Tuesday, March 29, 2016

No, I'm not having more kids

I was out to lunch with my twin boys the other day and an older gentleman commented, "Two Boys! Mighty! It's about time you gave them a sister!" To which I laughed and said, "Nah, they're enough." If he had stopped at that, I probably would have forgotten all about his comment, as I find people are generally well-meaning when they try to engage you in conversation. I'm a mom of twins, and I've heard the seemingly standard "social script" of encountering a mom of twins over and over again, from, "Are they twins?" (fair question), to "Do twins run in your family?" (yes, but that's not how I got them), to "Are they natural?" (this question, thankfully, only gets asked once in a blue moon). But he broke this social script when gave his opinion (well-meaning as he was) about the number of children I should have. He went on: "Children are a gift from God and if you were My Wife..." Fill in the blank however you'd like, but he said something a tad inappropriate and at that point I started tuning him out. I have a general rule about trying to make people feel comfortable IRL (in real life- this rule oddly doesn't apply on the Internet), so I handled this well on the outside even though I was like "SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP" on the inside (and thankfully my kids are too young to really understand what he said). Thankfully, his lunchtime companion arrived and he turned his attention to his friend instead of telling me to reproduce.

Before discovering I had a giant tumor growing in my pancreas I might have told you I wanted to have another child. Might. It depended heavily on that particular day: if I had slept the night before, if my children were being particularly cute, if there were winds in the east, mist coming in, etc. It wasn't a decision my husband and I had definitively arrived at, as the twins were just shy of two and had tired us out over the past year (ages 12-24 months with twins is HARD). But there were days we would contemplate the idea of another and try to convince ourselves that a singleton baby had to be easier- didn't it? About the time my twins turned 21 months, I started feeling sick. By the 24 month mark, I knew I had something severely wrong in my body. So the more children question was put on hold for diagnosis and medical treatment, which happened to be a solid pseudopapillary neoplasm (SPN) that was evicted by a Whipple procedure.

Fast forward a year and some, and you have me sitting in McDonald's with a perfect stranger telling me to be fruitful and multiply. I didn't need to give this stranger my medical history, but I thought perhaps I should write about his socially inappropriate behavior. Not to tell you to stop making comments about a person's family planning (that should go without saying), but to reflect on how my tumor changed my plans, specifically in regards to the more children question.

My tumor is exceedingly rare, but there are a few things that medical literature seems to agree on. Most people who are unlucky enough to be diagnosed with SPN are female (about 90%) and young (during the reproductive years, so are quite possibly related to female hormones). Though I have been told by my oncologist and my obstetrician that the risk of reoccurance shouldn't interfere with my potential desire to grow my family, I'm not sure I could handle being pregnant and wondering if this will somehow restart the any lingering tumor cells. There shouldn't be any lingering tumor cells, but I'd be lying if I said that hasn't crossed my mind. Additionally, my body was put through the wringer with the Whipple surgery. I lost some essential pieces of my digestive system and malabsorption of nutrients is a real risk for me presently and in the future. Who knew a duodenum was so important? There are a small amount of people who have gone on to have healthy pregnancies and babies after a Whipple surgery, but as of right now, I don't plan on being one of them. 

Being a parent of two boys is an incredible experience. I am sure that joy (and that pain-in-the-ass-ness of having children) would only grow with more children, but we're fine with being a family of four. We are a two-on-two team, man-to-man defense, if you will. We have even gone on an airplane and haven't been totally embarrassed. I share this as MY current stance on the subject, and I in no way want to impose my opinion on anyone else's reproductive plans. You don't want to have kids? Great! You want to have 6? Okay! 

Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. It's a life for which I am very thankful. If someday I get that maternal urge, I might change my mind (but don't count on it), but in all likelihood, I'll probably just get a puppy. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Symbolism/The year of the owl

Thanks to fabulous English teachers, my high school American Literature teacher in particular, I have a pretty firm grasp on the purpose of symbolism in literature. I read The Scarlet Letter my junior year of high school, and though I haven´t picked up the book since (nearly 20 years ago- eek!), I still have vivid memories of the seemingly endless discussions of symbolism that accompanied the reading of the book. I remember the behind-the-teacher's-back discussions with friends about whether or not Hawthorne intended all of that darn symbolism or if we were reading too much into his words (yes, this is really what nerdy kids talk about- Mom, you really shouldn't have worried about me). The Great Gatsby is another American lit read chock-full of symbolism, and upon multiple readings as an adult, I have decided that Fitzgerald intended every last bit of symbolism to be interpreted as such in that Great American Novel. I do not intend to write you a literary analysis of either or any text, however.

