OHBD 2015

OHBD 2015

Sunday, December 21, 2014

You Have Cancer

Those words are so powerful.  It has taken me 10 years to be able to write them down.  I feel ready to share now in hopes it can help others who hear them or fear them.  I realized as I thought about what to share, this will likely take me a few posts.  This is Day One.

I remember the day I heard the words like it was yesterday.  I remember distinct details which seem burned into my brain.  Generally, I have trouble remembering specifics of a few days ago if I don’t write them down.

We lived in Chicago.  I was sitting at my cubicle desk enjoying the sunshine and the excitement of a recent promotion and new role.  I got a call from my doctor to come in for my test results from a recent relatively routine procedure.  I felt they had done it in part to humor me since they knew I like to get concrete information rather than probabilities whenever possible.  I told my husband Michael I would need to stop by the office on my way home so would be a little later.  He immediately sensed something was amiss asking, “Why do you have to come in?  It can’t be good news.”  I laughed and told him, “You worry too much.  I am sure it is nothing serious.” 

I didn’t give it much more mind share as I wrapped up my day and drove the few minutes to the medical building.  I waited until the doctor could see me.  When we were in the examining room, he told me those simple words.  “You have cancer.”  I can't recall much about what else he said. It felt like airplanes were landing in my head.  I saw his mouth moving but could not hang on to the words as they danced around my consciousness without any order.  I was a healthy 37 year old with two young boys – how could I have cancer?  I had never even heard of this type before: cancer of the uterine lining. 

I nodded as he explained things which I couldn’t take in and walked numbly to my car.  My whole world had shifted and turned upside down in the span of minutes.  I no longer saw the sunshine or even what was happening around me.  I called Michael as I started to drive.  I felt tears freely flowing down my cheeks as I told him.  I could hear the devastation in his voice and didn’t know what more to say.  I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what I had just heard.  Surely this was a nightmare and I would wake soon.

Instinctively, I called a friend who was a breast cancer survivor and had lost her younger sister to the same disease when we worked together.  She was a no nonsense high powered executive.  She told me. “You have to own getting yourself the best care.”  She offered to have any doctors I considered thoroughly checked out and told me she was with me.  I clung to her words and confidence like a life raft in the middle of a choppy ocean.

When I approached my home, panic and helplessness began to wash over me.  What was I going to do?  How was this even possible?  I saw my husband sitting outside the house on our front steps – tears streaking his handsome face.  His look mirrored all that was running through my head.  It was almost too much to bear.  We hugged and cried – neither of us knew the right words for what we were facing.  Our boys were seven and three.  We went through the motions of a normal evening until they were in bed. 

I then slowly descended the stairs to our basement and lowered myself to the middle of the floor.  I let the sobs and fear just roll through my body like the waves of the ocean - -ebbing and flowing continuously.   Michael came down to check on me.  Again I saw my worst fears reflected in his eyes.  I asked him something I knew I needed, “You need to act like everything is normal.  I can’t do this if every time I look at you I see you expecting the worst.  I really need you to do this for me.”   

Now I appreciate what an impossible request this was but at the time it was so important to me.  I was gearing up for a fight and I needed my best friend and life partner to be his confident self.  I don’t panic about much and wanted to attack this like I would any other complex challenge.  I gave myself the one evening to let the most unproductive emotions and thoughts take center stage.  And I knew in the morning, I would get to the business of making a plan to ensure I was there for my family. 

Damian 3 and Dimitri 7 -- 2004

Me and the boys hanging out in our basement --2004

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Heaven Received Another Angel – her name is Maria Angelidou, my other mother

I first learned about Maria many years ago from her son Michael, my now husband and then boyfriend. He, for lots of complicated reasons, couldn’t go back to his home country of Greece for an extended period.  His voice cracked and his eyes filled when he shared with me how he much he missed seeing his dear mother.  He is a large, self-confident man so seeing him wracked with such deep emotion was unexpected.  I fell a little more in love with him at that moment as I saw his heart breaking from the extended separation from this amazing woman.

I didn’t get to meet Maria in person until a few years after we were married.  Michael and I eloped before I started law school.  We were young and broke and our families and friends were spread to the four winds so it made sense to us.    When I graduated, I planned a celebratory trip to see friends and family in Holland where my parents are from.  Maria very much wanted me to come to Greece too even although Michael still couldn’t travel there.  Michael encouraged me to go.  So with my elder sister as my traveling companion, I did. 

