The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part Two

Last week I posted the first part of a Christmas tale I wrote back in 2006. It was more popular than expected, leaving me to think that maybe I should continue to make more of my old fiction writing public. You can read the first half of the story here. What follows is part two. Enjoy!

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS (CONTINUED)

Christmas morning came. Toni awoke to the sound of Hannah rummaging around in her room; when she opened Hannah’s door, she found the six-year-old filling a white tall kitchen garbage bag full of toys: stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, musical toys.

            “Honey, what are you doing?” Toni asked.

            Hannah looked like a little grown-up as she turned to her mother and said, “I’m findin’ all the toys I don’t play with no more to bring to the kids less lucky than me.”

            Toni was so taken by her little daughter’s gesture, she did not even correct her iffy grammar. Instead, she asked herself, Oh, how have I done so well with this child, how, in spite of being a single mother literally left at the altar when I was five months pregnant?

            Toni backed away from the door, realizing that her six-year-old knew more about compassion than even she did. Her daughter was outdoing her! This thought made her rush into her bedroom and throw open the closet door. She looked with derision at all the clothes that she was saving because she might wear them “someday,” when she knew very well that that day would never come, and that there was someone out there who could be wearing those clothes that just hung there, going to waste.  She went to the kitchen and got her own tall kitchen garbage bag and filled it with clothes.  She was thrilled by the exhilarating feeling of unburdening herself of the clothes and filled another bag. 

            “I’m ready, Mommy,” Hannah’s voice came from her doorway.  She turned to see that Hannah had her full winter gear on and had a bag over each shoulder, like a mini Santa Claus.

            “I thought we were going to have breakfast and open one present?” Toni reminded her.

            “But Mommy, this is so much more important.  Can’t we get there early and be waiting for them?”

            “If that’s what you want, honey.  Let Mommy get dressed.” 

            “I’ll be waiting out front.”

            “But it’s so cold!  Maybe you should wait in the kitchen.”

            “No, it’s okay.  I’ll wait out front.”

            Toni knew that this was Hannah’s way of saying that she was ready and didn’t want to wait for her mother to waste time. So, Toni didn’t. She jumped into some warm casual clothes and met Hannah on the front steps ten minutes later. There was only a little snow on the ground but it was bitterly cold.  Hannah’s nose was red, but she appeared unfazed by the weather. Obviously, the child was on a mission. It was Toni who complained to Hannah about the cold as they defrosted the car, whose backseat was piled with their garbage bags full of “gifts.” 

            They hardly spoke on the drive to the shelter. As they neared, they saw a small line of homeless people had begun to form, their breath almost freezing in the air, their clothes not nearly warm enough to battle the elements.

            “Mommy, they look so cold!  Do you have any winter coats in those bags?” Hannah asked, her little nose wrinkled but warm-looking.

            “No, honey.  No winter coats,” Toni answered, distressed by the memory of the two down-filled jackets she had left hanging in her closet because she had made a split-second decision that she would wear them again “someday” after all.

            It was then that Hannah reached under her coat and took out her piggy bank in the shape of Eeyore, the sad donkey from Winnie the Pooh that they had bought on a trip to Disneyland the previous year.  It was their routine to fill it with spare coins and bills until they couldn’t fit anymore, then they transferred the money to Hannah’s small but growing bank account.  Toni knew that Eeyore was close to being full.  Usually, they had about twenty-five dollars in it by the time they made the transfer.

             “I didn’t want you to be mad at me for bringing this so I hid it ‘til now.  Can we go and buy somethin’ warm for them?  It’s full and I wanna share it.” The child shook the bank for effect.  It was all too much for Toni at that point; tears started rolling down her face and she grabbed Hannah and squeezed her tight. Hannah hugged her back, though Toni knew she did not understand her mother’s tears.

            Toni put the car in drive and told Hannah to find her wallet in her purse and see how much was in it. Hannah did as she was told, though Toni felt her reluctance; Hannah knew better than to go into her mother’s personal belongings unless she had permission.  Hannah took out a handful of small bills and announced that her mother had twenty-two dollars.  Toni made a deal with her daughter: they each would spend ten dollars to buy some nice, hot coffee, tea, and hot chocolate for the people less lucky than them. That way, they would both still have some money leftover. Hannah agreed and they proceeded to the nearest coffee shop and bought as many cups of hot liquid as they could for twenty dollars.  Then, they went back to the shelter; several more people were gathered, waiting for breakfast.

            Hannah was out of the car with the flat box of hot drinks in her little, glove-clad hands almost before Toni could get the keys out of the ignition. Toni only watched from the driver’s seat as the old men smiled like she was a tiny angel sent from heaven and the women patted her head and took a warm drink. Pride was hardly a sufficient word for what she was feeling as she watched her baby; she was learning something about compassion that even transcended what her parents had taught her so many years ago. 

