Family

The Beginning

Cub black and white schooljpgMost of us start our day with the idea that it’ll be routine. Most of us don’t expect a cataclysmic, life-altering, devastating event, unless maybe it’s Monday.

October 20, 2014 was a Monday.

I started the day as I do most Mondays – in a rush for work. I kissed my son goodbye (it was his last day of fall break), scrambled to find my keys, and forgot my lunch. Like I said, routine.

Later that morning, I called the pediatrician’s office to schedule a follow up. Cub, my 5 (almost 6) year old son, had just finished a course of antibiotics for pneumonia, and the doctor had thought he heard a heart murmur. Hence, the follow up.

Receptionist: “Oh, it looks like we have an opening at 1:45. Will that work for you?”

Me: “That’s perfect!”

Off work early on a Monday, spending the afternoon with my little boy – a nice break from the mundane.

We didn’t have to wait long to see the doctor – just long enough for Cub to enjoy the fish tank. The doctor said Cub’s lungs sounded clear, and there was no hint of a heart murmur. It must have been caused by the pneumonia and had faded away.

The doctor and I shared a bit of small talk as he typed in the computer.

Me: “So, last Friday at parent/teacher conference, Cub’s teacher mentioned that she and some of the ladies at the school thought that Cub was looking a little more pale than usual. What do you think of that?”

Doctor: “Hmmm…well, let’s see.”

He proceeded to examine Cub’s eyes, palpate his neck and stomach, and look at the palms of his hands.

Doctor: “You know, he does look a bit pale, but the whites of his eyes don’t look yellow, so I don’t think he’s jaundiced. Let’s just do a blood test and check it out.”

We walked down to the lab where they did a finger stick, and we were told to go on home. They’d have the results later that afternoon and would give me a call.

Fifteen minutes later, Cub and I were in the Sonic drive-through. I was buying him a slush – green apple – for being good at the appointment, when the doctor’s office called.

Receptionist: “Mrs. Robertson? Are you still in town? We’d like you to come back to the office. There was something in Cub’s lab work, and the doctor wants to do more tests.”

It wasn’t what she said that made my heart beat faster. It was how she said it – something in her tone. A depth of compassion that felt out of place.

I told her we’d turn around and be back in fifteen minutes. I called my husband and told him to meet us there. I willed the ice that was snaking through my veins to back off and focused on my breathing while stealing glimpses of my son in the rearview mirror. He slurped his green slush and played with his straw – oblivious to the fear building in my heart. I tried to soak him in – to surround his little self with all of my mother’s love, to protect him from something for which I didn’t yet have a name.

Thirty minutes later, Cub was being admitted to the hospital for further testing. His pediatrician had told me that Cub’s counts were exceptionally low – so low, in fact, that if an adult had those numbers, he wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. The doctor was kind, politely hedging around the elephant in the room. But, because of my mom’s recent battle with leukemia, all the terms rang familiar. Too, too familiar.

I stepped up close to the doctor, and asked, “Do you think it’s leukemia?” He said, “With his counts, that would be a very real concern.”

The next few hours felt like a dream sequence. A part of me holding onto the vague possibility of a virus, but nothing could push away the very real probability of a cancer diagnosis.

I was able to make a few phone calls. I helped the nurses hold down my son while they put an IV in his ankle. I tried to explain why we couldn’t go home just yet. I smiled and ordered him macaroni and cheese from the cafeteria.

Around 10pm that night, the hematologist took me and my husband to an empty room where she had set up three chairs. A very gracious woman, she explained some of the tests they had done, and a little bit about the functions of various blood cells. Then she told us she believed Cub has Leukemia.

I heard her words, delivered with compassion and professionalism, though I tried desperately to reason against what my heart already knew to be true.

Childhood Leukemia. Probably ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia). Over a 90% survival rate. It’s the most common childhood cancer, and he has good odds.

Good odds. Good odds? I hate that term. It makes me feel like I’m betting on a horse.

I wish I could say that I was that person who knew from the very beginning that everything would be alright. That I knew God would heal him. That we had nothing to fear. But, no. I wasn’t, and I’m not.

No. In those first few heaving moments, my raw, primal terror was louder than my faith. I have lived enough to know that we don’t always win. Win. How could I guarantee that 90% win? My mother’s heart went into an adrenalin-fueled panic. Cub has to be in that 90%.