Symbols are everywhere, from the obvious heart to the less-obvious infinity symbol, to the even-less obvious semi-colon (not used as a punctuation mark). I recall seeing the semi-colon as a non-punctuation symbol for the first time on social media; some people get semi-colon tattoos as a powerful symbol of hope. 

Several weeks ago I revealed that I stepped outside of who I thought I was (before surgery) and got a tattoo. The design presented itself before I even considered getting a tattoo. I saw a picture of something similar to what is now inked on my right shoulder and I thought, "Wow, that needs to be part of me." Only then did I consider getting a tattoo. If you've been reading, you've seen my partial tattoo reveal. Well, here is the whole darn thing:

Yep, I'm a librarian with a book tattoo. This book really comes to life, no? Those pages are really flying! If you know me IRL (in real life) you probably couldn't come up with a more perfect tattoo for me. If you know me IRL, you've probably already seen this. Note the final bird isn't just a nondescript bird silhouette, it's an owl. This is my nod to my Harry Potter Obsession. The owl is Hedwig. Right about now some of you are chanting "Nerd! Nerd! Nerd!" or wondering why I defaced my right arm like so. Well, yes, I'm a nerd. And I happen to like my tattoo, and I don't really care if you don't! It's easily covered up for job interviews and public photo ops! Not that I really care in either of those situations, either!

So, I have a symbol tattooed to my arm. I love it. Would I have considered this 18 months ago before my illness? I don't know, honestly. That's not me anymore. I can't separate out my illness from who I've become. While it's doubtful I'll ever be thankful for having had a giant pancreatic tumor, I appreciate that I'm here and that I have the freedom to choose at least some of my scars (the tattoo, duh). 

When I see it my tattoo, I really do see it as a work of art. It is the one and only scar that I got to choose. (I have at least 6 from my Whipple.) However, there's this fantastic book with a really awesome raven silhouette on the cover... 

Saturday, March 26, 2016


Here in the Midwest it sleeted huge snowflakes this past week. While we didn't have measurable snowfall, we certainly had some snow. I've lived here my whole life, so March snow is to be expected, April snow isn't surprising, and May snow, while uncommon, does happen. Many regional folk have a love/hate relationship with snow. The first season's snowfall is usually met with delight (as long as it's at least November), a White Christmas is preferred, and by mid-January, shoveling and becomes tiresome. I've never had a really strong opinion about the snow. It is simply really cold solid water. It happens. It's not my favorite to drive in and I definitely prefer 70 degrees and sunny, but I don't routinely long for a different climate.

February 1st, 2015, Chicago was gifted with a blizzard. It was also Super Bowl Sunday. I remember this day vividly. My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was behind me. I had already pulled out my own NG tube (for the 2nd time). I still felt like hell, but I wanted desperately to go home. The only visitor I had all day was from my surgeon that snowy morning. By the time the Super Bowl started, blizzard status had been achieved and the surgical telemetry unit on the 7th floor was a very quiet place. I stood at the wall-sized windows of the waiting/visiting area and stared at the seemingly tiny snow-covered cars below in the parking lot of Lutheran General Hospital. The roads were blanketed in snow. Travel would have been difficult at best. My interest in the Super Bowl was close to zero, but to feel some human connection (most people I know were home watching the Super Bowl) I turned the waiting room TV to the game. I was alone in the large room. Being at a hospital during a blizzard is BORING. It's always boring, but when you are able to walk around and eat yogurt and lemon ice, boredom levels shoot through the roof. This was my thirteenth day in the hospital. Eleven of the prior twelve days had been downright miserable, but as I was beginning to feel more human my impatience, loneliness, and boredom grew. 

