Early January is a notoriously depressing time of year. There’s the post-holiday mood dip; the lack of warmth and sunlight; and the get-back-to-work frenzy, none of which spell joy for many of us. I, for one, hate winter. Always have. This time of year, I have to remind myself I live in a Northern town for the other three seasons, all of which can be spectacular. I don’t partake in many winter sports, except occasionally ice skating, mostly because of my iceberg feet. They won’t fully warm up until June, which I am eagerly anticipating.
In my mind’s endless dance between realist and optimist, I take solace in the fact that the days are getting longer, that in a little more than two months’ time, the first signs of spring will emerge. I try to get outdoors and take nice walks with my dog, Nadine, when it’s not too frigid out. She has always preferred this time of year; with her furry, black coat, she bakes in the summer sun. My “Winter 2014” Spotify list alternates between sad and upbeat tunes; the sad to immerse in the winter vibe, the joyful to snap me out of it. These tricks work only so well to keep the melancholy at bay, but they’re better than sticking my head under the flannel sheets until someone wakes me up to tell me I made it, it’s April. (Not that I could do that, anyway. But sometimes I’d like to.)
Always this time of year we think about the year that was. For many of us, 2013 was a hard one. For me, too. I lost an old friend, quite suddenly, in June. He was 45. Aside from the grief of this loss and feeling for his family and closest friends, it was yet another reminder that none of us has a guaranteed shelf life. His mass card sits by my computer now; his spirit—loyal, funny, always cheering his friends on—a reminder to believe in myself, because that’s what he would say to me right now, if he could.
Work progressed on my impending divorce—now nearly six years in the making. Lawyer 2.0 got things moving and convinced the judge to rule in my favor. It took three hand-wringing court dates to get there, and too much paperwork, but I got what I wanted: custody and child support. But it is still not final, we still need final judicial review/approval. I’m told that will happen by the end of January.
E’s pain reemerged, and her second colonoscopy revealed the continuing presence of widespread inflammation. A major change in treatment was needed, and we were able to take action immediately without changing any of her summer plans. This worked, but only until September, when the pain returned with a vengeance, just in time for the start of school. She lost nine pounds and missed the whole first week, only to return anxious that she would not catch up. (Of course, she did. Kudos to E and to her teacher, who was able to calm E’s nerves and get her into the mix immediately.) To stem the tide, a 20-day, low-dose course of the dreaded Prednisone was added—my last resort. Meanwhile, the doctors rejiggered her treatment plan. By December, E was much improved physically and emotionally. The trial and error of the last few months had paid off.
As I look back to 2013, there was pain. There was frustration. And worry. And sadness. But there was also progress.
I miss my friend, and am sad we didn’t get to see each other these last few years. But I will not forget him, and I’m choosing to use his memory to inspire me to be the best me I can be: empathetic, kind, capable, fun.
I am nearly divorced now. It is a matter of weeks. Now I can focus on my future with B. We hope to be married soon.
E is getting better. There’s a chance that this new course of treatment will keep her in remission for many months, perhaps even years. I toe the line between hopefulness and realism, while continuing to educate myself on what else can be done to keep her healthy. And fundraising for a cure. I dream that within her lifetime, and maybe even in the next decade, Crohn’s disease will be curable. It could happen.
It’s January. A time of year I truly despise. But after a hard year of challenge, change and progress, the fog is lifting. Icy toes, polar vortexes, dirty snow—they’re not bringing me down. I’m looking forward. Maybe all my dreams won’t happen in 2014, but we’re getting closer.
It’s been awhile since I’ve hit the blog, and not because there wasn’t much to say. This summer’s been chock full of drama and reflection and some disappointments.
In early June, I learned of an old friend’s sudden passing—way too soon and heartbreaking for anyone who was lucky enough to know him. I think of his family often: his wife, and the way they would huddle close in conversation. She was his true north, he, her biggest cheerleader. And his kids: I didn’t get to know them, but I have no doubt that he was an amazing dad, infusing their days with empathy, laughter and his infectious joy for being alive.
His spirit is another reminder of how I aspire to be, reminding me of one of my most-often-used parenting mantras. Since she was little, and even before she got sick, I would tell E to try to “be Piglet.” Funny, in a way, because her favorite stuffed animal—the one who has joined us for every hospital visit and is by her side every night—is Eeyore, whom I’ve always loved and, in fact, this Eeyore used to be mine. There’s something so irresistible about that sad-sack donkey. Her hand-me-down Eeyore is pretty threadbare now, and I long ago lost his detachable tail (bad Mommy), but he’s still holding up pretty well considering. I think it’s all the love.
