It’s been nearly a year since I received the phone call at work from a nurse telling me I had breast cancer. A few days earlier I lay on a table awaiting a needle biopsy on the 3 year anniversary of the day my sister died from cancer. My mom had it too, but hers like mine was caught early and I am grateful to have her to lean on when things become overwhelming. Her mother died at age 30, when my mom was only 4 years old.
My 12-year-old son, Carson, describes cancer in a poem earlier this year titled “Family.”
“I didn’t tell you that I might have a mutated gene, that will make it more of a chance to get cancer. I didn’t tell you that my family has been pelted with cancer their whole life, because they have a history of cancer.”
A few months after my first two operations, we learn that my boyfriend Dean has melanoma that will require surgery.
Just as 2017 is starting, the most unsettling news of all is delivered. It turns out Austin and I have a specific genetic mutation that makes us and other family members at a higher risk for a number of different cancers. An MRI performed on Austin reveals a brain mass. The experts at Children’s Hospital in Denver concur that as long as Austin remains free of symptoms, no growth occurs and has regular screenings it may not be cause for concern.
In 10 months three people living under one roof, including my 16-year-old son, are diagnosed with tumors.
At times, it’s excruciatingly hard not to get bogged down in the what ifs of this new reality. I don’t always do a very good job of being reasonable. I refuse to say we “are lucky.” There is nothing lucky about any of these diagnoses.
This year I am learning how to breathe. Sometimes that is the only way to get through to the next moment.
Today I page through my bulging medical journal with appointment note scribbles, doctor’s office business cards, grocery lists, and things I wrote down this year to remind myself to be grateful for what is good in my life.
Learning to walk, even when my legs want to run, because the rest of my body needs me to take it slow
Taking my great-nephew Giles Fox for his very first swim at Eldorado Springs Pool
Riding and talking with Austin as he drives a car
Having excellent medical care and insurance
Appreciating the warmth of friendship and kindness from every area of my life—-family, church, school, work, operating, recovery and waiting rooms
Marrying Dean, a thoughtful, caring, funny, and most considerate man and combining our two loving families
Being able to watch Carson as he gracefully glides down a mountain on skis
Witnessing both of my boys grow up to be really amazing young people
Living in the moment is difficult for me. I’m a worrier. Sometimes my mind wants to run even though my heart needs to take it slow. Breathe. Everyday I am learning.
It’s a concept, an aesthetic, and a worldview. It’s also a phrase that doesn’t translate directly from Japanese into English, and the ideas behind it may not immediately translate in the minds of those who haven’t encountered it before. Put simply, it’s an intuitive way of living that emphasizes finding beauty in imperfection, and accepting […]
It’s a concept, an aesthetic, and a worldview. It’s also a phrase that doesn’t translate directly from Japanese into English, and the ideas behind it may not immediately translate in the minds of those who haven’t encountered it before. Put simply, it’s an intuitive way of living that emphasizes finding beauty in imperfection, and accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay. The best way to learn about wabi-sabi is just to accept that it’s there – and to begin noticing examples of it in one’s daily life. –Laura Alta Language Services
Back in April, I was sitting in my Doctor’s office being prepped for a needle biopsy due to irregularities found on my annual mammogram. The procedure itself was not as bad as I had anticipated. The waiting for test results is almost always the worst part of any procedure. That week happened to be the third anniversary of my sister’s death from breast cancer. She was 54. My mom is a 20 year breast cancer survivor. Her mom, my grandmother died at age 30.
A few days later the call came in, while I was at work, to let me know that I had cancer. It was a Friday morning. Somehow I made it through the day. We had a previously scheduled get together with our friends. I decided being with our friends and our kids’ friends would be better than sitting around teary eyed trying to process this unexpected diagnosis. I wanted this experience to be as positive as possible for my boys. At one point Carson asked “Mom why are we having a party because you have cancer?” I explained it wasn’t because I have cancer but in spite of it. This was the week Prince died. I painted my nails purple put on my kick-ass cowgirl boots and we sang, danced, played apples to apples and hide and seek and celebrated his spirit. I also decided that I would choose purple as my cancer fighting color in lieu of pink.
