While the World was Crumbling, Mine was too.

While the world was crumbling
What you didn’t know….

As I sit here in my house coat (yes, you read that right- think Kmart special) I have reluctantly accepted that I am currently forced to overlook fashion for functionality. In fact, there’s a lot that I’ve overlooked and learned to let go of this past year.

If I could pinpoint when it all started, I would say it was about a week or so before my birthday last year (March 2019). I felt like I was in the fittest shape of my life and was feeling better, and stronger, than I ever had physically. Emotionally, I was still grieving multiple, significant losses in my life, and all within a very short amount of time. As a result, I chose to pour myself into work and became even busier (something my husband didn’t think I could possibly do) and tried harder to be even more positive and productive in all areas of my life. I had set my intentions on continued personal and professional growth, and improved self-care.

Like most birthdays, my wish was simple. I wanted to get up early and spend some time alone to watch the sunrise while taking inventory of all that I was (and continue to be) grateful for. I looked forward to spending the day with my greatest gifts (my children) and had planned to enjoy a nice dinner out with my husband later . *We always have cake together as a family. I had this fancy dress that I found at a Goodwill. I’m sure there are some who are reading this right now in shock…GOODWILL!?!? I could go out and buy something at a high-end boutique (and I have if I fell in love with something) but I just happened to stumble upon this dress months before, and while it wasn’t something that I would normally wear, there was something about it that intrigued me. The bonus was that it was BRAND new and still had the expensive tags on it. For what it cost at a thrift store, I figured, what the heck, and just hoped that one day I would have an occasion, or find a reason, to wear it. The fact that it fit like a glove when I got it home, felt like it was meant to be.  So, even though it was fancier than what I would normally wear out for a birthday dinner, I decided then and there that it was what I would wear for my birthday dinner. I dropped it off at the dry cleaners and looked forward to wearing it.

I had been working out hard (circuit training, Barre classes, and my usual daily walking). I had cut out certain foods, eliminated gluten, and was trying to improve my diet. I felt strong and lean, and as always, continued to rely on my positive outlook and maintained my attitude of gratitude. It was just a week before my birthday, and my husband and I (after attending a middle school matinee play) decided to take the dogs for a quick walk around the block. My foolish decision? I wore flip flops. We didn’t get very far (just 3-4 houses away) when one of our dogs crossed right in front of me as I was mid-step, and I found myself unable to stop. My swift, forward momentum caused me to fall over my dog and roll onto the ground. As I gathered myself and took inventory of what hurt, I knew something was wrong. My big toe, which had slid off the flip flop (in what was probably a desperate attempt to save me) had firmly planted and gripped itself onto the cement while the rest of my foot and my body rolled over my dog. My big toe in a position I had never seen before, was now pointing in a full 90-degree left angle, while the rest of my foot, stiff and straight in pain. I had severely dislocated my big toe and had sustained multiple fractures. I was put in a cast, given crutches, and then eventually transitioned to a boot. Of course, the big dinner plans and the fancy dress would now have to wait.  “Not the end of the world” I told myself and others. As I slowly healed, I was told my big toe would never be the same. Turns out, the big toe holds a lot more weight and significance than the other toes, and one of my fractures happened to be right at the joint where it bends and much of one’s balance rests. I was told to expect arthritis and accept that it would never have the same range of motion or ability to bend again, and even though it would also likely to always be swollen, I thought, and responded many times when describing how my injury came about, that “Things could always be worse.

Boot days
Out of the cast, and onto the boot

As May rolled around, I hobbled through my day with a boot on my foot, anxious to get back to some semblance of my regular routine. The one-year anniversary of the loss of my close cousin AND my dear friend, were weighing heavy on me. A party was planned to celebrate the life of my friend, while my quest to search for goodness and meaning (especially in sad times), left me focused on keeping her memory close to me.  All the while, I was preparing for the kid’s end of the year festivities, which I’ve always tried to make special for all of them (mine and hers).  There were volleyball clinics, camps, and road trip adventures that had long become tradition, and this year was no different. Looking at the calendar, the days were jam packed with upcoming events, monumental occasions, and fun trips.

