AHCA, High Risk Pools, and My Child’s Future

I am angry.  I am hurt.  I am worried.

I have stayed out of politics through the entire tumultuous 2016.  I have serious issues with many politicians.  I am not here to talk about them directly.  I am here to talk about an issue that transcends political party affiliation.  I will not engage in a debate about Democrats or Republicans, or the should have/ would have/ could have game that people like to play with each other.

This is far  more serious, and more important than any of that.  This is about my daughter.  It is about her life.  Her future.  And, it is about the lives of millions of American citizens, myself included.

I will concede that there are problems with health care in America.  I will even agree that healthcare the way it exists today needs change.  However, when I look at a situation that needs change, I think it through carefully.  I work through every detail. I weigh out repercussions and ramifications.

The Bill that passed the House today, in my opinion was put together in an attempt to score a “win” for our President.

When millions lose. No one wins.  That’s not just the math teacher in me.  That’s real.

Three years ago I was in a car accident.  It was a terrible situation, and I was T-boned at an intersection.  I will contend to my dying day that the truck that barreled through me was speeding so fast it never should have made it to me before I cleared the intersection.  I had the stop. I stopped.  He never saw me and it took almost a block, in a school zone, for his truck to finally stop moving.  Because the stop sign was mine, I was assessed with most of the fault for the accident.  It made me furious.  I was told speeding could not be “proven” despite the absence of skid marks.  The other 6 accidents that happened at that intersection in the months preceding were not helpful either.  In the end, I was grateful for my life.  I walked away and took the penalty on my insurance.  I paid that accident penalty for three years.  And, while it did not make me happy, I did it.   The accident penalty was annoying, but affordable, less than $200 a year.

The car accident happened once.  It might happen again, but it will not happen regularly.  I am 25 years driving, with one accident and no moving violations.  I have proven I am not a reckless driver.   I have control over that.  Full control, and I take my driving very seriously.

I also take health very seriously.  Unfortunately, there are aspects of my health I do not have full control over.  My daughter and I have a rare genetic disorder called Cowden’s Syndrome.  She is 30 years my junior, and at 13 and 43 we have seen the inside of an operating room close to 45 times combined.  Cowden’s syndrome causes tumor growth.  It carries with it an astronomically high risk of many cancers, most notable breast, thyroid and uterus.  It carries also significantly elevated risks of kidney, colon, skin, and other cancers.  Many of our tumors are benign.  Some are not.  The only route we have to long term SURVIVAL is constant surveillance.

Many doctors recommend surgery to remove things that are high risk.  Thankfully, that suggestion proved life-saving for me in 2012 when a “prophylactic” bilateral mastectomy revealed stage 1 breast cancer.  I was fortunate.

Two months ago I had surgery to remove a benign tumor from my vocal cords.  It was impairing my ability to breathe and speak.

In 16 days my daughter will undergo the 18th surgery in her young life – the 7th on her right knee.  Cowden’s Syndrome carries a high correlation to vascular malformations like the Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) that grew in that knee.  After 6 embolizations to curtail the blood flow, she now deals with the repercussions of having blood lingering in the knee.  There is wearing away of tissue causing the patella to shift.  There is extreme pain, not just in the knee, but all through her body.  Her right foot stopped growing years ago, but the left one kept at it.  Now a full size apart,  different in length and width, her 5’8″ frame feels the repercussions with every step.  She is regularly at the chiropractor in attempts to minimize pain medication and keep her in alignment.  Pain medication caused such GI distress in 2014 that she spent a week in the hospital.  Cellular changes in the esophagus are not good in anyone.  At 10, with a condition that causes tumor growth, it was certainly another wake up call.  We gladly purchase 2 entirely different shoes every time she needs a new pair.  We are grateful she walks.

That is just the tip of what this child has endured in under 14 years on this earth.  She has had her thyroid removed with 19 nodules and suspicion of malignancy at the age of 10.  We still work to balance levels synthetically.  She had had TWO D&C procedures to eradicate suspicious tissue in her uterus.  She has had a lipoma removed from her back and vascular malformations from each palm.  She has lost her gall bladder.  She fights, stands up.  Moves forward, and gets smacked in the face again.

