The day after Christmas in our house is reserved for a blissful amount of peaceful rest. A few loads of laundry, a simple meal, late sleeping, playing with some new “toys,” recovery, and reflection fill the hours. It is a wonderful, necessary day to pause and recharge.
I am awestruck by how fast days blend into weeks, and months, and even years. My girl is now a young lady. A young lady of 13 years old with the fall devoted to High School Applications, academic honors, hours of swimming, and some drama (class) thrown in for good measure. It was a crazy season, but a remarkable, beautiful time of transformation.
I don’t get time to write as much as I used to. But, truthfully, you don’t need to hear from me all that often to follow along. The writing remains my way to sort out life. I feel fortunate that so many of you come along for the ride.
So much of our journey #beatingcowdens is couched in perspective. We talk so much about the realities of everyone’s life. We talk about the things people endure that we can not fathom, and we talk about how hard it is to have some of the conversations necessary in the life of my 13-year-old. We talk. Often. And perhaps that is the first of many blessing I have.
My girl has become a young woman through a path that is different from most her age. Notice, I deliberately chose the word “different” as we are careful not to measure things in “better” or “worse.” The medical drama unfolded at a fast, furious pace, most concentrated in the years from 8 to 12. And we held fast through each one, but then, slowly, the dramas began to slow down.
At first we didn’t want to say anything. There is the fear of “jinxing” the situation. When medical drama is your “normal” you don’t really know how to live any other way. It sounds bizarre. You want so desperately to be rid of it, but the relief of losing it would be so intense, that to relax and then have it hit you again could be crushing. So you stay on your guard. All the time. But sometimes when you do that you can get a little… I don’t know, isolated, alone, rough?
There is a security connected to living in a state of medical drama. At least you know what to expect.
But, it’s not a place to hang out when you don’t need to.
Meghan’s last biopsy was in July. The follow-up is this week. My last surgery was in August. And, in a turn of events here, I have spent the last few months in vocal therapy sorting out ways to work around the tumor that desires to strip me of my ability to communicate. We’ve had some success, and last week even amidst a terrible head cold, my voice made it with me all the way to Friday.
And it was on that very Friday morning, as I drove Meghan to a 5:30 AM swim practice, with my head-splitting and my nose running, that I told her how lucky I felt. She may have checked me for fever, to see if I had totally lost it. But I explained – a year ago facing Christmas break without her having been knocked down at least once by something major was an impossible dream. This year, she had done more than ever before, and seems to be getting stronger. That morning I was grateful that I was able to get my butt out of bed, to take her to the place she loves, so she could work on the sport she loves.
This fall we have successfully removed 2 stomach medications that were previously necessary for survival. And, we are well on our way to eliminating a third. There is nutrition, exercise, and natural alternatives in their place. And it is working.
She came home a few weeks ago with a perfect attendance certificate for the month of October. I save everything. I think that may have been her first. These are the things that keep us in perspective.
We have a “doctor cycle” among us now. The knee needs to be checked again, MRI, and two knee doctors. There are clinical exams, GI follow-up and endocrinology. The afternoons these next 6 weeks will be swallowed up with trips to NYC. I’ll add in some appointments of my own, as I prepare for vocal cord surgery, tentatively set, but not yet confirmed. We’ll keep swimming, literally and figuratively. We’ll hold each other up, and we will do something a little different. We will, instead of fitting out lives into the doctors, we will fit the doctors into us.
Raising kids, one, two, three, four, or more- regardless of gender, or age combination each holds unique rewards and challenges. We have our moments, my girl and I, when we challenge each other to the best we can be. Sometimes its deep conversation. Sometimes it’s a little less pretty. But, we do it. We learn and we grow together.
I find myself often, missing relatives who are not here with us anymore. I miss conversations, deep and thoughtful. I miss shared laughs, and the pride they felt and showed. I understand, and comprehend their lives are changed, their eternal lives are more beautiful than I can imagine. But, I still miss them.
I sometimes shuffle around a bit in circles in my mind, feeling a little lonely, a little unsteady, and a little unsure of how to break the cycle.