Why Piglet? He’s little, but he doesn’t let that stop him. He’s feisty, he’s capable, and he’s got a big heart. He loves his friends, and he works hard at things. Sometimes, he doesn’t always know his limitations. Sometimes he frets. Sometimes he makes mistakes. But overall, it’s his attitude that makes him the one to emulate, especially in the more trying times.
More specifically, there was a Winnie the Pooh story I often read to E when she was little. Piglet was inviting all of his friends over for tea and special cupcakes. He had a new recipe and was very excited to bake for them. But he made some sort of mistake in the mixing, so instead the cupcakes became one massive, doughy pile. When he saw it, he was at first distraught. But then he took a deep breath, regrouped and said, “I’ll just call this my ‘Make-the-Best-of-It Cake’!” So he decorated it. Soon his friends came over, they had a great time and complimented him on his baking achievement.
Be Piglet. Make the Best of It. That’s what I always tell E to try to do. Life is not always perfect, and sometimes it’s hard. Hers has had many challenges, for sure. But we have no other choice than to make the best of it. So when we got disappointing news at the end of June—the endoscopy/colonoscopy still showed widespread inflammation, meaning her Crohn’s was still active—we dealt with it. It was not good news. She needed to change medications immediately, but we worked with her doctor to schedule the infusions around sleep away camp, which E had been anticipating for months. She still has pain, which is not optimal. But it’s not debilitating (a four or five on the 1-to-10 scale), lasts about a minute or two where it used to last much longer, and has lessened to 1-2 episodes a day. Overall, she’s having a surprisingly good summer, considering how it started.
E really is making the best of it. I’m proud of her. Now I’m trying to remind myself that I need to be Piglet, too.
. . . my daughter, E, then age six, was diagnosed with ITP, a rare blood disorder. This photo was taken that night, as she was wheeled from our local ER into an ambulance that would take us to Westchester Medical Hospital, our home away from home for the next seven months. Three years, dozens of hospital visits and overnights, a plethora of medications, and several doctors later, her ITP has stabilized. But before we had a chance to fully celebrate this news, this past spring, an underlying condition, Crohn’s Disease, has emerged as the bigger threat to her return to good health.
Before December 5, 2009, I never understood how people who experienced a life-threatening illness—either having it themselves or being caregiver to an afflicted loved one—would say they were grateful for what it did to them. Now I do.The hope is that when something really bad happens to you, you learn from it, and hopefully evolve into a better form of you. I think we both have.
Here’s what I’ve learned from all of this:
1) Life has lots of good and bad. Life is not about fairness. Or God, for that matter. God didn’t do this to E. Sorry, I just don’t buy it. If there is a God, she doesn’t micromanage. Shit really does just happen.
2) If you get stuck in the “Why?” you can never get to the “What do we do?” That said, it’s important to take the time to grieve and process. But not live there; move on.
3) The Caregiver’s Guilt–why couldn’t I take the hit instead of her?–serves no one. The caregiver’s job is to be strong.
4) You can’t dig yourself out of a hole if you can’t get past the hopelessness. If that’s where you are, get help. As my doctor said to me,”The mind is not equipped to handle this much stress for this long.” And yeah, sometimes that means meds.
5) Caregivers need to do whatever it takes to heal themselves, sans guilt. In my case, it was a few months of happy pills, followed by continued practices like therapy, acupuncture, hiking, deep breathing/yoga, blogging/other venting via social media, and time with family, friends, and B, my partner in love and life.
6) Celebrate the good moments. Nothing like a health crisis to teach you that you can’t take life for granted, and that every pain-free day, every joyful new experience, is a reminder that life is about the now. You get through the bad days so you can have better ones. And then relish them.
7) It’s an honor to be the caregiver. Having someone trust you with their life, their well-being. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
8) Love is everything.
Today is one of those anniversaries you never forget. On December 5, 2009, one month after my 40th birthday, my daughter E was diagnosed with ITP.
To say our lives have not since been the same would not be overstatement. Still not “recovered,” E is so much better than she was when the ER doctor at Vassar Bros. confirmed his “worst-case scenario” diagnosis, her platelet count at an alarmingly low 3,000 (normal is 150,000 to 400,000) and we were rushed via ambulance down to Westchester Medical that snowy evening to receive her first of many emergency infusions.
We’re in a far better place now. E, now nearly nine, for the most part feels and looks fantastic these days. We are optimistic that she will continue to improve and yeah, maybe even beat this thing–or at least live with it on her own terms.
