Friday, December 31, 2010

Dark Night

"The dark night of the soul."

Whoever coined the phrase?

Christmas was a lovely gift, but three nights later, I woke with a raging migraine headache.

The pain abated in the morning, thankfully. Deb, Terri and I were scheduled to see the plastic surgeon in Omaha. Terri was nearly ready for her final operation to replace her filled expanders with permanent implants, Deb was scheduled for her second fill, and I was getting my tubes out - I hoped.

Nothing in the world, not even a migraine, would stop me. I was sick of draining those vile tubes and carrying them attached to my body 24 hours a day. My head would hold out, I told myself, long enough to get those damn tubes out.

But it wasn’t 30 minutes after Deb had picked me up and we merged into busy interstate traffic that I felt the subtle throbbing in my head. Deb’s little daughter Sydney chatted companionably in the back seat, but I closed my eyes to her chatter and to gray forbidding skies and willed myself to still the pain in my head.
We had just turned off at Lincoln to pick up Terri when I felt the lurch in my stomach.

"Oh Deb," I gasped, "pull over!"

She zipped into a muddy drive near scattered business buildings, and I tumbled out of the car to be sick.

"Just get it all out, Cath," I heard the soothing words of my sister.

It was humiliating to be throwing up on the side of the road with busy cars passing and my 11-year-old niece gaping with wide eyes from the car.

"Oh, Deb, I’m so sorry," I moaned when at last I fell into the car. "I shouldn’t have come. I’ll stay at Terri’s, and you two go ahead."

"No!" Deb protested. "You came all this way to get rid of those tubes, and we’re getting them out." Deb completely understood my antipathy. "If we have to get a bucket at Terri’s and take it along," she patted my arm, "that’s what we’ll do."

Sydney offered words of encouragement. "Brandi and I throw up into a bucket all the time!" My sweet niece.

Terri was just as sympathetic, and as we sped off the last 60 miles to Omaha, I felt my stomach settle.

The three of us were ushered right into the same exam room at Dr. Montag’s, and it was a relief when Erin, the physician’s assistant, called me to be examined first.

"Those tubes are ready to come out!’ she chirped.  I took a deep breath as instructed, and Erin and another nurse pulled each tube from either side at the same time. But it wasn’t quite over. The incision on the left side of my chest wasn’t looking good.

"I want Dr. Montag to take a look at that," Erin said.

According to Dr. Montag, the incision wasn’t healing properly. "Hopefully, it’ll resolve itself," she said kindly, "but if not, we’ll have to go back into surgery and repair it."

A setback. And a migraine to boot. But Terri, to my astonishment, had boobs! It was miraculous to see. Deb, too, was coming along nicely and was ready for another fill. But after a few brief instructions, Dr. Montag said she needed to see me in a week.

I was happy for my sisters, but back in the car, I could only close my eyes and will my head and stomach to survive the ride home. On the way home, however, Deb received a text from her daughter Brandi. The husband of a former student of mine had drowned when the ice broke while he was ice fishing. The news was a cold shock, and we were all silenced.

After what seemed forever, I was home at last. Heading straight for bed, I barely acknowledged my family. But all night long, my head pounded, my stomach heaved, and I spiraled into a kind of despair. I thought about Bill, the young man who had drowned, and of two other good parents of families I had taught, both whom had died of cancer during the week. When fitful sleep came, I dreamt of my dead parents.  Only now they were young, and I was a four-year-old basking in the glow of my mother’s smile.  In the bizarre fashion of dreams, I suddenly witnessed the horrific suffering of small abused babies in the house next door, and even as a young child myself, I called out to God in my dreams.

Morning came after a long, long night, and my headache finally began to fade. But the weight of sorrow crushed me all day long. When Tommy left that evening to watch the Husker game at a friend’s house and John did his part time stint at the city library, I sat down to pray and say the Rosary, something I’d not done since before my surgery. Pulling out my old Bible, I searched for consoling words of comfort and asked God to help me.

The weight lifted a little, and that night I slept a dreamless sleep between my snoring husband on one side and the comforting nearness of Willy the Cat on the other. This morning, I rose shakily to eat breakfast for the first time in three days.

It was New Years Eve. During the night, a passing storm had covered the world with a soft blanket of snow.

The first thing I did was rustle through the pages of the newspaper to find the year end poem I always enjoyed by local columnist George Ayoub. Encapsulating the national and local events of an entire year, the guy managed to arrange it all in a poem. Every thing was there - the triumphs and defeats, the deaths of those well loved and the drama of those living who are not so loved.

"And bless, too, living angels, who make this a brighter world," George wrote. "May high they hold the flag of peace, bright, shining and unfurled."

It was a little Godly message. It made me feel better, those words.

I still didn’t understand sorrowing and suffering. After five and a half decades, I knew suffering helped us grow and to be kinder people. But how did the abuse or starvation of little children benefit anybody? How did a good husband and father struggling for his last seconds in the frigid waters of an ice fishing accident help anyone?

But in the words I’d just read, life marched right alongside death, and good and evil sat closely side by side. And every day, we still strive to find happiness after sorrow, triumph after defeat, and simple joy in the goodness of family, home and work. The only thing I have to pin my hopes on, it always turns out, is my occasionally struggling faith in God. It always comes back to that.

Today is the last day of 2010. It’s been a year of breast cancer and epilepsy. It’s been the loss of my good mother-in-law’s independent life and her children’s hope that she will adjust to her last days in an assisted living facility. Those hard decisions take big chunks out of all of us. But it’s been a year of healing and courage and hope for the future as well.

I don’t know how sorrow plays into the mix.

I only know that after death comes resurrection, and that God is here.

That’s all I know.

But for this last day of 2010, maybe it’s enough.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

This Christmas

Some of my sixth graders sent home get well cards with my husband John.

One of them was written by a small boy I had just scolded the week before my surgery.

"I seen you at the mall, Mrs. Howard!" he chirped one morning.

"SAW!" I snapped. "You saw me at the mall."

His eyes rolled to the ceiling. "Who cares? Why do we have to learn this stuff?" he whined.

"So that you don’t sound like an idiot at cocktail parties," I said.

He groaned. "I’ve never been to a cocktail party in my whole life!"

"See?" I said. "Nobody invites idiots to cocktail parties."

He must have recognized a homemade get well card as his golden opportunity for revenge.

"Remember when I SEEN you at the mall, Mrs. Howard?" he wrote. "I SEEN you looking at shoes, and I SEEN your face when you SEEN the black ones. Now I wish I could SEEN your face when you SEEN this card!"

Another little boy, best friend to the mall rat, also penned a touching card.

"Thenks to you Missus Howerd I am the vary best speler in the hole middel schol. Are you a grat teecher or waht?"

These sixth graders really crack themselves up.

My operation was a week ago today, but it seems like another lifetime. I miss my students, even the smart alecky ones. And by God, they better be missing me. In spite of that, it’s been a good week. John rises early to ply me with medication and check out my drainage tubes. My son Tommy, with his grizzly bear paws, gently washed my hair the first day I was home from the hospital. Deb washed it again on Tuesday while Mary cleaned our house. Then they both presented me with a Christmas present - a Columbian fleece jacket with a matching hat, gloves and a fuzzy scarf. Deb arranged the scarf around my neck so that each long end draped over my boobless chest.

"See that?" she guided me toward the mirror. "Now nobody can even tell."

