Monday, September 20, 2010


My dearest friend since junior high, Susan (then Zahner, now Armenio) and her wonderful husband, Anthony (always Armenio) became parents for the first time on August 2, 2001 to their gorgeous son, Justin. The video camera and was always out to record all the firsts in Justin's life. He was such a happy baby. He had Susan's infectious smile and Anthony's sparkling eyes.

When Justin was a little more than a year old, Susan called to tell me that her baby had cancer. My blood ran cold. I must have heard her wrong. Susan did everything she was supposed to do while she was pregnant. She and Anthony did everything -- and more -- that parents are supposed to to for their baby. This was not supposed to happen.

The type of cancer Justin was diagnosed with was Neuroblastoma. Susan explained to me that Neuroblastoma primarily affects children under 5, especially babies, and is cancer of the sympathetic nervous system. I had no idea that we even had a sympathetic nervous system until then, let alone that one can get cancer there. It is unfathomable that there is a cancer that targets babies.

During the course of the year that followed Justin's diagnosis, he went through a variety of treatments. I kept asking Susan if we could come up to visit when she told me Justin was home between stays at the hospital. But we couldn't. My daughter was 4 years old and going to Pre-K; in other words, she was a germ factory. The chemotherapy that Justin endured left him weak and highly susceptible to infection. The risk was too high that he could get him sicker. I relied on the reports that Susan gave me regarding Justin's progress. At times, it was very hard to hear. Susan was always the exuberant bubbly one. She has a smile so powerful not only does it light up a room but you could hear it on the phone. That light was gone. As a human being, I could not comprehend how sweet, innocent Baby Justin could be experiencing the horrors of cancer. As a mother, I cannot imagine what my friend was going through. As a friend, I wished that I could do something to make it better for Susan. Cancer is a thief, ruthlessly robbing people of so much that is beautiful in their lives.

Justin was strong. He battled his cancer. He made it through the horrors of chemotherapy. It looked like he had the Neuroblastoma beat. But on October 17, 2003, Justin succumbed to cancer, with his Mommy and Daddy by his side.

Susan and Anthony carried on. I still don't know how they did it. They are two of the strongest, most courageous people I know. They now have two beautiful daughters and I am sure that their Big Brother Justin is looking out for them (and their Mommy and Daddy) from Heaven. They are a happy family but there is still a huge hole in their lives.

Susan and Anthony are very private about their tragic loss but once a year they honor Justin by participating in the annual Children's Cancer Fund walk. This year it is on October 2nd at FDR Park. It is their hope to raise awareness about pediatric cancer and to raise funds to help combat it. Pediatric cancer, as we learned through Justin, can happen to any child, at any time, without warning.

To date, Susan and Anthony's team, "Jogging for Justin" has raised $75,000 since they began participating in this annual event. If you'd like to contribute to Jogging for Justin -- any amount is appreciated -- click here.

Neuroblastoma is the most common cancer occuring in babies. The overwhelming majority of people who get this cancer are under the age of 5. In fact, it is extremely rare that older children or adults are diagnosed with it. Each year about 650 families are given the same news Susan and Anthony received about Justin; their baby has cancer. That is too many. September is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. Please, this month, do something to help.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Welcome Visitor

