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.