I don’t actually fit the “stereotype” of a middle child, as I was a younger sibling to my sister, (three years older) for 15 years, before my little sister and brother came along a few months apart.
I got the live the life of a “younger” and then later got to have some fun times, and responsibility as an “older.”
On the other hand, this journey with this “invisible illness” we call “Cowden’s Syndrome” isn’t quite as smooth. It has to work, but right now it’s the “typical” middle child. It’s having a tough time fitting in where it belongs. Actually it is definitively trying to take over, but either getting ignored, or getting too much attention for all the wrong things.
In February of 2014 there was the complete removal of her thyroid.
In May of 2014 there was a week in the hospital from complications from the medicine that was controlling the AVM.
In November of 2014, almost on schedule, the AVM bled and required emergency surgery.
In February 2015 I addressed another vein gone awry in my leg.
In May 2015 there was the arthroscopy for the AVM knee to quartarize some bleeding.
In August, on the 25th, there will be her second-hand surgery in two years to try to stay ahead of the vascular malformations now forming in her palms. That was an unintended result of Monday’s visit to the hand surgeon.
There are a list of appointments to make, and bills to settle, and I seem to be doing nothing more than surviving.
More blood tomorrow. An Abdominal ultrasound Friday.
The summer is not for carefree adventures. The summer is for doctors. I hate that. But, its true.
And as we met with the oral surgeon today who perused her multiple page medical history, his cavalier remark, “She looks good,” should have pleased me. But, if I may be frank, it pissed me off.
Not because she doesn’t look good. She’s stunning, and tall and polite and well-mannered, and has a beautiful smile. But that is NOT the point.
The point is he never mentioned anything about the medical history, and in our world, being validated matters. Someone needs to say its unusual (read unfair) for an (almost) 12-year-old to be discussing the removal of her wisdom teeth. And while this may have nothing to do with Cowden’s (although I’ve come to know EVERYTHING unusual has SOMETHING to do with Cowden’s,) it is still just grossly unfair. More unfair is that this is ALREADY her second stint in the chair of an oral surgeon, as a mass was removed from her gums some 5 years ago.
We remain “stuck in the middle.”
Again, I have the “healthiest looking sick kid.”
My kid who still ices her knee, and needs to walk a lap or two during swim practice, but still makes practice. That kid will spend a week in a wheelchair at Disney, as she is not to walk more than about 1/2 mile consecutively. The child who still hasn’t gotten clearance from her last knee surgery. Clearly, she doesn’t “look” sick, but the stares and judgment are inevitable. And to some extent I get it. Invisible illness is hard to understand.
It is during this week I feel most “stuck in the middle.” I am so grateful the accessibility issues are limited. I do not fit in with the parents of wheelchair bound children. Although, it is a necessary tool to allow us a much-needed vacation. But, what is not limited are the “invisible” elements of her condition. The chronic surgeries, the doctor visits, the traffic, the blood work, the scans, the inability to just “go”; to the museum, the beach, the park, or anywhere because it hurts to walk too long, the isolation from friends who have no limitations, the poking, the anxiety – well, they never ever go away.
We’ve learned not to talk about them much. But, they are always there. Hers and mine.
She learns to appreciate what she can do, and acknowledge what she can’t. Begrudgingly.
My kid who holds it together through all things, and has grit and determination I marvel at, will act in her summer production at school.
She learns to use the anxiety as a tool.
She masters her emotions. She is the boss of her body. She amazes me.
And on September 18th when she gets her bottom two wisdom teeth removed, the course of action will be no different.
They will never know the powerhouse of a young lady that just left their chair. Until she comes back for the other two a few months later.
“Stuck In The Middle With You” (originally by Stealers Wheel)
…Yes, I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, and I’m all over the place
Clowns to left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you…
To the Midle School Girls who doubt my daughter’s medical conditons:
I want to start by telling you, I know it’s not your fault. You are generally healthy. You were raised by people who are generally healthy. You get sick. It gets better. You want your share of attention. You resent that sometimes my daughter needs a little extra help in the halls. It’s not fair that sometimes she needs to sit out of Physical Education. You are tired too, right? It doesn’t seem fair that she needs to leave early from the class right before lunch. You’d like to stretch your legs too. Why does she “get” to being her own food everywhere? And is she really “allergic” to all those foods? Because she doesn’t seem “allergic,” and why does her food wrapper say “milk” when she’s “allergic to milk? She must be lying, right? Looking for attention again? Why does she get to leave early so often? You’d like to get out of last period too. I get it. I understand. You look at people who look sick, and you are probably really compassionate. Except now that you’re older, it’s time for me to let you in on a well kept secret.