The next few weeks were filled with calls, appointments, genetic testing, and scheduling, and sharing the news. Telling our friends, family, volunteers, and work mates was painful. Austin was so brave, extra helpful, and kind. Carson rubbed my back and kept me laughing with his sharp sense of humor. Dean promised this only made him love me more. Our family was unwavering in their support. My work and church family could not have been more supportive and loving.
One day early on I received a package from Anna my niece. In it was a little monkey. I had given Vi a mama monkey and a baby monkey to help her in her treatments. Vi carried the baby monkey with her to all of her appointments and procedures. It sits next to me and my computer right now as I try to share this experience. My niece Phoebe sent me a beautiful picture of her space in Chile it shows a “TherRistra” of cayenne peppers from her farm. When Vi was still alive we spent a few fun summer nights stringing chile ristras.
At the end of the school year we had a lovely family vacation to San Diego. We spent a lot of time on the beach listening to the ocean, playing checkers, eating yummy food, and enjoying each other. We had a bit of a harrowing experience returning to Denver the night before my surgeries–think planes, trains, and automobiles.
On June 7, with my mom, Dean, and Melody at my side (and countless other supporters in spirit), Me and my purple toenails had a bilateral mastectomy with the first phase of reconstruction. The procedure itself went as well as can be expected. Later, my nephew Craig kept me laughing and sharing his heart with me. Sweet Jessica, with the voice of an angel, sang me to sleep that first frightful night.
One of the most difficult parts of all of this was having to look at my surgery sight for the first time before leaving the hospital. Dean and a wonderful nurse helped talk me through it even though I thought it would be impossible.
The pain, discomfort, and fatigue is pretty extreme but I feel like I am on the right side of my recovery. Most days are better than the ones before.
Dean, Austin, Carson, Mom, and Dad are the best caregivers a person could ever ask for.
My dear friend Joelle helped me get back into a running routine a year ago when we reconnected after not seeing each other since high school. We ran almost 10 miles a week and talked about everything. Even though I can’t run right now she surprises me with visits and inspiring talks. Sharon my spiritual adviser always helps me to remember to breathe and remember what I can do instead of what I can’t.
ALL of my friends, church family, and volunteers, work mates (especially Susan and Erika) continue to blow me away with their kindness and support. Their thoughtfulness and generosity have helped me more than I can express in words.
…….”The truth about human beings is that we’re broken. The larger truth is that we heal. The even larger truth is that we heal each other. We have the power, often by the simplest of acts, to help each other heal.
The miracle isn’t the healing. The miracle is that one person decides not to stand aloof from another person’s pain. The wonder isn’t that people are healed, it’s that they’re loved like that. The greatest need we have is to be treated with care, treated like human beings, but because that’s so rare, when it happens it seems miraculous.
We say, ‘If you have your health, you have everything.’ That’s not true. Some people aren’t healthy, but they have something many healthy people would gladly trade for—people who pray for them, accompany them, don’t forget them: a circle of care. In such circles even people facing death may experience a kind of healing, even the dying find the blessing of life.”…….. Mary Luti
I’m struggling a little bit with finding that kick-ass cowgirl spirit that I had upon my initial diagnosis but everyday it grows and seeps out in one form or another. I am determined to dance again and as Viola often said “never trade joy for fear.”
- Ring the bells that still can ring
- Forget your perfect offering
- There’s a crack in everything
- That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen – Anthem
……When the universe throws you a curve ball, sometimes the best you can do is ring or text up your posse, slip on your kick-ass cowgirl boots, paint your nails purple, sit out on a sun soaked deck, drink raspberry berets, sing Prince at the top of your lungs, play hide and seek and apples to apples, and dance it out under a purple moon……..
I once knew a superhero who wielded kindness, creativity, compassion, intelligence and a wicked sense of humor. She wore colorful outfits, dangly earrings and a pair of kick ass cowgirl boots. Her theme song was “Long Black Veil” by Johnny Rivers.
Her name was Viola Rose Moriarty and she was my big sister.
Although I knew the day was coming, I was woefully unprepared for the darkness that would appear when I received the call three years ago that let me know she had died.
Cancer her kryptonite.
She nicknamed me “Teace” and I called her “Vi”. I was her sidekick, deputy and accomplice. She was born 12 years before me. I think she loved being my sister nearly as much as I loved being hers.