Amidst end of the school year activities and various events, I continued to check off my growing “to do list” which included the kid’s well visits, as well as my own. There were dentist appts, annual physicals, athletic and camp forms to be completed, and those dreaded (but never put off) annual female appts. It was just days before the one year anniversary of my dear friend’s passing that I made my way onto the elevator and headed up for my annual mammogram. It was like any other day, and the experience was just as riddled with anxiety as each and every one had been before. I continued to answer emails and texts regarding upcoming graduation procedures, speeches, and other program details while I sat in the waiting room waiting to be called back. In the next room, some women read books or flip through magazines, some scroll through FB, and some just try to get some work done. I think everyone prays in their own way in this room, but ironically, most don’t talk to each other. We all just do what we do to pass the time in this awkward waiting area of robe clad women.

I had accompanied my late friend to many of her appts, treatments, and various tests, and was by her side when she left this world. She was a beautiful force so strong, and our bond so close, that I felt a part of me left with her the morning she departed this world. We shared many, many important, funny, and serious conversations, and had lots of adventures, but there was one thing that she often said to me that always left me feeling uneasy.  Often times, throughout her struggle, or at time when I would help her with something, she would stop, look me in the eyes, and say; “Shane, this will never happen to you” and while I was always quick to stop her from saying it again, or tried to change the subject, she would continue to say it over and over. She said it all the time! “This will never happen to you, Shane.” When I would ask her not to say it, she began to follow it up by saying “but if it ever did, I only hope you have a friend who is as good to you as you are to me.”  I cannot write, think of, remember, or read these words without crying. It’s something that brings on such an overwhelming amount of emotion and leaves me with such sadness and many questions.

A gift to me from my sweet, JK. She certainly changed my world.

As we prepared to celebrate her life, and after having to go back for additional views and tests, I heard those dreaded words as I was lying on the exam table. I felt like I was in a bad dream, except I wasn’t. The nurse’s eyes filled with sorrow as those words were delivered to me, and as I looked down at the boot on my right foot, I thought…. “Yes, I guess things REALLY could be worse.” The moments and days that followed that one were a blur, yet I recall EVERY hazy detail. I had multiple ultrasounds, biopsies, scans, and MRIs, and was given pamphlets and patient information on a disease that I already knew too much about and was way too familiar with! If I saw one more pink ribbon, I was going to scream!!!!!!! I hated the color PINK!!!!!

As I awaited additional information, I went to the gathering at my friend’s house, put on a smile and held it all in, but the pain was almost paralyzing. For one, I still couldn’t believe it, and two, I didn’t want my loved ones, or the ones whom I love like my own, to experience any more pain or fear. I was physically there, but it was as if I was floating just above the noise and the many conversations being had, yet I was not truly a part of or present in.

Somehow, I made it through the party and the overwhelming pain it served to remind me that she was no longer here, but also of the fear and confusion I was now facing alone. I went home and cried, but not for long. I had things to do and I wasn’t going to let this interfere with, or take away from, any upcoming celebrations or special moments. I sat on many soccer fields, participated in carpools, held play dates, hosted parties, arranged events, went to meetings, and continued to go about my day as though nothing was wrong.  I was still waiting for more information, and I just prayed that it would be something I could overcome.

The Lord will fight for you
And still I became…..

I remember one particular day where I had just had 2 additional core biopsies (painful bastards) and was wrapped in compression dressing and ice packs. I left the hospital and drove directly to an end of the year retirement dinner. Afraid I might even be late, I called the organizer of the party to alert them of my possible delay, but ended up making it on time and proceeded to deliver a speech for our retiring teachers on behalf of the Board of Education.  As I arrived and made my way around the room greeting everyone, a teacher-whom I love, approached me and proceeded to give me a giant hug. As much I needed and wanted that hug (especially in that moment) I could hardly hold back my tears and was afraid that they would start streaming out. However, as soon as she hugged me, I could hear and feel the crumbling of the smash activated ice pack in my blouse, which jolted my attention back to keeping my composure and forcing my tears to retreat.  My only thought then, was that I hoped she didn’t feel or hear anything too. As I walked around the room seeing so many friendly, familiar faces, I couldn’t resist hugging those who extended their arms and warm embrace, but I did so gently and slightly at a distance. I remember driving home hoping no one noticed.