But it’s the anniversary of a very important day in our lives, and so I must reflect. It’s what I do. Writers write. I write about her illness in part for me–yes, it’s supremely cathartic–but also as a way to get some honest thought out there about what it would be like to go through something like this. As I’ve mentioned before, I do not offer advice. I offer candor, a look inside this world. I hope in writing about our struggles, our story is empathetic–to anyone who has or will have to go through anything similar. That is my intent. Sometimes when you put your innermost thoughts out there, it can ameliorate the shame or embarrassment and enable others to express what’s inside them, or at least find peace. I offer these thoughts to anyone who wonders what it would be like if one day, you woke up and suddenly your child was sick. Very sick. Hopefully that day will never, ever happen to you–but if it does, I know you’ll get through it. So I write to offer hope, too. Hope is a beautiful thing–like love, I’ve learned first-hand that we can’t really live without it.
Life-changing events like this, for me, are experienced through three lenses: snapshots (the imagery of vivid moments), time (sometimes slow motion, sometimes fast forwarded, sometimes out of sequence, a la “Pulp Fiction.” Often not linear, because hey, that’s just how I roll) and deep breaths–the moments you step back, close your eyes and try to absorb the salient lessons all of this reality should be offering you.
At two years in, here are some of the visual memories I have of our first few weeks:
1) This day two years ago. E woke up with blood on her pillow. That happened the night before, but not as much of it, and I chalked it up to the dry heat. (We had just started running the heat in the house full force, which had resulted in prior bloody noses. Though not like this.) On this Saturday morning, however, with a flash of horror I noticed unusual tiny pink dots covering both of her shins, along with a series of bruises. I brought B, my now-fiance, over to look at her legs: “What’s that?” I asked him. (He’s very knowledgeable about most things and it takes a lot to freak him out.) He didn’t know, but agreed it was strange and she needed to go to the doctor. The rest of the day was a blur of increasingly horrific details–the karate testing where my little dynamo could barely manage a front kick; the weekend after-hours clinic where the doctor had no idea what she had, but told us to get a blood test at the nearest hospital; the drive to the local ER through the first snowfall of the season, the longest 15 minutes of my life; the four nurses it took to hold E down to take her blood, the horror of her shrieking; the confirmed diagnosis; the hour-long ambulance ride down to Westchester Medical’s Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, just E and me, the way it would be for so many of our hospital trips; the two days it took to get her levels back up, only to drop again a week later.
2) My solo train ride home. Not prepared for an overnight hospital stay, and needing to get back to take care of the dog and get showered/changed, etc., the next morning my ex took a turn for a few hours as I returned home by train to get a quick break and drive back with the car for my second overnight stay. (His stays at the hospital were far, far fewer than mine, which was partly my choice and partly his desire not to be there. Enough said.) On the platform in Tarrytown, more than 24 hours before my first wave of fear that something was wrong with my daughter, for the first time I allowed myself to cry. Not sob. Cry. Primal, from the gut, unrelenting waves of sorrow. Finally by myself, not needing to be the strong one for E, I let it out–the whole ride back.
3) Eight days later, our return trip back to the hospital. Having now read up on ITP, my hope was that this would go away as quickly as it had come, as it did with many children E’s age. But less than 10 days later, her levels had dropped precipitously and we were back at Westchester for another overnight stay. Little did I know that this would be our pattern for the next six months. The doctor sat me down, informed me that he wanted a bone marrow test, “To rule out anything more serious.” “You mean, you’re checking for leukemia, right?” I asked. “That’s right,” he said. The next morning, she was wheeled down for the test. I was with her, watched as they finally were able to calm her enough to put her out. The nurse–a pretty Russian of about 29–made the mistake of telling her they were going to give her something to put her into a “nice sleep.” E didn’t like that idea at all, made me promise they wouldn’t. When she was finally calmed down and the medicine was administered, I watched her stop mid-sentence, her eyes rolling back. Then I was quickly ushered out of the room to wait. “It won’t be long,” the doctor said–“15 minutes.” Nearly an hour went by–not a process guy, this doctor didn’t get me the buzzer so they couldn’t find me, even though I remained in the waiting room the whole time–and finally I was called in to the recovery room. “It’s ITP, no sign of anything else” the doctor said as he breezed by us. When E awakened, she was mad at me for not keeping my promise and allowing them to put her out.
These are just some of the early scenes we’ve shared these past two years. And while I don’t know what’s coming next, I’ve gone from “not jinxing it” to upholding a decidedly hopeful outlook. She is doing great. And no matter how difficult it’s been, we’ve been together on her road back to good health, determined to find our way back to the lives we once had.
Today, I am grateful. My heart swells with joy as I watch her on the ice skating rink Monday nights–something she never could have done two years ago. Though we can’t say this is fully behind us, where we are is a wonderful place to be. It’s great to appreciate what you have, a lesson I only fully learned from this experience.
“Even more important than the warmth and affection we receive, is the warmth and affection we give. It is by giving warmth and affection, by having a genuine sense of concern for others, in other words through compassion, that we gain the conditions for genuine happiness. More important than being loved, therefore, is to love.”–Dalai Lama