get her busy doing an activity like sitting in her Tiny Love Seat chewing on her Tag Monkey and instead of responding to text messages or sweeping the kitchen I end up staring at her. I feel so overcome by this small human. There has always been a space for her in my life and now she not only fills that space, but seems to overflow it. And yet, I always want more, like those days when it's clear and just the right temperature and you can see for miles.

The other day I drove away from perfect offshore, waist high waves to look at freshwater fish in the air-conditioning at Petsmart. Scott said it could have been a scene in Joe Dirt, but was pleased I saved $14 in not going to the real aquarium. The Petsmart employees were very helpful, asking if I had any questions or needed any help identifying some of the fish species. And a free tour guide! I thought, but it seemed too evil deceiving a good intentioned hourly employee for her knowledge on aquatic animals I was never going to buy. I've been there, owning fish before. They die often and it makes me sad just as frequently. For some reason I became more engaged in the idea of owning a few small finches labeled "beginner" on the pet guide. Had I brought them home, however, and this complimentary tour of Petsmart would no longer have been amusing to Scott. The employee did mention that there was "a great tropical fish shop just down the way". An outing for Thursday!

This week my focus has been on sleep. Everyone seems to have an opinion about it. There are so many different good ways to raise kids that it makes sense there are such a variety of approaches that work. I see teaching Avalon to sleep well as an important lesson I can bestow upon her at this age and so I've been putting her down for bed and nap time in her crib tired but awake, after a story and some snuggling, then allowing her to figure out how to sleep. There have been some tears, hers and mine, of course. The first night we tried it I became overwhelmed, after going in to comfort her with tummy pats and copious kisses, by the fact that her crying eyes looked just like they did when I held her for the first time and now, here I was, teaching her this very grownup thing by not holding her. I wandered around the house morosely for about five minutes after that until she fell asleep, thumb in mouth, all by herself in her very own big girl crib. Then I poured a glass of wine and called my family.

And I think, this is how it's supposed to be: the intermingled pain and joy of life. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It Gets Better

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of this last trip to visit friends in San Francisco is how rejuvenated I felt once our plane landed in San Diego. The second thing is how awfully this trip started.

The plane ride there was fine. Avalon only slept about 20 minutes of the hour and fifteen minute flight, but was generally content playing peek-a-boo with my nursing cover, eating a book and bouncing between our laps for the remainder of the time. I have no advice for flying with children except to say you should wear at least 50 layers of deodorant before you takeoff. Even while Avalon was chilling out, I was sweating through my clothes wondering if she would unleash her new found ability to scream or projectile spit-up onto the nice college girl next to us highlighting her notes. I wasn't worried about her first flight before it started. I must have forgotten how small planes are and how constricting a space can feel when the fasten seat belt sign is on. I did find comfort in what one lady said when we boarded: "Who cares if she cries, you'll never see any of us again anyways!"

Once we landed, we took BART to our hotel, booked only a few days before in the short time I spent away from Maddie while she was recovering from her colon surgery. Even though I spent hours reading Amazon reviews about the bouncy baby seat and bath tub I registered for, I used no more than six minutes to read reviews about the hotel we planned to spend a three day weekend at in San Francisco. 

We exited BART at the Civic Center and had to take the elevator up to the street level because we had the stroller. When I shared this information with Basia, Phil, Nicole and Mike later they gasped and laughed and requested details. You know how at the end of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and Grandpa and Willie Wonka take a magical glass elevator up to the sky? It was exactly like that if that elevator had been used like a porta potty and only had a small scratched glass window that looked at a concrete wall. Basia, Phil and Nicole were shocked it was even in service since they said most BART elevators have been closed because so many people use them as private toilets.

We walked past a number of homeless people and a man pretending he was a bird on the way to our hotel, then a real bird pooped on my foot. 

Our room was on the second floor next to the fire escape. I told Scott I wasn't sure about being so close to street level after our experience on the way over, but we called down and requested a crib to be delivered while I took a shower and washed my shoes. Scott said the hotel was historic since it was over one hundred years old. I said it must be haunted too. It looked exactly like the one from the new season of American Horror Story with carpet that had also probably had a 100th birthday.

