And it’s a…Hernia!

Now that I have your attention, I promise, you’ll get to the end of this episode of “You Can’t Make it Up!”

The day started with another successful training for Meghan and Ella at Barnes and Noble.  They are ready for their Public Access Test, and I am optimistic they will do well together before we get on the road to return to New York tomorrow.

We waited over 3 years for this dog.  There were many days we thought she was not meant to be.  There were honestly more days of feeling defeated than hopeful.

Early in the process Meghan interviewed via FaceTime in my car, before a swim meet, with Jennifer, the owner of Medical Mutts.  During the process we worked with Eva, director of client services.

Early in the process Meghan read everything she could get her hands on.  As the years went on she put the books away until they gathered dust.

In between there were countless emails between myself and Eva.  There was always a quick reply, and kind reassurance.  Although as I travel back through three years of email I can see more clearly now where there were some lapses in our communication.  Meghan is a very different human than she was in 2017.  Because of that, her needs changed.  At one point her dog was to also be capable of mobility assistance.  Over time, we dropped that piece as her legs got stronger. The one thing, the biggest thing that never changed, was TOUCH.

Meghan needs to sleep holding something she can feel breathing.  For a while it was me.  Then I was able to sub in some dogs, first April, then Jax.  The biggest thing, the first thing we wanted a service dog for was the sleeping.  A dog to sleep with her, and to help her wake to an alarm, would give her the first major steps towards independence.

During this past week many things have become evident.  Some were expected, and others unexpected.  Some were awesome, and others were just not.

One thing that has been solidly evident is that Ella’s trainer, Michelle, is true to her word at all times.  Michelle did not present as warm and fuzzy.  (Actually her intelligent, focused presentation reminded me a great deal of Meghan.)  She has proven to be awesome, and utterly effective.  As the week has gone on every thing that Michelle said she taught, every single behavior has become evident.   Michelle has gone above and beyond this week to make sure that Meghan and Ella pair effectively. She has come to the hotel to practice elevator and long lead walking. She has met us on her days off.  She made it her business to meet up to being Ella closer to the touch Meghan needs.  Today she brought a blanket for Ella, talked through a plan with Meghan and once again amazed me with her genuine sincerity.

Michelle taught all she was told to teach.  And I’ll leave that right there.

Somewhere there was a breakdown in communication above her that led to confusion on Meghan’s needs.  It could have been due to the length of time, or the changes.  It could have been a mistake.  It could have been any number of things. But it happened.  Meghan will succeed building the rest of the behaviors Ella needs.  Over time.

And to some extent that time is normal.  No service dog team goes home fully functional. They need to learn each other. It is an arranged marriage where the partners need time to learn what generates happiness in the other.

So while we have mixed emotions about a bunch of things, HOPE prevails.

Even today.  Today I spoke to Jennifer, the owner, for the first time since 2017.  I spoke with her out of necessity.

By the third night we had Ella she was allowing touch.  It didn’t take Meghan long to point out the lump in her side.  We mentioned it. We were told to wait.  We mentioned it again.  Attempts were made to explain it away.  We mentioned it again and finally today we were connected to their veterinary facility.

The vet said it is likely a hernia.  He seemed unaffected. After a physical exam, and quite physical by Meghan’s description, he told Meghan to massage it, and take her to our vet if it got worse.

That was the icing on a slightly undercooked cake.

I spoke with Eva, who directed me to Jennifer. And that is how we ended up back on the phone today.  Odd bookends to this experience, really.

I received the reassurance that Ella  had been thoroughly checked by their vet.  I internally contemplated his ability to be thorough.  I was promised that the facility will pay for any medical bills related to the hernia diagnosis.

Ella meets our vet on Sunday.

This is not exactly the homecoming we were hoping for.  Maybe our vet will see something different, or be able to offer some reassurance.

My mind can’t go too much past that.

I’ve got three years to reflect on, a public access test to cheer my favorite team through, and 750 miles to drive before we introduce Ella to Jax and April.

We will continue to take this journey, as we have done so many others, one day at a time.

Ella, you’re one of us now.  Hernia or not, whatever comes your way, we’ve got you girl.

#beatingcowdens

 

Puppy Steps

It was a walk. Outside. On the long lead. And it went really well. Not perfect, but so very much better. The distractions are still a little disconcerting, but her focus and response to Meghan is improving all the time.

I am bothered that she doesn’t use the elevator, a problem compounded by our 4th floor room, Meghan’s nine knee surgeries and my very painful, swollen foot. And yet, I am super pleased that she trained today on the floor near the elevators, a floor she wouldn’t walk on days ago.

Her sporadic barking is a bit troublesome. Her trainers have told us it is the hotel, and noises we can’t even hear. I don’t love it, but they’ve been right on so many things this week. This week has been a huge learning experience. Yet another time in life where nothing is quite as you planned or expected, but there is a cautious optimism in the air.

I really expected when we got here that this Ella girl would hop right into bed with Meghan, and wake her up on cue the next morning. I did. I figured the leash would hand off and she’d be ready to do all the things Meghan needed. I expected she’d potty on command, and quietly tuck into small spaces. And I was upset when it didn’t go down that way at all. From learning to walk in sync, to finding the right spots for her to pee, it has been a labor.