The excitement of the 8th grade dance was in the air, while my stomach was in knots.  I took Lainey to get her hair done for the big night, and as we pulled up to the salon and parked, I accidently bumped into the car behind me and scratched their bumper. “SERIOUSLY!!!” I thought?!?! I have NEVER done that in all of my years driving. I wanted to fall apart right then and there, but as I looked over and saw my daughter sitting in the passenger seat, I held back my tears and just said “Great!” and proceeded to write a note with my name, number, and an explanation of what happened, and left it on the windshield. We went into the salon and I stood back and watched her get her hair done. She looked so beautiful, so grown up, so excited and happy. Meanwhile, I was hanging on by a thread. Partly because of all that I was dealing with, and partly because of the immense amount of pride and joy I had as I watched her beaming with anticipation and excitement about the evening ahead. Thoughts of what the future might hold flashed before my eyes and I had to stop, redirect my thoughts, and put a smile on my face….for her.

We got home and she began getting dressed for the big night.  What an emotional roller coaster! Oh, and the woman whose car I accidentally bumped into earlier, happened to call me during my daughter’s big reveal – the completed, put together look of dress, hair and accessories. Timing, and more unwanted distractions! The woman thanked me for leaving the note and even commented at how most people wouldn’t have done that. She told me that she was going to get a few estimates and would let me know the damage. Ironically, a week or so later when I met her at a Starbucks to give her cash, she admitted to me that her husband told her that she should have given me the highest estimate. He said “Why not get the most money you can out of her?” but how she told me that she explained to him that in speaking to me on the phone, she could tell that I was a kind and honest person and she wouldn’t want to do that to me while reminding him that I didn’t have to leave the note at all. I considered telling her (a stranger) about how my life felt like it was falling apart, but I didn’t.

But back to the evening of the 8th grade dance….

While my daughter was getting dressed, I explained to my husband what had happened and used the unfortunate example to show my daughter (and my other 2 children) how doing the right thing isn’t always easy (honestly, it often sucks) but that it’s important, and it matters.  How I kept from falling apart that day, is beside me – although I know it came from up above. So, it was onto the next task at hand.

When I agreed to photograph the 8th grade dance a few weeks earlier, of course I didn’t know then that my heart would be in my chest worrying about, and waiting for results. My husband was upset with me and pleaded with me to cancel as he reminded me of how heavy my camera was.  He said that “someone else could do it “, and while I was sure that someone else would/could have, I didn’t want worry or fear to stop me from doing what I committed to, and wanted, to do. So, I padded my bra with more disposable ice packs to help with the swelling, and set out to capture every moment and memory I could of these best times. Although in pain, I snapped more pictures of laughter, precious moments, and special bonds than I think I would have, if not for what I was going through. My only disappointment, was that after I took all of those great pictures and spent hours editing them and putting them into a shareable album, I was told that they couldn’t be distributed to the students or families because not everyone had signed a waiver with permission to be photographed. As insignificant as it was in the grand scheme of things, my heart sunk even more because I had purposely pushed through my pain and my circumstances to capture beautiful memories that now, I was told, might never be seen. Well, when I’m no longer in my position of public service, I will be sure to share them….or if you want them sooner, those 2019 GW graduates who elected not to allow their child to be photographed, will need to give me permission.

What a special night it was.

With the 8th grade dance now behind us, my oldest daughter, my first born, was about to walk the stage in her cap and gown, and I was to give the speech to the 8th grade graduating class. “How could I possibly do this?” I thought. My nerves were in my stomach as I worried about what might be and what the tests would show. I was an emotional wreck just trying to hold it all together, but for her and my other children, I had to do it. I gave that graduation speech with more ice packs and Tylenol for pain, but also with more conviction than I had ever felt before. With each and every word I delivered, I prayed the message that I wanted to impart, would be heard and felt by all. To have an opportunity to give a graduating class, words to live by, became an overwhelming and highly motivated test of my emotional capacity and deeply driven desire to make it count.

2019 Graduating Class Speach
Make it count!
The best, most needed and wanted hug!

After getting through all of the end of year activities, soon birthday season was upon us in our house.  My husband’s birthday (end of June), then the 4th of July, then my son’s birthday (July 5th), and then my oldest daughter’s (July 15th).  I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s celebration, so I just kept getting through each day, day by day. We did, however, plan a much needed, long overdue night out in the city to celebrate my belated birthday, and I DID finally wear that dress!

I did get to wear it, and we celebrated right before my 1st surgery.