I had a dream last night about my Uncle Milton. He was sitting in a booth at the Palace Diner in Flushing. He was having a cup of piping hot coffee and wearing his navy peacoat. My Uncle Milton was a Navy Man, just like his big brother, Sydney. Uncle Sydney served in WWII. Uncle Milton was too young but he served in the Korean War. Like all the Weiss men, he was proud to serve his country.
In my dream, he looked exactly as I remembered him, complete with a wooden toothpick in the left side of his mouth. I sat down across from him in the booth. I was surprised to see him. Even while I was dreaming, I remembered that he's been dead since 1999. I got the feeling he was expecting me, though. My lip began to quiver and a lump came to my throat. "Oh Uncle Milton," I said. "I've missed you so much. Especially lately. The summer before last, something terrible happened..." Uncle Milton reached out and held my hand. His nearly black eyes looked through his glasses straight into mine, which were welling up with tears. "I heard, Judy." I was scared of what he was going to say next. I was afraid he would be enraged with me like his sister, Pearl, was when she heard. Then he said, "I will make sure to get justice." I felt warm and safe in my dream then burst into tears, my hand still in his. Then I woke up.
It seemed so real. In typical Weiss-fashion, Uncle Milton was never overtly affectionate. The picture above of the two of us on the sofa (yes, that's me with a Dorothy Hammil haircut) is about as close to a hug as Uncle Milton and I exchanged and on the occasion that he gave me a kiss on the cheek, it was a very wet one that my little hands were quick to wipe off as soon as he turned his back. But I always felt warm and safe whenever I went to Uncle Milton and Aunt Carol's house. I loved going there. My grandmother used to take me there quite a lot when I very young. My cousin Melissa (she was Missy to me back then) is about two years older than I am so we would play together. Jeannie is about three years older than Melissa so she didn't have much use for us kiddies but she was never a mean to us. Lauren was the oldest girl and helped keep an eye on all of us. Then there was Richie. I remember he was always up to something mischievous with Kenny. They always had pets running around and the house looked like people actually lived there, unlike where I lived because my grandmother was an obsessive cleaner. Our furniture was covered in plastic slipcovers so it was never comfortable to sit down. At Uncle Milton's and Aunt Carol's, their sofa practically cried out for human contact. Aunt Carol drove a station wagon (Uncle Milton never drove; I'm not sure if he ever even got a driver's license - oddly, my grandmother didn't drive either). It was totally '70s - wood paneling and all. Melissa and I used to play in it sometimes. She'd pretend to drive. I just loved hanging out in the back. It was my dream car.
Don't get me wrong. I am not so delusionally nostalgic that I remember their house being like "The Brady Bunch." There was yelling and fighting. About as much as you would expect in a home with four kids. Neither Uncle Milton nor Aunt Carol were perfect. They did a good deal of the yelling and the fighting. But it wasn't the same as it was where I lived. When my cousins got yelled at, they didn't seem afraid that their parents didn't love them anymore or that they'd be angry at them forever or that they were sorry that they had been born. People got angry there, expressed it then got over it. They seemed happy. I was always jealous of my cousins for that. I always hoped that one day Uncle Milton and Aunt Carol would see how sad I was and ask me to come live with them. I thought that they already had four kids running around in there. One more at that point couldn't have made that much of a difference, right? But that day never came. As I got older, I went to Uncle Milton and Aunt Carol's house less and less frequently. I really missed them.
I saw Uncle Milton more than I saw the rest of the family. He and my grandmother were siblings. We had some really interesting talks about history, human nature, justice and other topics I never thought to be synonymous with Uncle Milton. He had a good and loving way about him. Family was so important to him, probably because of the way he grew up. He and Uncle Sydney were sent to a boys home because their mother (my Great-grandma Lily) couldn't care for them. Well, that was the official story. The real story was that the man, Max, Great-grandma Lily lived with (she was estranged from her husband, my Great-grandpa Sam), didn't want the boys around so she got rid of them. Pearl went to live with another family member who raised her and my grandmother was the one she kept. These circumstances were not ideal to create harmony and a sense of family. The siblings that were cast-off were resentful of my grandmother for being the one that their mother kept while at the same time, my grandmother suffered terrible abuse at the hand of Max while her mother turned a blind-eye. On occasions that Uncle Milton and Uncle Sydney visited, Max was abusive to them as well. I can only speculate because even during our deep talks, Uncle Milton and I never spoke about his upbringing, but I think that this experience galvanized his resolve to have a happy, loving family. He succeeded. I always got the feeling from him that he would kill or die for any member of his family and had a deep desire to try and undo the damage that was done to him and all his siblings.
It was a great wish of his for me to have a close relationship with his children. The birth of my daughter seemed to do that. Melissa became caretaker to my Catalina for her first three years. Catalina still calls her "Aunt Missy" even though they are really third-cousins or something distant like that. I'm so happy that Uncle Milton got to see us celebrate holidays and special occasions together. I would have loved for him to come to my wedding. He would have loved to see Melissa stand up for me as my Matron-of-Honor. But I got married in 2004, five years after Uncle Milton passed away (I don't do things in conventional order). He would be happy to know that thanks to Facebook, all of us have gotten to know eachother even better and keep tabs on eachother on a daily basis in a way that we likely wouldn't otherwise.
It will be two years come August 17th that life changed for me and my family. As horrific as it was, one of the shining lights to come of it came from Aunt Carol and Melissa. They share the horror in their ways. But unlike Pearl who met me with anger, Aunt Carol and Melissa gave me compassion, unconditional love and support, the depths of which I had never known from family. It brought me back to how I felt when I was amid the chaos of their home in the '70s except this time, it was my home, too. When I spoke to Melissa about it (I still haven't spoken to Jeannie and although I know she knows what happened, I don't think it will ever be anything we talk about to eachother), she brought up Uncle Milton. It was the first time either one of us was close to being thankful that he wasn't around because if he was...we would have found out for certain that he was willing to kill or die for family.
Maybe all this is where my dream last night came from. I am haunted as I am coping with what happened. Every new day is a new adventure in my mind, that's for sure. Maybe somewhere in my subconscious Uncle Milton is there to serve the justice that he and I spoke about, that each of us so desperately needed and wanted but didn't believe was out there for everyone in this imperfect world.
I love you, Uncle Milton. Whether last night's dream was a visit from the Great Beyond or an internal manifestation, it was good to talk to you again. It was good to feel your love. I know you are looking out for me and it is very comforting. Don't worry, I won't let my little family and yours drift apart again.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Because of You

I don't listen to pop music. At least not by choice. I'm not making judgments. It's just not my thing. But every once in a while I am in a place where it's being played. More often than not, it's in my car while I'm driving Catalina somewhere and she puts on "her station." Anyway, today I heard a song by Kelly Clarkson that struck an incredibly deep chord with me. It's probably been out for ages but to me it is brand new. It's called "Because of You" and it is the story of my relationship with my grandmother, the woman who raised me. I am pretty sure that Ms. Clarkson had no idea about this when she wrote it. I guess that's another reason why her lyrics penetrated me so deeply. When you are the center of your own universe, passing time in your own life, feeling your own emotions, it is nearly impossible to fathom that someone else might be having a similar experience to yours in their universe, especially when our experience is that of extreme pain (or love). When you hear someone express that emotion eloquently and with the same intensity you feel, you are overcome by this connection. At least that is the way it is with me. That's how I felt when I heard this song.