            Not wanting to steal Hannah’s spotlight, she waited until the girl had handed out all the drinks, then she pulled the bags of clothes and toys out of the back seat of the car and brought them over to the gathering crowd. Together, she and her baby girl handed out second-hand gifts to the spellbound poor and homeless that truly looked like they were seeing Santa Claus. Watching their faces, Toni knew that she had not seen sincerely thankful people since those family Christmases so long ago. Suddenly, those days seemed closer, and the real meaning of Christmas was evident for her again. Just as she knew, it had nothing to do with SUVs or Super Soakers or even a million tiny lights on a fabulous tree.  She had found the real meaning of Christmas again and a six-year-old girl whom she had given birth to had helped her to do so.

            Long before they entered the shelter to help serve breakfast, they had won the hearts of the people less lucky than them.  Other volunteers pulled up in shiny SUVs and ran in at the last minute, laughing and talking about the warm fireplace they had left or the piles of presents waiting to be unwrapped. In those final moments, another small miracle took place: Marcy showed up with a huge platter of delightful, homemade pastries. She was dressed to the nines and was in a terrible rush, but Toni hugged her, seeing the satisfaction in her friend’s face for doing a good deed. 

It was a perfect morning now, with the presents and Marcy’s kindness and the hot coffee and the fresh food on the shelter’s stove. Toni and Hannah giggled and joked and felt good about the miracles already performed, while French toast and bacon sizzled and the aroma wafted through the air and the doors were finally opened and the homeless folks entered the shelter already smiling, with toys for their children and warm drinks in their bellies and the smile of a little blond angel on their minds. And mother and daughter waited, Toni with a spatula, her daughter with a stack of paper cups to fill with orange juice, while bells chimed and carols played and real, true Christmas joy filled the rooms of the shelter.

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Merry Christmas.

Thank you for reading!

The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part One

While writing my last post I was reminded of a short story I wrote long ago, and decided that I was going to post it here. It took some searching to retrieve it. It’s that old! The title? “The Real Meaning of Christmas.” I wrote it in 2006. What a long way I’ve come as a writer since then! Yet, for the sake of posterity (or something like that!) I’ve decided to publish it largely as is, other than removing some annoying spacing issues. Because it’s nine typed pages long, I’ll share it in two parts. Look for part two next week!

Without further ado, here is an old story that’s short on style and long on meaning.

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS

Not everyone loved Christmas, especially Toni. She shuddered every fall when the end of November approached because now, for six unbearable weeks, she would have to deal with all the things about Christmas that she hated. Her friends would be chattering about what new toys and gadgets they would be going broke to buy their children. People in their shiny SUVs would be stressed out and driving at breakneck speeds to the next shopping mall to whip out a plastic card and add to their already enormous debt.  Christmas trees would be on the tops of cars and in the beds of pick-up trucks, only to be unceremoniously dumped in a hidden ditch in the backyard once the finest balls and light strings were removed and the expensive presents unwrapped. Some people would light up their homes until absurd dates, well past New Year’s in a silly, futile attempt to keep alive a holiday season that most people had forgotten the meaning of anyway.  She refused to be a part of it all, falling out on the mania that surrounded the holiday that was supposed to represent the Birth of Christ. Instead, she longed for the Christmases of her youth when her parents were alive, when her sisters still talked to her, when people still cared about each other enough to know that love and happiness could not be bought.  Still, she had to keep up some kind of front, because now Hannah was old enough to be excited about the holiday. Somehow, some way, regardless of how much she dreaded the season, she had to make it worthwhile for both of them, to make it special in some way. 

            “Why don’t you spend it in Aruba?” was the worldly suggestion of her friend Marcy, who thought all problems on earth could be solved through the spending of money and a call to Carnival Cruises. Toni did not know whether she was serious, being that Marcy was in a pile of Super Soakers and video game equipment when the suggestion rolled off of her tongue, likely without previous thought. In fact, Toni almost knew that Marcy wasn’t thinking by her harried, pre-occupied tone that accompanied a certain annoyed look. 

            Toni wished that Marcy had not mentioned Aruba. For a split second she wished, too, that she had not visited Marcy at all, as Marcy was one of those people who “loved” Christmas and equally “loved” to spend money on material comforts.  Marcy had always been a bit pretentious and since marrying a self-made millionaire she had only gotten worse. But Toni knew that deep down inside, Marcy had a good heart and Toni still loved her dearly, even if she had to put up with a ridiculous comment every now and then.      

“Actually, I was considering volunteering to feed the homeless,” Toni said.

            “Oh, that’s nice baby. Hannah can stay and play with Amber and Jim-Jim,” Marcy grinned, speaking of her spoiled children.

            “Oh no, I’m going to bring her with me.”

            Marcy was stopped in the tracks of her Super Soakers.

            “Baby, you’ve got to be kidding. You’re going to bring that perfect child to feed dirty, grimy homeless people?”

            “Maybe you should come with me and bring Amber and Jim-Jim,” Toni’s tone was slightly condescending in that she pronounced the children’s names in the same baby-talk way that Marcy used whenever she spoke of them.

            Marcy didn’t even notice.  “You know I have a huge lunch to plan. I don’t know how I’m going to do it without going to that awful shelter.” Marcy rolled her eyes with silly self-importance. Toni knew that Marcy loved her role as town hostess and savored it when her guests bragged about her parties until the next one.

            “Well, we’re going just the same.”

