The Incredible Healing Power of Family, Friends, and Furry BFFs

And so it has come to pass that I have somewhat of a cancer, but it is at its nascent stage. Just enough to indulge my flair for the dramatic, but not enough for me to drop everything and start writing the quintessential novel of my generation. Hah! As if having less time would actually enhance my abilities. If anything, it might just justify my propensity for wasting time –  checking FaceBook and Instagram feeds, online shopping, losing something important (like keys and Billy Joel concert tickets)  and then turning drawers and cabinets inside out to look for it, and, of course, binge-watching. Truly. Because life is too fucking short to waste not knowing if fair-haired Daenerys is coming back with her dragons to rescue the Meereneese in Slaver’s Bay. I literally have a journal entry that read, “Well, now that I have cancer, it wouldn’t hurt to see the last three episodes of ‘Penny Dreadful’ back to back; never mind if I still have some grading to do.” That was the start and the end of that entry. Since I’ve gotten my  somewhat malignant result, I’ve finished eight episodes of “Stranger Things,” two seasons of “Penny Dreadful,” the new season of “Wentworth,” the first season of “Humans,” and have started bingeing on “Vera.” Way to go, Lani.

It was raining, and I was driving home from work, the day I got a call about my suspicious mammogram. It was my third mammo in less than two years, and when my doctor called, I knew something was not right. There was more calcification and they needed to do a biopsy. It felt strange and surreal, like watching someone else’s telenovela unfold through a rain-splattered screen. Tears welled up and I let go, the way I do when I sing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” in my car at full belt mode. “Thunder only happens when it’s raining/ Players only love you when they’re playing…” I knew then if I did have cancer that I’d be too lazy to post status updates about it, unlike a friend of mine who gave an update every step of the way, taking us on her journey from diagnosis to treatment, everybody sending love and healing vibes with multiple heart emoticons.

It was quite a stirring experience reading her posts, cheering her on, even messaging her on the side to make sure she knows I am there for her, even though we weren’t close, not even good friends, more like acquaintances. But when her status update showed up on my feed, I felt genuinely concerned, and I knew I had to reach out. Then, as soon as she was cancer-free, the likes on her status updates diminished, and since her posts haven’t been showing up on my feed, I can’t even remember the last time I read anything from her. I kept thinking then how Facebook must somehow be making a lot of money when someone is sick, keeping track of the most liked posts and who are making them, but then also, how social media has made us all unwitting witnesses.

My friend Melanya’s visit from Toronto took my mind away from the morbid scenarios in my head. In fact, her visit was just cause for celebration. Everyday. With her doing most of the cooking. “Melanya, you’re on vacation. Stop cooking and cleaning!” I demanded each day of her week-long visit. Of course, deep within, I was just extremely grateful for the break. Same thing happened when my friend Ge visited last year. We just moved then, and it was such a crazy time, with boxes and garbage bags of clothes everywhere. One day, I came home and there she was, on the floor, assembling the massive wooden shelf that I ordered from World Market, wiping the sweat off of her brow, and bracing her back with her blistered hands. “Ge! You didn’t have to,” I kept saying as I helped her put the shelf-that-is-never-going-to-get-moved-again upright in its place.

I told my children one morning during breakfast that if friends were money, then I consider myself the wealthiest woman on earth. Alexa noted how friends and family have been bringing food since finding out that I’m sick or after the surgery, calling or texting to check on me, sending cards and flowers. The first few days after the lumpectomy, my friend Anna just stayed and watched shitty TV in bed with me. “This is what true friendship looks like,” I said. mila

“It is the sweet smell of their breath and laughter and voices calling my name that gives me volition, helps me remember I want to turn away from looking down…” Writer/Activist Audre Lorde’s words ring true almost 40 years since she wrote her book, Cancer Journals, after surviving breast cancer in the late ’70s. She died from liver cancer in 1991. In the book, the black lesbian feminist writer eloquently noted how powerful women’s love and support could be in the process of healing. I’ve been postponing reading the book, which was a foreboding gift from a friend 20 years ago, not by conscious choice but just because I had been too preoccupied. This, despite the fact that Lorde has been one of my favorite poets. In fact, when I opened it for the first time, I was surprised to see prose, not poems. Beautiful, honest, and empowering prose.