I wept. No...I bawled. That's kind of unusual for me. Five years ago when my grandmother died, this woman who by every definition but biology was my mother died, I did not shed a tear. Not when I was telling the rabbi who was to deliver her eulogy about her, the hardship she endured and all the sacrifices she made not only for me but for everyone...but especially for me. Not as the rest of my family cried at her grave. Not once when I've reflected on this loss over the last five years. That was her legacy to me. Be the rock.

I am thankful for that trait she taught me, for the most part. But I always felt like I was missing out on a lot. There were not a lot of hugs and kisses exchanged between my grandmother and me. Add that to the abandonment issues I felt with my mother (she lived with us, but she was very rarely around both in the literal and emotional sense) and you're not left with an emotionally open person. I guess that's another reason why I write. It's the one place where I can really wear it on my sleeve yet still be detached.

My grandmother was overprotective to a great extent but was so blind to so many harmful things that were going on with me. I never learned to ride a bicycle because it was instilled in me to be deathly afraid of falling down. Fear, more than love, is what I remember most about my childhood. That is another legacy she left me.

This trait I am not thankful for. While some fear is healthy, it's what keeps us from running out into traffic, when it keeps you from experiencing life's gifts or effects your decision-making process it is crippling. So many decisions throughout my life were motivated by fear of falling. Fear of failing. My grandmother in her strange brand of logic thought it would be motivating to me if she only pointed out where my shortcomings were, compare me to others when I fell short. She didn't want me to get a swell head or become complacent. What she achieved with that approach was instilling the idea deep inside me that I am not good enough. That I never will be good enough. That I will be judged by my failures instead of remembered for my successes. Please don't get me wrong. I am not saying I deserve absolution for all the mistakes I've made because I have "Mommy and Grand-Mommy Issues." They're my decisions. I own their consequences. There was nothing I could do as a child to stop these seeds from being planted in me. But as an adult, it has become my life's work to pull the weeds that have grown from them. I've become quite the gardener of my mind, trying to plant flowering seeds...I am good enough...I have already achieved successes in my life...I am not defined by my mistakes. A lot of them take. But if I am not diligent with my weeding every single day, those weeds grow like wildfire and strangle the roots of those flowers. This is the life I was dealt. For many years I was angry about it. That didn't give me anything but more misery. The more I let go of the anger and just accept what I was dealt and enjoy my life anyway, the better able I am to see these wonderful gifts I have been given and enjoy the successes I earn.

Hearing that song today helped me to understand a little why I never cried for my grandmother's passing. I am forever grateful to her for giving me everything she could. If I say that is not enough, it would make me the perpetrator of these poisonous thoughts that have inflicted so much harm on me. That's not who I am. Despite the horrors of her childhood, she was a better mother to me than her mother was to her. I will chose to carry on that legacy and be a better mother to Catalina than the mothering I received.

The last time I saw her alive, my grandmother had a tube in her throat to aid her breathing (she killed herself slowly with cigarettes). She couldn't speak. She wrote me a note that I still carry with me "I'm going to say good-bye because I don't know if I'll be here tomorrow." Her eyes were watery and I saw a softness and vulnerability in them that I had never seen before. My eyes were dry and crystal clear as I took her note, put it in my purse and told her that we should finish watching "Everybody Loves Raymond." I am, after all, the Rock. She grabbed my hand and held it as tightly as she used to when we crossed the street together when I was a child. She always had such a firm touch and a heavy hand. She pulled me closer to her face and mouthed the words "I'm sorry" over and over again. Her soft, vulnerable eyes were now crying and I could see a desperation in them, something else I'd never seen before in her. I told her she was a good Mama and that it was okay. When I came home that night to Salvatore, I told him that I knew that this would be the last time I'd see her alive (with the COPD we had a lot of false alarms) and told him what she said. He asked me what she was sorry for. I told him that I didn't ask. "Isn't that going to drive you crazy not knowing?" he asked me. I told him that it didn't matter. She was sorry and I forgave her. In the end that's all that mattered.

Thank you, Kelly Clarkson, for making me feel a little less weird and alone today. Childhood wounds run deep. Knowing that there was someone else out there whose universe was just like mine and who made it out on top is both comforting and inspiring. Now it's about time that I get back to tending to that garden of mine.


PS: If you are unfamiliar with this song like I was, here is a link to the lyrics that moved me and video of Kelly Clarkson giving life to them:

Friday, March 12, 2010

On Our Way to Costco

Catalina called me today from the nurse's office to tell me that one of the brackets fell off her braces again. My daughter must have the slickest teeth in the world because this happens fairly often no matter how strong the cement is that they use. The orthodontist managed to squeeze her in at 3:15. This bummed me out a little bit because I planned on going to Costco between leaving the office and picking up Catalina after basketball practice. While I love having Catalina as my sidekick when shopping, I was really hoping to just get in and out, grabbing the essentials and using my fresh batch of coupons. Oh well.

I got Catalina from practice and she was excited to go shopping, mostly for the tasty samples they give out at Costco. Catalina told me how happy her coach was that she was able to make it to practice despite her orthodontal emergency. The rain started coming down harder as we drove past 7-11. I drove slowly through the giant puddle in front of the parking lot. Up ahead I saw three girls who looked like they could have been Catalina and her friends. They were splashing along down the street, laughing and one of them was spinning a fuschia umbrella. Catalina and I were trying to decide what to have for dinner. The light turned green. We started to inch forward. The three girls started to cross Union Boulevard, which is a pretty big street in our little town. The girl with the spinning fuschia umbrella darted ahead of the other two girls. She didn't see the red car turning. The drive didn't see her and her spinning umbrella darting. Even though I was looking right at them when it happened, I can't tell you what happened when they collided. The next thing I saw was the girl laying montionless on the pavement, her fuschia umbrella upside down in the gutter, and the two other girls standing over her in hysterics.

