Sailing

21 Sep

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We are drifting aimlessly on the sea. The water is so placid even our boat does not create a ripple. We stretch back and let the salty air wash over our sun-kissed faces. We are good.

And in an instant, the sky turns dark and stormy and our boat is upended. We are swallowing the sea water that protected us just seconds earlier. We are desperate to right our boat, to climb back into its safety, to escape this disastrous storm. But it takes time.

This is what it is like to live with a chronic illness. One minute you are navigating innocent waters and the next minute you are laying with your son on the cold tile of the bathroom floor, struggling to find stillness.

Last week, out of nowhere, our boat was toppled. My son experienced what can only be described as “labor pains” for nearly a week. He winced, he cried, he dug his nails into the flesh of his wrists to feel something other than agony. And with each tear that traveled down his cheek, the vise around my heart tightened its grip. I tried to act casual, I cried and told him I wish it was happening to me instead, I tried everything. There is literally nothing I could do to soothe my son, to make it better, to be his mommy.

“Can’t you just hug me and make it go away?” He cried.

Oh, how I wish.

On Friday morning, after a long and very sad week, my son woke up feeling no pain. He later called me from the nurse’s office at school:

“I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that my stomach feels fine. The bad news is that my wrist bent back in recess and then I fell on it and it hurts a lot.”

“So you have good news. I love you.”

Later that day, my son managed to take his iPhone for a night swim. He called me from his friend’s house in such distress that it was difficult to hear actual words.

“I’m an idiot. I did the dumbest thing. You’re going to kill me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Are you ok? How do you feel?”

“I feel fine.”

“So you’re ok.”

I told him I don’t care. I told him it’s just money. I told him I’m just happy he feels good. I told him to hang up with me and go be a kid.

When I picked him up that night, he again cried, saying he made a mistake.

“I’m glad you did. That’s how you learn. You will never go swimming with your phone again. I make mistakes, Dad makes mistakes, we all make mistakes. It is part of life and no one gets out of here without making some along the way. And by the way, you mean way more to me than a phone.”

The following day was spent going to Urgent Care and getting X-rays for his wrist. As we drove to the clinic, my son reflected on the broken phone and the possibly broken wrist.

“Yesterday was the worst day, Mom.”

“Yesterday was the best day.”

“No, I mean because of my phone and my wrist. So it was a really bad day.”

“Yes, but you woke up feeling fine and your stomach no longer bothers you. Your phone can be replaced. Your wrist, even if broken, will heal.  These are things that happen to everyone. But you feel good. So it was a great day.”

When the dark clouds gather and the storm rolls in, I worry that my son’s whole life will be like those moments on the bathroom floor: a tiny ship tossed around helplessly in a maelstrom. I remind myself of the things I must believe in: medicine, Hope, and my son. I remind myself that this disease should be the worst thing that ever happens to him. I remind myself of the serene seas in which we have been fortunate enough to sail. And then I look out for those starry nights, the traditional harbingers of the promise of beautiful weather ahead.

The phone was irretrievably broken.

The wrist was not.

And neither was my heart.

And our ship is again floating under a beautiful, cloudless sky, hoping for endless starry nights.

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The Night Before

10 Sep

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The Night Before it was beautiful.

It was September. It was the 10th. It was my brother’s birthday. We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant on Third Avenue. I ordered Penne Pomodoro after learning that the Spaghetti Bolognese I really wanted was made with veal and pork. We sat at a table for 9 people that included my parents, my husband, my cousin, my aunt, my uncle, my brother. My husband and I were only a family of 3 at the time and we toted our toddler son everywhere. It was a non-event. And yet, it was monumental because it was The Night Before the world changed.

We stood on the sidewalk of Third Avenue, looking up at the sky. It was painted with pinks and purples, and tones of burnt orange. It was still warm outside even though it was mid-September in New York. We all remarked on the perfection of the evening.

And then it was gone.

We remember the most meaningless details of time because they precede those that are the most horrific. That birthday dinner is etched in my mind, its details engrained, the seating chart and round table at the back right corner, still vivid. That small stretch of time we all looked up at the sky. We record moments of normalcy because they ground us, because we yearn to get them back, because we wish to just exist in a time when things are so routine we remember choosing Penne Pomodoro over Spaghetti Bolognese in what might otherwise be another tiny decision to forget over a lifetime of countless tiny decisions. And we want that night, that moment, that simplicity back.

