Saturday, July 16, 2011

Journey's End

Mary went off her pain medication two days after her surgery.  Next week, she'll be back to work cleaning houses with Deb.  She's Super Woman, that girl.

I'm trying hard not to hate her just a little bit.

The week before Mary's surgery, something strange occurred to me.  Mary's operation - the last for all of us- would fall on July 7th, one year to the day after Terri's breast cancer diagnosis.

"I can't believe it!" Terri gasped when I reminded her.  "It's like a sign or something."

All the rest of my life, I will never forget the call Terri made to me on that warm July day from the WalMart parking lot after hearing the results of her biopsy.

"I've got it!" she sobbed. 

In that second, all our lives changed forever.

My little sister Terri is my hero.  She was the first to confront the unthinkable and overwhelming idea of a double mastectomy.  She was the first to undergo an operation to remove her breasts and to wake up in her hospital bed to pronounce, "I'm on the other side!"  She was the first to sit nervously in the plastic surgeon's office and feel the injection of saline expanding her chest muscles to create new breasts.

Because she was brave, Deb and Mary and I were brave.  And now it's over.  What a harrowing, emotional journey it's been.  But who better to share it with than your sisters and best friends?

From July 7th last year to July 7th this year, we lost our breasts and got new ones.  We discovered how to sleep sitting up, wash our hair without lifting our arms, and hide our boy chests behind carefully arranged scarves.

More than that, we discovered we could get through any thing as long as we had each other.

There are still moments of despair and grief at the loss of our breasts.  Much of that grief is for Mom.  She's missed out on so much these last 32 years.  But it is because of her that Deb, Mary, Terri and I will survive. We will live to see our children grow to adulthood.  We will know our grandchildren.

I miss my mother so much.  Terri, who is too young to remember all the subtle nuances that were uniquely my mother's, is more like Mom than any of us.  It's her quick-witted, outrageous sense of humor.  It's the way she gently turns an infant on her shoulder and kisses it tenderly on the cheek.  It's the spot-on imitations she does of her kids that make us gasp for air laughing.

She makes Mom feel very near.  But I see Mom in all my sisters.  She is in Deb's laughter, in Mary's expressive brown eyes, and in Caroline's plucky resolve.  We have felt her loving spirit encouraging us, comforting us, applauding us.

"Don't be sad!" she tells us.

I know we'll see her again.  And Dad, too.  But in the meantime, the terrible fear that ruled our lives is gone at last, and the future that always seemed uncertain  is folding out in front of us.  Mom would want us to enjoy it.

And so we will.
For our kids.
For ourselves.
And for Mom.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Sister William Jane, my second grade teacher, informed our class one day that under no circumstances would our pets ever enter the Pearly Gates.

"Animals have no souls," she looked sharply at us above her dark rimmed glasses. "Only human beings have souls and are permitted to spend eternity in Heaven."

My best friend Marla Marrone suddenly made a gasping little sound and slid low behind Murray McCarty to weep softly. Filled with rage, I glared at Sister William Jane with all my might. She took absolutely no notice of my indignation, however, and continued her ponderous sermonizing. I was seven-years-old and a trusting, obedient child. But I knew she was wrong.

No soul? My dog Duchess, a tolerant little dachshund who burrowed under my covers every night to curl up in the crook of my knee, had more soul than Sister William Jane would have in ten life times. I was never so certain of any thing in my life. And nearly 50 years later, I’m still certain of it.

Willy, my mangy little companion of a cat, began to have troubles this last week. After three days of witnessing him coughing up bile and secreting himself away in the privacy of my closet, I took him to the vet.

"I’ll keep him here for the afternoon to run some tests," Dr. Hughes said.

I tried not to worry. Willy had scared me before, but he always survived. And he’d been up to trouble in his regular fashion. Just a few days ago, he’d been stalking a family of rabbits in the backyard, and I was horrified to see him carting off yet another dead bunny in his jaws.

"You’re a serial killer!" I thrust a finger in his face after he’d successfully decapitated the bunny. "Why do you DO these things?"

He gazed calmly at me with those eyes that can almost speak and licked bunny remains off his whiskers.

I hate it that Willy preys on small animals when he has an overflowing bowl of cat food in the kitchen just steps away. In fact, there’s not much about Willy to like at all. He’s filthy and smelly and moody. He allows himself to be stroked but never hugged. Sometimes, if you walk too closely by him, he hisses for no apparent reason. And he deposits his dirty coon cat hair on the furniture, the carpet, and even in the vents.

But Willy is devoted to me. I don’t know how I passed his litmus test. John feeds him and cleans his litter box. Willy, however, loyally follows me every where - even to the bathroom. And at night, he curls up next to my head as I sleep, leaving in his wake a ball of Willy hair.

