My Dad’s Brother

My Dad’s brother died yesterday morning.

 When I was younger, maybe 12,  I spent a month one summer living with him and my aunt and cousins in Idaho. My cousins and I spent our days going to the nearby pond and playing in the lake that was formed from the rinsing of the trees that were cut down for lumber. I remember we had to wash off afterward because our bodies would be covered in a layer of green/brown sediment and silt.

 I also remember hot dog eating contests with my cousin David. I won sometimes but does anyone ever really “win” a hot dog eating contest? Whenever I’m sick I think “yep, summer of 1991 is catching up with me.”

A chronic insomniac, even then, I would wake up and go downstairs to find my uncle Mike pouring a pot of coffee. He always had coffee on. In fact, to this day, when I find myself wandering the house in the middle of the night, I will think of him and his midnight coffees.

There was something special about waking up and hanging out with my uncle in the middle of the night, in the quiet of this house in Post Falls, Idaho, with it’s porch- perfect for sitting and my aunt’s rose garden the highlight of the neighborhood.

It’s nice to be awake with people. It makes you less alone.

As I thought about times with Mike, or my own experiences with him, most of my memories are in a kitchen in Idaho, a coffee pot burning all night. He wouldn’t scoot me back to bed or dismiss my wakefulness. He would talk to me. We were all reading books, all the time… John Grisham and Michael Chrighton. We’d talk about that or he’d just tell me some funny story about my Dad growing up.

I can’t pretend to have known him the final years of his life. I remember that Mike was light-hearted and kind. Quick with a joke, he always made you smile. I remember one day we took a surprise last minute drive to a beach with smooth white sand, and he watched and smiled as all of us kids played until sunset. 

Last night I was thinking about this idea that it’s just nice to be awake with someone.  All my life I’d spent countless nights awake, and unlike my departed uncle, I did not keep a pot of coffee going all night. My mom likes to tell me that as a child I wandered the house like a ghost. I’d spend the hours rearranging the furniture in my bedroom or reading or watching late night tv until the Mormon Tabernacle choir sang and the screen was just a row of color bars. (only certain generations of insomniacs know about the color bars)

I used to get bored and try and wake my younger brother. I’d pick up the cat and bring her into his room and toss her onto his bed so she scrambled to get her bearings and wake him up. Then I’d pretend to be  walking by. “Oh, you’re up! Want to play Monopoly?”

Insomniacs love Monopoly. The game never ends and by the time we’ve let you purchase all the red properties and put up a few hotels, you will not have noticed we’ve entrapped you all night. It’s 4am and you either need to land on Free Parking or cash out one of your Railroads, but you will not leave us and go to bed.

I am often accused of being cheerful. I say “accused” because sometimes there is this assumption that maybe I keep a positive outlook out of naivete, as if I simply don’t know to be angry or disenchanted, as if the world looks ok to me because I just don’t know better.

I think I am reminded, as many of us are, and cruelly sometimes, that life is very short. What we do should matter, and because we cannot always do what we want to do, we should make our present state matter. Throughout my days I hear “I’ll be happy when…”

But I think “why can’t you be happy now?”

Life is happening now. It’s not happening when you lose weight or when you get another job or when you have a little more money or when your partner is doing x, y, or z. It’s happening now, when you are awake… when you are awake with someone.

It’s a series of rants, I guess. I didn’t really want this to become my Cancer Death blog. Sounds so intense. Better get back to Matt Damon fan fiction.

When someone dies you consider your own humanity and you remember the past. Life is hard sometimes, to be sure, but every day (or night in my case) is a chance to be awake with someone, and how unique and powerful is that human experience?

I’m happy I knew my Dad’s brother enough to spend a few nights at a kitchen table not alone.


The Pieces

“Did your heart get put back together?”

My four-year-old daughter tilted her head, looked at me and cupped her hands to make a heart. She had apologized for calling me stupid, and when I told her that her apology made me feel better, she asked if my heart got put back together. She thought she had broken my heart, literally.

