Saturday, June 27, 2009

Communicating, Camping, Compromising

As my daily routines gradually returned, I was faced with the pleasant reality that I was part of a newly formed family and marriage. Thinking back over my history of growing up as a classic people pleaser, gradually acquiring the ability to use a plethora of dysfunctional strategies to avoid expressing my true feelings. Because of this avoidance policy, I had never learned the art of engaging in an honest disagreement in which I would stand up for the right to own my feelings. With these old habits firmly in place, I had entered adulthood with a discomfort of any serious confrontation. Even though Jim and I shared an easy and relaxed relationship, I didn't even like getting into a serious argument with him. I found it easier to quietly turn away, lick my wounds and deal with my hurt or angry feelings by myself...avoid, avoid, avoid.

The past experience with my mom had given me my first example of truly sharing openly and honestly. This had shown me that speaking from my heart was an effective way for me to communicate, but I knew and understood how practicing it on a daily basis would indeed be a complicated achievement. It was much easier said than done. That level of communication between my mom and myself had been born out of a highly motivated need on my part to have her somehow understand my deeply rooted personal feelings about the real aftershock of emotions that I had been carrying around inside for so many years. It was an example of the style I hoped to emulate in my future, but I obviously needed time to reach that goal. I planned on taking baby steps, having no idea how many years would actually elapse before I would have the opportunity to taste success.

Aside from this disconnected form of communication, our life ran quite smoothly. Professionally I was blessed to have the joy and challenge of working with young children, helping them form a secure foundation for their future learning. I was also a co-leader for Jessica's Brownie and Girl Scout troops, so she and I were able to share many years of scouting adventures. I smile at my fond memories of actually going camping with our troop, and more than once. The smile is due to the fact that I truly enjoyed the experiences. Most people who know me well understand that my idea of "roughing it" consists of staying at Hampton Inn or Best Western. Isn't it beautiful to understand what parents are open to experiencing for the love of a child?

Jim and I have always been an example of opposites attracting. From the very beginning of our relationship we have consistently shared some fundamental beliefs, including the importance of family connections, religious convictions, political principles, a strong work ethic, humor and a love for each other. Although from the onset we've had very differing ideas of basic wants and needs, everything from how to best spend our free time, money habits of saving vs. spending, our first choice of where to or city. Suffice it to say that our marriage has been filled with many compromises, but never dull or boring.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why So Many Turtlenecks?

Being diagnosed with cancer for a second time put my fear at High Alert. It seemed to me that since I had been diagnosed with this melanoma so many years after the retinablastoma, it was reasonable to believe that all things were possible when it came to cancer in my life...Yuck! The doctor had also discovered and removed an additional small melanoma on the back of my leg. I would need to return to a dermatologist every three months for a full body check. To me that meant I would face this scary fear of another cancer recurrence each time I would go for a check up. I somehow needed to figure out a way to keep this fear under control and as far away from my daily life as possible. There were times I just wanted to scream, "Cancer, get the hell out of my life!"

A part of me felt like I was ready to begin healing, but at that point in my life I was concentrating only on the physical healing because that's all I knew. I had no thought of asking God for help in this healing, since I was overpowered by the crippling fear that had a tight hold on my thoughts and beliefs. Because of this fear, I never took the time to sit quietly and listen for that little voice inside me...I was too busy avoiding thinking about anything related to cancer in hopes that it would gently disappear from my life.

When I was strong enough to return to teaching it was wonderful because being with the students offered me a marvelous distraction from my fears. During my hours in the classroom I was focused solely on meeting the individual needs of each child, so there was little room for negative thoughts or fears. There was one problem I faced daily...finding an outfit to wear that covered up the length of my scar. So much energy wasted on hiding what I considered to be my most obvious outward imperfections, my eye and now my new scar. Honestly, it took me weeks and weeks of wearing turtleneck shirts and sweaters before I took a long, loving look at myself in the mirror. It was the first time in months that I genuinely smiled at the woman I saw looking back at me. I looked closely at the scar on my neck and realized that it was the physical evidence left from the surgery that had saved my life. If I had never had the surgery that gave me that scar, then I may no longer be here on earth. The cancer would have been given an opportunity to continue growing and spreading throughout my body.

That discovery gave me a brand new appreciation for my life and my scar, offering me freedom to move my turtlenecks to the back of the closet. In retrospect, this was my first clear-cut chance to experience growth and change as a positive event in my life...what a beautiful gift from God, and one that I will always cherish.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Profound Gratitude

The surgery was scheduled for the following week, and so began another adventure into the big world of the unknown. Because I never expected to experience another journey with cancer, I entered this in a state of shock, confusion and disbelief. The minute I heard the word cancer I reverted back to being seven years old, looking to my parents for the support I would need to travel this road again. I was witnessing this occurrence with the numerical age of an adult, but with the coping abilities of a child. Wow, the word cancer held a great deal of power in my life, enough power to change the way I saw myself as well as the way I reacted! During this time my life felt surreal, and believe me, that was an uncomfortably awkward feeling scented with the pungent odor of fear. What happened to the competent woman, mother, teacher, wife and friend? Where had she gone, what had caused her to disappear, and what did I need to do to get her back?

