The Holidaze

“Well there’s no place like home for the holidays…”

This used to be one of my favorite holiday songs. I related to it so well: if I wanted to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays I couldn’t beat home sweet home.

Then 2016 imploded and abruptly forced me to reconsider. I still enjoy the sentiment of “home for the holidays,” but it’s difficult to envelop myself in that concept while I’m still trying to define what “home for the holidays” means anymore.

Thanksgiving wasn’t so bad. In the midst of our cantina-style-family-and-friends-giving, there were enough people and enough Mexican-themed dishes to keep my mind off traditions. The pre-cancer Thanksgivings had ceased to exist well before 2016, so while one seat remained glaringly empty, it was only one (albeit mighty) change to deal with.

But then Thanksgiving was over. I started listening to Christmas music as soon as we left dinner (don’t judge me).  We put up the tree. We reminisced about ornaments. I broke out the Christmas songbook and started playing carols on the piano. I made my husband move the FULLY DECORATED tree from one room to another (something my mom would have really gotten a kick out of). Some afternoons, in the twilight between work and dinner, I found myself gazing at our tree’s twinkling lights, reflecting on last Christmas, a Christmas full of so many “lasts,” and worrying about this Christmas, a Christmas full of so many “firsts.” The first Christmas not held at my parents’ house. The first Christmas my sister and I don’t visit the Hatchcover for a cheers to Baby Jesus. The first Christmas my mom won’t fuss around working to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves. The thoughts of holidays past quickly turned to thoughts of holidaze present.

That’s not to say our traditions have remained steadfast year after year. Even before cancer my parents had gotten lazy with the tree. They transitioned from a full-sized tree displayed in the front window to a four-foot impostor of a tree that sat on a table top across the room. We mourned our old tree. We mocked our new tree.

Then it didn’t matter anymore.

Last Christmas, I found my mom in her room crying shortly after we opened gifts. She was worried, as she was every year, that we didn’t like our gifts. “I just wanted this year to be special,” she sighed between her quiet tears. I think she already knew at that point.

As we move toward 2017, my holidaze continues as I think about all of the firsts still to come: events, celebrations, and stories that will all be missing something. Someone. But all of those firsts also offer an element of hope. We’re starting new family traditions, traditions that will create a new illustration of “home for the holidays.” And that’s OK. We’ll be OK. ‘Cuz no matter how far away I roam…turns out, wherever I am with family, I’m home.

Celebrate we will, for life is short but sweet for certain.

Birthdays. A celebration of life — the joy of the beginning of life, the marking of where we are now, and the hope of what’s to come.

My mom’s birthday is today. In June we held the ultimate celebration of life, what many perhaps view as her final celebration of life. But my mom was more than one celebration; her spirit can’t be summed up in one afternoon. She lived her life in a way that spread love, support, and courage, and I will never be able to stop celebrating that.

Today I plan to celebrate in a way that Mom would have wanted: with my dad, my sister, and my new nephew, whose adorableness would have been the sunshine of my mom’s life.  My mom taught me the importance of family, of loving each other, and of supporting each other. Several years ago on my birthday I managed to contract a nasty stomach bug, and she drove from Colorado Springs to Denver to sit by my side and take care of me. That’s just what she did; she loved her family fiercely. On a day that’s all about my mom, there’s no other way I could spend it than with our family.

She always asked me why I didn’t write more, why I didn’t publish on this blog more frequently. My answer was always that I didn’t want to force it; unless I feel inspired, I’m not the type of person who’s going to write just to write. Well, mom, your life inspires me and gives me a purpose to write — gives me a purpose to be. So here I am. Still writing about you. Still learning from you. Still celebrating you. Happy birthday.

The Nance

In just a couple days I will gather with friends and family to celebrate my mom’s life. While this ritual could be construed as the chance to say goodbye, that’s not my intent.

My mom was an eminent individual, a force to be reckoned with, the perfect combination of sweet and sassy — and the memory of her, her spirit, will be nothing different.

She will be with me every time I make her grandmother’s sauce, her mother’s chocolate chip cookies, or her meatloaf. I will hear her voice urging me to buy a brightly colored shirt  or cheering my newest accomplishment with a resounding “hot damn pussycat!”. My eyes, my hair, my smile — she’s with me in all of those ways, and so much more.

Of course I’ll miss the way she answered the phone with “Hi, sweetie!”, the way she and I would text during Broncos games, and the way she consistently closed out our phone conversations: “Love to you and Kyle. Treats to the pups. Talk to you soon.”

But, no, I won’t be saying goodbye next weekend. Instead, I’ll be celebrating the time I had with my mom and saying hello to a new way of knowing my mom.

Love you, too, Mom.
I’ll give extra treats to the pups tonight.
Talk to you soon.

Feeling Crabby

The Big C. The C-word. The Cancer.

Any way you put it, cancer is one crabby bitch.

Way back in the day, that’s exactly what Hippocrates named it after: karkinos, the Greek word for crab. When Hippocrates and all his doctor friends were looking at tumors, they thought they resembled a crab’s hard outer shell. Years later, another doctor extended that metaphor when he dissected a mass and noted that the malignancy extended out from the mass in veiny, tentacle-like branches — much like the legs of a crab.

