The Last Post

My dad is working on a writing project and needs a picture of my mom. I pulled some photos out of my albums a couple of weeks ago and they’ve become a fixture on my desk ever since. Right now I’m sitting at my desk with the pile.  I enjoy looking through them, which I seem to do multiple times a day. I like remembering the moments that they captured- a Cape Cod vacation in the mid-80s, my 16th birthday, my favorite picture of my parents taken Valentines Day weekend in 2001, a picture from the first museum exhibition I curated, homecoming my senior year of high school, and one from my 22nd birthday. The one from my 22nd birthday makes my heart heavy. That birthday party (my mom always threw me a party) was exceptionally fun. My family and best friends from growing up, from high school and from college were all together. As was the case with most of our parties, those friends brought some of their friends- the more was indeed the merrier. We had pizza, my favorite cake and wine.  My grandma posed with all my guy friends and instead of saying “cheese” called out “say SEX!” It was my last birthday we would celebrate when mom was well; my last truly happy birthday. A few days later she started having double vision and a few weeks after that she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. When I look at this photo, which is of my mom and Carleen laughing, I am reminded to not take a moment of my life for granted. I wish that I had appreciated that day even more than I already did.

So, in the spirit of living each and every moment to it’s fullest and appreciating how much I was loved and am loved still, here is my last post.

In October I had a third surgery to try and fix some of my cosmetic concerns. The plan, in the weeks leading up to surgery, was that I would have some fat removed and put into the recessed spot between my ribs and the top of the implants to soften the line. I met with Dr. Hazen the day before the surgery to talk specifics. As much as I love the idea of having my fat removed from my muffin tops and transplanted to my boobs, practically it didn’t seem like a walk in the park- having my incisions opened up again and having new ones on both my sides. During my appointment I asked if perhaps different shaped/sized implants would be an easier fix with a more controlled outcome. Dr. Hazen agreed that swapping out the implants was a good option.

The day of the surgery there were LOTS of people in the OR. More than I was used to. NYU is a teaching hospital, so there have always been “extra” doctors and students around. For this procedure there were two residents with anesthesia and three with plastic surgery in addition to Dr. Hazen, the anesthesiologist, and four nurses. When I laid down on the table there were many busy hands all over me- my IV was started, leads were placed, compression wraps were put on my legs, my arms were strapped down out at my sides, an oxygen mask was put over my face, someone held my hand and told me to count backwards from ten. This was the first and only moment during this entire process that I remember feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable at all. (I’m including that for myself, so I remember what it felt like and that it turned out ok!). At my follow up, which Dr. Hazen did for me in Providence (have I mentioned how amazing she is?!?!!) she told me that they tried a few different sizes and shapes of implants before settling on the ones I have now. What they did was place some implants in my chest, prop me up and then vote on if they looked right. Apparently there was some disagreement, but Dr. Hazen called rank! Funny? Gross? Weird? I’m not sure, but I like knowing that’s how it went down.

Everything went smoothly and they do look much better. These implants look more like they’re part of my body and less like foreign objects floating around under my skin. They’re still kind of weird. But! I’m kind of weird too. I don’t think about them all that often, other than when they’re making me really cold- an odd side effect of this procedure. There isn’t much vascular tissue over the implants so they get cold and then stay cold. I’m hoping to design a prototype for a heated bra. For now, glove warmers work well.

Since the new year I have been working out regularly without pain or issue. I’m doing yoga and running (more like jogging slowly) and am thinking about starting CrossFit this week. My energy levels are creeping back towards normal after a solid year of feeling unlike myself.

