The Train

I wrote this essay months ago, just as schools across the country opened amidst a worldwide pandemic, and we faced yet another unique set of challenges in the Storms household. Months later, as 2021 comes to a close and the schools plan to open on schedule starting January 3, 2022 regardless of the dramatic spike in local Covid cases, I feel, again, that I’ve boarded a train I just can’t seem to disembark no matter how hard I try.


“You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don’t know for sure. Yet it doesn’t matter, because we’ll be together.”

The words are from Inception, a 2010 blockbuster film that delved deep into dreams, and challenged the nature of reality with delightful, mind-boggling cinematic special effects. I introduced it to my kids recently, and after initially groaning about having to watch my choice of movie, my teen and tween couldn’t tear their eyes from the television.

Now, several weeks later, the quote about the train strikes me as particularly relevant. Facing a secondary liver cancer diagnosis after four years of being free from a rare pancreatic cancer diagnosis, husband and I feel as though we’ve boarded a train with no idea of our destination.

When people say “Cancer sucks,” the phrase should be taken literally. Cancer sucks your life away. It sucks away your dreams, your plans, your future, your hopes. It sucks away your children’s innocence and their childhood, leaving worry and anxiety in its wake. Cancer sucks away your motivation and your ability to do things as simple as figure out what’s for dinner tonight. Your mind is no longer yours because the thoughts you once dwelled on no longer seem important.

We don’t know how or why Nate developed a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor four years ago, and having seen some of the best doctors in the country, we were confident that the cancer had been eradicated through a surgical procedure that left him with half a pancreas, no spleen, and no gallbladder. (That’s a distal pancreatectomy with splenectomy and cholecystectomy, if you’re in the market for medical terminology. Try saying that to your friends and family for months on end.) Even though he had complications that left him with increasingly larger drain tubes in his abdomen for six months, which meant we took nineteen trips to Philadelphia in a matter of twenty-three weeks—sometimes spending more hours on a train and in a car than we did in Interventional Radiology—we were optimistic that his cancer was history.

Since Nate’s most recent diagnosis, my mind is like a laundry room dryer, endlessly spinning the same pieces of clothing in dizzying circles. Only, the “pieces of clothing” are my thoughts, tumbling round and round, trying to piece together the information I’ve been given, sure that if I just think hard enough, I’ll be able to make sense of this diagnosis, to solve this hundred-thousand-piece puzzle that has no marked beginning and no good end.

And yet, once you’ve been given a cancer diagnosis, the idea of cancer never really goes away, even when you’ve been pronounced “cured.” Each time Nate gets a follow-up CT scan, we hold our breath. With each clear result, we release a sigh and get back to living, to work and school, to navigating the challenges of living in Covid-pandemic times. To celebrate his 3-year cancer-free anniversary, we donated blood together last year.

Then, two-weeks ago came the scan we’d been dreading since the start—the one with glaring anomalies on his liver. If a first-time cancer diagnosis was the earthquake of uncertainty that brought our world to a grinding halt, a secondary cancer diagnosis eighteen months into a worldwide pandemic is the tsunami that threatens to take down everything we’ve built.

The future we’ve allowed ourselves to envision in our imagination after those first shaky months and years since the initial diagnosis has once again been wiped clean to a blank slate of the unknown. His oncologist seems optimistic. The embolization procedure they want to use to starve the tumors by killing the blood flow that feeds them has a history of success.

But long-term success? That’s an outcome no one can predict.

We’ve unwittingly boarded a train with a mystery itinerary, and I have a funny feeling our journey won’t be like the tours offered by travel agencies to globetrotting hodophiles, since I sincerely doubt we’ll be allowed to disembark in Curaçao or Portugal.

Somehow we’ve managed to climb aboard the cancer train in the middle of a pandemic. This feels grossly unfair as we can’t even actually travel right now, and yet, the cancer train is still making all its regularly scheduled stops. To add insult to injury, once we’re on the cancer train, we’re not allowed off until the train comes to a complete stop and the doors open, which means we’re in for one hell of a ride. One might say the train is more like a roller coaster, and my family knows exactly how much I loathe noisy, rickety, vomit-inducing roller coasters.

The last time we went through this, we were reluctant to allow close friends and family to get wholly involved, but there were times we had no other choice. When Nate needed surgery during the last week of school, it was my newly-retired father who came to stay with my kids and pets while local friends drove the kids to and from school.