I know lots of things. But sometimes it’s hard to accept that I don’t know ALL the things. Preconceived notions can be the undoing of many of us, and I am no exception. I did not realize at all that “Team Training” would mean that the dog and Meghan would be learning everything together. It actually makes sense. Ella is not a machine. Dogs don’t fit into “boxes” anymore than people do. Ella learned to work with Eva, and with Michele. Now, she needs to learn to work with Meghan.

Every time we have changed jobs, or bosses, we have taken with us the skills and work ethic, but had to tweak the way we performed. As the week has gone on it’s become evident that Ella was extremely well trained. She also works hard for really good food. As Meghan and she get to know each other, Ella has begun to transfer her learned behaviors and execute them with Meghan.

I was not totally sold on positive reinforcement training. I mean, I guess I used it to raise my kid, but certainly not with cheese and hot dogs! However, I have watched it work this week. And while I have no desire to train my otherwise happy pets like this, I see it’s value.


Tomorrow they practice, and Meghan gets to ask the rest of the questions. Well, the ones she has thought of already… I do hope they are prepared!

Tuesday she takes her public access test and we get on the road with our “plus one” for the 750 miles back to New York. This team has a lot going for them. Ella makes my girl laugh. The way the dog looks at her warms my soul. It’s like Ella understands she’s got someone really special in Meghan, and Meghan feels the same about Ella.


There are things that aren’t ready yet. We know there are no promises in life. We know it all too well. We are preparing to end the “Team Training” with tons of answers, lots of unknowns, and a giant pile of HOPE. I guess that’s about the best any of us can ask for!

Keep these two in your thoughts as they make “Puppy Steps” forward.

#beatingcowdens

Easy is for Amateurs

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I did. I just didn’t realize it was going to be THIS hard. I mean, maybe I should have. Easy is for amateurs after all. But, I didn’t realize it. And as a direct result I am just coming back to life after a week of anticipation, frustration, exasperation, disappointment and despair, because finally we have settled into HOPE.

There are so many things that are not quite as we expected. Some, because we did not ask the right questions, and some because the questions could not have been anticipated until we arrived. Yet other things were not as we expected because so much time lapsed from contract to “Team Training” that some of the things we were seeking most seemed to have gotten lost in translation.

The trip, all 11 hours and 750 miles was nothing short of exhausting. We ended it with a stop at Whole Foods before parking in the ice covered hotel parking lot. We promptly found someone to help, and paid a generous tip to have our car emptied to our 4th floor room while we waited out of the way of the black ice and the unwelcoming bite in the Indiana air.

We had a hard time resting that night, thinking of the union over three years in the making, that was finally only hours away.

When we arrived at Medical Mutts there was a warm welcome from Eva, and there was Marvin, the friendliest cat I’ve ever met to sit with us through paperwork. Michele, Ella’s primary trainer, came with Ella, and while there was excitement, there was hesitation throughout the room. There were no “fireworks” and no “Here Comes the Sun” playing, as I had anticipated so many different times before. There were casual greetings, and obvious work from everyone, human and canine, to try to figure each other out.

That is the part you don’t think about before hand. Or maybe you do think about it. But, then there is the difference between thinking about it, knowing it, and experiencing it. Ella is not a computer to be programmed. She is a dog. And for all the reasons we love dogs, she is a dog. She is also a highly intelligent, and extremely well trained dog. The former, her intelligence and even her ability to be trained are innate. Her training though was very much a labor of love.

Medical Mutts saw promise in this girl, a stray from the streets of Tennessee. They took her in from the rescue that had taken her off those streets. They brought her to Indiana and loved her. They worked with this beautiful girl knowing that she would one day become someone’s partner for life, and give them just the independence they were so desperately seeking. It is the whole reason this facility, these people, were Meghan’s focus years prior. The beauty of taking the unloved and abandoned and giving them value and purpose, that is the real reason we ended up here, at THIS facility.

I guess I just hoped, that it would be easier. But, easy is for amateurs.

Ella’s primary trainer was Michele, a well-spoken, professional and knowledgeable woman. When she first greeted us I found her a bit aloof. In less than two hours I realized she had put a good deal of energy into Ella and was protecting her best interests. She was trying to figure out if Meghan was going to give Ella the life she deserves. In less than two hours those two understood each other and I watched aloof become focused and driven to ensure she transferred all her knowledge of Ella to Meghan.  I watched she and Meghan connect, like minded in many ways, and both were keen on making this union successful.

They worked Monday and the progress was spotty. Ella came with us to the hotel that night and all of us were in for an adjustment. We expected a dog who would hop on the bed and cuddle. But, Ella wasn’t accustomed to touch. My mind was a little blown, as we had sought this dog largely to sleep with Meghan, soothe her through nightmares, and wake her in the morning.

Tuesday they met again, and worked on some behaviors. My mind traveled from confused, to furious as I silently boiled at the thought we had waited this long for a dog that lacked what we had asked for in the first place. Further, she was distracted and needed seemingly constant redirects. When we entered the mall and both trainers seemed stunned at what they saw, I actually took a walk to choke on my tears. How after all this time could this be what was happening?

When I had originally looked at the schedule I was irritated that we had an off day Wednesday. I needed to go back to my life. What was this “off day?”

