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.

12 Reasons Why I Haven’t Written Today

When you’re a writer who is also parent to rambunctious school-age children, planning your writing time on a weekend is everything. You see, I fully planned to devote today to writing. I even made all of the appropriate preparations for it yesterday. Without a hint of parental guilt, I signed both of my children up for a 1-month membership to National Geographic’s Animal Jam app so they could blow their minds out on electronics today. (Mom of the Year here!)

But all the planning in the world is a poor dam against the flood of reality. Like the hardworking North American beaver, I keep trying to halt the current that’s intent on taking me along for a ride. (But beavers are better at stopping the current than I am, certainly.)

beaver dam
No leaks here.  Photo credit: http://www.nhptv.org/natureworks/beaver.htm

“I’m going to wake up early,” I said as I went to bed at midnight last night, “I’ll be refreshed and ready to go!”

Yet when the dogs whine at 7 a.m., I move from my bed like a zombie to feed and let them out. A crick in my neck and back had me sleeping so poorly all night long that I decide sleep is more important than getting up early to write.

I finally get out of bed at 11 a.m., with more sleep maybe, but the same pain radiating down my neck and right side of my back. I eat breakfast and pull out the laptop after a chorus of “Thank you, Mommy!” has been sung at least a dozen times. My kids have discovered their new memberships and predictably, they’ve zoned out on their tablets. (And this is why we don’t do memberships to apps very often.) I look at my WIP and decide that perhaps a hot shower will ease the pain in my neck, so I put the computer back down and head for the bath.

It’s noon. I kick the kids upstairs to get dressed and ready for the day like normal people do. Okay, time to write. But first, I’d better check the status on that disgusting Senate “tax” bill that also included yanking 13 million off healthcare, approving arctic drilling, and cutting the corporate tax rate while bleeding the middle and working classes dry. Scrolling through my newsfeed, now I’ve stirred my anger. Who can write while angry?

So I text a friend and blow off some steam. Keep in mind that I’ve got my current WIP open on the computer and I’ve reread the last few paragraphs at least half a dozen times. I may have even added a sentence.

At 12:15, older child begs for a friend to come over. Can she come over at 12:30? I agree to 2 p.m. which leads to chronic nagging over the next fifteen minutes. Finally, I relent—1:30.

Between 12:30 and 1:30, I write approximately 300 words while scanning social media for urgent news I might miss and texting same friend about current WIP.

“I feel good about this one,” I tell her. “It’s darker than most of my stuff. I think this one will make the cut.” She agrees with me cheerily while we both ignore the fact that I haven’t yet written more than 6 chapters so far and I haven’t written more than a page today. We both know I’m stalling, but she’s a good friend and she doesn’t call me out.

At 1:30, I’m up for my own lunch, sitting back down to work at 2. At 2:15, husband asks for help tying his shoes. That really sounds bad until you know the context. This guy still can’t bend over without a lot of pain and discomfort.

At 2:30, the dogs jump off their positions on the couches and whine and bark because they know it’s now close to their afternoon meal. Husband happens to be downstairs where their bowls are, so I manage to sneak out of the responsibility by asking him to feed them. But then they want to go out. I get up again.

At 2:45, younger child is upset because older child and friend aren’t including her in their games. A quick lecture about inclusivity steals five minutes from my productivity. And hey, that’s a precious five minutes. Clearly, I’ve been really productive today.

At 3, younger child bounds down the stairs again requesting lunch that I (in my Mom of the Year status) didn’t realize she never had. Up again, I make lunch and get it to her, sitting down in front of my computer again at 3:10.

It’s now 3:45 and instead of writing WIP, I have written a blog post about all the reasons why I haven’t been very productive today.

But, hey, I’ve now written over 1,000 words between WIP and this blog post, so—whew, what a day. I think it’s time to call it quits, no?

The Weight of Doubt and Exhaustion

It’s been a long time since I blogged. Then again, it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything, truth be told.

There’s a complete and utter exhaustion that comes with caring for someone with a long-term illness and until recently, I was really good at pretending it didn’t exist.

Enter wall.

See that wall? I’ve hit it. No lie—it hurts.

We are, I hope, at the end of this long medical journey (at least the immediate journey), but since I never seem to be able to say that with any degree of certainty, it’s really hard to believe it even now.

And after five months, I’m mentally depleted. So, no new rambling blogs, no new pages in my current manuscript, no edits on the last one, and no queries on my old one. I’ve been thinking (a *lot*) about writing and editing, but honestly, it just scares me right now. I’m 100% positive that it’s due to my mental state from playing home-care nurse for so long, but I’ve reached an awkward position as a writer that I haven’t been in for quite some time, the place where I begin to contemplate if it’s worth pursuing publishing at all. The stage where my brain whispers that I’m not good enough, that my stories aren’t interesting, that my plot lines are too predictable, that my characters aren’t worth following.

I know this voice in my head and I usually tell it to shut the hell up and sit in a corner to think about what it’s done. Then I tell it that it’s going to stay in that corner until it figures out how to play nicely with the other voices. (Okay, that just sounds creepy…but you get the point.)

But lately? Lately I don’t have the energy to police what my children are eating for dinner (Frozen packaged pierogies? Again? Sure, whatever keeps you alive, kids!), let alone to police my self-deprecating internal writer’s doubt.

I know this will pass. So in the mean time, hey—I wrote something. It’s a blog post about absolutely nothing, but it’s 365 more words than I’ve written in a very long time.