Taking the Long Way

A celebration of late bloomers.

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

The Big C

with one comment

I’m not that in to writing my blog this week…so forgive me this one. I’m warning you that it’s not a particularly happy one. It doesn’t have links or fun pictures or cartoons. I just can’t bring myself…

Instead of thinking about songs or food or jobs or clothes, I have been reading blogs from women undergoing treatment for uterine cancer. Some people whisper that word – cancer – as if saying it lightly will mitigate its power. Unfortunately, whispers give it strength. As far as I’m concerned, we need to say it like any other word so we strip it of its power to bring us to our knees.

I am heartened and heartbroken in equal measure reading the words of these other women, as I search for clues to what lies ahead. I feel more like a lazy Susan, though: scared, fighting mad, hopeful, sad, wounded, weepy, peaceful, pissed.

I am trying to get up-to-speed on Uterine Serous Papillary Carcinoma. My mother was diagnosed with this type of cancer on Wednesday of this week, so I’m learning an entirely new vocabulary, all about CA125 counts, taxol chemotherapy, radiotherapy, abdominal washes, and staging.

Mom’s cancer is Stage III. (There are only four stages.) She has one tumor in her uterus and another near her stomach. We’ll know after her surgery in two weeks whether it has metastasized.

I have learned that it is incurable, but can be treated as a chronic disease. This particular cancer has a high rate of recurrence.

Mom and I have held some odd conversations this week, about life, death and belief. But, we’ve found room for laughter amid talk about wishes, regrets, and hospice – should that need arise. Instead of working on homework, I’ve been writing her Last Will and Testament, Living Will and Durable Power of Attorney.

This is one of those times I hate being the writer in the family.

Advertisements

Written by The Long Way

May 22, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Posted in Family

Tagged with ,

Extraordinary mom

leave a comment »

I just finished watching a special on OWN whereby Julia Roberts interviewed Christiane Amanpour, Hillary Clinton and other extraordinary women, who also happen to be mothers.

I loved hearing their stories, especially how Christiane confronted her fears about motherhood while still trying to tell the stories of people in war-torn regions of the world. And of Hillary planning Chelsea’s wedding  while trying to broker peace in the Middle East. So very human, while accomplishing some extraordinary things.

I would like you to meet my own extraordinary mom. Here she is.

Her name is Barbara Lee. My grandmother called her Babs, and I call her that when I’m being cheeky. I love this picture of us, taken in 1986 on Easter Sunday. I can see so much of her in me.

I take that legacy seriously. Although I inherited my father’s brashness and hubris, she bequeathed me her humanity.

There are three lessons she offered that shaped who I am today:

1. When she and my stepfather divorced when I was 10 years old, she had no job, suffered from agoraphobia, and we had no place to live.

We moved to a small town outside of Fort Worth to be near her parents, and she signed on to a temporary position with Tarrant County. She found us a small apartment, where all three of us – mom, brother and me – shared a bathroom.

We desperately needed new school clothes, growing as we were. She went to Dillard’s Department Store, and at that time no one would give single women credit of their own. She spoke to the clerk, then the manager, then the regional representative, telling each of them she wasn’t leaving until she received credit. Just before the doors closed that night, she got her own credit card with $200 on it. She paid it all back in two months.

2. We were driving through the Northside neighborhood in Fort Worth – a tough area filled with gangs. In the doorway of a flop house, we saw a man asleep on the stairs with a liter wrapped in a brown paper bag. She stopped the car and told my brother and I that something had broken that man’s spirit. She then told us that we had been given a lot in life, even though it didn’t always feel like that.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” she said. “Do you understand what I mean?”

Sort of, we said.

“Get an education. You’re smart kids,” she answered. “Then figure out how to lift people like that up.”

3. A woman around my mother’s age lived behind the DIY car wash near her neighborhood. My mother often stopped at the KFC near the car wash, and always wondered what happened in her life. Mom would buy two meals, and took the other woman food on a few occasions. When I asked her about it, Mom said, “That could have just as easily been me.”

Here she is with my nephew and one of my nieces, holding a starfish I brought her from Miami as a Christmas gift. This is my mom’s favorite role – grandmother.

On April 7, she turned 67 years old. She will retire from Tarrant County this year after more than 30 years. She kept a roof over our heads, food on our table and managed to instill a love of lifelong learning in her kids.

We have been planning her move to Savannah, so that we can finally have some fun together. One of her greatest joys is walking on the beach.

But, those plans are on hold right now.

Last week, she told me that she was diagnosed the week before with uterine cancer. This week, she meets with an oncologist to learn what’s next. Surely surgery, maybe chemotherapy. Probably lots more tests before we really know what to expect.