At first I thought they were goofing around. That the girl slid on the wet pavement and her friends were playfully teasing her. As we pulled up beside them, it was clear that this was not a joke. Catalina recognized the girls as students from her school. They're eighth graders so Catalina only knew them by sight but it's a small school in a small town so they were easy to recognize. I got out of the car and went to the girl on the ground. I told the two friends no to tr and mover her. By then another woman had already stopped and parked her car in such a way that it blocked oncoming traffic. A man also stopped and was already on the phone to 911. We both looked down at the girl and asked her if she was okay. She did not respond. Her brown eyes were half open and rolling around in their sockets. Her jaw was slack. "What's your name, honey?" I asked her. No response. "What's your name?" One of her friends answered, "Giselle," as she trembled and cried. The other girl was on the phone to Giselle's mother. "Giselle, can you hear me?" Her lips quivered but no sound came out. Her eyes were rolling further back in her head. An oil delivery man ran out with a moving blanket and covered Giselle with it. An older gentleman came and held his umbrella over her head. And the driver of the red car was standing beside it, watching us from a distance.

Catalina stood near Giselle's friends. She kept looking back and forth between the driver and Gisellle. "I'm gonna make sure he doesn't try to get away before the cops get here," she said to me, pointing at the driver. I know she meant it. I know that if she saw that man attempt to get into his car and flee the scene, Catalina would run after him and stop him in any way she could. You have no idea how much I was hoping he would stay put.

The police arrived first. Giselle was still unresponsive. The police had some sort of small kit to use on her so we all stepped away so they could do what they needed to do...but none of us left. I joined Catalina near Giselle's friends. They were still distraught but seemed comforted by the police's arrival. I asked if they got in touch with Giselle's mother. They said they had and that she was on her way. She lives right nearby. The girls cried and hugged each other and blamed themselves for what happened to their friend.

When the ambulance arrived, Catalina and I got back into our car to get out of the rain. I was trying to hold back tears and decided to take out my Blackberry and ask for prayers for Giselle from my Facebook community. Catalina told me how scared she was by the whole thing and told her Facebook community about it as well. She thought the same thing I had at first; that the girls were goofing around. "It happened so fast." Yes it did.

It was a little while until the paramedics loaded Giselle into the ambulance. Just as they shut the doors, a woman who must have been Giselle's mother arrived. She was running as fast as she could on the wet pavement. She had a look of restrained panic in her demeanor. I could see her face contorted and tears streaming from her eyes. She slipped slightly as she reached the rear of the ambulance and she beat on the door with a clenched fist until it slung slowly open. She jumped inside and the door shut quickly behind her.

The police had moved on to talk to the driver. They were speaking casually. The officer held the sideview mirror that came off in the accident in his hand as he spoke. And that's what it appears it was. An accident.

Catalina and I went to Costco as planned. We shopped and ate the free samples. We laughed together as we normally do. But from time to time, we mentioned Giselle and everything that happened. Catalina said that everytime she shut her eyes, she saw Giselle laying there in the street. She had never seen an accident and its consequences unfold before her eyes. It was truly frightening.

As I sit here writing the account of what happened today, it all seems so surreal. If I did not feel this lump in my throat, I would think that this was all just a bad dream. But it isn't. It's real. Giselle and her friends could so easily have been Catalina and her friends. That mother at her baby's beside could have so easily been me. It could be any of us or our children. Next time I get a call from the nurse's office, I will try not to get bummed that my plans have to change. I will take it as a gift that I get to spend some time that I didn't expect to with my baby. I will hug her a little tighter now and be even more nervous when she is out with friends.

And I will pray for Giselle, that she pulls through without any permanent injury. And I will pray for Giselle's family, that they see their little return to her normal self quickly. And I will pray for her friends, that they don't feel guilty for something that was beyond their control.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Life and Love

Exactly 10 days ago my daughter, Catalina, turned 13. It has taken me this long to come to grips with this reality well enough to state that fact. It will take even longer for me to adjust to the reality that I have a "teenager." It's not an age thing for me like for a few of my friends, the dawn of a mid-life crisis --"Oh my goodness! Am I really THAT old that I am a teenager's mother?!?!?!?!?" Don't get me wrong, I am really starting to feel my age but that's inevitable. Obviously I've always known that Catalina becoming a teenager was inevitable as well but I am just not ready for it.

I was not in a good place when I found out I was pregnant. I didn't feel right so I went to my GYN. He performed the regular array of tests for someone expressing my vague symptoms. When he got the results, he sat me down and told them to me. My pregnancy test came back positive and my pap smear came back abnormal. He'd have to take a punch biopsy to be sure but he believed that I had cervical cancer (which the biopsy confirmed two days later). The good thing about cervical cancer is that it is extremely treatable and has a very low likelihood of recurrence. The treatments aren't like that of typical cancers. The options are cryosurgery, laser vaporization or conventional surgery. If you catch it early and it doesn't metastasize elsewhere, you don't have to endure chemotherapy or radiation treatments -- ladies, for this reason, please get your pap smears done every six months religiously. Truly, if you are a woman and you must get cancer, this in the one you'd want. That's how my GYN explained it to me.