Soon after our diagnoses in 2011, another mom told me Cowden’s Syndrome requires vigilance.  I got it.  I am on it.  All the time.  And with the GRACE of God alone, we are walking the path the best way we can.

We average between 6 and 10 appointments a month between us.  The copays and travel costs are often daunting.  But, we are fortunate.  We have two good jobs my husband and I tell ourselves.  We have good insurance.

We are careful with every morsel of food that enters her body.  We eat largely organic and non-GMO to let her body use all its energy to stay healthy instead of fighting contaminants.  Even at that she is acutely sensitive to almost all gluten, dairy and soy.

We treat as naturally as we can, often incurring bills, as these treatments are rarely covered.  Yet, still we prioritize health because we realize its value.  And we remember how fortunate we are.  We have good insurance.  We have two good jobs.

My daughter is awesome.  And, not just because she is my daughter.  She is a respectful, kind-hearted young lady.  She has the voice of an angel.  She acts in the plays at school.  She reads for fun.  She swims passionately.  She is an honor student.  She talks about her future, and what she will do with her life.  I have no doubt she has the capability to make a real difference in this world, regardless of her career path.  Today however, I am left to wonder.  Will any job ever be enough?

If the AHCA passes the Senate, we will likely be placed in an unregulated “high-risk pool.”  This is not like my car accident.  This is not a minor inconvenience.  This has the potential to decide the course she will have to take with her adult life, as her health issues will not go away.  We have this genetic mutation with all its risks and ramifications for life.  Lifetime caps, potentially re-instituted will likely be met in her 20s, if not before.

There is no way at all to prove where the mutation came from.  I’d ask you to indulge in a theory with me a moment.  My father, a Vietnam Veteran was heavily exposed to Agent Orange as a Marine in 1967-1968.  My mutation was traced to my father.  He never manifested with Cowden’s Syndrome, but somehow passed that mutation on to me.  Wouldn’t it be ironic, if that toxic exposure in the jungles of Vietnam, in an attempt to fight for his country, ultimately led to this condition in his daughter and granddaughter?  Dad died in 2013, pancreatic cancer that may or may not have been Agent Orange related.  I’m glad he is not here to see the reality that our government may be on the cusp of turning it’s back on his family.

I was raised a proud American.  In addition to my Dad, I have three Grandfathers who were World War II Veterans.  I value the principles this country was founded on.  I am grateful for the freedoms I have in this country.

I have not been raised to use the phrase, “that’s not fair,” but I will ask you to consider a few things.

Last night as I watched the news my head spun as I heard elected officials allege that people with pre-existing conditions have not led good lives.  I am not here to compare, but I will tell you our “pre-existing” condition has NOTHING to do with lifestyle choices.  And if you do not like the site this link came from – scroll to the video.  Hear it from his mouth.

http://www.politicususa.com/2017/05/01/gop-congressman-people-pre-existing-conditions-bad-people-pay.html

I can name dozens of people off the top of my head, as close as within my own family, that would be grossly negatively affected by the establishment of “high risk” pools.

Should a cancer survivor, an MS patient, a diabetic, a person with a brain tumor, a rare heart condition,  a genetic mutation, or countless other conditions be forced to make decision on the path their life should take because they are too expensive?  Are they less valuable?  Do they matter less?

Should we be asked to decide whether or not to keep critical screening appointments, or have access to necessary medication blocked by cost?

We have two good jobs, and this whole thing terrifies me.  But, I will not be controlled by that terror.

This post will reach my Senators today.  Social media can be used for good.   I have a voice.  I will not be quiet about this.

Tell your story.  And if you can’t find your own words, share mine.  Let our Senators know that we are real.  We are not numbers.  We are not a cost-cutting measure.  We have faces, and names.  We matter.  We all matter.

We are determined to remain

#beatingcowdens

We will not be silent!