So, instead of planning her retirement party, we’re taking it day-to-day. This Mother’s Day has a bit of a different timbre, a sense of uncertainty and a bittersweet taste.

But I’m quite hopeful that in this space next year, I’ll have a new story to tell about us finding a sand dollar or a beautiful scallop in the sands along Tybee’s north shore. The taste of salt in the air, a bit of wind at our backs.

Written by The Long Way

May 8, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Valedictory

leave a comment »

One year ago today, Brian and I drove 18 hours straight through from Savannah to Fort Worth. My father’s hospice nurse Kendra had called earlier that morning and said simply, “We may not even have 72 hours.”

We had been waiting for this call every day for several weeks – almost a year, really.

In May 2008, BioBob (my nickname for him)  was stricken by something called Guillain-Barré Syndrome (gee-on-bar-eh). It sounds like a French wine, the way it fills the mouth and lands on the tongue before evaporating.

I had no clue what GBS was, so I googled it and learned that it is a rare autoimmune disorder affecting one in 100,000 people. It causes the body’s disease-fighting mechanisms to attack the peripheral nervous system – the branches of the brain-spinal column that control movement and touch. Respiratory or gastrointestinal infections can trigger it. BioBob had suffered from a persistent sinus infection that wouldn’t go away.

It causes weakness, tingling in the arms and upper body, and can interfere with breathing, blood pressure and heart rate. It can cause temporary paralysis. It is rarely fatal.

When he first went into the hospital, I was still able to talk with him. He was sitting up in bed, reading the newspaper and trying to work on a land deal for oil and natural gas leases. His words were hard to understand, slurred as if he’d had a stroke.  He was more annoyed than scared. He said something about getting out of “this place tomorrow.” I laughed and thought, typical Bob, 10-feet tall and bullet proof.

We never spoke again.

The next day, Bob suffered cardiac arrest and was without oxygen for at least four minutes, maybe longer. It would have been more merciful had the attending nurse not revived him.  Since then, my marathon-running, Hotter-than-Hell-racing, six-foot-four father had laid in suspended animation in a nursing home. Not here. Not there. Nowhere.

****

BioBob and I never were much good at actual talking. We bonded over tequila.

One night I ran into him at a ramshackle blues bar near downtown Fort Worth while I was out with friends from college. He regaled us with the story of the night in the ‘60s when he and his pals drove to Laredo to buy a bottle of Mescal. A friend told him how I was the only one fearless enough to get the worm when a guy brought a bottle to the Lambda Chi party.

He nodded toward me, as if I’d finally earned some measure of respect. “She’s daddy’s girl,” he seemed to say.

Daddy's girl. BioBob and Baby Amy. The only picture I have of us together.

I had longed for this kind of acknowledgment, but it still came as a surprise. He and my mom divorced before I turned one. I didn’t meet him again until I was 10, when my mom, brother and I ran into him at Crystal’s Pizza Parlor. He wore a white Stetson hat, work boots, and pressed Wranglers.  And I remember looking up and up, because he loomed so large. We looked alike – long oval face, sharp crooked nose, straight dark hair – except his eyes were grey-blue.

He had drifted in and out after that meeting, usually around the holidays.

It was only when I grew into an adult that he seemed to want to know me.  He would ask my advice on some project he was working on, inviting me into his world, trying to connect with mine. But, I’m not sure he really knew how to talk to me as his daughter.

I moved to Miami not long after that night at the blues bar. He missed my going away party, but I can’t remember if I told him when it was. I usually relied on my grandmother to relay messages.

****

When I finally arrived at the nursing home, I hesitated in the doorway and surveyed the shrunken landscape of my father. Such a colorful figure, he now appeared translucent. He blended into the bright white walls and gray tiles.

A young woman dressed in teal scrubs came over to me. Without looking at her tag, I knew she was Kendra.

“I think he has been waiting for you,” she said in the gentlest voice I had ever heard. She took me by the hand and led me to his bedside.

I smiled, knowing that this was just something people say because there really are no words. The truth was, he wasn’t waiting for me any more than I had waited for him all those years.

Bob held on for another five days, rallying then subsiding back into the white sheets, until finally his breath grew rattled and infrequent. I think during those final days he was working free a pesky knot, one that tethered him to the land that gave him so much myth and identity.

Letting go was the only half-hearted thing he had ever done.

Written by The Long Way

April 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm

A mother’s love

with 2 comments

Something Else

A desire to be happier or to enjoy a greater sense of freedom is not the basis for my having chosen to live a childfree life.  Let’s be realistic here: happiness is not a guarantee anymore than liberty for anyone – parent or not. Those remain hard-fought, hard-won principles that require vigilance and responsibility to maintain.

