35 years…and Counting

Thyrold survivor 35 years 2

35 years ago today I opened my eyes from a hospital bed and saw my dad sitting stiffly in a plastic looking, avocado green chair with round wooden arms. His eyes were red and full of tears. I knew without asking but still had to hear it, so I asked, “Was it bad?”

“It wasn’t good, but you will be alright.” Immediately, images of my 5 and 7 year old boys flashed through my head and I began to cry. And that’s when I became a thyroid cancer survivor.

Cancer took something from me that day, but, unbelievably, gave to me as well.

It gave me the strength to leave a one-sided marriage, despite my love of our farm and the desire to keep our so-called family intact. Cancer made me realize that, if I was going to have a short life, those years, and those of my children, should be happy ones. I was eroding from the inside – and not just from hungry, malevolent cancer cells. Of course, divorce is never easy and the aftermath and emotional turmoil for my kids was worse than I could have known. Hindsight is 20-20. Looking back, I would have done things differently, but I would have still left. Otherwise, I would have lost myself, with or without cancer. Cancer gave me the power, the ability, to see what was happening to me. I just wish that somehow, the children could have been unscathed. That is my biggest regret.

Cancer reinforces my optimism for life and gives me the ability to face whatever life brings. It helps put everything into perspective, too. After all, does it really matter if someone doesn’t put their dishes in the dishwasher? Yes, it’s annoying day after day — but, in the giant picture, it’s a pretty small annoyance and not worth getting my panties in a knot.

I became a great-grandmother Feb. 19th. Me. I never thought I’d live to see my children grow up, let alone dance at their weddings…or my granddaughter’s wedding. And now, a great-grandson.

Our family picture from Jan:
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And our newest family member:
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I have been given enormous joy. Countless blessings. More love than I deserve.

I am a cancer survivor. Every moment is a gift.

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Christmas Confession

Confession time. I actually toyed with the idea of not putting up a Christmas tree this year.

Now, as Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story…

We’re not celebrating Christmas with the family until next month because of timing and other families’ celebrations. It just gets to be too hard on the kids and grandkids.

Odds are, we probably won’t see them until then (insert sad face here). Not complaining; just stating fact. And, since we have no parties planned here either, I thought maybe, just maybe, I should not ‘bother’. After all, it will be ‘just the two of us.’ I asked Nick his opinion last weekend and got “it’s up to you,” in response. (sigh). Decorating the tree has always (always) been a special part of our family tradition for the Advent season. I normally am chomping at the bit to put the tree up right after Thanksgiving. After all, it’s time. A happy time. An expectant time: Jesus’ birth is coming. Family will be all around – even if not on Christmas, soon afterwards. All is right with the world. But somehow, this year, the looming, extra-length emptiness has been lingering around my heart and making even the smallest Christmas efforts seem monumental.

I even thought about putting up a smaller, table top tree on our dining room table instead of the big tree. That’s tough for me to admit because it takes me back to the year when my folks quit putting up a full sized, real tree in THEIR house. I can distinctly remember walking into their living room that year and seeing a little tree – it had to be the cut-off top of a tree – perched on their entertainment center. Sharp disappointment hit me – it was the end of an era and I knew it. At that exact moment, somehow, it hit me – the recognition that they had passed a point and would not be returning. I knew that the end (of their lives) was much closer than the beginning (does that make sense?).

While in a store last weekend I stopped in front of their display of various sizes and designs of little pre-lit trees. It made me sad to look at them. I waited to see if anything ‘hit’ me. Nothing did. “Why not just wait and see if you feel like putting up our tree sometime between now and Christmas,” my personal ‘wise man’ said as he stood beside me, looking at my sad boo-boo face. “I don’t think all of these are going to go anywhere.”

So, every night this week, I sat in our living room, looking at the corner where the Christmas tree normally sits by now. The rocking chair there seemed to mock me. Normally, it’s fine. But now, not. Nothing seemed right. Maybe I should decorate the rocker instead, a part of my brain mocked. Oh, shut up, I told myself.

