There is a chasm where the echoes of you resonate
Memories vibrate, resounding up through the depths
Humming, strumming my heart
Orchestrating haunting internal melodies
Sentimental serenades bereft of lyrics
Frequently, the songs are as tender as a lullaby
Tranquil, faint, soothing as a purr
Intimate whispers shadow my perceptions
A fleeting smile or tear offers a glimpse into the hymns
From time to time, the reverberations are flagrant, flamboyant
Visceral concertos of cacophony
The interludes intrude and occlude
Boisterous crescendos, their clamors are deafening
Outwardly silent, inwardly surging, I await their conclusion
Most often, the intrinsic music is my resident accompaniment
Instrumental ballads proclaiming, portraying a bygone life
An opus of a lover pining for an encore
The unfinished symphony plays on beyond the curtain call
How I ended up being the mother I was always intended to be
There was never any doubt in my mind I would be a mother. As with most everything in my life, I had a plan: College, Career, Marriage, Children (four was the magic number — two of each). We’d grow old, retire, and wait for grandbabies.
Life would be as simple as blowing soap bubbles. With a little effort, each stage would inflate and delight with iridescent elegance. It would drift away when the time came and a new radiant bubble would wondrously take its place.
Somehow, in my youth, I failed to acknowledge that bubbles are bound to burst.
“Mother is a verb. It’s something you do. Not just who you are.”
Dorothy Canfield Fisher
It all began perfectly enough. I received my degree, started my career in public relations, and married my high school sweetheart.
I knew pretty soon after we started dating, he was father material. He treasured his nieces and nephews. He had a knack for connecting with any child, no matter what the age. It planted a seed in my maternal heart. I couldn’t wait to start our family.
When we decided the time was right, we tossed aside the birth control and got down to the business of making babies. But no matter how much time and energy we were putting into the project, we could not generate a profit. The plus sign would not appear in the urine-stained window.
Off we went to the doctor to get to the bottom of our elusive dividends.
Diagnosing and treating infertility is not for the demure. Blood tests, vaginal ultrasounds with an acoustic dildo, and post-coital exams to rate the hospitality on my uterus were on my agenda. (Nothing like your vaginal canal getting a Yelp review from the gynecologist.) More blood tests and monthly cup deposits delivered in a brown paper lunch bag were on my husband’s.
After 18 months of mood-altering medication, biweekly doctor visits, and sobbing at Huggies commercials, the test came back positive. The doctor beamed. The nurse cried with delight.
Our first son arrived early — he couldn’t wait for us to be a family either. Our second came less than two years later. We didn’t want to go through the physical and emotional turmoil of fertility treatments again, so we resolved to let nature take its course — or not.
Our offspring were capped at two, but it didn’t matter anymore. The seed that sprouted my maternal heart had taken root and blossomed. I was a boy mom, and I was ecstatic.
“Being a mother is learning about strengths you didn’t know you had.”
Even before your children are born, you begin planning the life ahead of them. Merging your hopes and dreams with theirs and contemplating the milestones along the way.
Having one of them develop a life-threatening disease is usually not part of the equation.
When our eldest was two and a half, he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Within hours, our entire family was drafted into a life-long battle with his condition. We entered diabetes boot camp and learned how to manage his disease and hopefully, not kill him in the process.
And so began our months (and then years) of every-hour-on-the-hour glucose tests, monitoring everything he ate, keeping track of exercise, computing insulin intake, and praying he didn’t catch some illness that would send his sugars soaring.
But in the process, I became a warrior mom. I steadfastly guarded his health like a sentry. I studied his illness, educating all of us and others. I defended his rights and taught him how to do the same. Eventually, the power of my son’s own wellbeing was passed on to him. The tour of duty was complete.
“When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.”
Life during my children’s elementary school years was going according to the “new plan.” (I was still naïve enough to think that I was done with any further disruptions.)
I worked part-time as the school librarian and was active in the PTA. Saturdays were spent at the local recreation center where my husband coached whatever sport happened to be in season. Sundays were filled with church and extended family get-togethers. We were in our element. We were prospering.
Until one day — we weren’t. When my children were six and eight years old, their father was diagnosed with leukemia.
Girded by my warrior training, I went back into battle. Alongside my husband, I contended with hospital stays, complicated medication regimens, and cross-country trips for vital treatments.