When Nate spiked a fever in the middle of the night two weeks after his drain tube was put in, we counted our blessings that our kids’ piano teacher could come over at midnight to stay with our already-sleeping seven- and eleven-year-olds.

When I was distraught because I had to tell the kids we couldn’t go out for simple treats like movies or ice cream because money was stretched thin and we just didn’t know what the next day would bring, an internet-made friend from halfway across the country begged for my address and sent gift cards so the kids could experience what kids should, even in—and maybe especially in—the worst of times.

When our trips to Philadelphia took longer than anticipated, or the train (the real train, not the metaphorical one) broke down and we had to walk twenty blocks, our neighbors were here to pick up our children from school, watch them, help them with homework, and feed them dinner until we came home, deflated and utterly exhausted.

So when he received the diagnosis this time, I wasn’t surprised by the outpouring of love and support from friends and family near and far. Offers to watch our pets, our house, our kids, make meals, or start a crowdfunding campaign were endless. Despite their own exhaustion, regardless of pandemic fatigue, friends and family provided us with a safety net of physical, emotional, and practical support.

“Whatever you need,” they said.

But what happens when you don’t know what you need?

Personally, I think I could use a two-hour full body massage and a week sitting at the beach to forget about the world, but that’s not going to happen right now. Instead, I get to homeschool an eleven-year-old who’s on our public school’s virtual learning platform due to Covid, but who, only months ago, was diagnosed with severe anxiety and OCD with ADHD tendencies, which means there’s no way she can tackle this amount of work on her own without my help. I play the role of a sixth grade teacher frequently in our house, and we’re only a week and a half into school. The pandemic may have made virtual schooling necessary, but cancer has made me not near as patient a teacher as I should be.

I’m a writer who is two and a half books deep into a fantasy trilogy, who promised my readers a third book by February of 2022, but who may have to break that promise for no reason other than that my brain won’t let me process words, let alone figure out plot and character arcs. So cancer has taken that, too, or at least pushed the completion of that final book to a distant train platform somewhere in my future.

I’m a mother who’s responsible for getting kids to volleyball practice, piano lessons, doctor appointments, dentist visits, and therapy appointments (because after a cancer diagnosis, we all have anxiety disorders in this house). That was the deal my husband and I made when I quit my full-time job five years ago in exchange for part-time work that allowed me more time to focus on writing, but cancer has taken that time and filled it instead with phone calls, emails, appointments, and endless, endless research.

And now I once again play the role of caregiver to a two-time cancer patient. (Which, for the record, is not nearly as exciting as being a two-time Academy Award winner.) I made a promise to my husband eighteen years ago that I’d be here for him in sickness and in health. As many times as it takes, no matter the destination, I’ll board any train with him, anywhere, always.

I am grateful for our support network. I’m grateful that no matter how fast this cancer train seems to have whisked us away, we have dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who are banging on the doors, breaking the windows, clinging to the roof, or hanging onto the steps of that train, ready to help us in whatever way possible.

I just wish I knew where the train was going.

2021 Wrap Up

Every year I do a quick summary of what I’ve accomplished in my writing career and sometimes what I’ve accomplished in life. It’s a great way to look back and realize I actually *have* been pretty busy, no, I *wasn’t* slacking as much as I thought, and hey, this year wasn’t so bad. (Covid and cancer aside.)

Writing Life

Books published: 0
eBooks published: 0
Signing events attended: 2
Independent Book Award Entries: 6
Book Awards Won for A Thousand Years to Wait: 1 first place (Young Adult Fiction), 1 second place (Cover Design) , 1 honorable mention (New Author Award), (plus 3 outstanding until 2022)
Online Writing Retreats Attended: 3
Failed In-Person Writing Retreat Attempted: 2
Online Writing Webinars Taught: 1
Personal Essays Written: 1
Manuscript words written: >125,000
YA manuscripts finished: 1
PB manuscripts finished: 5
YA manuscript WIP: 1
Adult manuscript WIP: 1
Manscripts queried: 3
Queries sent: 104
Query rejections: 57
Query no response: 23
Queries still open: 20
Partial Manuscript Requests: 3 (1 from a 2020 query)
Full Manuscript Requests: 2
Total accumulative completed manuscripts (2011-2021): 13
Online pitch contests entered: 1
Blog posts written: 16
Books read: 50
Friends’ Manuscripts read: 3
Blurbs appearing on published books: 1
Writing friends made: Never enough! Writers, find me on Twitter.