Not everyone who IS sick, LOOKS sick.
Take a moment and process that.
Now I’d like to tell you a little about my daughter. The real Meghan. Not the one you always see, but the one I see. The one who I have kissed before 13 surgeries, as she left me for the operating room. The one I have slept beside for nights on end as she gets poked and prodded in hospital after hospital. The one who has shed tears of pure frustration and anger over the things that have been restricted from her life. The one who longs for you to understand, but will not talk about it in depth, for fear that she will isolate you, or worse, that you really won’t care at all.
Let me tell you about the Meghan who knows your problems. The one who genuinely hopes you, and your head cold, stomach virus, sick grandmother, and hurt ankle are all ok. The one who understands deeply your anxiety about getting a blood test. The one who “gets it” on levels you’ll never understand.
Let’s talk about the paraprofessional. While she has been blessed with the classiest, most professional women through the years, do you think for a moment she WANTS to need help? Do you think she WANTS an adult escorting her through the halls? Think about that for a minute. She doesn’t WANT to be different. Six knee surgeries, and a Rare Disease diagnosis have taken that option from her.
And about the trips to the nurse. Any idea how annoying it must be to have to detour to a nurse to hand you medication before you can eat anything at all? Any idea what it is like to never be spontaneous about just grabbing a bite of something? Because your body simply doesn’t make the enzymes it needs to digest food without help.
Please don’t even get me started on the cafeteria. In our house her Dad is a masterful cook, who makes eating gluten, dairy and soy free taste fabulous. But, out of the house? Not so easy. You want to know about her allergies? About how she can be “allergic” to milk and eat a product that contains milk? I get your confusion. But, here’s a tip; when you are confused, ASK, don’t assume. She’ll probably willingly share the reasons with you if you are actually interested.
She spent a large part of her very young years vomiting a lot. Sometimes so much that she ended up in the hospital. Her stomach hurt all the time, and she even had to have her gall bladder taken out when she was 3. She had ear infections all the time and her head was full of fluid. She didn’t talk much, (I know – hard to believe) because her head was clogged up. She cried because she hurt so badly. She was allergy tested for lots of things. Nothing came up. Nothing at all. Then I used my brain. And my instincts. And we targeted some foods.
And do you know what we learned? We learned that without milk, she doesn’t get ear infections. And she learned how to talk right away. And her head stopped being so full all the time. And she could rest.
Then I kept looking. And I learned that soy, in its purest form, caused a rash all over her body.
And when I took out gluten, slowly her joints began to ache less and less, and I was able to decrease the medication she needed just to walk up the steps onto the school bus.
Are they “allergies” in a technical sense? No, I guess not. But, they are just as important. I am forever grateful that she doesn’t carry the danger of anaphylactic shock, but she does have the ability to end up in the hospital from dehydration after vomiting for days when she eats certain foods. Even strawberries. Or anything with seeds. Or anything too greasy. Or cross contaminated. (Like last year in DISNEYWORLD when we needed a doctor after a FULL day in the hotel vomiting.)
So the meal bars she eats at lunch, yes they say, “conatins milk.” But, you know what? They agree with her. She doesn’t love them, but she eats them for NUTRITION, so she can function through the day. The “milk” in there is primarily undenatured WHEY protein from NEW ZEALAND where the cows are GRASS FED and roam free.
Why would she be anything less than honest about not being allowed to have regular milk products? Do you know she has never had ice cream from the ice cream man? I have to send her own pizza and chips and cake to parties. Do you think she doesn’t want the donuts and cookies, and hot pretzels in the cafeteria or at fairs? Does that really make any sense? Ask yourself of all the things to be less than truthful about, does that even enter into logic?
And about physical education. Let’s talk about my daughter trapped in a body that likes to betray the athlete inside of her. Let’s talk about the young lady who can run like the wind, but might trigger a bleed of the vascular malformation in her knee, and at the very least will pay in excrutiating pain. The girl who wants to play longer and harder than any of you, but can’t. The child who craves the idea of just coming in in a gym uniform and competing, for better or for worse, all the time. But, she can’t. Because the surgeon said not yet. And even when she’s able to join in, it will likely be on a restricted basis. Let’s talk about the girl who won’t run Main Street in Disney because she will have to navigate the parks confined to a wheelchair. Walking more than about 1/2 mile consecutively is too stressful on the knee.