All the while, I fiercely defended my children’s sense of normalcy even when we were anything but. They never missed a day of school. To help them feel secure, family members stayed with them in our home when we were away. Their father valiantly hid the full extent of his suffering and I followed suit.
I was the mother offering hope — right up to the day he passed away.
“Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.”
If it wasn’t for my children, I don’t think I would have survived the loss of my husband. They gave me a reason to function — to hold onto life. I was a hollow robot, mechanically going through the motions.
Somehow motherhood — that deep-seated desire to tend to my boys — provided the strength to endure. They already had their world torn in half; I couldn’t bear it if I caused it to be obliterated.
Ever so slowly, the need to stabilize our family drove me to reclaim my humanity.
“When we have joy we crave to share; we remember them.”
Rabbis Sylvan Kamens & Jack Riemer
When my husband was first diagnosed, I began mentally preparing for the inevitable. There is plenty of material on how to withstand — or even understand — the death of a spouse. I, myself, have written many times on the topic.
However, I was completely caught off guard by what widowhood would do to my identity as a mother. Suddenly, I was the sole captain. My co-parent — my child-rearing partner — was gone. The one person who could wholeheartedly share in the sorrows and revel in the joys of raising our sons was absent.
I lacked backup when I needed it and a contrary opinion when necessary. I’m sure my boys grew tired of my voice and longed for the counterbalance of their father’s baritone.
The title of “single mother” never seemed to fit. Single = One. One is a whole number. I was fractioned — incomplete. It took me years to accept this new individual version of motherhood.
“Motherhood is the biggest gamble in the world. It is the glorious life force. It’s huge and scary — it’s an act of infinite optimism.”
I often wonder if life had gone according to plan, would I be the same woman I am now. What kind of mother would I be? Would I be as resilient or empathetic? Would my children?
The trials we encountered brought out a fortitude I never knew I possessed; a steely determination to nurture no matter what the circumstances. Like apprenticeships, each struggle provided the preparation and developed the strength I would need for the next one.
My boys are now adults. I can only take partial credit — or blame — for the men they have become. Their personalities are unique and innate. It filters how they perceive and respond to whatever lessons I may have tried to impart.
Many mistakes were made along the way, but I have cast aside the guilt. (Well, most of it.) I know I did the best I could with the tools I had at the moment. How can I regret anything that helped produce the remarkable sons I have today?
Motherhood was not — or continues to be — entirely what I expected, but what in life is?
The bubbles may continue to burst, but they leave rainbows in their wake.
I am a woman of many faces:
My roles define the façade you see
I conform to your reality
Never unveiling my complete identity
I parcel out my character
Offering tidbits to delight, entice
The designated consumer
Your view is obscured
Tainted, tinted, rendered incomplete
By your imagined image
Will you dare — Do you care
To shine a light on my persona
Shapeshifting like a kaleidoscope
A psychedelic palette freckled with crystal and coal
Charming and disturbing
My colors twist and turn
Once there was one who embraced my entirety
Who gazed pierced my mosaic individuality
And did not turn away
Iridescent, my soul shone for him
Enraptured, my soul captivated him
Unfiltered, I was known
What is the face you perceive
Will you — Can you — comprehend my totality
Or are you limited by necessity
Do you see
If I confess my deepest darkest regret, will you think less of me? Will the colorful image you had of my character fade to gray?
I guess I really can’t be concerned with such matters. The need to be authentic compels me to admit:
During the last months of my husband’s life, I was a wretched wife.
When your spouse is diagnosed with cancer, a halo is promptly bestowed upon your head. People behold the aura of an angel, a selfless guardian.
The moment your beloved dies, you are bequeathed sainthood. No canonization investigation required — you’re decreed a living martyr.
I wasn’t worthy of either title.
For years, I was able to pull it off
From that fateful day in 2001 when his leukemia was detected and throughout the stem cell transplant in 2003, I was my husband’s fierce warrior — his faithful companion.
I eagerly attended every doctor’s appointment. During the transplant, I sat by his hospital bed with my notebook of lab results, daily stats, and Q&As for the attendings. I kept track of how many ounces he drank — and expelled. I’d help him shower if he had the energy to take one and especially when he didn’t.
For eight weeks, I monitored and worried. His steadfast sentry, nothing was going to be missed on my watch.