            “You should give Hannah a choice. If she doesn’t want to go, she can stay here and help me cook. She loves to help her Auntie Marcy cook, you know!”

            Toni was relieved that Marcy had finally said something that made sense. She was right: Hannah should have the choice.  Toni would talk to her daughter.

            She tentatively approached her flaxen blond daughter while she was in her room playing dolls. Lovely Hannah, who Toni was trying to lead through her first years of life with compassion for other members of the human race, looked at her expectantly. “Go ahead, Mommy.  What do you want to talk about?”

            Toni was comforted by the patience of her little girl. Sometimes, Hannah was so serene that she made Toni feel like she was the daughter. She began: “Christmas is coming.  Next week it’ll be here.”

            A shadow fell over the little girl’s face. “Mommy, do you have enough money to buy me presents? Because if you don’t, it’s okay. Some kids in my class aren’t gonna get many presents ‘cuz they don’t have no daddy like me and their mommies can’t ‘ford nothin’ for them.”

            Toni didn’t know whether to be horrified that her daughter was thinking such thoughts or to be proud that she was so unselfish.   Hannah had everything within reason that a child needed and wanted, and Toni would always keep it that way, but Hannah was not spoiled or unappreciative. Toni had simply taught her what her own parents had taught her: to not take anything for granted.

            “No honey, it’s not that at all!  I wanted to ask you if you wanted to do something special on Christmas morning.” 

            “What?” 

            “I want to go and feed homeless people at the shelter downtown.  Do you want to come with me?  If you don’t, you can stay at Auntie Marcy’s.”

            “You mean feed people less lucky than us?” Hannah’s eyes widened.

            “Yes.” Toni had used that line on Hannah many times when they had passed the shelter and had seen people out front or on their way there.

            “I wanna go Mommy. We can open presents after?”

            “How about we open one before and the rest after.”

            Hannah smiled widely.  “Yeah!” She tossed her arms around Toni. “Mommy, I can’t wait to feed the homeless people that are less lucky than us.”

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Look for the conclusion next week.

Thanks for reading!

Dear Fellow Humans: Breathe

Well, here we are again: the “Christmas season.” The season of joy and giving and spending time with people that we love. Of reaching out to our fellow humans and showering them with goodness. Of making sure the needy have something to look forward to. Of…

Oh, wait, does this sound like us? Or is this more accurate: the Christmas season means that we run up a big electric bill making sure that our lights look better than everyone else’s in the neighborhood. That we are fighting each other for the closest parking space at Walmart. That we’re trampling our fellow shoppers to get the flat screen TV for fifty bucks off while supplies last. That our children don’t know that Christmas is really about the birth of Christ, not the presents that they’re getting.

That last one is a true story. As a teacher, I deal with around fifty students on a daily basis (but not all at one time!) One year, I was really tired of hearing the twelve in front of me talking nonstop about what they were expecting under the tree. Let me tell you, these weren’t the ten dollar variety presents, but big label sneakers, ridiculous video games, and the latest technology that they didn’t have the know how to need. Add up the prices and I could get up and back across the country a couple of times. But I digress. That year, I put my students to the test: what does Christmas really mean? Most of them said, “Opening presents.” Only one could tell me that it is a celebration of the birth of Christ, and if she didn’t go to church she would have been at a loss, too. I’ve never forgotten this day.

This post isn’t about religion. It’s about the direction we’re going in as people. Are we heading toward a good place? No, we’re screwed, and only getting worse. (IMHO.)

We need Christmas right now like we need a hole in the head, to coin an old saying. This holiday brings out the worst in so many people. I can’t wait until it’s over. Escaping has always been my way of dealing with it, and if all goes as planned, this year won’t be any different. If I look happy in the pictures in this post, it’s because I’m celebrating Christmas in my own way: far away from the nonsense that our traditions have turned into. Nothing feels better than warming a plane seat after handing out the gifts I had to endure long lines and bad attitudes to purchase.

Even without Christmas, we lack empathy. Take it from me, I’ve been living with a chronic illness (called advanced lung cancer, and no, I didn’t smoke!) for over two years now, and it has become very clear to me that other than a handful of amazing family members and friends, most don’t care what you’re going through. I’m not looking for sympathy, but courtesy would be nice. And courtesy is a dying art.

You know what would also be nice? If humans would just calm down. Several times a day I see people freaking out in everyday situations. My biggest pet peeve is the way we act when we get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. No matter how big the vehicle is, from a standard car to an eighteen wheeler, drivers are in a gigantic hurry to most times get absolutely nowhere by weaving in and out of traffic at top speed, tailgating, and driving distracted. Good luck to the hapless squirrel, or worse, the hapless child getting in the way. Daily, these jokers take my life into their hands, not to mention their own. And this is only one example of bad behavior that has encompassed our nation.

I try not to focus on bad news, but avoiding it these days is getting to be more of a challenge. Maybe it’s because social media constantly has some awful tragedy thrown in our faces, or maybe it’s because we can’t handle not getting our way about something without going to the extreme to avenge our hurt feelings.

