Thursday, July 24, 2014

7/25/14—Outliving My Mother

On Wednesday, I got my yearly mammogram. I've been getting them pretty much every year since I turned 30. But this one was different.

It wasn't so much fear of something showing up. I've had bad mammograms in the past. I've had a needle biopsy in one breast and a lumpectomy in the other. The lumpectomy was a lesson in doctors talking you into unnecessary surgeries. I could have had a needle biopsy that time, too, but the doctor convinced me to operate. He showed me a very basic line drawing of a woman's breast with a dotted line on the side of it and said, "this is what your scar will look like."

It was an innocuous-looking dotted line, so I signed up for surgery. In reality, though, the dotted line was meant to signify a thick, red scar and a pucker from where they remove the flesh. They didn't tell me that part. I call it my Frankenboob. It was very traumatic for me to see the size and extent of it, especially since I was born with a gene for horribly visible, overly dramatic scarring. I wasn't prepared and I still remember the shock of removing that dressing for the first time and seeing it. When I confronted the doctor, he pulled out the line drawing of the boob and showed me how my scar looked just like the dotted line on the picture. Doctors. They see funny. 

No, this time was different because I am 51 years old. And 51 is the age my mother was when she had a mammogram that came up showing a small lump. She died five years later. I've missed her ever since.

I'm confident that if I "fail" this mammogram I'll be able to beat whatever cancer may be in there. Things have changed a lot in the 30 years since my mother died. This isn't about that. This is actually more about a thing we do to ourselves when we lose our parents at a young age. I've been silently, secretly dreading this particular mammogram for 30 years. It's a milestone, of sorts. Both my sisters went through it before me. And now I move toward another sad milestone just five years away—the day I live longer than my mother did. 

So all day Wednesday, I was a slowly deteriorating mess. By the time I got to the radiologist, I had already cried twice. I cried again during the mammogram. Then I cried again when I got home. I cried when I spoke to my sister on the phone. Then again when I spoke to my brother. And, finally, I cried in bed that night as I listened to my mother's voice from a recording made 40-some years ago. I had no idea how much fear, grief...whatever...I had been holding inside regarding this matter.

At 51 I feel like I still have a lifetime ahead of me. I have dreams I want to fulfill. I want to be an author. I want to live someplace cold. I want even more dogs than I have today. When my mom was 51, she could see the finish line. I was her youngest child and a junior in high school. Soon I'd be going off to college and, after raising six kids (largely on her own as the wife of a man who worked and traveled a lot) she would have been practically free. Maybe she wanted to be a writer. Maybe she had dreams to pursue. I don't know because I never got to have those kinds of adult conversations with her. But as it turned out, all that was ahead of her was chemotherapy, surgeries, pain, sorrow and then, finally death. 

Granted, my mother lived a lot of life in her 56 years. She was the oldest of five children. She was born in India and blessed by Ghandi. How many people can say that? She also lived in Egypt before returning to her native home in England. Then WWII came and she was in charge of her siblings. Because her mother worked and food was rationed, she was the one who decided who would eat that day and who wouldn't. Then she met a soldier and moved to America. He abused her and locked her up in the basement. She managed to escape him, then lived a few years, I guess, relatively carefree. She even went on a double date with Joe Garagiola once (he was a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals at the time, then became a famous sportscaster.) Then she met my dad and had six kids and, occasionally, a career running congressional offices. 

I'm sure she didn't feel too short-changed. But I feel short changed from losing her so young. And I feel short-changed for her for not having the advantages I have. If this mammogram shows something, I will likely live. I've had a lifetime of freedom and the following of dreams. All at her hands. 

They say you can never know someone until you walk in their shoes. In some ways, I can't walk in my mother's shoes. I have no idea what it's like to want a family, raise kids or see them grown. But I do finally know what 51 feels like. I have a good sense of all that's behind me, as well as all I have to look forward to ahead. My brother told me my mother knew from the moment of her diagnosis where it would it lead. I can't imagine being 51 and feeling so young inside and then hitting upon the realization it would all be over soon. As with everything in life, she wore her fate gracefully. 

