Saturday, December 1, 2018

For the Love -- and Grief -- of Goats

Mr. Friendly, Mamacita & Chaps asking, "Yo! Where's our breakfast?"

Three weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I went out to the barn, as I do every morning, to feed the goats. The three of them—Mamacita, Mr. Friendly and Chaps—are normally waiting at the gate, having already been staring at the house with anticipation upon waking, as if they could will me to come out sooner with their breakfast.

When the two males, Mr. Friendly and Chaps, see me coming they rear up on their hind legs and head butt each other, slamming their horns so hard the smacking sound echoes off the barn. I first thought this was an act of aggression, but after observing it repeatedly, always in this context of me bearing breakfast bowls of grain, I realized it was the goat version of a high five.

But on this particular morning—Sunday, November 11—there was only one goat waiting at the gate.

Our goats are old. They were already at least 12 when we adopted them from an elderly couple in Selma, Iowa, the tiny village just down the road from Eldon. I had fallen in love with the goats during the four years I lived in the American Gothic House; I would bring them carrots while out on my road bike rides, I would feed them through the chain-link fence, and we developed a bond. They got to know me over time, always running to greet me when I pulled up on my bicycle. Given they were already at the top end of their lifespan when we adopted them, and we’ve had them for three years, they are now well into a very advanced age. Camp Doug is their retirement home, and as with any senior citizens, I know I need to be prepared for their departure.

Prepared? When you love someone—whether man or animal—who is ever prepared for a goodbye that is so final?

We lost one of the four goats a year and a half ago, in April of 2017. After spending a month at my dad’s bedside in California, caring for him through his aggressive cancer and doing the unthinkable: saying goodbye to him, I returned home only to find myself right back in hospice.

Cinnamon
Cinnamon, our tan-colored fainting goat, had stopped eating while I was away. So for two weeks following my return, I alternated between sitting with her in the barn and driving to the vet with her stool samples or to get medicine, desperate for a cure to whatever was ailing her.

The vet prescribed a homemade “goat drench,” a concoction of corn oil, molasses and Gatorade, which I was to squirt into her mouth with a turkey baster. I squirted. She pursed her lips tight and jerked her head away. I pushed the baster into her mouth again. “Come on, beautiful. You have to eat something.” The site of the drench running out of the side of her mouth, leaving a sticky trail of brown and sugary oil on her beautiful fluffy coat, was as upsetting to me as her failing health. I went back to the vet again and again, pleading for something, anything to help.

Finally, the vet held my shoulders and stared straight into my eyes. “She’s 15,” the vet said.

“But…” I started to say.

The vet interrupted me, repeating more sternly, “She’s 15.”

And then one morning, after Doug left to do his farm chores, he came back inside to find me. “She’s gone,” he said tenderly. I went outside to find her in the far corner of the barn, the life drained from her body after her drawn-out struggle. We buried her on the west side of the farmhouse, between the garden and the soybean field. Doug shoveled out the grave and I bought the flowers to put on top. When we had pushed the last of the black soil over her, Doug went back to work and I went on antidepressants.

My dad died in March. Cinnamon died in April. And in June of that same year, 2017, Jack, my dog and surviving member of “Team Terrier,” developed both diabetes and congestive heart failure. He has nearly died at least four times during the past 18 months. Miraculously, after thousands of dollars in vet bills and countless tears, he is still alive—14 and ½ years old, blind, his strong spirit still intact. Every morning when I wake up, I hold my breath as I check to see that he is still breathing. When I see his chest rise and fall, I exhale with relief.

Jack is blind, but he still likes to go for walks --
even when I have to carry him in the backpack.

It’s the same with the goats. Every morning when I go out to feed them, I scan the goat pen to make sure the three of them are accounted for.

But on that Sunday, three weeks ago, only Mr. Friendly was at the gate.

Occasionally the others hang out in the barn until breakfast is ready, but they always come running at the clanking metal sound of the gate opening. That Sunday, no one came running.

I pushed past Mr. Friendly, who is a big white lug, and walked further into the pen where I saw Chaps, who looks like a miniature wildebeest. He was lingering in the doorway of the barn. But I didn’t see Mamacita.

Mamacita

Mamacita, who is a pygmy goat, is Chaps’ mom. She’s a feisty little thing with one horn (the other broke off years ago) who Doug so accurately describes as Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” She may be the smallest of the herd but she’s in charge. She’s the adventurous one who leads the others to the far reaches of the yard, discovering the parts meant to be off limits, like the garden when everything is ripe or the hay barn when the door has been left open. If there is a feast to be had, she is the one who will find it.

