Sunday, February 28, 2010

Spelling Words of Life

I love making up acronyms for spelling words for my youngest, Caroline. Spelling is her worst subject. Lately, though, my ten-year-old gets a kick out of the creative ways we've devised to help her memorize her spelling words.

Take the word, "language," for example, which was on her spelling list when she was in third grade, two years ago. For some reason, it didn't click. She couldn't get it.

"I hate spelling!" She wailed! "I quit!"

The tears fell onto her lined notebook paper, and her anxiety quickly mounted. As much as I tired to help her, I was running low on ideas and patience.

"Well," I began calmly, "let's think about it differently." After playing around with the letters a bit, we came up with this acronym for the word "language:"

"Let's - Ask - Nice - Green - Unicorns - About - Green - Eggs." Once she'd mastered this saying, her damp eyes smiled with delight. She looked hopeful, almost immediately. Wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, her anxiety evaporated, and I could sense her strength and determination shining through.

The other day, two years after the birth of that particular acronym, I overheard Caroline saying that silly sentence as she penned the heading - Language - onto her paper. She'd remembered how to spell it. I remembered that day when she cried.

Last week, another word tested her capability: "disciple." This one was more of a challenge than the word language had been. But never wanting to be quitters, we came up with this acronym:

"Did - I - See - Cats - In - Puddles - Last - Evening?"

You know, sometimes, the simplest things can put a smile on our kids' faces. She was beaming as she pulled out her slightly wrinkled spelling test, which was sandwiched between the notebooks within her backpack. A score of 95% was written on the top of the page, in bright red ink. Caroline smiled. I did, too.

She may not remember everything that I try to teach her throughout her lifetime, but at least she'll know how to tackle some of the problems as she grows: taking on the challenges one small letter at a time. No matter how difficult the "words" in life become, I hope she keeps trying. Quitting? That's one word I hope she'll never need to spell.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I couldn't sleep last night. Odd thing, really. The reason for my insomnia was even more strange. I was thinking about a novel that I'm reading as part of my book club. It's called Though Waters Roar, by Lynn Austin. It's not uncommon for books to find their way into my bed; but what is unusual is for a book to remain locked in my mind hours later.

Though fictitious, the characters and situations seem so incredibly real to me. Without going into a great amount of detail, the author describes a scene where a little girl and her mother are hiding two runaway slave women. "Bounty hunters" are encircling the tiny town in search of the runaways and with the hopes of securing a handsome reward in exchange for their capture. This prompts the mother to do a very bold thing.

After placing a wooden box into the family's horse-drawn wagon and gently instructing the two slaves to hide inside it, the woman and her daughter carefully fill the wagon with firewood, covering the box. One log at a time, they determined to make it look as though their mission is to deliver firewood - as well as the two refugees - to an awaiting family, who live about sixteen miles away.

The four souls traveled in broad daylight, and the heat of the day became unbearable throughout the bumpy ride. At one intense point in the story, two bounty hunters on horseback were seen looming ominously in the distance. Eventually, the men approached the wagon, unaware of its hidden "contents."

Demonstrating unimaginable fortitude and faith, the woman stopped her wagon. She calmly asked the two men if they were "lost," all the while appearing unruffled and unshaken. And all the while she silently prayed and held on to the only thing she could truly grasp: trust.

Oh, and there's one more thing that I forgot to mention: The men brought trained dogs along with them to sniff out any escaped slave. Dogs! Imagine the terror that the women - the runaways as well as their protectors - experienced during the unrelenting barking. The two men surveyed the wagon, their minds focused on one thing: receiving a reward in exchange for human lives!

Oblivious to the ruse, the men eventually went on their way. At this point in my reading, my heart finally slowed down to its normal resting rate once again. But the reason I had been unable to sleep later is because I was thinking about the poor women hiding inside that box.