At the time, I was debating telling friends and family about my condition. What for? I thought. I’m going to be cancer-free in no time — well, apparently in less than a year if the treatments go as planned. I didn’t want to inconvenience them with my feelings of dread and self-pity. But after reading Lorde’s book, I realized that no, I can’t mope and sulk alone like a depressing martyr or a self-destructive rockstar. It’s true, cancer is no longer the death sentence it used to be. At least not when you’re middle class, have a good health insurance, and are pretty healthy for 50. But it does urge contemplation, a re-direction of energy, and it does beg for attention, if only to remind others to be proactive about their own health. Cancer is an equal-opportunity ball-buster. But with early detection, you could beat its ass down forever! And that’s when I started letting friends and family know beyond my little circle. The outpouring of support has been cathartic to say the least. “(t)here was a tremendous amount of love and support flowing into me from the women around me, and it felt like being bathed in a continuous tide of positive energies…” (Lorde 13).

I would add that my gay boyfriends also came through for me. Louie P, visiting from Ohio, hung out with me as I did errands: grocery shopping, chauffeuring my daughter to cheerleading practice. All he requested was to have roast duck at Sun Wah, lychee bubble tea, and a mind-blowing discussion about semiotics theory. Right. Cesar had cocktails with me three days before my surgery, and Greg and Kiko sent flowers and FaceTimed me after.

I decided to spare my sweet mother the bad news. Although there were moments when I wanted to cry out for mommy, I remember how needlessly she worries about the traffic, her blood sugar level, the leak in the roof, and every small affliction her children and grandchildren could possibly go through.  She’s 82 and has hypertension. I’ll tell her when it’s over. My eldest sister knowing is enough. She, who has always been a source of strength and inspiration.

I really am good. I have a husband who would take a day off to accompany me to MRI, sit through another mammogram, and sleep in the waiting room through my surgery and recovery; kids who would postpone yelling at each other to keep my stress level down; and a cat named Mila who stays by my side, buries her head in my hand, and lets me comb my fingers through her silky soft fur, when all I need is quiet.

P.S.

Please don’t tell my mom about this blog.

 

 

Posted in breast cancer, friendship | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Night of the Living Moms

Night of living mom

Parenting, joyful as it is, can be an exhausting, and at times, a zombifying enterprise– particularly when you’re a mother who insists on having an identity beyond mom, mama, nanay, madre, who feels the need to create art, build your community, get your PhD, walk on a wire, and still have the time and energy to tell bedtime stories or make veggie lasagna for a son who decides to be vegetarian after watching a zombie movie… “Night of the Living Moms” is collection of narratives of those who lived to tell… 😉 Please consider supporting this project NOW!!! Thank you!!!! Just click on the link, then support, create your username and password, and pledge!! https://3arts.org/projects/night-living-moms/

 

Posted in 3Arts Matching Project, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vanity

As it turned out I am more vain and selfish than Angelina Jolie, who had both breasts mastectomized when she found out she has the breast cancer gene. Never mind if her divine bosom showed no sign of cancer. Meanwhile, I insist on keeping the little I have and never mind if my kids lose a mom as a consequence. I love my breasts — there, I’ve said it. A lover took a picture once, enamored by their perfect symmetry, the way they slope gracefully to a perky dark brown nipple, now gone pale and soft… I hate having to wear a bra to hide my eternally erect nipples. T.H.O. Titty-hard-on, a gay friend called this phenomenon. I hate having to wear a bra, period. I feel they are nothing but torture devices created by cruel capitalists, a step ahead of a corsette perhaps, but nevertheless as oppressive. How could something that restricts your breathing and encase your bouncy breasts in wire and spandex be a good thing? A bra has become a hallmark of a civilized society. We are not savages who let everything  hang out. Who cares about sagging breasts when a drought has killed half the potatoes this year?