Oh, and the tired. Yep, you are tired too. I get it. You were up late last night. Probably watching a movie, or doing something fun. So you are tired. But, she went to bed at a decent hour. Hers is a different tired. Hers is the tired that comes from a body that refuses to accept the synthetic thyroid hormones as normal. Hers is from a body that makes a hobby out of defying her. You’re both tired. But, it’s not the same. Trust me.
This is the girl who stays on stage during drama even if it kills her. Even if the pain is at its greatest intesity, because no one has restricted her there, yet.
This is a girl who gets to swim practice as consistently as she can, so that she can feel, “normal,” while she pushes through the water. This girl has to go to PT 2x a week just to get into the pool. This is the girl who overcame emergency surgery in November of last year for a bleed in her knee to qualify for Silver Championships 2 months later on raw nerve. This is the girl who took less than 2 weeks off from swimming after her knee surgery in May. Because she WANTS to play.
And all those times I pick her up early. It’s not for a manicure/pedicure. Turst me. See, Meghan has a rare disease called Cowden’s Syndrome. She’d be happy to tell you more about it. She got it from me. It causes non-cancerous, and cancerous growths to grow all over the body. She’s been lucky so far, and even though it was a close call when they removed her whole thyroid last February, she is to date a “previvor,” (one who has surgery to remove genetic cancer risks.) But, there is a doctor, and often a surgeon, for just about every body part. There are MRIs and scans, and hours travleing to Manhattan. No, not to museums, but to NYU, Sloan Kettering, Lenox Hill, and St. Luke’s Roosevelt. We do the hospital tour. The average round trip is 4 hours, usually after a long day of school.
This is a girl who has watched her mother undergo surgeries she shouldn’t have to think about yet. This girl has had her mother diagnosed with cancer when she was in 3rd grade. This girl has the same genetic condition as her mother, and the same cancer risks. Some days she has a lot on her mind.
Meghan is not perfect. I know this, and so does she. And if you have a problem, talk it out. Sometimes you’ll be right, and sometimes she will be.
Just don’t assume things. There’s a saying about that… and it’s all true.
You see invisible illnesses, like Cowden’s Syndrome are very, very real.
Meghan is only one of MANY people you will meet in your life who “don’t LOOK sick.” They would ALL benefit from your compassion.
Constant doctors appointments, scans, and blood tests, are not where we want to spend such a giant chunk of our lives.
Food allergies is a term we use to protect her from ignorant or uneducated people who think sensitivities and intolerances are not serious. Forgive me the word adjustment. It’s necessary to ensure her safety.
You see the hardest part about all this for me, is not being able to give you this speech in person. For the last 12 years I have been her voice, her mouth, her protector. Now, on top of everything else she has to handle, she has to find her own way of speaking about all of this. She has to find her own comfort zone.
And I have to watch.
My confidence in with my daughter. She will pick the right friends. She will speak up at the right times. She will learn all about herself. She will become her own best advocate, to you and to the world.
And once she has figured all that out, you’ll realize she’s a pretty fun kid to have around.
** This blog was written over 2 days. The BLUE type was written today, Sunday July 19th, and the BLACK type is from Saturday, July 18th.**
I’ve been asked by people who read this blog, several lately, “How do you stay so UP, all the time?” Sometimes I find that question to be the biggest irony. I struggle often, and deeply. The whole purpose of this blog is a candid description of our journey with this beast called “Cowden’s Syndrome.” Let none of you ever imagine for a minute that we are “UP” all the time, cause it’s just not true.
But, as difficult of a road as this is, I have tried always to remain acutely aware of the connections we have to others, and the never-ending reality that “everyone has something.”
So often my writing is where I work it out. I type. I think. I read and reread. And, cheaper than a therapy session, I am able to tease away the negativity and find the focus I need. And when I am unsure, and it just doesn’t sound right. I wait. Just like I advise people to think before they speak, “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” I try to think before I publish. So last night I sat wrestling with this. And I never hit publish.
From “Corner of the Sky,” Pippin soundtrack
Everything has its season Everything has its time Show me a reason and I’ll soon show you a rhyme Cats fit on the windowsill Children fit in the snow So why do I feel I don’t fit in anywhere I go?