My husband and I sobbed while the doctor sat and held our hands. We sobbed while she prayed over us and our son. We sobbed while she waited for us to catch our breath.

Then, we talked. “We will have to transfer him tomorrow. You have three options for where to start treatment. Barnes, Kansas City, or St. Jude. We are a St. Jude affiliate, so if you go there, you can do some of your treatment here. But, the choice is yours. I’m not trying to sway you one way or another.”

I looked at her, putting my hand on her knee. “If this was your son, where would he be tomorrow?”

She smiled. “There’s no doubt – St. Jude.”

I sat up, shared a knowing look with my husband and nodded my head. “Then Cub is going to St. Jude’s.”

I waited until Cub fell asleep to run home and pack a bag. It was midnight, and I had no idea how to pack.

My oldest brother drove an hour and a half in the wee hours of the morning to spend the last few hours with us before the ambulance took us to Memphis. When I called him to tell him, the words barely came. Leukemia. Saying the word in relation to my son was like rolling rocks around in my mouth. Awkward. Foreign. Painful.

After a nearly 5 hour, non-stop ambulance ride, we arrived in Memphis around noon. I never saw the outside of the hospital as I was riding in back with Cub, but once I stepped from the ambulance into the breezeway, I was swarmed with kindness.

We were quickly moved from a holding room to Cub’s room on the pediatric leukemia ward. That first day was a blur of doctors, nurses, social workers, a chaplain, child-life specialists, a dietician, and many, many tests. Who knew a little five year old boy could be so brave?

At some point later that evening, one of the nurses lovingly kicked me out. “Go get some coffee,” she said.

I wandered around a bit, unusually disoriented from having no points of reference. I foraged something to drink and some peanut butter crackers that I ended up not eating. I went into the little parent’s room adjacent to Cub’s room, where my little bag was sitting on a pull out bed that I ended up never using. I realized that I hadn’t brushed my hair since sometime yesterday afternoon, and I had probably better set myself to rights. I grabbed my makeup bag and headed into the bathroom.

There was no mirror. None.

At first I was confused. Was it hidden somewhere? On the back of the door, perhaps? Nope.

Then, I was a little agitated.

Then, I was grateful.

I didn’t see what I expected to see. I couldn’t see the bedraggled, exhausted mother spent from her own desperation. I couldn’t see the traces of mascara that my tears had left behind or the little-girl-lost expression in my brown eyes rimmed with red.

Instead, I could see what I wanted to see. I could see what I wanted Cub to see. And, I realized while standing there in front of a blank wall, that this situation does not have to define us. Cub and I don’t have to fall into any preconceived ideas of what a mother and son “doing cancer” are supposed to be like. I didn’t have to be the mom I expected to see. I could be the mom I wanted to be.

So, I blindly combed my hair and tucked it into a clip. I washed my face, put some Burt’s Bees on my lips, and threw on a smile for Cub. I decided I get to be the mommy I want to be, and the mommy Cub deserves, not the mommy cancer says I have to be.

We’re doing this together, and Cub gets his mommy every. step. of. the. way. Not some washed out, hollowed reflection of her. He needs all of her, and that’s what he’s going to get.

I couldn’t help but wonder if someone knew what we mothers would think on our first night, standing in front of a mirror. And, maybe that’s why there wasn’t one on that bathroom wall.

The Language of Motherhood

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My husband and son, at the beginning…

My earliest memory of my mother is of her hands. Strong, soft and sure, one holding me fast by the arm while the other sudsed me up with a soft cotton washcloth. I was sitting in the kitchen sink. It was stainless steel, cramped, and cold against my back, even though it was summer. But she had me, and wasn’t going to let me go.

Now, looking back over the last 40 years, I can see my mother’s hands over and over again. Brushing my hair, scrubbing the floor, rolling out dough, pulling weeds, holding her Bible, ironing with steam, sewing a button on, making sandwiches, tucking me in, wiping away my tears, pointing the way, holding my hands and waving goodbye…

Sometimes, often in fact, during my own journey through motherhood, I wish I was more like her. She was a doer, always busy, always with a goal in front of her – she didn’t rest until her work was done. Our house was spotless. Her hands were always busy and full.

Sometimes, when I was young, I would get frustrated. Why can’t we just relax and have fun once in a while? I would ask. Because there’s work to be done, she would say. Won’t it feel good when we’re all done?

