Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Happy Birthday Dad

Today is my dad's sixtieth birthday.  He shouldn't be alive to celebrate it.

It's been nine years and eleven months since that phone call, the one where I realized that phone calls could change the course of your life.   That phone call wouldn't be the first one.

"I have cancer," he said.  I was eighteen, had just finished my finals, was planning a summer job in the Southwest corner of Virginia, nearly two thousand miles from my dad in Boise.

It was that moment, though, that exposed my strength, picked me up off the floor, and sent me straight to the internet, before the internet, was, well, what it is.  There were few online support groups.  The web pages were low-quality templates with clipart(!).  There was no Facebook, only an away message on AIM to communicate my change in plans.

That was the summer I expanded my vocabulary, opened up a new file in my brain and placed words like "Rituxan" and "follicular b-cell" and "non-Hodgkin's."  I argued with the oncologists over treatment protocols and effectiveness and response rate.  I thought about med school.

They told my dad he would be lucky to live five years.  It's been ten.  In a world where it seemed impossible he'd ever make it out of his fifties, today he does.  Cancer complicates birthdays, makes each one not just the passage of another year, but truly a recognition of our ability as people to overcome disease and reclaim our lives.  You are not another year older, another day closer to death.  You are one day further from it.  Today is my dad's birthday.  It's a cause for celebration.

It's a bummer actually because the photo I wanted to use,
of us spraying his hair, was lost in the fire.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My Red Cross story

This is a hard post for me to write.  I’ve avoided it for two years, talking around the subject while not actually addressing it.  The Japanese earthquake has unfortunately kicked me over the edge. 

The night of August 25, 2008, was obviously one of the most difficult of my life.  I learned within a matter of minutes that everything – EVERYTHING – was gone.  We were directed to the local elementary school where we thought we’d be given information.  Instead, there was a television and some pizza and a few volunteers helping us find a place to sit around a cafeteria table.  And in the gym, some cots (which I don’t think anyone ended up using). 

There was actually very little information provided at the school, and, other than the pizza, we were offered nothing.  I hate to sound ungrateful (especially because SO many people were so generous over the next days and weeks), but I expect an organization that claims to specialize in disaster relief to provide SOMETHING in the immediate aftermath.  Where was a grief counselor?  A man lost his wife.  What about a bag filled with toiletries since we had none?  Or some clothes in a few different sizes (even a Red Cross t-shirt that fit would have been welcomed)? 

We were asked repeatedly in that night and then a week or so later what we needed.

YOU ARE THE F*ING RED CROSS.  Aren’t you supposed to have an idea of what’s needed?  I lost everything.  All I was trying to do was hold it together long enough to get to the birth of my son.  I didn’t know what I needed, quite frankly.  I needed everything.

It wasn’t the Red Cross that brought water in coolers for the friends, family, and strangers who helped us sort through our things.  It was local people who went out of their way to make sure our needs were met.  There were no masks, no shovels.  We purchased buckets and buckets to sift through our things, buckets that now are taking up space in our garage with little use at this point. 

Nearly two weeks after the fire, Red Cross volunteers met with each of the families to ask what we needed.  Again, you are the Red Cross.  We told them I had been waking up nightly screaming and that I needed counseling.  We had so little energy and resources to seek out a therapist, even though it’s well known that getting mental health assistance immediately following a trauma is the best way to prevent it from becoming more entrenched PTSD.  Do you think we heard from a counselor?  No.  When we told one of the other non-affiliated volunteers what had happened, she called and complained, and that’s when we did hear from someone, weeks after the fire.  By that point it was too late.

What really pisses me off is that my name was used to fundraise.  Donate to the Red Cross to help the victims of the Oregon Trail Heights Fire.  But they actually didn’t help.  The only assistance we really saw was that from the Burn Out fund (we love you) and community members who stepped up on their own to be our guardian angels (Chip and Patti and so many others).  And yet, everywhere we looked there was the Red Cross taking donations under the guise of disaster relief for the victims of our fire.  For US.

To make matters worse, this was brought to the attention of the local chapter of the Red Cross by one of the volunteers.  Instead of contacting us and talking about how we felt about the whole thing (or even getting some advice as to what they might have done differently for future disasters), we got a letter informing us of what was done, which I have detailed above.  To them, that was enough. 

I am SURE the Red Cross does great things.  I am sure that they are helping in some way in Japan and that they helped with Haiti and in New Orleans.  I have to believe that.  But I am jaded by my own personal experience.  I have read numerous articles questioning how the Red Cross spends its relief money, and I know I am not the only one who has a story like this to share (because I’ve been talking to people privately about this over the last few weeks). 

And I’ve been trying to decide how I was going to address this… and whether to even share my story.  What tipped me over the edge was the woman at Kellen’s Montessori school putting up a donation box to collect money “for Japanese relief efforts.”  I wanted to ask them how they knew that the money would actually help those in Japan or if, like us, the Red Cross is using another tragedy to stock their general fund.  I wish I knew of a local organization in Japan to donate to instead as I am certain that aid is needed.  Because I don’t, I am choosing to donate to local organizations, who help out in disasters that are equally as traumatizing but do not garner international media.  It’s the only way to ensure I know where my money is being spent, and, as a donor, that matters to me. 

Friday, March 18, 2011


I was Franklin Covey's dream client.  I had years of planners and the binders to save my life's plans.  I loved the space where I could plan out the following year, even though it was still January of the previous one.  I house hunted in cities I thought we might move one day, knowing full well those houses wouldn't be on the market in a couple of years (back in the housing boom), but I still envisioned my life in them while sitting on the plush green microfiber couch in my three bedroom house in Boise.