And now, we have the mania of Christmas to add to the hysteria, the glut of advertising and garish tinsel, ready made trees, and decor that varies from French fries to ballerinas and includes every interest in between. May I remind you that on December 26th it will all be abandoned in the yesterday’s news aisle and we’ll then be inundated with red and pink Valentine’s hearts for the second most annoying “holiday” on the calendar?

Heaven help us.

Think good and hard the next time you get yourself into a twist to beat someone to the next red light, or to shove yourself into the checkout line in front of an elderly person. Think about what you’re really going to gain.

Breath, folks, breathe. This stuff is not that important. Save your energy for when you really have to deal with something big.

Stop Calling me “Sick”

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, and many of them are unprintable. I’ve been called a lot of things since I was diagnosed two years ago with Stage IV lung cancer, and while most of them are probably printable, a few of them are out of this world unbelievable that someone would have the gall to refer to me in such a fashion. One term that I’m really done with is “sick.” According to several people, I’m “sick.” Sometimes the word is inserted into a favorable sentence, so I guess that makes it okay. An example: “No one would ever know that you’re sick.” Am I supposed to be flattered? Would you be flattered if I said this to you? The truth is this: Your “sick” description only moves me further away from who I’m fighting to be again: ME.

How many times do I have to say this? How many people do I need to tell? If I’m not interested in being a “warrior” or a “hero,” why in heaven’s name would I want to be “sick?” The irony is that if I didn’t tell someone that I live with cancer, they wouldn’t even know it. I have stopped telling most people my story, have stopped sharing it on Facebook, have refrained from updates and day by day reports. But some of those in the know have my dossier open in front of them, and instead of being the “Barb Lee, writer, blogger, and traveler,” of the past, I am now “Barb Lee, full-time cancer warrior and permanent sicko.” Never mind that I continue to do all the things that make me who I used to be. Now, my illness defines me.

For the record, are there times when cancer consumes me? Of course. In fact, now is one of those times. As I type this I feel like crap. My back hurts, my gut hurts, my head hurts, I want summer back, and I want this pain to go away. I want my medication to keep working, though I fear it has stopped being effective. I don’t want to be “sick” in the eyes of those who think I am. I want to have another round of great scans next week and keep going in the right direction. Right now, none of those things are happening or seem like they will work out, and I’m floundering.

But here’s what history tells me: I always manage to turn the corner. Though it’s always in the back of my mind that someday I won’t turn the corner, I have not reached that particular curve in the road yet. Nor am I planning to any time soon. Does that sound sick?

And how about this fact: I really do love being a survivor. There is something pretty special about being a survivor. A lot of folks out there claim to be survivors, but only some of us can really offer hard and fast proof of cheating death. So should I accept being labeled as “sick” because in order to be a “survivor” I had to come from a place of being severely ill?

Then there’s that pesky little fact that Stage IV cancer isn’t curable. But what the general public doesn’t know is that the cases of people living well beyond their expected expiration date are on the rise in a major way. Big Pharma isn’t withholding a cure for cancer to make money. Big Pharma is plugging away behind the scenes to keep making better and better drugs so that cancer patients like me can continue to live our lives like we always have. There ain’t nothing sick about that!

Here’s a fact too: a pretty high percentage of those that refer to me as “sick” don’t do nearly as much in a day as I do. Maybe they’re the sick ones?

I didn’t feel good for a decade before my diagnosis. Almost always, something didn’t feel right. For a while, I ran doctor to doctor trying to figure out why a woman who was in great shape, looked as healthy as a horse, and did everything she could to stay that way, felt like crap. No one had answers. Some of the individuals I pleaded with for help didn’t believe me. One of my favorite comments was, “Are you depressed? Do you need an anti-depressant?” I gave up after a while and just dealt with whatever I was feeling inside. Until I got the big answer in October of 2019. Quite an eye opener.

Sigh.

The moral of the story is this: I don’t feel that much worse than I did when everyone thought that there was nothing wrong with me, when what was really wrong was unknown. No one thought I was “sick” then. The only difference is that the secret is out, and it’s a big ugly one. I’m still the same ME, and I don’t accept the “sick” label any more than I accept the “warrior” label.

Please…STOP.

Happy Cancerversary to Me!

Since there aren’t that many people out there who want to celebrate my life and my journey with me, I’m just going to do it myself! Two years ago on this day, I was formally diagnosed with non small cell lung cancer. Of course the beast has been in my body for longer than two years, but it was confirmed on October 8, 2019, so this is the date I will acknowledge. My last two posts have recounted my trail of surviving the deadliest cancer out there. You can read them here and here.

I was on a train bound for New York City’s Penn Station last weekend when I started writing down ideas for this post, and decided that I would share my thoughts in two categories: What I’ve Learned, and What I’ve Accomplished, in the past two year. A few years before my diagnosis I was told by someone that I use the word “I” much too much, but screw him. I’ll be using it ad nauseam here to make my point, and I think I’ve earned it!

Ready?

