A death in the family

We just got word that my Uncle Tim died today – he was elderly; he had been ill; his death was not unexpected.
He was married to my mother’s sister – both my mother and her sister died of cancer in their 40s many, many years ago. My Uncle Tim was the repository of stories about my mother’s family. I had wanted him to meet my children but he never did. I had some of the most hilariously funny times at his house when we visited him in Ireland over the years. But I have not been back in a long time.
My parents and all my aunts and uncles and their spouses are dead now. Tim was the only one alive for many years. It’s inevitable but sad all the same. The immigrant’s ties to the family back home are loosened by distance but the ties with Tim remained strong just the same. I was lucky to have Tim welcome us into his home every time we showed up with questions about the family we lost when we were so very young.

Gifts at the table

GiftsWhen I see this table, I see gifts, many gifts. The plates are from my husband’s beloved grandmother Pearl, a tiny jewel of a woman. The glassware, Waterford crystal, is a legacy from my Irish mother; she collected the glasses; I added to it when I got married. The silverware was assembled as wedding gifts. The center candle was a gift from my girls. The table itself belonged to my parents, one of the first things they purchased after they married.

The meal we ate at this table tonight included vegetables sautéed in the chili oil and beriberi spices my son got me for Christmas.

We had a feast of gifts today. It was delicious….

Both my parents died young of cancer. I was young when they died; for a long time, I measured my life in what I had lost. But now, decades later, I see the gifts in my life. And of course, the most important gifts are not yet at this table – my husband and my three children.

In life, it is sometimes appropriate to acknowledge all that we’ve lost on our journey. Tonight, however, I celebrate the many gifts – the people who’ve supported me in my lief, and the gifts they’ve shared with me.

I wish all a merry, merry Christmas and a year full of gifts and gratitude.

Thinking of Mary

18 years ago, I was nine months pregnant with my first child. This beloved and wanted baby was due in the early days of a new millennium – if you remember, the Y2K fear ran strong in 1999 – we were being told that all systems could collapse due to a programming bug that meant computer programs might not be able to recognize years beyond the 20th century.

Being nine months pregnant around Christmastime, I could not help but think of another mother, a young woman whose pregnancy preceded her marriage, who had not planned to become pregnant by someone not her husband. Mary was God’s choice of mother for his son. Joseph, her betrothed, was initially unhappy to marry a pregnant woman, but then an angel came to him in a dream. And so Joseph married Mary and stayed with her and raised God’s child as his own.

When I was nine months pregnant, I was uncomfortable and clumsy and I would think of Mary on that long donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I thought about the discomfort and the dust and the effort it must have taken for that couple to make that journey just prior to the birth of their baby.

When I was nine months pregnant, I went to see a friend’s child in a Christmas pageant – we arrived late and there were no seats. I stood for the performance and again thought of Mary and I thought of arriving at the destination to find “no room at the inn.” I thought of what it must have been like to go into labor in the stables, with no crib, no bed. I thought about what it was like for this young woman to lay her newborn baby in a manger, a feeding trough.

When I went into labor, it lasted for 23 hours; it was long and painful and at times, frightening. I gave birth in the hospital and came home to see my baby welcomed by our family. Ithink of Mary, laboring in the stables, with no family but her husband nearby. I know that she received gifts from strangers but she was in a stable far from home when she delivered her first child. She, too, must have had moments of fear and doubt as she labored to bring the baby to this world.

My son’s birth ushered in my life as a mother; motherhood has made me more connected, more aware of the links that join us together. Once, a child was born who was to be God’s savior on earth. Always this time of year I remember when I was large with child and I think of Mary and her journey to become the mother of Jesus. Tomorrow is Christmas and soon after, my son will turn 18. Tis the season for celebrating life on this earth. And tis the season for sharing our love, our care and our support with others.

From Luke 2:14 – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

My husband and I are fast approaching our 20th anniversary – I look at my plates, my silverware; all those things that were a part of my bridal registry and cannot believe they are all 20 years old right now.