I wonder if any the tears I cried on Wednesday were the tears she never shed. I wonder if any of my still unmet dreams are the dreams she never got to live. I will never be the woman she was. I just don't have her class...haha. But I can still be the woman she might have become. 

There's a bit of a mission you take on when your parents die young. Because my parents (my dad died a few years later) didn't live long enough to see me grow up, I want to do things I know would make them proud, because I will never hear that from their lips. I want to make their early departure somehow worth it. I'm fortunate to be very much my mother's daughter. And I just hope, whenever I get to see her again, I will have done her proud. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

7/23/14—Turning Work Into Magic

I've lived in my home for 15 years now. I've seen a lot of mailmen come and go in that time. 

One told me our route was the one they use to torture new mailmen with, because it's long, difficult and filled with dogs. Another mailman quit our route after being viciously mauled by a dog, in fact. He was the mailman that used to break the rules a little with my tarot packages from overseas, because he knew I lived to receive them. I think each mailman plots their own route, because I've received mail at 8am from one mailman, noon from another and 9pm from another. Yeah. 9pm. 

The mailman we have now delivers around 2pm or so. I really couldn't say for sure because he's a magic, invisible mailman. In all the 15 years I've lived here, he's the only mailman capable of eluding the dogs EVERY SINGLE DAY. This is made even more difficult because I recently got a new mailbox that opens loudly and doesn't close very easily. But he somehow manages to open it without a squeak and close it without sound. Either that, or he teleports the mail into the mailbox from the curb. I wouldn't know because I've never managed to catch the guy in action myself. 

It's easy to underestimate the value of the service this man provides, not in delivering the mail, but in delivering it without waking the beasts. It seems to have gotten to the point that they don't even hang out by the window anymore, because they perceive there are no longer any threats to the perimeter. Either that or, since they have no idea when he comes, they're too lazy to sit there all day and figure it out. 

There is a quote out there somewhere that says something about how any job can be elevated to an art when you do it well. The real quote is pithier, but the little bit of extra service this man performs by being stealthy every day is this man's art. Maybe he does it because it's scary to have dogs flailing themselves against a large plate of glass standing between him and certain dismemberment, but I like to think he does it because this is his art. This is how he turns his everyday, same-route-as-yesterday drudgery into something beautiful that he can be proud of. Regardless, he's a master at it. And his efforts are appreciated. 

There's doing a job, which is basically performing the tasks you're expected to perform. There's doing a job well, which is going above and beyond to be one of the best at what you do. And then there's doing a job magically, which is a whole other dimension that doesn't necessarily mean you're technically one of the best, but it does mean you're a star. 

There's a woman named Dee that locals may know. She works at the Variety Store. She used to work at the Hollin Hall bakery and, at before that, the natural foods store in that shopping center behind the Krispy Kreme. She stood out at the natural foods store because her vest was covered in "Jesus Saves" and "Have a nice day!" buttons. When they went out of business, so did her vest. She can't wear the buttons at the Variety Store. I don't share her beliefs, but I would sign a petition to let her wear her vest again. Her bubbly personality becomes even more entertaining in that vest. Regardless, it feels good to be around Dee. She has a happy outlook on life. I often hear people talk about her beautiful singing voice. She performs in local churches. I think Dee just sees life as both service and celebration. There may be more knowledgeable people at that Variety Store, but none of them shine as brightly as Dee in my opinion. She makes her everyday job magic. 

When I think of myself, I think I do my job well. My clients think I'm really good at what I do, and there are times circumstances allow me to appear to be magic, but my magic doesn't happen every day the way it does with Dee and my mailman. My "magic" usually manifests when clients don't know what they want and just hope I figure it out. So my ability to intuit needs is the little added bit that I try to do whenever possible. But thinking about Dee and my mailman has me wondering about other ways to add value. 