What I’ve Learned

  • I’ve learned more about my strength and spirit than I’ve ever wanted to know.
  • I’ve learned more about cancer than I’ve ever wanted to know.
  • I’ve learned more about people than I’ve ever wanted to know.
  • I’ve learned that some people like you better when you’re down.
  • I’ve learned that some people are never going to like you, up or down.
  • I’ve learned that some people don’t have compassion unless something is happening to them.
  • I’ve learned that people throw the word “love” around but don’t know what it means.
  • I’ve learned that “love” really needs to mean more than just a word.
  • I’ve learned who my true supporters are.
  • I’ve learned that to survive, I had to let go of those who aren’t.
  • I’ve learned that people will crush you in the worst of times.
  • I’ve learned to keep going in spite of them.
  • I’ve learned that me with cancer and me without cancer aren’t that different.
  • I’ve learned to live my life in mostly the same way even though I have cancer.
  • I’ve learned that terms like “fighter” and “warrior” only serve to move you away from being YOU.
  • I’ve learned to reject those terms.
  • I’ve learned that for many people, my illness is over, even if it will never be over for me.
  • I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of cancer.
  • I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of ME.
  • I’ve learned that it’s okay to let my “strong” guard down once I shut the door on the world outside.
  • I’ve learned that the world keeps turning, even though I have cancer.
  • I’ve learned that my world keeps turning, even though I have cancer.
  • I’ve learned that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for anyone.
  • I’ve learned that my life still matters, even if I have cancer.

What I’ve Accomplished

  • I’ve lived through cancer in my lung, neck, sternum, hips, pancreas, stomach, and chest wall.
  • I’ve been on four road trips.
  • I’ve written a 42,000 word book about my cancer journey. (Unpublished)
  • I’ve begun another book about a woman living with ALS.
  • I’ve written 45 blog posts.
  • I’ve walked/hiked 3,350 miles. (Not a misprint.)
  • I’ve lost me.
  • I’ve found me again.
  • I’ve continued my life in full for two years, with cancer.
  • I’ve ridden 110 miles on my $100 bike.
  • I’ve revisited 18 states.
  • I’ve booked my first trip out of the country since summer of 2019.
  • I’ve rebooked and gone on two of the three trips I had to cancel for cancer.
  • I’ve continued my teaching career through COVID19 and cancer.
  • I leased a brand new car but kept my old one!
  • I was debt free for a year.
  • I’ve used up two of my nine lives on cancer.
  • I’ve found solace in art, but am no great artist!
  • I’ve explored New England more intensely than ever.
  • I’ve found friendships with a few of the greatest people anyone could possibly ask for.
  • I’ve left friendships that weren’t productive.
  • I’ve been blessed with the constant love of three family members.
  • I’ve left family relationships that weren’t productive.
  • I’ve requested no sympathy.
  • I’ve held fast to my dreams for the future.
  • I’ve tried to help others with cancer to do the right thing.
  • I’ve survived and thrived because I LOVE LIFE.

I rest my case as I look toward the future.

Unhappy Trails

It’s hardly a secret that I spend a lot of time in the woods, near and far. International parks, national parks, state parks, town parks, any park. Long trails, short trails, no trails, any trail. The forest is my refuge, where I go for silence, reflection, exercise, clarity. I’m hardly the only person on Earth who practices this. Millions of individuals do. And it seems, as I’ve observed once again, that there are just as many people in the forest that don’t care about silence or reflection or exercise or clarity. Worse, the example that they set for their children says, the forest and the trees and those dummies in hiking boots don’t matter. Don’t worry about them! This land is our land, like the song says. Do whatever you want with it!

To me, no matter how much I travel, a road trip in the United States is the best thing that could happen to me. This summer, I was lucky enough to complete two. I can’t even count how many I’ve taken in this crazy life of mine. But I can count how many times I’ve been disappointed by the behavior of other Americans and their offspring: every single time. The ugly American is alive and kicking and exhibiting several other forms of bad behavior, too.

Here’s my disclaimer: I’m not a parent. I never wanted to be a parent. I will never be a parent. But I am a teacher. I’m that person that takes care of your children for you seven hours a day while you earn a living. I’m the person that gets your child through the least favorite part of their day, and I do it without yelling, swearing, or even being allowed to touch them. Meanwhile, you have them for the part of the day that they look forward to the most, and with all the tools you have on your side your children are disrespectful and you let them be. You bring them to my playgrounds, my refuges, my shrines, and you turn them loose to pollute the silence, the rules, the trees, the rocks, the dirt, and the water and don’t teach them to respect these things. My heart, folks, is broken. Broken like the carved trees and the trashed lands and the sacred air that is pierced with their screams that have no real purpose other than to make noise. But wait, I’m missing something here. The reason that they act like that is because you act like that. You set the example of bad behavior and they follow it. They don’t know any better because of you. Is there a solution? There is. Read on.

The world has places that are made for noise. Disney World. Six Flags. Rock concerts. Sporting events. Go to any of these places and you’ll look like a Scrooge if you aren’t yelling. I know, because I’ve been to plenty of concerts and sporting events, and while everyone is drinking and smoking and acting cool, I’m just enjoying the music and the spectacle and being quiet like I am on the trail. The point is that there’s a time and a place for everything, and the time and place for obnoxious behavior is not on a beautiful hiking trail.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I GOT IT. We live in a free country. You paid your twenty bucks for a week of touring a national park just like I did. Your kids are going to be brats once in a while. You’re going to be a brat once in a while. You need to let your hair down and decompress SOMEWHERE. So I need to stop complaining and mind my own business.