Now, I wake up in the morning, feed the cats, feed the dog, feed my son, get my son ready for school, and get myself ready for work. I get dressed and while I’m curling my hair, I see that the bathroom could use a sweeping. I should plan on going to the laundromat tonight after work, but my son has a music concert, so it will have to wait. Backpack? Check. Lunches? Check. I pull out of the driveway…did I make the bed? Uhm…maybe not. Geez, the flower bed needs weeding…I sure wish I was more like mom.

I look at my son in the rear view mirror, and we share a smile, my hands gripping the steering wheel in a tight turn into our busy, busy day. We laugh and talk. At the stoplight, I reach back and we hold hands for a brief moment, our secret signal to one another that everything will be alright. Then, we move on.

We get home at the end of our day, and I fix supper, we eat and do a few chores, and then there’s this precious window of opportunity – about 45 minutes before my little boy has to go to bed. The bathroom floor still needs swept, but I don’t do it. Instead, I sit on the couch with my son, and we read. Or tell stories. Or play Legos. Or watch Green Lantern. Or have a tickle fight. Or just snuggle.

The time goes by, and we say our prayers…a tuck here and a tuck there, and he’s off to sleep.

It’s 8 o’clock. I go into the bathroom. I forgot the broom. Why can’t I be more like mom?

I indulge in a pity party. Mom was a better mother than I’ll ever be. She worked so hard and loved so much.

Then, I hear her whisper in my ear. You love just as much. You work just as much. You are everything just as much, just different. You are just what you are supposed to be.

I came to realize that my mother’s love language was acts of service. Every jar of pickled beets, and every starched blouse; every hot meal, and every clean floor said I love you.

My love languages are words of affirmation and physical touch. So, every conversation about my son’s day at school, his favorite Skylander or Pokemon, and every snuggle on the couch says I love you.

So, mom and I are different, but the same.

Our love is different, but the same.

Our mothering is different, but the same.

It’s easy to compare ourselves with others, especially those we hold in high regard. It’s also easy to use that comparison as a way to tear ourselves down instead of building ourselves up without seeing the good that we do. We come to equate different with wrong.

Try to see yourself with loving, truthful eyes. That’s the way those who love you see you, and it’s the way your children see you, whether your bathroom floor needs swept or not 😉

 

 

 

 

Three Weeks an Orphan

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Three weeks ago this past Saturday, I became an orphan. My beautiful mother slipped from my arms into eternity’s embrace, and with a soft kiss goodbye, my siblings and I became parent-less adults.

A bitter mid-western winter rendered beautiful in all its stark solemnity this Missouri that she so loved. The place of her birth, and now the setting of her long sleep. We gathered in her presence, where we comforted and were comforted in return.

We climbed a steep and rocky hill, braced ourselves against a bone-chilling wind, and whispered each our own secret farewell. Gloved hands taking turns resting briefly against claret lacquered walnut. Fingers plucking a white blossom momento. A little boy’s kiss blowing toward the sky. Toward heaven.

A daughter who was the last one to leave them alone, her mother and brother reunited, side by side.

Three weeks ago.

Worthy; recovering from emotional abuse, January 10, 2014

Image Most of us step into marriage with the greatest expectations of a lifetime spent loving and being loved. Sure, we’ll have our ups and downs, just like everyone else, but we’ll work through whatever comes our way, together, because that’s what people who love each other do, right?

I married my second boyfriend. Throughout high school and college, I can count on one hand the different guys I went out with, so it’s safe to say I didn’t date a lot. I was that other girl, you know, everyone’s “little sister.” I had a herd of “big brother” friends and protectors, but few expressed any romantic interest.

When I married “Don” (not his real name), I was just finishing nursing my wounds from the “big breakup” with my college sweetheart. It had been two years, and “Don” seemed the antithesis of my first boyfriend. He was a few years older, reserved, cerebral, in the ministry, and an east-coaster. My first boyfriend was from Chicago, so dating someone with a completely different philosophy on pizza might be a good idea, right? Word to the wise, don’t base your dating decisions on hand tossed versus deep dish. Just sayin’ ;p

“Don” and I took a lot of walks. He was a great conversationalist and offered a lot of deep thoughts and clever phrases. He was fun in a dark, droll kind of way – Mr. Rochester to my Jane. The romantic in me thought it was a match made in Victorian literature. Ahem.

