Chapter 1: Fritos

I’m holding my baby, she is wet and covered in that biological cake batter.  Her name is Lucy Pearl, “bright light.”  She is my first born and we are both unaware of the cancer that has rooted into the connective tissues and bones and muscles underneath the breast she sleeps on.

Five weeks later, at my routine follow-up appointment my oncologist says, “It’s back.”  His nose squishes up toward the cloudy blue eyes and his big fuzzy eyebrows.  No tears though, he isn’t crying.  On my iPhone moments earlier he watched a short video of Lucy sleep-smiling, so  revealing a Stage II Hodgkins Lymphoma recurrence seems worthy of a tear of two.

I’m not crying either.

“Okay.”

And then I think the rest of our conversation must have drowned in my bottled emotions because zero percent of the words he spoke linked together to form anything transmittable.  I just kept thinking about the sleeping baby at home with Bonnie, my mother-in-law.

Oh noooo….. Bonnie.  I’ll have to tell Bonnie.

Shoot.  And my parents, too.  Not again.  Lord, they can’t go through this again.

And while we’re at it, fuck You God.

Call Daddy, then Mama (“it’s back”) as I plow through I-25, toward home.  Closer to the newborn I’ve spent the last five weeks cuddling so hard.  So hard.  She is my breath, my bathing buddy, my nipple-buster, and the softest thing I’ve ever created.  Loud, too.  But just perfectly noisy enough so I hear her and feed her, never so shrill that I resent her.

Nobody told me motherhood could feel this safe and warm. This is home.  How will I spare her from this new normal?

You can’t, Sweetie.

What if I don’t hold her, nurse her, or love her?  She can’t yearn for things she never received.  The details and consequences of withholding love and affection drowned in the same bottle of coping mechanisms as the conversation with my oncologist thirty minutes earlier.

Initiate robot mode.

Three steps up to the front porch at the South Pearl Street house, three chances to abandon the plan.  When I opened the rattly, baby blue door and looked into her eyes, my wounded robot self erected a wall I would have to sledgehammer apart for the next six years.  I refused her.

At least she won’t miss me.

Bonnie tears up.  No, Bonnie, don’t cry.  The oncologist didn’t cry, and neither did I.  Stick to the plan.  Robot, think robot, please.

David, my husband, arrives home shortly after from his first day at his new job, it’s the day after Easter.  He asked me out on our first date after a clean PET scan years earlier, who is this gorgeous, animated girl with such zeal and zest?  Yes please!  Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” struck a deep cord in his college school years, so keeping me close was like the song playing on repeat for the rest of our lives—or at least until I died.

That afternoon, once Bonnie left and LP went down for her afternoon nap, I decided to let a few tears fall.  Poor David, this next part will either burn up the vows we took two years earlier, or it will engrave them in platinum.

Please no bone marrow transplant please no bone marrow transplant please no bone marrow transplant.

“You’ll need a bone marrow transplant.”

Thirty (or more) consecutive days isolated in a hospital room on the eleventh floor without my Bright Pearl terrified me more than any biopsy, fertility treatment, or chemotherapy infusion ever could.  “At least you’re not the woman who just had to abort her twenty-week old fetus to receive life saving treatment,” one doctor consoled.

Totally true.  Thanks God.  And fuck You, again.

I am not the woman who had to terminate her pregnancy, but I am the woman who had to abruptly stop breastfeeding because babies don’t like chemo milk.  I am the woman who had to keep her infant’s fingers from pulling on the IV cords dangling out of her chest.  It is I who, with pregnancy hormone still raging, must undergo a rapid-fire, two-week, onco-fertility program should I desire to meet any more of my babies.

At one of my fluid infusions later on I would meet a woman, a mom of six.  She carried her newborn into the sterile room with curtained dividers just like I did.  A baby carrier in one arm, a yellow mask covering her face, and a shiny, waxy apple head.
God, where are you?  I know, You’re here.  In the plastic of the car seats and the sweat underneath our furry masks, and the clicking metal sliders attaching the curtains to the tracks in the ceiling.  But why is cancer a thing?  Why so much suffering?

Thirty days without Lucy, robot mode engaged.  And IV happy meds that don’t make you happier, just less aware of how unhappy you are.