A lumpectomy might rid the breast of these cancerous cells in my milk ducts, according to my doctors. When before I only had one, now, I have three — a primary doctor, an oncologist, and a breast specialist/surgeon.  Statistics seemed to suggest that women who have never had children and therefore, have never had to breastfeed, have more chances of developing breast cancer. Is it wisdom then, that some of my closest transgender sisters had their mammaries excised? How many times have I heard lovers and friends in the past refer to their breasts as if they are nothing but unwanted fatty flesh?

Ah, but the sensations, the nameless pleasure that one gets from one’s expertly fondled breasts…

Posted in breast cancer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On dying and other concerns after 50

My brother met his untimely demise June 30. Two days after his wife’s birthday and ten days before his 57th birthday. Not that there is such a thing as a timely demise. I don’t even know where that idiom came from. But in light of all the supposedly joyful days surrounding the day of his death, I couldn’t think of a better word to describe it than untimely. He was handsome, quiet, and somewhat of a peacemaker.  Some would argue that he was the most good-looking of the brothers, but there is no doubt that his siblings looked up to him although he was the shortest, literally, and the middle, not the eldest, child. Maybe because he was the youngest to have kids and get married and prove he could be a good family man, unlike the father they knew or hardly knew. The same man as the handsome, quiet dad who cooked arroz caldo for me and rubbed my back with Vicks when I got sick.

My brother’s death brought up memories of long steamy summer days spent at my grandfather’s place in Mandaluyong, a city east of Manila. For some strange reason my grandpa, or Apo as we lovingly called him, doted on me, the bastard child of his youngest son. Maybe it was to compensate for the fact that I was born out of wedlock, which back then was a real stigma. Maybe because he only saw me in the summertime, unlike the countless little grandkids running around his tiny wooden house day in and day out, forming clouds of dust on his dirt floor and crowding his sala as they watched Oras ng Ligaya on his 12 inch TV. Or maybe because I could sing Matt Monro’s “Born Free” on cue and with perfect pitch at 3 years old.

Ever since I can remember, I had looked forward to those summers to reunite with my cousins and friends and engage in unbridled play all day within the hollow blocked walls of the working class compound nestled beside the Pasig River. Such carefree innocent times playing jackstones at Elsa’s house. Lovely and meek Elsa, who died in her 40s of breast cancer. Her sister, Vic, following 10 years later. Also of breast cancer. Or playing pretend games at Benjie’s big house with the watermark on the cement walls, a reminder of a typhoon that caused the river to swell and flood their first floor.

I want to remember her now, Elsa. Soft voice, soft curls, soft… her laughter like short hesitant bursts of sunlight through feathery clouds. I visited her once as an adult and she seemed embarrassed, not as excited as I was to see her it seemed, more concerned about her messy room, messy hair. She had the same smiling eyes, but we were not the same. There was an air of sadness and defeat about her. As if she had given up already. There was no time to talk but I wish I had made time.

Then, her sister, Vic, so beautiful, so handsome, with her killer lashes and James Dean stare. Passing away 10 years later from the same malady. One out of eight women will develop invasive breast cancer, statistics say. Early detection is key to survival. But back home, not many have health insurance, and one goes to the doctor only when one feels sick. By then, it may be too late.

As I write this blog my fingers are tingling, my feet swelling, and when I close my eyes the pain is almost palpable. Ah, to be 50 and somewhat beautiful, yet having tennis elbow when I don’t even play tennis, not even badminton. Sharp pains on my pelvic bone. My knees creaking like bamboo floors with my every step down the stairs. Calcification in my breasts dotting my biannual mammograms. It is unfair to be wiser yet grow older, unable to apply lessons learned from a twisted ankle or a skinned knee. Tried trampoline for the first time in how many years at 53 and spent the next six weeks limping from a sprained ankle. Some peers scolded me, saying I should have known better; they who are in their 30s and 40s, still menstruating, ovaries still fertile, vulvas not needing lubricant.