Light Through the Lens…

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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Courtesy of Meghan on a road trip to WV to meet the Marines.  Always being guided by the light…

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

#Beatingcowdens

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Semper Fi Daddy, Always.

04/18/48- 12/4/13

Loved.  Missed.  Remembered forever.

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Here Comes the Sun…

It’s not unusual at all that a classic Beatles song would show up on a classic rock station in the car.  And I could write it off as mere coincidence.  But, there was my Dad this afternoon.  In the car, … Continue reading

“The Few, The Proud…”

I have a pretty big family.  And among that family I boast countless uncles, great uncles, and aunts and cousins too.

But, I have uncles I’ve never met.  They are brothers to my father who died just about 14 months ago.

My father had 7 brothers and a sister who I’ve grown up alongside.  I have cousins galore, and I love them all.

But there is another part of my Dad’s life that only began to become real to me in the weeks preceding his death.  And that is where I began to learn about these other uncles.

And even today, as I sit, on this snowy day, in my office, in Dad’s chair, and with his old champion sweatshirt for warmth, I have plenty of time to reflect.

We spent today home.  Meghan and I were beat up by a schedule that is beyond our capability to maintain for extended periods of time.  We crashed. Hard.  Sometimes it’s easy to ignore this chronic illness we have.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget about this genetic mutation lying in wait to wreak havoc on our lives.  Sometimes we do such a good job pressing on – getting it all done – that we forget we need to pause.

Cowden’s Syndrome doesn’t cause the fatigue, per se.  At least we don’t think so.  But, somewhere in between the messed up blood counts, and the appointments, and MRIs and scans and trips to Manhattan, the fatigue finds its way in.  Add in surgery on the calendar for me in February.  Couple that with the raw determination of an 11-year-old who is intent on conquering the world – and you have focused school work, swim practice, meets, theater practice, and an epic amount of community outreach work as the date closes in on our “JEANS FOR RARE GENES” Fundraiser at the Hilton next month, and suddenly this exhaustion seems easily explained.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/beating-cowdens-first-annual-jeans-for-rare-genes-fundraiser-tickets-14130024283

Suffice it to say, a January snow on a Saturday morning was truly a heaven-sent gift for us.

And so after the laundry is back under control, and the house is returned to reasonable order, I get time to sit with my blog – a place I have missed in the chaos of the last two weeks.

And while I have so many family and friends that I love so much, the reality is that when I had things on my mind – intense medical things.  I would always and without fail use Dad as a sounding board.  He would listen for hours with no judgement passed.  He would offer advice when he could, and respect when he couldn’t.

For large parts of my youth Dad was absent, almost completely.  I didn’t understand, but it was what it was.  Sometime after I got engaged in 1999 our relationship began a lot of repair work.  We talked more and more as the years past, but there was always a detachment.  There was a shield.  Even with us.

He settled on Staten Island finally, about 5 years before he passed away.  He lived with his sister, my aunt, and they were good company for each other.  He reached out.  He made an effort.  Slowly he started to let me in.

I was a psychology and education major in college.  I remember the lessons on PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Immediately so many things made sense, and I saw my father in those lessons.  But the real moment came when he said it himself during one of our long conversations.  “I have something called PTSD…” and there was an opening to a world I had never been allowed into before.

There was a young man – still in his late teens.  A young man who became a Marine.  One who enlisted with a few friends during a war that I knew precious little about until I began my own research.

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My grandfathers, all three of them had fought in World War II and tales of their service were common.  Never in a bragging way, but matter of fact lessons and experiences and stories, told and shared my whole life.

I studied World War II in school.  I learned, probably not enough, but enough to carry on an intelligent conversation.  But, I as a teacher of young children, had precious little knowledge of the horrors that were the Vietnam War.

My Dad who left for that war never came back.  Sure, he survived treacherous battles in the jungle, but he never came back as the boy who grew up on the local streets with his friends and siblings.  He returned a changed man.

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My Dad gave his entire life for his country, even though his service record bills his active service as about 3 years (of that 13 months were in the jungles of Vietnam,)  He came back traumatized, confused, and unsettled.  One of the talks we had after the acknowledgement of the PTSD included, “I spent the first 40 years after I came back thinking everyone else was crazy, and the last 5 thinking maybe it was me.”