But I find it comforting, somehow, to sleep between the reassuring bulk of my husband on one side and the warm little weight of Willy on the other. John snores and Willy wiffles - both in a rhythmic duet. I feel safe and loved. And a little anxious in the morning that I might smell like cat.

In 11 years, I never needed Willy’s constant companionship as much as I have this last year. Recovering from two surgeries and months of muscle expansion in my chest, I prowled the house during the lonely pre-dawn hours when it seemed everyone else in the whole world slumbered. But Willy always kept me company. His reassuring little presence was constantly nearby.

"Willy?" I’d whisper in the darkness. And he unfailingly answered with the little chirrup that always sounded exactly like a raccoon.

So I tried not to worry that Dr. Hughes was keeping him for tests. Willy would surely always be there. But last evening when the phone finally rang, Dr. Hughes didn’t have good news.

"Willy’s kidneys are in bad shape," he said. According to the blood tests, two thirds of my cat’s kidneys had shut down. The very best scenario, Dr. Hughes explained, was that Willy was afflicted with a kidney infection. He could possibly rally, but then he would require treatment twice a week at the vet’s office to flush out the toxins from his damaged kidneys. It might offer him a little more time. But that was the unlikely scenario. In all probability, Willy was headed for a slow, painful death.

"Can I call you right back, Dr. Hughes?" I was reeling with the abrupt news. "I need to talk to my husband and my son."

We were all of like mind. Willy suffered great distress visiting the vet just for his rabies shot. How could I force my ailing cat to endure trauma with a twice a week visit to the vet? Hardly able to speak, I called Dr. Hughes back. "I think we’ve decided to let Willy go," I choked.

John was still at work, but my sweet boy Tommy accompanied me to the vet’s. Dr. Hughes brought Willy to us in a little sitting room away from the office and allowed us time to say our goodbyes. I stroked his thick grey stripes and looked into his frightened eyes.

"I love you, Willy," I sobbed, as he hid his head in my arm, fearful of his strange surroundings. "You’ve been the best little cat."

My six and a half foot son sat stoically beside me weeping silent tears and awkwardly patting my back with his big paw of a hand. A few minutes later, Dr. Hughes returned to administer the shot that would help Willy relax and drift off to sleep. With the old Willy spirit I craved to see, he hissed hugely and took a swipe at the vet. Then he nestled against my chest, and gradually I felt his small body relax.

"Willy, Willy, Willy," I murmured in his ear. Outside the window, clouds floated lazily by in the evening sky, and as I held him close, Willy went to sleep peacefully and forever.

The final injection stopped his heart. With one last sigh, Willy’s head fell limply into my hand. And he was gone. I kissed his warm little head. "Goodbye, Willy Boy."

A cat is a beloved pet. It is not a child or a spouse or a parent. A good friend buried her 10-day-old baby girl yesterday morning, and my beautiful dear friend, Ellen May, sang for the funeral congregation. Ellen herself lost her own baby Amanda nearly 25 years ago but bravely ministered to the devastated family whose misery she knew so well.

Over the July 4th weekend, two young brothers were killed at a nearby lake in a tragic boating accident, devastating our community.

And Phyllis Dryer, the saintly, much loved mother of 11 children, all who attended our small Catholic school, died of cancer last week.

The loss of our children and our loved ones is a loss that changes our lives forever - a loss from which sometimes we may never recover.

Willy was just a cat - a dear little cat. But he wove himself into the daily fabric of our lives. He drank out of the toilet, lounged in the sun in his favorite window sill, and wrapped his great plume of a tail around him whenever he slept.  He was there when I needed him most.

And he loved me.

In spite of all Sister William Jane’s arguments otherwise, I feel sure Heaven has room for every one of our beloved pets - the protective hound who ferociously guarded our babies, the canary who serenaded us in the mornings, the patient horse who carried us across the pasture. And a mangy little coon cat called Willy.

Goodbye, my Willy Boy.

I'll never forget you.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

July 4th

Dad was the most patriotic man alive.

When July 4th rolled around, he was purely in his element.  In our big back yard, he organized what we teasingly referred to as the "Dick Brown Olympics."  We raced, hula-hooped, tossed water balloons and furiously battled for the prize.

When our own kids were born, Dad really developed the Olympics.  Every member of the family, no matter how young or old, was required to participate in Dad's Fourth of July competition.  The little kids won a silver dollar for every event while the adults walked away with a 40 oz. bottle of beer.  Based on a carefully calculated point system, the winning family was presented with an annual trophy.  Dad made sure the name of the family was engraved on the trophy, and for a year, it proudly resided in one of our homes.

Never in ours, though.  Never the Howards'.  We never took that damn trophy home once.

It was still fun, though.  And at the end of the day, Dad always prepared a glorious barbecue for every winner and loser alike.