Part 2

Who knew. Ten days after Butch died I find out I have cancer cells in my left breast. How cruel. I dread the thought of losing my breast. It is one of the very few times that I felt helpless, no control at all of the outcome, like when we kept trying to have a baby and I would have those false positives, and I kept cheering myself up silently as I gave myself a subcutaneous shot of lupron on my thigh every morning.

When I told my childhood best friend, Ge, that I was going to have a biopsy to follow up an abnormal mammogram, she said, “You can’t get cancer. Only rich people get that.”  We laughed, because back home, that’s the truth. I wondered if Vic and Elsa would be alive today if they had more money.

The doctor said I have DCIS — ductal carcinoma in situ. Cancer cells in place. Not moving, not roaming about infecting other cells, staying in one place like a “good wife”. This is supposed to be a blessing, a cause for a close friend to text “yahoo!!!” after I shared my non-benign biopsy result. Since when have cancer cells become good? Is it like good cholesterol? Not harming or causing damage? Just hanging out politely, lurking on the sidelines, not trying to clog arteries? Fish and olive oil versus red meat and barbecue grease? Is it like that?

I must admit, having cancer seemed a bit cinematic. Ali McGraw had leukemia in Love Story and my sister swooned no end as if romance meant “til cancer do us part.” Cancer was the kind of disease you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy because that would be too kind. You see, Hollywood would make you believe that cancer is glamorous and only good-looking people made up to look sick can have it.  But I should know better. In fact the only thing good thing about getting news that you have cancer cells residing in your body is if you have health insurance to get the best treatment!

How am I to have a good sleep when I will see an oncologist tomorrow who will tell me the best treatment for this?

(To be continued)

Posted in aging with grace, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Fostering

When a child comes to you, you are mistaken to think you have a choice. He has chosen you, the way kitty cats rub their noses against your face while you lay asleep to leave a scent that says, “you are mine.” The way your heart sinks at the sight of a beloved, or swoons over scents that remind you of holidays past: pine, roasted poultry, sugar baking in the oven, gunpowder, crispy paper bills.

You are arrogant, even cruel, to think, “Yes, this one, and not that, pretty please with icing on top.”

No, this is not so. A child comes and that is that. Your lives are linked, from the moment he grabs your finger, and walks with you with tentative steps to make known his presence… Indelibly mark floors and ceilings with his being there, forever altering time and space, and dinner plans.

You do not watch and wait to “see if this works.” Like some Christmas present you received and immediately deemed “for regifting.” He does not come with a gift receipt. No certificate of authenticity, or two-year warranty… just a yellow carbon copy of a transfer form, a Husky garbage bag of clothes and toiletries, a favorite action toy, shoes that are two sizes bigger, and yes, possibilities, and confusion, and night terrors.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Faculty Development

(Wrote this little poem in honor of faculty development week. Yeah right. Enjoy ;-)!!!!)

And when one faculty is developed,

What happens to the rest?

Do they whither and crack like dry hay

Turn into tumbleweeds

Quietly roll in the wind, cross paths with

Ghosts of cowboys killed in shoot outs

Or accidentally hit in merrymaking

When random folk shoot their guns

In the air, as if bullets don’t fall,

fast and fatally upon reveling heads?

Do they turn sour like pansit,

Left too long out on the buffet table

Then taken to work the next day

Noodles mushy and stinky with

Yesterday’s unfulfilled wish?

Or do they take off?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The village, not the state

It takes a village to raise a child, or so the cliche goes. And I believe this saying with all my heart, using it unsparingly to remind teachers, principals, and camp counselors that kicking a child out for misbehaving is not in the child’s best interest. It has worked for the most part. But when that village also includes lawyers, social workers, and omniscient therapists, the village can get a tad annoying.