My first memory after the surgery was an unknown voice saying,"Laura, smile for me." I had not come out of the anesthetic completely, but I do remember wondering who would ask me to smile when I felt such deep pain in my neck. I managed a weak smile and the voice thanked me. I promptly returned to sleep. It wasn't until the next day when the doctor explained the intricacy involved in successfully removing the affected areas in my neck, causing him to be concerned that he may have severed an important nerve that controlled the left side of my face. He couldn't be certain until they could observe my ability to smile. I shuddered when I had time to consider how a different outcome could have had severe consequences on the rest of my life...a sobering reality reminding me why, in the midst of this journey, it was important for me to give profound gratitude. This was a "light bulb" moment, thinking back many years before when my mom had also felt the need to give boundless gratitude.

I refused to look at myself in a mirror for several days due to the drastic length of the stitches I could feel from the surgery. They had shaved my hair from behind my left ear and all the way down, so the stitches ran all along that area, through the length of my neck and ending at the top of my wonder I remember feeling such an elevated pain coming out of surgery. A few days later I felt the need to have a quite serious pity party for myself, and following that deep sadness and anger, I was able to look in a mirror at the bandages that seemed to cover the entire left side of my head. The next day I watched as the nurse changed the bandages, and I was then able to begin my true healing.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Is This a Bad Dream?

Jim and I were married in July 1979 during my summer vacation. In August I was to begin teaching second grade at a different school, so there many new adjustments for me. I set up my new classroom several weeks before school began, during which I had the opportunity to meet a lot of my new colleagues. The teachers I met greeted me with a genuine warmth, putting me at ease about being the new kid on the block. The year began smoothly at home and at school, with each of us settling into our new routine. It seemed as though everything was gently falling into place.

My parents were both retired and had begun spending the winter months in Florida. We were happy to take care of their dog during these months, especially Jessica since she had always put a dog at the top of her wish list, and this was a chance to experience the real sense of being responsible for the daily upkeep of a pet. Several weeks before leaving for the winter, my mom called to talk about us taking care of Willy and to also ask me a favor...she wanted me to go to my family practice doctor and have him check out a mole that she had noticed on the side of my neck. The mole actually looked innocent to me, so I questioned why she felt the need for me to have it checked out. After explaining how she wanted to leave for Florida no lingering thoughts about the mole, I reluctantly agreed to make the appointment.

My regular doctor was away for several days, so one of his colleagues met with me. He thought it was best to be safe and have the mole tested. When I returned a few days later to have the stitches removed, this same substitute calmly asked, "They called you with the results, right?" "Nobody called me about any results," I said. "Oh well, it's malignant, so we will have to set up a date for the surgery." I was in a state of complete shock, nearly falling off the examination table! How could he seem so cold and unemotional while delivering such serious news? He was acting as though he was delivering a weather report...totally unacceptable! There wasn't anyone with me, so I needed to drive myself home with my mind in total disarray. I kept reminding myself to drive slowly and carefully to avoid an accident.

How could this be happening to me again?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

There's Work to be Done

Following the wedding they lived happily ever after...don't I wish! The truth is that Jim and I did get married three years after we met, but the fairy book ending is not quite as simple in the real world. One thing standing in the way of our marriage was the Catholic Church. I applied for an annulment of my first marriage, and spent the next year jumping through hoops that had been created to make an annulment anything but easy to obtain. Many times I felt the priests with whom I met from the marriage tribunal acted as though I had awakened one morning and casually decided to get a divorce. That was so far from the truth! For me there was nothing casual about filing for divorce. Being an adult, I understood the gravity of my decision and took none of it lightly. In fact, it had taken me many months of living in an emotional state of distress, heartache, shock and confusion before the path I needed to take came into clarity.

After continually being told my case was in the "judgement drawer" my annulment was finally granted, but not until my mom and dad were also summoned to meet with the marriage tribunal requiring them to answer two hours of very personal questions about my relationship with Jon. After receiving the annulment, I was asked to give a donation to this same marriage tribunal that had already extracted a pound of flesh from my parents and me. I told them I would return home and put their request into my "judgement drawer." Does that give you a sense of how I was feeling about the Catholic Church after the humiliating treatment we had received?