And then it was Wednesday. And I understood. It was a huge pivot in the journey. Meghan and Ella had some fun time. Ella stayed on the bed, and even let Meghan touch her. Ella played. She rested. Meghan got some confidence. They began to connect. It was so much slower than I had planned in my mind, but so few things ever go according to plan, I knew that often the best things came out of the detours.

There hasn’t been a day that we have not felt the full gamut of emotions. We’ve laughed and cried and screamed and yelled. We’ve giggled and cheered. We’ve passed out from exhaustion.

This morning Meghan and Ella had successful outings to CVS and Barnes and Noble. And I mean, really successful. They did the best team work I have seen so far. We came back to the hotel to playful “zoomies” and another training session with Michele.

And then tonight there was exasperation on a trip outside.

The pendulum is relentless. But every swing seems to leave them closer to being a functional pair. Ella is asking for contact. Meghan is reinforcing at rates that keep her interested and focused. They are growing together.

The weekend is for resting, playing and some informal sessions. Monday we brush up. Tuesday they take their public access test before we begin the journey home.

Tuesday is not the end, but another beginning. There will be so many beginnings in this journey. And maybe that’s the point.

Nothing in Meghan’s life has been as we planned. And not much has been easy or smooth. Yet every single step has brought us to places we’d never imagined possible.

Easy is for amateurs.

Meghan and Ella you’ve got this!  Let the journey continue.

#beatingcowdens

Here. We. Go.

It’s just after midnight on Sunday, January 17th. I should be sound asleep, but instead I’m propped up in my bed with my iPad in hand. There are suitcases in the living room and a cooler of food and other supplies set to go. In about 6 hours Meghan and I will embark on a 12 hour journey to Indianapolis.

The story of how we got here anxiously waiting to get there began years ago and is intricately interwoven within the journey that is #beatingcowdens.

I have written a great deal through the years about Meghan’s physical struggles. I have been more guarded about the emotional toll this disease has taken. There is too much to the journey to pretend I can create a linear summary of how we ended up here.

The contract for the service dog was signed in November of 2017. A good few months of soul searching came directly prior. Meghan, like always, seemed to know what she needed. I had begun to learn by that point that she was more often than not, correct.

She was a high school freshman, and in between panic attacks that left her calling me from stairwells and bathrooms in the middle of both of our school days, she researched service dogs. She was most impressed by Medical Mutts, a facility in Indiana that rescues dogs and trains them for service. This was a fit on so many levels. We are a dog rescuing family, believing strongly in the beautiful bonds of adoption. We hold nothing against breed to train facilities, but for Meghan, the one who always felt like she was just outside the circles of life, watching as others participated; the idea of not only working with a service dog, but working with one from a shelter, who was left there because they needed someone to love them, well that was pretty much perfection.

The interview took place in my car. we were outside of her high school during her freshman swim season. The interview went well and it was agreed that Meghan could be placed on their list for a dog. A deposit was made. And then we were left to wait.

But, even as we waited, her depression and anxiety did not. She met with a doctor at NYU who was willing to put a name on the PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that Meghan was living with. There were specific triggers in her medical history that stayed right at the heart of her soul and her psyche, despite a years long relationship with counselors. And it was messy to try to understand how all that medical trauma, alongside some emotionally damaging classmates left her feeling as though she was free falling without a parachute.

When chaos is your norm, and “fight or flight” is not a passing stage, it can make it hard for people to be around you. It seemed there was always something new on the horizon – whether a new diagnosis or a test or a pending surgery, it was ALWAYS something. The amount of hours spent at medical appointments, testing, surgery, recovery were at times all consuming. These are simply facts.

I think the idea of the service dog solidified in the nights. Meghan is adept at pushing through the day. With Cowden’s on your mind, and Ehler’s Danlos playing cruel games with your body, there is scarcely any way for your mind to focus on more than surviving. But at night, it was a whole different world. Settling down in a dark room, falling asleep, reminiscent of countless trips to operating rooms where you wondered if you’d ever awaken, was not an easy task. I spent many nights on a couch in her room. Many nights settling one of our dogs onto her bed so their rhythmic breathing would soothe her to sleep. Many nights watching the nightmares and the hours of restlessness that circled itself into fatigue that rarely quit. And by the time she settled into a restful sleep, there was no waking her. To this day, alarms blaring do little to even cause her to stir.

The medication helped the depression some. But that energy has to go somewhere, and soon after, she began picking at her arms in such a way that they became scarred and red all the time. No area of her body was off limits, and still to this day I see the self harm that I’m grateful isn’t worse. The most severe anxiety attacks come at home now, although they are still unpredictable. She hides them too. So much so that most who meet her would see nothing other than confidence. She is a living, breathing example that things are not always what they seem.

I don’t know if people choose not to see these ramifications of living with two rare diseases because it makes them uncomfortable, or if she is just adept at hiding it so that they don’t get to see the full extent of how hard she fights to stay above water. Maybe it’s both. I come from a family, who, while they love us a great deal, tend to believe some things should just be kept private, and handled by bottling them up. Asking for help, seeking help, and getting help that would potentially indicate to the world that you struggle can sometimes times be perceived as a weakness. The thought of a service dog for a young lady who is “doing well” through the uninformed accounts of others is appalling to many. We’ve been cautioned that she “won’t fit in.” Or that others will “judge her.” Yep. She knows all about being judged, and belittled, and maligned for being herself. She decided a long time ago she was not going to bend to the will of the world. She was going to rise above. And she did. And she does.

