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Friday, October 30, 2015

The Breast Thing that Happened to Me

I have hated my bosoms since the day they budded.

I also have always hated the word breast.

It makes me cringe.

Bosoms. Boobs. Knockers. All OK. Just don’t use the word breast.  I can barely talk about chicken.

Like so many before me, I trace the root of my problems back to elementary school gym class. I was a chunky, red-headed sixth-grader given the simple task of choreographing, then performing a personalized gymnastics routine.

My routine was filled with forward and backward somersaults, ending with a cartwheel that I was very proud of.  Meanwhile, my friend and nemesis, Karen Shea, was doing back handsprings and round-offs. She was a carpenter’s dream who had been proudly promoting her training bra for months.  I, on the other hand, chose to cover the lumps that were assaulting my body by adding a pale yellow, buttoned-up-the-back cardigan sweater over my royal-blue gym suit.

I stood on the edge of the gym mat, hands at my sides, toes pointed, head down, ready to begin as soon as the first notes of the instrumental version of  “Blue, blue, my world is blue, blue is my world since I’m without you…” crackled from the record player in the corner.

“Betsy!” Miss Vache, the gym teacher, bellowed across the cavernous gymnasium. “Lose the sweater.”

“I’m cold,” I quivered.

“You’re not cold!” she yelled. “And if you are, you’re not working hard enough. Take it off.”

Reluctantly, I pulled the sweater over my head and tossed it on the floor behind me, exposing gaping buttons from my eagerly emergent bosoms.

“And get yourself a bra,” she said matter-of-factly. And loudly.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my two older sisters had created a nickname for me: “Pushing 40.”

I didn’t get it, which made them hoot and holler all the more. But it wasn’t long before I figured out that it meant I was pushing 40 as in a bra size. In my youth, I was hands-down the meanest of the four evil sisters and rarely endured any verbal abuse, so I’m not quite sure why I didn’t use my physical prowess to beat them silent. All I know is that their stinging words stuck.

When I was fourteen years-old, I got whisked away with the tide in Cape May, New Jersey and had to be rescued by a lifeguard. The fear I felt had nothing to do with life and death. As my knight in shining Speedo held me tightly around my middle, and swam me to shore, I yanked on my bikini top, holding it down so, God forbid, my bosoms would not be exposed.

In college and into my 20s as my girlfriends went braless, sporting tube tops and halters, I buttoned up high and kept my cleavage covered.

Hours after my first baby was born, a nurse came to my room with a message from my spouse who had left my side for the first time. I got misty-eyed, certain that she was going to deliver some heartfelt words that he was too shy to say himself.

“He wants to know if you’ll please, please change your mind and consider breast feeding.”

Are you kidding me? 

I know all about karma so wasn’t really surprised, but rather found it quite ironic, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the heart of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In a blink of an eye, that dreaded breast word weaseled its way into my hourly vocabulary, bouncing around my brain like a beach ball.

I’m now what they call a cancer survivor. But to tell you the truth, I never felt like I had a whole lot to survive. Breast cancer didn't make me feel sick. I didn't feel anything creeping around my body. I didn't feel tired or cranky or anything but guilty that my first thought after hearing I had invasive ductal carcinoma was that a mastectomy might not be the worst thing in the world.

But, it was a whole different story when I found myself lying on that metal gurney waiting to be wheeled into the operating room. I prayed for forgiveness for despising my God-given bosoms. I apologized for rolling my eyes at the ever-present pink ribbons. I whispered all kinds of promises if only I'd come out of it alive.

And I did.

Leaving me to wonder, five years after a double mastectomy (and a masterful reconstruction that left me with bosoms that don’t move an iota no matter how high I jump), how it is that I got so lucky.

And so I decided to make good on that promise I made that I'd never leave this world mourning for a life unlived. 

In the past five years I’ve launched three children into three different time zones. I’ve ridden my bicycle over 4,000 miles and walked just as many. I’ve zip-wired my way through the Jamaican jungle, bobsledded down a mountain and fell flat on my face in a dinghy while sailing in Maine. I've I’ve learned to play Mahjong with old buddies who I had forgotten how much I loved. I joined a book club and a writer’s group and go to Bible Study every Wednesday. I’ve celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary, my mother's 90th birthday and my 40th high school reunion. I’ve become a great-aunt. And hope to become an even greater one. I’ve cruised to half-a-dozen Caribbean Islands, traveled to California, Canada, the Carolinas, Florida, Mississippi, New Orleans and toasted many a state in between. I spend more weekends away with the girls than any other girl I know.

I look at my life as something to have fun with. Not to stress over. Or cry about. Or regret.  