I remember a time or two when someone tried to introduce Vi as my half-sister. Without sounding judgmental yet being perfectly clear, think Mary Poppins, she corrected the introducer, “There is no such thing as a half person.” She went on to introduce herself as my big sister.
Vi led me on all kinds of adventures: to Tarantino’s–her college summer job, the bank to deposit her tip money, parties, sleepovers at her apartment, visits to her classroom, on bike rides, baseball games and to the movies.
We used to talk about everything. She talked way more than me and I loved it. She seemed to have the right words for any situation. I could tell her anything good, bad or ugly. We would figure out a plan, usually by starting some sort of list. We could stave off any difficult scenario with a good list.
She wasn’t just beautiful, kind, smart, and creative. Her super power was her unearthly ability to make almost any situation fun; from the mundane to the special event. Things like grocery shopping, meetings, cooking, making art, bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals even child-birth.
Viola lived in Vermont at the time and wasn’t able to travel back to Colorado for the birth of my first child, Austin. Since she couldn’t be there in person she did the next best thing. She called the hospital–a lot– during my labor. Vi wanted to make sure the doctor and nurses were taking proper care of the two of us. She disarmed the attending staff with her charm and quick wit and in no time they had gotten to know her and even appeared to look forward to hearing from her.
Carson, my youngest son, was given an assignment in kindergarten. He needed someone to write a letter to describe him. He chose Vi.
Dear Carson (my sweetness),I am writing this letter to tell you why you are so special.The very first minute I heard you were growing inside your mom, my little sister, I knew you were special already. The women in my family are good at growing things, but sometimes we have trouble growing babies. What I mean by that is that we seem to have a tendency to have miscarriages or problems in pregnancy a little more than other women. So when a baby gets born in our family we never take it for granted and we know already that the baby is strong and special. I knew when your mom got big and round that you would be a strong boy who can survive the odds.After you were born and I came from Vermont to Denver to meet you, your mom got sick and had to stay in the hospital. You came with me to Gramma’s and since there was no crib at Gramma’s house, you and I slept on the floor on some cushions and I put my body in a moon shape around yours. We slept like that all night and I listened to the sound of your breathing. You have a good sound, a good breath. Even though you and I both have asthma, we also have a style of full breathing that goes with people who really love this life and breathe it in with every single inhalation. I knew that night you would be a happy boy who enjoys his life.I always ask you, “How many kisses do you want?” and you say the biggest number you can think of. I give you that many kisses and then ask for the same number back and you give me every one. I know you are a boy who knows the value of expressing love. You are a boy who knows love who will grow up to be a man who understands and values love. That is very special.When I got cancer a few years ago, you carried a rock shaped like an egg in your pocket all day before sending it to me for good luck in my surgery and treatments. I look at that egg every day and I think about you and your pockets. I think you are a boy who will always have something interesting going on, something purposeful for the good of us all. I think you will always be a boy who is carrying thoughts of family and loved ones with him all the time, like rocks in his pockets.A couple of years ago, when I was in Denver during the winter, you and your brother, Austin, and I went for a walk on the ice. You were having such a great time falling down over and over! You were sliding and spinning and spiraling! It was like watching a whirling dervish, like Rumi, the great spiritual poet. I thought to myself, “I have never seen anyone having as much fun as Carson is right now. This boy has no fear of falling, only joy of ice and snow and motion.” And right then I knew for the first time that you are a Penguin Boy–a boy with Penguin powers and Penguin energy. The cold and the ice hold no sadness for you. The winter will always be a time when you are filled with boundless energy. And you will never trade joy for fear. Penguin boys are rarely found in the lower 48, so once again, I knew you were—and are—very, very unique and special.Every year, when you come to Vermont, we always go to the North Bennington Train Station. We look for cool metal stuff around the tracks and we watch the cars get moved from track to track. We also take the Metro North Train from Wassaic, NY to Manhattan, to Grand Central Station to see your cousin Anna. From when you were a tiny baby to now you have always loved the subways and the trains. Even when we ride late at night, you don’t sleep, you look at every part of the train. You know the names of everything on the train. Everything. You love the sound and the feel. You radiate Train Happiness. Moving Vehicle Happiness. Subway happiness. Mass Transit Happiness. Only certain people have this magic, this ability to take the sound of the train in through their pores and send it back out as pure sunshine-like rays. You are one of those special people.Whenever we talk, you say, “Hi my sweetness” and that has become my very favorite greeting. You are only five years old, but in five years you have made the world better with your lovingkindness. You are super smart, awesomely artistic, a very competent builder, a terrific cook, a good friend to read Astro Boy or tell stories to, and you are very imaginative and have a great eye for detail. But the thing that is MOST special about you isn’t any of those things. And it’s not your physical strength or your tremendous capacity for joy or your penguin-ness or your train energy. It’s your love. That is the thing that makes you most special. Nobody in the whole world loves just like you, Carson. Thanks for loving me. You make me feel special because I know you and we love each other.That’s why you are so special, and that’s the end of my letter.Bye, my sweetness.Love,Aunt ViolaPS Please tell Ms. Troxell hello for me and give her a big hug from me and from your cousin PHOEBE! Tell her Phoebe is going to graduate from college this year. I remember when Phoebe was singing, “There’s a wisher washer woman and she washes all day…she goes oooh, ahhh, ooh, aahh…” in Ms. Troxell’s kindergarten class about 12 years ago. Ms. Troxell wasn’t married then and her name was Ms. Sullivan. She had blonde hair and blue eyes (just like you, Carson) and she was the best skier I ever met. Uncle Jon thought so, too.