Another obstacle we had to face was presented to me by Jim when he asked, "How long do I have to pay for Jon's mistakes toward you?" Yikes! How could one small question pack such a powerful punch? I didn't know how to respond other than, "The smell of shit lingers a long time." This was a wake up call for me to become more aware of how my past experiences were now having a negative affect on my current relationship. There was work to be done, and I was up to this challenge, especially since the work would pay off with a more solidly grounded connection based in the present and not the past. Wow! Being an adult can sure be hard work sometimes.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Returning Home

After two years in Minnesota, it seemed time to return to Madison. The owners of the school where I was working announced to all employees that they were experiencing financial issues and they would need to cut back on hours and pay raises. My pay was never truly adequate for a long term commitment for a single parent, so cutting back would definitely hurt our financial stability. At the same time Jessica talked about missing Madison, and since I was feeling the same way, we discussed heading back home. After my experience of working for a private school, I was ready to get a teaching job with Madison Public School District. I felt I would have more job security and better earning potential for the future. Raising a child without any assistance meant I was the sole provider, and I took that role quite seriously.

I returned to Madison a different woman, more independent and more grounded with a better understanding of my positions as a mother and a daughter. It took a bit of time to secure a full time teaching position, but I was patient and willing to substitute for a semester in order to become known in the district. Within three months I was offered a contract to complete the year for a primary teacher that was moving out of state.

The move back to Madison was definitely the correct choice, giving Jessica consistent access to her grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Three weeks after returning I met a friend of one of our neighbors. We began dating, but I was determined to take this relationship more slowly than others because I had learned that time was needed in order to more fully know someone. From our first meeting Jim and I shared an easygoing connection. I enjoyed his sense of humor and his relaxed level of comfort with himself and with me. We were able to discuss a variety of topics and we quickly realized that we agreed on a huge amount of fundamental beliefs from religion to politics to respect and enjoyment of family. When we spent time together I felt relaxed, happy and comfortable, but above all else I could be authentic. I didn't feel as though I had to hide my real feelings to impress him, and needless to say, that was monumentally important!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Photo Gallery

I thought it would be fun to share some family photos from my childhood.
Sit back and relax while I tell you a bit about each of the photos. I really
like the top one because it shows the joy of my early years, while also
capturing the fire I had in my being even back that far.
This is the first family photo I have. If you look carefully, you'll even
see my big brother almost hidden behind my sister. This was taken
in 1949 when my parents had the distinctive wallpaper my dad had
chosen from a little sample card. He always laughed about not being
able to visualize exactly how large the opened roses would look, and
then having to live many years with the print because it was much too
expensive to quickly replace.
This is one of our Christmas card photos. As I look at it, I am
reminded to tell my brother what excellent taste he had in sweaters.
Do you think anyone could really be as angelic as I look
in this photo?
Our grandma would always come to our house for Christmas. We
would each receive one special gift, and it seems that Kathie and I
both treasured our new dolls.

This is taken from my first grade class picture. There were
thirty students in my class. How times have changed. Now
first grade classes have around fifteen students. Weren't all
things much simpler in the 1950's?

Kathie and I always were able to choose one hat for Easter. We
had such fun shopping for those hats with Mom. We are all so
proud of those yummy chocolate bunnies. It seems like I'm in
the midst of checking on my brother's behavior...either that or
I'm thinking of ways to get him to share his bunny with me.
Do you remember me telling about the doorman at
the Barbizon Hotel in New york? Well, her I am with
him in front of the hotel. I remember being very much
impressed with the whole idea of a doorman.

Here's Mary in her little playpen. She would love being there
with all her toys and stuffed animals. There was always one
us not far away because she could easily draw us in to play
with her.

We were all to be looking away from the camera, so why
am I the only one looking at the photographer? Don't miss
out on another peek at our rose-patterned wallpaper.

This is my First Communion and I am behaving as holy as
possible. Our priest had told us that our First Communion
day would be sunny and bright because it only rained for
naughty children. Imagine my dismay when I awoke to a
big old thunderstorm. I remember thinking I had to pray
extra hard and be extra good to make up for the rainy day.

Here I am getting ready to head back to NYC. The
only good part of this trip was that my sister was able
to go with us. Have you noticed how much I loved my
saddle shoes?

We stopped at our national capitol in Washington,
and then went on a tour of the White House. I was
never able to truly enjoy these times though due
to my reality of knowing why we were on the trip.
My fears were never too far away.

My mom would spend such a long time putting
curls into my hair. It was a big event the first
time got my hair cut...I think Mom really liked
long hair.

Middle school picture. Mom obviously didn't
give me lessons on how to style naturally wavy
hair. I am wearing my favorite Garland sweater
that I had received for more dolls.