I did go home two days later, which was amazing. While there were nights shortly after arriving home I felt so terrible and scared I almost wanted to be back in the hospital under the watchful care of nurses, I am grateful everyday to be healthy, free from pain, and at home. 

As the snow fell this past week, I was reminded of my time longingly staring outside at the snow out of the 7th floor hospital window. It so happens I was picking up my children from daycare during the brief snowfall, which is very nearly the opposite of hospital lonesomeness. I am thankful for each new season and even springtime snows, for early in this journey I wasn't sure if my life was going to be cut short by my pancreatic tumor. Over a year has passed since my surgery, and I'm grateful to simply be. I've appreciatively watched my children grow, learn, and change for another year. I marvel at the change of the season and note the significance that I'm still here. I might even say my indifference towards snow has turned to awe, as the significance of yet another season for snow means I'm around to see it. I still prefer 70 and sunny, but I will welcome the snows of winter (and spring!) each new year. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Things not written/Karma

I have several half-written blog posts that I have yet to finish. I was talking to a fellow blogger/friend who said that those are the posts that are crap, that aren't worth publication. She's pretty much right. I wrote one scathing paragraph about karma (about how I don't believe in it) that might grace these virtual pages one day, but I also have a draft I entitled "You get what you deserve." Contradictions. To be fair, "You get what you deserve" was not about karma, but still. I can't proclaim that karma is crap and then write about getting what one deserves. 

Oh, what the heck. I'll share my diatribe on karma here, in the likely event I never go back to that piece:

Karma is crap. Think before you mention karma to someone who has greatly suffered. To tell someone they deserve a hardship because of something they have or have not done is an awful thing to say. No one deserves a giant pancreatic tumor. No one deserves cancer. No one deserves to have their life cut short my declining health or a tragic accident. Does the speeding jerk who cut you off deserve to get pulled over? Sure. But call that consequences, don't call it karma. To be clear, no one directly said I deserved a tumor. But to preach "karma" is an insult.

So, that's how I feel about karma. (And that's a conclusion a fifth grader would write. At least I didn't open with a question. "Did you know...")

Now that I've established my feelings on karma and that I don't always finish what I start (ahem, blog posts), what about getting what you deserve? Well, that post was crap. Sometimes you do get what you deserve, but like I said, I attribute that to consequences, not karma. My inner teacher voice is telling me to point out that consequences are both positive and negative. But I also need to point out that in this example, I am attaching consequences to conscious choices. 

Bad stuff happens to people. Period. Do not try to justify a tragedy by thinking it was somehow deserved. You will not convince me that I got my tumor because I "deserved" it,  unless you somehow weave the words "gene mutation" into your explanation, like "The mutated gene thought you deserved a pancreatic tumor." Life handed me lemons (actually, the tumor was more of the size of a single small orange). So, I've made the choice to make lemonade. I'm still working out the recipe for my lemonade, but it somewhat includes writing clich├ęd metaphors whilst sharing my life experiences. Someday, I hope to reach more people and use my experiences for the greater good, like promoting pancreatic cancer awareness (which hopefully leads to more funding which hopefully leads to medical advances). I will keep trying to make lemonade, as life does not discriminate when it comes to handing out lemons.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Surgical changes: Those who can, teach.

Most people, thankfully, think thoughts that are never said out loud. I can safely admit I'm one of those people who (usually) thinks before I open my mouth. I'd be surprised if you told me you've never encountered someone who seemingly spews their thoughts without putting it through some sort of social filter, asking him/herself "Should I really be saying this?" before orating. "Oh great," you're thinking, "this is about to turn into some sort of political tirade." Nope, I'm not going to go there. I am well aware that this is primary season and I do have political opinions, but this is not my platform for sharing them. Well, I'm about to write about my fierce commitment to public education, so if you consider that political (no, I will not be talking about vouchers or charter schools or taxes), I don't apologize, but feel free to stop reading.

I've already established that I'm not the same person I was pre-illness. To bring new readers up to speed, I recently had major, major surgery to remove a "low grade malignancy" from my pancreas (a large portion of my pancreas got the boot in addition to other digestive organs most of you still house in your bodies). I've dubbed my illness a "sort-of cancer," as it wasn't quite benign, though in the world of pancreatic cancers I got the super rare, relatively "good" and curable variety. My one year follow-up CT scan revealed "surgical changes" (duh), and nothing more tumor-related. 