Dad is so intricately associated with the Fourth of July that I've dreaded the holiday ever since he died.  It's hard on all of us.  All our individual families have parted ways on the day to celebrate in our own fashion, to organize fire work stands, or attend softball tournaments. 

But I couldn't wait for the holiday to roll around this year.  My surgery would be over, Kenny and his girlfriend Katie were coming to Grand Island to see John and Tommy and me, and John's brother Cliff was even planning to visit.  They were all arriving on the Friday night before the 4th.  For a month I yearned for the weekend to arrive. 

Then last week I got sick.  Some sort of infection taking advantage of my post-op weakened immune system laid me low.  My temperature spiked, my chest muscles ached, and every thing in my stomach came up and up.  Dr. Montag put me immediately on an antibiotic, but even after the fever began to subside, I collapsed on my bed devoid of all energy, sank into a pit of depression, and wondered how I'd ever entertain the troops on the 4th.

Next door, Ann Hart had just arrived home from her own reconstructive surgery with a throbbing migraine and the news that her brother had been diagnosed with colon cancer. 

"I'm so sorry, Ann," I hugged her when I was strong enough to walk next door.

She hugged me back.  "I'm sorry you're so sick," she replied with deep feeling.  We looked at each other in mutual sympathy.  "Does it ever get better?" she sighed.

I didn't have the answer.  The operation that was supposed to solve all our problems didn't stop life's burdens from creeping in through the cracks.

Returning home, I fell onto the sofa in a feverish doze.  The afternoon was deathly hot, and the buzz of the locusts droned through my dreams.  Sweating out the fever in my sleep, I imagined some pre-life existence in Heaven where God, looking suspiciously like my big mountain of a father, interrupted play with my friends on some vividly emerald green hilltop covered with cushiony clover.

"Come over, Kids," he rounded us up and gathered us at his feet. 

"It's time," he said when we had settled, "for all of you to take a journey.  How would you like to visit a place together called Earth," he paused, gazing far away, "to learn more than you ever could in this perfect existence.  A place," he smiled, " to experience both exquisite pain and happiness, to love until your heart bursts, and to abandon yourself to the wildest ride you'll ever take in eternity?"

His loving eyes dropped to me, gently awaiting my response. 

I looked around at all my playmates who meant every thing to me, then turned back to the Lord.

"No thanks, God," I shrugged.  "I'm good here, really."

I believe he almost would have let me stay, too.  But it was the rest of them - those playmates who would one day be my parents, my siblings, my friends, my husband, my children - who wouldn't let me off and who dragged my reluctant and ill-tempered self all the way to Earth.

I'm onto something here.  The Pope would surely acknowledge my vision of PreHeaven with the "Good Catholic Seal of Approval."

But where did it all get me?  A week of feeling like day-old jello.

On Friday, however, Peg Ley, my high school typing teacher and dear friend, accompanied me to Omaha so that I wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel, and at last, my drainage tubes were removed.  I sighed in relief when Betsy, the P.A., yanked those tubes out of my side.

"Free at last," I groaned.

Every day has been a little better.  My husband, the best husband in the world in case I've failed to mention it in the last five minutes, prepared all the holiday weekend meals for our company and pushed me off to bed.  But when I was rested, I reveled in the company of my brother-in-law Cliff, who is as kind as the day is long, and thoroughly enjoyed the sounds and laughter of young people in the house.  Kenny and Tommy, the big oafs, teased Katie unmercifully.  But she knows how to handle the likes of them.  She might be only half their size, but the girl's got pluck.

Today, the three of them sped off to Omaha to visit the Henry Doorly Zoo, Cliff returned to Colorado, and John and I lunched with Pat and Julie Kayl and our former principal and his wife, Hugh and Fran Brandon. With our dearest friends in the world, we relaxed around our favorite table at Applebees, and in that seamlessly easy fashion reserved for old, old friends, caught up with each other's news and covered every thing from grandchildren to Social Security to heart health.

I couldn't help but think how 30 years ago, we were absorbed in child care, kindergarten registration and wedding showers.  And I thought how lucky I was to have spent the weekend with family and friends like them and Peg Ley and my brother-in-law Cliff - all those shadowy playmates who sprawled around me on a hill top in PreHeaven.

Tomorrow, John will grill brats, and Kenny and Katie and Tommy will search the city for firework entertainment.  July 4th.  The celebration of our country's glorious liberation.

My sisters and I will be celebrating our own liberation.  It's been a long year, but it's almost over.  Last July, Terri was diagnosed with breast cancer.  This July, we will have completed our four double mastectomies and reconstruction.  And life should be marvelous.  But a week of fighting back from an infection has tempered my euphoria.