I’m lucky to have two sisters navigating the waters ahead of me. They know the answers to all my questions about draining tubes, the best way to sleep sitting up, and when to start the Milk of Magnesia. It turns out that starting it before a three-hour car trip home is never a good idea.

But to be on the other side, as Terri and Deb like to say, is an enormous relief, pure and simple. It must be a little like dying and waking up in Heaven.

I wasn’t exactly sure how the big unveiling of my new chest would occur, but it all happened in the hospital with very little fan fare.

"Let me sneak a peak at your dressings," the morning nurse smiled cheerfully as she pulled apart the velcro tabs of the corset wound tightly around my incisions.

And just like that, John and I were staring at my scarred chest. He didn’t flinch, and neither did I. It wasn’t so very shocking, really. It was just that every thing was gone except two horizontal wounds on the chest of what appeared to be an adolescent school boy.

"It looks good, Cath," John said.

My husband. He’s a terrible liar, but in that moment, he was the loveliest man I’d ever known.

Now that I’m home, I don’t like to look at my chest unless I have to. Sometimes, however, I force myself to examine it from all angles, and I am reassured that it’s still me - just a little bit less so.

While I sleep and rest and heal, I think of the kids at school. This is my favorite time of year. In English class, we always draw names for a gift exchange. Even the juniors enjoy the secrecy and delight of choosing a random name from the hat. But I didn’t have time for a gift exchange before my surgery this year.
And yesterday was Christmas Cheer, a day set aside for games and class competitions. My favorite event is the age old "Bat Spin", a relay race in which each student leans over to press his forehead against the end of a baseball bat and spins in reckless abandon. The kids then come up for air, dizzy and disoriented, tumbling into each other and colliding in confusion. Every year, I laugh until my sides ache.

But the best part of the day is Mass followed by the annual school Christmas pageant. Our seniors play the parts of Mary and Joseph and the angels. Some of the sturdier boys wear ancient bathrobes to portray the lowly shepherds, and there’s always a real Baby Jesus. Last year, Baby Jesus wailed piercingly on Mary’s lap until one of the shepherds, who in reality was the oldest brother of the infant, discreetly slapped a pacifier into Baby Jesus’ mouth. Even though the kids feel a little awkward donning angel wings and bathrobes, they sincerely try to portray the story of that long-ago miraculous birth, and their earnest reverence never fails to choke me up.

I missed out on all of it this year. Now tomorrow’s Christmas Eve, and I’m already sad that I won’t be squeezing into a church pew with John and Kenny and Tommy for Christmas Mass. Afterwards, Kenny and Tommy will join the rest of my sprawling big family at Joe’s house. My brother Joe, who reminds me so much of Dad, will greet everybody warmly at the door, and there will be singing and praying and eating and drinking and laughing.

But John and I will spend the evening quietly at home. At precisely 10 o’clock, my faithful husband will help me drain my tubes and change my dressings. Then we will wait for Kenny and Tommy to return home so that we can exchange our own gifts.

But I’ve already received my best Christmas present in the form of a phone call from Dr. Grange.

"Good news!" I could hear the smile on her face. "Your pathology report came back today - no evidence of any cancer at all!"

I was speechless for just a second, and then I thanked her over and over again.

"You’re welcome!" she laughed warmly. "And Merry Christmas!"

I sat for a long time cradling the phone in my lap. My sisters and I have never taken life for granted. We’ve learned to savor every holiday and graduation and wedding as if they might never occur again. But for the first time ever, I felt the possibility of a long future folding out in front of me.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. I will have missed out on all the school festivities, the beautiful Mass celebrating the birth of Our Lord, and precious time with my family. But Christmas will come again next year. And the year after that, and the year after that.

In the meantime, I will enjoy this quiet holiday with my husband and the cats. As it turns out, it’s been the very best Christmas of my life..

I hope it is for you, too.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Peace for Cathy

For those of you who follow this blog, you'll know right away that it's not being written by its founder and CEO today. I'm Deb.

Cathy was blessed with a gift of writing.  Me?  Not so much. 

My siblings Tom and Mary, my stepmom Kris, and I headed for Omaha at 6:45 am.  We had no idea how the roads were going to be after the ice and sleet the night before.  I prayed before going to bed the night before that the weather would not prevent us from being with Cathy on her surgery day.  Cathy had been there for Terri and me every step of our journey. It would have been devastating to have not been able to send her off to surgery with a big hug and to let her know how proud we were. 

Thank goodness I didn't hear my cell phone ringing.  Cathy and John left for Omaha 45 minutes before we did this morning.  Cathy didn't care for the conditions and seeing cars and semi's in the ditches didn't help.  She called my home phone to tell me not to chance it.  However, my daughter Sydney informed her that we had departed.  That's when Cathy placed a call to my cell phone which I didn't hear. Good thing.
The interstate improved and Tom, our driver, got us all to Omaha safely.  But first we made a stop in Lincoln to pick up Terri, and for the rest of the way, we all wondered how Cathy was doing, what she was thinking, and how her spirits were holding up.  We couldn't wait to get to the hospital to see her before the nurse wheeled her off to surgery. 

As we entered her hospital room, she was smiling and seemed calm.  "Johnny", as she affectionately calls her husband, at least acted as though he really might be happy to see us.  John is just a big ol' teddy bear once you get past the growl. Even though he gets "Browned" out easily, his term for spending too much time with all of the Brown family, he makes Mary and me lunch every other Tuesday.  It's one of our favorite days.

Cathy was so relieved to see we had made it safely.  Amazingly, John said Cathy had slept most of the way to Omaha.  I was pretty sure she wasn't going to get much if any sleep the night before. 

"Were you talking about your world history class in the car?" Tom teased John.  "That'll put her out faster than any meds."

Seeing Cathy in that hospital bed was so surreal.  That had been me just three weeks ago and Terri three months before that.  We were so ready to get Cathy to this day and so glad it was finally here. Shortly she would be "on the other side" of this journey - the recovery side, the healing side, the side where a huge burden has literally been lifted off  her chest. 

Cathy looked so angelical lying in her hospital bed.  For those of you who believe you know Cathy with her warm smile, keen sense of humor, the sincerity in her voice and heart when she's talking about somebody who is ill or hurting, or the hundreds of rosaries she has said for so many - well, there's another side.  And now, after every family secret she's blabbed about me, it's my turn.

We were all growing up together in Denver when, one afternoon, Cathy helped my brother Rick, age 7, and me, age 5, into our swimming suits. 

"Walk on down to the convent," she told us. "The nuns got a brand new backyard pool, and if you just ring the doorbell and ask, they'll let you swim!"

Rick and I were excited beyond belief.  Our little legs carried us down that block so fast. We could not wait to jump in that pool!  A nun, covered head to toe with a black habit and veil as was the custom, answered the door and stared at us rather strangely. 

"We're here to swim in your pool!" we burst out.

That good sister looked at us as if we were lunatics

"There's no pool here," she regretfully informed  us.  "You need to go home now."

Then we heard the snorting. Across the street and behind a bush were Cathy, Joe and Mick, gasping for air because they were laughing so hard.

 Yep.  That was our sweet Mrs. Howard.

Cathy came through her surgery just as Dr. Grange and Dr. Montag had hoped.  There appeared to be no surprises, and everything went very well.  Cathy and John's youngest son Tommy was able to join us after his semester finals.  When Cathy was out of recovery and John, Tommy, and the rest of us surrounded her, I detected a new twinkle in her eye - a twinkle that indicated she knew how much she was loved.  But the biggest part of that twinkle was the freedom she felt.  She was finally free -not just of breast cancer - but of all the worry she carried for me, my sisters and herself.  Cathy always felt it was her mission to protect us from breast cancer.  As the oldest of  ten, she witnessed and comprehended the battle our young mom fought more intimately than we did. 

