Meghan and Ella have been settling in so well together. Jax and Ella are fast friends. April and Ella will be polite acquaintances. Ella is playing, running, eating, and sleeping. She is adjusting to life in our home and seems to be enjoying it.
The most prominent lingering fear surrounded the lump on her side.
We gathered the notes from the vet in Indiana. We put all her paperwork together. The entire Ortega kennel had vet appointments today. So, we headed out for the first time as a party of 6- 18 legs, and 3 tails.
Our veterinarian is thorough. He has treated our dogs well. April needed some lab work for a persistent problem we’re working on. Jax needed to be caught up with some shots. And, Ella, well, that pretty girl needed to get started in her next phase of life.
The vet took her in and did a complete exam. He read the sparse notes we carried with us from Indiana. He looked at the photos of the lump on her side.
He called to tell us that we should start her vaccinations, as he could only verify rabies. He told us he did a heartworm test that was negative for heartworms. He drew blood. That “should be nothing” later this week.
And, since in these Covid times, all news comes via phone from outside the vet’s office, the three of us sat quietly while we waited.
“And the lump?”
“It’s her rib.”
Collective exhaling throughout the car…
“Yes, if you trace along the bone it’ll take you to her spine. Most people never feel it. Ella is very lean.”
Fist pumping and smiling took place for a few minutes.
We live in a worst-case scenario existence. It is so rare that it goes well. And, yet, today, was a win.
Nerves shot for no reason. I have no idea what happened in that office, or why the vet said hernia 750 miles ago. But this is a win. I’ll take it all day every day.
It looks like the rest of life really does start now.
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.
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
Ella, Meghan has been waiting for you since before you were born!
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.
“…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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
completing my first post from my iPad on the couch as the FOOT recovers from some pretty extensive, non Cowden’s related surgery.
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…
The questions were simple enough. “What about basic supplies? What about the laptops? What about the crayons? What about the things multiple hands touch over a short period of time every day?”
The man at the end of the call asked the questions of the teacher’s union president. It was following a discussion of what we will need to do to safely re-open schools in what many hope will soon be a post COVID-19 world.
The call was 5 days ago.
I have asked myself “What about the crayons?” innumerable times since I heard this teacher ask. The union president was stumped, but to his credit, collected this teacher’s contact information to add him to future focus groups.
There is so much we just don’t know.
I have tried to stay present, not to stray too far from the moment. I have tried to remain in an attitude of gratitude for my ability to work from home, the health of my family, and our financial stability.
But, my mind strays from tragedies, milestones missed, and seasons not played, to an uncertain future. We receive conflicting messages daily, through multiple elected representatives, doctors, and ordinary citizens. Everyone feels adamantly one way or another about a variety of issues.
But, what about the crayons?
It’s a basic enough question, that may seem like no big deal if you haven’t spent the last 23 years in an elementary school. It’s the kind of question that will easily be brushed aside regardless of how many times it’s asked.
But, maybe it’s one of the most important questions.
Through the years of teaching I have seen a lot of changes, and I have not always embraced them willingly. Some, I would argue still, are pure nonsense. Others have made me a better educator. In reality, like so many other things in life, what I agree with is not wholly relevant.
When I started teaching we had desks. Students had desks. Teachers had desks. Everyone had their own supplies. Students largely worked alone. Slowly, there were times it was appropriate to do “group work” where we would move desks together for collaboration, only to later return them to their original separate space.
Through the years, desks became tables and teacher’s desks were eliminated. There were bins on tables for shared items. Books were kept on shelves, and folders kept in bins. Everything required a monitor to hand it out. The tables were 6 sided, making separating children a challenge, you know, for those activities that shouldn’t be done in groups. So we added “dividers” also stored, and distributed as needed.
Slowly, desks have made a comeback, as everything old is new again, and supplies are often kept in the desks for the older children, but many of the youngest still work from tables.
We are supposed to teach them to collaborate. We are supposed to teach them to work in groups. We are supposed to teach them to get along, in addition to, well, TEACHING them.