Prophylactic surgery is hard, and I'm not sure I'd ever again opt for reconstruction after the last difficult six months.  The cost has been dear, and it hasn't made my life perfect.  But the double mastectomy, which I'd undergo again in a heartbeat, has given me the precious gift of time.

"More time to worry!" my smart aleck husband loves to tease me.

He's right.  The eternal struggle with my worrisome nature afflicts me again and again.  I'll worry until I die.  My heart will break for the losses of family and friends, I'll never have enough money to pay the August air condition bill, and surely I'll miss a very anticipated family gathering or two because of the stinking stomach flu.  Because that's life.

But maybe I'll take a far away trip with my much loved husband, feel my heart swell with pride over the achievements of my sweet sons, and perhaps even sprawl on some emerald green, clover covered hill with my laughing grandchildren.  Because that's life, too.

Then I will thank God with all my being that he didn't listen to my selfish whims in PreHeaven.  It turns out that in spite of all the heartbreak and loss and struggles and challenges, or maybe even because of them, it's been a great ride - the wildest ride of all.

So tomorrow I'll celebrate my liberation with a bratwurst.  I will laugh with my kids, hug my husband, cuddle the cats and swing on the porch.  And I will be forever grateful to those determined playmates who dragged me kicking and screaming to Earth to become the precious people I love most in the world. 

But right now, no matter what anybody says, I'm taking a nap. 

Happy 4th.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


An uncomfortable tugging from my rib cage woke me at 5:30 this morning.  It was Willy the Cat batting at my drainage tube as if it was a coiled snake ready to strike.

"Do not - repeat - do NOT sleep with household pets during your post operative recovery period," was the explicit warning on the instruction sheet the doctor sent home with me. 

That ship, unfortunately,  has sailed.

Other than the dreaded drainage tubes, however, I'm feeling good a week after reconstructive surgery.  The giant rock-hard pecs are gone, and I even found my armpits again.  Things are rounder, softer, and infinitely more comfortable.

"Are you huge?" my 94-year-old friend Mary Caddy called me yesterday.  I told everybody I knew that I was taking advantage of this unique opportunity to choose the "Dolly Parton Full Figure Implants".   My elderly friend apparently took me seriously.

"Nope, Mary," I assured her.  "I look exactly like I did before." 

I could practically hear her disappointment over the phone.  "Oh, well," she said, "as long as you're happy..."

With any luck at all, I may be able to have the tubes removed tomorrow, and that would be a very fine way to celebrate the end of the week.  It's been a week of milestones all over the place.  Our Tommy turned 21 this last week, and Deb is celebrating her 50th birthday today.  That my baby sister who looks every bit as young as her 20-something daughters can be 50 seems utterly impossible.   At least she still acts as if she's in her 20's anyway.

"Watch this," she directed my attention to her newly constructed chest.  Like a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger impression, she flexed first her right boob, then her left - popping one out right after the other. 

"How'd you do that?" I was astounded by her newly developed talent.

"Practice," she shrugged.

In my mind, Deb is still the long-legged teenager who outgrows a pair of jeans every couple of months.   And somehow, never in my mind did I ever envision the day that John and I would take our baby boy Tommy out to Applebees for a beer.  What happened to my curly-haired towhead who raced his Big Wheels down the driveway again and again?  I don't know where those intervening years went.  But dammit, I want them back.  There wasn't enough time to properly enjoy them.

My sweet next door neighbor Ann Hart reached her own milestone just yesterday when she also completed her reconstructive surgery.  The two of us have big plans to sit on the front porch some summer evening and heal together.  We'll compare battle wounds, and I'll coax out a story or two about her granddaughter as I await the first glimpse of those elusive fire flies in the warm Nebraska dusk.

These long awaited milestones mark the end of the road for all of us.  Mary's final surgery is two weeks from today.  Then it's finished.  For all of us.

It's a relief, of course.  But my sisters and I have grown surprisingly attached to our wonderful care givers.  We'll miss the p.a.'s, Erin and Betsy, and especially our surgeons, Drs. Janet Grange and Marie Montag.  Dr. Montag has guided all of us through the reconstruction process, and she's become the familiar friend we look forward to seeing every week.

I never knew any plastic surgeons before Dr. Montag, but I held on to a foolishly preconceived idea that they were intimidating and untouchable people.  Dr. Montag blew that notion right out of the water.  With her long hair trailing down her back and her laughing blue eyes, she sailed through the door every week. Once, she tripped over a stool as she left the exam room where my sisters and I were all crowded together for our weekly fills.  "I'm such a klutz!" she giggled like a girl.  "Every where but in the operating room.  Don't worry."