So again we hear, “That’s really unusual.” “I’ve never seen that before.” “Typically…” And I chuckle, in frustration and in the irony of it all.
This time it was at the dentist. Meghan felt something in the back of her mouth. An X-ray revealed an impacted wisdom tooth. She’ll be 12 next month. The consult with the oral surgeon is on the 29th, two days after she meets with the hand surgeon (again) to discuss the vascular lesion on her palm. Her abdominal sonogram to screen for Cowden’s related issues is on July 31st.
This week someone will call me with the name of a foot and ankle surgeon, suggested by the orthopedist who did her knee surgery based on her foot pain and size discrepancy. Who really knows where that will lead?
I’ve got a bone density test set for Monday, to determine if 30 years of thyroid medication, and early menopause forced on by a hysterectomy at 38, has depleted my bone density. My next phone call needs to be to the vascular surgeon. He had some success with the right leg in February. The left leg is in dire need now. That is as soon as I can settle the errors on the anesthesia bill.
The number for the “Skin Cancer Screening Clinic” at NYU sits on my desk. Meghan and I both need to be scheduled.
I just finished completing the papers for her medication for the 2015-2016 school year. They are copied, one is filed, and one is set to be mailed Monday.
We’ve started to discuss, the two of us, dates for the 2016 “Jeans for Rare Genes” fundraiser. We’ve got some neat ideas. It passes the time.
For the second year in a row, Meghan was nominated for the Global Genes Project “Teen Advocacy Award,” and although she did not win, it is an incredible honor to be making a noticeable difference at such a young age. One day we will take her to California for the Global Genes Advocacy Summit. One day her vision of a denim ribbon necklace will come to fruition. One day. But not this year. Because this year I am trying to schedule vascular surgery that weekend. Because we have to prioritize. Right?
I have set some fitness goals this summer. I am setting a 10,000 step a day minimum. I am aiming for at least 5 miles a day. My dog is in the cross-fire of this goal. She is my walking partner. Because she likes to walk – but maybe not quite that far- and she can’t really say no.
I am always struck by the ironies in life. I am stronger than I have been in years. In many ways I am healthier. I have found Isagenix, and I feel better. Stronger. More resilient. More able to cope with life’s obstacles.
Which is good. Because life has a tendency to be really isolating.
I suppose we all feel that way sometimes. And many of us feel that way most of the time. But, sometimes that is little consolation.
I am grateful not to fit in with the Moms of really sick kids. I don’t envy them at all.
But, I can’t find a spot with the Moms of mostly healthy kids either. Unless I don’t talk much.
Cause talking about a “healthy sick kid” is confusing, and frankly more than most people can, or choose to process.
I want to spend time with people my own age. I have lots and lots of people I like, but not too many friends to get together with. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to just get together. And chat. Maybe over lunch, or dinner, or drinks. Or maybe have a barbecue, or even a night with other couples. Where everyone socializes. And no one is overly worried about anything. But we end up declining the few invitation we get because something always seems to be in the way.
This life is isolating. The constant doctor’s appointments, surgeries, food allergies, medical bills, prescription drug battles, mobility restrictions, have made us difficult to “hang out” with. And I get it. And it doesn’t make me mad. Because it is what it needs to be right now. And there are friends I talk to and text with.
Do not misinterpret this as a need or a desire for pity, or sympathy, because it couldn’t be farther from that. What I write here is a simple representation of facts that are. They just are. And maybe one day they won’t be. But, I have already learned not to wish life away, not even the uncomfortable parts.
But on nights like tonight, when two decks on my block are lit up with social gatherings, I find that I long for summer days of freedom. I crave careless, schedule free days. I dream of getting up one morning, and hopping in the car with Meghan and just going somewhere far away from doctors and hospitals.
Just like the curly haired people who wonder about straight hair, I wonder. But, even as I wonder, in my heart I know this journey is taking us somewhere. Somewhere with an end I can not see. There are stops along the way to make us stronger, wiser, and more patient. There are lessons on empathy and compassion to be learned. There are experiences that will turn us into the people we were meant to be. The road is long and winding. Sometimes the climb is tough. But, but the view, when you really stop and look, is amazing…
Rivers belong where they can ramble Eagles belong where they can fly I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free Got to find my corner of the sky…
I ended last night feeling lonely, and lost. The song from Pippin had been in my head all day, resurrected from memories of ages ago. Yet, I couldn’t shake it. Where do I go?