Hippocrates and his cronies might have been on to something. The Big C does like to crawl on up into its host, stretching its legs and attaching its claws until there’s no chance of urging it out of its shell. And why would it leave? It gets a nice warm home where its fed and where any attempt to squash it only seemingly makes it stronger. It’s like Kato. Kato Karkinos Kaelin. I bet that’s his full name.

But this crab takes up residence in much more than its host. It lives in the hearts and minds of those closest to the patient. We feel those claws pecking away at our insides. We feel those spider-like legs wrapping around our lungs, taking our breath away, not in an oh-my-lanta-that-sunset-is-the-most-beautiful-thing-I’ve-ever-seen type of taking our breath away, but in a Donald-Trump-just-won-the-presidency sort of way: it hits you hard, makes life painful, and causes you to consider moving to Canada (I hear the health care situation is better up there anyway).

So, Hippocrates, once again you’ve proven that you were a man ahead of your time. Before microscopes, PET scans, chemo, and races for cures, you knew exactly what was up with cancer: it’s just a lonely, crabby little disease with nothing better to do except butt into people’s lives and be a negative nelly.

And I like nothing better than to show meddling nellies that I won’t stand for their nonsense.

So, look out, cancer. I have a resting bitch face and I’m not afraid to use it to take your breath away.

Once Around.

Summer is officially under way — no more papers, no more books, no more students’ dirty looks. My grand plans for summer include painting an accent wall in the kitchen, planting flowers and a tree in our front yard, and adding some new edging to the backyard.

Oddly enough these were the same things on my summer list LAST summer. The heat just gets to me, and then I’m so sleepy, and then it’s just so much easier to sit with a glass of wine, eat too much cheese, and stare at my intended projects from my back patio. And much less sweaty.

But as we sat in the commons of our school on the last day bidding farewell to some amazing people who will be leaving a hole in the heart of our community, I was reminded of one particularly awesome woman’s mantra: Once Around.

We only get one shot in this world, one time around, one journey that’s ours. And while I certainly don’t intend to fill my journey exclusively with accent walls and yard work, this idea of “once around” helps me remember to make the most of each day. Take naps, but also take up that new hobby you’ve always been promising you would. Put some work into the yard, but also put some time into yourself. Care about others, but don’t care about what others think of you. Be you. Be joyful. Be present.

As the great philosopher Eminem preached years ago (God, I’m old), “lose yourself in the moment…this opportunity comes once in a lifetime.”

Enjoy this one time around. If it’s done right, it will feel like you’ve traveled the world a thousand times around.

Be Brave.

It’s that time of year again. The time when snow flutters, fires glow, wine flows, laughter peals. It’s a time for reflections on the year that’s coming to an end and dreams and hopes of all that the years to come will offer.

(Unless you live in Colorado, in which case it’s 50 degrees with no snow and fires make me sweat in this heat. But, nevertheless, I reflect.) 

I used the infamous opening to A Tale of Two Cities with my students the other day to discuss parallel structure: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” As I read that opening sentence out loud class after class, the words began to ring truer and truer (and that says a lot, because I am not exactly a fan of Dickens). 2014 has been quite the year. My boyfriend and I bought a home together. We moved from downtown to the burbs. That boyfriend became my fiance. We started planning a wedding. And in the midst of it all, my mom got cancer.

And that cancer part sucks a big Dickens.

I could tell by the tone of her voice that something was wrong, even before she said, “Where are you? Are you driving?” It’s never good when someone calls to talk and the first thing they want to know is if you’re driving. My legs immediately began to shake. Tears silently streamed down my face as I listened, nodding, squeaking out an “OK” every now and then. Noticing my slight mood swing, my fiance came to sit at the dining room table beside me, and I wrote three words on the back of an Xcel bill: Cancer. Ovarian. Mom.

When I got off the phone I just collapsed into my fiance’s chest, heaving giant breaths between the tears. This wasn’t happening. My parents are young (relatively speaking). They haven’t seen me get married. They haven’t met my future children — their future grandchildren. And this stupid disease is threatening whether or not that will happen? No.

No.

So I made the decision right then and there: we just needed to be brave. A little courage helped return Dorothy to her normal life, and it would help return my family to our normal lives. I took a deep breath, mustered all the courage I could in my breaking heart, and moved forward.

That lasted less than 24 hours.

I attempted work the next day. After all, there were only two weeks left in the spring semester. It was mostly review, graduation, and finals. Then I would be done. But I couldn’t even make it through one 51-minute period without stepping into the hall to stop the tears from falling. Luckily I have an amazing boss and co-workers who said, “Go home. Why are you here? Go be with your family.” Maybe what they didn’t know was that stepping into that hospital room with my mom and the rest of my family would take way more out of me than enduring school would.

But I was brave. I could do it.

My dad called the evening of her surgery. It was bad. Worse than we thought. Could I go to Springs tonight?

I was brave.