Cathy has been such a gift to us and others. I am so happy that she has given herself this gift of peace.  Welcome to the other side, my dear sister.  I love you so much!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Almost there...

The presents are wrapped, the laundry’s done, the bills are paid.

And Thursday is it.

I don’t have to go through with this, I think.  Maybe I’ll call Dr. Grange. 

“I’ve changed my mind,” I’ll say.  “I’ve decided to take my chances.”

She’d understand.

The trouble is I had to go and start this damn blog.  I’ve been milking sympathy from everybody I know for months.  Some things, like secret elopements and double mastectomies, you just don’t back out of.

My stomach is turning over like a baby in utero when it rolls over.  But I’m forcing myself to be calm.  I’m not losing arms or legs or kidneys or any thing useful.  I’m getting rid of a couple of pockets of fat.  Is that so awful? 

People talk about “losing your femininity” with the loss of your breasts.  But my boobs barely put in an appearance until I became pregnant.  Even then, I never used them to breastfeed.  The truth is, my boobs are nothing to write home about.

But Terri and Deb said something that saddened me.  They have no sensation in their chests.  It’s like your jaw, Terri said, when the dentist squirts novacaine in it.  You touch your mouth and feel the strangeness of your own skin, but it’s as if you’re touching another person.

I’ve realized, in the last few months, what I really like to use my boobs for is hugging.  It has been a joy to hold my husband, my sons, baby animals and heartbroken students close to me.  When I hug people I love, I suppose my breasts feel like an extension of myself.

But it’s a silly thing to whine about.  What would Mom have given to have 40 more years with her family?  Breasts or no breasts, I still have long arms, and I’ll use them to hug every member of my family all at the same time if I want to.

I’m putting the fear in a little compartment off by itself today.  Instead, I will think of my husband John and how he will fold his six foot, seven inch body into a tiny little hospital recliner to nurse me through the night.  I will think about Kenny and Tommy coming home for Christmas and all the Christmases to come with my grandchildren.  I will think about the 60 members of my family squeezing into my brother Joe and his beautiful wife Stef’s house, and how the little ones will belt out “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer!” with all their might, and how someone besides me will open up the Bible and read the tender story from the Book of Luke this Christmas Eve.  And I’ll think about next Christmas when breast cancer is so far behind my sisters and me, that no matter how hard we look, we can’t see it anymore.

That’s the secret to all of this.  You just have to think about the people you love.

So I will not be afraid.  My sisters, Terri and Deb, and my mother Patti have given Mary and me a great gift.  It is because of their breast cancers that we are allowed to have this operation. 

And having the chance to grow old is a pretty good Christmas gift.

I’m almost there.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dr. Grange

It’s become a joke when we walk into the surgeon’s office together.

"Here are the Mary’s!" the receptionist crows.

Our mother and father, devout Catholics, named all my sisters and me "Mary" and our five brothers "Joseph". Except for one Mary and one Joseph, the rest of us go by our other names.

It’s caused quite a bit of confusion throughout the years, but never so much as when the four of us marched into Dr. Grange’s office armed with our medical records for our first appointment. When we’re traveling in a pack to the surgeons’ offices, we try to alleviate confusion by simply answering to "Mary". But Dr. Grange has tried hard to keep our names straight and always refers to me by my full name, Mary Catherine. The reason for that, I believe, is that both she and I are keenly aware of another Mary Cathryn.

Almost 25 years ago, before she was a surgeon, Dr. Grange was a young slip of a girl married to a boy who was four years behind me in high school. He eventually moved back to Grand Island after med school to join his father in the family optometry practice, and he brought his young bride with him.

Although Dr. Grange never knew me during that period, I knew who she was. I had always liked her husband and thought they made a beautiful couple. She gave birth to a son named Jack and then a beautiful baby girl named Mary Cathryn.

When Mary Cathryn was a few months old, however, she died tragically of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). I remember attending a wedding of a mutual acquaintance shortly after Mary Cathryn’s death. Dr. Grange’s husband, my old high school friend, introduced me to his lovely young wife, and I was painfully aware of the sadness in her eyes. I shook hands with her politely, but really what I wanted to say was, "I have a baby, too. I’m so very sorry." But I didn’t. It seemed to me that she was using every ounce of energy to hold her fragile self together.

They moved away after that. Dr. Grange made the monumental decision to enroll in medical school in Omaha.. I remembered little Mary Cathryn in my prayers, and I was saddened to learn sometime later that her parents’ marriage had not survived. We never saw any of them again after that. Until Terri was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Dr. Grange is currently a noted breast cancer surgeon in Omaha, and she came highly recommended to Terri. The first time all my sisters and I met Dr. Grange at Terri’s first appointment, I told her that we had been briefly introduced many years ago. She was still lovely and personable.

Last week at my pre-op appointment was the first time we had spoken to each other alone. She guided me through the pre-op exam and reassured me about the surgery. Finally, we just talked.

"I always notice your name right away," she smiled.

"I know," I smiled back, "because Mary Cathryn was the name of your little daughter. I still pray for her every day."

Dr. Grange was touched, and all at once, the doctor/patient formalities slipped away, and we were just two women who loved our children.

"I was only going for an hour to shop," she said, describing that day nearly a quarter of a century ago. A good friend persuaded her to leave her baby for the very first time for an outing to the mall. Another good friend offered to watch Mary Cathryn. "I was breast feeding," Dr. Grange recalled, "so I could only be gone for an hour."

But before the hour had passed, little Mary Cathryn was gone. Dr. Grange described the call, her arrival at the hospital, the face of her husband who had arrived first. "I wanted to lie down and die with my baby," she said.

But she couldn’t. Her two-year-old son needed her. "Jack doesn’t remember his baby sister," Dr. Grange said, "but he remembers the time when I was sad." Mother and son still share a powerful bond.

"I always wondered if Mary Cathryn’s death was the reason you decided to go to medical school," I suggested.

"It was," she said. "I couldn’t understand my own baby’s autopsy report."

During that traumatic time in her life, Dr. Grange suffered another tragic loss as well - the death of her closest sister, only 26-years-old, from breast cancer. Her life, which had only before seemed so certain and predictable as a young wife and mother, suddenly veered in a direction she never, I’m sure, could have possibly fathomed. But Dr. Grange sees the divine big picture in her dramatically altered life.

The fact that her baby died during that single hour when her mother left her seems, to Dr. Grange, like a merciful blessing from God. "I couldn’t have watched Mary Cathryn die," she said. And now, reflecting back on her remarkable life, she says she feels as if her baby was telling her, "Goodbye for now, Mom!" Mary Cathryn had completed her journey. Now it was time for her mother to start hers.

"My baby and my sister are my angels," Dr. Grange said. With the help of her two angels, Dr. Grange has saved hundreds and hundreds of women’s lives, my sisters’ and mine included.

Sometimes, in the midst of pain, we are called to change our fates. It can seem overwhelming, unthinkable. Dr. Grange embarked on her own astonishing journey because of a tiny baby called Mary Cathryn. Out of piercing sorrow was born the desire to heal. She healed my sister Terri. And my sister Deb.