How beautiful. She not only understood that words could hurt a person, but she believed that a broken heart could be mended. It could “get put back together.” In her world, you can make things right. Sadness can be overcome with kindness, and hearts mend.

I’ve had a reoccurring dream lately. I run a hand through my hair and I pull clumps of it out into my clenched fist. As I panic and drop the blonde locks into a pile on the floor more of it falls out around me. I startle awake and I am scared and then I am mad at myself for feeling scared.

All throughout this cancer treatment, and through any trying time really, people have told me that I am strong. “You got this. You’re a fighter.”

I don’t feel strong when I have the dream.

I don’t feel strong when I’m tired, and I don’t feel like a fighter when I momentarily contemplate forgoing radiation or shutting myself away and hiding from the question “is Sara ok?”

Yet, I watch my daughter and she is amazing. She falls and cries and then gets up to brush herself off and go right back to whatever slightly dangerous, probably messy thing she probably should not have been doing in the first place. She’s resilient. As I thought about her today, I thought about how I would never judge her worries as weaknesses.

I have come to believe that strength is not the avoidance or omission of tears and fists and hurt. Strength is feeling what we are, vulnerable and human. Strength is coping.

Even in the most difficult of times, my heart always mended and my heart is no where near broken in this.

Yes. Sara is ok.

Maybe people are right. Maybe I am strong. Maybe I will allow myself to be scared sometimes. I will allow myself to feel tired and I will remember that my heart will always get put back together.

I Did My Hair In Case Matt Damon Showed Up to My Lumpectomy

I did my hair in case Matt Damon showed up to my lumpectomy. I did. I woke up and curled each strand, smoothed it out and pinned it back. I did my eyes too- but only eye shadow, not liner. I didn’t know if they would need to put me under anesthesia and if Matt Damon really did show up I didn’t want to look like the Crow, with black streaks running down my face. I looked pretty, I thought, pretty enough for surgery and possibly Matt Damon.

I invite Matt to everything. He’s pro-union and a humanitarian, and basically, my most-favorite-actor-ever. But that’s another blog post, perhaps another blog entirely. I could call it “Things I Invite Matt Damon To.” (Parties, rallies, protests, the births of my children…)

Anyhow, my point is, I prepared for my lumpectomy like anything else. I sat and tried to preempt every possible scenario. I tried to anticipate every feeling both in me and around me. I tried to control the experience.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I made a gigantic batch of meatballs and put them in my freezer. The logic was, if something happened to me, my husband and two young children would have dinner for weeks. This way they could go a while before noticing I was gone. I imagined them looking for the little foil packets one night down the line and suddenly realizing, wait, Mom is dead.

It’s morbid. I know.

I tried to keep the people around me from worrying. I made jokes… awful jokes. People don’t laugh at cancer jokes. It’s like they have no sense of tumor. (Last one, I promise.) I tried to show how very much “ok” with all this I am, how very much on top of it I can be.

Then, yesterday morning, an hour before my procedure, after dropping the kids off at school, it dawned on me that I have cancer. I pulled the car over and thought about it for a minute. All the prepping and downplaying in the world wouldn’t take away the reality as I sat with it alone. For the first time in a month, it occurred to me that maybe it was serious.

Cancer. Yikes. They should really call it something else. Cancer needs a new PR team.

A few months ago, a friend asked me if I was afraid to fly. I was a flight attendant for several years and this question comes up often. I think there is an assumption that when you know more, you have more to fear. As I thought about the question, I had this moment of clarity when I realized that I am actually not afraid of anything. No. I am not afraid to fly. I am not afraid of heights. I am not afraid of life.

This admission, of a life unafraid, made me feel powerful and peaceful. What is there to fear? Will I get sick? Maybe, but if I do, I will be ok. Will I die? Hopefully not, but, hey, there are a ton of meatballs in my freezer, just in case.