He also explained that I could not be treated while I was pregnant so if I wanted to move forward with the treatment immediately, I'd have to terminate my pregnancy. Each of the treatments would weaken the cervix to some degree. How much would depend on how far the cancer went into my cervix and they wouldn't know that until the treatment was underway. You can have a baby with a diminished cervix however it would be more complicated. Precautions would have to be taken including the possibility of going under general anesthesia at 20 weeks and having the canal sewn up (like trussing a turkey) and then having a Cesarean birth rather than a vaginal delivery.

Or I could go to term with this pregnancy, with my cervix in tact albeit with cancer. My doctor explained that Mother Nature is a very clever lady who is singularly focused on carrying forward new life. During pregnancy, the spread of the cervical cancer is generally stunted. During the birth, part of the cervical wall sheds with the afterbirth. Depending on how deep into the cervix the cancer is, often the baby cures the mother.

I was 26 when I had this conversation with my doctor. I was hardly the clear-minded, level-headed woman you see before you today. I was completely blindsided. But the choice was clear.

Just as my doctor told me it would, the cervical cancer was stunted. In fact, except for that, it was rather uneventful...until my 35th week. I had one Lamas class during which we were instructed how to navigate the hospital paperwork so as not to get stuck with any bills our insurance company won't cover (EXTREMELY useful). I was examined by my doctor on a Saturday and he told me, "If you go to term, and there is no reason why you shouldn't, you will have a ten pound baby. Easy." I told him that I didn't think delivering a ten pound baby would be so easy. He laughed. I didn't.

The following Monday, on the first day of training the woman who would be covering my maternity leave, my water broke. I worked in Manhattan at the time. My doctor was affiliated with Winthrop in Mineola. My boss threw me in a Town Car with a dear friend and coworker and sent us to Long Island. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. Our driver decided he wanted to save the tunnel toll and go by way of Brooklyn. At rush hour. My friend gave her opinion of this decision, loudly, to the driver.

We arrived at Winthrop at 7 p.m. When we left the office, I wasn't feeling any pain. During the course of that even-longer-than-it-had-to-be ride, the contractions had begun and I was feeling them, full-force, as I was admitted. My doctor confirmed that my water broke and suspected the reason why was a bacteria had ruptured the membrane. It would need to be confirmed but he was putting me on intravenous antibiotics immediately so the baby and I would not get infected. He didn't tell me what bacteria it was until the day after Catalina was born when he came to check on us. When I got home I looked it up and saw that there was a 60% death rate for babies infected by it. Even though by then I knew Catalina was safe from it, I just held her and cried. In any case, because she was five weeks early and my doctor was concerned about her lung development, my doctor decided that I would be kept pregnant for a couple more days to strengthen Catalina's lungs. There were good air pockets. He gave me a narcotic to stop the contractions. The pain stopped and I fell asleep, attached to monitors. I had completely forgotten about the cervical cancer. It was no longer important.

When I woke up, another member of my doctor's practice (during the course of my pregnancy, I was seen by all but one of the doctors in the practice -- they do this so that in case your regular doctor is unavailable, the doctor who delivers the baby will be a familiar face. It would be a heck of an introduction if you first met in the Delivery Room, huh?) and a man I'd never seen before came to visit me. The stranger told me that I would be giving birth in a few hours. I told him he was wrong. I told him that Dr. Goldstein told me that I would stay pregnant for a few days. The stranger said that he was a high-risk delivery doctor and because of the bacteria's presence, he thought it best to deliver sooner rather than later. I told him I was on antibiotics which should take care of the infection and my baby's lungs had to be fully developed before she is born. He said in his opinion, it would be safer to deliver now (remember, at this point I still had no idea what the bacteria was or its potency). I told him that with all due respect, Dr. Goldstein has been with me and my baby for the last 35 weeks. I know him for less than five minutes. I trust Dr. Goldstein. If he says giving birth now is right, I'll do it. Otherwise, no. The stranger and Dr. Goldstein argued in the hall outside my room for a few minutes then Dr. Goldstein came in and told me that I'd be giving birth by the end of the day. They gave me more drugs to counter act the ones they gave me to stop my contractions.

Those drugs worked. I was feeling the pain of the contractions. Much worse than in the car on the way to the hospital. Much more frequently, too. However, my damn cervix was not cooperating! It would not dilate (ironically, quite the opposite problem of a cervix that had been treated for cancer). Unbelievable. They gave me more drugs -- an epidural -- to deaden the pain while they maxed out the dosage of the petocin to get me ready to deliver. I fell asleep again.

When I woke up, I felt incredibly sharp pains. Regularly. Very regularly. I was confused. I asked the maternity nurse why I was feeling pain because I had the epidural. She left to get the doctor. Lo and behold, the one doctor in the practice I hadn't seen previously came in. Dr. Goldstein had been at the hospital 36 hours straight and delivered twins. He went home to get some sleep which was good; he looked like Hell the last time I saw him. The new doctor came in and introduced herself to me, Dr. Valderaama. She said I was just about ready to start pushing. I was in blinding pain that this point and full of quite an array of drugs. I told her I was done. She would have to give me a C-section because I was in too much pain as it is and I didn't want to subject myself to more. She told me that she doesn't cut open healthy women carrying healthy babies and that I just have to push. I told her no and that she couldn't make me. She agreed that she couldn't make me push but at the same time told me that I couldn't force her to give me a C-section. That the baby was going to come out the only available opening, soon. She turned and walked out saying that she'd be back when I was ready to push.