Rather, I chose this fork in the road because I do not ache. I do not long to take “the next step,” for I believe children deserve more than my checking a box off a life plan. I do not worry who will take care of me in my old age because I believe it is my responsibility to settle those issues, even before those golden years arrive. I believe this not aching is a gift from the gods, because imagine the alternative.

With (warning: lady parts discussion ahead) endometriosis and ovarian cysts as well as a later-in-life marriage, we learned extraordinary measures would have been required to get pregnant. Given this, I paused. This breath-catching, this moment of decision, allowed me to move forward, not by way of inertia but through a conscious knowing that I was meant to bring something forth in this world – just not children.

Not long ago, my mother passed me this offering. In the middle of a phone call when we were talking about working with puff pastry, she said, “I want you to know that I think you have something to do, and if you had children you would never do it. I know you.  You would throw all of your energy to them, and you would lose whatever it is you are meant to do.”

“Were we that awful as children?” I asked, thinking, perhaps, she was plagued with terrible regrets.

“No, no, you and your brother are my legacies, but your’s is something else.”

I owe her as well as those foremothers who plowed these troubled waters thirty, sixty, a hundred years ago, who refused the looks of pity, and the questions about their sexuality, and the contempt for their wanting to create that something else. It is my fervent hope, then, that my choice will increase the endowment for all of our daughters.

Written by The Long Way

April 3, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Posted in Family

Tagged with ,

Is the grass greener?

leave a comment »

We, the childfree, contribute in a number of ways, in fact.

The 2001 American Demographics survey, conducted by Third Wave Research Group, found that couples without children spend 60 percent more on entertainment, 79 percent more on food, and 101 percent more on dining out than their counterparts with children.  Childfree couples have all but created new travel markets, involving education, extreme activity and ecological excursions.

However, our market remains untapped, especially by advertisers seeking to appeal to traditional families. For once, I would love to see a commercial showing a woman elated that the pregnancy test comes back negative or a slightly less-than-middle-aged couple whooping it up in a new SUV. I’m sorry, but Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese isn’t just for kids. Nothing goes down better on a bone-tired night after work or school than a creamy neon-orange bowl of elbow pasta and a glass of cheap white wine.

To address the selfishness assertion, I contend that we childfree couples are anything but.

While required, we are the ones taxed out the wazoo because we cannot take tax credits for our children. We pay taxes for schools my puppies do not attend. Bosses assign us the night and weekend meetings, and the business travel, because the soccer moms and dads must make their kids’ games. We sacrifice in ways that go unrecognized by those who benefit and by society as a whole.

We live our passions. We live in the way theologian and civil rights leader Dr. Howard Thurman wrote:

Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Perhaps this lack of recognition is due to misconceptions about what life on the other side looks like.  Often, I sense the tension in my friends’ voices, the wistful wonderings about another road traveled, the shameful whispers that maybe having children…they stop before finishing their sentences.

My closest friends – mothers all – lament not sleeping in, a lack of disposable income, and the loss of free moments to pee or luxuriate in a bath. They miss raunchy-adult-film-star sex in various public places and traveling on a whim. They say this with the same faraway look in their eyes that nomads get when they think they see an oasis over the next dune.

I remind them that when we were single, we didn’t enjoy nearly as much sex as Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte, and I certainly wasn’t getting it any more now that I was married and childfree. I assure them that whimsical travel is overrated because ultimately you eat something you shouldn’t have.

I tell them since my husband and I adopted the puppies, we don’t enjoy these freedoms either. We live in an older home and the doors don’t shut fully because of the way the house has stretched and settled. Barkley and Harper think the tub that I’m laying in is one big water bowl, and that because I watch them go to the bathroom they can watch me.

These statements do not engender me any fans, and I even suspect they want to “unfriend” me at this point. Trust me. I would give my white carpets for a better reason than gravity for why my boobs have sagged.

Written by The Long Way

April 3, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Posted in Family

Tagged with , , ,

Childless or child-free?

with 2 comments

Not having it all

So, evidently I am not alone in choosing not to have it all:

  • A 2007 study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust revealed that couples no longer viewed children as necessary for a successful marriage.[1] On the contrary, desire for personal happiness and fulfillment motivated people to enter into holy matrimony.
  • A 2004 Census Bureau Population Survey discovered that almost 45 percent of women of childbearing age (15 to 44 years old) were childless; almost 7 percent were voluntarily so. This trend, which has increased every year, crossed all age breakout groups.[2]
  • A Wharton Business School study, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, assessed all sectors – age, income, education, employment, marriage, and parenthood – to discern the happiness index of women and men since the advent of second wave feminism (1968-1983). Even with all the strides toward equality made since 1972, when this survey first was administered, women’s happiness levels remained about the same.