I’m sure as time goes on I will have days where I feel deformed or ugly or unnatural, but I do not regret my choice. I feel an emotional freedom that I can’t remember having since I was a teenager. I am lighter and happier and, if I may be so bold, a better person. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from this is something I came to while reflecting on the recent death of yet another dear friend’s mother: we can only treat people as well as we treat ourselves. Removing my breasts was something that I did entirely for myself. I want to live as long as possible, I don’t want to think about breast cancer, I want to see my kids grow up, I want to be here to be the kind of friend that you all have been to me. I made selfish choices to accommodate this surgery. I took food, money, time, childcare, rides, advice and support freely. Thank you for letting me take almost an entire year for myself. I genuinely appreciate the remarkable amount of support I’ve gotten, the new and renewed friendships that have come from this, and the experience of being truly and utterly vulnerable. The process of opening myself up, sharing my feelings, and accepting help has been one that I will never forget.

I love you all dearly and am honored that you’ve taken the time to follow me on this strange journey.

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Dear Mom

On the eighth anniversary of her death, a letter to my mother.

Mom,

Lately when I think of you it is on the occasions where I feel lost. I miss you. I like to believe that in moments when I need your guidance that I’m able to summon up past experiences and take a best guess at the advice you’d offer. But still I miss you.

I am struggling to be the best mother that I can be to the two tiny, bright and inquisitive beings who make my heart burst with love, push me to the edge of my patience and move me ever forward. Last month I kicked Liam out of the house (only onto the porch for a few minutes, no one needs to call Child Protective Services). It was before 6am and he was pushing all of my buttons. I heard myself saying things that I recall you saying and remember my childhood self thinking “I am never going to say that to my kids.” Yet, here I am. In that moment, when Liam, Sylvie and I were all crying, I thought of you. You gave me the tools to deal with this better. Liam and I talked calmly and agreed to begin the day again. We got back in our beds and started over. Then I called Dad. And later I called Nick. Thank you for teaching me to ask for help when I need it and the necessity of people who readily offer advice and make me laugh during tough child-rearing moments. I can only hope that Liam and Sylvie grow up and hold each other, Brendon and me in the same high regard that I hold you, Dad and Nick.

Thank you for taking the time to explain things to me. You had so many rules and expectations. Some of them I didn’t agree with, but I always understood why you thought they were important. And, just so you know I still cringe when anyone uses the word “busted,” never let my bra straps show, always hang up my towel after a shower and make my bed (almost) everyday.

You set the precedent for how I want people to treat me. You were the person, in my mind, who always pushed me the hardest and challenged me to work smarter and be better. And to do all of that while dressed appropriately with my hair brushed and a smile on my face. You left little room for failure but infinite room for growth. And in the environment you created for me, I flourished. No one can accuse me of not working hard, though I might not always brush my hair these days. As an adult I crave the company of people who push me to grow, who challenge what I believe and are not afraid to disagree with me. I’ve realized that I am even happier in an environment where there is a little more room to fail. In my failures I have learned the most important lessons. I was afraid to admit this for a long time. I thought it was something that might not make you proud. In the letter you wrote me when you survived cancer the first time, you said you had no regrets. I internalized this, in 2003,  as you never making any mistakes. In my eyes you did almost everything perfectly. Now I realize that you did make mistakes, but you learned from them. So they were not mistakes at all. I am trying to find hope and opportunity in my floundering.

I know you would have supported my health choices over the last year. I am grateful that you set an excellent example of medical self-advocacy, and taught me the need for doing research and staying informed. I have never felt so loved or so blessed as I have during the last seven months. Thank you for making such wonderful friends and teaching me the importance of the company I keep. The collective “our” friends, a small army of them, took the most wonderful care of me and my family. They were here for me when you couldn’t be. I have a debt of gratitude that will surely take me a lifetime to repay. A long lifetime. I am going to keep my body healthy in honor of your memory. I will see the things that you missed and experience the joy my life brings in your absence, while always saddened that you are not here to see and experience these things too.