I do subscribe to Kahlil Gibran’s words when he states that: “Our children do not belong to us. They are life’s longing for itself.” But if I have to fill out another consent form so we can take our kids to a vacation out of state, I am going to scream!!!

We have been parents to our children for the last 3-5 years of their lives. They are now 11 and 7, respectively. When we first signed up for the six-month foster parent training over five years ago, we had been clear about our intentions: we want to adopt.

I found a DCFS-approved agency online that was not too far from where we lived, and we made the first step by calling and having the director come in to measure our house. “You can take in two kids!” Two? Wow. We were only thinking of one, preferably an infant to a five-year-old.

The First

We fell in love with him instantly, this child who was turning six the week he was brought to us. There were challenges then, as there continue to be now. Initially, he was “reunited” with his biological family within a year of being with us. My husband and I were devastated.  One moment, we had a son and the next, he was gone! Just as we were starting to understand each other’s cues and quirks, when to laugh at the other’s jokes, when to show affection, or when to step back and give the other space.  He was a stubborn little boy who would not take no for an answer, but in time he softened and relented, realizing that yes, we can be trusted to know what is best for him. There were tears in his eyes when his caseworker took him and the four boxes of clothes and toys he had accumulated in a year. We hugged him ever so tightly and told him that we will always be here for him and that we will always love him.

Within five months, he was back in the system, but by then, we had already taken in a beautiful and precocious three-year-old girl. Unfortunately, while we wanted him back, we only had two bedrooms, and DCFS rules that two kids of different genders cannot stay in one room together.

Almost a year later, the agency told us that he needed a permanent home. Well, hasn’t he always? Doesn’t every child? We did not waste time. We bought a bunk bed, put it in the sun-room, curtained the area off, and voila! an extra room. We have since moved to a place with three bedrooms and he has been with us for the last 2 1/2 years non-stop.

From the beginning, the agency reassured us of the possibility of adopting right away, raising our hopes up with every administrative case review, every change of goal discussion, and every permanency hearing. But it has been five years of being told that, “it will just be six months” or “the most would be a year from now.” Meanwhile, our children cannot have an MRI, go to a water park across state lines, or get their ears pierced without getting a consent form signed by DCFS. The kids have become well-acquainted with the terminology: “Mommy, I scraped my knee; shouldn’t we fill out an incident report?” or “Oh, my other mom did that, you know, my biological mom,” “When is the next court hearing?” or “Why did my case worker come to my classroom!!! It was embarrassing!”

I have also gotten tired of being addressed to as Mrs “(my son’s last name)” or Mrs “(my daughter’s last name)” by teachers and administrators at their school or by their friends.  And while I never did try to correct them, it is a heart-breaking reminder that, legally, I am only my children’s caregiver.

We understand that the system is not perfect. Our own caseworker handles over 30 children, placing them in homes, visiting and checking on them at least once a month. Agencies are encouraged to push for reunification with original family, arranging visits with biological parents who may still be struggling with heavy drug or alcohol use and are still unable to care for themselves, let alone their children. At times, these visits could prove traumatic to a child, whose emotions are caught between loyalty and the desire to live a less stressful life, or between love for their biological parents and their own longing to be loved and cared for in a more consistent way.

Many have warned us of getting entangled in this imperfect system. “Why not just adopt a poor child from the Philippines?” my relatives had suggested, when we said we are thinking of fostering. But having worked with Chicago’s inner city youth and children, my husband and I understand that the third world exists within the first world, and that all children, no matter what race or economic background, deserve to live in a happy home.  Lilla Watson, an indigenous woman artist from Australia, referring to social workers and other do-gooders at a conference, stated:  “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Well, we have chosen to take this route because we know that our liberation is bound up with our children’s.

In the end, all we want is to be seen and treated as a real family, living in a village of our own that includes close friends and family and our own trusted health workers and caregivers. A family that we know in our hearts we are.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged | Leave a comment