And even at those loneliest points I take solace at the people in my life who are there. Their own lives keep us from day-to-day interface, but they are there, forming that net that will catch me, or us, if we were to fall. They weave a web through our lives that give us such confidence and gratitude, that I can only hope they feel the same way about us.
As we begin to get heavy into the preparations for Jeans for Rare Genes 3, it is a time to get focused. I am not a huge fan of New Year’s Resolutions. A wise friend recently reminded me a calendar is not necessary to begin change.
Choose positive. That is my simple focus. I will not be perfect at it. But, I will work tirelessly. I will be positive, hopefully not to the point of irritating, but when given the opportunity to face a new situation, I will work to find the positive.
Cowden’s Syndrome will toss us curve balls for the rest of our days. I’ve never been much of a baseball player, but I plan to practice my swing. And just in case- I’ll keep a helmet on as well.
May the culmination of 2016 lead us to gratitude for all the positives it brought, and gratitude for the negatives as well. May it leave us with the reminders of the blessings in our lives. Only in appreciation of al of it can we ever move forward. And really, forward is the only direction I choose to travel.
I think I blinked, and the calendar changed from October to December. Some weeks I can do nothing more than plan day by day, because to look too far is overwhelming. But, I “lost” the fall in a beautiful way. I lost it shuffling my girl to places she loves to be, and helping her apply to high schools she is excited about. Four years ago I could not have imagined she could keep this schedule. She battles for it every day and I admire every ounce of her determination. I take nothing for granted, and I know a huge “doctor cycle” is soon to be upon us. Meghan’s appointments begin late this month. Mine will overlap, likely culminating in vocal cord surgery. But, for now, for this moment, I am grateful for this chaos. The hint of “normalcy” is not to be left unappreciated.
Today though, I blocked out some time. Today I needed some time to sit in my office and look around. There are beautiful images on the walls of my office from New York City to Washington state – and places in between. Each is carefully watermarked “Leon G. Thompson,” a process that took my husband countless hours. There are thousands of such images on my laptop and several backup drives. You may have no idea who “Leon G. Thompson” was, but I can tell you these pictures are more valuable to me than any you’d find in a museum. Leon G. Thompson was my father, and these pictures are what he left behind on 12/4/13 when cancer snatched him from us far too soon.
“A Few Good Men,” has been far more than a movie title in my life. I was blessed to have 3 grandfathers that shaped who I am. I am equally blessed to say I have had two fathers mold me into the woman I have become. My Mom’s husband Ken came into our lives when I was a teenager, but he has been, and continues to be an unshakeable source of everything from “fun facts,” to computer tech, to house repair and all things in between. There is a special place for a man who steps into a marriage with 2 teenage daughters in tow, treats them as his own from day one, and never skips a beat.
My father, well… let’s just say the early years were rocky.
What I know now, but I didn’t know then, clarifies a bunch. Dad, a Vietnam veteran came home lost. The earliest years are peppered with memories that don’t leave “the warm fuzzies.” The years after that hold memories of fun visits. Dad would come by sometimes. There were movies, and visits to the park and the zoo. There were restaurants, and exciting novelties. But, there was not consistency. There were chunks of empty time. There was a lot of wondering.
Contact got more steady in the teenage years, especially after my brother was born. There were more visits, and more phone calls. But, history sometimes repeats itself, and there were years that faded away again.
Later, after high school, and probably after college too, there was more. Maybe I was ready. Maybe he was. I’m not sure. But, slowly and carefully, over years, a relationship began to form. By the time I got married, I was able to dance with my Dad, (and Ken, and my Pop :-)) and I will cherish the memory forever.
After my daughter was born, he started showing up more. And I liked it.
Hard times came for Dad, and the restaurant industry finally failed him. And that low for him, was the point our relationship became solid. Nothing happens overnight, but he was here. Close. Interested. Available. He helped pick up Meghan. He came to birthday parties, and dance recitals, and swim meets. He came by for Father’s Day and even celebrated a birthday with us.