Walking off the plane in the hot Greek sun that summer in 1994, it hit me as hard as the acrid air around me that I was going to stay with my new family, with no common language and none of whom I had never laid eyes on before.  I had serious butterflies and nerves as I scanned the faces waiting outside the doors that open and closed with regularity as guests departed. 

The welcome I received as it was my turn to walk through was what I would come to know as vintage Maria.  It seemed half the town had showed up with flowers and signs in our honor.  Most were extended family but the group also included many of their friends. A number were chosen, I learned later, because they spoke good English.  It felt like we were arriving dignitaries.

I have never felt more welcomed, any place in my life.  Maria insisted she was my “Mama” and NOT my “Mother in law”.  She clearly articulated, “NO, in-law.”  She had been learning English in preparation for our visit which touched me.  She proclaimed, “My new daughter!” to everyone with a gorgeous smile on her beautiful face.

She was a total “food is love” person.  Her cooking was sunshine, lively music and a warm lingering embrace all wrapped up into a present that continued to reveal and delight as I ate.  I thought liked Greek food.  But I came to realize I had never eaten the real thing before.  What she served involved fresh ingredients ever so lovingly prepared often the better part of the day, there was no rushing perfection, and then served generously, family style.  She was an artist, her medium the ingredients of her signature dishes.  Seconds were a given, not an option.

Visitors of all types, young, old and in between, gravitated into her orbit, stopping by for a meal, a coffee, a cocktail or a conversation and a chuckle.  Joyful laughter punctuated each visit.  Maria was happiness and light and most of all unconditional love.  I have so many wonderful memories of her from visits over the succeeding years including at our Greek wedding when Michael could finally return and at the baptism of each of our three children.  The youngest, our only daughter, shares her name – Leyla Marie.

Maria’s life was not one of ease.  I admired her more as I got to know about her from others and just spent time together, very often in the kitchen.  My husband was born when she was still very young and they in many ways grew up together.  He was her world and she was his hero.  And their relationship was indescribably beautiful, spanning more than half a century.

Hers was a life given in joyful service of others.  She mothered everyone!  And she did it because it was who she was.  I remember waking up from naps that first visit with my clothes pressed and an iced coffee sitting on the night stand.  I told my husband, “She really doesn’t need to do that for me. In fact, it makes me a little uncomfortable.”  He said, “She does it because she wants to.  It makes her happy.”  I was skeptical at the time but came to understand the truth in those statements which humbled me.

In recent months, her body was failing her lovely spirit in so many ways and life was a struggle.  Michael was with her when she sought and found a more peaceful place.  And I truly believe that was her wish.  Given we live half a world away most of the time; the chances were rather slim they could be together in the end but still it happened.  And Michael summed it up well when he shared, “She took care of herself this time for a change.”

Maria Angelidou left an immeasurable legacy of love and light.  We will all dearly miss her presence with us here.  It is unimaginable to me to think of Greece without her welcoming arms and smile there to greet me.  But her soul lives on. I can see a bit if her in so many places, including the face of her son, her daughters (including myself), her loving husband of 55 years, her grandchildren, and in the amazing food she patiently taught us to cook. 

Bravo, Maria Angelidou, you lived well!  
Σ 'αγαπώ πολύ

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day -- Reflecting on What Motherhood Taught Me So Far . .

Mother’s Day is very special to me.  I honor my mother and all the women who have mothered me over the years.  Also, as a mom now myself, I feel this is a day I earned unlike my birthday or other popular holidays.  It is a day I find myself reflecting on how becoming a mom, through both biology and adoption, changed so much of how I see myself and the world. 