The 45-minute drive home each night was my time to cry — that is, if I could allow myself the release. Gasping sobs would have to wait. One can only shed so many tears when navigating a freeway.
Our two young sons, ages eight and ten, would greet me at the door, anxious for news about when their Daddy — their hero — might come home. I never had the heart to tell them the odds were he wouldn’t.
Once he was released from the hospital, the location had changed, but the vigil continued. He was in lockdown for 100 days while his immunities were rebuilding. Every morsel of food and drink was strictly controlled to prevent contamination. I flushed his Hickman twice daily so we wouldn’t need to hire a nurse.
My husband’s only excursions were visits to the doctor, where I diligently came prepared with my ever-expanding notebook. I reported on his progress and tattled on him when he “misbehaved.”
Part scolding, part admiration, the three of us would laugh and cry, smile and cringe about the pace of his recovery.
Throughout it all, he would hold my hand and thank me. Silently sing my praises with a sly smile. I would soak it all in — letting his pride in me briefly douse the dread simmering in my soul.
I was a triumphant wife.
Reality settles in
We soon learned the harsh reality of “surviving” a stem cell transplant. Remission does not equal well. It only means cancer-free.
My husband was in a ceaseless war. His immune system had been overthrown by the transplant and it wasn’t going to give up without a fight. Every skirmish left a little more devastation in its wake. His body was the battered battleground.
As he bravely soldiered on, I slowly withdrew. I continued the day-to-day activities of being a wife and mother, but I retreated from us — from him.
I was a fraudulent wife.
I was repulsed not by him, but by the disease slowly taking him away from me.
Every ailment withered his physique, but strengthened his resolve. The more he suffered without complaint, the more I wanted to scream about the injustice of his illness. I seethed with selfish anger and writhed in empathetic pain.
The two of us continued on in a stoic hush, not wanting the world — or each other — to realize just how fragile we were.
Not comprehending that isolating our feelings would soon isolate us from each other.
I could handle much of it: the perpetual sores on his feet that he spent 30 minutes each morning dressing, the near loss of his vision requiring contacts only available across the country, and the limp that took stole his weekly game of basketball.
It was the rest that made me go AWOL
First, it was his drastic drop in weight. I used to joke I didn’t marry a man who was thinner than me, playing on his ego to try and get him to eat. But that was only the truth floating on the surface. From the center of my being, I ached for his strong, muscular arms that would make me feel safe and protected.
Each pound he lost tolled how precarious our life had become. He finally stopped telling me his weight. I would never ask again.
Doubly desolating was the siege of his mouth. Dry and full of sores, he couldn’t muster enough saliva to eat normal food nor tolerate any sort of spice. Nearly every meal I could make caused him pain. When he stopped joining us for dinner, I gave up on cooking.
No amount of breath mints could disguise the scent and flavor of sickness inhabiting his mouth. The mouth that gave me my first kiss. The one I used to spend hours savoring was now sour — a distasteful reminder of a life being vanquished. Our affection became relegated to pecks on the cheek.
He developed a form of scleroderma. The condition marched across his skin, laying the foundations for its eventual sarcophagus. Disfiguring and immobilizing everywhere it advanced, we knew it was only a matter of time before it hit below the belt.
I was a neglectful wife
Each night, my husband would retreat to our bedroom soon after dinner. A full day’s work for him was exhausting. After the kids were put to bed, he’d ask me to join him. Sometimes for intimacy, mostly for simple companionship.
To my profound regret, more and more often, I’d come up with a reason to decline his request.
From “I’ve got a headache,” to “There are bills to pay,” to “My favorite TV show is on,” I guiltily spouted them all. Dejected, he eventually stopped asking.
My love for him never wavered, but truth be told, I was resentful, morose, and a sad excuse for a wife. I fumed that every waking moment was dictated by his disease. Embittered that our children didn’t remember life with him well.
I was despondent over being robbed of our happily ever after, even as I was robbing him of the closeness he needed — and deserved.
I was in mourning before he was dead.
It never occurred to me I was suffering from depression.
The other shoe drops
For seven years, the WHEN? shadowed us during the day and loomed in our dreams at night. We tried to pretend it wasn’t there, but it haunted us all the same.