In fact, she soars.

Her friends list is short and neat, as any adult would tell you, it should be. Her grades are exemplary. She has chosen to spend this pandemic becoming a better version of herself. She is attending classes to be confirmed at a church where my brother-in-law is the pastor in May. She is learning and embracing a God who loves her. She has reconnected with her father in ways that are heartwarming. College choices are plentiful, and there is a bright future in her chosen field of study, Physician Assistant.

There is no harm in asking for help. There is no shame in saying, this is a lot, and I need someone to talk it through. There is nothing at all wrong with someone who needs help becoming the best version of themselves. When you desire to change the world, or simply to enjoy mundane tasks, there is actually beauty in saying “I need help.”

I see people hide from themselves and others. Then I see Meghan. She lives what we all know to be the truth, the hard truth, that the only way out is through. She is doing the difficult work so that her childhood traumas are not a weight to hold her down, but rather a valuable part of the background medical professional she will become.

Tonight we will sleep in Indianapolis. Monday Meghan will meet her partner for the next leg of her life journey. Ella will join the family as Meghan’s service dog.

And I will remind my girl again, that those who say it can’t be done, should never interrupt those that are doing it. Meghan I am so proud of who you are. Stay true to that. The rest will all work out. Sleep tonight dreaming if your new companion.

We are forever

#beatingcowdens

Ella, Meghan has been waiting for you since before you were born!

4th Grade, Zoom, and Searching for Balance

I sat on my couch Thursday for the first time since September. It was an odd feeling to sit somewhere other that the desk chair that seems to have a permanent imprint of my bottom.

I sat down after releasing my 29 “rectangles” (read my adorable remote-only 4th grade class) from their daily Zoom meeting early so that they could play in the newly fallen snow.

It is just shy of 2 years since the fall in my classroom that changed my world on 1/8/2019. The need to teach remotely, which was generated by the suggestion of my diagnosing geneticist to minimize my exposure to Covid-19, and was sealed in securely by my foot’s stubborn inability to recover, even after a theoretically “corrective” surgery on 6/25/20, had been an experience that has absorbed almost every hour of every day since September.

After over a decade of working as a “cluster teacher,” teaching predominately a math lab, I was assigned to a fully remote 4th Grade as their real, actual full-time teacher. I was given student copies of the reading, math, science, and social studies program. Teacher’s guides were in hot demand. I was given online access where it was available. Fortunately, I was also gifted with 4th-grade colleagues who value, live, and breathe teamwork.

But, even with an amazing group of teachers to work “with” I was largely on my own. Some of the teachers were fully online like me, but most were teaching “blended” or “hybrid” programs where they were in the building with different students on different days.

Google Classroom was learned through “YouTube,” as were mostly all things Google. I figured out slides, docs, and a working knowledge of forms. I navigated TeachHub, got a recurring Zoom link set up, and vowed to give them the best I could in these crazy times. I figured out BitMoji, and tried to entertain through morning slides. I learned a curriculum I never fully taught. One day at a time.

If nothing else, I am stability for them, and they for me. The class began as 16 and has swelled to 29, but our routine is solid, and I am, for the most part, there “with” them all day. The whole thing is less than ideal, for everyone. But it is life mirroring reality at this point, and a Global Pandemic is less than ideal – for everyone.

In this capacity though, in my mind, it is all about the children, I will NEVER be able to give them a “real” 4th-grade year, but I will strive to give them order, organization, consistency and knowledge they are loved. Beyond all the adults that are out of their elements. Beyond all the political opinions. Beyond the emotionally charged debates, here on my screen daily are very real children, who are being very affected by everything we do and say. There are humans in those boxes. There are humans that are in their homes for different reasons, each with their own personality and very real story.

They are someone’s child. And as my child sits on her computer “attending” a very bizarre Senior Year, I think of the 4th grade her. And I try even harder. I think of the families that are not able to sit with their children because they are working from home, or there are grandparents watching who are not computer savvy, and I think about being raised by a hard working single mother and my ever-loving grandparents. Those children are my child. Those children are me.

I have put in more that my share of 12-15 hour days. I’m not super proud of that, as I have neglected self- care and the needs of my family. My family misses me. But, they understand. I have cried real ugly tears of exasperation and frustration at changing regulations and policies. They understand that too, and bring a hug, chocolate, flowers, or a glass of wine as needed.

I will not reach all the children. I will try, but I will not. I do not like to be anything less than successful, and that reality sometimes keeps me up at night. It would be hard to ensure 29 children in front of me mastered all their subjects. They are humans. They miss people. I get it. But, I can’t fix that either.

My girl handled the college application process almost unassisted. She worked through her essay, vetted her schools, created online interviews, and “meetups.” She is applying for scholarships and has a few promising offers for Physician Assistant programs, a career goal that seems perfect for her. Thank God she is who she is. I paused only to do FAFSA and proofread a few things and the acceptances began to roll in.