Soon, I began to prepare for my next big hurdle. I wanted to open up to a few people close to me (and I tried!) but I soon discovered that some weren’t available – whether it was emotionally or physically. While I was deeply hurt by this, I thanked God for the few who were.  Outside of them, I depended on myself, leaned on my husband, and relied on my faith to keep my attitude positive and my mind clear and focused. While many were asking how my foot was doing, I was secretly preparing for a bigger, more serious surgery. I received a surgery date of July 22nd (there’s some painful irony here).  It wasn’t until the night before my surgery, that I finally told my children. We were sitting in a church parking lot about to head into mass, and I just explained that mommy was going to have surgery to have something removed. I didn’t go into a lot of details, but just said that they found something and I was going to have it removed. “No big deal.” “Nothing to worry about.” “No reason to tell anyone anything.” There were some questions on their part, but my strength and my will to be positive, seemed to calm them and their fears. My husband drove me to the hospital early the next morning, and they then went down to VA to spend a few weeks with their grandparents. It doesn’t run in my family, but genetic testing gave me peace of mind as a mother for the love of my children and care for their future health. I elected to have a double mastectomy, and my life changed in more ways than one.

I chose not to tell anyone because I wanted to protect the people I love. I didn’t want my pain to become anyone else’s pain. I didn’t want my children to worry, nor did I want other children whom I love like my own, to worry. I also didn’t want the world knowing my business and risk unwanted negativity entering into my life, family, or home. I wanted to protect and shield the ones I love, and decided that it was my choice and my survival guide. There’s no right or wrong way – it’s a personal choice that is not easy for anyone to make. If my own family didn’t know, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it wasn’t public information. As difficult as it was for me, I did open the door to a couple of people and let them in on my secret. It’s amazing how different people are, and how these differences become more visible and intensified at times like these. Over this past year, there were a few times that, I will admit, I didn’t pick up the phone or answer a call because I knew the person on the other end would sense or know something was wrong. I’m sorry if anyone felt I was being aloof, but now you know why. On the other hand, I will also admit that there were many times that I had hoped or thought the phone might ring, but it didn’t. There were many times when I felt invisible, forgotten, and certainly lost, but I believe that’s all part of the journey.

After surgery, I was scheduled to undergo radiation and then be done, but after a thorough discussion with my amazing team of Drs, and my strong desire to be ultra-aggressive, we decided to throw chemo at it too. Not everyone agreed that it was “necessary” but since protocols change and vary by Dr, I chose to do more, rather than less, and feel blessed to have a Doctor who treated me like he would one of his own family members. So, the plan changed (like many of my “plans” this past year), and I would now start chemo first and then do radiation.

On Sept 11, 2019 (18 years from the day I was working in NYC and spared from the destruction of a national terrorist attack), I began 12 rounds of chemo and lost every hair on my body except for the hair on my head. I opted to try the “Cold Cap” – a cap that literally freezes your scalp so that the chemo doesn’t reach your hair follicles. It’s extremely uncomfortable and very painful in the beginning, but I felt it was worth trying because I didn’t want my kids or others to know what I was going through and cause them any additional worry. I had a friend who went with me for my first treatment, and a friend who was with me for my last – albeit through the window due to COVID. My poor husband showed up to one of my sessions in the beginning hoping to surprise me and bring me some food, and I got upset with him because I didn’t want him to see me like that. I didn’t understand my reaction any more than he did, but we both did by the time it was all over.  Outside of that, every week, I went by myself (not because my husband didn’t want to be there with me) but because I chose to do it alone. I knew he had work and other responsibilities, and I didn’t want what happened to me, to be forced upon him anymore than I could help it. I didn’t want him (or anyone) to see me that way. I don’t want to be seen differently because of it. As a result, I didn’t tell any of my family about any of my subsequent treatments. I felt it was irrelevant and I was doing what I had to do. I was cared for by some of the most amazing nurses and talented doctors, and met many amazing people and patients along the way. I even have many who now follow me and my writing. One of the most touching moments throughout my treatment, was when I was walked back to my chemo chair and a nurse pointed to one of my writings that had been framed and hung up on the wall in my “regular” chemo area. They said that they thought it belonged there, and told me that long after my chemo was done, they thought it would help inspire others. Insert more tears here.

At the very same time, my oldest daughter was working on her Silver Award for Girl Scouts, and completely unaware that her own mother was undergoing chemo, chose a project to uplift those undergoing treatment.  She decided to create self-care bags for those undergoing chemo and other forms of therapies.  She handwrote and decorated inspirational notes and put them in individual bags, along with Chapstick, fuzzy socks, hard candies, word games, headbands, lotion, hand sanitizers, gum, pens, and notebooks, and distributed over 30 bags to the VERY center in which I was receiving care.  The nurses (all keeping my secret) loved her idea and many patients were so touched and appreciative – several were moved to tears.  From this experience, she even made several connections with patients who had written to her (and even met in person) to tell her how much of a difference her thoughtful gesture and kind gifts made. As I drove her there and witnessed the love she was giving, the care that was felt, and the hope that was renewed, I couldn’t help but have tears in my eyes as my heart overflowed with such pride.