The 30-second sound-bite echo chamber of network news conveniently used these studies to herald the failure of feminism. The only marked differences (which went unreported, by the way) were for African-American women, who showed the greatest increase in contentment as well as economic gains.

Also not reported: Across all studies, women with children showed the least satisfaction levels overall.

Am I being selfish?

For me, though, it’s not about personal happiness or economic security. I’m not particularly self-centered, materialistic, child-hating or unfeminine. It’s not as if making the choice not to bear children was made without a complicated stew of emotions and without certain pangs of what-if.

In my teens and twenties, I envisioned myself as a mother. I dreamed of family, of nurturing life to its fullest potential. I even dreamed of adopting from a spate of nations, kind of a mini U.N., long before Brangelina and Madonna made foreign adoption a celebrity accessory.

Even back then I knew whatever form my family took in the future, it would not be traditional. I had endometriosis and ovarian cysts, which caused scarring – so I knew that to have children – biological or otherwise – would take extraordinary measures. Having children would have to be a life goal.

But as I grew into my 30s then met the man I would marry, that dream grew watery and distant and a different dream took shape.

I don’t think of myself as childless, because that means something is missing or longed for. I have lots of children in my life that I adore. I bake cakes and decorate them as jungles, desert treasure islands, and skateboards for my friends’ children. I donate school supplies to children I don’t know or may never meet. I’m the first to plop on the ground and play with nieces and nephews. When I was the boss, I fought for meaningful maternity and paternity leave for my employees

But I guess I am childfree, which is not to infer that I think children are a burden.


[1] In fact, a large number of survey respondents – more than 50% of adults in their 30s and 40s – cohabitated at some point in their lives, and they were evenly split about whether or not they ever wanted to marry or have children.  Almost 40% of all births in the United States are to unwed mothers.

[2] Education and income also were distinguishing factors in women’s choices of whether to marry or have children.  Nearly half of women with incomes of $100,000 or higher were childless.

Written by The Long Way

April 2, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Posted in Family

Tagged with , , ,

A womb of one’s own

with 2 comments

With sincerest apologies to Virginia Woolf, I offer this explanation, modeled on her six groundbreaking lectures that were compiled into A Room of One’s Own, as to why I chose not to have children.

Virginia Woolf

So you’re married now, when will you have kids?

Within five minutes of my new husband and me walking past our guests to the refrain of the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” a guest approached and asked, “So, will you be making your mother a grandmother soon?”  She smiled broadly and hunched her shoulders in excitement.

When I hesitated in the hopes a server would walk by with a coconut shrimp, she informed me that my 34-year-old eggs were dying a dramatic death every month and that time was running out.

“You know, you’re born with only so many,” she said, her brow furrowed in extreme earnestness. She tapped her watch in case I didn’t get the gist.

We hadn’t even danced yet.

Our wedding day.

In the nine years since that day, we – my husband and I – have talked and have decided that we are not going to have children of our own.

He has a son from a previous marriage, and although he loves his son deeply, he concedes that he stayed at a job he hated because of the benefits, remained in a relationship that had long passed its expiration date, and deferred personal dreams for his son. All noble for his son but at what costs, he wondered, to himself, owing that this life is the only one he gets to live.

Watching his father succumb to Alzheimer’s disease drove home the point that life is too short – and can get even shorter. Nevertheless, he said that if having children were important to me, he would “be there 100 percent, all the way.” Not a rousing endorsement, but sweet.

In the end, though, I made the best choice for me and called it ours. A decision that had become all mine would change our lives for better or worse, but it also would have implications on how the world would view us.

I am asked frequently if I have children, because I clearly look of age and have hips made for birthing. I get uncomfortable looks from some mothers when I say that I don’t. Many people assume I don’t like children (not the case). Some launch into discussions on fertility treatments and adoption.

A few women who’ve also made the decision not to replicate slap me on the back, tell me that I’m brave then say something snide about women who choose to become mothers. I don’t belong to that sorority. I don’t want to know that handshake. I don’t want to remember the password.

I think choosing to become a parent is one of the most optimistic approaches to life anyone can take. It suggests a belief that God isn’t quite done with us yet.

Still, I can only offer my opinion on a minor point in the hopes that I find a kernel of truth: a woman is no less a woman because she chooses not to have a child, and a couple is no less a family if children are absent the equation. Women and motherhood remain an unsolved problem, for in our kid-centric society, a woman is viewed as fully formed only after she has given birth.

Written by The Long Way

April 1, 2011 at 12:31 am