Even though the actual story was fictitious, we all know that situations such as this one were not unheard of. But what I couldn't get out of my mind as I tossed and turned was what the poor slaves must have been thinking and feeling as they hid inside a coffin-like box and waited patiently for the wagon to move on. How many prayers had they undoubtedly prayed, pleading to God for their release and safety? Weren't they feeling even a little bit claustrophobic, figuratively and literally speaking, while locked inside that box? How did they endure all of the emotional stress? Had they ever really known what blessed freedom could possibly feel like?

The bravery and courage that the women displayed humbles me, and it makes me stop short. These days, how many of us would truly risk life and limb to save another human being?

Courage...Hope... Submission... Determination... Trust...
The four women exemplified all of those traits.

We could learn a lot from our past and from those who have gone before us. Freedom is something we should never, ever take for granted.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Mature and Complete - Not Yet, But Still Learning!

It's been FOUR years! February 20th, 2006, was the day I found out that breast cancer was a part of me. A big part. Never, not ever, did I imagine that it could possibly happen to me - a runner, a healthy mom of three young children, and a woman with no risk factors normally associated with the disease. Words cannot describe my emotions when I found out. Like all of us who've been through it, I think we can all agree that hearing, 'You have cancer,' are words that have affected us beyond our imaginations.

Ironically, some survivors proclaim that their cancer has actually been a blessing to them. Unlike those individuals, I cannot (and never could) tie the words blessing and cancer together. Oh, I tried, believe me. I remember numerous conversations with many sympathetic, well-intentioned people, when I valiantly tried to link the two nouns together as I spoke. But my attempts failed miserably at this ruse, numerous times. Sadly, I couldn't help but sense that oh-so-familiar, knot-like feeling growing stronger within my stomach each time I heard myself using those two words in the same sentence. I just couldn't proclaim it - and really mean it - that cancer was a blessing to me.

Initially, a big part of me actually felt embarrassed or even somewhat guilty when I was unable (or perhaps, unwilling?) to see the journey as a blessing. Yes, I realize that there are countless scripture verses that encourage us to view our struggles as blessings and to actually find some joy in them.

One of my favorite verses is found in the book of James 1:2-4: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."

Those verses, especially the last one, have made me ponder long and hard about the nature of becoming mature and complete. Just imagine how wonderful it will be when we find ourselves so fulfilled and spiritually whole, that we lack nothing! In other words, there will be a day when we will continuously practice courteousness, humility, selflessness, altruism, forgiveness, and sacrifice, without fail. Sounds a lot like the attributes of Christ, don't they?

So, over the years I've begun to think of cancer in a different way: I may not feel blessed by cancer, but I know that I have been changed by it. And I've listed a few of these changes below:

First, I've learned to believe in the old adage: "Never say never."

Second, people generally love the opportunity to help you when you need it, so I've learned to swallow my silly pride, at least for a little while, and ask for assistance when necessary.

Third, life is way too short to hold on to anger. When you stop and think about it, it's generally not worth it, so I try to let it go.

Fourth, birthdays will never again be days that I dread. Each birthday I celebrate is a true blessing. I can't stand it when people bemoan reaching the age of 40, or 50 or whatever birthday they happen to be celebrating. (That old "knot" starts to tighten up once again!)

Fifth, I have learned to take each day as it comes, the good with the bad. Only God knows what tomorrow will bring, and I need to constantly remind myself that He is in complete control. Fretting on my part is unhealthy, unproductive, destructive and time-consuming.

I know that I have long way to go in order to being fully mature and complete. It's been four years, and I still feel like an infant when it comes to mastering spiritual maturity. But really, when I stop to think about it, maybe the blessings that I've been unable to uncover within the word cancer have been there all along. I just need to view this struggle through Christ's eyes, not my own. Because when I do that, it is then - and only then - that I will truly be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

I am just curious, friends: How has cancer - or for that matter, any trial - changed you?

Friday, February 12, 2010

I Have A Cleavage!

Well, tonight's escapade certainly takes the cake. We were enjoying ourselves at a favorite restaurant. Seated at the round table were Brian, our two daughters, Melissa and Caroline, Emily (Caroline's friend), and I. It was a late night for us all, and fatigue was beginning to set in.