About 10 years ago I shifted from teaching in a classroom of my own students to teaching as a “cluster” teacher, in a position to provide preparation periods for the classroom teachers as per our contract. I serve as a math cluster, a position many see as odd, but one I love. My role in this position is to help all children love math.
I have evolved over the years from a hesitant, controlling teacher, to one who embraces productive student noise and activity. Although I see students from kindergarten through 4th grade, my room still has those six-sided tables. Most lessons are hands on, using everything from play-doh, to stamp pads, to puzzles, to counters, to fraction bars and many more. My children share pencils, 12 at a table. They also share scissors, and glue, and rulers, and hundreds charts, and teaching coins, and that is only some of what is in every table bin. As 5 classes a day, 25 classes a week, and roughly 600 students a week sit at my tables and handle my math tools, monitors count and keep order. Desks are washed often and hand sanitizer flows freely.
But, there is no part of me that thinks it’s enough.
The giggling joy of children battling number facts, playing dice games, building numbers with play-doh, and solving number puzzles together has become a sound that I truly enjoy. My room is noisy, active, and largely fun.
It’s a stark contrast to some other aspects of life.
I take seriously the task to encourage a passionate love of math. I am thrilled to be a safe space, where tests are minimal, informal assessment rules, groups are fluid and the majority of children get to feel successful.
Maybe I learned how important that excitement for education was after our Cowden’s Syndrome diagnosis in 2012. Something about surviving a sneaky cancer, and watching your own child lose a good deal of innocence on exam tables, and in operating rooms, makes you more in touch with the value of “productive, happy noise.”
My girl was in 3rd Grade when we were formally diagnosed, but in truth she has ALWAYS been dealing with health issues. I watched her elementary school experience. I know as an only child with two working parents, largely unavailable to meet others to play, social isolation came early. I know she had tons of alone time, and subsequently too much adult time.
I know the teachers that changed her life for the better, to whom I will be eternally grateful, and I know the ones who just changed her.
She never liked math. I could always get her to understand, but it made her nervous. It still does. She never “played” math. Like so much else, it was a task to master, not an experience to have.
Maybe because it was easier to read during the hours of waiting, in traffic, in offices, in hospitals, and during recovery. Or maybe because it wasn’t fun. I’ll never know.
She never really handled crayons much either. Or math tools. And she was allergic to the wheat in the play-doh….
So, I set out to make my math room a place that could maybe change the perception of one kid. Maybe I could help one kid believe they could be good at math, or that math was fun.
I have a system set up. There are 5 bins of every math tool you can imagine. When they need crayons there are three fresh boxes poured out into bins that match the color of their table baskets. The older kids usually have a focused lesson in different levels. The little guys often rotate through a few activities to keep them moving and keep things developmentally appropriate.
Which brings me back to the crayons.
As my colleague on that call pointed out, it was laptops, crayons, and everything in between.
It is my entire program. It is all things hands on and developmentally appropriate for our youngest learners.
No one knows.
I have had many sleepless nights since we began
Very few things leave a mom as unsettled as her child’s health.
But, a close second might be asking a primary teacher, “What about the crayons?“
There are things you could do without ever experiencing. Clearly #COVID19 is one of them.
I live in NYC. I have lived here every one of my 46 years.
I was born and raised here. I graduated from public school, SUNY and then CUNY. I work in the elementary school I graduated from. I have lived in the same zip code pretty much my whole life.
I watched my local community rise up many years ago when my young cousin battled Leukemia. I remember that, even over 30 years later, whenever a neighbor I don’t know is in need.
I watched my local community, many aspects of which were decimated by the horrors of 9/11, rise up in indescribable ways.
I watched my community draw together again after Hurricane Sandy wiped out neighborhoods.
We worked together. We prayed together. We loved on each other. We gathered together. We shared what we had.
I live amongst compassion, bravery, dedication, resilience, tragedy, and grief.
I also live amongst some selfishness, stupidity and inflated senses of self importance.
The greatest city in the world gives you all that and then some.
Despite having a small social circle, I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a niece, a cousin and a friend.
I am a patient with a PTEN mutation called Cowden’s Syndrome.