Trying to capture what being a mom taught me is like catching the wind; it is both illusive and invisible.  But here is my Top Ten for 2014:
  1. Unconditional love is an amazing blessing and an incredible burden.  When one of my children tells me, “I love you, Mom” or “You are the best, mom,” I experience a bit of what I expect heaven must be.  But I die inside a little each time, and the pain is physical, when I worry something happened to one of my kids like when they are lost (my second made this a habit for a period) or hurt (my eldest tested different ways) or scared (my littlest has moments of fear that haunt me).
  2. My kids teach me probably as much as I teach them although not always in expected ways.  By being uniquely their own people, they just approach life and relationships with their own lens.  My eldest is fearless (his bucket list makes me queasy); my second can find joy in the details (who knew there could be so many), and my youngest is song and dance combined (I live in a musical with her). The more I am open to this, the more I see things I might have otherwise missed.
  3. Each child is unique.  And they are different at each stage of their life. Treating each fairly doesn’t mean treating them the same.  They often need something special from me.  And at each phase what they need evolves usually just as I thought I had a handle on it.  Keeping up is not easy as I now have children who are 6, 13 and 17.
  4. My kids are only mine to help on this part of their own journey.  Adoption helped me see this so starkly although it was always true. As a mom, it was an important, although rather uncomfortable, epiphany for me.  I want to claim them but have come to realize they will ultimately need to claim the relationship we have as adults when they are grown.
  5. To assist my children effectively, I need to truly work to understand where they are coming from and who they are, deep inside their most private selves, even as they are constantly changing and may not share or even know themselves.  Having two teenagers and a complicated kindergartner highlights this challenge for me.
  6. I am on my own journey which is only somewhat further down the path. As I continue to grow as a person, I must apply those learnings to this role. I need to be brutally honest with myself and work to identify and face things I haven’t figured out so I don’t project them on my kids.  Keeping this awareness is not simple.
  7. I must accept the painful truth that my best will not always be good enough to give my kids what they need.  Even more painfully, there are some days I am not even my best. Explaining and apologizing to my children is necessary so they understand we are all human and we all fail.
  8. Having a partner in parenting is a priceless gift. Mothering is not for the faint of heart and sharing the experience with my husband and best friend makes the joys more joyous and the lows more manageable. Plus a timely hand-off of a child who has tested my patience and understanding to it's breaking point has more than once saved my sanity.
  9. Being a good friend and mother to myself so I am in tune to what I need to feel complete is a huge part of being the best mom to my kids I can be.  My early mothering years would have greatly benefited from this realization and investment
  10. Laughter and HUGS are two of the best antidotes for whatever motherhood and life throws at me.  If I genuinely laugh out loud and hug with feeling one of my children, we can then get to the other side of any issue together.  

Thank you to my amazing kids for making me a mom.  Thank you to my best friend for sharing this parenting journey with me. I love each one of you with my whole heart (love multiplies with each new member – who knew?)!  I am so proud of the people you are becoming - -kids and adults.  I look forward to a lifetime of learning, and more importantly, of laughter and of hugs!  

Sharing some priceless memories we made this amazing Mother's Day weekend in Rome.


Happy Mother's Day to every mother or person who has been mothered or mothered another! May learning and laughter and hugs be part of your journey.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

You do make a difference . . .to me

I interviewed a candidate at my job a while back. As I talked to him, I was humbled. He was a super smart guy with an MBA from a well respected school, but that wasn’t it. He was quite personable and articulate, but that wasn’t it either. He previously served in the armed forces. Part of his responsibilities were overseeing reconstruction work in Afghanistan. I probed him with questions to determine if he would be up to the tasks the role he was interviewing for required. His answers elicited a bifurcated response from me. The first was an analytical one of the interviewer assessing the specific examples and details in his answers to determine if they indicated the skills and aptitude to transition into this civilian position. The second was awe. Here was a twenty something who was an instrumental part of building schools for girls half way around the world which would afford them their first opportunity at a better future. He assisting in rebuilding village infrastructure for people who had become accustomed to living without these basic services.
After the interview, I returned to my office and reflected. I have a good job and like what I do. But is it important in the big scheme of things? Does what I do matter? Have I made a positive difference in the world? These questions hung in the air. A friend, who also happened to work with me at the time, stopped by to talk about a work issue. I mentioned to him what I was thinking. He is involved with non profits as I am. (the family is pictured on our trip to visit our first Ethiopia Reads Library) And I know he also is concerned about the larger impact he has. He listened to me describe the interview and my reflections. There was a momentary, what seemed to me, lengthy pause. I wasn’t sure what to think. Then he responded, “I don’t know if this means anything to you, but you made a big difference in my life.” I told him it does truly mean something to me. And he walked away. After he was out of sight, I let my eyes fill with the tears I had been holding back at his words. His direct statement took my breath away. It was so powerful in that moment. In his simple words, he affirmed me.

Is it that simple? Is that what we need to do to make a difference in the lives of those we cross paths with? I would not have known that I had this impact on his life if he hadn’t told me. This experience encouraged me to more consistently reach out and tell people the positive impact they have made in my life. I don’t assume they know... I didn’t. I did this now on a few occasions since, including to the original person I interviewed who was offered and accepted the job. I was amazed to find I received similar reactions back from them to the one I had. I appear to have inadvertently stumbled on a pay it forward activity with an immediate pay back. 

(First version published on WorkingMother.com)