Happily enjoying my entree, and somewhat lost in my thoughts, I wasn't even looking at Caroline, my 10-year-old, when she blurted out, "Look! I have a cleavage!"

*Note: Caroline is small for her age, and she's not even close to entering physical maturity yet.*

Her outburst hung in the air. Brian's mouth nearly fell onto his lap. Melissa, who's recently found herself smack in the middle of being a 13-year-old young lady and is therefore very conscious of adhering to social mores, flashed a look of horror to me. Because the tables were located unusually close together, several people who were sitting alongside us became momentarily silent, as they, too, turned their heads toward Caroline.

Startled, I shot a questioning look at her and asked, "WHAT are you talking about?!?"

In her raised hand, Caroline proudly held up a piece of white, sinewy material that she'd just finished extracting from within the exoskeleton of her crab legs.

"Oh, Honey, " I continued, trying not to choke on my food as I laughed aloud. "That's CARTILAGE, not cleavage! You have a piece of cartilage!"

Well, at least she'd mastered the last syllable - "age." The others around our table - and for that matter, nearly half of the restaurant - embraced the humor of the moment.

Except for Melissa, who just stared at Caroline and rolled her eyes. The amount of irritation in Melissa's voice was so thick that I could've cut it with my butter knife: "A cleavage - CAROLINE - is the line that forms when your boobs are pushed together!" More eye rolling by my older daughter was again demonstrated.

Giggling around our table erupted, especially by the younger girls. It turned out to be a good night, cleavage and all.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Just Like Me

A woman called me today. She's a cancer survivor and a newly diagnosed one, as in two months ago. We've never met before, but a mutual friend of ours had given the woman my phone number, and she contacted me. "Can I talk to you? I have breast cancer," the soft voice began.

It turns out that we have a lot in common, both on the cancer front, and in our daily lives. As far as the histology is concerned (or the cell make-up), she too, is characterized as being HER-2 positive, estrogen positive, and progesterone negative, just like me. The reason I mention this fact is because the cell make-up typically dictates the course of treatment, the type and number of chemotherapy sessions, the necessity of radiation, and the overall prognosis. On the lighter side, she is my age, she has children who are about my children's ages, and she stated that prior to this diagnosis, she's never been sick a day in her life. Exercise is her antidepressant, and she watches her diet, too. Chillingly similar to my own life, I thought.

She asked a lot of good questions, most of them pertaining to the chemotherapy that she is anticipating receiving, beginning at the end of February. She'll need a port, a devise that is surgically inserted in the chest that delivers the medication to the heart. The port is necessary to preserve the veins in the forearms from the toxic affects of the chemotherapy. Similar to my treatment protocol, she will be receiving chemotherapy followed by Herceptin, for a total of 15 months of treatments.

I remember how numb I had felt when I heard that same type of information relayed to me nearly four years ago. I remember that my thoughts were a jumbled mess, and how the images of the magnitude of this disease circled around in my brain like some sort of surreal kaleidoscope: Hair loss ... vomiting ... my children's confusion ... my husband's inability to fix it ... my parents' looks of helplessness.

In a brief second, it all came flooding back to me, as if I were going through it all over again.

Today I tried with all my heart to speak to the woman in a way that empowered her. I informed her that being HER-2 positive is not the death sentence that it once was, thanks to the introduction and use of Herceptin, a fairly new drug that targets the extremely aggressive HER-2 cells. I told her that the doctors are very good at preventing and minimizing any nausea that might occur, and that she may be very fortunate and experience very little nausea. I told her that the hair loss is temporary and that it does return. Without sounding flippant, I encouraged her to take it one day at a time. I let her know that I would be more than happy to drive her to her chemotherapy treatments or doctors' appointments.

Most of all, I let her know that she was not alone, and that she would get through this. I told her that the road may seem impossibly long today, but I encouraged her to try to remember that this time in her life will not last forever. It does get better, it really does. One of the last things I said to her was that I will be praying for her. And I will.