The next day the sky was cloudless, clear, blue, until it turned thick and acrid from jet fuel, airplane debris, and the unthinkable spontaneous combustion of two buildings that graced New York City’s skyline for my entire life, their contents, and the lives of nearly 3000 people and their families. It went on like this for days, the smoke downtown visible from the park in the East 70s where I pushed my son on a swing. He had no idea how his life had changed slightly after 8 am just days before. He had no idea he was about to inherit a world I had never contemplated. His sky was still blue.

Perhaps our children are better for not knowing The Night Before, what they are missing, what simplicity might have graced their days. My sons sleep soundly in the world they inhabit, not aware of What Might Be and What Might Have Been. I wish it was different. But it is not. The best I can hope for are meaningless moments, simplicity, and a lifetime of clear, beautiful skies.

The Luxury of Watching Our Kids Dream

27 Aug

 

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My son is curled up beside me. He cannot sleep. This is the second or third night in a row. Always the same. He cannot sleep. He nestles in next to me, his head fitting perfectly in the spot between my neck and my chest, his legs wound around mine so many times I wonder if they are boneless. Within minutes, his breath deepens and slows. He is asleep.

I wonder how much longer it will be that I can provide this instant consolation for him. How much longer that he will let me. How much more time do I have of the luxury of watching him dream.

My friends have children going off to college. They are decorating dorm rooms, setting up proper desks, buying school supplies and filling meal cards, all the while trying to forget that their kids are leaving the nest and learning to fly on their own. It is hopeful and heartbreaking and wondrous and devastating all at the same time. I have watched these kids grow up; they are not even mine and still, I am struggling with the passage of even their time. Because soon, it will be my kids. I know that that is years away for me but I also know the way time works and that I have seemingly months. It is like trying to reverse the mileage on your car but there is no such magical gear and it is inevitably impossible. And at the same time, it is Life. And it is good.

He grabs a lock of my hair and rolls to the right. He is content. And so am I. And again, I watch him dream. Because I still can.

The Scream Chart

3 Jun

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Raising kids is challenging.

I remember when my babies were babies, strung out on hours of lost sleep and coffee, and patience frayed, I snapped. I screamed at my kids so loudly that I was hoarse for a couple of days. I was plagued by guilt. I was certain that all the hours I spent loving them, playing with them, laughing, watching and rewatching Wiggles videos (that is love for sure) would be outweighed and even forgotten by those intense moments of primal hollering.

I thought myself the only mother that ever yelled at her child. After all, everyone is always on their best behavior when you see them and if they’re not, can you just imagine what kind of monster they must be in their own home? Unable to shake myself of remorse, I asked a wise friend if she ever yelled at her kids. Her reply, which stayed with me, was “we all scream inside our own house.” She was right.

Sometimes we do lose patience. Because we are human. And while I have not lost my voice again since that time when my babies were babies, I still raise it here and there, mostly because no one seems to listen the first 8 times I say something.

Recently, my son complained that there was too much screaming in the house. To be precise, his belief was that one of the five of us, at the very least, yelled every single day. I was surprised at his perception of how our home functions; probably because I’m more of a positive person and definitely because I am his mother. Regardless, he should not feel that way and if, to my horror, that was accurate, we would all have to change because I wouldn’t want to live in that house either. I decided it was time to experiment.

I made a “Scream Chart.” For an entire week, my son was to track our “screaming activity” and assign a tick for anyone who screamed. If someone yelled more than once, they received more than one tick. No one was to behave any differently than usual (not that we are all self-aware enough to act otherwise) and frankly, no one did.

One week later, I approached my son to review the final results of the Scream Chart. Lo and behold, there was very little yelling in our home that week, similar to every other week, except, apparently, for Sunday (I cannot remember what occurred and I am pretty sure I don’t want to either). Indeed, throughout the school week, there were only two incidences of shrieking (although, to be fair, a raised voice counted just as much as outright caterwauling) and one of them belonged to the very son who thought there was too much yelling in the house to begin with.