After my shower, I took a nap while Scott and Avalon watched a girl in striped pink tights lean on a car and poop outside our window. A recent email from Phil titled 'SF Poop Map' revealed, via a virtual and interactive map, that we were right in the thick of where the most public poops are taken in the city. When I woke up, I remarked how the crib delivered for Avalon seemed more like a cage for a ferret. Scott suggested we leave the hotel and explore the area. There was a Roxy store at Union Square that I wanted to stop by so we decided that would be our destination. On the way there we passed countless homeless people, an ambulance carting someone off on a stretcher, a bike gang getting arrested and a man with a pirate patch offering Avalon cookies. In an effort to see this experience through rose colored glasses, Scott kept saying things like "This is life happening all around us!" When a lady who seemed like she was tripping on acid briefly followed us hollering "I can blow bubbles!" I quietly started crying. 

Avalon and I waited in a coffee shop while Scott cancelled our hotel reservation. When your daily goal is currently: keep it together you need the help of your surroundings. I called my mom and told her exactly this. She encouraged us to find somewhere new and then paused because she had something to tell me too. "The pathology report from Maddie's surgery came back..." 

I remember when she called me to tell me Maddie had cancer in the first place. I just knew before she spoke. Her voice was sad, but matter of fact kind of like when a newscaster reports there's been a school shooting. When she said it I just started screaming "No!" over and over again like I'd forgotten all the other words I knew, my voice becoming hoarse and hopeless. She couldn't even finish telling me the details because she was reminding me to breathe appropriately. But on this phone call, I felt like I knew she was going to give me good news, at least as good of news as it was allowed to be right now. We knew before that Maddie's colon cancer wasn't stage four and we were pretty sure after the surgery that it wasn't stage one either so "good news" would have been stage two cancer instead of three. And it was. I took big breaths and felt like God really had been looking out for us, despite my skepticism. "Honestly, I'm so relieved!" I said. My mom said she was too. Maddie would still have to do chemo and a number of other unpleasant things to preserve her fertility, but we knew what we were facing now and it wasn't the worst case scenario. 

With a better head space, Scott, Avalon and I got into a cab with our luggage. Scott found a new place for us to stay near the water down in the Embarcadero called The Harbor Court. It made everything better. Before we booked it, he told me to look around the lobby to make sure it was the right place. I just had this feeling that it was, like I had been there before. My shoulders seemed looser once we arrived and I felt safe again. There was a fireplace, a free happy hour in the lobby, gigantic chess and tic tac toe sets, fresh, cool water with fruit in it and pretty flowers. The bonus was it was even more affordable than the other hotel in the heart of one of San Francisco's biggest crime (and poop) zones. They delivered a Pack 'N Play to our room and we relaxed immediately. We had dinner that night with Basia and Phil in the sushi restaurant connected to the hotel. It was the kind of night you remember because it bookended something stupid hard and began something hopeful and new.

On Saturday we met Basia, Phil, Nicole and Mike at The Ferry Building and had lunch at The Plant before heading over to The Exploratorium . It was pretty expensive to do half day at The Exploratorium, so we ended up wandering the lobby and gift shop instead. I bought a white blood cell stuffed animal for Maddie, and Avalon enjoyed watching us create tornadoes inside a water tank at a momentum exhibit. I nursed her while walking around the city, which was something I had only hoped of doing when I was going through the worst of my feeding struggles. I even had a drink that night at the complimentary hotel happy hour while Scott gave Avalon a bottle. She was the best little travel partner, looking wide-eyed at every dog, dinging trolley and flickering candle we passed. She enjoyed the elevator, hotel fireplace and mirrors and fell asleep sucking her thumb from pure exhaustion both nights.

I remember when I was just beginning my journey in motherhood. I was walking on the beach for the first time since Avalon was born. She was probably three weeks old, curled against my body like a baby sea otter. It felt like emerging from hibernation or, more accurately, surfacing from a bomb shelter. My mom and I observed a lady and her young daughter playing in the waves. The mother approached me and pointed to Avalon saying to her daughter "Baby! Look at the baby!" Then she said to me, "Aren't you just l-o-v-i-n-g it?" I wanted to say yes enthusiastically because I loved Avalon with every cell in my bloodstream, I'd lost hours of sleep just looking at her, but the truth was I felt like a shell of myself, caught off guard by what was expected of me as a mother at times. "I love her. This is hard, but it's getting better." 