I’ve dreamed about you often over the past year. In my dreams you are young and beautiful and laughing. I can vividly hear your laugh now and it warms my heart. As the winter months approach I miss you more than ever. Celebrating holidays without you simply doesn’t feel like celebrating. I miss our house full of company, preparing food together, shopping for gifts and wrapping on the dining room table, teasing you while you methodically decorated the “grown-up” Christmas tree, the four of us eating sticky buns and grapefruit on Christmas morning while we opened our stockings… the list is truly endless. For the past eight years I have been hiding from holidays, rejecting traditions and being a scrooge. But you taught me to be better than that. This year I will be more celebratory. I want my children to have the delightful holiday memories of their own. And honestly, I have so much to celebrate.

The kids are just starting to understand family- who their relatives are and how the are related to one another. They ask me often about my mommy and I always tell them how much you would have loved them, but often my heavy heart stops my storytelling short. No more. Today I will start telling them about you because they would have loved you too. You were very easy to love.

Again, thank you. For everything.

Always,

your loving daughter

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A post from me and my vanity

This year for Halloween I’ll be dressed as a patient. My self-deprecating adolescent joke about wanting the fat from my stomach pushed up into my breasts is finally coming true. After some good discussion with Dr. Hazen, with my friends and with myself one more surgery for the sake of feeling better about how I look seems worth it. I decided that since I am going to live with the results of this reconstruction for a very long time I want them to look good. I don’t want them to dictate what I wear or how I feel. For the most part I feel really good about them and about the process that I’ve gone through. My breasts are the punch line to many well timed jokes, they’re the topic of heartfelt discussions, and they punctuate my personal evolution and quest towards being a better, healthier, happier and more compassionate human.

Again, I am reminded of how lucky I am. My friends, new and old, have offered help and support without hesitation. And, as usual, I am at a loss for how to express my sincere gratitude.

I will try to post again before the 31st if I get any new information about the specifics, but will certainly let you all know when I’m out of surgery for, what I absolutely hope is, my last procedure

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Long time, no post!

Two years ago this morning I got up, finished packing a bag and boarded a plane with Sylvie going from Boston to Buffalo. We barely made the flight- I mistook my 7pm ticket for 7am but managed to convince the Jet Blue attendant to let me on a 7:10am flight that was two terminals away. Sylvie and I made it within seconds of them closing the jetway. When we touched down in Buffalo I turned on my phone to call my dad and tell him we’d landed. Immediately four texts and three voicemails popped up. Before I could check any of them the phone rang again. Early that morning Jackie, my mom’s dear friend- my dear friend, my closet friend’s mother, my surrogate mother- passed away.  I miss Jackie terribly. Today I’ve been letting happy narratives of Jackie pass through my mind. For those of you who knew her, I hope you’re doing the same. And, if you didn’t then you missed out! She lit up a room and had a contagious laugh that I can still hear so clearly. I like to imagine that somewhere in the great beyond my mom and Jackie are hanging out playing cards like they used to on our deck on South Forest on a warm summer evening. So, I’m starting this (long-overdue) post with a reminder to myself that life is short and that I’m lucky to know (and have known) such amazing people.

With those thoughts in mind, the rest of this post seems a bit trite and superficial. Maybe it is. Last week, on what would have been my mom’s 57th birthday, I headed to New York for an appointment with Dr. Hazen (the plastic surgeon). For the most part I am thrilled with my reconstruction results. Most days I don’t even think about my breasts, my implants, my scars. I feel normal. But upon examination, or even a casual glance towards the mirror after a shower, reveals that the right side is slightly bigger than the left and that the ripples of the implant on the left show through my skin. I also have a really boney chest, always have, and the way my rips stick out and subsequently cave in next to the implants can best be described as “corpsey.” I made the appointment with Dr. Hazen mostly to confirm that the left side wasn’t leaking and to see if there was anything she could do so the ripples wouldn’t show so much.