We ended our conversation on a lighter note. Her voice sounded stronger and ready to take it all on. She was ready. I could hear it.

One day, perhaps years from now, I hope that her phone will ring, and she'll hear a quite voice on the other end saying, "Can I talk to you about your breast cancer? I've just been diagnosed, and I have some questions, if you don't mind."

After I hung up, I just sat there for a few minutes, and wiped away the lone tear that cascaded down my cheek. Completely at a loss, I wasn't sure who was more blessed by today's conversation, the woman on the other end, or me.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Waiting ... Again!

Okay, here we go again! Ten to twenty more inches of snow are predicted to fall tonight and continue on into tomorrow! School's already been cancelled for my children. Didn't we just go through this?

I know I sound like I'm complaining, and I guess that I am. Really, though, it was less than a week ago that I raced to the store, along with more than the usual number of grocery shoppers, stocked up on the essentials, and braced myself - both with my groceries in hand and with a positive attitude - for the upcoming storm.

And I did it all again today. I waited. And from where I stood in my queue, I noticed numerous other slow-moving lines as they snaked almost endlessly through the store, filled with grumpy people, waiting for their turn. Waiting for what seemed to take forever to pay for their groceries.

Suddenly, another cashier turned on her "light" above her, which signaled that her line was open for business. The woman standing in front of me noticed that I had only a handful of items. She immediately smiled to me and motioned for me to go in front of her, to that newly opened line. Imagine that! Someone actually took the time to be considerate! Her gesture was the "sun" that made me feel warm. And it was contagious. Others smiled; they seemed to be more relaxed.

Finally, I paid for and gathered up my bag of items, thanked the kind woman standing behind me once more, and made my way to the car through the blowing snow. Ironically, I realized that today it all felt oddly different from the way it had felt three days ago. Today, instead of mentally wrestling with the thoughts of being snowbound, of shoveling my sidewalk again, of making sure that we had enough milk, it hit me: This won't last.

As much as I dislike this present struggle, it all felt so strangely familiar, and almost like I was actually getting used to it. I'd done it all before, exactly three days earlier, and I'd survived it. When the storm hit last time, Brian and I cleared the driveway, one hour at a time, one shovelful at a time. Throughout the following days, the snowplows geared up and rumbled through our development, making wide sweeping passes numerous times. The sun eventually came out, and its blessed heat actually began to melt the leftover snow which covered the roads, one tiny degree at a time.

Sometimes we focus too much on the now. We want things to be back the way they were - immediately. No waiting. No patience. We've no time for that!

So here I sit, looking out my window, feeling that odd wave of familiarity washing over me as the snow continues to fall, and the sky is thick and gray, all over again.

But I rest in the idea that this storm will eventually pass, the sun will come out once more, and slowly, very slowly, I will again see the road stretched before me. And I will continue on, just as I did before. I just need to wait ... and keep waiting ... for the warmth of the sun.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

One Small Snowflake

Five degrees. I woke up this morning and sleepily peered at the thermometer, which recorded only five measly degrees as the outside temperature. Surveying my landscape, two feet of snow blanket my world. I also had just finished listening to ALL the local church closings that were broadcasted from my radio. One hundred nineteen of them, all churches whose doors are closed today, resulting in thousands of parishioners staying indoors, and undoubtedly sleeping in longer than usual, perhaps for the first time in weeks.

Five little degrees, more than 119 church doors closed, thousands of people affected. And to think that it all began with one ... little ... snowflake. Quietly, but oh, so powerfully executed. A little ripple effect.

Sometimes, the smallest things in life add up to monumental outcomes, affecting thousands of people, all across vast regions.

Make it count. Make each day count: smile to a stranger, leave an extra tip to a harried waitress, or just do something out of the ordinary for a lonely individual.