Perceptions and misperceptions are so important. I hope my son remembers to lean towards the positive memories and viewpoints as opposed to coloring our world with darker shadows just because someone screams here and there. I always tend to remember and view things more fondly (except for laboring 23 hours to deliver this same child; that was pure agony) and I think it has served me well. It has also provided a grounding optimism sorely needed for challenges faced along the way. I explained this to my son. I discussed the value of believing in good and happiness over constant misery. I told him that just because someone in a family gets angry (which happens! people living together are bound to bounce off each other at times!) doesn’t mean it is an angry family.

About a month later, I checked in again with my son. His perception of our family’s life together had thankfully changed. He no longer believed that there was daily bickering and acknowledged that part of the screaming he had to endure was his own. There are so many things I feel I don’t get right as a parent, but I was so grateful to be able to change his appreciation of his own life. He should think better of it. And I am so glad he actually does.

Had that Scream Chart filled out according to my son’s expectations, I would have been devastated. I would hate to think that this family we have created out of love and desire and joy would be so overshadowed by constant conflict. Although 18 years sounds like a long time to raise a child, it moves faster than I would have ever imagined. Those 18 years should be a filled with laughter, beauty, kindness, love, and warm, screamless nights.

Swinging the Bat

13 May

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I do not know how you measure success.

Is it wealth, fame, good health, love, all of them, none of them. I don’t know.

Maybe it’s just making an effort you thought you could never make.

My son is on his school’s baseball team. I am not betraying him when I tell you he is not the best athlete on the team. But he loves being on a team and part of a team. Recently, my mother told me she had a conversation with my son about his method of playing. In essence, his approach was to never swing with the hope of getting walked to first base. This was heartbreaking to me. I was also unaware of it because he instructed me not to attend any games because he was mainly in charge of keeping the bench very warm. Although I am not exactly athletic, I confronted him:

“You need to swing the bat. Even if you miss. You still have to try because you will miss 100% of the balls you don’t swing at.”

I am not sure if he was frightened of the speed of the ball, the shame of an earned strike, or just simply taking a chance. He promised he would try. And with that, he was able to allow someone else to keep that bench warm, at least some of the time.

Academically, my son is, for the most part, thriving. He has recently struggled, however, with a couple of subjects and was less than thrilled about grades he received. I’m not exactly sure, though, that he was swinging the bat at those plates either. We had multiple, similar conversations about the importance of making an effort, trying your best, aiming for a hit instead of a walk. I’m not sure how many of these talks sink in or how many translate to the Charlie Brown teacher language of “WOH WOH WOH WAH.” My expertise and life experience are not impressive to him. It seems not to matter that I have already lived all the days he is living. He probably just wants me to stop talking. Oh well, too bad. It’s my job.

This combination of some poor grades and baseball ineptitude was starting to wear on his confidence. I cannot blame him though, again, he wasn’t actively participating in his own life enough to change his situation. It is hard to watch your child struggle with self-doubt and think you can give them all the tools and praise needed to remedy it, but it is, ultimately, up to them to cure their problems themselves.

Yesterday, on one of spring’s most beautiful days, and with my son’s blessing, I finally attended a baseball game: my son’s team’s last home game of the season. My son was at bat. He swung a few times, accruing two strikes. His team and coach continued to call his name, encouraging him. On the final pitch, as the wind blew its warm, gentle breeze over the field, I sat in a lawn chair and watched my boy make his very first hit. It was solid. It went to third base, and he made it to first base safely with his team cheering him on. And later, during the last inning, and only minutes after my husband arrived, we both had the privilege of watching our son make his second hit, into the field, right over second base. Again, his team cheered. And so did we.

While I have been largely focusing on the importance of his school work, perhaps excelling here, on a baseball diamond with friends and teammates, is just as important. He needs to feel good about himself in all arenas, and those two hits, likely inconsequential to most kids on the team, were home runs for all of us.