While life continues around me I plod on. I arrange science experiments at my desk and I live to provide supplemental digital resources from “Teachers Pay Teachers.” I do, as I have always been taught, “the best I can with what I have right now.”

And this week, when I got to pause I had a hard reality check. I am behind on almost every maintenance appointment. Cowden’s Syndrome, as I have been told since my diagnosis, carries with it cancer risks that peak at 50. Despite my mastectomy and hysterectomy, I remain at great risk for renal cell carcinoma, colon cancer, and melanoma among others. My care team has dissolved. The hospital I once centered out care out of has lost one doctor after another. No one has agreed to take the reigns of a less than basic life. And in this time of Covid-19, it is even harder to establish new care.

Losing track of my own health for a period of time, to benefit the mental and academic health of the children I have come to care greatly for was a necessary distraction. Now as we face the holiday season and the start of a new year, it is time to strengthen my resolve and figure out a way to strike a balance.

I need those children as much, or more, than they need me. But I need to strike that self-care balance. I need to step away from the computer, and silence the phone from time to time.

I loathe establishing care at new offices, attempting to break doctors in, when their very schedules disrupt every aspect of my life, and their care has often proven sub par.

Maybe the last few months I have been quiet because instead of #beatingcowdens, I felt a lot more like we were SURVIVING.

I have a feeling we are not alone. I wouldn’t know for sure because I’ve lost touch with almost everyone. These are crazy times. Take good care of the little people in your life. Know that however you feel about what is going on in the world they hear it and feel it.

I continuously remind myself to “be kind always.” Now more than every, everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

We remain forever sometimes barely surviving, but ultimately

#beatingcowdens.

Meghan Needs Your Opinion

Below is the essay my daughter Meghan wrote and is planning to submit with her college applications this week. She is planning to pursue a career in the medical field. She wants to “do better.” Please after reading, click the title you think best suits her essay. We appreciate your help and support for #beatingcowdens.

There is a blaring white light. I feel someone holding me down. A needle pierces my feeble skin. A wail escapes my mouth. I let out a plea. I sob as I writhe on the table. I cry out and beg for the extraction of the needle protruding through my neck. My response garners two more needles. The despair is overwhelming. Dread encompasses me. Then, it all goes black.

That is it. That is all I can recall from November 2, 2011, when I was finally forced to confront the challenges of my new life. 

At the ripe age of fifteen months, I underwent my first trip to the foreboding operating room, a place that would soon become as familiar to me as my mother’s smile. Being under the knife, in those bleak rooms where the sterile surgical tools sing in bitter harmony, is all I know. 

Life became a whirlwind of many operating room doors, many tearful goodbyes, many nights of my parents patrolling my hospital rooms, and no answers. 

Seven surgeries, six hospitalizations, and sixteen procedures later, I finally received a diagnosis. After seeing a geneticist, I was deemed a rare disease patient. I had Cowden’s Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder affecting 1 in 200,000 people. This disorder is specifically characterized by the commonality of both cancerous and benign tumors in patients, as well as vascular abnormalities and hamartomas.

I am seventeen years old. I have had nineteen surgeries. I have been admitted to the hospital thirty-two times. I have fifteen specialists. I have had over sixty scans, and more than one hundred blood draws. I have been poked and prodded so many times that my veins have developed scar tissue. I take over twenty types of medications just to get through the day. My weeks are filled with pain and tears. My months are filled with struggles and determination. However, I will never let the pain or my diagnosis stop me. I will continue to fight with every ounce of energy in my body to keep moving forward.

I have vowed to take everything I learned from each interaction in the medical field and carry those lessons into my activism and healthcare career. The opportunity to be a voice for my community is one of the biggest blessings of my life.

Following my diagnosis, the first organization I connected with was the Global Genes Project. Their symbol is the denim ribbon paired with the slogan “Hope, it’s in our Genes.” After playing an instrumental role in the creation of the first “denim ribbon” jewelry, my first idea for an awareness campaign was born. We started by giving out ribbons like the one I wear on my necklace every day. As the years progressed so did the complexity and efficiency of these events. To the blessing of all of us, the PTEN Foundation was created in 2013 and is a direct connection to patients like me. I have hosted seven events including virtual fundraisers, in-person fundraisers, and awareness campaigns. 

Despite all the years of surgeries, setbacks, and mental health struggles, I have accomplished everything no one, even myself at times, believed I could. I have held a 4.0 GPA throughout my entire high school career, my mental health has never been better, and I am being recruited to continue my athletic career in collegiate programs. I have overcome my unfortunate genetics and made the most out of the obstacles placed in my life.

I am not rare because of the diseases I was born with. I am not rare because I happened to lose the genetic lottery or even because of the collection of scars and crutches I have accrued throughout the years. I am rare because of what I have done with what life has handed me. The scars are badges of honor that prove I stood up and faced these battles head-on.

Seventeen- The Days Are Long But The Years Are Short

August 9, 2020

Dear Meghan,

HAPPY 17th BIRTHDAY my girl!

This is not the birthday we planned, but it will be amazing in its own way.

These last few months have been a lesson for the world, that plans are sometimes abruptly interrupted and that life is often unfair.  This is not news to us.  We’ve been replaying that lesson together for many years; cheering each other on, and holding each other up through surgeries, recoveries, setbacks and all the things that come with our diagnoses.