During my stay at University of Colorado Hospital, before we found out I was allergic to morphine, I hallucinated male entertainers on the Las Vegas Strip.

“You also tried to convince me you were a beautiful bird; you wanted me to touch your plumage.”  David informed me later on.

“And did you?”  I responded.

Another time I woke up with a vague memory of having shit and vomited profusely at the same time in my sleep.  Must’ve been a dream.  But then the night nurse Jerry asked if I had improved since my exorcism the previous evening.
And then the hours I spent weeping uncontrollably for my baby girl, calling her name in a high-pitched stupor.  Sometimes even patting my lap, convinced of her presence.  After a gathering of the doctors and nurses it was decided that maybe I was losing my mind, and a visit would help.

The day arrived and for an almost dead person, I cleaned up nice.

Lucy didn’t care, or didn’t recall—but I remember.

The white GAP jumper, ruffly with eyelets.  Her Hershey Kisses eye balls, big and brown.  I remember that softness— there you are, sweet girl.  Could we take a bath when I get out of here?  Just please don’t pull out my IV lines.  Oh your smell, and that chunk!

Those thirty days were written on my heart with disappearing ink, not much remains.  Maybe David will write a book, he slept alone each night on the sofa to my left.

“Babe, how did you not smell anything?  BOTH ENDS!?”

Once I arrived home, eating and drinking—home run activities for Claire—took on a more volatile nature, because now the only two materials I could consistently keep from erupting out of me were Fritos and Sprite.

I wept watching all the new mamas walk their babies under the close Colorado sun.

Why aren’t I out there walking my baby around in our new orange B.O.B stroller?  Motherhood tasted so sweet before, why can’t I keep it down now?  Narcotics will probably help.

I know now that each tear of mine was one that trickled off God’s face first.  Perspective has also revealed that some of those women had made the same robot pledge I did.  We’re all a little wounded, a little numb—sometimes.

Lucy and I sit & suck the salty Fritos together, watching young android families patrol down the street.   I barf over the side of the front porch and she smiles, because that’s what babies do.

I think God was in the Fritos, the barf too.

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Mama Bear Monday: Why You’re A Mama, Even If You Aren’t

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I have a good friend who survived three miscarriages in two years.  One evening, after a day spent hanging out with a handful of our mutual mama friends and handfuls of all our own children, she called with a confession.

“You know when you refer to all of us as ‘the mamas’?”

I have a habit of using the term to direct my children when we’re in the group.  You’re sippy cup is over there—no, near The Mamas.  Don’t go near that wasp nest, stay close to The Mamas!

“I wanted to tell you that it’s triggering, and it hurts, when you use that language around me.  Because I don’t have my babies, and I’m not a mama.”  Her voice softened and shook.  The most recent miscarriage Love-sledgehammered every last piece of her heart.

“I’m so sorry.  I don’t ever mean it like that, it’s just, to me you are a mama.  You help me, and all of us moms, mother and love our own children.”

“I know,” she replied.  “Which is why I also want to thank you.  You’re the only one who’s ever referred to me as a mom.”  The softness in her voice and heart melted and dripped down her cheeks in the form of salty, silvery prayers.  “I know I haven’t held them,” referring to the three, “but they’re still mine.  And even though it’s hard to hear, I love being a part of the community of mamas we have.”

“Hug.”  I said over the tear-soaked phone.

Something I joke about to those close to me is that, while I LOVE being a mama, I’m not a fan of parenting.  Parenting involves the training-up of a child who probably shares your DNA.  And when something shares your DNA, it means they also stir up all the shames and self-hatreds inside you, the parent.  At least that how it works for me and every human I’ve spoken to.

Growing up, I had four women who served as my stand-in Mamas, and without them I would not be standing here today.  God gave me a woman on each side to help protect the pieces of me that my own parents could not.

Parenting is different than mothering.  Mothering implies the more tender mercies of the job, not that it’s easier—my four mamas held heavy things.  But they didn’t snuggle into bed at the end of the day dripping with shame & regret over the numerous behavioral and emotional ailments they passed down to me.  They weren’t tempted with thinking, if I had just done this or that differently.

You are a Mama if you hold a piece of a child that a parent can’t protect.

You are a Mama when you whisper (or scream) prayers for a baby, regardless of what the birth certificate says.  If there even is a birth certificate.