I was a lot more spiteful then than I am now. My maternity nurse begged me to push and promised me that it would make me feel better..."If you'll only try it..." The pain started to get really bad so I gave in and said I'd try pushing. The nurse ran and got Dr. Valderaama, who, by the way, bore a striking resemblance to Ronnie James Dio. I pushed. I felt better! Now I wanted to keep pushing. Dr. Valderaama told me to stop pushing. What?!?!?! I told her I didn't want to. She said I better stop. The cord was wrapped around the baby's throat and pushing would tighten the noose. It was difficult to restrain myself because the pushing brought such profound relief, but I did. They had a bit of a hard time loosening the cord from Catalina's neck because rather than crowning, she decided it would be better to come out face first. Even from the moment of her birth, she was wide-eyed and curious, ever-anxious to see everything that is before her.

I don't know if I can accurately explain how I felt in those moments where I gave that one last, great push but I'll know how people say as death approaches you see your entire life flash before your eyes? It was something like that but it wasn't my life, my past that I was seeing. I felt the overwhelming feeling of hope and saw an incredible brightness. Like all the answers about life and what it means were answered when I held my baby for the very first time, both of us crying and exhausted from birth. I had never felt love so strong before, a different kind of love. It made me strong and humble at the same time.

After 24 1/2 hours of labour, on Tuesday, February 4th at 5:07 p.m., Catalina Leah entered the world...and my cervical cancer exited (it came back later but that's a story for another time). On the day she was born, Catalina literally saved my life. And she has been spiritually and emotionally saving me every day since.

All this seems like yesterday but it was 13 years and 10 days ago. She's a smart, kind, beautiful person with her own life and interests. It went by too fast. I wish that I could have some of it back again but I can't. And that's okay. I will always be her Mama and, God willing, will always be part of her life. Wide-eyed and curious, ever-anxious to see everything that is before her. Take it all in, my baby. Take it all in and make it your own. The world has never been the same since you entered it. Mine especially.

Today Catalina and I spent the day with my sister-in-law who is pregnant with her first baby. Our men were back working on the house, getting it ready for the baby's arrival in late September. After going to the movies, the three of us went to Barnes & Noble. I bought my sister-in-law the all-new "What to Expect When You're Expecting." It was the best book I read to guide me through the pregnancy and I was thrilled to share that with her. It is a special connection mothers have with their babies. Through all the weirdness, discomfort and pain, there is an incredible bond that mothers and babies form that only they can share while they share a body. It's mind-blowing. I am excited for my sister-in-law as she begins her adventure, her incredibly special and absolutely individual relationship with her baby.

After that we went to the diner, picked up dinner and all of us -- men and ladies -- ate together while watching the Ranger game (they won, Hallelujah!). It was the perfect Valentine's Day. It was what love is all about.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

I Hate Valentine's Day

It's true. I hate Valentine's Day. I consider it an insincere day of atonement. It's a day that people who are not particularly good to their significant others for the previous 364 days can compensate for it by giving an overpriced bouquet of roses or going out to an overrated restaurant for dinner. Then after the roses have wilted and the dinner has been digested, it's back to the old behavior...until next Valentine's Day. I don't subscribe to this.

Don't get me wrong, I am far from perfect. I am not conventionally romantic. I can be down-right despicable to live with at times. I'm opinionated, demanding and, as my husband and daughter have pointed out, occasionally hypocritical. I am not what anyone would call "warm." I generally dislike being touched. Over the last couple of years, the latter two aspects of my personality are starting to make more sense. But you always know where you stand with me and I think that is refreshing in a world where people so often make pretend to people's faces. My ears are always open to anyone who needs to be heard and I have been known to give some unselfish (even good) advice from time to time as well. And when someone I care deeply for tells me that I've said or done (or sometimes not done) something that upsets him or her, I work towards changing so that I don't cause that person any more least not in that particular way. To me, that is romantic. To me, that is love. To me, that beats a bouquet of roses any day of the year.

So go ahead and celebrate Valentine's Day any way you want...and remember that celebration doesn't have to be confined to February 14th.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Short and Sweet

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to help someone very special to me celebrate a milestone in her life. I will not go into details here; they are not mine to tell. What I can tell you is that when I feel myself starting to give in to my old ways of thinking and being, I can use the experience, strength and hope she shares as inspiration to keep making myself and my life better. It is a gift to have her in my life.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Smiles All Around

Today I had the worst headache in very long time. It felt like my daughter was stomping on the entire front of my head with her cleats. The gorgeous sunny day made my eyes scream in pain. I felt sick to my stomach. I finally gave up on it passing on its own and took some Excedrin (the only medicine that works for me and Catalina who has suffered from migraines since she was 5 -- headaches that make what I had today look like a walk in the park) and took a little nap. Sleep is the only other thing that helps. I woke up feeling a bit hungover but in significantly less pain. I was able to get some of the things done as I had planned and watch an absolutely dreadful Rangers game. Now my headache is back. I want to get to sleep so I will finally be rid of it today but I couldn't let the day end without sharing the out-of-this-world great feeling I got from what two old friends said to me today.

When I write, I write for myself. For the inner joy I get from expressing myself in the written word. But I have to say, I get an incredible boost in my confidence when I know that there is someone other than me who is reading these words on a regular basis. There's no way of my knowing who is reading it or even if it's being read at all except for when I get feedback. And today, I got some. And it was so good.