The difference this year was that everyone else was at it alongside us.

I know you well Meg, but I have learned even more about you these last few months and I could not be prouder of you.

You tend to see the parts where you struggle.  Sometimes it weighs you down.  I see the parts where you succeed.  I see the parts where the struggle is productive and you grow.  That’s why we’ll always be good together.

There is no denying that there were times this year where frustration, sadness, isolation and loneliness tried to win.  But, as I’ve said to you so many times before, you have a 100% success rate when it comes to overcoming obstacles, and this year proved no different.

You took the “remote learning” for what it had to offer.  You missed the classes that had been engaging you and challenging your brain, but you never gave up.  You spent the end of your Junior year as you did the beginning, finishing with the same perfect report card while doing a whole lot of “self-teaching.”

Swimming was wiped out in March just days before a meet that was to be your comeback.  You were trained.  You were ready.  It was cancelled.

You mourned a few days.  You worried about how to keep in shape.  Your body had never allowed you to do much land training.  You tried video after video.  You addressed your own frustrations.  You found a way.  Now, when I see you hitting a heavy bag probably in the best overall strength of your life, I can’t help but smile.  When I see photos of an 8 mile hike, when a year ago walking .5 was too much, my heart sings.  You push your body to always be better.  You don’t give up.  You inspire me.

You had gotten us to agree to that tattoo months earlier – but you couldn’t be out of the water the required time after it was done.  Then suddenly swim practice was no longer.  So, you did it.  With our blessing you took back a little of your body that day.  You took back some control.  You started to heal your soul a little more from so much trauma.

Without access to standardized exams, without the ability to tour campuses, without your college office, you knew you had to take matters into your own hands.  Focused on your desire to be a Physician’s Assistant you carefully researched Universities.  You created a list.  You reached out to swim coaches.  You set up your own calls.  You narrowed things down.  You called again.  You got connected to admissions offices.  You are well on your way to completing applications.  You could have sat back and whined.  You could have waited.  You refuse to let anything stand in the way of your goals and dreams.  When college is ready for you in the fall of 2021 you will be well-prepared.

You had a birthday vacation to Disney with your very best friend planned to the day.  You were so grateful and so excited to experience your happy place with a great deal of independence, and super fun company too.  We watched the numbers.  We stalled.  We watched some more.  Then finally I had to pull the plug.  Your birthday is one of my favorite days.  It was hard to hand you disappointment like that.  You took your time to process and picked your head up again.  There will always be 2021…. The magic will still await.

Faced with the unusual situation of being local on your birthday you talked through all the feelings.  You wanted to do something to make joy out of disappointment.  You decided you were going to use your day to make others happy.  You chose Ronald McDonald House, as you remember vividly the treatment you received when we spent a night in 2014 before your thyroid surgery.  With a little help from Aunt Lisa, you were connected to the CEO of the RMDH New Hyde Park.  I listened as you spoke to him and was just full of pride at your maturity and ability to handle yourself.  By the time you finished he was as excited as you were.

You spent hours generating a digital flyer.  You texted and posted and shared.  You set up a contactless donation option for items on our front porch.  Signs were made.  People started to reach out.

When people asked what you wanted for your birthday, you sent the flyer.

That level of selflessness causes parents hearts to actually burst with pride.

There are many things this year is not.  Many things you wished it was.  You are starting your Senior Year of High School in very uncertain times.  Your resilience is amazing.

It is not all smooth.  It is not all easy.  There are COUNTLESS bumps, and pot holes and craters in the road.  “The other shoe” drops constantly.  Sometimes as a sneaker, and other times as a steel toed boot.  Regardless, you dust yourself off and press on.

“Get up.  Dress up.  Show up.  And NEVER give up,” was written for you.

I can not promise you a smooth year.  No one can.  What I can promise is that if you continue to remain driven, focused, compassionate and loyal, you will succeed in all you do.

My wish for you is that you can spend some time this year learning to love your own strengths.  I hope that you can spend less time worried about the struggle, and more appreciating the outcome.

Explore.  The world is waiting for you.  And the world will be better for it.

I love you more. Always,

Mom

 

 

 

 

 

What will your verse be?

“…That the powerful play goes on and you might contribute a verse.”

-Walt Whitman (O Me! O Life!)

“What will your verse be?”- Robin Williams (Dead Poet’s Society)

I couldn’t sleep last night. This echoed in my ear over and over again. Dead Poet’s Society has long and forever been my favorite movie, and Robin Williams my all time favorite actor.  But, I must admit neither often keeps me awake unless things are on my mind.

My father-in-law passed away last week.  His funeral was Saturday.  Parkinson’s was ruthless and took its time ravaging his body.  Yet, through the end his spirit never wavered.  During more than one conversation we had over the past few months, he would often say, “God in the front.”  He would tell it to me in English, and in Spanish, but I won’t pretend to be able to even type the Spanish version.   The conversation often led back to the same sentiment.  “Everything went wrong when we stopped putting God in the front.”  He meant in life.  In the world.  In the chaos.  In the anger and the hatred so often around us.  To him it was simple.  It was powerful to hear him explain it.