Then, this morning, it hit me full force. WHAM! Tears down my cheeks. The whole she-bang. Listened to Christmas music and cried through every song. Sadness and probably a bit of self pity, but I managed to turn it into joy when I realized the real reason for our Christmas season. How selfish I was being by not wanting to truly celebrate our Savior’s birth!

So, the tree went up tonight. Here it is, in all it’s glory, with our precious Nativity scene underneath it. IMG_2371 (2)

My Thanksgiving Goose

It was going to be a slightly different Thanksgiving meal that year. A family friend had given my mother a goose the week before after she found out that mom would be joining us for dinner. “Make the goose,” she had told my mother, “and you’ll never go back to turkey again for Thanksgiving. It’s that good.”

Mom told me about the gift. “I don’t know how to make a goose,” I said. “Is there a lot to it?” Mom explained that geese are fatty birds and that I’d need to take extra steps to remove the fat before cooking. “Other than that, the goose is all set to go,” she said as she handed me the wrapped bird.

Famous last words.

I opened the package and stared down at the fowl. Hmm. Something just didn’t look right. Reached down and pulled — yep — pinfeathers. WTHeck? I called my mom. “So, this bird…” I began…”this bird from your friend…all packaged and ready to go…did your friend say anything about the fact there were still pin feathers in it?”

“What?” my mom exclaimed. “Well, you can’t cook it like that! Those have to come out first!” I wanted to say, “No sh*t, Sherlock” but bit my tongue. “Yes, I figured that out all by myself,” I answered drolly. “What’s the best way to do that?” (realize that this was before the internet and YouTube)

After listening to her for a few minutes I realized that there really was no good way to do this, especially since the bird had been frozen with the pinfeathers before it got to us. I thought about taking a ham out of the freezer just in case…but pride and determination kicked in. Instead, I started to heat a big pot of water and headed off to find tweezers…

Yes, that’s right. Tweezers.

It was a epic failure. The bird was slippery and I couldn’t get a good hold while trying to pull out the darn feathers. Now, just to be clear, these weren’t the kind of invisible little ones that remind you of little hairs. These were the ones with white feather roots staring at you from their base inside the bird. How this ‘friend’ missed them, I’ll never know. Mr. Magoo, perhaps?

After more than an hour of trying, I gave up. It took ten minutes to get my hands degreased enough to dial my mom again. “This isn’t working. I think I’m going to have to skin the bird. That’s the only way I’ll be sure the feathers are all gone.” She ‘tsked tsked’ appropriately. We commiserated. I hung up and grabbed a knife.

Before I go on, I just want to confess that I always lost at the game “Operation”, even when I played as an adult against my kids. So, from the onset I probably should have known what was coming. But, there was that inherit determination (okay, at this point you can openly call it stubbornness) driving me…and in I went…literally. The bird was so greasy that within minutes my knife, handle and all, was slippery. All my attempts to carve off thin, even slices of skin were in vain. Instead, I gouged and gutted my way through and around the bird.

It was difficult and I was at wit’s end. By the time I finished, I was sweating and in tears and I wasn’t feeling thankful AT ALL. It was 10 p.m. and I’d started this debacle around 4-ish. I was tired and angry and just plan FINISHED. I walked away from the bird thinking, maybe I’ve just looked at it too long…maybe it wasn’t THAT bad…maybe I’m being too hard on myself.

My husband was working 2nd shift and came home a bit later. He walked in the front door with a smile and then saw the bird sitting on the counter. His face told me everything I needed to know – and I burst into tears all over again.

He grabbed me close and held me. “It’s okay,” he said as the saga spilled out of me. “It looks…well…it will be okay. We’ll eat it. It may not look great but I’m sure it will taste just fine.”

Famous last words.

By this time, I had prepared a ham and added that to the day’s bounty. So at least we had backup.

I was cooking the goose in my roaster and the ham in the oven along with the casseroles and other goodies. I was busy. I had put the debacle behind me and was looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner. The table was set. Everything was going pretty well.

And then I took the lid off the roaster.