A friend who I met during that terrible 7th grade experience and I recently found each other on Facebook. Our friendship was one of the few bright spots of that year. She was among my first friends after the "big move" and I have always been incredibly grateful that she reached out to me, even amidst all the taunting led by Bart Todd. She told me today that she enjoys reading my blog. She said that she remembered me on the first day of 7th grade, in my red top and polka dot skirt. But she said that what she remembered most of all was our friendship and those memories made her smile during the decades that passed. She also remembered my writing, right down to the name of one of the poems I wrote back then and is glad to be able to read my writing again. Even with my head splitting, it felt incredibly wonderful to know this today.

And there is Susan. Her opinion always mattered so much to me back in the day. It still does now. She told me that she LOVES my blog, pulled out a quote from one of my posts and asked if it would be okay if she used it. That was the greatest gift I could have ever asked for.

Ladies, thank you so much for the smiles on a day that I was/am feeling so miserable. I'd like to return the favor. I will share my favorite joke of all-time. I didn't write it, but I cleaned it up ever so slightly:

A bear and a rabbit are in the woods. The bear turns to the rabbit and asks him, "Hey, do you every have trouble with poop sticking to your fur?"

The rabbit replied, "No, I don't."

So the bear wiped his butt with the rabbit.

That joke makes me laugh so hard every time. Hope it did the same for you.

Good night and Namaste.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lost and lovin' it

I am obsessed with Lost. I admit it. I have every season on DVD. Every issue of Lost Magazine (except #1 -- if you know where I can get a copy, please let me know). I have all the action figures they made (they were supposed to make several more series but I guess I am one of the only people that bought them so they stopped -- why they made a Shannon and no Sayid, I'll never know). Next week it returns from its final season and I cannot contain my excitement!

There have been a lot of TV shows that I enjoyed but nothing on the level of this show for so many reasons. First, there is the obvious; this is no ordinary TV show. Every episode is like a short film. The way it's shot. The writing. The acting.

For me, I think that it's the underlying themes that really does it. Science or faith? For so much of my life, if I couldn't see it, hear it, feel it, it did not exist. Period. I was not dealt a good hand growing up. Most of my young life, I felt that I was unwanted. That nothing I did was good enough. That I was a mistake. It's difficult to believe in a benevolent higher power when you are living in that sort of misery. It's difficult to believe in anything. But there came a time in my life when I decided to grow up. If I was unwanted, so what? I am here. I have a right to be here. If the things I did were not enough to please certain people, so what? If I was satisfied with my own efforts, then that's all that matters. And if not, that just means I need to raise the bar for myself. If I was a mistake, so what? The greatest and most powerful lessons I've learned in life started out as mistakes and ended up as gifts. It becomes easy to believe in a benevolent higher power when you allow yourself to be human like the rest of the world. It's funny. You think that believing in "people" that you can't see, hear of feel as something childish, like Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. As you get older, you let go of these ideas. But I've never felt more grown up as when I believe in that intangible thing that binds us all together. But old ideals die hard. I still have this internal debate over which is the real truth; science or faith? Lost externalizes the debate.

I also love the theme of second chances. All the main characters on Lost have taken a wrong turn somewhere (no pun intended). They all feel that the choices they made determine the road they must always travel for their lives. But what if you were not condemned to the consequences of the choices you made? Not even the terrible ones? Can you find redemption? Would you chose to walk the path to it even though it is completely unfamiliar? If you were given the opportunity to return to the familiar, would you go back to your old ways?

I can go on and on for days writing about Lost. Maybe I will. But for tonight, I think I will just get lost and watch the back catalog.

It's amazing that a tropical island with healing powers and polar bears could be so much like our mundane lives. February 2nd can't come soon enough for me.


Sunday, January 24, 2010


I write a lot about how proud I am of my daughter. I have good reason to do that. She is the most wonderful child a parent could ask for. Today I want to share with you how proud I am of the man I married.

Salvatore has been so patient, supportive and understanding with all the things that have gone on in my life of late. Although we have had many rocky times in our relationship, we are married. We are partners. We promised each other that we would weather the storms that came into our lives and we both have delivered on that.

We also promised each other that we would celebrate each other's achievements. Salvatore often jokes with Catalina that he used to be a rock star. He was in a few glam bands -- long hair, make-up, spandex, the whole 9-yards -- in the '80's and played some of the hot local clubs. A minor local celebrety, maybe. A world sensation, no. Which is fine by me. Hell, if he had been a world-famous rock star back in the day, it is highly unlikely that he and I ever would have met, fallen in love and married. He has often said that the life we created together is worth more than his 15 minutes of fame as a rock star would have ever given him.

Music has always been a big part of each of our lives. Our love of the Ramones is one of the big things that brought us together. However, the only musical instrument that I can play is the radio -- but I know great music when I hear it. Salvatore on the other hand, is a talented guitarist (i.e. his ticket in the '80's to his Rock Stardom). Instead of a dream, it is one of his hobbies. I truly admire him for holding true to what he is passionate about. He still plays out about once a month with a band he and my brother-in-law are in called The Skeevotz. I can't accurately describe the feeling I get when I see him on stage. The venues they play aren't huge. The house isn't always packed. But seeing him on stage whaling out on his guitar with confidence and reckless abandon and the sheer joy he exudes, he is larger than life...and he is all mine.

