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.

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.

Never Say Quit

Did some cool things this past week.

Set-up The Heart of Death (The Tarrowburn Prophecies, Book 2) for publication, put it on Goodreads, queried a handful of literary agents with a different manuscript, and shared my query spreadsheet with a fellow writer so he can begin his foray into querying a YA fantasy.

Yes, I shared that file even with all its red rejection lines. Make no mistake, friends, there are a lot of red lines. So much red. My spreadsheet virtually bleeds.

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And that got me thinking.

I am really, really bad at giving up…

…which is particularly ironic given all the activities I quit in my childhood. Little League, gymnastics, dance, violin (twice), cross-country, and horseback riding lessons (too many times to count). You name it, I probably quit it.

But 6 books in, and I haven’t quit on writing. I can’t quit writing. For people like me, the need to write is like the need to breathe. It’s part of my DNA.

People say I shouldn’t share this spreadsheet publicly because it shows agents I’m currently querying how many times a project has already been rejected by others, and they’ll be reluctant to represent the project as a result. And I say…phooey.

I want to be transparent. I want emerging writers to expect to occupy the querying trenches for more than a few months. (Make no mistake. I’ve been in the querying trenches for over five years now.) As writers, we hear story after story about others being offered representation on their very first project. We’re shown blinding success stories from contests like PitchWars, which makes it more and more difficult to see success for what it is – hard work, not just blind luck. (Yes, PitchWars peeps do a lot of work, but that’s not often visible to the general public, so it looks like a quick and easy path to publishing, too.)

To the writers who’ve written one book and are distraught because it’s not garnering attention from the agents you’re querying, my advice is write another book. And another one after that.

This is life. This is reality. Writing is hard work. Editing is hard work. Querying is hard work. I imagine going on sub is…hard work.

Quitting? Not an option.

24 Hours Post-Op

I made it almost 41 years without ever needing surgery. (Wisdom teeth don’t count in my book.) So imagine my surprise when I needed it in the midst of a viral pandemic. Right after 10 y.o. broke her arm, needed surgery, and recovered, my foot decided to stop responding to the steroid injections I’d been getting. (Did I mention husband has hip replacement surgery coming up, too? Fun for the whole family!)

Anyway, since so many people are asking how my recovery is going, I decided it was best to get it all written here and share as needed.

In short? I’m good. (And also short, but that has nothing to do with surgery.)

Yesterday afternoon, I had a neuroma removed from my foot and a bone spur filed from a toe. They said they put me in a twilight sleep, but I have zero recollection of anything other than a nurse anesthetist putting something in my IV while someone took my glasses and mask off my face.

Fade to black.

I woke up to zero pain in my very large and bandaged foot. My time under anesthesia proved to be the best nap time I’ve ever had in my life. (Maybe that’s because no children woke me up, no dogs whined to go out, and no cats tried to sit on my chest. Then again, maybe just anesthesia. Who’s to say?)

The staff at the surgical center was amazing. From the time I walked in to the time I left, I felt zero nerves. (Ironic, given that I was there for them to remove a portion of a painful nerve.) Since being home, I’ve been taking Advil and icing, and keeping the foot elevated. Toes above the nose, baby.

And my only complaint 24 hours post surgery is…I’m bored.

I’ll call that a win.

(Oh, also, I miss playing with my chickens. I hear I’m missing some amazing weather today…)

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My home care nurse is the best.

 

Family, Life, and Things that Matter

I missed March, April, and most of May on the blog. I bet you can all guess why.

Wow.

What a heck of a year so far. Global pandemic, hundreds of thousands dead, and so many people refusing to do something as simple as wear a face mask to protect themselves and others. It’s mind-boggling.

Not going to lie, friends. I’ve had my ups and downs handling this over the last few months. As all of you have. Working from home, online schooling for 4th and 8th grades, a 10-year-old with a broken arm (because the pandemic wasn’t terrifying enough on its own…let’s head to a hospital for corrective surgery!), being around my family every single day all day long and never getting a break even though I’m an introvert and desperately, desperately need a few days of quiet…or just a silent house for…like…an hour. Yeah. It’s all been a bit of a challenge.