The thing is, life isn't predictable, even if we want it to be.  I was no stranger to detours.  My parents divorced when I was a young child, and I was left to deal with the cross-country custody arrangement, certainly not my ideal.  When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I left behind plans to be a counselor at a special needs camp to shave my dad's head and attend to his new special needs.  Even meeting Dan at twenty-four wasn't a part of my life plan.  It certainly hadn't been scheduled into my light blue planner the year before when I was still living on the Upper East Side.

When you stand over your leveled house, staring down into an ash pit, it's hard not to imagine the life you planned and the path you start down.  The thing about detours, though, is that they are supposed to intersect back with the road they left behind.  But in life, our detours often don't find their way back to the life that was. The choices we make as a result are often quite different than the ones we would have made had the event not occurred.  The road in front of us too, often isn't even there yet.  It's as though once our life takes a detour, we become the construction crew as well, laying down the pavement as we go.

This post was written as a response to the prompt to write a piece in which you take a detour.

Monday, March 7, 2011

I don't mean to be jealous

A lot of my friends are expecting their first babies right now.  And by a lot, I'm pretty sure I mean everyone I know!  Photos of their perfect nurseries have taken over Facebook in the last couple of weeks, walls impeccably painted, family heirlooms incorporated, cribs assembled.  I don't mean to be jealous.  But I am.  I might even admit to tearing up a little.

I look at the pictures of perfectly placed bumpers and mobiles and curtains, and I can't help but think about Kellen's nursery, or what was supposed to be his room.  I picture the crib sitting up against the wall, blue and brown Restoration Hardware bumper firmly in place.  I see the refurbished dresser from my childhood with the brass knobs still so new.  I imagine myself sitting in the glider in the corner, pulling a book off the shelf and reading to Kellen.  And I can even visualize what that room would look like now, as Kellen's toddler room.  But it's gone.  And it's hard for me to be happy for my friends - even though I know I should be - when looking at those pictures causes me to mourn again a loss that I know I should be healed from but yet is still so raw.  I know what it's like to be so excited, to have the love of this unborn child carefully and thoughtfully placed around a room.  But, for me, that was burned away, and instead of saying, "That's so beautiful," I want to say, "Now imagine that you lost this."

It's not just the nurseries.  I don't have a wedding video to watch.  The small cassette was sitting on my desk, next to the ironing board and the just-finished Christmas stockings I quilted.  I don't have my senior yearbook to reflect back on.  All these things that others can do to help bring back memories of love or joy or even heartbreak, I have lost.

I was telling another fire survivor today (we've bonded at the gym!) that I feel so far away from my memories because I've lost the tangible things that held me to them.  I have to search my memory and hold everything only in my mind instead of being able to relinquish those memories and let the things, the stuff of my life, hold them.  It's taxing. 

And now, when I'm brought back to my memories of things that should bring me joy, like thinking of that first nursery with friends' pictures of theirs, my first emotion is jealousy.  I don't mean to be jealous, but I am.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Water gives life. Water takes it away.

By the time we pulled up to our neighborhood the night of August 25, one house was already engulfed in flames.  The smoke was so thick I nearly hit the fire engine in front of me with my Prius.  That would have really helped the situation!

I could see water spraying through the air, but it seemed to vanish into the smoke before touching the fire.  The flames towered at least twenty five feet over where the roof to our neighbor’s house once stood.  There was little to enclose now, though the black rod iron fence gave the illusion that there was.

Our house was on the other side of the street, and I wanted to believe it would be safe even though the flames shot through the air.  It would take one gust of wind – and they were at least fifty miles an hour that night – blowing in the right direction to catch our house on fire.  Unfortunately that’s exactly what they did.

While I was waiting for Dan, who had run in to rescue our dog and some photos and whose phone had died in the meantime, I willed him to turn on the sprinklers, believing that they could somehow save our house.  Apparently I had little faith in the capabilities of the firemen’s hoses. 
In the days that followed, I would hear side conversations about men who boldly stated they would have stayed and fought the fire themselves, their chests puffed.  It was hard to hear such brazen statements, especially since one person died in the fire.  As sad as it was to lose our house, losing my husband would have been infinitely worse.  Beyond that though, the sentiment was illogical.  Firemen were drawing all the water in the area.  Dan did turn on the garden hose, and a little dribble escaped.  Sacrificing one’s safety to fight with the wrong tools only makes one a fool! 

Bonus: two posts for today.  This is based on the prompt: Water gives life.  Water takes it away.

The sound of normal

If you've ever been in a room with me, there's a good chance you've heard me laughing.  We may never have spoken, but you would still remember the full body laugh that starts in my soul.  And it's genuine.  (We won't talk about the people who find it obnoxious.)

The problem is, I lost my laugh.  In the days after the fire, I still had humor despite my tears.  I could take one major life trauma and still access my laugh.  But then there was the Bell's Palsy and the PTSD and the undiagnosed Lyme.  By the time we moved home six months after the fire, the laughter was gone.  It had been replaced by silent tears and usually loud, angry rants.  Frustration echoed through my hallways, most often directed at whatever was in my way, even though the objects of my anger were never really why I was mad.  How do you yell at a fire? A bacteria? Nightmares?

I was at a doctor appointment today, and the office manager commented that it was good to hear me laugh again, that it had been a long time since they had heard that unforgettable noise.  It's strange.  That laughter is a part of who I am, but it sounded foreign even to me the last two years.  When I caught myself laughing, I noticed it in a way I hadn't before because it was so rare.  I find myself in those moments more and more now, which I think means they are becoming less rare.  Laughter.  The sound of normal.