Years of wandering allowed him to make “friends” with lots of people in lots of places.  But in reality Dad was a “man’s man.” It was easy for people to trust him and share with him.  Many people who viewed him as friends knew very little about my Dad the man.

Dad with a buddy in Central Park

Dad with a buddy in Central Park

As he got sick Dad authorized the release of his medical and service record to me.  He knew I would pore over every detail and search and question, and hopefully find answers no one else could.  I searched and I read and I researched and I asked, but in the end the course of events was set to be what it was.  During that process though I read, first hand accounts from my father about things I had never known.

I also got to spend more time in his apartment.  And there were three pictures there.  And Dad would talk briefly about those pictures.  And I would wonder about the other men behind those eyes.  And how their lives had turned out.

Thomson, Merkel & Zeppie close up

After we buried Dad in December of 2013 I continued my quest through our local Congressman to get his service records reviewed.  Still in a deep quest for closure I uncovered some photo CDs in Dad’s things.  Most were of photos taken by him.  One was marked Vietnam.  On it were photos not taken by Dad, of Marines who served with my him.  There were pictures of men, pictures of war, and documents that I had never seen.

Not long after that,  a conversation with Holly, a woman who we all love, who shared a long relationship with Dad, produced a contact list for Dad’s Marines.  The names matched the names on the photos and I set about writing letters to each of them.

I sent out letters to each of them, looking for specific information.  I knew my hope was a longshot.  I was looking for recall of events that had taken place over 45 years prior.  I sent out 18 letters.  I expected I’d be lucky if I heard from one of them.  Why would they answer me?

And that is where I learned of the uncles I never met.

Aside from the 2 Marines who had predeceased my Dad I had responses from all of them.  Every single one of them reached out to me, to offer condolences, to tell a story, and to offer support.  I laughed and cried and healed more during that month than I could have imagined possible.  These men, together for a relatively short window of their lives, were deeply bonded as brothers forever.  These were my “other” uncles.

semper fi

And I connected with the men from the photos, “Merck and Zepe” as Dad called them.  To listen to their tales of stories I had never heard, was a gift I could not have imagined.

But there is one.  One “Uncle” who has been there for me this past year in ways far beyond what I could have ever imagined.  “Uncle Alan” had listened to my tears, taught me, comforted me, and supported my endeavors.  His compassion knows no bounds.  He has prayed for my family, asked about my daughter, given me peace on Father’s Day, and has done more for me than I  imagine he will ever know.

he who shed blood with me

Last week I was at the height of exhausted and in my mail was a package from “Uncle Alan.”  In it was the book “90 Minutes in Heaven” as well as a bumper sticker, a T-shirt, and a “US Marine AM-GRUNTS” hat.  I cried.  Tears of gratitude.  For God’s introduction to family I never knew I had.  I cried tears of healing, as I come each day to understand more about my father through these men who call him “brother.”

Dad and I spoke sometimes, towards the end,  about the “whys.”  He wondered why he got to come back and live his life, when his dear friend Tommy was KIA.  He wondered about mine and Meghan’s Cowden’s Syndrome.  He wondered if there could be a connection to his ruthless exposure to Agent Orange.  If somehow that genetic mutation could have arrived in me through him.  He wondered about the possible connection to the cancer that took his life.  We wondered together lots of things we will never know the answer to.

But there  are things I don’t wonder.

Dad’s life had purpose.  It had meaning.  It left impact on everyone he ever loved.  Out of his suffering came great strength, and a deep faith in a good and perfect God.  I don’t wonder for a minute where Dad is now.  I am sure he is flying free in Heaven.

I don’t wonder “how” we got Cowden’s Syndrome.  Cause we have it.  I don’t even wonder “why” we have it.  Because we do.

And who we are develops through our experiences in life.  And while there are some I would have preferred for us not to endure, I don’t wish to change them.  We are learning to be the best people we can be.