When Carson and I went to visit Vi in Vermont, a year or so before she died, she spent a bit of time in bed due to the side effects from the treatments. Watching movies on her laptop relaxed her. She did not want to miss anytime with Carson so she encouraged him to crawl in bed with her. They were like two peas in a pod eating tons of gummy bears and streaming Netflix. Imagine my chagrin when my 3rd grade son started quoting lines from “Breaking Bad” and “Prison Break” two of the shows she was into at that time. I know it must seem a little unconventional but knowing they would have that memory was comforting.
That is how Vi rolled. Whether sitting next to her at dinner, on the subway, in drawing class, or at the movies; even when she couldn’t get out of bed, body and mind worn from the seemingly endless cancer treatments, she made you feel like the most special and important person in the world.
I miss that the most. She was always, always my biggest fan. She left everyone feeling that way.
The dynamic duo of Vi and Teace is no more. Wherever my next road takes me, I will do my best to honor my big sister by continuing to push away the emptiness I have felt since she went to the other side and never “trade joy for fear”.
For there is so much to be joyful for. Vi’s daughters, my nieces, exude her spirit each in her own unique way. They are exquisite. Anna, “The Artist” with her kindness, compassion, creativity and lovely sense of humor. Phoebe, “The Explorer” with her sense of justice, tenderness to all living things and fearlessness. They share a connection that reminds me of my relationship with my own sisters.
For the first time in 12 years a new superhero will enter our world and I am certain he will remind us that we can make our own fun in almost any situation. I can hardly wait for Phoebe to return from Chile to be with Anna for the birth of “Lil Smokey”.
He will join a rambunctious, creative, perfectly-imperfect, motley yet lovable family.
His boy cousins, Craig, Austin, and Carson, will look out for him and have his back at every possible turn. Craig will teach him how to mix beats, skateboard and write; Austin will show him how to drum, cook, appreciate salt and vinegar chips and make go-pro movies; Carson will share with him a passion for skiing, minecraft, sculpture and gummy bears. In honor of their Aunt Viola, who dreamt in Spanish, they will wear colorful clothes, speak Spanish and peacefully seek justice and adventure the world over. People will refer to them as “la banda de 4 primos”.
Gramma and Grampa Great will show him everything he needs to know about putting together puzzles and wearing the very best capes, the ones made from towels and clothespins. His Great Aunt Emily will string together with him the most magnificently colored beads he has ever seen. His Grampa (Pop’s?) will teach him how to play basketball, make english muffin pizzas and take him to see the Yankees and Bruce Springsteen.
He will learn compassion, chivalry, star wars appreciation and how to build cool stuff from his Dad. I can’t wait to hear all the super power stuff he learns from Greg’s side of the family, all superheroes themselves. I’m so grateful that they will be close by to watch over him. Dean will show him how to climb mountains.
I will tell him that I love him more than all of the photographs in all of the world, teach him how to play spoons, take him to concerts at Red Rocks and remind him how much he would have been loved by his Viola Abuelita.
Emily, Me and Vi.