The first few months of our marriage were nice. Peaceful, quiet, normal, until that morning – the morning “Don” wasn’t waking up for church. He was going to be teaching, and I was supposed to lead worship, but I decided to let him rest a few more minutes since he obviously was tired. When I still couldn’t rouse him, I became worried. He seemed totally unresponsive. I remember sitting down next to him on the edge of the bed, my hand on his shoulder. “Don?” I asked with a gentle shake. Nothing. “Don?” A little louder, a little more urgent. Then, he awoke, but the man who lunged from the bed was no one I recognized.

He was raging, and I was dumbfounded, confused and silent, just watching at first, trying to wrap my head around what was happening in front of me. Words spewed from him like venom. Harsh, unfounded accusations, cruel curses, and anger. Still, the only thing I understood was that I needed to keep out of his way.

I watched what seemed like slow motion as he flew his fist against the hallway wall, leaving a crooked imprint. I remember thinking he seemed so calm and focused on his movements. Elbow back, fist tucked under chin, then a deep breath and BAM, another hit, this time splintering a hole in the coat closet door.

The energy rolled off of him, and he suddenly seemed exhausted. He walked to the bathroom and locked himself inside. Quiet.

I sat on the couch, feet tucked under my knees, nightgown pulled down tight, like a little girl watching a scary movie. The phone sat on the coffee table. I stared at it, weighing my options, my future. All I had to do was make one call. My brother would come and get me, and that would be that. But…

If I made that call, there would be no hope of saving my marriage. No hope of rescuing that happily ever after. My family would lock me in a closet before ever letting me come back, and there would be no vouching for “Don’s” safety. I am the baby of five, and let’s face it, big brothers are big brothers.

That’s when I heard him crying, from the other side of the bathroom door. Obviously, “Don” must be sick. He had never acted that way before. Maybe he needs some medicine, and some counseling. Something must be wrong, and it was my place to help him, wasn’t it?

And so it began. Friends, finding yourself in an emotionally abusive relationship is as easy as a Sunday morning gone wrong. If you find yourself in a situation where you need help, or you see that someone you love needs help, please, be brave. Make the call.

Love you, lovelies.

For my mother…

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My soon to be 80-years old mother has battled illness for most of my life. Even now, she is in a hospital several hours and miles of snow-covered road away from where I am.

Over the years, she has battled Diabetes, Congestive Heart Failure, Degenerative Disk Disease, Arthritis, Esophageal illness, and endured many, many surgeries. As if all these weren’t enough, just a couple of years ago, she was diagnosed with Leukemia. Thankfully, she has been in remission for  just over a year.

Her current condition is a result of a seemingly innocuous injury that, combined with the complexities of her other health challenges, has developed into a very painful and threatening situation. A hematoma developed on her leg and ruptured, broke through the skin, and despite immediate medical attention, is not healing properly. She has been transferred to a large, metropolitan hospital where her oncologist and other specialists are able to address the situation and, hopefully, produce a positive outcome.

If you know my mother, you know that she is a fighter. Even her name, Marcella, means female warrior in Latin.  I almost laugh out loud when people meet my mom for the first time and tell me what a quiet, sweet and soft person she is. Of course, she can be soft and quiet, and sweet, but she is also a she-bear in the shadows, prepared to protect and defend to the last claw, if necessary. Has she always been this way? I don’t know. As far back as I can remember? Yes.

In the face of all our family stories, funny, fantastic, or tragic, she has been there. The she-bear. Of course, she is human, too 🙂 There are weaknesses, as there are for all of us. But, they are all wrapped up in this vibrating ball of fur and claws, and her sheer will to survive always wins. Always.

I could tell you lots of stories about her. Stories of hard times, stories of heart ache, stories of victory, stories of making something out of nothing, and of making the best out of something, anything. And, one day, I will share some of those stories. But, for now, consider this a little introduction from me to you, of the most strong-willed woman I have ever known.

Now, today, as she fights, as she braces her will against the forces of nature that would seek to lay us all to waste in time, I imagine the fur bristling. Her Madeira Wine painted nails growing long and thin and sharp. Fight on, Mama. Fight on. I am there with you, in spirit. We will fight together, side by side.

Loving you…