I won’t. Because the way you act goes against everything nature is meant for. Here’s a perfect example. “Mommy, do you think we’ll see some animals?” little Joey and/or Janey asks Mommy and Daddy. “Maybe!” Mommy and Daddy answer with gusto, as Joey and/or Janey pick up rocks and throw them here, there, and everywhere, stand at the top of a cliff and “practice their echo,” and slip and fall and howl for ten minutes because they aren’t following the rules of wild places. Any animal that would possibly want to come out of hiding to meet Joey or Janey would be of questionable character. Maybe a hungry grizzly? Get your camera ready!

The very reason you’re in the woods is negated by your rotten behavior. Get it?

Please, please, please don’t tell me that children have to scream and yell and crash into me to have a good time. That they don’t have to follow basic etiquette after a long week of being cooped up in school. That just because it doesn’t cost anything to walk a trail, the experience has no value and therefore, no rules. You’re wrong on all accounts. Every so often I hike with kids that know how to act because they have parents that know how to act and pass it on. And let me remind you, I see your kids at the worst of times and show them how to be on their best behavior.

Teach your children well. I do.

Finding New Joy

Hey, how is your summer going? Mine: Great! In fact, I’m ready to head back out on the road again before I have to return to teaching at the end of the month. Before I do, I wanted to get back to talking about how to live happily and successfully with a chronic illness. Yes, I have one, lung cancer, and yes, I’m still loving life.

In earlier posts I laid out some ground rules to consider that work for me. Below, I’m going to list them again, with links to the previous posts in which I expand on the point:

1) Get the best medical care possible

2) Seek no sympathy

3) Find new ways to do what you love

4) Find new things to love

5) Surround yourself with positivity

6) Don’t let your illness define you

In this post I’ll expand on number four, find new things to love.

I don’t know about you, but the pandemic taught me that I can do things I didn’t ever think I could. Maybe it was because I had more time on my hands than usual. I’m a person that is constantly busy doing the things I have to do, followed by the things I love to do. The other way around if I’m having a really good day! One of my favorite ways to pass my time, namely traveling, was a little tricky when we were all quarantining. So, I took on a new hobby, since I was around town so much more. My new fun was art! And I found out that I’m better at it than I used to think. No, I’m probably not ever going to sell anything that I’ve created, but I’ve decorated my walls and steps and porch with my creations, and I’ve even added a new twist to some of my plants! It’s not important to me whether anyone likes it or not. I’m being fulfilled and I’ve expanded beyond my writing/hiking/traveling mindset! Check out a few of my “projects”:

If you aren’t interested in art, find something else. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn a language. Maybe you’d like to learn the rules of football so you know what all the hype is about. How about playing an instrument? Learning to cook or bake better? Planting a garden? The trick is not necessarily to “master” something, though you may very well end up doing that. What’s really important is to continue to learn and grow. When we suddenly have an illness that is not likely to get better or go away we tend to think that we might as well just give up, since our lives will probably be over soon. When I was first diagnosed with lung cancer things weren’t looking all that good for me. But to my surprise, I was able to move forward, and due to a few smart moves (see my list above!) I’m still doing just that. If I can get back on track you can too. Truth is, we are lucky to live in a time that is full of medical breakthroughs that help us to live better and longer. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try? Do it! Challenge yourself, and keep challenging yourself!

Last year I shattered my on foot mileage record. 1,850 miles! I averaged five miles a day. That’s a lot of walking! I decided that this year I wouldn’t try to break that record, but would make a new goal for myself: 1,500 miles on foot, 500 miles of biking. I’ve had a bicycle hanging around for a decade, hardly riding it over the past few years, not for lack of wanting, just too busy doing other things. This summer I’ve really been putting myself to it, finally! I’m not likely to reach my goal this year, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up! I’m just happy to really be doing it instead of talking about it. For me, it’s the excitement of seeing things in a new and different way, finally doing something I’ve been talking about doing for a long time, and having yet another hobby that makes me smile!

Perhaps the greatest thing about learning something new is that your mind is busy and you aren’t dwelling on things that make you sad or angry. That doesn’t mean you’re in denial, but it does mean that you’re putting your best foot forward and coping with the unwanted changes in your life. Try it. I think you’ll like it!

Happy Birthday, Ma!

I was supposed to be in New York City today, honoring the life of my precious mommy, but I got rained out, so guess what? I’m dedicating a blog to her!

On this date, July 29th, in 1924, an amazing baby name Genevieve Josephine was born in Palmer, Massachusetts, or that’s the way the story goes. Back then the records weren’t always so accurate. Ma always said that she may have been born on the 27th or 28th. But the accepted date was July 29th, and that’s when we always celebrated the date of her miraculous birth. Ma was someone worthy of many celebrations!

Children never want to think that their parents had lives before they were born. Admittedly, I didn’t know enough about her younger years until after she passed away.