Personal Life

Returning cancer diagnosis: 1 (husband😭)
Days spent helping to kick cancer’s ass: 126
Bland Embolization procedures & hospitalizations for husband: 2
Family Covid tests taken: 8 (all negative)
Medical Bills: Infinite
Days spent as 6th grade homeschool/virtual school teacher: 119
Stray animals found: 2 dogs, 1 cat, 1 chicken
Stray animals rescued: 2 dogs, 1 cat, don’t ask about the chicken (I tried!)

Icebergs, My Fingers, and Other Cold Things

Gather ’round, my internet friends and strangers, and let me tell you a harrowing tale of woodland survival and my recent near-death experience. It didn’t start out harrowing. Oh, no. It started out an adventure full of hope and promise.

I should probably start at the beginning.

A week ago, my husband went fishing with a friend. Unbeknownst to me, said friend brought alcohol, so when husband came home, he was quite the happy boy. I mean, really, REALLY silly. Jokingly, I said, “Have you been drinking?”

“Maaaaaaybe” came the response.

I stared him down. “How many?”

“A feeeeew. Hey. There’s a lot of stress in my life right now.* Sometimes I just need to loosen up, right? Nothing wrong with that.”

*There is a lot of stress. But this is not the way to deal with it.

After I stopped fuming, and after he sobered up, I said, “You know what? You’re right. I need to loosen up, too. I’m going away for a couple of nights.”

So I found a heated cabin in the woods about a half-hour from home, coerced my college roommate into joining me, and booked us for the following week.

Fast-forward to the following week. (That’d be now.)

Monday morning finds me preparing the car, loading the camp gear, the sleeping bags and pillows, and prepping for two days of eating junk food I don’t have to prepare beyond boiling water.

“Is there a fire ring?” the husband asks. “Do you need to get wood?”

I tilt my head and give him a look. “Yes, but why would I need wood? I mean, the cabin is heated. That’s kind of why I looked for a building *with* heat. I’m not putting work into a fire.”

“Oh, okay. Good, good. Did you take the extra batteries for the flashlight?”

“No, it’s two nights. It should be fine. Besides, I have my phone with me if absolutely need to use the flashlight on the phone.”

“Oh, right. Okay. Do you have the address?”

“Yes, dear. I pulled it off the website.”

There’s so much to unpack in this conversation, and almost all of it comes back to bite me in the ass.

I say my goodbyes, set myself up behind the wheel, get some good tunes playing, and follow the GPS…to find I’ve got the complete wrong address. The GPS sent me to Park Avenue in a town a half hour away from the Park Road I was supposed to be on. Okaaaaaay. Reroute. Spend an hour and a half driving instead of a half-hour. Sure. Alright.

Get to the park. Find out the signage in the park is really, REALLY bad. It takes me ten minutes of driving around the park to figure out where the cabins are. It turns out there’s no check-in in December. They just stick the key in the lock for you and leave your paperwork inside.

Anyway, at least, I arrived, right?

So that’s a plus.

Well, yeah. Except that my roommate *also* can’t find the place when she’s on her way an hour later in the dark. So I drop a pin in my location on my phone’s GPS and send it to her.

Without further ado, she arrives with her dog, Charlie, who is also very, very excited (and a little confused, to be honest). We get set up and prepare a camp meal of mountain chili on our gas-powered camp stove, plug in her electric fireplace for ambiance (and extra warmth!), and get to catching up.

Ah. Kid-free. Responsibility-free. So much relaxation.

Until my insides decided to hate on the chili. Okay, yeah. No worries. I’ll just head to the bathhouse. The one drawback of our heated cabin is that there’s no plumbing. But hey, there’s a bathhouse I saw in daylight that’s almost right behind us, so it should be fine, right?

Only, where is that bathhouse? Dear God, it’s dark and windy and rainy and…where is the bathhouse? WHY ISN’T IT LIT?

“Okay, it’s okay,” I tell myself. “Just head to the right, where you saw it. Follow the road.”

Even though my roommate told me to head left. Huh. She must have gone to a different bathhouse during the daylight, but I’ll just go where I know the closest one is.

But.