I realize not everyone shares my faith, and I am ok with that.  What I do wish for everyone is a belief in something that can help you maintain your poise and grace through indescribable agony or just generally difficult times.  Because none of us know what our future holds.  But, as Walt Whitman said, even after we have left this earth, “…the powerful play goes on, and you might contribute a verse.”

What is my father-in-law’s verse?  To me it is everything.  My husband.  My daughter.  Their light.  Their souls.  Their spirits.  Their hearts.  He contributed to this world two of the most spectacular humans.  The powerful play goes on.  He rests now.  But his verse, it has ripple effects.

A very young grandchild of a family friend had a very near miss on a life and death experience this week.  He is recovering.  I spent many hours talking to God about what his verse could be, and how much he could still do here on this earth.  Heaven had enough angels.  It was not the first miracle I have witnessed.

A photo taken by my Dad of a much loved statue. He is forever now one of our guardian angels.

What will your verse be?

I’ve reached a point in my life, where I will not give people the power to affect me negatively.  My older sister has given me this advice countless times, but it is finally starting to register.

Meghan and I have talked a lot about the Nature vs. Nurture debate these last few weeks.  We’ve played what if games with a ton of scenarios.  The thing about this debate is the only truth is, it’s both. Nature and nurture impact who we become.  Sometimes one is more powerful than the other, by no fault or credit of anyone.  But, it’s undeniable that they cross over.  All the time.

Bad things happen.  We can’t always choose those things.

Relationships with both family and friends sometimes sour.  We can’t always fix it.

Health sometimes fails by no fault of our own.

Sometimes there’s a global pandemic, and everything gets turned on its ear.

We often can’t choose what happens to us.

What we can choose is our response to those things.

And often, it is the response you choose that can lead you to peace in the darkest hours.

Life is not easy.  I am not telling you I’m never mad, or sad, or flat out angry.  I’m human.

But, lately I’ve been choosing to spend less and less time in the dark places.  And while I recognize getting to the point where you can make that choice is in and of itself a battle for some, I know that everyone moves at their own pace.  For me I’m at a place where I’m choosing the light.  I’m choosing not to give people power over my happiness.  I’m choosing to put “God in the front.”

I am 4 weeks post op from a major foot surgery, and still non weight bearing.  The other day I went out on my crutches determined to drop a package at the post office and put gas in my car.  Three separate people stopped to offer me help at the post office, and a kind old gentleman insisted on pumping my gas.  I saw so much good.

I choose to think its always there, but it stuck out so much more because I am prepared to seek it.

What will MY verse be?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot.  The truth is, I don’t know.  But, I do know I want to start forming it now.

Having a rare disease, and also just having open eyes and ears has grounded me in the reality that there is no promise of tomorrow on this earth.

What will MY verse be?

I’m not sure yet. But, I’m working on it.  One day at a time.

#beatingcowdens

Blessings and Sorrows….

Blessings and sorrows are not mutually exclusive.

Disappointment can exist alongside gratitude.

You can have hope while being grounded in reality.

Faith doesn’t mean you’re never sad.

Laura Story wrote the song, “Blessings” many years ago.  It is a song that has played on repeat during a few of Meghan’s hospital stays.

The chorus,

“Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?”

 Is full of seemingly opposite concepts.  Yet so often through our rare disease journey, and our Cowden’s Syndrome mountains, and Ehlers- Danlos obstacles, this song has just made sense.

And now, during this time of pandemic and isolation, and anxiety it resonates even more.

We are freakishly accustomed to isolation.  Passing through surgeries and rehabilitation, and hospitalizations and illnesses as if they are as normal as a traffic light on the corner of a city block, means that you look at things a little differently.  Any time not spent recovering is seemingly spent traveling to and from appointments that yield little besides new appointments.  And yet, their very existence can consume every spare moment.

Cowden’s Syndrome is a constant “flashing yellow,” a caution sign, so to speak.  It is a blessing that we are equipped with the knowledge that as a people so susceptible to a variety of cancers that we must pause to aggressively screen,often twice a year, for our most sinister well known risks, (breast, thyroid, uterus, kidney, colon, skin…) and that we must investigate each new bump or lump, because you just never know.

And yet that blessing comes sometimes through raindrops, of plans foiled, and journeys rerouted.   All worth it if we have remained as we say, #beatingcowdens.

COVID-19 has rerouted most of the world this spring.

And we have learned.

We feel.  We laugh.  We cry.  We sit still.  We take walks.  We eat together. We pray.  We read.  We pet the dogs.  We sing.  We celebrate.  We mourn.  We watch TV.  We act with caution not terror.  We care about others. We read. We learn.  We talk to each other.

We “attend” church weekly for the first time in YEARS, as we have a church too many miles from us with a message we deeply need, suddenly available in our living room.

We did not pass a single graduation sign without a moment of empathy for what the graduates missed.  We celebrated every birthday drive by with loud honking horns.  We sent virtual cards when the store wasn’t an option.  We thought about sports events and recitals and parades and everything someone, somewhere had their heart set on.

We talked about everyone missing something. Every house, on every street had plans interrupted, and life rescheduled without warning. “Everyone has something.”

And in the most unusual way, for the first time in a long time, we felt a camaraderie with so many.  Everyone’s life was upended.  Everyone’s.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not happy about any of this.  I just feel like it is easier to talk to people.  That may sound odd.  But currently people “get” isolation a bit better than before.