Genevieve’s parents came to the United States via Ellis Island from Poland and were largely uneducated. However, Genevieve was a hard working student at Palmer High School. She always spoke with pride about graduating in 1942. The first picture (above) is her graduation picture. Genevieve, being a daddy’s girl, would hold tight to the dream of someday going to Czestochowa, Poland to visit a monastery called Jasna Gora, home of the world famous Black Madonna, to honor her father by lighting a candle for him there. Maybe Genevieve, being a small town girl, couldn’t dream big enough to think that this would ever come true. But it did. One of her future daughters would make sure of it.

Genevieve worked what some would now call “menial jobs.” But she wouldn’t remember them that way. World War II was raging in Europe and Asia and Genevieve would be a part of the effort to support the troops. When the war was over she would marry a striking but troubled young soldier named Albert and together they would eventually have six babies. All of those children were girls, the first one born in 1951, the year after they were married, and the last in 1966, when Genevieve was 42 years old, quite a feat at that time in history.

Genevieve gave everything and more for her six children, but she never had the comfort of being a housewife, for Genevieve and Albert were not rich by any means. They both had to work full time jobs in order to have a safe place to live, a decent car to drive, and nice things for the children. Genevieve and Albert didn’t seem to care much about that, because they had each other and their six girls.

Then one cold winter’s day in 1977, Genevieve no longer had Albert, because he died suddenly. She had to go on alone and somehow fight through life without her only love. Genevieve kept going to work and keeping her family afloat even though her spirit was ripped away from her without warning. It would take her a decade and a half to get it back. Meanwhile, her beloved children began to scatter and break apart.

Many years after losing Albert, and as her six children struggled to find their own footing, Genevieve found a new and unexpected love: traveling with her youngest daughter, though that love would be fraught with constant worry, as her family fell apart. As strong and as perfect as her love was, it just never seemed to be enough to mend the destructive forces at work around her. As much as she loved traveling, the loss of the love of a few of her daughters, and the death of her beloved husband couldn’t ever be replaced. She would never be able to fully enjoy life again, though there were happy times. She held her head up and moved forward.

In the end, Genevieve went further than she ever thought she would: to that monastery in Czestochowa, Poland to honor her father, to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and on some pretty great road trips to most of the 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. In 2004, Genevieve took her final road trip and never looked back.

Or, maybe she did. But as her youngest daughter and travel companion, I believe there came a time when she said, I’ll see you when you get here, and chose to truly rest in peace.

Seventeen years is a heck of a long time to be without her, but in some ways it’s a relief that she is in that “better place” and away from a few individuals who still insist on tarnishing a legacy of love, from a heart so pure that everyone should be so lucky to know such beauty. Sometimes I wonder why I’ve fought cancer so hard when I’ve had some pretty great opportunities to be with her again, forever. My love of life won out, but next time, who can tell.

For now…

I love you, dear Genevieve Josephine, and I will spend the rest of my life defending your honor, no questions asked, because I know you deserve better. You deserve the best. I will make up for anyone foolish enough to think differently.

Happy Birthday.

Rebirth!

Don’t you love spring? I certainly do, always have. This year, I got an extra special present two days after the beginning of my second favorite season: I’m in remission again. Thanks to the latest offering for metastatic lung cancer from Big Pharma, my scans from March 22nd look very promising. Promising in what way? For cure? Being done with treatment? What? Let’s just leave it as promising and hope for the best.

I didn’t post every step of my journey on Facebook this time. Not because my friends and followers are sick of it, but because, frankly, I am. And I matter for something besides cancer, even though I kinda sometimes feel that I really don’t matter that much because of cancer. Oh, don’t be that way, you say. Be a warrior! You got this! Kick cancer’s ass! And I say, I hope you never have to know what it’s really like to have this monster lurking inside you, and find out how all of that typical language starts to turn your stomach. That’s why I chose not to shout it from the treetops. Instead, I’m standing somewhat firmly on the ground with a pleased smile and hoping it lasts a long time.

Yeah, I know everyone “means well.” And I really do appreciate it. But sometimes I realize that people really don’t THINK about what they’re saying to me. Their fingers just fly over the keyboard of their iPhones because, well, they have to say something to show support in five words or less. My advice: Just press the heart, folks. Just press the heart, instead of breaking the heart.

I am suddenly reborn hand in hand with the entire Northern Hemisphere and can move toward the future with a little more of a stride in my step after a few months of stomach churning uncertainty. Soon I’ll be fully vaccinated and will start to travel again. Plans are made, other plans are in the works. Life feels good again, though as the old saying goes, “It’s always something.” Always something to rain on a parade already drenched with “somethings.” A precious fur baby crosses the Rainbow Bridge, a long time friendship is at odds. Sure seems wrong that I have to deal with all this and cancer too. WTF.

Before all this happened I was living my best life, yet always counting my blessings. Stopping long enough to realize how lucky I am? Yes, indeed. Never so busy that I couldn’t do that. Now I’ve arrived back at that after hours and days of gloom and doom, of wondering how life could go one way for so long then make an abrupt u-turn and continue on to the point of no return. Well, I just never made it to that pinnacle, made another abrupt u-turn, and here I am, so close to having the opportunity to live my best life again after surviving what kills big strong people continuously. A lucky girl? Oh, you can’t even imagine. What did I ever do to be able to tell this particular story and not lie? No idea. This may sound like another lie, but in many ways I wouldn’t have it any other way. When the going is good, like it is now, I am content to be an odds beater. Nothing quite like it. Tom Brady has seven rings. I have life. Beat that.