There is no bathhouse. Or if there is (and I’m not entirely convinced I didn’t just see an apparition of one earlier in the day), it’s certainly nowhere in my sight. In fact, nothing is in sight. It’s dark. And rainy. And so, so windy.

So, it’s time to text my roommate.

Oh. The RVs. Okay, yeah. I definitely saw those earlier. And they were definitely to the *left.*

Good news, friends! I made it to the bathhouse 1. without being murdered (it was sketchy there for a while), 2. without getting hopelessly lost, 3. without a tree limb falling on me (and they WERE falling…)

So, anyway, I’m not even sure I have to go anymore, but whatever, I’m here, so I might as well sit, right?

And then.

This.

This is, in fact, one of my worst childhood nightmares. I’m in the bathroom. On the toilet. In the dark. In a campground, no less. I’m pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before the tree branch breaks the glass and reaches in to strangle me while my pants are around my ankles. Or maybe the dark is when the dreaded toilet-snake comes to bite me. I don’t even live in warm enough areas for reptiles to be in the plumbing, but some childhood fears cannot be dispelled.

But since I’m already in the bathroom, and I’m still not sure how that chili is digesting in there, I figure I might as well stay for a few minutes…which leads to my roommate texting to check up on me after ten minutes pass without a word from me.

Oh, great. There’s an earwig crawling all around the floor. And that’s what I can see. How big is the spider I’m now sure is dangling over my head in the darkness somewhere? <whimper>

Friends. The camp host LIED. The power did NOT come on at 10:30. We sat in a dark cabin and read on our phones by flashlight until we went to bed.

Oh, but the flashlight. I lend my flashlight to roommate so she can go to her car to get *her* flashlight.

Anyway, we freeze through the night. At least the sleeping bags are warm…but my nose turns to ice, and I wake frequently. The bed is super squeaky and both of my shoulders hurt thanks to issues I have with them from time to time.

And at 5 a.m., for the *third* time in one night, I have to walk to the bathhouse in the dark. (I didn’t even have digestive issues. Just had to pee really, really badly… Whatever. Being a middle-aged woman who’s had two kids is fun.)

It’s 34 degrees outside, which is, ironically, the same temperature as *inside.* At least it’s calm and there’s no more wind and rain, right? AND, bonus, a tree never came through the cabin roof like I expected all night long, so yay!

At 7 a.m., just when I’m falling asleep again, the power flickers on and off about a dozen times for a half hour, waking me with promises of warmth. Sweet, sweet, very false, filthy, lying promises. Because the power did NOT come back on when it turned off fully at 8 a.m. again.

By 9 a.m., hunger forces me to crawl from beneath the warmth of my sleeping bag, so I dress in as many layers as is humanly possible, I crank up the camp stove for hot tea, and devour a muffin while I’m waiting.

The tea?

My friends, the tea cooled in less than five minutes. (I drank most of it before that time, but those last few sips were *definitely* iced tea.)

When roommate comes back from her trip to the bathhouse, we learn that the power isn’t coming back until the evening.

There is. no way. we will enjoy staying here. Not in these temps.

So we pack up, and I may or may not be singing The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” as I load my car. Back home we go, a full day early, and after a frosty, sleepless night. Proving, once again, that moms don’t get breaks. But yes, I will be asking for a refund.

Is it the campground’s fault? No

But did we have an enjoyable experience? Also, no.

After all of this, I’m forced to wonder… If I’d followed husband’s suggestions and gotten firewood, had an extra battery for the flashlight, and double checked my directions, would it have changed the outcome?

A selfie before leaving Cottage #1, aka Elsa’s Summer Cottage.

Oh. And by the way. I wasn’t wrong! There WAS a closer bathhouse. It just wasn’t open. (Someone please tell me WHY they would choose to keep open the bathhouse by the RVs that already have bathrooms and running water, but not the bathhouse that’s near the cabins which do NOT have bathrooms or running water?

Black circle: where we stayed, Blue circle: closest bathhouse, Red circle: open bathhouse

Identity

One of the biggest rules in writing stories of any length is “write what you know.” That’s not to say I know anything about real magic, or talismans, or chaos. I mean, really, who really does? (Well, okay, I know a *little* about chaos these days.)

But the bigger takeaway from this rule is generally that you shouldn’t write from an identity that isn’t yours. White folks shouldn’t try to write from a Black point of view in their novel. Or a Maori warrior. Or an Egyptian prince. Or a Native American. Or…

Okay, you get my point.