After losing all of my body hair, I decided that I should shop for wigs just in case the cold cap didn’t work. The hair on my head was thinning a bit and I wanted to be prepared. As I sat in a wig fitting chair overwhelmed and surrounded by countless styles, lengths, and colors, I tried on a few, and surprisingly, was pretty calm throughout the process. Standing around me were several people who worked there (think of a bridal fitting but TOTALLY different vibe!) Some were handing me different wig options, another explaining that they could cut or style any of them to suit me, and finally…..one asked the question that they all seemed to want to ask – “So, who did you bring with you today?” I simply said “No one. I wanted to do this alone.” A friend did kindly offer, but I declined. Without skipping a beat, I went on to try on all different colors, lengths, and styles, until I found the one I would keep on standby should I need it. It was a strange feeling and an awakening in many ways.

Wig shopping – just in case the cold cap didn’t work

While undergoing treatment and using the cold cap, I could only wash my hair once a week, couldn’t use a hair dryer or other styling tools, and was forced to let my hair air dry.  It wasn’t too bad, but I did feel self-conscious – especially on our wedding anniversary when I wanted to look my best but just had to let my hair air dry. I became creative with makeup, crafty with clothing, and familiar with fake eyelashes. I found it extra challenging to tend to my hair and various side effects while attending/hosting meetings and traveling to various Conventions, but felt one of the toughest tests would be keeping it from my dad  – especially when I attended a dinner at which he was being recognized for his educational achievements/contributions, and inducted into the NY State Middle School Hall of Fame. My guest appearance and proudly delivered speech at his well-deserved, hard earned induction, was a heartwarming surprise because of Barbara’s help. I was so happy to be able to pull it off for so many reasons.

With Fall in full swing and so much going on, I decided it would be best if we didn’t have our annual Halloween party. As much as I wanted to have it (and technically, still could have) I decided that I wanted to spend time alone, enjoying my family. I booked a trip to Disney where we made many memories and had a lot of fun. I even got a little creative and was able to find a way to combine this special family trip with some needed visits with another special young woman whom I love. And of course, I got to see one of my dearest and long-time friends and her family, who live nearby. I felt some were disappointed or upset with me for not having the party, and it hurt, but I moved on. I had no choice.

All the while, there were times I felt misunderstood, taken for granted or advantage of, disregarded, judged, and overlooked. As a strong woman, I could handle it, but as a parent who kept a secret to protect her children, I found myself biting my tongue many, many times. There were instances…..boy, were there instances that I felt immensely hurt or disrespected by snide comments or assumptions formed by some who thought they knew me, my family, and/or our circumstances, but who had NO idea. With each cringe and hurtful cut, I turned my cheek. I watched as some adults behaved more like children in various situations, and I simply walked away. I felt many expectations were imposed upon me that I didn’t necessarily want, but I fulfilled them anyway.

I finished my 12 rounds of chemo the day before Thanksgiving. The timing of everything during my journey has been QUITE meaningful. My first day of radiation was on New Year’s Eve. Yet, another tradition of mine, recreated and transformed. For 25 days/25 fractions, I would drop all of the kids off at school, and then drive myself to undergo radiation. No one was the wiser, but I was feeling conflicted, confused, and kept searching for the reason and purpose in His plan. Throughout my journey, I have most certainly been surrounded by my many angels. I have seen them, felt them, and heard them whisper in my ear. From finding feathers that remind me, to watching butterflies, cardinals, and hummingbirds float by, to simply spotting the goodness and beauty that exists, even in pain, I have found comfort and taken refuge in my faith and my ability to recognize the presence of angels – both walking and floating around me.