And along the way, there are people looking out for us.  “Uncles” we never knew.

Alan signs his letters “S/F” for the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fi” – “Always Faithful”

A permanent addition to my ankle...

A permanent addition to my ankle…

I have not known truer words.

I plan to get to visit “Uncle Alan” in June.  We have lots more to talk about.

Blessing abound if we keep our eyes open.

something to be grateful for

“A tranquil mind is not a little gift…”

Growing up I didn’t spend a lot of time with my father.  Despite some really fun day trips, I didn’t really know him well at all.

My Mom married an incredible guy when I was in high school, and there was this love and support that was there every day.  We got to know each other quickly and well.

And that’s my tale of two fathers.

Ken has been a constant in my life since I was 15.  He loves me like his own, and has treated my as such, without fail, and in all things.  I adore him.

Dad struggled after Vietnam, after horrors that I can only imagine.  He struggled to find his way, and to find the balance.  He married twice, and had three kids, then he spent 10+ years in a long relationship.  He lived all over.  He worked to add his charm and personality to nightclubs all over NY.  He knew how to live on top of the world, and at its bottom.

Several years ago life brought him back local, and for the first time that I could remember, he wasn’t working nights.  We spent more time together.  He came to dance recitals and swim meets for Meghan.  He came to my house for gatherings, and just to be with us.  We liked having him around.  All of us.  Even the dogs.

I got to have two “Dads.”  While one is called Ken and one was called Dad, the terms are synonymous.  Two very different people.   Very lucky girl.

And I used this time to catch up with Dad.  We would talk on the phone a lot, about anything.  Sometimes he would talk.  And when he did, I listened.  When he really talked about old stories I sometimes even took notes.  Because I didn’t want to forget anything.  I don’t think he would have loved that idea.  I suspect he would have thought it wasn’t worth my time.  But, it was.

Lots of times I would talk.  He was a really good listener.  He knew when to interject and when to stay quiet.  He knew when I needed to hear advice, and when I just needed a sympathetic ear.  Sometimes I get overwhelmed.  And I just need to offload, without judgment or solution.  I called every Friday that I grocery shopped.  Sometimes we talked for hours.

And the years saw a transformation as he was being  treated finally for the PTSD that had tormented his every move since the war.  He didn’t talk much about it, but every once in a while… it was my turn to listen carefully.  And I did.  Gratefully.

Then the conversations started to include talk of him being tired.  Looking for energy.  Millions of excuses listed, tried, tossed.  Then there was the jaundice.  And the blockage.  And the pancreatic cancer.  And within about 10 weeks my sister and brother and I said goodbye to our Marine.  “The few, the proud…”  to the very end.

Dad was a philosopher.  Sometimes I was right with him.  Other times we didn’t quite agree.  But, it never mattered.

And in the weeks before his death I became his healthcare proxy – because I do healthcare all the time.  And I got his medical records,and put them in a binder, and Dad laughed because he somehow knew I would – and so did my brother and sister,  and my siblings and I took him to the fancier hospital.  And we asked some questions.  And we talked a lot.  But, it was done.  In the end it was just time for it to be the end.

But I was not, and am not ready to let go.  Maybe that’s unhealthy.  Or maybe that’s keeping the memory alive.  Whatever.

Dad, stopping by?

Dad, stopping by?

It took weeks to clean out his small apartment.  I touched every paper.  I read, and sorted, and filed.  I made more binders, and file folders.  I shredded only with great care at my own dining room table.  And as I sorted I found little scraps of paper.  Little random thoughts.  Notes.  Scribbles of Dad’s.  So I gathered them all together and I taped them onto large sheets and I saved them as a PDF for my brother and sister.  And I laminated the originals for me.  And sometimes on quiet nights, when my mind is busy and I can’t sleep, I peek through those notes.  Almost like a chat with Dad.

Tonight I flipped open to the words, “A tranquil mind is not a little gift.”

And I paused.  And I smiled.  Dad’s mind was not always tranquil.  But in the end it was even through physical torment.  He had lived enough emotional torment to know “A tranquil mind is not a little gift.”