Wait! What? But there are so many amazing and diverse stories out there to be told! Why wouldn’t we write them?

Because there are also so many amazing and diverse writers of all different identities who can (and should) tell them, and they won’t get that chance if someone else dominates the narrative.

So what happens when you’re a third/fourth generation American immigrant whose family has been in the country for a hundred years and whose ethnicity looks like this?

Who are you? And what stories do you write?

This is something I’ve been pondering a lot lately as I read books from authors with cultural ties around the world. What I find as I read them, though, is that even though the authors are American, many times they have direct ties to the cultures they write about; they’re typically first or second generation immigrants whose very lives are influenced daily by the part of the world they (or their parents) came from.

Take, for example, Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls, an Ethiopian-inspired fantasy by a Jamaican-American author; Children of Blood & Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, a Nigerian-inspired fantasy written by a Nigerian-American; An Ember in the Ashes by Pakistani-American author Sabaa Tahir; or Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, an East-Asian-inspired fantasy by Julie C. Dao, a Vietnamese-American.

These books are positively amazing, their storytelling lush, their settings fresh and rich with detail, the history unknown to me, the folklore like nothing I’ve read before. I fall into these stories with reckless abandon, a constant thirst for more, more, more.

But it also leaves me wondering…

What kind of fantasies should I be writing…if, that is, I should be writing fantasies at all?

My ethnicity is over 60% Italian, but my ancestors came to America in the immigration boom of the 1910s and 1920s, so beyond my grandmother’s recipe for pasta sauce (ahem, gravy), I have virtually no claim on my Italian ancestry. I wouldn’t feel remotely qualified to write an Italian-inspired fantasy. In fact, I would think only someone from Italy (or maybe a first generation Italian-American) could do justice to an Italian-inspired fantasy.

And if I can’t write Italian-inspired fantasies, then I’m *certainly* not qualified to write from any other part of my ancestry (even if I’ve often been tempted to lean into my Croatian heritage).

So what does that leave?

American fantasies?

I’m plagued suddenly by images of fantasies featuring the Wild West, a time period which I neither understand nor romanticize about. No, but really? How can there be an American-inspired fantasy? Our country was founded on land stolen from entire murdered civilizations, then established further as a “cultural melting pot” (Isn’t that the term they used in third grade?) with no one, single culture comprising our identity as Americans.

All this to say, as ethnically-mixed Americans who’ve been in this country long enough to no longer have strong cultural ties to our roots, but not nearly long enough to rival true Native Americans, what defines us? What makes us eligible to tell, or not tell, certain stories? And how do we know which ones are ours to tell?

I don’t have the answers.

I’m genuinely asking.

Mom’s Not Here

I’m tempted to leave the title and the title alone here in this blog post. Because damn. I am tired.

I worked eighteen hours this week on a job that’s supposed to take up no more than ten. And I did it all from home while supervising-slash-teaching my 11-year-old her ratios and fractions and comparisons for 6th grade math class on the virtual platform. I did it while scheduling my Covid booster and her first Covid vaccine. I worked while husband was on conference call after conference call, working with my Loop earplugs jammed in my ears to try to keep the auditory distraction to a dull roar. I played email and text tag with four different coworkers to make sure the work that needed to get done got done.

I worked at the dining room table so I could let my chickens out of their coop to roam the yard without fear of a hawk taking them. (We had several scares this week.) I worked sitting in bed. I worked at my desk and on the floor. I worked with the ever-present malodorous fog of incessant dog farts lingering in the air because my chicken-poop-loving dogs just can’t be more than two feet from me at any time on any given day.

I listened to dogs popping their gums while they lick, lick, lick, intent on driving me madder than any of Alice’s friends. And after the annoyance comes the worry. Wait. Are they licking because something is wrong? (Beyond the fleas we’re still battling. We’re winning, but not by much.) Is there something bothering our greyhound internally? Aches and pains? Or just dry skin? Is his mouth hurting and that’s why he keeps licking, or is it a deeper ache in his bones? And all of this reminds me, I have to run to the vet (like, now) to go pick up his medication. They close at seven.

Do I need to take him to the vet for something more urgent? And is the cat okay? The one with the terminal illness who is obviously not okay, but who is, at least, moderately comfortable since being put on steroids? At what point do we, as pet owners need to make a decision that the quality of life just isn’t there any longer?