It strikes me as no coincidence that our paths have crossed again. Dr. Grange was compelled to change her fate, and she is helping my sisters and me to change ours.

And somewhere, our angels are smiling.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I hate broccoli.

Every day, I choke it down like medicine.  It's because of an article I read years ago.  There's a chemical called "sulforaphane" present in broccoli that helps to reduce your chances of breast cancer.

I made up my mind, after giving birth to our sons, that I'd do any thing not to get breast cancer.  Even eat broccoli.  I've tried every way imaginable to make it more palatable - steamed it, dipped it, and smothered it with cheese.  It's still broccoli.  Finally, I bought a juicer.  Now I drink my broccoli.  It's absolutely vile, but it goes down a lot faster than munching it like a work horse.

I had a little meltdown last weekend, and that's what got me thinking about broccoli.  It started out with the furnace, which is on its last legs.  The furnace man told us it's time to replace it, and with the government rebate for new high efficiency furnaces, we could install a new one for just under 6,000 dollars.  He seemed to think that would make us happy.  What universe do furnace men come from?

I was sucking on a lollipop brooding about the furnace when I broke a tooth - a big back molar.  That pretty much did it.  I know I wrote last week that I was thankful for all my blessings.  But screw it.  Thanksgiving was over, my chest was coming off in two weeks, and I was sitting in a cold house with a broken tooth.

That's when I had a meltdown.  Sneaking to the back of the house, I curled up in an ancient recliner and cried big, blubbery, nose-dripping tears.  When my husband discovered me some time later and begged to know what in the world had happened, I said to him very rationally, "I'm never eating broccoli again!"

The next morning, however, the world righted itself just like it always does. My adored aunt Patty sent me a consoling email, wonderful Louise at Dr. Janda's office made an appointment for me to get my tooth fixed Monday afternoon, and my crazy sister-in-law Mary called me from Montrose, Colorado, and made me laugh.  That girl's so funny she could host her own late night talk show.  Then Peg Ley, my high school typing teacher and one of my dearest friends, accompanied me to Deb's house to take over a pot of John's chicken noodle soup and Peg's own delectable brownies.  At 85, Peg is the most beautiful woman alive, and even though she just lost her husband, she always thinks of everybody else, including me.

Deb looks wonderful.  Not even a week out of her surgery, she's staying on top of her pain medication and managing very well.  Brian and the girls are pampering her big time, and she seems contented and relieved.

Finally, I received an email from one of my former students yesterday.  Drew Kime, a six-foot beauty, graduated a year and a half ago with our younger son Tommy.  "You know, Mrs. Howard, I'm only 20," she wrote, "but I'd get rid of my boobs in a second.  My long legs get me all the attention, and you've still got that going for you!" 

Okay, okay.  I'm back to being thankful.  My tooth is fixed, John says we can crutch along on the old furnace for a while, and I am very much blessed with friends and family, young and old.  Just the same, I moved the juicer back to the dark recesses of the counter top.  Maybe I'll drag it out someday to make a fruit slushy.

But I'm never eating broccoli again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Deb's Surgery

For three years, Julie Bombeck has been on a nationwide transplant list for a new pair of lungs.

A good friend to so many of us, including my sisters and me, Julie has battled Cystic Fibrosis for more than half her life. Just a few weeks ago, her own lungs deteriorated so rapidly that she was rushed to a Minneapolis transplant hospital in a last desperate hope that a donor might still come through.

Deb was worried about her. "I want you to promise," she said to me, "that if I don’t wake up from my surgery, you’ll make sure Julie gets my lungs."

I hate it when Deb talks like that. "You bet," I said, "and we’ll put your liver on ice just in case one of us should develop a drinking problem."

But miraculously, in the 11th hour, Julie received her new lungs, and every single person in her hometown rejoiced and immediately filled out a donor card. Julie Bombeck is our hero.

So today, it wasn’t necessary for Deb to donate her lungs to anybody. But she would have. She would have parceled out every organ in her body like Christmas presents if she thought it would help somebody.

Deb’s husband Brian and their two younger daughters Brandi and Sydney were waiting with Deb in Surgery Prep when Mary, Terri and I arrived at 8 this morning. If Deb was fearful, she wasn’t showing it. We hugged her and told her we loved her, and it was only then that she choked back a few emotional tears.

But her husband Brian Durning, the biggest smart aleck I know with the possible exception of my own husband, refused to let any of us become weepy. "I hope you’re ready for a good time," he informed us with his gets-me-every-time poker face. "We’ll be playing Charades in the waiting room."

"And I brought my game of LIFE," 23-year-old Brandi joked with a straight face uncannily like her father’s.

If you have to endure three hours in a cold waiting room while your sister undergoes a double mastectomy, be sure to do it with the Durning family. And throw in my stepmother while you’re at it.

Our stepmother Kris arrived shortly after Deb was wheeled into surgery. Kris would pretty much drive through an F-7 tornado if she thought we needed her, and we did. Between Brian and Brandi’s irreverent jokes and Kris’s appreciative laughter, the three hours passed with only minimal anxiety, and exactly at noon, Dr. Grange and Dr. Montag came striding through the double doors to deliver the good news.

"No sign of disease in the lymph nodes!" Dr. Grange said immediately. It was the news we were longing to hear, and once again, those two good doctors with their reassuring smiles became like saviors to us.

As we were hugging them and each other, our youngest sister Caroline arrived, and we trooped down to the hospital cafeteria to eat lunch until Deb was transferred to her own room.

"Caroline," Mary said in her very direct way, "have you made your appointment to have this surgery yet?"

She was halfway joking, but Caroline immediately bridled. "I’m not having a double mastectomy," she said shortly.

"Sure you are," Mary said confidently.

Caroline, at 42, is petite and drop dead gorgeous. Newly divorced with three children, she’s just entered the world of dating again, and the last thing she’s thinking about is getting rid of her breasts. Who could blame her? I felt sure she would be diligent about her breast health and would confront her family history in her own way, but Mary’s supreme confidence has always cracked me up.

However, before the two of them could engage in any kind of a spirited debate, a nurse arrived to inform us that Deb was in her hospital room and was ready to see her family. My brother-in-law Brian, who is as tender-hearted as he is ornery, instructed Brandi and 11-year-old Sydney to go first, and they rushed down the hallway.
In my mind’s eye, there are few things I’ve witnessed as lovely as the picture today of my loving nieces carefully embracing their mother. Even after three hours of grueling surgery, Deb smiled her beautiful smile and gazed with love at her girls.

"You look so good!" Kris said to her.

"Do I?" Deb said. "Would you say I’m radiant?" she joked.

She was. She was beautiful and radiant and heroic.

My little sister Deb lost her breasts today. She gave them up for the sake of her girls, much like she’d give up her lungs for Julie Bombeck. That’s the way she is.

It’s days like today that I realize what Deb means to me. A long, emotional 24 hours will do that to you. The day is finally over, and soon I will go to bed. But first I will drop to my knees to thank God for Deb, who is precious to me.

And for Mary.

And for Terri.

And for Caroline, who will fight like hell to keep her breasts.

Sleep well, my sisters.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Kenny has epilepsy.

I never in a million years thought I’d be so happy to know one of my boys suffered from such an affliction. The flip side, however, is that his seizures could have been caused by a brain tumor or liver failure.

I’ll take epilepsy any day.

“It means I’ll probably be taking medicine for the rest of my life,” Kenny said calmly on the phone yesterday, “but other than that, I can do anything I want.”