This family photo makes all of us look as though we were being
forced to have our picture taken. This was taken the year before
I was married...yikes, I was young!
I have more pictures to share with you, and now that I'm beginning to figure out how to add pictures (thanks to Jim and Susie), I'll include some throughout my blogs. There are many new things to learn about blogs, and I'm enjoying them all. Hopefully you have enjoyed the photo gallery, giving you a visual to add to my written journey.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Learning and Growing Together

One night as I was reading Jessica a story while snuggling with her at bedtime, she began asking me why I had gotten divorced from her dad. I was rendered speechless and totally unprepared for this discussion. I knew I had to deal with this topic carefully because I had promised myself not to say any negative things to Jessica about her dad's behavior during our marriage. Believe me, this was an extremely difficult promise to honor. I obviously didn't satisfy her curiosity because her parting comment to me was, "Mommy, if you really loved me, you would get back together with Daddy." I was flabbergasted! How could I be honest with her about his current choice of lifestyle, his lack of desire to be financially responsible, or his open-minded beliefs of casual drug use? I repeated my promise to myself over and over again.

After that night there were countless times Jessica would engage me in similar conversations. I began to comprehend her feelings about being the only person she knew who had divorced parents. You need to remember this was back in the 70's when divorce was quite uncommon. When I grasped the depth of her sensitivity, I was greeted with a sense of guilt for making the decision to marry so young...growing up with a strong Catholic mother meant that guilt was never far away. I was able to realize though, this had been a decision from the past and the guilt did nothing to help solve this problem I was facing at the present time. What I needed was wisdom to help me make the right decision for now. How could I best help my daughter? I was too involved to make a solid decision by myself, so again I turned to a professional who could assist us in sorting out our emotions and points of view. I was not financially able to return to my first private therapist, but I discovered our county mental health professional charged on a sliding scale so that is the route I chose.

With the help of the therapist, Jessica and I were able to progress to the point of a mutual understanding and acceptance of the other's feelings. As with all things worthwhile, we put many hours into this process. We found ourselves in new and unfamiliar territory, a place in which we were invited to share honestly, openly, respectfully, showing consideration for the feelings and ideas of the other. We each had our own individual time with the therapist and then we came together and were given the opportunity to put into practice our new-found rules for sharing. Using these communication techniques certainly made our discussions flow more freely and easily. By the end of our time working with this therapist, Jessica had a better understanding of why her parents were not able to continue in their marriage, and I was better equipped to listen to her questions and feelings without taking each and every one of them as a personal attack.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Truth Shall Set You Free

As soon as I heard Mom's voice I started to cry. So much for my big plan to chat about Jessica's play dates. I had so much emotion tightly stored in my heart, and it was all set loose by merely hearing her voice. I understood this was not going to be easy, but I also knew our relationship was based in a deep love that would hopefully withstand the turmoil ahead. Mom asked why I was crying, and that's all it took for the words to come pouring forth, words that were steeped in truth. Have you ever sobbed so hard that you couldn't take in a full breath? Yah, that's what happened on and off during the conversation we had that day.

I remember attempting to stay on a focused path of sharing. Do you remember the detective in the old Dragnet TV series? Invariably he would at some point say his signature phrase, "Just stick to the facts ma'am." Well that was my goal, but it was challenging because there were so many feelings intertwined with the facts. I began by explaining in detail the strong sadness that emerged at my first therapy appointment as my one eye tried to explain to the other eye what it was like having vision. It felt a logical place to begin since that was the initial moment I became aware of the true depth of loss I had been carrying around without ever understanding or acknowledging it.

For many years I had been the queen of talking around the truth, so Mom was not accustomed to me taking a direct approach. She was caught off guard by my candid honesty...actually, so was I! Looking back, I think I was willing to step out of my comfort zone because I knew and accepted what was at stake if I had let fear rob me of this chance to be set free from all the years of hiding, ignoring and pretending.

That day was the first of many weeks of open, honest and deeply rich conversations of growth. Mom and I were in the midst of creating a special relationship, giving birth to a new level of love, truth, acceptance and profound respect. Giving birth involves pain, and that is what we both experienced during this time, understanding that when the new life appears the pain is reduced to a gently dulled memory.

There are two memories that stand out from this period of time, hopefully illustrating our journey together. The first occurred during one of our many long distance calls when Dad walked past the phone and commented, "Oh no, not another hour of the two of you paying the phone company to just sit and cry together." The second involved me standing in front of a Hallmark card display, trying to choose a Mother's Day card. Now remember, I was immersed in truth at that point, so I felt compelled to select a card reflecting where Mom and I were at this time. After nearly an hour search I decided to create my own form of tribute to Mom. Yes, the pain was real, but so was the final outcome...a love so strong and a respect so deep that it could withstand whatever the future held.