I am so grateful for the handful of people who have been there for me (my 3 Ms in particular) who have respected my wish for confidentiality, while offering prayers and positive affirmations. Those who reached out to me this past year, unaware of anything, showed me that they were thinking of me, and it did not go unnoticed. The simplest gestures meant more to me than anyone knows.  Whether it was a last-minute invite out for drinks that I couldn’t make for some made up reason, a text suggesting we try to get a date on the calendar to get the families together, or just a quick message to say HI, it mattered.  Many times, I found it incredibly difficult to keep my secret, and I considered opening up more, but either felt it was not the right time, I didn’t get a response (or at least before I changed my mind), or circumstances made it near impossible – i.e. friends losing loved ones, conflict of every kind imaginable, and of course, COVID. I’ve always found it difficult to ask for help (mainly, because I really don’t want any), but the positive support of genuine, caring people was/is different. Since I didn’t want any help though, I accepted that I had to do without some of the added support, but I felt it was the right decision for me and those I love. I would hold onto my pain and keep it to myself if it meant sparing anyone else hurt or worry. There was enough of it in the world already.

Although my chemo was completed, I continued on with another form of treatment every 3 weeks.  This lasted a full year from when I first started. If you follow me and my writing, you might see some more meaningful posts during these times, as I often used my treatment time to write and post inspirational things that were a result of some of my most profound or moving experiences. There are MANY I didn’t post. If you read them now, you may see all new meaning in many of them.

On January 13th, 2020, I was sitting outside one of our schools preparing to lead a Board of Education meeting, when I received a call from the man who became the dad I never had, and I, the daughter he said he always wanted. He called to update me on some recent happenings. They had just arrived in FL where he and Barbara traditionally escaped the east coast winters to enjoy the sunny weather, but before unpacking, made a stop at the ER due to some ongoing symptoms he had been experiencing.  We had just had lunch a few weeks prior, and he was now telling me, very matter of factly, that he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He told me not to worry and that the prognosis was good and that he would rather have treatment is sunny FL than come back to NJ for it.  I held back the tears, caught my breath, and remained positive because I know the power of the mind and the direction in which our thoughts can lead us. As I hung up the phone, I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and headed into the school to lead our meeting.  I never said a word to anyone and kept his secret, because like me, he was a very private man and didn’t want sympathy.

It all happened SO quick. On February 4th, I boarded a plane headed to FL to give my final goodbyes as he was moved to hospice. I walked down the hallway, never wanting to be in another hospice facility again after losing my friend, and as I exhaled deeply, tears rolled down my face and wouldn’t stop.  A nurse just down the hall happened to see me, approached me, and proceeded to hug me. She offered to sit with me for awhile, but I politely declined as I didn’t want to waste a single moment or prolong what I knew I had to do. As I wiped my face and shook off the sadness, fear, and anxiety and left it outside of his door, I then walked into the room, and with a cheerful voice and a smile on my face, said “Hi Dad! I made it.” We held hands as I told him all that I wanted, and needed to say (except for my secret) and he passed peacefully that night.  As I showered in their guest bath, I stood there in complete shock and disbelief, as my radiated skin was peeling off in layers as the water ran over me. I had just completed radiation the week before!!! Had I not started and completed it when I did, I might not have been able to get there to see him and say my goodbyes because of the consecutive, daily radiation sessions.

My last day of radiation! Little did I know the news I would receive the very next week!

Throughout this entire experience, I have said “I don’t understand” more times than I can count. I have NEVER asked why though, because I know that we may never know, and quite honestly, why NOT me? It could (and does) happen to many people. I just kept saying to myself “I don’t understand” over and over again. I cried with Barbara as we made service plans, shared memories, and handled necessary things in the days that followed. I never told her either. Why? How could I? As I flew home, I was stopped by the TSA for a pat down. The woman asked me if there were any areas that were sensitive, as she proceeded to explain the process in which I was already well aware of. As I stood in the middle of the airport security area with my arms outstretched, “palms facing up” and legs spread out, I finally crumbled as I simply pointed to my chest.  She asked me what was wrong (initially with a bit of an attitude) and I just told her that I had a double mastectomy, had just finished chemo and radiation, and that I had flown down to say goodbye to my dad who had just died. She said “Oh, honey” and as she expressed her condolences, said “He will be watching over you, dear.” All I could say was “I know, but I never told him.” Of course, he knows now.

In our time alone, as I sat beside his bed, holding his hand, I reassured him that I would do what he always “instructed” me to do…….”TSC of YSS and LYL” which meant-“Take special care of your special self … and love ya lots!” I just couldn’t grasp that only a few, short months earlier, I was giving a speech for his induction, and now would be writing and delivering his eulogy. Both were an honor and a privilege I remain grateful for, as his life, and the impact he had on mine, was a gift that was easy to write about, albeit painful.