I am a worrier.  Not a shock to those who know me even a little.  But, also not unfair, all things considered.

This was a light week here for doctors.  Only 2 appointments and one argument with a disrespectful office manager that led to a formal complaint.  Oh, and one random really large pathology bill that was clearly not done right.  The appointments were fine.  One was annoying in the leaving at 7 for an 8:30 to be taken at 10:40 to get home around 2, but all things considered it was smooth.  The other was with the gastro doctor who wants another visit to the ENT to peek down at the esophagus.  (If only I could get a scheduler to do these things…) And the fight of course was with my doctor.  The office staff of a vascular surgeon for a procedure I definitely need soon.  I’m in the market for a new vascular surgeon.

But since we had some time, and we were looking for some light entertainment, we replaced the bay window in the front of the house.

So after a slightly tumultuous, but altogether fun trip to Disney, we returned very late Tuesday, slept most of Wednesday.  Did lots of laundry, sent my husband to help out at my sister’s on Thursday, and Friday got ready for the new window.

Not that we WANTED a new window.  We just bought the other one 14 years ago when we moved into the house.  But about 2 years ago there was this little black spot that kept growing.  And we called the company to look at it, but it turned out there was a class action lawsuit we had to participate in and I filled out miles of paper and it took almost a year to get someone to the house.  By the time they came the little black spot was large and clearly water related.  So the nice man took pictures and the conversation was about replacing the center of the window.  Until they called the next day and said the black spot was in the wrong places, and the window would have to be replaced.  But since the window was over 10 years old we’d get a percentage off the cost for the window and installation.  Um, well that price was so wild we bought the window ourselves.  And Ken and Felix and his friend John got it to our house, and finally Saturday all the planets aligned to put it in.

It was supposed to be a half day job.  It was supposed to fit right in.  And Felix, and Ken, and John, and Bobby, and Brendan worked their bottoms off.  But, there was some cutting of walls, and by the time it was all back together on the outside it was well past 11 pm.  That wasn’t the inside.

bay window

bay window 2

I like the house neat.  Actually I need the house neat.  And you can tell me whatever you want about how it doesn’t always happen like that, or I have to give it up.  But I can’t and I won’t.  Because it’s a control thing.  I know it.  I’ll own it.  I can not control Cowden’s Syndrome, or any aspect of why Meghan feels cruddy so much of the time.  I can not control random illnesses or natural disasters, or unscheduled hospitalizations and surgeries, or any other obstacle that is going to come into my way.  But, through much experience I have found it markedly easier to handle every single crisis with a clean house.  Something about having order in the home, gives me some sense of peace when the waters are very rocky.

So, at 11 on Saturday night I looked around and began to freak a bit.  That’s when we decided to paint.  It was time anyway, and the house was on its ear so to speak.  So I prepped the room and there was paint.  And the living room and dining room are back together, but the hall needs a coat too… and you get the idea.

living room chaos

Not to mention that a few weeks ago Meghan began the move from her room on our floor to the upstairs of our cape.  There are two rooms with that peaked roof and lots of floor space.  (There have to be some perks to being an only!) She has a bedroom, and a room with a desk, and all the things she loves.  It has taken 4 weeks to clean out and move her, but we finished today.  And as I sat in her room I cried a little.  I remember distinctly being 9 months pregnant and crying in that room (see a pattern?) I was so scared.  I was right to be scared.  Some scary things have happened in the last 11 years.   This time I know the move upstairs will be far less painful than the one she’s sure to make just a few short summers from now.

megs empty room

It was a good time to move.  Junior High starts in just a few days really.  A whole new school.  A new chapter.  Turning point.  And as she decided what to keep, toss, and donate, her personality began to shine through.  With just a few pictures left to hang, she has created an atmosphere that is representative of her.  Now to keep it clean and clutter free… 🙂

But nothing is without event, and there is no time when I am fully at rest, as I frantically tossed my flip-flops off when I heard her cry out,” I NEED YOU!”  I arrived at the top of the stairs to find her crouched over grabbing a leg that has been giving her trouble for days.  One too many trips up the stairs, or on the floor sorting things?  Who knows.  Just like the headache that’s been around one day too many.  Sinuses, allergies?  God, I hope so.