Matt Damon did not show up to my lumpectomy, but my hair looked fabulous and had he arrived, he likely would’ve noted my amazing conditioner.  I would’ve told him not to worry, like I have everyone else. I would have made an inappropriate joke, and knowing Matt (which I don’t), he would have laughed uncomfortably. Most of all, I would hope he’d notice me there, in that hospital bed, not able to control what’s next but not afraid to live.

But mostly the conditioner.


On Cancer

A couple days ago I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. While I have opted to share my diagnosis, and positive prognosis, I have made a conscious decision to keep my care plan, diagnostics and details to myself. This is not only because one woman suggested to me that perhaps it’s just a gluten allergy (which made me laugh uncontrollably for ten minutes straight) but also because I don’t want this to become who I am. Cancer is not my new hobby.

I’ve come to feel that a cancer diagnosis is the eye of the storm. It is the quiet tunnel through which chaos swirls outward and yet does not disturb. It is the wind knocked out of you. A moment, watching the people around you scramble and rush to your side while you lay breathless, stunned and still.

They panic and I think about bare feet.

I think about bare feet on cold wooden floors, one my favorite feelings, stepping out of bed on winter mornings. I think about bare feet on fresh cut grass, crushed beneath but still cushioning each step from dirt and rock. I think about bare feet in oppressive sun, warm and raw with anticipation of cool water compromise.

I think about bare feet and I think about my humanity, so much more than this mortal coil, and yet the culmination of every touch and sensation I’ve known, all those bare footsteps. Oversteps. Missteps. I am my interpretation and response to my experiences. I am efforts. I am successes. I am mistakes, but I am not defined by a disease.

I will be ok. Everything will be ok.

I will be bare feet on a warm brick path. I will be a hand placed on the small of my back. I will be my son’s head resting on my shoulder. I will be my daughters grasp of fingers. I will be the brush of hair away from my face, tucked behind my ear. I will be the touch and embrace of all my life’s yesterdays.

So, I won’t share a bunch of numbers. If you ask how I’m feeling, I’ll probably say “I’m fine.” I’ll still be myself, and for me, that will be the “win.”

Everything will be ok. Cancer is the eye of the storm but storms subside.


The Song I Remember, and love defined

This morning I awoke in the recliner after holding my 16 month old baby much of the night. Tired with coffee in hand, I sat to make a list and thought about how perfect it felt to hold him close and cradle him in the dark. He likes to hear “The Boxer” so I sang it three or four times until the last round was a gentle hum, his head against my chest, sleeping soundly to the tune.

It occurred to me that this is love, a moment in time, and not merely a feeling or verb. Love defined. I began to think about some of the best feelings, the moments that make up love in my heart and loft of memory. So my list this morning is not in any order, and certainly not conclusive, but rather a series of events or moments that, by their essence, exude love defined.

1. My daughter was born on the 19th of the month, almost four years ago, but I went into labor with her on the 17th. I always accidentally list her birthday as the 17th, probably with that passive aggressiveness that can only come after childbirth, as in “somebody was supposed to born on the 17th, but SOMEBODY was late.”

It was a terribly difficult labor, followed by a c-section, during which everything went wrong. By 3am on the 19th I was coming out of anesthesia, in terrible pain and completely exhausted, with no newborn in sight. Finally, my husband came into the recovery room pushing a hospital bassinet. His face was tired. We looked at each other as though we had just been reunited after being separated in some battle. He picked our daughter up and walked her over to me. Without words his face said “look at what we did!” I’ve never seen anyone happier. I’ve never known a greater expression of joy in someone’s eyes. Love defined was this man holding his first born daughter.

2. My father and I share a love of music, but trust me, I’m not cool by any means. When I was younger he would come home from work and put on Harry Chapin records and we would listen while I did homework in our living room, learning the meaning and history of each song. He offered this same education with Elton John’s Mad Man Across the Water, America’s Hearts album, Harry Nilson, Bread, ELO and more. The classroom was not only our living room, but these lessons always continued during car rides, when we would surf the radio, hoping to hear a favorite song.

