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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.

Belonging

We almost bought a brand new house today. Drove an hour and a half northeast and spent all day touring a beautiful, half-built, small mansion in a spacious 1-acre wooded lot in the Poconos. Then we deliberated long hours on whether it was right, where we’d put the garden, the pool, the chicken coop, and how we’d arrange each room, whether to finish part of the basement as a play room for the billiard table, the foosball table, and the poker table.

We drove the neighborhood (not that there was much to drive, it’s not even done being built yet) and checked out the other houses in the area. We drove past the schools the kids would go to, and looked up their ratings on Niche. I even moved the money for the down payment into our checking account so we could write a check and get started. It’s fun to dream. It’s exhilarating to imagine new things and new places and new adventures. What could the future hold? Yes, we said! Let’s do this.

And then, five minutes before we were to sign the papers and hand over the money, pure terror gripped my heart.

Reality came crashing in. This isn’t my house. This isn’t my neighborhood. This isn’t where I belong! Help! Someone take me home!

*Cue the waterworks.*

We stayed in the area, had lunch, discussed our options extensively. I proceeded to spend the next two hours alternately in tears, convincing myself we shouldn’t do it, then recovering and convincing myself we should, then crying again at the thought of leaving our close-knit community where we’ve lived for almost 18 years. When we bought our house in 2003, we planned to stay for maybe 5 – 10 years. Introduce children to the mix, and it never quite seems the right time to move.

Eventually, we stayed here so long that everything is just…comfortable. I like our little house. (I wish we had more space.) I like our little yard. (I wish we had more land.) We have some of the best neighbors, one family we even fondly call our neighbros. (I wish the noisy ones behind us would move out…or at least learn to be more considerate.)

But our tiny school district has some of the most caring, wonderful teachers I’ve ever known – people I’m glad teach my children every day, but also people I’ve come to think of as friends myself. They live and work here, in this small community. And three blocks away? We have a lovely little park that’s home to the local community partnership’s Christmas tree lighting, fundraiser dinners, and monthly farmers’ markets. Our community library (and my part-time job there) would be a thing of the past. The coworkers I’ve come to know and love, I’d never see again.

We often catch some of our favorite neighbors walking past our house on their daily route – walking, walking, always walking. And these neighbors are special. Because they’ve shared in our pain (and our joy) with regards to a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. And that’s a special kind of bond, too. Not many people know what it’s like to travel that path.

Here, we have the kind of neighbors who will pick up your kids from school at the drop of a hat if needed, those who will watch your kids if you need to make an emergency trip to the vet (and our geriatric doggo is already older than most dogs his breed live to see), who will mow your lawn because you’ve been taking care of a sick spouse or child, who will stop by with fresh bread for no reason at all, who will bring you homemade soup when you’re sick (or homemade chili when your kitchen is out of commission because the entire thing is gutted and being renovated).

Here, our children have friends and familiar bike routes and sledding hills. They have parks and schools within walking distance. And even though they haven’t been able to see their friends in person in over a year (minus a few masked visits on the back patio), this is where I want to emerge from our quarantine. This is where I want to celebrate the miracle of science and medicine with our friends and neighbors. This is where I want to have patio parties and barbecues.

It’s hard to give all that up for the bells and whistles of a beautiful new house with its shiny floors and inviting white farm sink. (It was a beautiful sink.) How could we trade the comfort of a community we love so dearly for a brand new place that feels sterile by comparison? In a time when Covid has most of us needing comfort more than ever, I feel like a move to someplace new (though deeply desired on some level) would make me feel somehow more lost.

And so we drove home in silence, my husband disappointed and frustrated, me sniffling from the passenger’s seat. I ran out of tissues. There was a lot of crying. I couldn’t even feel relief once we’d made the decision not to buy because I knew I was disappointing the husband, and that’s a whole other level of internal grief.

All this to say – here? Here, I feel a sense of belonging I haven’t felt many places in my life. And maybe it won’t always be that way. Maybe someday the time will be right to move. Maybe now I can stop feeling this incessant urge to pick up and go. Maybe.

But for now? For now, this is where I belong.

Eleven Minutes

Publishing is brutal. It’s the first thing you learn as a new writer, and it’s a lesson reiterated at every step along the way. From drafting to critiquing to querying to subbing. Brutal. All of it.

Previously, my record on receiving a rejection for a query was thirty minutes from the time sent. Thirty minutes. I know what you’re thinking. How can anyone make up their mind so fast?

(The simple answer, of course, is that these kinds of responses from literary agents are part and parcel of the job. It’s their career. They can’t spend all day on one query. It’s business.)

And I totally get that. Time is money. And just like I can tell whether or not I’m going to enjoy a book by the back cover copy or by perusing a random page in the middle, agents know what they’re looking for, and when they find it, there’s no question. So thirty minutes? That’s fast, but I get it.

This week?

This week, I received a rejection eleven minutes after sending a query. I’m not sure I even had time to get my hopes up in thinking this agent might have been the one for me.

Eleven minutes.

Eleven.

No, really, I don’t think you understand how fast that is. You can’t even watch half an episode of My Little Pony in that time. (I’m a parent. MLP is how we measure time around here. What of it?)

Anyway.

All of this to say, hang in there, querying writers. I know exactly where you’re coming from. And as many times as we lament about long wait times* for query responses, I’m not sure the alternative is really any better.

A reminder…

Eleven. Minutes.

*Long wait times being six weeks, eight weeks, twelve weeks, a year, or more…

Slogging

We don’t talk enough about how difficult writing really is. I mean, as writers, we talk a lot about how much we love writing. Characters – yay! Plot – so good! Setting – build those worlds, Queen! Tropes – all the tropes!

“I can’t wait until you can all see what I see in my head! Ahhhh!”

Hey. <snaps fingers>

Over here.

Yeah. I have some tough news to deliver. You* actually need to sit down and put those pieces together into a coherent story word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. Before others can share in the excitement, you* have to create the thing you* say you’re* so excited about creating.

Well, damn.

I guess that means writing words. And that probably means blogging about how writing is difficult doesn’t contribute to the story I’m currently slogging through.

(And reading about someone else’s difficulty writing doesn’t contribute to the story you’re supposed to be writing either. So why are you still here? Go write.)


*By “you,” I clearly mean me.