But my oldest wedding gift was one bought long before I ever married. It is a pair of candelabra my mother bought for me (and a pair for each of my two sisters) to be given to each of us at our wedding.


I was 12 years old when she bought this wedding gift for me. She was three months away from dying. She knew she was dying and she knew she would never see her daughters marry. But she bought us each a present.

The plan, of course, was that my father would present the gift to us on our wedding day. But he, too, died before any of us married.

I brought out the candelabra last night – they had been packed away for many, many (too many) years. They are ornate and fancy. We are informal and casual. But I was thinking about my wedding anniversary and the many gifts we received and how much enjoyment we’ve gotten from them and I realized it was time to bring out the candelabra my mother had gotten for me. She was so very ill when she embarked on that particular shopping trip. I have no idea what she was thinking when she was looking through the silver section of Marshall Fields. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like for my mother to go wedding-gift shopping for three small girls, the eldest being just 12, knowing that she would never see us grow up and marry.

There is so much emotional weight in that choice she made to purchase these gifts.

So last night, in celebration of my birthday, I put out the gift my mother had bought for me so many years ago, the wedding gift bought years before my wedding. It is a beautiful gift. Solid, strong, decorative. And when I light those candles, I think of my mother and how much she missed and how loss never leaves you. But the mementos stay and remind us of the love that went into the gifts we have received from those we’ve lost.

In the early winter of 1918, after four years of a terrible war that destroyed much of Europe, the Allies and the Germans decided to stop hostilities on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

That they could be so poetic in their timing of the cessation of battle, after years of the brutality and horror brought by World War I, is astonishing.

The official end of World War I happened later, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June of 1919, but the day that marked the end of fighting was the day that President Wilson chose as Armistice Day, the national holiday to honor the soldiers who served in that war.

Of course, the “war to end all wars” did nothing of the kind. As time went on, we added more wars to history, more heroes to be mourned and remembered.

In 1954, after World War II and the Korean War, President Eisenhower changed Armistice Day into Veterans Day to honor the heroism of the veterans of all wars.

War Stories
My father was a veteran of the Korean War, the “forgotten war.” He was the kind of soldier who spoke very little about his experiences on the front line of battle. It really wasn’t until he drew near his own death that stories about his war-time experiences began to bubble up to the surface. The presentiment of his own mortality freed him up to talk about the deaths he witnessed in a distant land so many years before.

What I wish I’d known then: I wish I had known to ask more questions when he shared the bits and fragments of his war stories.

What I know now: the experiences of a soldier in war are incredible, painful, incomprehensible sometimes, yet we need to remember these stories; we need to know these stories; we need to hand them down to the next generation with the hope that in doing so, we are doing a small part to ensure that no one has to endure those experiences again.

Today We Remember
Today is the 11th day of the 11th month of the year. Today is Veteran’s Day, the day we honor all the people who have risked – and continue to risk – their lives in battle to protect our rights as Americans. I am filled with gratitude for their sacrifices.

America was born of war and our soldiers are in war zones war today. The bones of our soldiers lie scattered throughout the world. Today, we remember the sacrifices, the valor and the stories of all the American men and women who have fought and died for our principles.

As a nation, we are forever in their debt.

Much has been said about Bill and Emma Keller’s very public war on Lisa Bonchek Adams, a woman blogging and tweeting about her life as a stage IV cancer patient. You can find Bill’s post here. Emma’s post caused enough of a stir that the Guardian took it down, but here’s a link to the cached version.

I read both Keller posts and think they’ve lost their minds. I don’t know where they’re coming from; I don’t know why this married couple decided to use their bully pulpits at two major newspapers (Emma at the Guardian; Bill at the New York Times) to bully a woman dealing with Stage IV cancer. I don’t know why Bill Keller didn’t report facts correctly. I don’t know why Emma did not reveal to Lisa that she was going to use private messages in her very public story.

I don’t know why it irks Emma Keller that Lisa is “dying out loud. On her blog, and, especially, on Twitter.” But certainly, it irked her enough to write a story about the wrongness of such a public discussion.

Emma wonders: “should there should be boundaries in an experience like this? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?”

