“Stay Alert! Delays are Possible!”

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I saw the sign Friday, somewhere along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  I laughed, in spite of myself.

We were headed on a 400 mile road trip to West Virginia, a trip I was making for the second time, and Meghan for the first.  Last weekend in June to celebrate Alan’s birthday.

As we traveled through the hills of PA, I became somewhat accustomed to shrieks of joy, as the landscape at times was utterly breathtaking.  And, there were cows.  Overwhelming for a young city girl, not given too many opportunities to travel out of a small radius.  The camera barely stopped.


I was thinking about the list of things creeping into the month of July already.  There are 8 appointments and a surgery for Meg already scheduled.  I am annoyed, not so much at the surgery, as I am about the time constantly taken to try to stay on top of this cancer -causing, tumor-provoking, life altering nightmare called Cowden’s Syndrome.

Meghan’s next major procedure is Friday July 22nd.  The pathology on that procedure will determine what, if any, delays are possible in the future.

“Stay Alert! Delays are Possible!”

There wasn’t much traffic on the way to West Virginia.  The trip itself took us a little over 7 hours.  We arrived before 9, and blended right into easy conversation on the porch.  Alan, his family, and some friends, welcomed us warmly.  They greeted Meghan as if they had known her for years, and treated me as if I stopped by every few days.  All of this oddly comforting.  In reality I met them for the very first time last June, and Meghan was meeting them that night.

 

 

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img_7548Yet, we had known each other for longer in ways that matter.  These men, most of them, were Marines that had served with my Dad some 45 years ago in the jungles of Vietnam.  These men knew my father during a brief time in his life that undoubtedly changed and shaped the man I later knew.

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Alan was the first to reach back to me when I sent a letter to Dad’s 1st Amtrac Batallion, 3rd Marine Division brothers.  I was, at the time researching an incident that we felt may have warranted a Purple Heart for Dad.  I sent over 20 letters that week in January 2014.  I heard reply from every living Marine I contacted.  EVERY SINGLE ONE.  They spoke to me, and comforted me.  Those who remembered the incident wrote letters of support.  All told me that as the daughter of a Marine I was one of theirs.  I was to call on them as needed.  It seemed surreal.

But Alan stayed in touch.  Close touch.  We spoke, and still speak via text several times a week, and often by phone at least once a week.  As he worked every angle he could for a Purple Heart that not earned in the technicalities of the USMC, we grew in friendship.  And over time I came to realize that the relationship we had built filled a larger hole than any posthumous medal could have.I do not mean ever to saint my father.  Nor do I mean to make excuses for him.  There were some terribly rocky times in my childhood that can not be repaired.  But, we had time to make peace years before he died, and I started to understand a few things.  A few really important things.

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Now, we were in West Virginia, keeping time with 5 Marines who served with Dad.  They were wounded; physically, emotionally, or both.  They shared stories.  They shared PTSD.  They shared tales of failed relationships, and difficult feelings of guilt.  They verbalized what Dad couldn’t.


And Meghan, oh did they take her in!  One by one, as if helping my father make up for lost time, they spoke and laughed and listened.  They got to know her.  They cared.

Saturday morning Alan’s grandson took time out of his day to teach Meghan to shoot a compound bow.  It was something she had always wanted to do, and circumstances had not allowed.  So, here we were in the hills of West Virginia.  And there was her lesson with the bow.  Arrows on target.  Success.

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A few hours later we were on a farm with the Marines.  We rode a “side by side” through the farm and got to take in views we would not have otherwise seen.  Then, Meghan was invited to shoot a rifle.  With a little hesitation she was guided.  And I watched as her tense face turned into a smile.  There were 4 paper targets 100 yards away.  She fired several times and hit paper repeatedly.  First try, “Oddly relaxing,” and successful.

Maybe because we live in the zone of “Stay alert!  Delays Possible!”  that seizing the opportunities as they present themselves is even easier and more logical.  I didn’t shoot a bow or a rifle, so I can’t be sure.  But, she is clearly not shy about learning new things.

The birthday party ballooned to over 50 people in the driveway and garage of this beautiful home.  There was mingling and talking, mostly with people I barely knew.  Meghan found the time to chat with each of the Marines.  She asked questions.  She got answers.  And, in some cases more questions.  But they each took time to speak, honest, and frank, about their experiences, and about her Grandpa.

I stole away some time to lay on the front lawn and appreciate the flags while enjoying the relative quiet of a “busy” street.


Meghan was met with generosity of tangible items, and generosity of kind spirits.  She now has a money clip and some Vietnamese money from the era.  She also has some special paintings, and a walking stick.  The latter two were gifts from “Uncle Moe,” who was a bit older than the rest.  After 3 tours in Vietnam, and 22 years as a US Marine, he had some tales to tell.


When she  asked what she should know about the Marine Corps., she was told “Brotherhood”.  The simplicity and depth of that answer was playing out over the weekend, and it made sense in concept and in real-time.  These “brothers” trained to never leave a man behind.  And in our case, that included his children and grandchildren.
The weekend went too fast, and before it was time to leave we even sneaked in a visit with some pigs down the road.  City girls have to make the most of things when they are around!

 

Preparing to leave on Sunday was harder than logic says it should have been.  But, we had spent the last 2 days enveloped in a Marine Corps “sandwich” of unconditional love and support.  We know now with these Marines there are no “goodbyes,” only “see you soon!”

As we drove I don’t think either of us spoke for at least 75 miles.  The enormity of it all was tough to digest.

She held the walking stick in one hand and the money clip in the other, wanting to make the weekend longer than it had been.

I cry often.  Meghan, not so much.  Yet, both of us were choking a bit.  It was the kind of experience that changes you.  The simple beauty of just fitting in.  Just because.

“Stay Alert! Delays Possible!”

Not just traffic delays, but real life ones too.  As we began the 400 mile trek home we contemplated Monday’s appointment in Manhattan – a quick toss back into reality.


I pondered whether it was right to show Meghan this world, and then take it from her so fast.  But, I knew it was.  It was a part of her.  A part of her history.  A part of her life.  It was something that I do not fully understand, and yet I needed to expose her too as well.

Dad was not a saint.  But, he loved us. Deeply.  There was never a doubt about that.   Even as he began to heal, he often struggled to find ways to express it.  It was a battle in progress, and he was winning.  But, he was called home before he could quite finish.

So, he left it to his “brothers,” his Marines.

And they did a good job.

This weekend was for the soul.

There’s plenty of time for

#beatingcowdens 

this week.

 

Mortality

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

My Dad, the "Irish Marine"
My Dad, the “Irish Marine”

 

 

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.”

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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.

We lost the Purple Heart but gained so much more.
We lost the Purple Heart but gained so much more.

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.

Mortality.

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.

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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?”

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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

BEATINGCOWDENS,

WHILE CELEBRATING ALONG THE WAY.