I’ve had the good fortune of having some incredible people always at the ready to pick me up before I get too far down. They more than make up for the few that should be there but aren’t for one selfish reason or another. It’s okay, you can’t win them all. If someone can’t be there when I’m flying high, when I’m down in the dirt, and when I’m somewhere in between trying to find firm ground, then they need not be there at all. And I know how to return the favor. It ain’t all about me. I get that. Relationships are give and take. How many times have we heard that but still insist on having one-sided affairs? I’m in a secure place with some pretty special people all around. Imagine the irony of thinking that after all the building I’ve done, cancer would knock out one block and the whole wall would collapse. Not the case, I say with a shiver of warmth. The foundation is pretty sturdy.

Shortly before I set out on this journey that would culminate in perhaps my biggest learning experience yet (survival), I was right where I wanted to be. Maybe that was a dangerous thought. But, to heck with it. I hereby announce myself there again.

Born again.

Happy Spring!

Finding A Middle Ground

Hey, did you notice that I changed my site identity from “The New Face of Surviving Cancer” to “Write. Hike. Survive. Thrive?” Yeah, I guess I’ve decided that I don’t want to be the former and would rather concentrate on the latter. Make no mistake, I am not ashamed of who I am now, with cancer survival on top of everything else I’ve managed to accomplish in my life, but the last couple of months have been pretty tough on me and I find myself desperately needing to find a middle ground. I cannot be all cancer all the time.

When you join a clinical trial, (another thing I never wanted to do but have to do if I want to live) you’re kind of at the mercy of the drug company, or “sponsor,” as they so poetically refer to themselves as, and that has been the story of my life for the past five weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful that it appears that I’m making progress. And what the heck else is there to do while we’re all trying to figure out whether COVID19 is coming or going! But I’d still rather be left alone to live my life. Only, that’s the whole point. If I’m left alone to live my life I’ll die. Understand now?

I started out a year and a half ago with this big plan to ditch the fiction writing career I had craved since I was a teenager to focus on nonfiction books and blogging. Hiking and traveling would be my favored subjects. Then cancer came a calling, and I decided that I’d roll with it. I’d start speaking at libraries and other local public places about being a cancer survivor and turn it into a full time gig. COVID19 blew that to smithereens. But I continued to work on a book about my journey, which I finished at the end of 2020. After taking a break from the writing to let it settle for a couple of months, I opened it back up this weekend, read six pages and said, I cannot continue to relive this nightmare.

So guess what I did? I opened one of my “writing drawers” and allowed it to swallow up my “cancer book.” Meanwhile, a fictitious tale of a pretty girl and a football player jumped out. It was one of three other full manuscripts I have hanging around, waiting for the attention I never thought I would give them. But guess what? Fiction is sounding like a hell of a lot of fun again. A hell of a lot more fun than I’ve been having lately. Truthfully, I don’t think it’s a really hot time to be writing books about the hiking and traveling that most of us have not been able to do much of in over a year. And I so want to continue writing books. What can I say? I love writing books. Fiction may be the key again. But I also love blogging. Who ever said I can’t do both? Me. It seems that now and forever, I’ve always been my own worst enemy.

Especially over the past several weeks. My mood has been dreary, at best. My beefs, not necessarily in this order: I have this flippin’ disease. It’s snowing and cold and windy in New England. I’m going up and back to Boston in the worst of it and getting stuck with needles and tested to high heaven to keep me from going to high heaven. Even if I could travel I can’t travel because of a global pandemic. Then my fingers start doing the walking to search out the very worst information I can possibly wrap my mind around about Stage IV lung cancer and yeah, then I’m in the hole big time.

Jeez, enough is enough.

Here’s what I realized the other day. Who is telling me I’m not going to be alive to see the end of the pandemic? Me. Who is telling me that I’m not worth anything now that I have cancer? Me. Who is telling me that I’m never going to travel again? Me. Yeah, I’m the culprit. To repeat: my own worst enemy.

Back to finding the middle ground and the search for some firm footing.

I’ve never been one to live one day at a time. No, more like a whole lifetime in a day with my eye on an even better future. Maybe I get one day at a time now. Still, I need to have plans. I’ve decided it’s safe to look into the near future. And I’m not spending all my retirement money to “live like I’m dying” because I know how that goes. Anyway, I’ve spent the last decade living like I was dying. Yeah, really. Things were pretty good there for some time. Can they be again, in spite of everything? I have to believe they can. But I can’t be too sure of it, because I don’t want to be devastated again. I am moving forward with caution, and with the knowledge that I will still screw up and wind up in the hole again.

But hey…It’s spring. My treatment appears to be going in the right direction. Southern Utah is on the April horizon. I’m thinking about summer road trips. And oh yeah, that book…

I can do this!!!