Had my son not swung, he never would have hit those balls. He never would have known what the impact of the ball against the ash in his hands would feel like. He never would have known that he too could create that familiar “crack” symbolic of a hit. He never would have known the joy of hearing his friends and teammates root for him and the thrill of reaching first base because he proactively earned it as opposed to watching for the pitcher to err. He never would have known what it was like to cross home plate on that beautiful spring day, the completion of the story that began with his first hit. This type of knowledge he gained is every bit as useful and meaningful as the type learned from a textbook. If not more so.

Maybe success is just swinging the bat.

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My Mother’s Party

22 Apr

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I was born in the middle of a winter storm.

I look at pictures of my mother, pregnant with me, holding me, standing with me then, now, throughout the years, and always she smiles. Most times, when you take a picture of someone, you tell them to smile. You say “cheese.” You pose. You capture a tiny choreographed moment in a lifetime that is hopefully a good memory.

I look at these pictures of my mother. Someone may have told her to pose. Someone may have said smile. Someone might have said “say cheese.”

My mother did not need any of this sort of prompting. These pictures of my mother are real.

I look at my mother from the point of view of a child, a teenager, an adult, as a mother of children myself, then, now, throughout the years. And always, she smiles. Her moments are not choreographed. She is a person who sees and does and is the best. And she smiles. Always.

I know very well what it is like to be a mother. I know what it is to lose your patience and your temper and at times, your heart. I do not know this from watching my own mother. She never displayed it though it is hard to imagine my brother and I did not, at times, compel her to feel it. I also know what it is to fiercely love your children, to know a boundless, intense adoration. This, I learned from my mother.

You may all know what it is like to have my mother as a friend, an aunt, a cousin. Can you just imagine what it is like to be her daughter. It is a gift beyond measure.

In the middle of that storm I was born in, I imagine my mother smiled. I imagine she still saw the sun beyond the snowy sky, just waiting to shine. I imagine she took it all with the same grain of sand she manages to take all the storms she has weathered in her life.

She tells me how it was a cold winter and she used to swaddle me in so many layers she could not see my face, just so she could take me for a walk outside. This is the perfect analogy for how my mother lives her life. She layers herself and those she loves with enough protection and she goes outside for a walk. She does not let a little cold or a snowstorm stop her. She goes outside.

Almost 15 years ago I gave birth to my beautiful son, Charlie. I think it was the happiest day of my mother’s life. And, only one year later, she retired from her full time teaching position to be a full time grandma, a role she has taken on with joy and dedication. My mother traveled into the city every Wednesday night, at a minimum, to see her beloved Charlie, who was just a baby. But he knew. He knew her. He knew her presence. And he loved her.

And three years later, she completed her grandson trifecta with my boys, Ben and Eli. I don’t know if my sons realize how good they have it. How fortunate they are to not only live around the corner from my mother but also to live inside her heart.

She turns every day, every moment spent with them, into an adventure. She does not ever babysit. She babyacts. She finds books, movies, travels, parks, attractions, shows, and events which will spark the varying interests of each different boy and she gleefully spends her retirement money and time on making their very dreams come true. She is incredible.

My mother is a living, beating heart, that pumps love and life through all of us. She is the sunshine that warms us. She is the clear sky we all look to. She is love.

I am so very happy to see my mother to 70. I am so blessed and lucky to see her age, to have her here, to see her with my children, to spend time with me. Each line in her face was earned by years of these smiles, these natural postures, these moments of genuine love and bliss.

Mom, It is, by all accounts, a joy and an honor to be your daughter, to receive your love day in and day out, to be by your side.

Happy birthday, Mom.

I love you then, now, throughout the years, always.

With Thanks, To My Mother, On Her 70th Birthday

11 Apr

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Most children don’t want to see their parents get older. But I know firsthand what a privilege this is.

I know how to live my life, how to love my children, how to acknowledge an ordinary day as a good one, thanks to my mother.

I know how to be selfless, how to value health, how to enjoy the sunshine, thanks to my mother.

I know how to laugh, how to write, how to create, thanks to my mother.

I know how to be kind, how to do crosswords, how to be patient, thanks to my mother.

I know how to be a friend, how to be a wife, how to be a human being, thanks to my mother.

I learned how to light the shabbat candles, how to be a good daughter, how to be a good sister, thanks to my mother.

I learned how to be strong, how to be generous, how to forgive, thanks to my mother.

I learned, thanks to my mother.