That’s the way life is.  It’s a series of trade-offs.  You’re diagnosed with epilepsy, but you don’t have a brain tumor.  You cut off your boobs, but you don’t get breast cancer.

The CallThatNeverComes came.  My surgery date is Dec. 16th.  But I feel nothing but thankful today.  It’s like the old Biblical story of Jacob wrestling an angel.

“I will not let you go until you bless me!” Jacob told the angel. 

Sometimes, you have to wrestle an angel or two for the blessings in your life.

Tomorrow, everybody in my family, including my young stepbrother Nolan and his fiancĂ©e, and my youngest sister Caroline and her family, will be under one roof to celebrate Thanksgiving together.  We’re gathering a little earlier this year because Deb’s surgery is Tuesday.  We couldn’t possibly have Thanksgiving without Deb.  Who would organize the yearly Christmas gift draw?  So tomorrow evening, all 60 of us will descend upon my brother Tom’s house where he and his beautiful wife Sheryl will calmly deal with the masses.

My stepmother Kris is lugging over 20 pounds of mashed potatoes, my husband John will make his world famous stuffing, and Terri will bring the corn and macaroni casserole that I crave every Thanksgiving.  We will eat and laugh and thoroughly enjoy each other.  And I will be as thankful as I’ve ever been in my life.

This Thanksgiving, it occurs to me that I’m not only thankful for my family, but I’m thankful for those special women in my life who have wrestled blessings from angels.

My lovely friend Lisa Willman is a breast cancer survivor, and she’s never looked back.  In our growing community, she’s the woman who keeps our town progressive as she organizes hundreds of volunteers to man our Events Center for the State Fair and the state volleyball tournament.  If that’s not enough, she and my other friend, Julie Pfeifer, co-founded our town’s GRACE (Grand Island Area Cancer Endowment) Foundation that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to help women with breast cancer.

Julie, like my sister Terri, is the beautiful mother of six kids.  She was one of the first people I turned to after Terri’s diagnosis.  A five-year breast cancer survivor, Julie underwent a double mastectomy, treatment and breast reconstruction and has been so comforting and informative.

Jane Kittridge, in her 70’s, is one of the most striking women I’ve ever known.  Ten years ago, she elected to have breast reconstruction after a double mastectomy for cancer.  “Don’t be afraid of this,” she looked my sisters and me straight in the eyes dispensing motherly encouragement.  “And when you’re my age and everybody else’s boobs are down to THERE,” her eyes twinkled, “you’ll be upright and perky!”

Donna Northup is like a second mother to me.  The mother of nine, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 60’s, but her deep faith carried her through and has inspired me for 25 years.

And, of course, there’s my sister Terri.  “This mastectomy and reconstruction stuff is no big deal at all!” she promises. I’ve been a little crazy lately, but I know full well I’d be a disastrous mess without my beautiful little sister showing me the way.  Terri makes Deb and Mary and me brave.  She’s wrestled her angel to the ground, and she helps us believe we can wrestle ours, too.

Finally, I will think of Mom this Thanksgiving Day.  Mom didn’t win the battle against breast cancer, but she wrestled for the ultimate gift – Heaven.  It’s because of Mom that her daughters will survive.  We will see our children grow to adulthood.  We will be there for weddings and grandchildren and old age. 

But I know Mom’s been with us for those special events, too.  She and Dad are both with us, and their presence is strongly felt in all our lives.  I have no doubt they will be with us for our Thanksgiving celebration – enjoying the laughter and the stories, caring for us, loving us. They will stick close to my sisters and me as we complete this journey together.

And they will help us wrestle our angels.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Slippery Slope

In one week, I broke three toothbrushes right in half.  One after the other.

Brushing my teeth is one of those mundane tasks that allows my mind to fixate on things like seizures and mastectomies.

“You broke three toothbrushes?” John’s eyes were wide with amazement.  “I don’t think I could even break one.”

My husband is 6 ft. 7 in. tall and 260 pounds.

“Oh, I think you probably could,” I snapped at him.

Poor John.  He’s just as fearful for Kenny’s health as I am, and he’s worried about my sisters and me.  John adores my sisters.  He teases them unmercifully, but when Terri was diagnosed with breast cancer, he rose from his bed in the middle of the night to read in the living room.  That’s a sure sign he’s stewing.  Usually, John goes to bed every night, folds his hands across his chest like a corpse, and doesn’t stir until morning.

It’s entirely unfair for me to get so irritable with him.  One night when we were watching the news together, I “sshhhh!”ed him, and he didn’t say a word.  The very next night, he sat in his recliner whistling tunelessly while I tried to read the paper.  I glared at him over the top of my reading glasses.

“What are you, 11?”

He stopped abruptly and left the room.  I felt terrible.  If you knew my husband, you’d drop dead in amazement that I’d dare to either “sshhh” him or snipe at his whistling.  You just don’t do that to John Howard.

The fact that he didn’t immediately put me in my place was disturbing.  I apologized – isn’t that what I specialize in these days? – and he accepted my apology graciously enough.

It’s difficult to describe my husband without giving the impression that he’s an old curmudgeon.  Frankly, he’s the most sarcastic, cynical, yet intelligent person I’ve ever known.  He would have been a great lawyer.  Whenever we argue, I always think I know what I’m talking about.  Five minutes later, however, I’m backed into a corner with not one intelligible word to say for myself.  I hate it when he does that.

But most of the time, I’m crazy about him, and so are his legions of students from the last 34 years.  John is the best teacher I’ve ever known in my life.  He’s a voracious reader and a student of history, and he knows how to communicate his passion.  The kids love his wicked humor, and when they come back from their first year of college, they never fail to thank him for their thorough background in history.

“You were the best history teacher I ever had,” his former students tell him again and again. 

Some people are afraid of him.  Truthfully, I guess we’re all a little afraid of him.  But underneath his big cynical roar is a sympathetic heart of gold.  His students know that about him, and our boys and I certainly know it.

The trouble was, with all these distressing events falling on top of us, John was being too nice, and he was especially careful of every word he spoke to me.  I understood.  When your wife is about to go under the knife to have her breasts taken off, you’re pretty much walking a slippery slope.  It’s a mistake for him to say, “This operation is no big deal at all,” because what your wife hears is, “Your boobs were never that great anyway.”  On the flip side, if he tells her, “This is very difficult, but we’ll deal with it somehow,” he might as well say, “I only hope that I’m still attracted to you.”

Instead, John tried the sensitive approach.  He hugged me and promised to support my decision all the way.  “If this operation will enhance the quality of your life and enable you to be worry free, that’s all I care about,” he said soothingly.

“Yeah, yeah,” I thought.  “But will you still want to have sex?”

John was so sensitive, in fact, I knew it was killing him.  It sure as heck was killing me.  For 26 years, he’d teased me about my cooking, my sleep habits, my endless budgets, and my remarkable lack of memory.  But he hadn’t cracked a joke in weeks.  He was treating me with kid gloves, and I could literally see his tongue bite back one of his scathing remarks.  It was positively unnatural.

Thankfully, it didn’t last forever.  After a particularly exhausting week at school, we roused ourselves to attend the last home football game of the season.  Sitting almost in the front row of the stadium, we cheered on our beloved Crusaders.  As tired as we were, we both brightened when Julie Chapman Hamik, a favorite former student of ours, bounced over to visit.

“How’s Terri?” she said as soon as she plopped herself down for a good chat.  Julie and her siblings had gone to school with my younger siblings, and she was genuinely interested in Terri’s health.