You are a Mama when a kid gets more excited to see you than her own mother.  (Yes, it’s happened to me.  At first, it stung.  Ooooh, I must be doing something wrong.  Lucy loves Nana more than she loves me.  Then it hit me, No, I am doing something right.  I’m letting other Mamas help protect the parts of her that I cannot.)

That same friend met her first-born son a few months ago.  All the pieces that God Love-sleghammered began to mend when she breathed in his sweet-smelling breath.  The ooze will stop, and scars will remind her of the years she joyfully spent as a Mama, begging Jesus for the gift parenthood, too.

I give you permission to claim the title of Mama, even if you’re not a parent—if you want it.

Lord, thank You for all the Mamas out there.  Thank you for providing surrogates to help bolster up all of my broken bits, and the brokenness of us all.  

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To My Daughters: A Lesson On Bullshit And Make-up

To my three daughters,

Here’s what I need you to do.  I know, kids aren’t allowed to say bad words, but this is important.  Repeat after me: bull.  Good job, like Ferdinand—yes.  Okay.  Now shit.  Now please smash them together. Yeah, bullshit.  Good job!  

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That’s what you tell people, magazines, and the internet when they insist you could benefit from CC (color correcting) Cream.  Because your skin doesn’t need correcting.  Let’s change it to Carefully Crafted cream instead.  You may wear Carefully Crafted cream shamelessly.  Apply the other kind with more caution, even if it does work miracles.

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Also, pores repulse people in 2016.  Yes I know, that sounds silly to me too, because skin is biologically amazing and necessary.  Pores help our insides get out, and the outside get in, they keep us alive.  

What would happen if those little life-giving skin breathers stopped inhaling and exhaling?  Death.  What would happen if love stopped oozing out and back in?  Death.  That’s exactly what they want: the more dead we become, the less we question the importance of pores.  We begin questioning our purpose and our worth instead. 

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But that’s confusing when they want us to shimmer and shine at the same time, isn’t it?  Wait—you want us to shirk, correct, mattify, and cover up while sparkling?  

Sweet girls, I see your sparkles, and they don’t come from the lip gloss.  Your glitter shakes out of you like salt from a shaker, each fearless skip leaves a little behind.  The big climbing tree on 11th & Saint Paul still wears your pixie dust from our walk last weekend.

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I want you to know that you are loved even if your lips haven’t been stung by bees.  I want you to know your un-stung, pain-free, un-touched lips are so pretty to me.  Remember that you don’t have to hurt to be a pretty human.

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It’s hard trying to stay true while loving ourselves and others, especially when wearing a brand of make-up that encourages duplicit behavior.  Two faces could never love the people of this world as well as the one God carefully crafted.  That’s the one I want to see. 

It will take a few decades for you understand that one face is all you need, maybe even a lifetime, but Daddy and I will be cheering that one face along every step of the journey.  Okay?  

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Don’t worry girls, they don’t really want you to leave your make-up on forever.  They’ve created an entire industry to help remove all those colorful, stinging, shimmering layers.  But they’d prefer you look like you’re always wearing make-up.  

I think all the pores and humanity scares them.  Your humanity doesn’t need to scare you, my Loves. 

Hear that:  You’re humanity doesn’t need to scare you.  

Finally, gravity.  The Sag.  It’s going to happen.  Hug.  But here is what I know:  God came as sacrificial, lowly servant, a pedicurist.  God did not come to conquer, exalt, inflate, or lift.  God comes to Love—to get looooow, deep into the cracks of humanity—God lets gravity help.  Let your body listen to that. 

As you deflate you become more like God.  

How do I communicate just how pretty and perfect and bright you all are?  Every day I get to look at my three girls, who will become women, and I hurt inside with all the Love.  Big, benign love tumors invade my heart, redirecting blood supply, wreaking havoc on all the things I thought I knew about love.

Here’s what I can do: I can teach you to call bullshit!  

I can teach you to talk about your pore-y fears and your imperfect eyebrows.  We can call bullshit! together, because I’m still learning all of this.  And after we talk about the fears, comparisons, and unfair expectations, we can pray about them.  We can ask God to remind us about the day S/He breathed into clay and called it Good.  We can ask for help remembering that you are Good, along with everyone else. 

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you are all a blessing to behold.

Love,

Mama

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