As swim season cut short days before a college showcase she was prepped and ready for, it wasn’t just HER.

As the SAT, and ACT play miserable games with enrollment and dates, she is united with the class of 2021.

Remote learning was… well I’ll just leave that there and say, necessary based on the state of NY in April.

We saw a 20th anniversary celebration derailed.  And yet, we had the most incredible evening.

I cancelled tickets to my first solo journey, a PTEN conference that was to be in Boston.  But, I celebrated the fact that this time I actually WAS going.  I will get to the next one.

I took the refund for the missed Billy Joel concert.  It took 2 decades for me to get the nerve to want to attend any concert again.  It may take another 2 before I want to be in a crowd that large.

Disney – our August safe zone for 12 summers is cancelled.  There is no way I could do it under these conditions.  Just none.

There were tears cried for all of the above.  But, there was also the awareness of gratitude, for health of family and friends, for two secure paychecks, and extra time with two adorable dogs.

The maintenance appointments are beginning to get caught up.  Some have been live, and some virtual.  I am undoubtedly excited about keeping some virtual medicine where the visits will allow. So far we are all faring well.

We are staying close to home.  We are choosing our interactions wisely.  We are choosing not to be crippled with fear, but rather empowered with logic, faith and compassion.

And when we head out into the world we mask.

We look daily at COVID numbers around us, and quite frankly they are disturbing. Locally we are in good shape now.  But things change quickly.

We spend these days enjoying sunshine.  We are in gratitude for a beautiful yard, and thankful that swim practice has begun again.

I promised to not complain about the 5:45 AM wake ups. And I’m trying to be true to that.

We have real conversations here about a fall schedule, without letting it overwhelm our days.  We talk about scenarios.  Her sport is a fall sport and it grows increasingly likely that her Senior season is in jeopardy.

We have conversations about school.  We know that we want to return.  But we do not know if it will come to be, at least not right away.

We have summer goals.  They are different this year.  And maybe that’s not always a bad thing.

We allow ourselves to feel every emotion here.  And for us, it helps.

Whether you’re fighting a rare disease (or two) or wrangling a teenager, now more than ever we are one.

Forgive yourself.

Blessings and sorrows are not mutually exclusive.

Disappointment can exist alongside gratitude.

You can have hope while being grounded in reality.

Faith doesn’t mean you’re never sad.

#beatingcowdens

 

  • completing my first post from my iPad on the couch as the FOOT recovers from some pretty extensive, non Cowden’s related surgery.

Adapt.  Onward.

I’m not afraid of the dark, and other COVID-19 revelations…

For Cowden’s Syndrome patients, there are surgeries.  There are different kinds for different people.  But, inevitably there are surgeries.

When most young people talk about being afraid of the dark, many parents dismiss their concerns.  They put a night light on for a bit, and they tell them there is nothing to worry about.  Because for typical children, “dark” is that brief time in their rooms before they fall asleep.

But, if you have had about a surgery a year from the time you were too young to fully comprehend the gravity of the tumor causing condition you live with…  the “dark” also comes awaiting anesthesia on an operating table in a cold room full of strangers.  The “dark” always comes after an uncomfortable IV placement and hours of waiting your turn, thirsty and hungry.  The “dark” always comes before you wake up in inevitable pain.

The nightlight in my teen’s room came from scraps her dad collected at work.  Really cool scraps.  And since he’s an electrician, adding the LED was easy.

That light has been in place as long as I can remember.  It provided a gentle glow when the nightmares from the PTSD triggered by one too many manually induced episodes of “dark” would provoke relentless nightmares.

It lit the room for the years my presence was necessary to get past the falling asleep part.

You know, that in between place between awake and asleep…

That time when all the thoughts you try to push away find their way in…

And then the dog took my place, the dog and the light.

But bad hips made it tougher for the dog to remain a soothing, breathing presence in the night.

So in January we got our older girl into a bed downstairs and we found a shelter dog at the Brooklyn ASPCA.  He was abandoned.  Tied to a tree in a park.  He was about 6 months old and in dire need of love. (and structure, and training, but MOSTLY love)

April, our older girl welcomed him right away.

About a week into his stay in his new home, Jax curled up on my girl’s bed and fell asleep.

Turns out he is soothed by the breathing of another too.

This week after MONTHS of being home my girl told me it was time to take the nightlight down.

“I’m just not afraid of the dark anymore.”

People who haven’t lived our lives will say – ‘It’s about time’  But, she and I know it’s time, when it’s time.

So many things have happened these last few months during this COVID-19 crisis.  Maybe the most remarkable is the family time we’ve shared.  We have learned even more about each other, all three of us.

She asks tough questions, of herself and everyone she speaks with.

She holds herself to the same standard she expects of others, and truthfully those standards are so high she’s often disappointed.  It’s a balancing act.

She is driven.  Focused.  Loyal. Compassionate.

She managed a 4.0 AGAIN.

I will pass Tinkerbell off to another beautiful girl, and hope the Pixie Dust blesses her dreams.

“I’m just not afraid of the dark anymore…”

My beautiful girl, with your heart and God’s grace you will change the world.

As for me, I’m not quite ready to part with my nightlight, as we remain…

#beatingcowdens