But, I’m still a work in progress. I'm still afraid of change. I still can't stomach the sound of someone breathing. I still haven't written that novel that I know is in there. 

And I still can't stand the word breast. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

90 Years Young

“Could you imagine?” I said, holding up a somewhat questionable item that was left right out in the open in one of my unnamed children’s bedrooms. “We would have stashed this in the far recesses of our closet covered with dozens of sweatshirts to avoid our mother finding it.”

“And the funny thing is,” my sister Nancy replied. “Our mother would never in a million years have snooped in our rooms when we weren’t there.”

"She was a good mother, wasn't she?"

"The best," Nancy agreed.

Nancy was in from Charleston for my mother’s 90th birthday party. Nancy is the most capable of all the sisters and so she was put in charge of food and d├ęcor for the 50-person party. For some inexplicable reason, I was chosen as sous chef. She flew into Newark on Thursday afternoon and we flew into a flurry, spending the next 48 hours shopping, chopping, dicing, cutting, spreading, packing and laughing as we dug through dozens of photos to find the ones that best depicted our mother.

There was the picture of her as a blushing bride. My father proposed to her on their first date. It took her awhile to figure out if he was serious. They were married three months later. Nine months and six days later, Susan was born. Sixteen months later, Emily was born. Eighteen months later, I was born. And then there was a really big break of two years before Nancy was born. Susan had not yet turned five years old when the fourth daughter was born.
There was a picture of her with Pongo, our first family dog. The one that eventually went to the Dalmatian Farm because he could no longer be trusted around the neighborhood children.

“Sic ‘em!” I commanded Pongo from the stone wall at the end of Steve Simpson’s driveway. And he did. Soon after, he was gone.

There was the picture of her with a big, wide brace wrapped around her neck. No one, including her, remembers what caused the injury. But it’s likely that it happened when she was driving us to softball practice and she whipped around in shock of what was going on in the back of the wood-paneled station wagon. My mother had been an only child and despite the number of children she put forth from her own loins, she was always, always befuddled by the battles between us.
There was the picture of her gritting her teeth in a rare moment of contention.  I don’t remember my mother ever yelling at us, or punishing us, though she has different memories.

“Oh, honey, I would feel so guilty when I’d yell at you girls.”

I guess that “in one ear and out the other” expression came from somewhere. She had four teenagers at one time for far too many years.

There were lots of pictures with her and my father. He was always beaming at his beautiful bride and she remained smitten until the day he died. And beyond.
And after he died, came the many pictures of my mother and her cousin Bonnie. In Bermuda, in Russia, in China, in Oregon, in Lake George, as biker babes and swinging singles. Later this week they are traveling together on a river boat cruise up the Hudson River.

My mother is 90 years-old.

My mother has been a mother for 60 of those years.

And she’s been as close to perfect as a mother can get.

I am amazed by some of the horror stories I hear from my friends. And when I describe my mother, they think I’m lying.

But I’m not. My three sisters will all concur. My mother never criticized. My mother never demanded. My mother never questioned (aloud at least!). She just let us live.

My mother gave us the gift of independence. She always encouraged our curious spirits and love for travel. All of us have been across the country and around the world and though she certainly must have thought it, never once said, “Maybe you shouldn’t spend the money.”

She kept her mouth shut when we came home stinking of smoke or suspiciously staggering. She pretended to believe us when we said, “It was Margaret.”

She cheered us on as we took chances, with jobs and moves and marriages and never, ever said, “I told you so.” Instead, she welcomed us home with warm hugs and patience. Waiting, oh so patiently, for us to move out again.

And when we did, she reminded us of what was important. She cross-stitched me a plaque that hangs proudly in my kitchen:

A clean house is a sign of a misspent life.

Another sister has one that says:

A good laugh is sunshine in a house. 

She gave us hope. That we'd fall in love. Find our niches. Own our own businesses. Not go bankrupt.

She bestowed upon each of us a sense of style and creativity. Some more than others. She taught us to give back. And we all do. Whether it’s reading to the blind, feeding the homeless, working with at-risk middle-schoolers, tutoring children or serving on odious committees in various venues, that volunteer gene sunk deep into our souls.

She taught us that God was there when we were ready for him. We sat by her side, fidgeting in the front pew at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church week after week, year after year, while our father worshiped his god on the golf course. We went to Sunday School and youth group and never missed the annual church country fair. But once we left for college, we were on our religious own. She never preached or judged but she clearly prayed.

But, perhaps the best thing she ever did was give us sisters. We pinched, we poked, we pulled plenty of hair. We attacked. We provoked. We took our time in the bathroom and stole each other's clothes. We bullied and brown-nosed and tried to win the favorite child award. But my mother wasn't capable of having a favorite. Instead, we've all become each other's favorite.