Again, Dr. Hazen is so great. I adore her. She explained that both muscle pockets got slightly over expanded and the right side looks bigger because more scar tissue is forming there than on the left, hence the ripples showing through my skin. The fix for this is another surgery where she would tighten up the muscle pocket on the left side so the implant sits tighter in the pocket. She can also put some fat to cushion the implant and fill the pocket a bit more. My immediate reaction was that I do not want to have another surgery. Especially for cosmetic reasons. Really, I’m fine.

But! A day after I got back from New York I tried on six or so dresses trying to find one that didn’t show off my boney, corpsey chest caves and started to reconsider. I wore a dress with a sheer turtleneck and a sweater over that! Clothes are just clothes. I can get new dresses. But I don’t want to have to buy things or dress to accommodate my chest. I want to not think about them or how the look or move weirdly. So… My current thoughts about this are: 1. I’ve already done so much, what’s one more procedure for better results? 2. Hopefully, I’m going to have these breasts for the rest of my (again, hopefully long) life and it would be nice if they looked good. 3. I’ve met my maximum out of pocket amount for my insurance, so everything for the rest of this year is covered. I don’t want to regret that I didn’t fix this in 6 months or a year.  Dr. Hazen encouraged me to consider the surgery and get back to her. I wrote her an email yesterday asking some specific questions about the procedure. Can she actually fill the caves with fat tissue? Would it be cadaver fat? My fat? She already told me that it is a very minor same day surgery and that I’d barely even be sore. I’m waiting for her reply and will let you know what I decide.

Thank you again to everyone for your thoughts, prayers, advice, critical examination of my topless self, and to those of you who continue to make me laugh when I need it most.

 

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The little engine

At the end of last week I was finally feeling good and like things were settling down; my life was reaching a more ideal pace. That didn’t last for long! Yesterday I was totally overwhelmed. Sylvie broke her leg on Sunday (and I was trying to be hopeful that the sitter would be able to manage taking care of three kids while I was at work), my left breast looked super weird and deflated, the exhibition I’ve been working on at RISD is mid-instal and it was super hot out. For some reason that combination got me down. The day turned out ok- the babysitter did pretty well (she’s amazing, by the way), work was smooth and productive, and Sylvie loved scooting around on the skateboard I borrowed from a friend. Phew. But it still feels like I’m running in a marathon.

At dinner time today the kids were playing on the floor in their bedroom so nicely. Sylvie was sitting in front of the bookshelf and asked if I’d read The Little Engine That Could. I remember the copy I had growing up and wonder what happened to it since I have almost all of our (mine and Nick’s) others. The copy we have now I bought at Borders in Arlington, VA in early-October of 2005. At this point my mom’s health was really starting to decline. She was clearly in pain, her clothes hung off of her, and her spirits were not as high as she’d previously been able to keep them. After work one day I went shopping and bought her some clothes that were a few sizes smaller (she’d confided that even though she’d been trying to loose weight for her entire adult life, having her clothes be so loose made her really feel like “a cancer patient”) and The Little Engine That Could. The following weekend when I was back at my parents’ house north of Baltimore things weren’t great. On Saturday morning I helped my mom get dressed in her new clothes and she could barely stand. She sat down in one of the wing-back chairs in her bedroom and actually complained about her pain- the only time I remember her doing so. The cancer had spread to her bones and was taking its toll.  She was rubbing her legs and started to cry. As I’m typing this I can vividly recall the feeling of my heart sinking. I cried too. I told her I’d give her my legs if I could and, of course, she said she’d never let me. I would have happily given my life for hers because I didn’t want to imagine a life without her. Honestly, I still can’t imagine my life without her and I’m living it. It was then, sitting on the floor between her aching legs that I read her the new copy of The Little Engine That Could. It seemed a little silly and trite, but I was out of ideas and still wanted to believe that if we all focused our energy she could conquer this enormous beast.

This evening I read the book to my kids and was overcome by how happy they make me. They are both simply delightful. These little daily obstacles- two year olds in full-leg casts, museum exhibitions, lumpy breast implants- are tempered by the weight of so many things we’ve already survived. I was reminded that during busy, sad or dark times there is always joy and love if you look for it.