This morning Meghan was well. She woke up well, and early enough to make a two-hour morning swim practice, which she completed. I had time to walk a few miles near the pool. The sun was beautiful, and the air wasn’t quite that warm yet. There were birds singing happily, and flowers to appreciate.
After swim we made it to church. It had been a few weeks since we were able to get ourselves there.
And in the bulletin I was met with a quote,
“I know I cannot enter all you feel
nor bear with you the burden of your pain
I can but offer what my love does give –
The strength of caring, the warmth of one who seeks to understand.
This I do in quiet ways – that on your lonely path you may not walk alone.” – Howard Thurman
There was a basket of rocks where we were instructed to take one to represent us. The rocks were placed in a bowl, and water would surround those rocks symbolizing the love of Christ. Stories were told, personal and biblical, about love and caring for the physically, and emotionally wounded.
We were invited to choose other rocks, to represent people we loved, who had needs weighing heavy on our hearts. As I chose mine my eyes were full of tears. Not of sadness for those people, but of the promise that they are also enveloped in the love of God. My hand was full, I must admit, and I took a few moments to say a prayer over each rock as I placed it in the water. And then, tears of pride, as I saw my daughter had selected her own “rocks” to pray over.
The closing hymn (words and music by Marty Haugen, 1987) began like this;
“Healer of our every ill, light of each tomorrow, give us peace beyond our fear and hope beyond our sorrow… You who know our fears and sadness, grace us with your peace and gladness, spirit of all comfort fill our hearts…”
And the idea that we are here to “Bear one another’s burdens,” permeated my heart.
I am not “UP” by my doing at all. I treat my body well. I treat my mind well. And I allow my soul to be cared for.
My peace comes from the knowledge, the belief, the conviction that we are guided by a loving God. That all things are not mine to know, and that through His grace alone we have the strength to remain,
Sometimes we all want to throw our hands up. Sometimes we want to quit. Sometimes we want to hide in the closet or under the table alone. For a long time. Because EVERYONE HAS SOMETHING….
No one’s life is easy. The trick for me is realizing that and moving on.
Yep, some days I throw a fit right here in my house. Some days I am sad and overwhelmed. Some days I even cry, like here (http://wp.me/p2qi4v-10g)
But, the rule is about 15 minutes. I am allowed to have a pity party for about 15 minutes. (Sometimes that 15 minutes happens again, and again – but not usually.) Because then, I have to put on my big girl panties and make it work.
We play a lot of games of perspective here. We work on looking at things another way. “Flipping it…” so to speak, to try to get through.
The end of school is a crazy time for us. It’s supposed to be a time to rest, and unwind. But, really, it’s just shifting gears. Most of our doctors keep us on a “Six month leash,” so we do our best to schedule one round the very beginning of July. This way if anyone needs anything else there is time before school starts again. The other cycle is distributed around February vacation and school holidays. The only problem with this is it grossly limits the number of ACTUAL holidays there are in our lives. There is a good deal of “Go, go, go…”
Despite our occasional “preteen issues” my daughter is insanely easy to please. She wants to swim. She wants to act. She wants to read. She wants to watch tv. She wants to socialize with children preteens who are nice to be around. She wants to eat good, safe food, (cooked by her father not me!)
What she’d prefer not to do is sit. In the car. On the BQE. On the LIE. In the waiting room. In the exam room. Over, and over and over. Yet, still she handles it gracefully. She packs her own bag with a variety of things to occupy her time, and some snacks too. She really does not complain. (Except maybe if there’s a needle…)
What I try to do is spare her some appointments any chance I get. So when mine come up I try to leave her behind, and that’s what I did yesterday and today.
See, between us, there will be 15 appointments in two weeks, ending this Thursday.
This morning I made my 3rd trip to Manhattan in the last 7 days, but yesterday and today I drove alone. Meghan was tucked away at camp. Happy as could be.
I sat in the car, alone. The 20 or so miles never take less than an hour, so the luxury of satellite radio, and my green tea, (plus and e+Shot when I need it) are all mine to savor as we inch along.
I noticed today I was very calm. This life, this Cowden’s Syndrome life, is overwhelming, monotonous, and sometimes very stressful. But, it’s our life. Not glad by any means, but grateful that this load has been bearable thus far.