And as if to prove my point, the greyhound (literally, just now) tried to attack the terminal cat, as though she’s any threat to him. In actuality, he’s just losing his marbles and doesn’t know what to do anymore, so he gets weird and just starts barking in the cats’ faces, then lunges when they hiss at him. So now the cat is on my lap as I type the rest of this post.

When the 11-year-old gets her Covid vaccine, she plans to go back to school after the holidays and leave virtual learning behind her. Of the two of us, I’m not sure who’s more excited. I think I’ll sob introvert tears of pure joy if I’m ever home alone in this house again. Time that used to be mine to work and write has been stolen by a pandemic ever since mid-March 2020.

Add in the ever present knowledge that husband has liver cancer and we won’t know until next year if the embolization procedures they performed over the last two months had any impact, and I’m basically an electric ball of nerves just waiting to be fried. Seriously, I’m a walking lightning bolt. Don’t get too close.

And, oh.

NaNoWriMo. I’m supposed to be writing today. At some point. Every day this month. So I still have that to do. I should enjoy writing, but after a day staring at the computer, I’m not looking forward to starting at the computer more.

In fact, wut r werds?

The only bright spot in all of this right now is that there is pizza. Yes, pizza is my happy place. 1. Because it is very yummy and tasty and good, and 2. Because I do not have lift a finger to prepare it.

So thank you pizza men and women. Because…right now? Mom’s just not here.

Mystery Delivery

Yesterday, we received a mystery package in the mail. We receive a lot of packages* in the mail, as husband is an avid collector of many things fishing-related. I assumed the small manila envelope contained a fly-fishing tin of some sort as I’d seen several of those make their way through his hands recently. So I did what any good spouse would do and placed it at his work desk for when he came out of the shower.

A half-hour later, he sat at his desk, held up the package and said, “What’s this?”

How can you not remember what you’ve ordered on eBay? I thought.

Well. Because he didn’t order it.

Mandee’s Lunchbox? I have no idea what this is.”

So I gave a sigh, took the small tin he’d unpackaged and read the text on the back.

Immediately, the two of us fell back to 2017 and our seemingly endless trips to Philadelphia for treatment not only for his rare pancreatic cancer, but to the Interventional Radiology Department of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital to check the drain tube that would eliminate the abscess caused by the pancreatic enzymes that leaked into his abdominal cavity after the surgery.

As part of almost every trip we took that year (19 trips in 23 weeks), we stopped either at Au Bon Pain or Dunkin’ Donuts somewhere along the way. Those treats were the highlight of our day, the only part of the whole miserable experience that we anticipated with any small piece of joy. Oh, for a chocolate croissant or a double-chocolate donut in those wretched times!

After reading the description on the back of the tin, we opened his Mandee’s Lunchbox to discover $50 in gift cards to Dunkin’, Starbucks, Panera, and Subway. And then we laughed because we’d thought enjoying those small things was unique to our situation, some small pleasure only we had managed to squeeze out of an utterly terrible situation.

We had no concept that these kinds of small treats could be so highly anticipated by cancer patients around the world. Mandee’s Lunchbox opened our eyes and reminded us, once again, that we’re not alone in our fight against this terrible disease that steals so much, and that even going through the worst of times, friends are still nearby.

Mandee’s Lunchbox sends anonymously, so there’s no way to know who might have sent your name to them. At least, theoretically.

Unless you use your powers of deduction on social media to find out which one of your friends ‘likes’ this organization, and then you realize who probably nominated you to receive a tin full of gift cards and smiles. (Then you send them a direct message full of gratitude because sometimes the smallest actions are the ones that mean the most.)

The last two weeks were rough. After his embolization procedure on the 21st, husband spent a couple of days in pain (which we expected), and then a week and a half running a generally low-grade fever that occasionally went as high as 102F (which was unexpected). He was miserable. To make matters worse? Migraines almost every morning.

We didn’t know whether this was the reaction they’d warned us might happen, whether this was a virus hitting him at the same time as the embolization (The two kids and I had bad colds literally the week leading up to his procedure. We did everything possible to stay away from him so as not to get him sick. We even tested for Covid, just to ensure it wasn’t that making its rounds in our household…), or whether this was a bacterial infection somehow persisting despite being on a prophylactic antibiotic.