As a matter of fact, Dr. Montag is a brilliant plastic surgeon.  People wait for weeks to see her - and not just for boob jobs and brow lifts.  She's treated children with devastating birth defects and many patients who've suffered traumatic injuries.  She and her p.a.'s, Erin and Betsy, are all bubbly, charming people.  Dr. Montag is married to a farmer and loves her dogs, especially her oldest and favorite who just recently passed away.  Every year, she travels back to Sargent, Nebraska, where her husband's family farms and spends a couple of weeks helping to make sausage.

The atmosphere in her clinic is far from stressful. Erin, the p.a., chatted endlessly for weeks about her upcoming wedding until Deb interrupted.  "I know you really just slipped up and meant all along to ask me to be your maid-of-honor," Deb said with a completely serious face,  "but I need to know where to get fitted for my bridesmaid dress."  Dr. Montag chuckled appreciatively.

My friends who suffer from cancer often tell me that the disease taught them to be grateful.

"Grateful for what?" I used to wonder uneasily. 

But  I understand now.  My sisters and I have come to love our wonderful doctors and their life-giving staff members, and we are tremendously grateful for their kind hearts that persuaded them to take on the four scared Mary's.  We never would have had the privilege of knowing them otherwise - or worming our way into their weddings.

In two weeks, the journey will be over.  Mary's surgery will be the last milestone.  Then we'll celebrate our health, the good friendships we've made, and the first glimpse of Nebraska fire flies.

Summer is almost here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


My sister-in-law should host a late night talk show.  I've always said so.

Mary Turner is simply a female version of my husband John - funny, sarcastic, evil.  That's why I love her.  Like her smart-aleck brother, she makes me laugh til my stomach hurts.

"I can't wait to make this trip," she always jokes about traveling from the most scenic part of the Rockies where she and her family reside to the stark hot plains of Nebraska where we live.  "My friends are SO jealous."

Mary drove 14 hours over the mountains and through the plains this last weekend to give me one last hurrah before my surgery on Thursday.  And that's the other thing I love about my sister-in-law.  She's the kindest, most giving person alive.

Mary and her husband Ross live in Montrose, Colorado, where Ross owns a Chevrolet/Toyota dealership.

"WE SCREW THE OTHER GUY AND PASS THE SAVINGS ONTO YOU!" he announces in his cheesiest t.v. voice.  Ross is a smart aleck, too.  In truth, however, he is exactly the opposite of the stereotypical slick car salesman.  Ross is steady and good and as civic minded as they come, and he'd give the shirt off his back to any poor slob who asked.

Mary brought along her youngest daughter Laura this weekend while Ross stayed behind to tend to the car business.  Emily, their oldest daughter, is finishing up nursing school, and David, their 20-year-old, is fighting fires this summer in the Colorado mountains.  Emily and David are bright, fun, exceptional college students who will one day make their marks on the world in a big way.  But little Laura's life has been vastly different.

Seventeen years ago, Laura was born with her meningocele, the membranes that cover the brain and part of the spine, outside her head.  She was life-flighted to Children's Hospital in Denver where doctors performed emergency surgery and gently explained to Ross and Mary that Laura's brain was severely damaged.  "We don't know if she'll ever walk or talk," they delivered the news to my stunned sister and brother-in-law.

Laura was, in fact, so injured that she had to be taught the instinctive urge of every newborn to suck.  For weeks and weeks, her tiny body clung to life, and Mary and Ross worked desperately to help their little daughter sustain nourishment and thrive.  It was a very bleak time, and our hearts ached to think of the road ahead for little Laura and her parents.

But Mary, the best mother I've ever known in my life and certainly the most determined, sought out help from every available resource - doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, Head Start.  From the day Laura was born, Mary and Ross committed the rest of their lives to the happiness and well being of their baby daughter and worked hard to create a cheerful, loving world around her. 

The Turner house is always filled with light, music, precious momentos and the smell of Mary's phenomenal cooking.  She and Ross make parenting a child with special needs look so easy.  The two of them are a team seamlessly dividing Laura's care between them.  Laura's bladder and bowels have to be emptied by catheter tubes five times a day. All her toiletry and basic needs are tended to by her parents and her brother and sister.  And at a time when Mary and Ross should be looking forward to an empty nest with their grown children out on their own, the two of them are still full-time parents and always will be.  They have agonized over Laura's tribulations and been overwhelmed by her medical needs, but never - not once - have they ever complained.

Laura adores her father and giggles uproariously at her mother's antics.  Many times I've laughed at Mary's clowning until disarmingly, Laura twines her slender arms around Mary's neck and nuzzles her face.  "Oh Mommy," she sighs with love, "you're so funny." 

At 17, Laura now walks and talks and is loved by an entire community.  And she was delighted for the opportunity to finally attend high school.

"How'd Laura do in school this quarter?" I called Mary back in October.

"Well," Mary hesitated, "she's having a little problem.  Apparently she irritates the other kids sometimes."

