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.