“She’s good!” I said, and then informed her about Deb’s situation and our collective decision to have surgery.

“No kidding!” Julie gasped.  “You know what?  I’d do the very same thing,” she said.  Julie’s always been a little mother hen.  “In fact, I’d get rid of any part that might ever give me trouble!” she laughed.

“Oh, Cathy’s already done that,” John said, referring to my hysterectomy years ago.  “Yeah, I started out with a wife,” he said with his old sarcasm, “and I’m ending up with my college roommate.”

Julie and I stared at him.  A fleeting look of uncertainty flashed across his face.  In all our married life, I’d never seen John Howard uncertain about any thing. 

Julie and I exploded.  I laughed so hard I had a coughing spasm.  My lord, it felt good to laugh.  It was a huge release from all the worry that had been weighing me down for so long.  All through the fourth quarter of the game, I snorted like a kid in church and struggled in vain to recover my dignity.

“Please!” John pretended to be shocked.  “Get a grip on yourself!”

There are as many different ways for good husbands to comfort their scared wives as there are husbands themselves.  Some send roses, some give their wives jewelry, and the real romantics even write poetry.

My husband is mean to me.

When he teases me about my cooking or does his dead-on impression of the way I discipline the cats, he makes me laugh until my stomach aches.

And I know that what he’s really telling me is that he loves me.

And that he thinks I’m a tiny bit insane.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Over the Edge

I’ve been a little snappish lately. 

“Snappish” sounds so much nicer than “bitchy”.

Between waiting for Kenny’s test results and for the CallThatNeverComes for my surgery date, I’m irritable and impatient.

Last week, I asked three students to sit out in the hall.  Three.  I apologized to one of them immediately, a sweet eighth grade girl who’s never given me an ounce of trouble.

“I’m sorry, Rachel,” I said.  “I’m a little out of sorts, and I took it out on you.”

She reached out to hug me.  “That’s okay, Mrs. Howard.  I know you have a lot going on just now.”

My throat tightened. Nothing can choke me up like a child’s forgiveness.

To combat the growing stress, I walk long miles every day and say my Rosary.  And in the middle of the school day, I shut my classroom door during my free period and savor the silence.  But last Tuesday, Mr. Schumann, the assistant principal, strode into my classroom and said, “Say…,” and I knew I wouldn’t be enjoying my free period that day.

The band teacher had gone home sick, he explained.  Could I cover her eighth grade band class?  It had been one of those days already.  The sixth graders weren’t catching on to adverbs at all, and the repair shop had called with the news that the van needed new struts and shocks.  Little things piling up on big things.

“Yeah, I can cover it,” I said to Mr. Schumann.  How could I not help him out?  He was always so good to me.

Subbing is not a dream job, and subbing for band class is a nightmare, plain and simple.  “I really don’t want to do this today,” I groaned, as I trudged down to the band room sixth period.

To my surprise, the room was dark, and the door was locked.  “Dang!” I hissed.  I’d left my keys all the way back in my classroom.

Just then, through the glass pane of the door, I saw a small head pop up from inside to grin maniacally at me.

Just like that, I was furious.  “Listen, you little twerp!  Let me in right now,” I yelled through the closed door, “or so help me God, I’ll beat the crap outta you.”

The door opened immediately.  Bueller is a very small boy, and he stared at me with huge eyes.  The lights exploded to life, and one by one, 26 eighth graders wriggled silently out of their hiding places behind the piano, the drum set and from the instrument closets.  The shock on their faces mirrored my own.  I felt as if I rose above my body to survey the scene.  Had I really called Bueller a twerp?  Not only that, I said “crap”, a word I thoroughly despise, and had threatened to beat it out of a kid.  Not in 34 years had I ever talked to a student like that.

“We were just trying to scare you,” Denny, a nice boy, spoke timidly for the group.  “We thought you would think it was funny.”

The silence was agonizing.

“Get your jackets,” I said abruptly. “We’re going outside.”

It took two seconds for the words to penetrate, then they whooped with joy.  I took them out to the football field, instructed them to do any thing they wanted, but to stay inside the fence where I could see them.  Then I got on the track and walked.

Pounding the asphalt, I circled the track again and again.  And I prayed.

“God, forgive me,” I pleaded.  What was wrong with me?  Bueller could be a little pill sometimes, but he hadn’t deserved that.  He was probably sensitive about his size, and I had called him a twerp.  Possibly, I had destroyed his already damaged self-esteem.

I walked and walked and prayed and prayed.  The October sun shone bright, and a mild breeze whistled softly through the trees.  The kids were having so much fun laughing and playing.  There is nothing so pleasant, I thought, as the sound of kids playing outside.  After a few miles, my perspective was better.  It was time to go.  I called the kids and sent them reluctantly back to the school building.  But first I had to find Bueller.

A girl screamed.  There was Bueller trying to poke a sand burr into the back of her neck.  It’s always easy to find that kid.

“Bueller!” I called.  He turned instantly and dropped the sand burr.  Busted.  I read the expression in his face.  He walked slowly over to me.

“Listen, Bueller,” I started hesitantly.  “I want to tell you I’m really sorry for what happened inside.  I was so wrong.”

Astonishment, followed by relief, flooded his face.  A reprieve!

Then confusion.  “Huh?” He was puzzled.  “Sorry for what?”

For a second, I thought he was kidding.  But then I sighed.  Bueller could never remember a single thing that happened 30 minutes ago.  He lived strictly in the moment.

“Never mind,” I ruffled his hair.  “Go on in.”

In gleeful abandon, he skipped – yes, skipped – to catch up with his classmates.  Blowing past Levi, a boy twice his size, he screamed “She-ZAAAM!” in his ear.  Levi jumped and painfully covered his ear.  Enraged, he went after Bueller, who skillfully crumpled to the ground on all fours to send L sprawling and tripping into the dirt.

Bueller darted back up, laughing maliciously, then ran to make a mighty leap into a huge puddle that a small eighth grade girl had just carefully skirted.  The splash drenched her, and Bueller, running backwards, laughed demonically.  “Ha! Ha!  Watch your step!”

I breathed long and exhaled slowly.

Little twerp.  I oughtta beat the crap outta that kid.


Don’t ever tempt the fates by complaining that you can’t handle “one more thing!”  Life always decides you can.

By late October, Deb’s surgery had been scheduled for November 23rd.  Mary had decided, because of her insurance deductible, to wait for her operation until after the first of the year. 

But I was getting antsy.  I didn’t want to sit around for weeks and months to think about having a double mastectomy.  Dr. Grange and Dr. Montag, however, were having scheduling conflicts.  “We’ll call you as soon as we figure it out,” Dr. Grange’s office assured me.

There was nothing to do but wait.

One afternoon at school, just before Halloween, my husband John strode through my classroom door.  Something was wrong. I could tell by the way his lower lip quivered, and, in a flash, I knew it was one of our boys.

“It’s Kenny,” he said.  Regis University just called.  He’s had a seizure.”

The words were like a physical blow.  “Where?  When?” I babbled.

“Just a little while ago,” John was trying to be calm for my sake, I knew.  “He’s in an ambulance, and they’re taking him to Denver General.”

I was all for abandoning our students that second, jumping in the car, and making a hell bent trip to Denver.  But John was more practical.  “I’ll call my brother Dave, and you wait for a call from the hospital.”