I couldn't believe it.  Our sweet Laura?  Tall and slight, Laura attends special education classes at Montrose High School, and though she seems years younger than other kids her age, she's always been a sociable and loveable child.  How in the world could she irritate other kids?

"She sings their names," Mary informed me.  "Over and over."

The two of us burst out laughing.  I thought of all the times I'd seen Laura silently creep around a corner to sneak up on our boys.  "Oh, TOOOOOOMMMMY!" she'd sing out, smiling from ear to ear.

Of all Mary's kids, Laura alone possesses her mother's evil sense of humor.  When her big brother David pretends to collapse on the floor in pain, solely for Laura's benefit, she explodes into screaming giggles.  "Look at Dave, Mom!" she points, loving the violent pratt falls.

Amazingly, Laura has perfect pitch.  Her voice is crystal clear, and she loves to sing.  She's memorized the lyrics to several Broadway shows including PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL.  One afternoon when she was small, she sang for all of us at our house, including Tommy whom she called "Kim".

"Jesus loves the little children," she gazed upward and warbled in her sweet, soft soprano.  Suddenly, she turned to Tommy abruptly.  "Kim!  Sing!" she ordered him.  Startled, Tommy sang.  When Laura issues a command, you hop right to.

Last Sunday, Mary bought tickets for Laura, herself and me to see the musical WICKED in Omaha.  Laura's been listening to the sound track for the last year, and among her stash of precious belongings which include a Justin Bieber doll, a Rapunzel doll, and a Barbie Princess doll, is also a book picturing the cast members of WICKED.

"It'll be your job to keep Laura from singing along with the performers," Mary instructed me in her best school marm voice.

It was a performance I'll never forget.  In the old majestic Orpheum Theater in Omaha, hundreds of us sat spellbound.  Laura squeezed between Mary and me gazing in rapture at the beautiful Glinda and laughing raucously at any scene that even hinted of violence. 

For three glorious hours, I lost myself in the story of Glinda the Good Witch and Elphie, the surprisingly not-so-wicked witch, and reveled in the music and pageantry.  I forgot to worry about going under the knife on Thursday and waking up with drainage tubes attached to my ribs.  The chance to share that wonderful afternoon with Mary and Laura was a stolen moment and such a treat.

Laura and her family have a way of putting this complicated world into perspective for a lot of us.  For six months, I've had my life on hold until my final surgery the day after tomorrow.  But laying aside my worries for three hours at the Orpheum Theater was a gift, pure and simple. 

Laura, however, always lives in the moment.  She has no regrets about the past and no worries about the future.  Sometimes, she wails in frustration when she is unable to communicate her needs to others, but by and large, Laura looks forward to every new day and trusts her good parents completely.

Her birth seemed a great tragedy.  How could any of us have known how vitally important she would become to all of us?  It is because of Laura that her sweet brother has grown into such a compassionate young man and that her sister will soon earn a nursing degree to save lives. It's because of Laura that her Grandma Howard, at an advanced age, felt compelled to work with the disabled and that her cousin Kenny helps coach a Special Olympic's tennis team.

Laura will always be our little girl - forever and ever.  She won't go to college or marry or raise a family.  But her presence in all our lives has been transforming.  She and her remarkable parents show us that with the love of a good family, there's really nothing to fear.  Not the future, not the past - not even a couple of drainage tubes. 

Some events in our lives, like double mastectomies, can appear to be tragic.  In the end, however, we discover that our tragedies sometimes transform into blessings. They often become the very making of us and of those who love us.

Laura Turner, in her complete innocence, has transformed her family and even an entire town.  She has forced us to grow larger and wider and deeper and to see life for what it is - a marvelous gift. 

And if she can make her big brother collapse onto the floor in pain - well, that's just an added bonus.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Climbing mountains

Kenny's spent his entire life trying to drag me out of my comfort zone.

If he wasn't 6 ft.10, I could almost believe the hospital had switched babies on us.  Not that he was 6 ft.10 then, of course.  But he's such a spot-on combination of both my husband and my father that he couldn't possibly belong to anyone else.

I just don't understand why he isn't more like me.

Cautious and careful, I've sought certainty and routine all my life.  I have to know exactly what day the electric bill is due and what to expect when I die.  I don't even read a book until I've checked the last page to assure myself of a satisfying ending.

"Don't you EVER want to be surprised?" my husband sighs in expasperation.  No, I do not.  I want only to be safe and pay my utility bill on time.

But Kenny lives for surprises.  And that would be fine if he would only leave me out of it.

"Mom, just TRY the giant water slide," he coaxed me when he was 11.  And because I hated for him to think I was dull, ten minutes later I was skimming down a 60 foot high-speed water slide too horrified to even breathe.

"This is what it feels like to die," I remember thinking with some small, detached part of myself.