Some of our doctors could stand to be replaced, but many are stellar.
We are looked at so carefully all the time, that the chances of us missing something important have drastically decreased.
We have real life conversations, about real life problems, and we handle them with A LOT of humor.
We have a home that is full of love, and a witty, intelligent, young lady growing here.
We have two steady jobs.
We are able to vacation, and enjoy a few extras along the way.
We have become adept at navigating the bumpy road as a unit, not just Meghan and I, but her Dad as well. We are a team of three.
We have found nutritional products that keep us energized and strong as we brave the storms.
We are often dubbed the “healthiest looking sick people.” A comment that always makes me smile.
Some people like to use the word “blessed.” I have some trouble with that. If you are the person amidst terrible tragedy, are you then to feel you are not “blessed?” I may have a few questions for God, but the God I believe in doesn’t work that way.
Grateful– feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness; thankful
Now I do believe that there is always room for gratitude. There is ALWAYS something to be thankful for. For us, there is OFTEN a LOT to be thankful for.
Gratitude is not about always being happy, and life always being perfect.
“Gratitude consists of being more aware of what you have, than what you don’t” – Unknown
Even as we journey daily BEATINGCOWDENS, I am striving for an “attitude of gratitude,” for myself and my own sanity, but also for my daughter, who watches and learns from breath I take.
The awareness that one day we’re not going to walk this earth anymore.
Not exactly dinner conversation, but, for lack of a more gentle way to say it, mortality is everyone’s reality.
We face this reality at different points in our lives. Some are frighteningly young, and others are blissfully old. But, eventually, that awareness either creeps in or hits us like a speeding train. (Figuratively, or course.)
In my opinion, so much of the rest of your life is defined by what you do with that realization, that understanding that there is no promise of tomorrow on this earth.
For me, my solace, my comfort, and my focus, come from my faith. My deeply held belief in God, and that life does not end, merely changes, as we are welcomed into Heaven.
Whatever your own belief, is, your own reality, my hope is that it brings you comfort, solace, and gives your life on this earth purpose.
As a daughter of a cancer survivor (18 years and counting!!) I watched my Mom grapple with her own mortality at an age I consider very young. (young for her, and for me too!) She got it. She found clarity, but it was a few tough months. And even then as close as I was, I knew the significance of what I was watching, but I did not get it, not really.
I like to say my breast cancer was found, “by accident” or “divine intervention,” whichever you prefer. But, the moment in the surgeon’s office, that day in March of 2012 when I became a “survivor” by default, started my own journey with mortality. I was 10 years younger than Mom was at the time of her diagnosis. I had just undergone what I had prepared in my mind to be a “prophylactic” mastectomy to battle astronomical cancer statistics associated with the new diagnosis of a PTEN Mutation called Cowden’s Syndrome, that Meghan and I had received less than 6 months prior. When the word malignant was read, there it was; laying thick in the air for my husband and 8-year-old child to process with me.
And there was reality. Unable to ignore. Cancer had lived within me. Could it live again? Would it? When? Why was I going to be OK when so many others were not? Was I going to really be OK? What if they missed it, something bigger?
I was fortunate. Fortunate in the sense that a double mastectomy removed the encapsulated stage 1 cancer. I needed no treatment, no medication. But, my status had changed. In the eyes of the doctors, I was now an even greater risk. Every single lump and bump would be scrutinized, scanned, poked, prodded, and usually removed. The loss of my uterus and ovaries weeks later were a testament to this new-found realization that I was a risk. A significant risk.
Cowden’s Syndrome is one of those diagnoses that forces you to face down your own mortality at sometimes alarmingly young ages. An internet friend just made a jubilant post today that her youngest was now 10 and cancer free, a title she did not have herself at that tender age. The things we celebrate…
My Cowden’s Syndrome people are known to me mostly through the internet. We live across the country and across the globe. We navigate through different time zones and support each other through scans, scares, surgeries, reconstructions, and cancer. While this syndrome does not manifest itself the same in each of us, there are alarming similarities that make us kindred spirits. There is that “Sword of Damocles” hanging above our heads. There is that constant sense of not knowing, of hyper-vigilance, of bi-annual screenings, and worry. We stare at our own mortality each time we look in the mirror.