And I’m sure you’re all in the very same situation. We’re all facing difficult times. Stressful times. Unprecedented times. But it won’t last forever. Years, maybe. But not forever.

So take this time to tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. Do things with them. Appreciate nature. Enjoy your backyard. (Or your balcony. Or your porch.) Here are a few snapshots from my own life in the past two months. Crazy, yes. But not all bad.

Family puzzles.

Family haircuts. (She’s trusting.)

Finished manuscript. (Book II of The Tarrowburn Prophecies. It’s almost ready!)

Broken arm.

Surgery because the fracture was through the growth plate.

Family karaoke night.

Chickens in the house. Hooray! These little ladies will be earning their keep in about four or five more months.

Backyard garden work.

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New project inspiration!

New truck! (Because the old one left husband stranded 40 miles from home not once, but TWICE. And it’s been 21 years, I guess we’re due.)

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End of Summer Odds and Ends

Okay, so it’s been almost two months since my last blogpost. Please don’t yell at me! I’ve been busy. I promise. And yes, busy with so much book-stuff I can hardly keep track of it all. Not that I’m complaining…

First up, I got to visit one of my most amazing-est (Yes, that’s a word. I have deemed it so.) online friends IN REAL LIFE. My book-blogging buddy, Shanah McCready (also known as the Bionic Bookworm)! Life is SO good, and the internet really does have a positive side, I swear. We vacationed together this summer with our families and had a blast.

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I hate selfies. She hates selfies. But we took this one about 10 minutes after meeting…with both of us nearly sick with the anxiety of meeting an internet friend in real life!

Second, the kids were home all summer, so I didn’t do much in the way of writing. BUT. I did at least start writing Tarrowburn #2, so I’m moving in the right direction. I hope to wrap up the first draft by the end of this year. Ambitious of  me, but we’ll see what kind of things life throws at me in the mean time.

Third, I was invited to a signing event at Barnes & Noble in Lancaster, PA! Yes, really. No, I’m not joking. Who even am I? (If you know the answer, please tell me because I still haven’t figured it out.)

 

Even cooler? One of the authors I sat next to during the signing event was Greg Cox, a talented and established writer of many of the Star Trek novels. (Among many, many, MANY others.) I might be intimidated except that he was so darned nice and handed out good advice like it was candy. (If you’re reading this, “Hi, Greg! And thank you!”)

Lastly, I’ve been busy making arrangements for other appearances in Berks and surrounding counties and will have an updated list soon!

In the mean time, please remember the holidays are coming, books make great gifts, and Amazon reviews are gold.

 

ADDENDUM: Um, hello? This is why I should not write a blog post at 10 p.m. on a Monday. I completely forgot that I was contacted by a new imprint of major publishing house and had the chance to work on a children’s book this month!! (How does one forget this, exactly?) So, more book news! Yay! I’ll let you know when the book releases and when I can say more about it.

Indie Author Storms

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I’m no Indiana Jones.

Maybe it doesn’t quite have the ring of Indiana Jones, but I think Indie Author Storms has a nice sound to it. So why did I decide to go indie and what’s next?

I’ve been writing seriously for seven years, querying for four, and have four completed manuscripts—some of them with quite wonderful feedback from agents and editors. And until the last year, I really wanted to take the traditional route to publishing.

So what changed?

Cancer.

Cancer is one hell of an eye-opener. And when my husband was diagnosed in April of 2017, it didn’t just change the rules; it changed the entire game. He’s doing well now—a year and a half cancer-free. There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t celebrate this. (Insert happy dance emoji right here!)

But his diagnosis wasn’t all.

At the beginning of my foray into Writer Twitter, I made friends with a wonderful professor and writer who had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She documented her journey in life, and through diagnosis, and I had the pleasure of beta-reading for her about a year and a half ago. As with most interactions on social media, we dipped in and out of each other’s profiles here and there, commenting and leaving digital hearts in our wake. I learned only recently that she passed away in June.