Maybe Emma is obsessed because she, herself, is a breast cancer survivor. She blogged about her double mastectomy in 2012 – just one post, and then no more. Maybe Emma realizes there’s an audience for a discussion of dealing with breast cancer treatment. And maybe, just maybe, this is a discussion that terrifies Emma, cancer survivor that she is, and so instead of looking away from the blogs and tweets, she attacks Lisa for writing about her struggles. I don’t know. All I know is that a cancer survivor’s attack on a Stage IV cancer patient for writing about being a Stage IV cancer patient reeks of irrationality and fear.

Bill, for some inexplicable reason, decided to follow up on his wife’s controversial post with one of his own in the New York Times. The “heroic measures” he thinks Lisa should take are to simply stop talking and die like his 79-year-old father-in-law did after being diagnosed with cancer. “He died gently,” Bill noted.

“In October 2012 I wrote about my father-in-law’s death from cancer in a British hospital. There, more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life. His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America.”

But quite frankly, I don’t know why Bill thinks that Lisa Adams should emulate his 79-year-old father-in-law’s approach to cancer. Lisa is not just some elderly patient relentlessly pursuing hopeless and expensive treatments in search of just a few more days.

First, she’s not dying. She’s living with cancer. She’s getting palliative treatments to help her manage the pain of cancer.

And she’s not an old person at the end of a very long life. She’s young. And she’s a mother whose children are 15, 11 and 7.

And she’s blogged about how terrifying this is – to be a cancer patient who has children who are so young. Here’s a section from one of her poems about the nightmares cancer brings (I encourage you to read the entire poem, which you can find here:

I will be there, with them, but only in memories.
It will have to be enough.
But I know it won’t be.
After all,
This is what cancer nightmares are made of.
This is what grief does.
I cannot do more, be more, than I am right now.
But I can want more.
It is a parent’s prerogative.

I am greedy.

I make no apologies for wanting to see the things I want to see,
Wanting to share the things I want to share,
Wanting to live the life I want to live.

So I don’t know why Bill feels comparing the death of his 79-year old father-in-law is in any way remotely comparable to what Lisa Adams is going through. And I don’t know why the Kellers feel that enhancing the conversation about “end-of-life” heroic measures should be framed in dual attacks on a young mother dealing with cancer.

I come at this from the perspective of the someone who lost both parents to cancer by the time I was 22. My mother died of metastatic breast cancer when I was 12; she was 41. My father died of metastatic kidney cancer when I was 22; he was 54.

What I know from my experience – every day matters to a mother who is dealing with cancer. When my mother’s cancer came back, she was told she had just nine months to live. She lived 18 months instead. The doctors told us that her will to live was so strong because she did not want to leave us, her children. She wanted to stay with us as long as she could. And that will to live doubled her time with us. She got to see me win first place in a horse show; she got to see me with my braces off. She had nine more months to live with us than the doctors thought possible. And I appreciate those nine months, even as I mourn all the months lost since.

That’s why Lisa is doing what she SHOULD do – she should explore EVERY avenue available to her to stay alive. She’s not just doing this for herself. She’s doing this for her children. That’s what the Kellers don’t understand. And that’s why their columns are so stupidly misguided and offensive.

Been gone a while…

It’s been several years since I’ve posted on this blog. I’ve left the sippy cup stage of parenting – once, it seemed that sending children off to school would mean more time for me. How wrong I was!

I’ve also experienced massive life changes – a move from the Midwestern prairie where I’ve spent most of my life to the Blue Ridge mountains south of the Mason-Dixon line – from Chicagoland, the third largest metropolitan area in the country, to a rural mountain town in Appalachia. And my work has shifted from freelance writing for corporate clients to teaching (for now) at the college level.

But most importantly, I’ve pondered the ethical question of what to write about my children. How much of their lives can I claim for mine? How much of their lives should remain private? My oldest graduates from middle school this spring; my girls are in 4th grade. Life is swift and the moments with my children are precious. But how much of that do I publish to the world? It’s a dilemma…

In my next post, I look at an ethical dilemma of another kind…