Happy 90th Birthday!

 You done good, Mom. You done good.


Friday, October 9, 2015

No Ride is Worse than a Wet Ride

I earned the title of Dog Girl a good thirty years ago and cling to the moniker with pride. After all, I know it's not a physical reference, but has to do with my dogged demeanor.

It came about when I was courting my spouse and I would do just about anything to win him over. I wanted to prove what a fun, loyal and hard-working mate I would make.

At the time of the courtship, my beau lived in the heart of North Philadelphia and hopped buses or hoofed it to and from his job across town. I, on the other hand, was living in my suburban childhood home deep within the ever-enveloping bosom of my family. I was the proud owner of a sporty little Toyota Tercel and was more than willing to recklessly rack up the miles as my intended and I traveled together far and wide on our journey through life to love.

One cold, rainy night we drove to our nation’s capital and back to beat a midnight deadline for an internship at the Washington Post. At the time I could think of nothing better than having my date all to myself on a six-hour-round-trip drive, made longer by inclement conditions. Then we made the languorously long trek to Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Tampa for a few job interviews.  I rode shotgun all the way to Chicago when he decided to pursue a Masters’ Degree at Northwestern and after depositing him there, I drove home all alone in one fell-swoop, just me and a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew.  

Our mileage was not restricted to automobiles. Three years in a row we hopped on our bicycles and rode in the MS 150-mile City-to-Shore Ride; 75 miles down to Ocean City and 75 miles back the following day after a pasta dinner on the boardwalk and a board-hard bed in a boarding house. But I was young, in shape and would do anything to win his heart.

Even ride in the rain.

One year, I started the MS ride with a case of bronchitis and ended up with pneumonia after hours and hours of pedaling in wind-driven rain. Though I vehemently dispute the opinion that weather conditions can cause illness, it still makes for a good, soggy saga.

I swooned when my spouse-to-be named me the Dog Girl, oh so proud of my determined spirit.

And then we got married and my doggedness shifted away from personal challenges and into the perpetuation of three little people. And a canine. The mileage accrued was relegated to my waistline and laugh lines as I drove the minivan in circles, running PTAs, teaching Sunday School and Town Mothering multiple sports for multiple children.

I missed the Dog Girl.

And so, last year, my sister Emily, my lifelong friend Mary Anne and I decided to get back in the saddle and relive our 20s by doing the MS ride together. They now offered a one-way 80-mile ride with a shuttle bus back home. We clicked that box quick and dusted off our bikes.

I took to the job like a dog to a bone and rode and rode and rode in preparation. I bought a bike computer to track my  miles and by the time the beautiful, Sunny Saturday in September had come around, I had pedaled plenty.

The ride was a piece of cake.

And a lot of fun. And for a good cause. So, Mary Anne and I committed to doing it again this year.

I got back on my bike as soon as the snow melted, riding 15 miles here, 20 miles there, throwing in a 30 for good measure on a Sunday afternoon. I went up hills, through farm lands and challenged myself with sprints.

By last Friday I had logged 1,260 miles on my trusty little bicycle computer. My bone-on-bone knees still went round and round but I had to wear an ankle brace to keep a new pain contained. My elbows ached, my right hip (as opposed to the left prosthetic one) throbbed, my right knee still hurt from my dinghy accident, my left hand had an inexplicable bruise and my neck was so stiff I couldn't turn my head.

And they were forecasting rain.

But, Mary Anne and I decided early on that we would do the ride, rain or shine. After all, this was a charity ride and we owed it to our financial supporters and cheerleaders. Even if I couldn't walk without a limp for a month or two, it was still nothing compared to what those with MS live with on a daily basis.

So I spent the week glued to watching Joaquin’s path, adding a long-sleeved shirt on Monday, a rain slicker on Tuesday, plenty of plastic bags, extra socks, shoes and pants to my rapidly-expanding gear pile on Wednesday.

And then, last Thursday, two days before the ride, the governor declared a State of Emergency forcing the cancellation of the MS ride for the first time in 35 years.

My bones rejoiced but my heart was sad.

If I coulda, I woulda.

And next year I will.

Doggone it!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Living the YOLO - FOMO kind of life

“Sure you don’t want to come to the game?” Tom asked, peering over the rim of his hot and spicy Make-it-Yourself Bloody Mary.

It was Saturday morning in Chapel Hill and I was hanging out in the Carolina Inn with Julianne, her parents Tom and Jackie, and Lauren’s dad, Joe. They were pre-gaming for the UNC-Delaware football game. My daughter and the rest of the crew were prepping for future hangovers back at Sandra and Stephen’s house on Franklin Street.

I was simply biding my time.

It was pouring rain.