 

Before she succumbed to the terrible disease, she followed her dream and published Blooming Out of Darkness: A Memoir about Cancer, Spirits, and Joy. The book, which sits on the bookshelf beside my piano, is a stark reminder each and every day—a reminder that we don’t always have the time we think we have. Between Alicia’s story and my husband’s ordeal over the last year, I’ve decided that it’s time to take the next step in the journey to authorhood. 

There’s a beautiful change in perception that occurs when you reach your forties. (Okay, I’m not quite there, but I’ve got less than a year, so…) You begin to care less about what other people think or what other people would do in any given situation, and so much more about what you feel and how you can be good to yourself.

Indie authorhood is me being good to myself. I’m ready to have the fun, to release a book baby into the world, to take the next step and grow as an author. A Thousand Years to Wait is my gift to the world, yes. But it’s also a gift to me. And I hope we can enjoy it together.


A Thousand Years to Wait will be released on April 30th, 2019. You can add A Thousand Years to Wait to your Goodreads list here. Check back for excerpts, teasers, a cover reveal, and more! I’ll be updating regularly over the next six months.

Owning It

A large part of succeeding as a writer boils down to your willingness to put in the time. Can you accept sitting at a desk, dreaming up worlds, typing (or scribbling) the words, and getting it done? The answer to these questions has always been a resounding yes for me, but I tend to fail when it comes to putting in the face time.

I did just that this weekend. I put in the face time and met dozens of wonderful writers and agents and editors at the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC. It was fabulous. I participated in PitchSlam, in which authors are given one hour to pitch as many agents as they can in three-minute segments. (Truly, it’s any introvert’s nightmare.)

But you know what? While I was nervous going into my first pitch, it melted away quickly. Why? Because I discovered something as I delved into conversation with these agents. I found myself admitting something surprising. Out loud.

I love my book. I love the characters. I love the plot. I love the interactions and the quirks and the personalities. It was a fun book to write and I had fun writing it! And when you enjoy your story, I think it shows. You start to enjoy talking about it and telling people why it’s something they’ll want to read…which makes it a lot easier to pitch.

Proof? I pitched 6 agents and all 6 made requests for partial manuscripts (requested lengths varied). This may or may not result in progress moving forward, but that’s not the point. The point? When you love your work, it shows. 

Writers. Friends. I have one piece of advice for you. LOVE YOUR WORK. It’s yours. You wrote it because you loved it. 

Now own it.

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So many fabulous writers. Dinner on a Friday night.

The Girl Who Fell

_MG_7483We just returned from our trip to Prince Edward Island and, friends, I have fallen. I have fallen deeply, madly in love.

All vacations are lovely, but none of them have ever left me with a desire to relocate my entire family as soon as humanly possible. I loved the Bahamas and Jamaica. England and Wales were beautiful. France was amazing. I’ve even been to Montreal, so it’s not like this was my first stop in Canada. And I’ve traveled eight-thousand miles across the U.S., stopping in 22 states along the way, so I’ve seen my fair share of our own beautiful country.

But the utterly breathtaking views of Prince Edward Island—the oceans, the dunes, the grasses, the fields—it was the first time in a very long time where I felt I could breathe, truly breathe.

I’ve never considered leaving the country before, not really. Yet I find myself perusing the real estate listings on PEI and researching jobs and weather. Who knows? If I’m lucky and I plan things just right, maybe PEI is in my future. I know it’s already in my heart.


(If I could just convince the world that I’m an author and that my books are worth buying…that would be something. When the day comes where I finally sell my books, the ‘PEI Relocation’ fund will officially be a thing in the Storms household. I vow it.)

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A Writer in Waiting

My sink is full of dirty dishes, my dishwasher full of clean. The laundry needs to be moved to the dryer and the carpets could certainly use a vacuum. But I am a writer waiting on betas. Which means I must refresh my email exactly 12,483 times a day to see if anyone has left me feedback.

What?

Yes, I know I have a problem. And yes, going on submission is far worse. I understand.

But none of this stops me from wandering the house listlessly, contemplating my own existence.

I’ve taken up learning French. Does it help?

Non.