It was during that time that he first spoke the words I’d been waiting to hear since the second week of my Abnormal Psychology class in college.
“I have PTSD. Do you know what that is?”
“Yep. I know. (and I exhaled a sigh I’d been holding in for years..) And it all gets better from here Dad.”
He was stunned. He had no idea that his entire adult life spent making poor choices, ducking relationships, and often shying away from those who loved him most, were just a few of the symptoms of PTSD. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) He couldn’t imagine that I had already pieced together that unspeakable horror encountered with his Marines in the jungles of Vietnam had impacted, to the point of changing, and really shaping his entire adult life. 13 months in that war, and not a day, a single day, ever went by without it influencing his thoughts and behavior. I was able to pick up from a text-book the reasons why he had shied away from our relationship. I was able to know in my heart that he couldn’t risk expressing his love, showing up, or being truly “present.” But, in that moment, hat moment when he said it THAT is where I got him back.
I can’t say I remember the day. And I may be wrong on the year too. But, it was sometime around 2009. Finally, he was working on his own healing.
And he worked hard.
We spoke more regularly. Once a week usually. Sometimes it was his turn. Most of the time it was mine. As I struggled through raising a chronically ill child, he became my sounding board. He was my confidant of all things. He was where I went to bounce the tough decisions. Because, life had left him a great listener. Raising a child with a rare disease, means often having to make really tough choices alone. When your disease affects only 1 in 200,000 people, experience with it is limited. When Cowden’s Syndrome manifests differently in each of that small number of patients, including myself and my daughter, there is an even lower confidence interval with doctors who often just have no idea by no fault of their own.
It is hard to hear over and over again that a child is ill. Especially, when it is your child, or your grandchild, or one you love so much. I have had to make so many unorthodox medical decisions, that I often just needed someone to hear my thought process, and let me analyze, and over-analyze. I have gone against the doctors to trust an instinct that was strong in my mind and my heart. Dad was the one who could hear it all out. He heard me without speaking. He listened attentively. He offered advice only when I asked, and offered encouragement always. These were not situations where I just needed my ego stroked. These were tough conversations to have, and he never ever shied away from one.
He simply would bring me back to reality. He’d ground me by telling me to use Meghan as my guide. Check on her health, physically and emotionally. Focus. Trust my instincts. Be able to correct wrong decisions whether they are mine or theirs. Still now, three years later I find myself aching for those conversations. She is stronger. She is tougher. She is amazing. But, there are still so many battles to face and so many difficult decisions to make. That’s when I retreat to my office. I sit in his chair, and I look up at the path of snow in central park, or the Washington mountain top, or the waterfall, or the rainbow and I think. I talk the conversation through as if he were here. Because I know he is. I just have to listen really carefully.
Dad told me once that I understood PTSD because Meghan’s medical battles had left me some ways in a similar state to him. When she was younger, and so sick, that perpetual fear of losing her, the hospitalizations, the surgeries, left me with a need to he “hyper” aware all the time. While I could never profess to connect this to the horrors of war, he did. And I think it allowed him to open up with some of his own stories.
Through those years I heard tales from his mouth I had never known. I heard of battles, and losses and names of people, and places. I listened so attentively. Quietly. As he had done for me. Sometimes I even took pen and paper to write down his story. Because I wanted to hang on every word. Because you just never know.
I found out Dad was sick when I made that Friday night phone call in October 2013. His voice sounded a little off and he told me he was in the ICU at the VA Hospital in Brooklyn. When I asked him if anyone knew he said he wasn’t too sure. But, he said, “now you do.” And he laughed, as only he would at that moment.
I got to the hospital the next morning and we went through the details. At that point no one knew anything. Confused doctors was a topic we had spoken about at length.
The 10 weeks that followed were just a long blur. There were about 4 weeks of me forcing his hand to allow me to take him back and forth to his appointments. Sometime after that he admitted he couldn’t drive himself. That was a tough day. I had already called in my sister, and it was time to reach out to my brother in Texas. Family meeting. The “team” assembled.