I've written before about seeing your job as service, but this is beyond that. This is about elevating service to an art. It's a little hard to consider when your job is art to begin with, but it's about elevating the service aspect of your job to an art. What does that mean to you and how do you do it? And do you do your job, do it well or do it magically?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

7/21/14—Taking the Hint

I've had a headache for about a week now. And I think I know why I got it. 

I mean, I don't know the medical reason I have it, but I do think I know the spiritual reason. See, I might usually get two or three headaches a year. I also never get sick...maybe twice in the 17 years I've been self employed. Part of it is that I'm not exposed to other people and their germs. But part of it is that I just don't get sick. Even when I worked in an office I didn't get sick much. 

Back when I worked in an office, though, I would call in sick just to have days off...haha. And when I did actually get sick, I would stock up on Campbell's Chicken Noodle and Haagen Dazs, as though they were the miracle cures of the Gods. Then I would indulge myself fully in my illness. In short, I took care of myself. And, in fact, I used to look forward to getting sick because of both the rest and the menu. 

But when you're self employed, things are different. You don't call in sick. You work through it. You don't even get snow days. And, if you're like me, you're lucky if you even get two weeks off a year, much less the month I'd be entitled to if I were working for some other company this long. When you're self employed, you're not paid for the days you take off so you see them differently. 

So after five days of having this headache, and having tried different pain medications to no avail, I decide the headache was either weather related (we're having an odd cool patch here), stress related, dehydration related or maybe a migraine. But on Friday night, I found myself going to a meditation thing in rush hour about an hour away anyway. And I think "as long as I'm out, why not leave a few minutes early and see if I can get my new phone set up?"

So there I am, pressed for time, in rush hour, trying to fit something extra in along the way...there I am putting myself in a stress situation when I might have a stress headache. And I'm very thirsty and hungry, but I don't have time to stop. And as I'm driving, I'm thinking, "what am I doing to myself?" I'm also thinking I should stop for water, but now I'm behind schedule and stressed, so I don't. It wasn't until more than an hour after I arrived at my destination that I got some water. And it wasn't until I was almost home that I finally stopped for the Excedrin Migraine that eventually took most of the headache away. I still have the headache today, but it's much more tolerable with the Excedrin in me. 

The point is that I put everything in front of my self care. I find myself doing this all the time. There's always just one more thing I can do before I take care of myself. Then I feel guilty for taking care of myself. Like today I ended up sleeping most of the day instead of cleaning house. I have someone coming over this week and would like the house to be extra clean (which is still cluttered and dusty by most peoples' standards...haha) but that won't happen now. And the dogs didn't get the attention they deserve and they don't care why. They just want the mommy that's always there. So I feel bad I can't be there for them, as I should.

It's easy for us to forget our self care when we're used to all the other agendas we serve in our lives. I don't have a husband and kids, but that doesn't mean I don't serve a bunch of agendas that aren't fully mine. I serve my clients' and my dogs' and my house's and my yard's agenda before I serve myself. While all of those things also serve me in some ways—just as a husband and kids would—they're not just for me alone. It's the "me alone" thing we often neglect. 

The metaphor of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before you help others applies here. Back before I had dogs and a house and there was only me to serve, I got it. I bought the chicken soup and wallowed in my misery. And it was good. 

So I think that's part of why the headache has come to me this week. To remind me to put the mask on myself first and not feel bad about it. I've been having clues like this for a long time...exhaustion and such. And I just keep on truckin'. I think I just underestimate what it takes to live my life, and I'll bet you do, too. But, sadly, I have to remember I'm not in my 20s anymore. And I'd hate to think what would happen if I continue on this way. The consequences could be fatal. So I slept all day today and didn't push too hard yesterday, either. And I might call in sick for at least part of tomorrow. I guess I can take a hint after all.