There, sticking out of the bird, were more pinfeathers. Too many to count! It looked like a gazillion of those turkey thermometer inserts – you know, the ones that pop out to tell you when the turkey is ready to eat – only these were white, wet and yes, somewhat stinky. I don’t know where they came from because I had hacked and carved away all the skin — or so I thought. But, there they were, defiantly staring at me. It was SO BAD. I burst into tears AGAIN – and my husband, mother and kids all came running.

“WOW, Mom, that looks really bad,” said one of my sons.
“It smells bad, too,” said the other one.
“We don’t have to eat that, do we?”
“I vote for ham!”

I was crying pretty hard by that time.

“Honey, I think we’re going to have to pass on the goose this year,” said my husband diplomatically. “Yes, I agree,” my mom chimed in. “The ham smells SO GOOD!”

I had worked so hard — for this?? “Don’t feel bad,” my husband said. “It’s not your fault. And it won’t go to waste. We’ll give it to the dogs – they’ll have their OWN Thanksgiving feast!”

I knew he was trying to buoy my spirits, but I grabbed onto that thought with gusto. At least it wouldn’t be a total failure. The Newfs would love it.

So, after we’d eaten our ham dinner and all the leftovers were all packed and put away, I attacked the bird for the final time to get it ready for the dogs. We made a celebration out of it, with the whole family taking it out to them. The kids told them, “Happy Thanksgiving!” as we gave them their ‘treat’. Bear, our oldest boy dog, smelled the meat, looked up at me and then gingerly picked up a piece and started lumbering to the back of their enclosure. ‘Good,’ I thought, ‘he’s going to settle down and eat it’. Instead I watched him proceed to dig a hole, drop the meat into it and cover it up completely.

Even the dogs knew it was a failure. I started crying again.

There probably aren’t a lot of people who can say they cooked a goose so badly even the dogs wouldn’t eat it…. but I can….

So, if your gravy is lumpy today, take heart — it could be worse… a lot worse.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Heart and Mind of a Child

I looked into the face of a young girl this morning who’s body shape and size reminded me sharply of myself at her age (12). Overweight and self conscious, she was respectful (though quiet) and an easy person to be around.

My heart hurt when I realized that I just put a real face to only one of thousands of kids who worry about real life, adult issues because the caretakers in their lives are less mature than they are.

Let me just say this:
Kids should not have to worry about where they will live after being evicted.

Kids should not have to worry about whether a parent will get another job after receiving (another) drunk driving ticket…or where they’ll go if that parent goes to jail.

Kids should not have to worry about getting adequate nutrition. They shouldn’t feel they need to eat junk food as ‘fillers’, or to overeat whenever possible, just in case they don’t know when or where their next meal is coming from.

They shouldn’t have to worry about loving each parent equally, what to say in front of whom so they don’t set off a parent’s rant or whether or not they will get to see one parent again because a parent owes child support or has angered the other parent.

I know I can’t save the world. I know there are countless details in parents’ lives that complicate situations.

But I would go hungry myself and work at any (ANY) job offered in order to take care of my children or grandchildren. And I darn well wouldn’t be spending money partying while my children worried where they would go to sleep that night…or in a few weeks. Giving them a stable, safe living environment should be a basic responsibility, not an option.

This girl, with her soft, dark eyes and quiet ways, is haunting me today. To say much more than that could compromise her anonymity. I don’t want to do that. Know this – she has people in her life who can/do care for her. I just hope she has enough good role models in her life to overshadow the poor ones.

I’ll be praying for her.

Goodbye for now, Aunt Ada

Aunt Ada older

Aunt Ada young

We said a final goodbye yesterday to my Aunt Ada. Though I cried (hard) as her casket moved past me, I think my tears were selfish ones for the great, gaping hole she leaves behind.

The service and gathering was truly a celebration of her essence – a life well lived and a family well loved.

She was my dad’s oldest sister and her life spanned 96 years. She lived through two world wars, the great Depression, Woodstock and the new millennium. Technology moved leaps and bounds during that time – from light bulbs to computers, telegraphs to party-line telephones to internet cell phones and much, much more.