Happy 70th birthday, Mom! Thank you for all the lessons. Thank you for making our lives better day in and day out. Thank you for sharing yourself so selflessly all these years. Thank you for the layers of love, richness, beauty, and depth you have added to our canvas with such deft brush strokes.

Our world is infinitely better with you in it.

With all my love,

Lisa

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Living the Dream

24 Mar

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Exactly a year ago, my son was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. When you receive a diagnosis like that, as a mother, you want all the information you can get and yet simultaneously, you want none of it. You want a crystal ball to know what your child’s future will be like and at the same time, you do not want that kind of knowledge. You imagine the next year of your life and you fear it. You envision terrible pitfalls and tears, and still you cross your fingers and hope you will be one of the lucky ones.

My son is one of the lucky ones.

My boy has wanted to perform for as long as I can remember. Prior to this year, the two shows in which he acted have been mere displays of adorable children as opposed to any type of pageantry of talent. About two years ago, my then 9 year old son, while spending his free time in school scouring Backstage.com and Variety for notices for open calls for children, seized on an audition being held in the city for a Broadway show. He prepared his own resume, which included gems like:

Dancing Training: None (I’m still good though)

Acting Training: None (I can cry on the spot)

Vocal Training: None (I can sing in the shower)

He also included a mandatory school performance among his acting credits. He pasted a Photo Booth picture to this paper and fearlessly dragged my unsuspecting father into Manhattan.

About three hours later, my father called me:

“You and your mother are crazy! We are in way over our heads! There are kids tap dancing up and down the hallways. Some are wearing jackets from the shows they have been in. Others are here with their agents and managers.”

I was more than reluctant to let him go and get his heart shattered but I also thought, maybe this level of competition would be eye opening for him. Needless to say, he did not get any part in that Broadway show but he was nevertheless encouraged by the supportive words given by the panel who auditioned him.  I reminded him that if he truly wants to be involved with theater, there are multiple behind the scenes ways in which to do so: writing, directing, producing. He not only did not want to hear it, he turned to me and shouted:

“YOU’RE A DREAM KILLER!”

And with that, we shelved the conversation.

Last weekend he performed in his first middle school show, 42nd Street. He was cast as Bert, a role to which he brought humor, joy, and, to be honest, talent. He tap danced circles around my heart. He made me laugh. He made me cry. He made me downright giddy. And most of all, he made me so very proud.

Who am I to kill anyone’s dreams? Especially those belonging to my sons. How can they dream at all if their own mother is constantly whispering threads of reality to them? They can’t. Part of being a child is dreaming dreams that are our own. Hopefully, those dreams will guide us along the paths we want to pursue, and in some cases, maybe even come true. Maybe not the dream of another son of mine who wants to play for the NBA. But it is not my job to extinguish it.

Sometimes we learn the most important lessons from our children. Yes, we learn the importance of dreaming. But we also learn the importance of living our lives without limitations: without diseases which may confine us, societal notions which may hinder us, and parents which may hold us back.

A diagnosis of exactly one year ago has just become a tiny part of who my son is: a multi-dimensional, sweet, talented, driven, loving, realistic dreamer. It is a luxury to be on the other side of this year, to have this knowledge, to see our future become our past, to have looked at that crystal ball and know everything is going to be all right. And most important, to know that we all are, indeed, the lucky ones.

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An Open Letter To My Son

19 Mar

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My Sweet Son,

I know there are things you are anxious to try: things that your friends might be doing; things that are wrong. Please wait.

You may not realize it but you are still a child. You have your whole life ahead of you to do grown-up things. I know you may think you’re ready for these things. You are not. You only get one childhood. You should live it as a child.

I wonder if you also know how dangerous some seemingly innocuous things might be. Perhaps even lethal. There are multiple reasons why some activities have minimum legal age limits. One good reason is because your mind and body are not mature enough to handle them. You should respect that. And while we’re on the subject, you should respect girls too. Listen to what they say and remember to be kind always.

It is ok to say “no.” Don’t let anyone ever make you feel like you are lesser than they because you won’t try something stupid. If you say no and that person gives you a hard time, you should lose them as a friend because they are not your “friend.” A true friend would never do that.