We’ll likely never know. As of the last two days, he’s finally been feeling more like himself. (In fact, as I write this, he’s fishing. Yes. For real.) He goes for the second embolization procedure in 2 1/2 weeks, and I suppose we’ll know then if this reaction was more than ‘the norm’ where his body is concerned. I didn’t share most of this part on social media over the last couple of weeks (you might have noticed the increase in pet-related posts as a result) because I don’t know what to say. I don’t have the answers to the questions I know friends will ask. The doctors don’t know the answers. I don’t know the answers.

One of the hardest things about cancer is the sheer number of unknowns. For Type A planners like me, we need to be prepared. And there is no preparing for what’s next because…well…there’s no way to know what comes next. Reading patient studies (because, hey, that’s what I do) is alternately depressing and hopeful depending on the outcome, and each time I find an element that’s similar to our situation, I find just as many pieces that are completely different, thus rendering any comparison impossible.

So for now we’ll do what we learned to do in 2017. We’ll follow what the doctors ask us to do, live our lives, and cherish our loved ones each and every day.

Oh. And now we’ll probably make a few Dunkin’ Donuts trips…


Mandee’s Lunchbox is a local organization formed in memory of Amanda Faidley Layton, pursuing her wish to brighten the lives of other adults and families battling cancer.

If you’d like to make a donation to Mandee’s Lunchbox, you can do so by clicking HERE.

If you know an adult who’s battling cancer, you can nominate them to receive a tin from Mandee’s Lunchbox HERE.


* Not fishing-related. One package received earlier this week? Thanks to local friends of ours, an unexpected box arrived from Harry & David’s, days late, so the pears were a bit…um…squishy. We still found a way to use them…

How to Make Lemonade

The day after husband’s oncologist used the ‘C’ word at his 4-year followup visit, he got up early to go fishing. (A common occurrence in our household, as our friends and acquaintances know well.) When he returned, he was mumbling to himself as he walked in the front door, but I caught only the tail end of the conversation as he headed through the house and to the shower.

“Just need to figure out how to make lemonade. That’s all.”

But making lemonade isn’t something you do with rotten lemons, and I’ve been pondering his words ever since. So I did something new today. I wrote an essay and submitted it for publication.

An essay.

Me.

I wrote an essay. Something that didn’t involve fictional characters, magic, and dragons.

I haven’t done that since my college days. But today, as my fifteen-year-old slogged through a 500-word essay on The Scarlet Letter (which, for the record, she hated, and let’s be real, who doesn’t?), I, too, tapped away at the computer keys, crafting a story of all we’ve been through in the past four years since Nate’s initial cancer diagnosis. Before I knew it, I had almost 1600 words of love, fear, support, uncertainty – pretty much everything that sums up life with a secondary cancer diagnosis in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

Maybe it will go nowhere. Maybe it doesn’t need to go anywhere. Maybe I just needed to write it.

But I hope it’s accepted somewhere that will reach thousands of people, not because I want recognition, but because if my words can somehow help others who are also struggling through dark times, then I’ve succeeded in making lemonade out of some pretty nasty lemons. And that’s something.

Holding Patterns

How do you begin a blog post you never wanted to write? How do you type the very words you never wanted to see again? How do you convince yourself that there’s anything good or fair or right in the world when you get the news that your loved one has cancer?

Again.

I don’t have the words. My heart has broken into a thousand million billion pieces and I…don’t have the words.

Nate went for his yearly oncology visit last Friday- 4 years cancer-free (or so we thought). Instead, we were met with a giant, nasty surprise – spots on his liver. Spots that weren’t there six months ago. Spots that have no business being there now.

There’s no way to describe the cold dread that washed over me at hearing the news – the literal icy sensation that swept from my head to my toes when the doctor said the word ‘cancer’ aloud.

“No, no, no,” I wanted to scream. “We did this already. We beat this. He’s healthy. We did this years before the pandemic. We shouldn’t have to do it now, again, in the middle of a global pandemic!”

But cancer doesn’t care what we think, how we feel, or what our plans are. So once again, our schedules have been cleared, and we’re in yet another holding pattern, burning fuel, awaiting test result after test result, waiting for some direction on where to land and what kind of crash to prepare for.

Hold your loved ones close, my friends. It only takes a moment for everything to change.

