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.