The last ten years has been punctuated with loss and illness, and this one is no exception. My family lost a seven month old baby to SIDS, an uncle was diagnosed with lymphoma, and a life-long friend lost his father suddenly a few days ago. At these times I am always at a loss for what to say, wishing that I had some sage advice or thoughtful bit that would help ease their pain but I am still figuring out what to say to myself! As I’ve gone through this breasty process, I have realized a few things. The first is that I am simply happy to be alive. I am most grateful for my friends and family who haven’t given up on supporting me over and over and over again as my life continues to weirdly and sometimes painfully unfold. And, that the very best thing that I can do to honor the memory of the people I’ve lost is to not squander my very blessed and healthy life. Needing so much help for these past few months revealed many lessons about who to trust, how to live in the moment, to accept my life as it is, to not get overwhelmed in minutia and to give back anytime I can.

Now it’s time to stamp all my thank you notes! I’m sorry they’ve been a long time coming…

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Getting there

I’ve just started to feel like myself again. Kinda. But, before I go into that, thanks for all the supportive words after my last post. I was not fishing for compliments, I am just trying to record this process. How I feel, how I look, and how I feel I look all changes pretty quickly these days. I think documenting all of that will help me in the future. Perhaps, it will even help someone else. That said, I am ever grateful for the messages I received. Body image is delicate for all of us, I think.

I’m healing. Now I can do things like  gently stretch when I wake up in the morning, sleep allllmost on my stomach, walk briskly, lift Sylvie out of bed (hooray!!), lift my arms up over my head, dance in the kitchen with the kids (hooray again!!!) and today I, without thinking, picked up Liam- lots of good progress. This evening I may even try swimming. What the hell, right?! I just sanded some rough-cut pine tables for the last two days and I’m still moving around.

Also, I’ve been forgetting to update you on actual medical details and many of you have been asking. First, I have silicone implants. They have their own ID card that I’m supposed to carry with me. Hilarious and amazing. Should I show them at airport security?! I’m slowly getting used to how the implants feel. Supposedly/eventually, they’ll be softer and more malleable than their saline sisters. Mine are still super firm, but much better than when I wrote the last post.

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It happened.

So, it finally happened. I knew that it would eventually. This morning, without warning I got hit with an emotional ton of bricks. As I pealed off the last of the bandages and was left totally naked in front on my mirror, I felt badly about how I look. My rational mind knows that I really barely look different to even my closest friends- who have, by the way, been clinically investigating the details of my new body for the last eight weeks at my request. My inner-critic, however, is irrational sometimes and sorta nasty. She is a tiny,but competitive and aggressive, inner voice that alerts me of my every fault or misstep. She is kind of a nasty bitch, but she keeps me moving forever forward even when I want to throw in the towel. As I closely examined myself at every angle I saw things that I didn’t like. There are parts of my breasts that look almost angular, bumps that stick out, slight asymmetry, and they are ever-so-stationary. When I move I can see my muscles move over them and ripple in an unnatural way. I tried putting on a bra, but none fit. Honestly, I only have four (a black one, a nude one, and two pretty ones) and they were all the wrong shape, or size, or sat directly on my freshly exposed incision. Ouch. I tried on many outfits so I could just.get.to.work.already. Nothing looked right. Everything “fits” but nothing felt good. I know that it has only been a week and that my body needs time to heal, but I have spent so much of my reserve patience already. Where do I find more?! I am sure that this feeling, which is rather empty and hollow, will pass and that I will accept my new normal. For now though, I am happy to have long and wild hair that for the most part covers the upper third of my body and for my single loose fitting, patterned shirt. I am also thankful for the people I reached out to today who each gave different and truly helpful perspective (and a fair share of compliments).

My next post is going to be a happier one. I’m already working on it.

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