She mourned the death of her parents and a step-dad, all her siblings, her husband and a grandson. She celebrated the marriages and partnerships and births of 17 grandchildren, 30 great grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.

Through it all, she remained a family matriarch – almost unflappable. Her love and her faith were constant.

She was 6′ tall and ramrod straight. She had a strong Norwegian frame that would never be a size 4 – (none of us will; it’s who we are). She stood tall and proud and never, ever slumped or slouched. She wore her long hair in traditional Norwegian braids, wrapped around her head, until she was over 80 and her arms grew too tired to weave and wrap them each morning. I remember staying at their house over one weekend when I was probably 5 or so. I came out of the bedroom as she crossed their living room towards the kitchen. She was wearing a white cotton nightgown with a ruffled hem and her feet were bare. Her beautiful brown hair hung down past her bottom and swayed left and right as she walked. I was mesmerized. I had never seen Aunt Ada with her hair down. She assembled a pot of coffee, and I’m sure we talked, but all I remember is her hair. As the coffee began to brew, she moved into the bathroom off the kitchen and shut the door. When she emerged, her hair was neatly braided and wrapped around her head and she was dressed for the day.

That was her daily ritual. It gives me comfort to think about that.

I remember seeing Aunt Ada after she cut her hair short. I couldn’t help it – I cried. She took my hands and laughed a little. “Aw, Deb, it’s all right,” she said, drawing out the ‘all’ into a long whispery syllable. “It was time.” I knew she was right, but it made me sad to know she was getting older. I think it made me realize her mortality and I had to face the fact that she wouldn’t live forever. She was the last of my dad’s living siblings and I clung to that. She was a link to him here in this life. I knew she was right but I didn’t want to know it.

To the end, Aunt Ada’s skin was beautiful and almost unlined. Oh, she had a few wrinkles here and there, but her face had a soft and smooth texture of a woman less than half her age. She ate almonds every day to keep cancer away and was the only one of her siblings who didn’t succumb to that dreadful disease. I eat almonds every day, too. We’ll see how that goes-

Aunt Ada and her sister, my Aunt Iona, became quilters and both developed a strong passion for it. Aunt Ada founded a quilter’s club at our family’s home church and began making quilts for our family. Sisters and brothers got them as anniversary presents, we got them when we married; our children got them as they came into the family. We have a big family and we kept her very, very busy! She loved it. Until her fingers and eyes tired, each quilt was hand stitched. All are wonderful keepsakes. I have the quilt she made for my parents as well as mine and I think of her each time I see/use them.

When Aunt Ada’s casket was wheeled into the church it was draped with a quilt that had her name sewn into each square and the altar rails were covered with her treasures, too. It was comforting to have her presence there in such beauty.

There are countless stories and memories that I could tell you to give you a more complete sense of who she was, but perhaps the greatest testament to her life is the way she and the family faced her death. She died with dignity and class, as she had lived. She told all her children she was more than ready to go to heaven and ‘just didn’t know why it was taking God so long to take her’ (I said she was classy, I didn’t say she wasn’t a bit impatient sometimes!). She wanted to be with her husband again; her brothers and sisters; her family. When God took her home, we knew she was where she wanted to be and we were happy for her. So, after the service, there was laughter; babies and toddlers were passed from loving arms to loving arms; there were long, strong hugs. There were also some tears, but they were bittersweet and short-lived.

There was plenty of food, gallons and gallons of good, strong Norwegian coffee and krumkake.

And as we moved from table to table talking to everyone, I knew Aunt Ada would have loved seeing everyone together. She was there in spirit, to be sure. But not for very long. There was a cribbage game waiting in heaven.

The pastor read this Norse funeral poem toward the end of her service:
Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother.
Lo, there do I see my sisters
and my brothers.
I see the line of my people
back to the beginning. They do call to me to take my place.

Aunt Ada is there now, taking her place. We’ll all take our places some day, too. Meanwhile, I’ll miss her.

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