I am a cancer survivor.
I have a teenager with 2 rare diseases, and a brain that runs 24/7.
We are immune compromised.
I am a NYC Public School Teacher.
My husband is an essential worker.
Daily the news reports are often silenced in my house. I know what’s going on around me. A few numbers across a screen give me what I already know. Hope of blossoming spring has been muted by tales that nightmares are made of.
I spend the days trying to remotely engage young minds in math games. It is, if nothing else, a welcome distraction.
Suddenly, this community that does so much better when we can gather together is isolated.
Our friends are sick and dying quickly. To much of the country and the world they are numbers. To us they are humans with names and families. We can not visit. We can not comfort. We can not gather. We are leaving our loved ones at the emergency room door, praying we will see them again.
We, alongside the whole world, are fighting a virus that seems to have a strangle hold on my home town.
People like to make themselves feel better, but the truth is this virus does not discriminate. We can barely even find it, let alone attack it.
We are chasing it. It clearly has the upper hand.
We have been told to #flattenthecurve but, I fear the sheer numbers of us make this so much harder.
My husband comes from work removes all layers, scrubs, showers, washes all outer garments. He gave up public transportation to reduce his “touch points.”
We are grateful for the home we have. We are grateful for each other, for the internet, for Zoom and FaceTime, and virtual church. We are grateful for washing machines and space, and luxuries never to be taken for granted again.
We are grateful for computers that allow for everything from Advanced Biology to voice lessons and test prep.
We leave for 2 walks a day at off peak hours.
The stores I used to walk in and out of because I could, are saved for when lists accumulate and there is need.
We order food a few times a week, a calculated risk carefully played out because the restaurants that have openly supported our fundraisers through the years, deserve our support now as well.
The schedule has slowed from its chaotic pace. Swim season just isn’t. There is no college search right now. Doctors are cancelling, and rescheduling. Routine check ups are on hold. And honestly I don’t mind. Even this chronically painful foot is waiting its turn while really important things happen at the local hospitals.
We take this call to social isolation really seriously here.
Selfishly, I might even enjoy a little of this forced family time. A year from now my girl will likely have her college chosen and be starting her transition out of our nest.
Having Cowden’s Syndrome has done a lot of work on my perspective through the years. I’ve learned that you can’t keep waiting for it to be over. That’s true of everything in life.
A dear friend has told me often, “You can have it all, just not all at the same time.”
You have to live each day, from beautiful to unspeakable. It is the only way to preserve feelings of compassion, empathy and focus on the greater good. You must laugh and cry, and scream and yell, and feel all the feelings.
I have scanned 3 and a half years of letters Pop wrote to Grandma in the years he was deployed during WWII. Those years preceded a marriage that lasted over 70 years. I think of them all the time, but even extra these days. I think about how hard it would have been to socially distance from them, but also about the lessons they could have taught all of us in patience, resilience and sacrifice for the greater good.
I’ll use some of the next days to read every one of those letters before uploading them to create a hard copy to be shared in my family for generations.
There is a lot to be learned from the “Greatest Generation.”
Sometimes I get angry at flippant or arrogant folks I see, in person or on the news. The people who think they are too good, or exempt from this global pandemic. The people who don’t think they have to do their part.
Then, I decide to focus on the overwhelming number of people who are doing whatever they can to make this better. All those essential workers we learned about in the first grade unit on “Community Helpers” are the ones I focus on with gratitude.
I am not better than this virus. I am just as susceptible as the good people across the globe who are struggling with these infections.
I isolate not out of fear, but out of respect.
I isolate out of respect for those who can’t.
I isolate out of respect for our first responders and essential workers.
I isolate out of respect for those who are living with this virus.
I isolate because maybe one less person will get infected because I did.
I miss the way our city has come together in all other times of tragedy.
I miss hugs, and offering comfort and being comforted.
I will message the people I miss so much, and check in on them.
And, instead of complaining the time away I will spend more of it in prayer for those who need very much not to feel alone, reaching out through the technology I’m blessed to have, with gratitude that if I am forced to isolate I have a comfortable home and a few of my best friends to be with.