I remember 48-hour-post-discharge appointment with my surgeon like it was last week, never mind that it was actually 13 months ago. My surgeon, the wonderful, kind, talented, and handsome Dr. Fabio Sbrana told me and my husband that the day he ordered my discharge papers (a Tuesday), he had told the nurses that I'd be back, meaning, he didn't think I was physically ready to go home and would be re-admitted, but he let me go because I was BEGGING to end my two-week stay at hotel "Surgical Telemetry Unit." But, that Thursday I walked, upright, mind you, into his office probably looking like hell, but looking ten times better than I had in the hospital. My determination to be home and healing kept me at home and healing. At this follow-up visit my main questions were about bile (if you're curious, ask, but I will spare the non-curious the green details), what I could eat, and my physical restrictions. I could eat pretty much anything I could stomach, and I didn't have any physical restrictions. Yes, I could pick up my giant two-year-olds (hallelujah!) a mere 16 days after my 11-hour-surgery, and, in fact, I could go running! I laughed, as I'm not a runner, but thanks, doc, for those "surgical changes" that turned me into a runner. Joking aside, his point was I couldn't do any physical damage to my surgery with physical activity, and in order to heal, I needed physical activity. What wasn't mentioned were the emotional repercussions of undergoing such a traumatic event. I've mentioned my resulting depression and anxiety, but that's well-managed. I've explored how this experience has allowed me to admit my like of Phil Collins, Lorna Doones, and tattoos. Those who see me everyday (who knew me before my illness) have noticed yet another change, the weakening of my "filter." I'll joke and say Dr. Sbrana removed my social filter along with half my pancreas (and somehow made me a runner), but this change is all emotional resulting from the physical.

When I publicly admitted I got a tattoo (gasp!), I assured my reader that this change came about, in part, because I don't really care what you think of me anymore. While the weakening of my filter is related, it's not because I don't care about offending others, it's because there are things I DO care so much about that I speak up much more often than I used to. 

If you know me IRL (in real life) you know that I've been a public school teacher for the past 10 years. You might also know that my great-grandparents were CPS (Chicago Public School) Teachers in the 1930s through the 1960s. Several of my aunts and uncles are teachers. My sister-in-law is a teacher. I have firefighter relatives, my father helps run a large, successful park district, my grandfather retired from military, and I'm married to a public defender. Public service is kind of a family thing. 

I work in a struggling school district (as defined by the great state of Illinois), but I'm a proud supporter of my school district. We don't suck, really. We're not unsafe, really. We have some star educators, really. The wider I cast my social net, I've realized that some people think poorly of my school district for reasons beyond our struggling test scores (I won't even go there...). Admittedly, the community which houses my school district is a very diverse place, racially, socially, and economically, but I consider this an asset rather than a hindrance. Most of my coworkers have been in social situations where someone bashes our school district, sometimes unknowingly an employee is in his/her midst, but sometimes knowingly. My first reaction when this happens is to speak up. I don't teach where I teach because I can't get a job in a "better" school district. I don't live where I live (I live in district, people!) because I can't afford to live elsewhere. I believe in what I do, and I believe in where I do it. I go to work every day as a small attempt to better the lives of children through education, my small contribution to this life. I bring my own children to daycare rather than stay at home with them because I really want to make their world a better place, and for me that means teaching and defending public education and public school students by way of example. (Not to mention they drive me nuts. I say that with love, of course.) 

Like all teachers, I'm not a fan of the expression, "Those who can't, teach." This is a horrible, horrible thing to say about people who spend their minutes, hours, days, weeks, months (even the summer ones!), and years teaching our children. I teach because I can, and I teach because I want to. I teach for my kids, even though they aren't in school yet. I don't apologize for my increasing willingness to speak up for public education. My surgeon told me I can now run, but I have yet to do so. Though he didn't prepare me for the emotional changes after surgery, this conviction to continue to do what I do (teach!) and talk about it (and defend, with evidence, when necessary) is a welcome change. After all, these guys are pretty worth my efforts (aren't they cute?).