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.

Do It Anyway

Dear friends,

As this last day of the year fast draws to an end (and my kiddos would be the first to remind me that it’s ALSO the end of a *decade*), I want to talk about something that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Which is weird…

…because I can’t think of the words I want to say in this blog post.

It has something to do with fear and chasing your dreams and doing the right thing, but my words are all jumbled and I’m not entirely sure I know what any of these things has to do with the others.

So let’s just start with the fear thing, eh?

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. It occurred to me that when I feel fear, I tend to want to head straight into whatever makes me afraid, and I don’t mean things like rollercoaster drops (no, thank you) or turning and running straight at a grizzly that’s chasing me down (also VERY no, thank you). I mean the kind of persistent fear that creeps into your life and bares its fangs at every turn. The kind of fear that turns into a perpetual state of anxiety that makes you believe you can’t go out (something bad might happen), you can’t eat one more cookie (you’ve had enough, you’ll make yourself sick!), you can’t donate blood (what if you pass out?), you can’t join the gym and workout and do protein shakes like a meathead (your body will rebel – it’s not made for this – you’re a bookworm!).

(Yes, all of those thoughts *really* occurred. Welcome to my brain.)

So yeah, I did the exact opposite of what I wanted to do in each of those scenarios. Instead of running away, I joined the gym and got a trainer & nutritionist and have even been drinking protein shakes for just shy of two months now. They’re gross, by the way, (the shakes, not the trainer & nutritionist – they’re both perfectly delightful), but I’m healthier with the activity and I feel better overall than I have in a very long time.

And I’ve indulged in PLENTY of holiday junk this week. (After many weeks of being REALLY good with diet and exercise, I’m due.) I’ve gone out and done things and seen people and filled my calendar with activities week after week, day after day, even though my introvert self really wanted to hole up in my bed, read a book, and ignore the world some days. Yesterday, I donated blood. Again. For the 3rd time this year. Because it scares the crap out of me and *grits teeth* because. I. can. No fear is going to stop me, especially not my own fear.

On the matter of the chasing your dreams thing, this year has been one heck of a whirlwind. I made the decision in October 2018 to publish A Thousand Years to Wait in 2019, and publish I did. The book launched on April 30th and I could never have imagined the kind of support I would receive from friends, family, and perfect strangers. My love for all of you is so much more than you could ever know. The year was filled with events, signings, and yes – even an audiobook that literally happened in less than a month from conception to finished product. And still, each of you stood by my side and helped make my dreams a reality.

Did I think I might fail? Certainly. Was I terrified of doing so? Hell, yes. Still am.

But what’s that thing I mentioned about fear? Oh, right. Do the thing that scares you most.

Honestly, if it scares the hell out of you, you’re doing something right.

Huh. I guess that’s it. That’s what I’ve been trying to say and that’s the lesson for 2019. Onward and upward. My wish for you in 2020 is that you find what terrifies you, and you tackle it anyway.

Love and hugs, friends. I believe in you.

Dreams (via pixels.com)

2017: A Poem

Hi, all! If you are family (or easy offended) please stop reading here.

For everyone else, it’s nearly December! If you know me, you know I don’t write poetry, but 2017 is a ‘special’ sort of year, isn’t it? Therefore, I have written a poem. Without further ado…

2017: A Poem

2017, you came,
shining and new
whispering sweet promises
of a better year,
a better life.

2017, you liar.
Fuck off.
And good riddance.