Try

Have you ever wanted something in your life so badly you can’t imagine living without it? Have you ever felt that if someone just gave you a chance, you know you could succeed?

This?

Is every writer I know. Every dreamer.

We write, we create. We make real our fantasy worlds, give breath to characters who live only in our minds until our words bring them to life. We pursue our love of storytelling, of words, of poetry, of sound – all without ever knowing what success, if any, our words will bring.

I watch writers around me succeed. (And I cheer, my friends. I cheer!)

But more often, I watch them fail. Then I watch them fail again. And again. Some shove the words away into a deep, dark drawer, never to be seen again, thoroughly convinced they aren’t “the chosen” writer or they haven’t produced “the chosen” work the world wants to see.

More often than not, they are wrong. More often than not, there are simply too many ways to stumble when it comes to publishing, and it has nothing to do with the writer at all. How many Harry Potters never made publication? No, I don’t mean how many times was Harry Potter rejected. I mean how many other stories are just as marvelous, just as fantastical, just as ready for the eager eyes of excited readers? Dozens. Hundreds, maybe. Perhaps even thousands.

Thousands of manuscripts with talented, good-hearted authors behind their fiery pages, and marvelous minds behind the creation of their worlds. But these stories may never be seen, may never be known. Because in the end, publishing is a business and business is about money.

Oh, how much art has been lost to money!

My heart weeps for the number of manuscripts I’ve known (both my own and those written by friends) that may never make an editor’s desk, and, therefore, may never see the inside of even the smallest bookstore or library.

But, writers.

Do not walk away. Failure is only failure if you stop trying. So, friends?

Try.

The world needs your words.

Fakers, Bakers, and Music Makers – Bonding via Unforgettable Characters

How do you sum up a weekend adventure that had approximately 865,342 high points?

I’m not sure I can, but I’ll at least attempt to highlight a few moments that made my time at the #UCIJretreat2021 amazing and memorable and oh-so-worth-it. (That’s Unforgettable Characters & Incredible Journeys, in case you were wondering.)

A few months ago, author Ralph Walker put out a call for writers. The response was overwhelming, and RW successfully arranged a virtual retreat via Zoom for 20 lucky writers to learn plotting techniques and how to dive deep when it comes to creating memorable characters. In the retreat’s inaugural weekend, writers from all walks of life and all stages of writerhood (Is that a word? It is now.) gathered in their Brady Bunchesque Zoom boxes to talk craft, brainstorm, laugh, and have a good time.

I’m happy to report I was one of those lucky writers. One might wonder: How much can a writer learn from…other writers? The answer is a lot. The thing about writing is that there’s never a time you’re done learning. There’s never a point where a writer can say they’ve mastered the craft so expertly that there’s nothing more to be learned from others. (I guarantee you this is still the case even for Stephen King and Nora Roberts. I promise they, too, can still learn. Knowledge is like Thanksgiving dinner. You may think you’re full, but there’s always room for dessert.)

Plus, friends. Who doesn’t want new friends!? So many writers I’d known via Twitter, but had never gotten to actually know on a more intimate level, and now I had the opportunity! And they write everything. I followed along with characters from everywhere and anywhere (hence the title of this post) and what a ride it was. I fell into so many amazing worlds and so many raw emotions.

To read the words of a fellow writer is a special gift. It’s an invitation into a person’s soul, into their world, into a special place in their heart, and no one who reads a writer’s words should take that honor lightly. I am so very grateful to have been trusted with the words of so many kindred spirits.

As you might have guessed by the name of the retreat, the weekend encompassed creating unforgettable characters and incredible journeys. We discussed what makes a character unforgettable and how to take a reader on a journey with all its rollercoaster twists and turns while still providing an explosive ending that delivers.

And the swag! Did I mention the swag? A box full of goodies and treats, writer fuel (coffee and tea), a #5amwritersclub mug, stickers, and an organized binder chock full of information. It’s clear RW put a lot of work into this retreat, and how grateful I was to have been on the receiving end of it!

Plus, secret envelopes. Did I mention the secret envelopes? RW is a master at the secret envelopes and they were filled with…

Wait.

…if I tell you, they won’t be secret anymore. I guess you’ll just have to apply for the Fall 2021 UCIJ Retreat to find out.*

Bonded by a shared retreat. Love these faces!

*Seriously, do it.