The flight I didn’t want to make. The goodbye I wasn’t ready to give.

I arrived back in NJ and went directly from the airport to our school board office for an important meeting. Again, no one knew the pain I carried or the burden I bore, but staying busy and doing what I believed to be right was how I coped. Through meetings, calls, challenges, everyday life issues, work, family matters, bullies (kids and adults), pandemics, then virtual graduations, community discord, and then just pure ugliness from people…I have been challenged physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. All that I could do, and the only control I had, was to focus on what I believe in – the power of perspective, the need for positivity, and the importance of love.

While the world hailed nurses and essential staff during COVID, I was already thanking God for them and how they made my treatments, and various challenges, easier to bare.  While some people complained about work, I became “non-essential” and worried about the limitations that small business health insurance presented, and prayed to God that my Drs and various treatments would be covered. I prayed my husband could continue to work, but at the same time, worried about his daily exposure and what that could mean to me and our family. While some might have thought I was a “mean mom” to keep my kids distanced longer than others, I had my reasons, and when Ioosened some of those rules, I had my reasons too. While I have friends of different political parties, of many different beliefs, backgrounds, lifestyles, and cultures, I have never judged or loved anyone any less for who they are, and my good, true friends, have never loved me any less for who I am or what I believe.  However, I have watched as some have allowed anger and rage to engulf them and have witnessed so many quick to cut with their tongue and sling insult at others and our country. I have been through my own hell and I’ve seen a lot of ugly things. I’ve felt a lot of pain and I’ve tried hard to minimize the amount that I’ve shared with others. Yet, I have been exposed to the spiteful spit of others impulsive reactions, anger fueled motivations, and devisive language and behavior. I have tried hard to maintain my dignity, integrity, and have never compromised my character or my convictions while respecting others at the same time.

This past year hasn’t been easy or pretty. In fact, it’s been one of the loneliest, scariest, and most trying (yet most enlightening) experiences of my life. One of the hardest things to do (especially in today’s world) is to smile, be patient, and show compassion, but it’s the only thing that I’ve been able to do, because I know (I have always known) that it’s what matters most! For some, they will always sit in their anger, resentment, pitty, and blame. Some will continue to make assumptions about people, their lives, and be quick to pass judgement, show disrespect, disregard, or make excuses for bad behavior, but I will not. I cannot change the hand I’m dealt, but I AM responsible for what I do with it, and whether or not I choose to play fair or nice.

When I started painting rocks and placing them all over town earlier in the year, I did so because I knew that if I was secretly hurting, there were many others who were too. As tension grew and voices became louder in the world, it seemed the feelings and goal of loving and respecting one another were lost and disregarded.  In spite of (and maybe even more so because of) my own personal struggles, I have felt even more compelled to speak up and contribute some positive perspective and some much needed understanding and rationale. While I have been secretly overcoming my own obstacles, I have been disheartened by some of the things I’ve witnessed, yet overwhelmed and encouraged by those who refuse to stop putting love out into this world.

Sadly, some have allowed their hearts to become so callused, that they believe their actions to be justified or excusable rather than accountable. I have witnessed more disrespect, whining, complaining, over dramatizations, and angry outbursts than ever before…..all affecting me now more than ever before too. While the world was crumbling, mine was too, but as hard as it was, (God knows how hard) I did not /would not, allow my circumstances to be a reason or an excuse to be ugly, mean, or disrespectful.

On July 28th, 2020, I checked in for my second surgery. It was an intensive 10-hr. surgery, and I spent 5 days in the hospital. As I have throughout this entire journey, I made some amazing connections with people of all walks of life, backgrounds, and beliefs – not because I was a patient (because these connections have continued beyond hospitals and Drs offices), but because people connect by heart through love and compassion. What your heart holds, dictates whether you are motivated to unite, or fight. Peace, happiness, joy, and gratitude, exist only when you believe in, live by, and are an extension of them.

On Wednesday, August 12th, I not only had 4 drains removed, but I completed my very last treatment and I rang the bell! My nurses clapped for me. People in the parking lot who couldn’t go into the facility to be with their loved ones during their treatments, clapped for me, and my friend who drove me because I was unable to drive due to surgery, clapped for me. I might be walking a little slower, still not able to drive, but I’m making my laps again and still seeing the beauty that exists!