Recently, The Skeevotz went into the recording studio. After what seemed like an endless time mixing, their songs are ready for the world. You can listen to their tracks on Listeners have an opportunity there to give their reviews. They reinforced what I keep telling Salvatore...they have a great sound. There are people in Scandanavia that are digging their tunes. Who knew that once you have let go and moved on from being a worldwide rock star, you open the door to people around the world listening to you play?

Hopefully I did it right.

And if you are in the Long Island area this Saturday, January 30th, check out The Skeevotz live at O'Brien's Ale House Grill, 3720 Route 112 in Coram. My brother-in-law's other band, The Beauty School Dropouts, is opening for them at 9:30 p.m. Come down and check them out.

I love you, Salvatore. I will always be your #1 groupie!!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Take 2

Focus. Discipline. Honesty.

I let two days go by without blogging, two days after my resolve to blog daily. In the past, I have permitted myself to use that as an excuse to abandon my resolve. "See," my internal nay-sayer would tell me, "I told you that you couldn't stick to it." And then I'd quit whatever it was I had hoped to accomplish. Not this time. I realize that I am human. While my goal is perfection, I can be proud of progress. When I falter, I can start over. So here I am.

Focus. Discipline. Honesty. Take 2.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Teen Angst: The Next Generation

Catalina and I got into a heated discussion tonight. Voices were raised. Tears were shed. Thankfully there wasn't too much either of us said that we wish we could take back. After it was over, we were not happy about the fight (oh let's just call it what it actually is) but we were happy to have cleared the air.

Catalina said something that will stay with me for a least I hope it will so I can make sure that I never make her feel that way again. She said that she knew that I love her because I have to; I'm her mother. But she didn't think that I like her very much because I always seem to find something that she is not doing right. My heart sank.

I told her that I love her because she is lovable, not because I have to. I know all too well that biological order does not create love. I told her that I like her because she is compassionate, funny and smart. That if I was 12, I would want her to be my friend. I told her that I admire her because of her incredible sense of self, courage to face her fears and need for justice. These are all things that I have trouble with and now when I am faced with them, I think of her and she gives me strength and inspiration. I also told her that this is why I get so frustrated with her at times. Because I know how much she is capable of and as her mother, it is my duty to her to guide her on the path to achieving all she can. Sometimes that means identifying where she falls short.

Catalina will be 13 in a few weeks. We will have many more "heated discussions" as we enter this new stage of her life and our relationship. Boundaries will be tested, as well as our patience. I never want to have this particular discussion with her again. I want her to know that I love, like and admire her not because of what I said tonight. I want her to just know it. To just feel it. I need to be "that" kind of mom for her...and for myself.

I have no trouble telling everyone what I great fan of my daughter I am. I just need to let her know more often and more effectively.


Thursday, January 14, 2010


We are at the halfway point of the first month of the New Year. Over these past two weeks I have felt hope and despair in equal measure. It can all be so difficult at times yet beautiful at the same time.

2009. For the second year in a row my life had a major upheaval midway through. While they were tragic events, they were also gateways to new and better things. And very exhausting. I've had a lot of time to feel hurt, regroup and be introspective. Important things but you can get lost in them if you allow yourself to. I need FOCUS. I need DISCIPLINE. I need absolute HONESTY with myself.

2010. For two weeks I've been thinking about what the perfect resolutions would be. My personality type finds it so important to do the right thing that doing nothing is preferable to doing the wrong thing. This trait has helped me to be driven and strive for perfection but it has also made me impossible to live with at times (ask Salvatore and Catalina how it is to live with a person who will do anything not to be wrong) and has allowed me to be paralyzed with fear. Fear has never been my friend. It has ruined relationships. It made me miss out on so many things. It made me a victim in more ways than I can ever admit in this blog. I will be 40 in 2010 (even though I look not a day older than 25...LOL). After 40 years I think it is time to say goodbye to fear. Well, not entirely. Some fear is a good thing. It keeps us from running across the railroad tracks when a train is coming. But I don't want it to keep me from running out into the middle of my life and proclaim who I am, proudly. Not any more.

In my years of teen angst, which seems like a lifetime ago, I wrote. I used to write well, in fact. I was very dark and depressed (and full of fear, although I didn't know it then...hindsight is 20/20 after all). Writing was an outlet. There wasn't a day that went by when I didn't write a poem, story or essay of some sort. It was therapeutic. In high school a lot of my writing was appeared in school publications and some were even contributed to city- and statewide contests. I never won any of them but out of thousands of entries, I always received an honorable mention. I thought that it was the misery that people were drawn to in my writing. I was only half right. It was misery that I was feeling then and I wrote of it honestly. Honesty on the part of the writer is what sets interesting writing apart from flat writing. It was the honest expression that was my therapy. It was my focus on my pen and paper that made it possible. It was the discipline of writing daily that fed my passion. And for some reason I stopped.

2010. I need to get my life and my head back on track. Instead of coming up with a long list of perfect resolutions like losing weight (which I seriously need to do) or making $100K this year (which I also seriously need to do...don't we all though), I am keeping the list short for now. A single entry: I resolve to write every day. Here. On my blog. This is a challenge to myself to get back to being disciplined, focused and honest. I am ratting myself out to you. If you like what I have to say, let me know. I can use the encouragement. If I miss a day, let me have it. I need to be held accountable. And if you think that I am copping out, call me on it. Help keep me honest.

I hope the New Year is treating you well so far. Mine is off to a late start. But you know what they say...better late than never.