His death brought forth a cavalcade of emotions: Shock, sorrow, and deep-seated anguish that left me hollow. It also brought relief. Relief that he wouldn’t have to endure another minute of suffering. Relief that cancer no longer ruled our lives.
Relief that I didn’t have to take care of him anymore.
Then the guilt would wash over me like Bactine. I would sting mightily with shame and then go numb.
I was a grieving widow.
Clarity comes in the aftermath
It’s been 12 years since he’s been gone. A dozen years living with this secret disgrace.
I’ve chastised myself a thousand times for falling short. Remorse still prowls my cheerful memories, waiting to pounce and condemn.
Only recently have I acknowledged I was depressed. The years of “being strong” had left me weak. There were only so many hours in the day I could keep a smile on my face. I was also suffering from an autoimmune disorder that sucked dry any reserves I may have had.
Desperately working with my meager coping skills and failing miserably, I simply thought this was par for the course when confronted with cancer. Too dumbfounded to recognize that I needed — we both needed — help.
I was doing my best, but I know it must have hurt him deeply. If I could change one thing, I would have swallowed my pride and reached out to someone.
Maybe then, I could have settled into his embrace each and every night of those last months. Let him kiss me like he did our first time under the mistletoe.
Remind him — remind me — that our love could soothe all wounds.
Cancer caregivers experience depression at more than double the rate of patients
The American Society of Clinical Oncology reports that up to 59% of cancer patient caregivers experience some sort of depression, compared to up to 25% for patients. Continual, untreated caregiver burden can negatively impact the health of the caregiver as well as the patient.
If you are a cancer patient caregiver and feeling overwhelmed, please don’t keep it to yourself.
My cheeks clenched in alarm, I had to investigate this menacing malady.
Dead Butt Syndrome (DBS), technically known as Gluteus Medius Tendinopathy (GMT), a.k.a. Dormant Buttocks Syndrome, a.k.a. Gluteal Amnesia is a real affliction and it’s spreading across America.
Our hours of prolonged sitting have caused our posterior muscles to weaken, misfire, or simply forget how to work, causing tingling, numbness, and/or pain. Left untreated, it can lead to hip, lower back, and leg pain.
Our dearly departed derrieres are sleeping off the pandemic like Rip Van Winkle.
Greatly unnerved, I decided to research what other odd conditions we could expect to encounter as a result of over a year in isolation.
Tearing our hair out
We’ve all laughed at the quarantine haircuts gone wrong memes. Chuckled at the home dye jobs that looked like they were done by Jackson Pollock instead of Vidal Sassoon. (My son cajoled me into cutting his hair. He wanted a tight fade. He got a cockeyed zigzag.)
Our hair cycle has three phases: growth, transitional, and resting. When we experience a shock to our system — be it physical, emotional, or both, our bodies react by keeping more and more hairs in the resting phase. Stunted, they eventually throw in the towel and fall out.
Physicians across the country are seeing a huge increase in patients reporting excessive hair loss. Our lives have been uprooted and our manes are following suit.
It’s no wonder our couches are looking like Chia Pets.
Ew! What’s that smell?!
Chances are — it’s you.
Have you noticed a peculiar funk following you around lately? Do you keep cleaning out your pantry searching for that forgotten potato you’re sure has begun to rot? Blame it on pandemic body odor.
There are two main culprits contributing to our musty auras; the first being the quarantine Big Stinky Cheese: Yep, stress.
Humans produce two types of sweat: Normal, everyday sweat to regulate temperature and stress sweat — a thick, viscous secretion that foul-smelling bacteria love to feast upon.
In our pre-pandemic life, we interacted with dozens of people on a weekly basis. Now the social life of our epidermis squatters has been greatly diminished. We may be missing our daily organism exchange with the person who added just the right amount of zing to our zest.
When we’re hunkered down with a select few, their concentrated condiments can make our microbial parties a little too pungent for our delicate senses.
If we used to waft a slight scent of G&T with extra lime (yes, it’s my go-to beverage, in case anyone is interested), we may now reek like a garlic and brussel sprout smoothie.
Call me jaded, but I am exasperated with the ceaseless self-help articles and news segments that only serve to point out how topsy-turvy our lives have become. It’s been nearly 9000 hours of persistent tension. My battery is drained. My circuits are fried.
But then again — maybe it’s time to get my rear in gear: Don a cute hat and lather on some deodorant.