“There’s no way I’m sitting in a monsoon to watch a sporting event. I did that too many times for my own kids. I don’t have to do it ever again,” I said.

Which led to the inevitable question of when is it acceptable to leave a game before it is over?

“Never,” Tom said and launched into the story of being a boy scout at a Yankees game, leaving early and missing a grand-slam type of finish.

“That’s where you get it,” I said, looking at his daughter. “What’s that acronym for the condition you have?”

Julianne looked at me quizzically.

“You know, where you’re afraid to miss something.”

“Ohh! FOMO. Fear of Missing Out.”

I’ve always been a FOMO type of girl myself. And for better or worse, our kids seem to have followed in our footsteps.

“YOLO, Mom,” my daughter says when I lament over spending too much money on fun-filled weekends.

You Only Live Once.

This comes from the girl who will fly to Chicago on a whim for a concert, join a yoga retreat in Cambodia, jet out to Southern California for a football game, attend multiple Happy Hours a week and ask only half-kiddingly whether I think it’s a good idea for her to spend New Year’s Eve in Iceland with Julianne.

YOLO, Daughter. YOLO.

It took me a week to recover from the Second Annual Bar Carr Parent Child Reunion at the University of North Carolina. Financially, it will take a whole lot longer.

Julie, Lauren, Jenny, Julianne and my daughter lived together at Bar Carr as undergraduates. The house was on Carr Street. The Bar part is self-explanatory.  
Yet, they all managed to survive college and make the transition into real life. They all wake to their iPhone alarms every morning and go to real jobs and get real paychecks. They are all doing commendable things that require a brain and a backbone. Except, of course, for Jenny who is wasting her time in something silly called Med School.

They came from Atlanta, Washington DC, Columbus, Chicago and New Orleans. It would take more than mere miles to make them miss this reunion weekend.

Because, you know. You only live once.

But, why in the world do we parents come from as far as Denver, Colorado to hang out with our kids in Chapel Hill, North Carolina?

Because, you know. We have a fear of missing out.

We would have missed a lot. 

We would have missed kick-starting the weekend with the world’s best BLT sandwiches from Merritt’s and ending the day with Mellow Mushroom pizza dough growling in our gut.

We would have missed toasting the girls’ successes and friendships with Fireball-Mixed-with-Apple-Something shots in the Back Bar of Top of the Hill after Julie, the only one tall enough, climbed on a chair to autograph the rafters.

We would have missed out on Saturday night at Sutton’s – the iconic drug store / eatery that has become our personal, go-to place for private parties every time we’re in town. 

We would have missed drinking Maker’s Mark from red solo cups with new-found friend Kevin, best buddy of Tommy who reads every one of my blogs. We would have missed meeting Rachel, Tommy’s new girlfriend who we love more than any of the others we’ve ever met. We would have missed Halie who would hold a special place in my heart, even if she didn’t know Scotty McCreery. We would have missed Mari who will forever be one of "us" and Dean, her beau who left early to study, but in a FOMO moment of clarity, boomeranged back to the bar. We would have missed Carly who is preciously pretty and gracious enough to spend a good half-hour in deep conversation with a slurry-worded woman. We would have missed welcoming Holly, the Texas transplant and new adoptee of our Chapel Hill hosts, Stephen and Sandra. We would have missed conversing with Carol, ambling with Amber and laughing with Liz . We would have missed joking with Joe who is marrying our Julie and we would have missed the warm hospitality of  Hollie and Don who make Sutton’s what it is.

And we would have missed the UNC Clef Hangers.
Thanks to Tom, the world’s best a capella group now makes an appearance at all our affairs. Our throats got tight when they sang Carolina in my Mind but we roared with laughter when they crooned out Tennessee Whiskey, inexplicably dedicating the song to some girl named Betsy.

We would have missed nightcaps (plural) at Top of the Hill. 

Some of the old folk bowed out shortly thereafter, presumably to rest their weary bones. And while they missed out on seeing one of our all-time favorites, Matt, who appeared on the scene with Adam, his brutally handsome and equally charming boyfriend, we were missing out elsewhere. Little did we know that they were all wide awake on  Franklin Street, dancing, playing the accordion and rocking out to Journey till 3:30 in the morning. 

Working hard to get my fill
Everybody wants a thrill

Don't stop believing
Hold on to that feeling

We would have missed a gourmet breakfast with 14 friends gathered around the dining room table on Sunday morning, returning to TOPO for lost possessions and then kicking down the cobblestones as we made one last trek through campus.

But most of all, we would have missed that heart-tugging feeling that we get when we’re all together. The happy smiles, the high hopes and the soaring spirits. And the overwhelming sense of pride knowing that as parents we did something right. 

You only live once.

Here's to doing it right.