At some point I’ll have to go to sleep tonight.  And tomorrow will be for more appointment making, and dealing with random bills.  The side of the house is littered with trash.  There are 10 bags being donated Saturday morning.  The clutter and dirt are disappearing simultaneously – with LOTS and LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of work.  But my sanity is being restored.

And while this is far from how I would have chosen to spend this week – so close to the end of summer, Meghan got some time in with some friends so it was in fact a success.

So much flux.  Moving Dads things in earlier in the year jostled the basement.  Moving Meghan upstairs caused some purging.  And slowly everything is coming together as it always seems to.

I think of how many times I would have called my Dad this week.  The number is too high to count.  I miss him every day.

He told me once to keep writing, to just keep letting it all out no matter what I thought of it.  So I do.  And I think about how he would have respected my need for order, while encouraging me not to sweat the small stuff.

Tonight I think calls for a glass of wine, and some reflection.  Gratitude for an almost “normal” week with largely “normal” problems.  Feeling grateful that my mind, while always a flutter, is somewhat tranquil, and…

“A tranquil mind is not a little gift…”

tranquil mind

Thanks for the chat Dad.  I miss you. A whole lot.

 

Happy Birthday Dad

** I rarely go off the topic of Cowden’s Syndrome, but this is just so necessary.  Tomorrow April 18, 2014 my Dad would have been 66.**

Dear Dad,

It’s hard to imagine a year has gone by since you sat at my dining room table.  We shared pizza, and red wine, and ice cream cake.  And you, who had eaten in some of the most gourmet restaurants around, were so gracious, and thrilled to enjoy a simple dinner with Meghan and Felix and I in honor of your birthday.

You even tolerated coffee from my Keurig with a warm smile.

I still remember that night as if it was yesterday.

dad birthday 2013b

 

Make a wish!

Make a wish!

"Don't take out the knife!"

“Don’t take out the knife!”

And here I sit  a year later… in awe of all that has gone on.  Stunned that you aren’t here to celebrate.

Thinking back your year is proof positive that we need to live each moment with the knowledge there is no guarantee of tomorrow.

But, you knew that.  You learned that lesson many years ago as a young Marine in the jungles of Vietnam.  Then, you lived it.  And you learned, and you grew, and you learned some more.  But, you lived each day without malice in your heart, and with the never ending desire to do the best you could with what you had where you were.

We didn’t always have it quite right, Dad.  There were years where you weren’t around too much, and I missed you.  And I’ll admit to even spending some of those years a bit angry.  But, I grew up.

And Mom, she did the right thing.  I got to work through it all, and come out better and closer to you in the end.  Heck. I made out like a bandit, because when Mom married Ken, I got to enjoy all the benefits of two Dads.  Not a replacement – either one, but two!  What a lucky girl…

When you came back to Staten Island a few years ago I was thrilled.  Now, a mile away from my house, I got to see you more than I even had before.  You got to see Meghan.  And I watched a relationship blossom between you.

Dad and Meg recital 2013

You were there for her dance recitals, and some swim meets.  You watched her on days off from school.  You taught her chess.

You got some time to get to know her during years when life had kept us apart.  I felt so much closure.  So much love.

You smiled all the time when you were with her, and that smile is what she carries with her each day even now.

Even when we didn’t see each other, we spoke.  A lot.  I loved bouncing ideas off of you, and even when we didn’t agree, I loved hearing your point of view.  You always HEARD me.  You never JUDGED me. You listened intently to mine and Meghan’s medical issues, and I valued your perspective.   I looked forward to talking to you.  Especially on the cell phone (hands free of course!) on my way home from Whole Foods.  Your voice always gave me energy after a long night.

Except for that one night.  When I called you on a Friday from the road back from Whole Foods, and you told me you were in ICU.  Stunned, I told you I’d see you in the morning.  You said I didn’t “have” to come.