I had the GREATEST Doctors (one whose photo still needs to be added-my AMAZING PS), the BEST nurses, the most LOVING family, a couple of CARING friends, the most POWERFUL Angels, and the ULTIMATE God on my side! I was blessed by so many unexpected connections, conversations, “no coincidence” coincidences, and many moving, memorable, touching experiences. I am a different woman, and I think I might even like this version better than the previous one, scars and all.

Ringing the bell!

I am now on the road to recovery (although I have a surgery or two ahead of me) but I am so grateful for my life, for my healing, for my husband, my children, my family, and for the heart that God gave me to see people and truly connect with those who love like I do – deeply, fully, honestly, and without reservation or discrimination.

I am a warrior. I want and need NO sympathy. I’m going to be OK and I will not engage in ANY depressing or negative talk. As I write this, I have yet to tell my kids that I had chemo and radiation, but I will before I share this with anyone else.  All that they need to know now is that Mommy is OK and positive thoughts, prayers, are always helpful, and more love, kindness, and compassion is needed all around. 

If you know me, you know that I am a lover, a peace keeper, and a kindness spreader through and through, but I am also not naïve, and I know that there are those out there with ulterior missions and agendas in disguise. My armor is on! As much as I wanted to leave this next part out, I decided to fully embrace the freedom of letting it all out so…..to any haters, negative, pot stirring, conflict driving crazies, may this serve as a warning to stay far away from me! You have NO idea how strong I am, and my threshold for BS, meanness, or negativity has reached a point of zero tolerance. There is only love, light, and acceptance allowed near me, my family, and those I love.

If you’ve made it this far, you may be asking why I decided to share this all now, and I guess the answer is for many reasons. Most importantly, it’s because I’m healthy, thank God. Is it all over? No, but it’s gone, it’s out, and I’m here. I’m also tired of pretending. For someone who lives as open, honest, and authentically as I do, this has been so hard for me to keep to myself. For another reason, I think in a world that is filled with so much anger, confusion, and blame, I wondered if maybe now would be a good time to share a little personal perspective with others. Ironically, this was the theme of the speech I delivered virtually to this year’s 2020 8th grade graduating class – Perspective! While I could have complained and aired all of my worries, inconveniences, and stress, I was (and remain) very much aware of the fact that there are many others who face battles and difficulties, and some worse. Rather than whine and complain over delays, cancellations, or missed celebrations, I have been keenly aware of how precious life is and how a little perspective, can change everything. I’ve watched people complain over having to wear masks, or how their travels plans were postponed, or how their parties had to be altered. I didn’t blame anyone for feeling the way they did, but I certainly had a different view and was grateful for what I had. When COVID hit, I had my own fears and had to avoid exposure and overcome challenges that some actually laughed about-unknowing the dangers that I faced. Again, I didn’t hold it against them, but growing within me was this feeling that perhaps when everything was over, maybe I was meant to do something, say something, or use my own experience to open the eyes of others.

So, I guess I decided this would be part of my testimony, NOT my story.  Ironically, the day before I went in for my latest surgery on July 28th, I was signed by a book publisher! Again….timing!!! This chapter of my life (this past year) was not part of my story or part of the book I was signed for, but perhaps it was meant to be. It certainly isn’t the whole story, but the experience has brought me, not to the end of the book, but to the beginning of my new life.

The truest example of someone’s character and heart, is not what they say or do when things are good or going their way, but how they react and respond when their world is upside down and chaos is all around them. Not that long ago, I carried kindness rocks in my pockets and dropped them all over town. While I can’t carry too many rocks in my pockets right now (I will soon enough), I still hold a lot of love in my heart. I hope in my “test” you find the testament. The testament of not using heartache, unwanted pain, or situations that haven’t gone the way you wanted or planned, to be an excuse to live a life of anger or blame. I haven’t done everything right, I’ve made mistakes, and I’m certainly not perfect, but I’ve set out to do everything for the right reasons. In the midst of pain and struggle, there IS light and purpose in everything if we are open to seeking it.  If you can’t find light, be a light. My comfort is knowing that my pain was not in vain IF it matters, makes a difference, or helps someone else. This is just a small part of my journey. The book? Now, that’s a story!

May health, happiness, and love be with you all, and may compassion and kindness prevail in a world where “darkness and despair must never have the last word”.

The power of kindness….pass it on!
My place of peace with my homemade sign of words to live by: “Have Hope, Spread Love”