One of my favorite things is listening to music during long drives. It’s almost as if you create a soundtrack to the landscape you travel when you play the right album. I’m pretty sure the Jayhawks knew I’d be traveling through the Dakotas in 2007 when they produced Hollywood Town Hall years before. Still, the best part of the experience is the rare moment you find yourself with someone who shares your love of a song, the right song for the moment, and though you reach your destination, the car goes into park and the engine idles because that song is still playing. An unspoken agreement between the driver and passenger; this is a moment. We will not gather our things or open the door and hear the chime that warns us the lights are on. We will not talk about our plans. We will just listen. My dad and I sat in our driveway once and listened to Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Haram. Love defined by a song.

3. When I first started with the labor movement, I was an organizer in training, but months later I was asked if I would apply to be a staff rep. Become a staff rep, they said, it’s more of 9 to 5 job, more stable, less travel. (Wonder if it’s too late to sue that person) Anyhow, it was too late for me by the time I got to negotiate my first Collective Bargaining Agreement. I was already hooked on the early mornings and late nights, the work that seemed like boundless opportunity for effective change in the world around me.

My first time negotiating was with a nursing home in Milwaukee. CNAs are some of my favorite people to work with. The heart and dedication they put into their labor is consistently disregarded and unappreciated by society as whole, and yet they always fight and advocate for their patients and each other. Some of them never know the luxury of tired. They can’t afford it. They just keep moving.

When it came time to talk with the employer about wages and make one last plea for an increase, one of our team members, Latisha, always so quiet and self-deprecating, spoke up and gave what is to this day the most compelling speech I have ever heard a worker give. “We’re struggling to survive and I am begging you to hear our pain.” 19 years old and she had the room in tears. Months before, she wanted to quit. Months before, she wouldn’t answer my calls because her abusive boyfriend would not let her talk to me. Months before, she was not alive. Love defined to me, was watching this young woman move mountains, compelling a room of executives and administrators to tears, while realizing her own strength.

There’s more, I suppose, but those are some favorites.


On the loss of our friend Brian

(Brian back row, first on left…  from the Rockford Labor Day parade)

My heart hurts tremendously tonight over the loss of Brian.

I went for coffee with my friend Brian Leaf once. He worked nearby at the Rockford Register Star. I met him through Rockford United Labor, where he would go and update all of the local labor unions on his work fighting for an initial collective bargaining agreement for his fellow union members. At Wired, near City Hall and the Register Star office, he was a celebrity. Every time we started a conversation fragment or thought, someone would chime in and interrupt. Someone would have to say hello. Someone would have to talk about this event or that story. Everyone knew him, and everyone wanted to talk with him.

I walked with him down a stretch of state street once, near the Register Star office. People actually honked at him and yelled out of the cars as we walked. He garnered that much attention but still he made you feel special when he talked with you, and he made you feel like you mattered, probably because to him you did. Everyone did.

I’m a little lost tonight.

How odd I think, to have just seen someone and spoken with him and then suddenly know that he is no longer on the earth with you. How odd to feel a sudden sense of loss and injustice so quickly and swiftly, so finite and cruel.

I believe things have to matter.

I believe things have to matter. Life has to have meaning. A series of events left and right all culminating to the very breath and blood in veins running deep. Life has to have meaning and when it does not have meaning we have a responsibility to assign meaning to the things that life has become.

I last saw Brian at the Rockford Womens March. We hugged. I told him we missed him. I told him we would have to take him for a drink. We talked about how good it was to see each other. We talked about how much we liked our friend Max. We talked about how impressive the march turnout was. We talked.

So my heart aches tonight. I ended the evening with union leaders I love and we talked about the loss of our friend; his witty sarcastic droll, his kind-hearted sense of humanity, his talented reporting skills, his love of Rockford.

We’ll move forward eventually, I know. This hurt will subside, and left behind will be the mark of this man who gave his beautiful heart and soul to our community.

Anyhow, like many tonight I’ll have a glass of bourbon in his honor and I’ll hold my life a little closer, knowing that every moment is fleeting and every thing will have to matter.

Thanks Brian. We’ll miss you.