We spent a lot of time together those days as they ran test after test.  You were getting edgy.  A caged bird.

I took you home after the answers stayed sketchy.  But I was worried.

You who could walk miles.  You who could work countless hours.  You who was always busy.  You were tired.

Your skin told the tale of jaundice.  Your eyes were tired.

Meghan asked and asked to see you.  You put her off.  You wanted to feel better.

Then on Halloween we got a 5 minute visit…

dad and meg halloween 2013

And even though she was worried about you, that hug carried her for quite some time.

There were appointments.  Back and forth.  I was so grateful to be able to take you.  And I was so thankful for the time we had – to talk about everything and anything.

We had some easy conversations, and we had some of the hardest conversations I will ever have in my life.  But I am grateful for every one of them.

You see I always loved you – but not until those last months did I really get to know you.

“I always wanted to exclude you from my pain, never my love.  But the two became one in the same.”

And in that moment there was peace.  You spoke what I knew.  In very few words you elaborated on the Marine who returned from Vietnam, forever changed.  You told me about the hurt, and the heartache, and the fear.  I learned later the scope of the losses you suffered through, and the horrors you experienced.  No wonder.  No wonder at all.

The months got all garbled up.  There was Shane, in to stay for a while, at exactly the right time.  There was Lisa, at the ready to drive anywhere we needed to be.  your “team” converged, got our acts together, discovered our skill sets and became unstoppable.

Road Trips to Columbia Presbyterian.  Gut wrenching diagnostic testing.  Your strength – surreal.  Your focus – laser sharp.

You were back to survival mode.  A Marine in the jungle.  We were in awe.

That last week at the VA was torture, and therapy all at the same time.  You had made your wishes clear.  We knew the mission.  We just didn’t like it one bit.

marine's mission

And when the angels grabbed hold of you on December 4th, and we knew that you were finally able to rest, there was a painful peace among us.

The days of your funeral were surreal.

The days after it just as intense.  So many people had to be notified.  Somewhere in your 6,000 contacts we found the strength to reach out to those who loved you so.

Perhaps if I had one wish, one regret- it would be that you didn’t know how much you were loved.  By your family, and by those whose lives you touched on a daily basis.

You changed people.  Your impact was intense.

You suffered too much Dad, with the physical, and emotional traumas of a war fought as a young man.  For 45 years you bore burdens too intense for the strongest to process.  You were tired.

You told me once about Cowden’s Syndrome to never let it define Meghan and I.  You told me to listen to my heart and my gut, just as much, if not more than I listened to the doctors.  No worries Dad.  I haven’t forgotten.

I am sad that the cancer reached up and snatched you away – with no warning.  I am at least in that way grateful for the warning system that is Cowden’s Syndrome.  But, don’t worry Dad… I will never forget.

You know in the months after you died I reached out to your Marines.  The few you spoke a little about, and the ones I had never heard of before.  There were photos, and then names, and then long conversations.  They, each of them a gentleman, called me upon hearing of your death.  With some I laughed.  With some I cried.  With all I felt a bond.  They were also your brothers, each one.  I learned the meaning of “Semper Fi” in those conversations.  More than 45 years later they wanted to know what they could do.  And they meant it.

You would be so proud to know.  You are remembered.  Not as a saint, but as a good man.  A man who made mistakes, and owned up to them.  A man who loved, deeply.  A man who desired to make the world better.  A man who taught by living.  A man who saw beauty through his camera lens.

You made a difference; to your Marine Brothers, to your parents, to your children, to your grandchildren, to your siblings, to your nieces and nephews, to the friends form all walks of life who loved you so, to the people you worked for, to the people you worked with, and to the people who worked for you.

We played music the day before you died.  You smiled.  We laughed.  That is the spirit I hold close in my heart – even through my tears.

Dad Marine shirt

Dad Washington summer 2013

Happy Birthday in Heaven.  Give Angel Meghan a kiss for me.

Semper Fi Daddy.  Always faithful.  Until we meet again.

All my love,

Lori

marine