We have an extra bond when it connects to our children. A universal acceptance of the unfair nature of these young ones even needing to understand a bit of mortality. We have juggled the questions, inevitable after MRIs, CT scans, and biopsies galore. We have gently answered questions about family, and future, that have no real answers to date. We ache for them. We wish to take it all away. We have some guilt in the knowledge that in most cases this disorder, (whether we knew it or not) was passed from us.
Mortality will bind you, and if you’re not careful it can blind you. That is why there are support groups, for cancer patients, and others who have come close to losing their lives.
This weekend I spent some time in West Virginia with another group of men, bonded by their grapplings with their own mortality some 48 ish years ago in the Vietnam War.
I will protect their privacy here, and tell their story as generically as I can.
I connected with Alan, about 6 weeks after my father died. Dad had earned a Purple Heart in my mind, for an incident that occurred while he was serving in the United States Marine Corps. The award was never granted, and I wanted to pursue it on his behalf. So, I sent some letters to Marines, whose contact information I obtained from a reunion Dad attended in DC in 2006. I wanted to know who remembered him, and his story.
Alan contacted me first, verified my information, remembered the story, and has been in touch with me since.
I sent 20 letters out. EVERY SINGLE MARINE responded to me. EVERY ONE. Whether they knew Dad or not, whether they could help or not, they ALL reached out to express their condolences. Many shared some funny anecdotes. And as hard as I’m sure it was, they all connected with me.
I had heard about the Brotherhood of the Marine Corps. I could not have fathomed the depth of that bond. One after another, they all left me with the same heartfelt sentiment. “You are the daughter of our brother. We will help you always in whatever you need.”
Now, I knew, or at least I could infer that their lives had not been any type of peaches and cream, on the island of Vietnam, or when they returned. My Dad battled his own demons for many years before our relationship began to form. But the offers of these Marines were sincere, and genuine.
Alan proved that to me through regular conversations, and almost heroic efforts to get someone to listen to the story of my Dad’s injuries. In the end, we lost the battle on a technicality. Although “The statements provided clearly establish that your father was injured as a direct result of enemy action, the available information fails to establish that your father was treated by a medical officer…Wounds not requiring treatment by a medical officer at the time of injury do not qualify for the Purple Heart Medal.” The letter was cold. The case was closed.
I was sad, mad, angry and disappointed. But I was so grateful for the Marines who wrote letters of support. I was grieving the fact that my Dad had carried this close to him for so many years, and lived with chronic pain as a result. I wanted this for him, because he never fought for it himself.
And as things go, it was not to be, but Alan did as he promised and remained in constant contact with me. He heard my sobs as I glanced at Dad’s headstone for the first time. His were the comforting words that started my healing.
So, this weekend I headed to West Virginia to thank him myself. I met a group of Vietnam Era Marines, several of whom had served with my father. I watched them together, in awe an amazement. I was welcomed into their group with instant acceptance. And as I sat and watched them laughing together, I noticed the war stories were sparse, and funny when they were told. Surely a contrast to the realities they had faced as young men years ago. But, the bond between them was unbreakable. There indeed was the Brotherhood of the Marines, but there was something else.
They faced it in the most horrendous of ways. They lived it daily. They buried their brothers. They knew their return home was not a guarantee.
And once you’ve faced that kind of life altering lesson in mortality together, you are bonded for life. As Alan said to me, “If you weren’t there, there are no words to describe it, and if you were, there are no words needed.”
I was among a group of people who had faced their own mortality almost a half century ago. And they have a bond that can not be explained. It is amazing.
And among the most amazing to me was the woman I met. She was not local either, but she, like I, had traveled for this celebration. It was not her first time. She had been around for almost 10 years. About 10 years ago the woman, who was an infant when her father died a hero in Vietnam, met the men he served with. She had never met her father, but here were father figures galore ready to embrace her. And they did.
A bit ago her father’s diary surfaced from his time in Vietnam. She shared it with me and the last entry written before he died was about the thought that so many of them must have had daily. His diary ends with, “When will it be me?”
Once you have looked your own mortality square in the eye, you can not walk away the same person.
But, it is up to you what you do with the rest of your life.
As for me, I choose bonding with people who “get it,” be they old friends or new.
I choose focusing on what we can do, not what we can’t.
I will not choose reckless living, but I will daily live with the knowledge that there is no guarantee of tomorrow on this earth.
Whether facing your mortality is something you endured, something you will live with daily, or something you are yet to face, how it changes you is really up to you.
As for us, in this house, we choose to remain focused on