Just imagine the ripple effect that might occur. Powerful ... way beyond my (our?) comprehension.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fruit Salsa with Cinnamon Chips

A good friend invited our family to a Super Bowl Party tomorrow night. She's making chili, which I love, and so I thought I'd bring along something fruity and slightly sweet, a cooler side dish that will undoubtedly counteract some of the heat from a hearty cup of chili. I received this recipe while I was at a breast cancer support group a few months ago. One of the survivors made this dish and shared it with the gals sitting at our table at that particular event. It was a BIG hit, so I thought I'd pass it along to you! Let me know what you think!

*Note: Although it calls for a lot of "chopping," the smiles and compliments you'll get later will be worth the effort!*

Fruit Salsa with Cinnamon Chips

1 cup finely chopped fresh strawberries
1 medium navel orange, peeled and finely chopped
3 medium kiwi, peeled and finely chopped
1 (8 oz.) can unsweetened crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 peach, finely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoon sugar

In a small bowl, combine the first seven ingredients. Cover, refrigerate until serving.

Cinnamon chips:
10 flour tortillas (8 inch) - (I might try wheat tortillas this time)
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Combine sugar and cinnamon. Brush tortillas with butter. Sprinkle with the cinnamon/sugar. Cut into eight wedges. Place on ungreased baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 5-10 minutes or until crisp. Serve with fruit salsa.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

This Time

A few weeks ago, I began preparing for this coming Saturday, the day when I was supposed to drive to Penn State University. Penn State is my alma mater, and my family had planned to enjoy watching my son's college swim team (Lehigh University) compete against PSU. In preparation for this event, I'd made all the necessary arrangements: the dog was going to be placed in a good home for two nights, I'd cancelled all other commitments for that particular weekend, and I'd previously purchased a cute valentine and lots of bagged candy to give to my son when we'd see him and chat together after the meet. As the last several days crept by, anticipating seeing Patrick and watching him compete from the tall bleachers inside the "nat" (the abbreviation we used to use for the natatorium, or pool) were images that I'd happily replayed in my mind several times a day. I was so ready to go!

I hadn't been back to PSU in more than 25 years, since graduation. The student life I enjoyed back then seems like a different age in my life; I am definitely a different person now than I was at that time. Lately, and in an odd sort of way, I'd found myself really looking forward to seeing Patrick compete at the school where I studied, ate, slept, (yes, even partied) walked to classes, and lived for four years.

Now, due to the predicted storm which is supposed to dump anywhere from one to two feet of the snow beginning tomorrow morning, I find myself once again preparing, preparing not to go to the swim meet. The extra milk, bread and eggs are tucked away, just in case the blizzard makes traveling impossible. My husband's already stowed several gallons of water in the garage, just in case the pump's electrical system which delivers the energy to our well (yes, we obtain our water via a deep well, as antiquated as it may sound) is frozen again we're unable to get water. Plenty of food's here. Heat's not a problem; our propane heater works fine. I think we've got it all covered.

We're as prepared for this "blizzard" as anyone can be. Normally, I'd be feeling a sense of childlike happiness, or just plain joy, in waking up to find layers upon layers of snow. This time is different. This time I really longed to see Patrick, to watch him compete, to cheer, ironically, for the "away team," (or Patrick's team), and to relish in the college memories that I have tucked away in my brain from days gone by.

Maybe the swim meet will be postponed. But the chance that it will be rescheduled to take place 0n a weekend when we're all available to travel the two-and-a-half- hour ride is slim.

So now, as I prepare for something quite different, namely this inconvenient storm, I also need to prepare myself for missing out on a weekend of memories.

This time will be different, however.

This time, as disappointed as I am in not seeing my son compete at my alma mater, I'll remember to thank God that I am here, right now, with my two daughters and my husband, and that we are all well. We're all well, and although life throws us a curve ball sometimes and it smashes our plans, I need to keep in mind that as trite as it sounds, I'm just happy to be here. Right now, and at this time, I am so very happy to be here.

So, bring on the snow. I am as so ready!