Thank you all for your very kind words about Maddie. It feels so incredibly heart warming to have the support of this caring online community. I feel very lucky to have you all thinking such positive things for my family. I also feel so fortunate to have connected with you all over the years.
+First and last city scape shots by Philip Nowak Photography 
+Saves-the-day, awesome hotel The Harbor Court! <3

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Smallest Sister

Lately I haven't been writing as many blog entries because I haven't had as much time as I used to. This week I haven't written anything because I don't know how to tell this story, the hardest one I've ever had to type. How do you write down in words that your 25 year old sister has cancer? I guess I just did, but it still doesn't seem real. It's like my fingers are typing something my brain doesn't know how to hold. I hate writing the words down because then they can't fly away anymore.

The details are easiest to share. That it's colon cancer, the most treatable kind of cancer. That last Friday they removed two feet of Maddie's colon and a tumor that looked like a shrimp, which is ironic because she always eats all the shrimp at Thanksgiving and the family Christmas party. That we're waiting for the pathology report to come back to know more. "It takes seven to ten days to be ready.", "Yes, it's torturous waiting," I say over and over again. 

I can hear myself saying things like "How terrible" and "This must be so hard for them" and "It isn't fair" when I've received similar information about other people. Now that it's happening to us, I can barely pray about it.

I think about my bad days before and I want them back; a butchered haircut, a mean co-worker, a flat tire, a silly fight, that time I hired a cleaning lady and she broke the mermaid statue I brought back from Peru. 

Last night I was lying awake thinking about what a lactation consultant told me after we speculated that my formerly overly-enthusiastic milk supply was suffering due to stress. She said if I can get it back up I can give my 25 year old sister breastmilk if she has to do chemo. I was staring at a night light at 3:05 a.m. thinking about how now I am probably more motivated to keep breastfeeding for my sister than I am for my newborn. The consultant said to give it to her in a champagne glass, not a bottle, obviously, but I know we will make jokes about her drinking it from the source because it's awkward and laughing always feels good. 

Last week Scott and I went to get haircuts in the evening with Avalon. The hairdresser from Boston was pregnant with her fourth boy, so I asked her a hundred questions like "Did you breastfeed each and for how long?", "What are their names?" and "Which age has been the hardest so far?" She said eight has been the roughest age yet because her oldest son, just beginning third grade, has a few hours of homework every day. "Every night he loses it because the other two are playing X Box and he has to sit in his room solving math problems and writing short essays! I just think they could have eased him into it, you know? Started him off with a few nights of homework and then worked up to the every day routine." I nodded my head enthusiastically because the blowdryer was on and I hate when people make life harder than it already has to be. But then the other day I was thinking about how nothing could have eased us into to this cancer diagnosis so maybe a third grade teacher piling on stressful homework out of nowhere is just a third grade teacher mimicking life.

I remember when Maddie was in third grade and I was in ninth. I was attending school without my sisters for the first time in years. I panicked. I hated it. I cried every morning in the dark. I moved a couch cushion into their room and slept on the floor. After school, Maddie and I would ride our bikes to the construction sites down the street and pretend we were in Egypt, living in castles with our dog Bailey. Maddie let me keep my childhood alive without a second thought. I looked forward to being with her every afternoon. She was the only person who just let me be who I needed to be at the time. I would climb around the framing of the new homes to get to the second stories before the stairs were built. I've always wanted Maddie to think that I was brave, even tonight as I paddled out once the water was black while she and her friend Kara watched from the cliff. But she is the brave one. She has always been herself out loud. She knows what she wants. She speaks her mind, but in a gentle way that doesn't intimidate you. She loves without hesitation.

When I first found out the diagnosis, my faith in God wavered for a moment, but my faith in Maddie never did. I know the smallest sister will be the strongest.