In my mind, the word “seizure” meant death.  I feared for my oldest boy in that moment as I’ve never feared before.  Both our sons had endured surgical procedures and a few health scares, but there’d never been any thing like this.

Kenny had graduated from Denver’s Regis University a year before and had landed a job in their alumni department.  He, like our younger son Tommy, was an athlete.  He had played college basketball just as now Tommy played college football.  I had always worried about sports injuries, but Kenny was a working stiff now.  He was supposed to be safe.

John located his brother Dave who worked in Denver. “I’ll get right to the hospital,” Dave said, without another word. 

Moments later, Kenny’s boss Penny called.  “I’m almost at the hospital,” she said, “and I’m meeting Katie there.”  Katie was Kenny’s girlfriend.  Penny explained that Kenny had slumped over his desk when a co-worker noticed that he was convulsing.  The co-worker and another young woman in the office had somehow managed to lower Kenny’s 6 foot 10 inch frame to the floor only to watch helplessly as he suffered a full blown seizure.

Katie called next, and she’d been crying.  “We haven’t seen him yet,” she said, “but I’ll call you as soon as we do.”

I sat at the desk in my empty classroom while John left to deal with the administrators to find substitute teachers for us.  We would leave for Denver as soon as possible.

“Oh Lord,” I prayed with my head in my hands.  “Please don’t take Kenny from us.”

The phone rang again.  “Mom?”  It was Kenny.  The sound of my son’s voice was a benediction.  He had just fought his way out of a fog, he realized, to discover he was in a strange hospital, but that his uncle and his girlfriend were nearby.  He remembered nothing, he said, but a couple of brief moments in the elevator and in the ambulance.

“Kenny,” I asked, “how have you been feeling?  Did you have any kind of warning at all?”

For the last few weeks, he confided, he’d been having little episodes – mostly in front of his computer screen.  He’d suddenly experience a feeling of de’ja’vous  and struggle to remember some elusive dream before he snapped out of it.

“We’ll be there as soon as we can,” I assured him.

The drive to Denver was endless.  But I was comforted by the fact that Katie would keep an eagle eye on Kenny.  John and I were quiet for most of the six hours in the car.  Silently, I thanked God that Kenny was alive.  I thanked him for the good husband who sat beside me, for his unfailing dependability and for the way he made me laugh every day of my life.  I thanked him for Tommy, who was back in his Omaha dormitory room worrying about his older brother, and for all our family members and friends.  We were so rich.

“What’s a couple of boobs?” I said to God.  He’d given me the best of every thing.

It was a joy to see Kenny.  The seizure had left him with a crooked back, a kink in his neck, and a swollen tongue that mangled his speech, but he rose to greet us with his familiar sweet smile. 

I hugged him close, all 6 feet, ten inches of him, and John gripped his shoulders.
Our boy.

“Cat scan was normal!” Kenny pronounced.  He was scheduled to visit a neurologist in a few days and would undergo several additional tests.  But for now, at least, he seemed healthy enough.

For two days, I savored the sight of my oldest son.  I did all the things I never got to do since he’d grown up and moved away.  I rubbed his sore back with liniment, smoothed the cowlick on the crown of his head, and reached out to hug him whenever I felt like it.

Kenny, Katie, John and I hooked up with Uncle Dave and drove to Greeley to visit Grandma Howard in her new assisted living facility.  “Did you get your encephalitis shots, you two?” she wagged a finger at Kenny and Katie.  They looked at each other.

“I think you mean meningitis shots, Mom,” John gently corrected her.

“Oh, that’s right!” Grandma smacked her forehead.  “Don’t either of you even THINK about getting meningitis!”

We busted Grandma out of the nursing home and took her to a restaurant where we met John’s other brother Cliff.  Kenny regaled his uncles with hospital stories, Katie’s eyes lit up when she spied the chocolate shake she ordered, and Grandma told us all about a particularly disgruntled resident who nevertheless turned on the charm for any male within a 10-foot range.

I sat contentedly in the middle of the food and laughter wishing Tommy, our younger son, could have been there with us.

The next day, it was time for us to go home to Nebraska.  “Call us as soon as you hear any thing about your test results, Kenny!” I hugged him.

“I will, Mom, and let me know about your surgery date,” he hugged me hard.  We promised each other we’d get through November and December and that 2011 would be nothing less than a banner year.

But the New Year seemed an eternity away, and I was scared.

Why was my son having seizures?

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I’ll tell you something about my sister Deb.  When she was a teenager, she was evil.  Evil incarnate.

One afternoon in high school, she dropped by the gym to collect Mary, Terri and Caroline, who had just finished a rigorous basketball practice.  Sweaty, tired and famished, my three little sisters fell into the back seat of the car. 

Suddenly, however, their heads shot up.  On Deb’s lap was a carton of delectable chocolate-covered donuts.  The three little girls glanced quickly at each other.  You had to play it cool with Deb, they knew.  Pretending nonchalance, they sat back in their seats to bide their time and wait Deb out.

As she pulled the car out of the school’s circle drive to head home, Deb popped a donut in her mouth.  “Oh my lord,” she rolled her eyes in orgasmic pleasure.  But Mary, Terri and Caroline remained indifferent to her ecstacy.

Deb stuffed another donut in her mouth.  “SO fresh,” she murmured.

Finally, Terri asked timidly, “Will you be eating all the donuts?”  She was careful to keep any hint of sarcasm out of her voice.

“Yes,” Deb said shortly, her mouth full of donut.  “All of them.”

Instantly, Terri was filled with rage.  “You know what?” she spat out.  But Mary and Caroline shot her a warning look.

“What?” Deb’s chocolate smeared mouth smiled innocently at her in the rear view mirror.

With difficulty, Terri regained her composure.  “I’m not really hungry anyway,” she shrugged.

After demolishing the fourth donut, however, Deb appeared to have reached her limit.  The three little girls watched intently as she brushed off her fingers and neatly closed the carton of donuts.

Hope was alive.

Deb sighed with satisfaction, picked up the carton with the remaining eight donuts, and casually tossed it all out the car window.

She still howls about that story.  Deb’s always believed she’s the funniest person alive.  But over the years, she’s actually experienced remorse from time to time for the terrible things she used to do in high school.

“Oh, I wish I’d been nicer to my classmates,” she moans, or “Why didn’t I study harder in school?” or “I should never have set off those firecrackers in the boys’ locker room.”

No, Deb isn’t evil any more.  She wouldn’t be classified as a saint, exactly, but she’s dang close.  Deb is such a good person, you could pretty much liken her transformation to the conversion of St. Paul.

In our own enormous, sprawling, generational family, Deb is the rock.  She’s the one who reminds everybody to send Uncle Carl a birthday card, who arranges the Christmas gift draw, and who plans the Thanksgiving menu.  She’s the first person everybody calls for sympathy, for advice, and for bucking up.  She’s as lovely inside as she is out, and we utterly depend on her.

The news that her biopsy revealed atypical hyperplasia and that surgery would be required sent us into a tailspin.  I had the same queasy feeling in my stomach I used to get when I was a kid and Mom got the flu.

Deb was the strong one.  Nothing was allowed to happen to her. 

“I’m fine!” she convinced us all.  “This isn’t bad news, really.”

That’s the thing about Deb.  She always makes the rest of us brave.  She forces us to do the right thing, and she manages to turn the whole lopsided world upright again.  She gives us hope.

But, lordie, she was an awful teenager.

More news...

Here we were, the four of us, right back in Dr. Grange's examination room.  I'd always known we'd be seeing Dr. Grange again.  Only this time, Terri came along to offer us moral support.