And through the some of the toughest weeks, I bonded in ways that can never be broken, with a sister I have always had, and a brother who I was getting to know better than I ever had.
Dad was admitted to the VA on Thanksgiving of 2013, and one week later, on December 4th, we were by his side when the angels came to free him. No more suffering. No more PTSD. Pancreatic cancer at age 65.
I dialed his number for months after. I still know it in my heart.
I spent the months after he died cleaning out his apartment. Dad was not a man of many “things.” His iPhone held no Email, and only one photo. “Never want to put too much information in one place,” said the man who in his soul operated always with the mentality of a 19-year-old combat Marine.
As I cleaned I took every single scrap of paper he had ever written on and clipped them together. I laminated them. It was to be the only way we would ever “talk” again. It is Dad’s quotes scattered through this piece.
He loved light. And I guess for a man who had spent so much time fighting the darkness, his love for light made sense.
Dad was, to our family, and friends, a photographer. “Tom” would have a camera around his neck at all times. He took joy out of capturing happiness. He took pleasure at photographing family events, and sharing his photos with everyone. As we sorted through the pictures, in the months and year or so following his death, we saw some incredible images. We sorted out the family shots from the scenery ones. We put up a sharing site for all those family images in case anyone had never seen them. And we protectively shielded his “scenery” images, and carefully watermarked them, and kept great pains to keep them off the internet.
At some point we will organize an art show in his memory. We will print, and sell his treasures. We will find a place to donate any profits that will honor his memory. We will let the world see what he saw. Dad used that camera lens to showcase the light. To view the beauty in the world. Consistently, when I look around I see “Light Through the Lens…” and in doing so I keep his memory alive.
Dad did not leave us rich with money, or objects. He left us rich with visions and memories. The former keeps you satiated for a little while. The latter can keep you fueled forever.
The last gift Dad left for me, was one I did not see coming. In the weeks preceding his death it had become apparent to me that there was a specific incident in Vietnam that clearly should have warranted him a Purple Heart. I gathered data for him, presented the case, and even after denials came in, and he had passed, I kept fighting.
Holly, a treasure in Dad’s life and ours, had held onto a list of names and addresses from a Marine Corps Reunion they had attended many years prior. I reached out to every Marine in that list, and if they were still alive, they reached back. Over 20 of them. 45 years later. I grew up knowing Dad had 7 brothers and a sister. I had no idea of the Marine brothers scattered around the country.
I have had the pleasure of meeting many of them. And this past summer I brought Meghan to meet a few too.
Alan was the first to answer my letter. From West Virginia he called to tell me he remembered crossing time with Dad. He researched the story I told him about the incident. He found it totally credible, and helped me exhaust every option and every appeal to the Department of the Navy. Ultimately that battle was lost on what I call a technicality, but by that time I had a friend and a confidant in Alan, previously a stranger.
My Dad, although not loyal to a particular church, by the time he died had a solid faith in God, forgiveness, and an afterlife.
I do not know the book this came from, but I found this among his clippings…
My Dad in his passing, solidified my relationship with my sister, essentially “gave” me my brother who I had never really “known” but will NEVER let go of, AND, secured for me a confidant in Alan, and gave me the gift of loyalty that Marines save for their own and their families.
He left thousands of photos. Snipits of his own words, and memories of times that we got it right.
I sometimes always wish that he would answer when I called him on the phone. But, I know. I know that he is flying free. And I know, that while he needn’t be saddled with the cares of this world, that he checks in. That he is nearby when I need him the most.
So when we are driving in the car and Meghan snaps a shot of a sunrise, or the light coming through the clouds in the sky. When she sees the beauty of the world around her. When she looks for the good. When she keeps her friends list short and neat, I see my Dad. I feel him. I know he’s right there for that moment.
Only when you love deeply do you feel great loss. They all hurt. The oldest to the newest. I can not change the way I love. When I love it is with my whole self. Otherwise, why?
This one hurts differently because it took so long to get it right. But, I rest with the gratitude that we did get it right. And once you get it right, if it’s truly right, nothing before that matters anymore.
You may never know the strength you gave to help us remain