The gynecological oncologist met with us. “The surgery let us see where exactly the cancer was. We took out organs. There’s some cancer cells we couldn’t get. The chemo works for most women.”

MOST? 

We were brave.

My mom, with color in her skin and hair on her head, sat through her first chemo surrounded by women with little energy, little color, and little hair. My mom doesn’t belong here! She’s my mom! She can conquer anything!

We were brave!

My mom has endured seven chemo treatments to date. She no longer has hair. Her color is pale. Her energy fails her. But, man, if I’ve ever seen someone with spunk, it’s her. She’ll have her eighth treatment next week. She believes, in her heart of hearts, that this will be it. That this will take her to where her doctor wants her tumor markers to be. That this will end her poisonous journey and allow her to start 2015 with the same hopes and dreams we all have: to be healthy and happy.

She is the lion. She is the king (well, I guess queen) of the forest. She is amazing. She is brave.

Last week my sister and I got tattoos to honor our mom’s courage. The script on our wrists: be brave. Plain and simple. People who don’t know my mom’s story smile and compliment me on the font we chose or the pretty teal color that fills in the heart at the end of the statement. While I appreciate their kind words, they don’t get it. Plain and simple.

My sister documented my first tattoo parlor experience. I was trying so hard to be brave walking in. Strutting. Using lingo. “Hey, man, that’s a sweet back piece.” (I don’t think I actually used those words, but I’m pretty sure I sounded that idiotic.) I watched my sister get her tattoo, chatting with me the whole way through. Then I sat down. Shaking, I looked away as the needle touched my arm. Oh, this wasn’t so ba–WHAT THE F?!? deepbreathdeepbreathdeepbreath

OK, so I’m not so brave.

If I could fight my mom’s fight for her, I would do it in a heart beat. But I can’t. I do what I can to support her, but it will never be enough. Her body is forever changed, and now so are mine and my sister’s. It sucks: my mom is in the fight of her life, and I can barely sit through an eight-minute tattoo.

But she is brave. And I can be brave (in my own way).

And with all that bravery flying around, we’re bound to not only kick cancer’s ass, but scare the Dickens out of it in the process.

Live naturally. Live, naturally.

When I was three, I peed in the woods. Not once, not on a camping trip, not on a long hike along the Oregon coast. Simply stated, the woods were my kingdom, the stump next to our fence my throne. When I had to go, it happened outside.

This all started as a simple emergency roadside stop. On our move from New Orleans to Oregon, I had to go RIGHTNOW, and so my mom taught me the glorious art of dropping trou in the wilderness (or the side of I-40…details). I was hooked. I don’t know if it was the feel of the sun on my cheeks or the sheer giddiness of doing precisely what my parents spent so much time training me NOT to do, but the outdoors and my bum were now the best of friends.

Perhaps I just wanted to live simply and deliberately, Thoreau style. I was a fairly advanced three-year-old, so I’m sure I had Thoreau on the mind at some point. Even in my adult life I often think of escaping to the woods, but for a different type of relief — relief from the constant ringing of cell phones, tweeting of status updates, honking of car horns, squawking of ignorant voices (and I’m not talking about my students). Peace. Quiet.

The world I work in is data driven. Those in my world are judged on how well our students do on tests they often aren’t prepared for, not because we’re bad at our jobs, but because we don’t have the resources necessary to set students up for success. Imagine leading David to Goliath, but in this case Goliath sits back on his haunches, leans against his pile of money, scratches his undercarriage and sniffs in David’s general direction before falling asleep. These are the ears our concerns fall on: a fat, privileged, arrogant, and socially inappropriate Goliath. Yet the little voices in our heads are constant: Do it for the right reasons. Work as hard as you can for as little as you get. Neglect your family and loved ones for kids you sometimes see more than their own parents do. You’re changing the world! You’re so selfish to not give it your all! You’re so LAZY! WHY ARE YOU SLEEPING? TEACHERS DON’T SLEEP! They PLAN and GRADE and COUNSEL and FEED and COMFORT and PROTECT and…and…

And…? Well what else can we do?

We can do what makes us happy. We can take care of ourselves in order to be able to take care of others. We can ignore the voices of those on their gilded thrones. Our thrones might be dirty and messy and broken, but we make do. And then some. We live, naturally.

My family was once recounting toddler Erin’s fondness for the woods to a dear friend of mine, Kristin, and when we finished, my dad just sighed and said, “Ah, Erin: the naturalist.” Kristin could barely contain herself. (I was worried she was going to have to make a dash to the woods!) But I embrace my three-year-old self’s mantra and shout it from the mountaintops:

Fellow Americans! Pee in the woods!

Inhale deeply and exhale the voices and stressors and responsibilities of your life!
Turn your cheek(s) to the sun and bask in its radiance!
Turn your back on societal norms and do what makes you happy!
Don’t worry about others’ expectations for you; what are your expectations for you?
And when life starts bringing you down…well, keep your pants up and your Britney to yourself, because no one wants to see that. But in your head, I want you to be peeing in the woods! Do what is natural and innate and truly, satisfyingly YOU.

Because living naturally is the only way to live, naturally.