She looked so good three weeks after her double mastectomy.  Refusing to wear the falsies the hospital sent home with her, she opted instead for lean and breastless and looked like a slim adolescent girl ready for a good game of kickball out on the playground.  She had just started her reconstructive surgery , and her oncologist would shortly start her on Tamoxifen, a medication that would help to reduce her chances of ever getting breast cancer again to practically nil.

But Deb, only days before, had undergone a stereotactic biopsy for two suspicious areas that had turned up on her mammogram and MRI.  The results had come back as atypical lobular hyperplasia, a pre-cancerous condition.  Mary's MRI had also revealed a suspicious finding, and suddenly, we knew breast cancer was a stark reality for all of us.

Deb called for an appointment, and now Dr. Grange was describing options for treating her hyperplasia.  "Your situation is a bit complicated," Dr. Grange carefully explained, and talked at some length before Deb politely interrupted her.

"I would really like to have a double mastectomy," she said quickly.

Dr. Grange threw back her head.  "Thank God!" she exclaimed.  Dr. Grange never recommended a mastectomy herself, but she was obviously glad Deb had come to the decision on her own.

"Now," Mary suddenly cleared her throat, "here's the thing."

Terri snorted.  Whenever Mary started any sentence with, "Now, here's the thing," we could expect some kind of bomb shell to drop from her mouth.  Mary, who had grown up as our shy little shrinking violet, had a way of making people's jaws drop now that she was a self-assured adult.

"I want a double mastectomy, too," she said without any preamble.

Dr. Grange gasped in amazement.  "Oh, my God!"

I figured I might as well make her day.  "I'm thinking I might choose that route, too," I said.

Dr. Grange threw her hands up in the air.  "Oh, my God!" she said again.

I have to confess, I was really hoping she'd talk us all out of it.  Maybe she'd know of medication that would save us from breast cancer without the radical sacrifice of our breasts.  "Is this a crazy idea?" I asked her.

"No," she said firmly.  "Even though Terri hasn't tested positive for the breast cancer gene, there's something going on in your family." 

Scientists had only been able to identify two breast cancer genes, she explained, but suspected there were many other hereditary genes.  Mom and her grandmother had died in their  40's, Terri and Deb had been diagnosed in their 40's, and as a result, the risk was rising steadily for the rest of us with each newly infected family member. 

We could hope to catch it early or head it off at the pass. 

Before we left Dr. Grange's office, we knew we'd go full boor and finally try to put this thing behind us forever.

The next stop, a couple of weeks later, was at the office of Dr. Marie Montag, Terri's plastic surgeon.  Erin, the energetic p.a., showed us all the different implant options and even allowed us to observe as she injected Terri with a saline "fill".  When Terri's chest expanders, inserted during her mastectomy, were eventually filled to Terri's liking, she would undergo one final surgery to replace the expanders with implants.  Artificial nipples would be an option down the road.  The fill took half a minute, if that, and then Dr. Montag's assistants filed Deb, Mary and me into separate examination rooms to measure us and take pictures of our breasts for insurance purposes.

"Did you smile for your picture?" Deb asked me later.  I had, actually, from force of habit, but then remembered to stop myself.  It felt too ridiculous.

"I smiled," Mary said calmly.  "Why not?"

Dr. Montag said it would take six to eight weeks for our insurance companies to authorize the surgery but that Deb should be able to go a little sooner due to her hyperplasia.

We felt suddenly deflated.  Any hopes of getting it all behind us quickly evaporated.  But at least Deb would be first.

And hopefully, we were all in time.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I wish you could meet my brother-in-law. 

Paul Lewandowski is tall, good-looking, kind, and an All-American great guy – the kind of guy you always hope your daughter or your little sister will end up marrying.

Deb, Mary, our brother Tom, Tom’s little girl Kelsey, and I sat in the waiting room of the hospital.  We’d all had a chance to hug Terri before her operation.  She was calm, focused and ready.  Now Paul, who had stayed by her side until she was wheeled into surgery, walked out to join us.

“Well,” he said shakily, slumping into a chair and rubbing the moisture from his eyes, “she told me I’m supposed to make you laugh.”

I wanted to hug him.  But sometimes, hugging’s the worst thing you can do, especially when it’s your emotional brother-in-law trying to pull himself together.

Terri’s last minute instructions to Paul before her surgery didn’t surprise any of us.  She and Paul are two of the funniest people I know.  Their kids are hysterical, too.  A big family has to make its own fun, and the Lewandowskis are masters at creating their own entertainment.

One of their favorite “road” games started with my nut-of-a-sister.  In their extended family van, the “good ol’ Econoline”, they jokingly call it, Paul would pull up to a stoplight, and Terri would pretend to be dead asleep for the benefit of the other drivers on the road.  Smashing her face against the passenger window, she’d relax her gaping jaw and unleash a long drool of spit from the corner of her mouth. 

Paul was the straight man.   His role was to remain alertly business-like as he stared intently out the front window with his hands gripping the wheel precisely in the 10 and 2 position.  But the six Lewandowski kids in the back would rock with laughter and provide Terri with play-by -play commentary.

“Okay, Mom,” Ben would snort, “the guy’s just looking over.  Oh man!” An explosion of giggling shook the Econoline.  “You should see his face!”

Reaction is every thing to the Lewandowskis.  If they can’t shock and mortify their fellow man, what’s the point of living?

Paul kept his promise to Terri that morning in the waiting room.  We talked and laughed and played “Go Fish” with our niece Kelsey.  But all eyes were on the clock.

“We’ll be in the operating room about three hours,” Dr. Grange had explained to us, “unless we find something in the lymph nodes.”  The plan, she said, was to check the sentinel node, the first node where breast cancer would spread.  If the sentinel node was clean, there’d be no need to check the others.

After three and a half hours, we were getting jumpy.  Every time a shadow passed by the swinging doors of the operating room, our hearts skipped a beat.  Finally, though, Dr. Grange and Dr. Montag came striding out the door.

“Nothing in the nodes!” Dr. Grange reassured us right away. 

The relief was enormous.  Deb hugged both surgeons, and we all clasped each other with happiness.  Terri would be in recovery for the next hour or so, the surgeons explained.  By the time we finished lunch, she would be in her hospital room.

Kris, our stepmother arrived, and our youngest sister Caroline.  And finally, we were allowed to see Terri.  I was a tiny bit anxious to see my little sister without her breasts.  It’s hard to admit that.  Would she be traumatized, I wondered?  Maybe she’d be drowsy and out of it from anesthesia.

She was neither.  Alert and smiling, she greeted us triumphantly.  “I’m on the other side!” she sighed in happy relief.  And even without her boobs, she was still Terri.

A nurse strode into the room to check Terri’s morphine drip.  “How would you rate the pain,” she questioned, “between 1 and 10?”

“It’s around 4,” Terri quipped, “but I want you to keep the morphine coming, so I’m saying 8.”

The nurse laughed and assured her the last thing she wanted was for Terri to feel pain.

“When can you go home, Ter?” I asked

“They said tomorrow if I’m doing cartwheels,” she said. “I practiced one in the hall just now.”

All the way home, Deb, Mary and I marveled at Terri’s humor and resilience.  “Life is good,” I sighed.

It was good to enjoy the moment.  As it turned out, it was only a moment.

Deb and Mary were scheduled for their yearly mammograms in two weeks.

Deb would be next.