Like all things your perception changes over time. When I was much younger if someone asked me for the most hurtful thing someone could say to me – it would have been something you’d be much more likely to guess.
But, years have passed and so much has changed.
Now, hands down, this is close to the top of the list.
I am reminded today of my senior year in high school. Madame Eicoff taught accelerated French. At the time it seemed like a great idea, and the irony that I took seven years of French and grew up to marry a Spanish man was never lost on me. One of the many ironies of life. But in Mme. Eicoff’s class we read “Le Petit Prince” by Antione de Saint-Exupery, and reading and understanding, and feeling that book in French… well, close to 30 years later the emotions are still fresh in my mind. But, I digress…
I don’t want to LOOK sick. I guess in some ways it could be a compliment.
Except it’s not.
Everyone who says it, or thinks it, or shouts it, or whispers it, does it with judgment.
And I guess my question is – What does SICK look like?
In this day and age where tolerance is expected, I feel like we are lagging behind in acceptance of rare disease and chronic illness.
What qualifies as sick?
Is it constant trips to the doctor? Tests? Scans? Referrals to more specialists? Surgery after surgery? Recovery?
Is it having doctors “Google” your disease in front of you, only to have them authoritatively verbally plagiarize the first page of the search when you have analyzed every relevant article on the first ten?
Is it time after time being made to feel you are not credible, or “less than” because no one can make it better?
Is it begging and pleading for pain relief only to be accused of being an addict, when you don’t want a pill at all?
Is it constantly plotting and planning any outing so as to utilize the fewest amount of steps to minimize the often bone crushing pain and fatigue that follows tasks as simple as grocery shopping?
I will agree there is a fine line between simple reality, and self-pity. I dance across it sometimes.
And then I play the music louder and dance right back.
This is my reality. Self-pity has no real purpose. People typically don’t want to hear about it.
But, just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t make it any less true.
I am not perfect. I judge. I judge for the wrong reasons sometimes. I judge people who I know nothing about sometimes. I am a work in progress. (As a dear friend often said, “I live in an all glass house.” Nothing about this is intended to throw stones.)
I am learning every day that saying “everyone has something” and really BELIEVING it are different.
I am learning that mine is no more, and theirs is no less and that is perfectly ok.
I am learning that human suffering is a universal, and “sick” carries a stigma that should be eliminated.
Because, if you are “sick” and you “look” it, you are likely “seeking pity.” If you don’t “look” it, but you have an “acceptable” (read well known) illness, you are “brave.”
Mental illness is not visible, yet depression and anxiety plague so many in astronomical numbers. Still we are embarrassed to speak of it, and it is surrounded by shame.
Chronic pain is not visible, not even behind the gritted teeth of the (insert so many people you know here) that you see every day. Living your life with pain that never leaves in and of itself can drive you mad. Think about the last headache you had. The one where you had to close the doors and shut the lights. Now think about it forever…
Real illness is often REALLY invisible.
This is neither a contest or a competition.
This is real life.
We are all real people.
And maybe it’s that simple. Maybe we need to go back to the simplistic view of a young child.Rare Disease Day is February 29th.
I am certain if you yourself are not suffering, you know someone who is.
They may look just like everyone else in the room.
I’ve set goals for self-correcting my unintended judgment of others.
I’ve found an excellent starting point at contemplating that every one of us is deeper than what can ever be seen with the eyes.
There are over 300 million people living with one or more of over 6,000 identified rare diseases around the world1, each supported by family, friends and a team of carers that make up the rare disease community.
Each rare disease may only affect a handful of people, scattered around the world, but taken together the number of people directly affected is equivalent to the population of the world’s third largest country.
Rare diseases currently affect 3.5% – 5.9% of the worldwide population.
72% of rare diseases are genetic whilst others are the result of infections (bacterial or viral), allergies and environmental causes, or are degenerative and proliferative.
70% of those genetic rare diseases start in childhood.
A disease defined as rare in Europe when it affects fewer than 1 in 2,000 people. (www.rarediseaseday.org)