All his life, Kenny has shamed and wheedled me into doing things I hate.  I remember the unspeakable terror of flying upside down on a roller coaster high above Kansas City, cracking my head on a Denver water ride, and foolishly attempting to outrun a 30 foot wave at the "Tsunami" pool.

All because I was ashamed for my boy to think I was boring.

Kenny is still on a quest to force me to have fun against my will, but his suggestions aren't quite so over the top.   This last Memorial Day, John and I visited our oldest son in Denver.  We spent time with my mother-in-law, too, at her new nursing home facility, and, along with Kenny's girlfriend Katie, Grandma, and John's brothers Dave and Cliff, ate dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant.

Katie departed for California the next morning, John spent the day with his mom at the nursing home, and Kenny turned to me with that old familiar glint in his eye.  "We're climbing a mountain today, Mom."

Table Top Mountain boasts an easy trail all the way to the top, and I was proud of my son for suggesting a moderate climb that his aging mother could handle.  "Now when we get to the rocky plateau up there," he pointed, as we rested at the halfway mark, "we'll have to scale to the top with ropes."

My jaw dropped, and I gaped at him.

"Kidding, Mom.  We just climb a few steps," he grinned.

"Why do you do that to me?" I snapped.

"Because," he laughed, "it's so easy!"

But the climb to the top was worth it.  In the distance, the Denver skyline shimmered like Emerald City, and all around us were mountains and high clouds and the soft soughing of the wind.  It was a good moment to share with my boy.

"Mom," he said in the car later, "I know you've said again and again you'd never in your life eat sushi, but I want you to try it.  I know a great sushi bar."  What the heck, I thought.  I'd climbed a mountain today.

Sushi, it turns out, is not half bad.  With a little soy sauce and a lot of cream cheese, you could almost forget you were ingesting raw fish.

Kenny also introduced me to his smartphone.  I fiddled with the keyboard, and he guided me through the menus.  "See that little microphone?" he pointed.  "Tap that and ask for directions to your motel."

It was unbelievable.  "The Comfort Inn in Greeley, Colorado, please?" I asked politely.

Kenny laughed.  "You don't have to be nice to it, Mom.  It's a phone."

It was a great day, and while I missed John and Tommy, I loved having Kenny to myself.  All the kid's ever wanted is for me to enjoy myself.  But the sad truth is that I've allowed my terrible fear of breast cancer and every thing that comes with it to rule my life.

A week from next Thursday on June 16th, six months to the day after my double mastectomy, I am scheduled for my final surgery.  The expanders come out, the implants go in, and I will have my life back.  But with God's help, it won't be the same fearful, careful life I've cautiously led for so long.  I'm determined to be more like my son Kenny.

From the day he entered kindergarten and gazed with expectant blue eyes at his bright new world, he's never looked back.  Embracing every new experience, Kenny views life as an adventure.  I've done my best to reign in his enthusiasm and keep him safe in my old familiar world while he's dragged me kicking and screaming into his.

But if there's any thing the last six months has taught me, it's that confronting my worst fear and looking forward to the future is the only way to live.

Kenny's taught me, too.  With a little luck, he'll yank me up another mountain top or two.

And maybe let me play with his smartphone.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Aunt Patty

She can't walk upright any more, and she leans on a cane.  But at 80-years-old, Aunt Patty is just as feisty as ever.

My dad's only sister, Aunt Patty is and always has been our one and only aunt.  We adore her.  She and Uncle Carl and Dad grew up in Pennyslvania, but while Dad moved west to play college basketball in Denver and lost his Pennsylvania accent, Aunt Patty still speaks like the true easterner she is.

We love to listen to her talk - and believe me, Aunt Patty can talk.  Her ocean blue eyes, so like Dad's, mesmerize us, as do the "Brown" squint and her low rumble of a laugh, all uncannily like Dad's.

Aunt Patty and Uncle Steve live  in Virginia, but once every couple of years, they load up their motor home and  travel all the way to Colorado to visit my cousin Stephen and his family.  On the way, they stop by Nebraska to see us.  Last weekend, they pulled into Deb's driveway, and Uncle Steve anchored down the motor home, his pride and joy.

"You girls look wonderful!" Aunt Patty greeted Deb, Mary and me as we helped her out of the huge vehicle.  "You don't look at all like you've just had surgery."

That's what's so nice about Aunt Patty.  She thinks her nieces and nephews are the greatest people on earth and conveniently overlooks all our apparent faults.  But when it comes to religion and politics, you always know exactly where you stand with her.  A dyed-in-the-wool old Catholic Republican, she has her own fierce opinions on every thing from Obama Care to gay marriage.  And there's not a single thing you can say to change her mind.