I know you are bound to make mistakes in life and it is my job to let you fail and make them. It is the only way you can learn. But you are too young to make some mistakes you may be contemplating. You are too young to pay the price of such errors. You are too young to learn these lessons. Trust me. I am your mom.

Most important, if you do make some wrong decisions, or if your friends do, your father and I will always be here. We respect honesty and will always have your best interests at heart. If for any reason you feel you or a friend is in jeopardy, please call us at once, even if you are unsure. I am more concerned about the safety of you or a friend than lecturing you on a rule you may have broken. I promise.

I’m not going to tell you about the innocent days of my youth when none of this existed and everyone just rode their bikes around until they left for college. That did not happen. There were plenty of ways for kids to get into trouble, just like there are now. And I’m not going to tell you about the car accidents, hospital admissions, and deaths of people I knew who made such decisions. They speak for themselves.

I’m just going to tell you that I get it. That I’ve been there.

Life is full of crossroads. No matter which ones you may reach, I am always here to guide you and to love you, even if you make wrong turns along the way. But please, do not make those turns just yet.

Love always,
Mom

Unwritten

12 Mar

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A wise friend recently implored me to get tested for the BRCA gene. Up until then, I was fearfully disinterested. My mother and maternal grandmother and aunts were all diagnosed with breast cancer at one point or another, and some, like my mother and grandmother, received multiple diagnoses. I have grown up watching women I love fight brave battles and then go on to live their lives as extraordinary survivors, putting scars and tears behind them. Nevertheless, my friend was persuasive and, because I love and respect her, I promised her I would get tested. And so I did.

My blood was drawn in December. I did not even think about it until I was told the results were in. They tried to schedule an appointment for me immediately prior to a February family vacation. I refused. Although I assumed I would test negative for the gene, what if I didn’t? What if it was positive and I had this heavy secret to carry around the beaches of Punta Cana? I postponed my appointment for one month.

Upon my return from vacation, I had my routine mammogram. I constantly see doctors throughout the year as a means of surveillance. I have an annual pelvic ultrasound and breast MRI. I see a breast specialist and my OB/GYN twice a year. I do everything I possibly can short of prophylactic surgery. And, like my mother and grandmother, I’m just living my life without focusing on what for them, has been, or what for me, could be. My mammogram was normal, making me two years older than my young mother when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. A milestone.

I did not realize that my appointment for my BRCA results was today until I looked at my calendar on Monday. Thinking I had little chance of having this gene, I asked no one to accompany me to the appointment and intentionally did not even tell my mother I was being tested. After being kept waiting for an hour, allowing maximal anxiety to fester, the doctor finally told me that I do not carry the BRCA gene.

And then I lost my shit. I wept. I stopped breathing. I reacted enough for the doctor to suggest I have a drink. It was 11 am. It was actually a good idea. Why didn’t I bring a drinking buddy and confidante to this appointment? I am an idiot. And then, because this appointment involved genetic counseling, we discussed my options. There are other genes associated with breast cancer although their detection is not as reliable and there are wide margins showing your chances of getting several types of cancer throughout the course of your life. These genes are not as thoroughly studied as the BRCA genes. Importantly, it is likely that this testing would reveal that I do carry such genes, as my mother too tested negative for the BRCA gene.

It is one thing to know, with a definitive statistical probability, your chances of a breast cancer diagnosis and taking intelligent, aggressive, surgical safety measures. It is another thing altogether to lay awake at night after you tucked your children into bed and ponder the weight of potential cancers that decided to show up in your genome. So screw that. My life is not fully written and I am it’s sole author. I’m going to politely decline the benefits of this scientific advancement, thank you, in favor of sleep, peace of mind, and taking life as it comes: unplanned, not always pretty in the details, but wholly beautiful nonetheless.

After phoning my mother to tell her the news, and fogging up the windows of my parked car with my own suffocating relief and tears, I decided to just love the day. My son asked me to pick him up from school. I did. I took him for frozen yogurt AND a cupcake on this first sunny day in one of the longest winters I can remember.  He told me all about his day in great detail. I hope he never stops. It is a luxury to have a mind free enough of worry and knowledge to listen to him and his stories. Because his life is not fully written either.