When Terri elected to have a double mastectomy after her breast cancer diagnosis, Aunt Patty expressed her opinion about that, too.  "Such radical surgery," she shook her head firmly.  "It's not necessary."

So when Deb and Mary and I decided to have double mastectomies as well, we were just a little afraid to tell Aunt Patty.  Terri had cancer.  We didn't.  How do you tell your extremely opinionated aunt you're cutting off your healthy breasts?

"Maybe we should start with an email," Deb suggested. 

I composed a carefully worded message to Aunt Patty telling her all about Deb's hyperplasia, our fear of hereditary breast cancer, and the decision we'd made together.

Then we waited for her reply.

"You should have told me how frightened you were of your mammograms," she wrote back.  "I would have comforted you.  You're brave girls, and I'm very proud of you."

That's another thing about Aunt Patty.  Once she decides she's in your corner, she's all in.  And her loyalty is absolute.  She's been our biggest cheerleader ever since we were young.

Long ago, when Uncle Steve made a career for himself in the Air Force, he and Aunt Patty and our Hamer cousins lived all over the country and even in England for a time.  We never saw them as much as we would have liked, but whenever we managed a family reunion of sorts, we had such fun.

Our seven cousins, all boys, were interesting and intelligent, and every one of them was always up for a good time.  Between the seven of them and the ten of us, we could find plenty to do and even create a little trouble from time to time.

Danny, the second oldest of my cousins, was a sweet blonde boy with a wide open smile.  He was enthralled with the big bales of hay in our Nebraska fields.  "They look like giant loaves of bread!" he exclaimed.  Danny was fascinated by every thing - fireflies, windmills, coal trains - and his deep interest helped me to view those familiar objects with new eyes.

It was when Uncle Steve was stationed in Colorado Springs that Danny first started feeling under the weather.  A swimmer, he ran out of steam executing the difficult butterfly stroke, and he sweat buckets just riding his bike around the neighborhood.  Danny's doctors were baffled, and quite suddenly, at the age of 15, he landed in the hospital.  A huge tumor on his adrenal gland proved to be the culprit.

One fall night, Uncle Steve called Aunt Patty to tell her to come quickly to the hospital.  Danny was failing.  She sped all the way praying with every thing she had.  But all at once, gripping the steering wheel, she relinquished her motherly control.

"I won't fight you any more!" she told God.  "I'm giving Danny to you, dear Lord."

At that very moment, Danny died.

We simply could not absorb the idea that our own sweet Danny was gone.  At the time, Mom was sick, too.  The old happy life we'd always taken for granted was disappearing forever.

Then the following year, Mom was in the hospital herself dying of breast cancer.  We were astounded one day when Aunt Patty walked through the front door calling out, "Anybody home?  It's your aunt Patty!" in that strong and familiar eastern accent.  She'd driven on her own all the way from Colorado Springs to be with us, and for a week, she systematically burrowed through our house, cleaned every nook and cranny that had been neglected far too long, and filled our freezer with dozens of casseroles.  When Mom died, Aunt Patty was with us.

"Aunt Patty," I reminded her on her visit a week ago, "you were still grieving the loss of Danny, you had six boys at home," I shook my head, "and yet you left every thing to come to us."

She shrugged matter of factly.  "You needed me."

It was that simple.  And she was right.  We needed her with us more than we ever had in our lives.

Now, on those rare and special occasions when we travel to Virginia to be with the Hamer family, my siblings and I have a new appreciation for the sacrifices Aunt Patty made for us and how much she's always loved us. 

With our kind, handsome cousins and their beautiful wives and families, we sprawl every where on Aunt Patty and Uncle Steve's spacious screened-in porch and lounge in the Virginia heat.  We catch up on each others' lives, tell stories about the old days laughing uproariously, and savor our brief time together.  Sometimes, I catch myself looking up wondering, "Where's Danny?"

Mom should be there, too.  And Dad. 

But thankfully Aunt Patty is there.  She reigns over the chaos chuckling at the antics of her numerous grandchildren who leap and splash in the pool, and she still manages to express an opinion about every topic under the sun.  It's when she looks over her glasses with those bright blue eyes and fixes us with that penetrating gaze that we feel the nearness of Dad.

I never want to lose my aunt Patty.  We've said goodbye to too many precious members of this good family.  But Aunt Patty, even in her frail body, is the strong glue that binds us together. Her reassuring presence is life giving. She makes those we've loved and lost seem very close - our grandparents, Mom and Dad, and a sweet blonde boy who loved fireflies, coal trains and bread-shaped bundles of hay.

And when she sputters indignantly about politics, Obama, and those terrible Democrats, I shut my mouth.  And I smile.   Her blue eyes flare above her glasses with energy and passion and zest. For just a moment, I am young again. I can pretend my adored Aunt Patty will live forever.

And all is right with the world.