She is also the one who pushes through the gate if I leave any bit of space to squeeze through. Lately I had been encouraging her to escape so I could feed her outside the pen, allowing her the extra time she needed to eat so the boys didn't steal her food. She could go back into the pen when she was done eating by pushing the gate in, but the boys could not push it out. She didn’t always go back in though. She would take advantage of her freedom and graze in the yard while the boys watched with envy from behind the fence. I had been allowing this, giving her special privileges, but I give the boys equal time to roam freely too—much to Doug’s disapproval. But Doug knows how much I love the goats, and he loves me, so without saying anything he simply puts up fences around the mock orange bushes, flower beds and other areas he doesn’t want them devouring.

With Mr. Friendly and Chaps accounted for, I went looking for Mamacita. “Maybe she’s just around the corner, warming up in the sun,” I thought, hopefully. But she wasn’t, so my next option was the barn.

The barn is cavernous and dark inside. I walked in, pausing to let my eyes adjust to the darkness, and headed toward the back. And then I saw her, Mamacita, lying on her side in the straw.

Was she was sick? Was she going to be okay?

As I got closer, I felt the energy shift around me, the molecules of air rearranging themselves. I was filled with a simultaneous sense of dread and hope and knowing—that moment of teetering on the precipice right before falling, that last precious nanosecond of time before discovering that life as you have known it has just permanently, irreversibly changed.

She was dead.

I knelt down in the straw to feel her body, rubbing my hands on her white and brown hair, long and coarse. Given she was cold to the touch, she must have died during the night.

The guilt came hard and fast. “Did she freeze to death? Did I not feed her enough?” I asked myself. Iowa has had an early winter. It had snowed two days earlier and temperatures plummeted to a record cold of nine degrees. Nine degrees! In mid-November!  “Should I have gotten her a coat?”

Doug came out to the barn and held me in his arms as I sobbed on his shoulder. In his soothing way, he said, “Bea, she just ran out of gas. She didn’t suffer. Her heart probably just stopped. What a peaceful way to go.” Then he left me to sit with her a while longer while he got his shovel and went to dig her grave next to Cinnamon’s.

Our funeral for Mamacita

We held a little graveside service, lighting a candle, reading poems to her from John O’Donohue’s “To Bless the Space Between Us” and sprinkled baby carrots into the pit. We said our thank yous and our final goodbyes to her, then Doug picked up his shovel, while I picked up a handful of dirt to toss into the grave in the symbolic way they do at human burials. But I didn’t stop there. I dropped to my knees and started pushing the icy soil on top of her, at first gently, then shoving it in faster with my bare hands, until she was completely covered.

We worked in silence as the dirt piled up into a mound, the physical effort and connection to the earth serving as therapy for my sadness. Yet my tears—and my remorse—continued. “Did she freeze to death? Did I not feed her enough? Did I not keep her warm enough?” I asked myself again and again. “Could I have prevented this? Surely there is something I could have done.”

“She was 15!” the vet’s voice from a year and a half earlier bellowed in my head. “15!”

In reality, she was older than that, maybe closer to 16 or 17, living well beyond a pygmy goat’s 10- to 12-year average life expectancy.

For as much as I want to keep my animals alive forever, there comes a day—not just for the animals but for all of us—when our bodies expire, when no amount of medicine or molasses-based goat drench can keep us going.

“It’s sad,” my mom said when I told her about Mamacita’s passing, “but you have prolonged all of their lives by taking them in and providing such a good life at Camp Doug.”

Her words provided some consolation, but they didn’t erase the added heartache of watching our two surviving goats grieve. Yes, goats grieve. For about three days, Chaps stood off on his own, his head pushed up against the barn as if he didn’t want anyone to see him cry, while Mr. Friendly paced around the pen, the barn and the pasture, as if looking for Mamacita, determined to find her, willing her to return. But she would not be back. At least not in the same form.

Tiger, who hangs out with the goats,
consoled Chaps after Mamacita died.
It was a beautiful thing to see animals
showing compassion for one another.

“Every day is a bonus” is an expression we utter daily in our house full of elderly animals. Doug’s dog Mali, an athletic but incontinent spaniel/beagle mix, is 14, maybe older. His cats, Tiger and Maybelline, while still strong and healthy, are at least 15.

Every day Doug reminds me to stop worrying so much, to stop anticipating the losses, and start seeing the days as half full.

Chaps in his new coat
“Every day is a bonus, Bea,” Doug reminds me.

Every day I have been spending a lot of extra time in the goat pen with Chaps and Friendly. I have been bringing them warm water with molasses, and increased their feed. I have been petting and petting and petting them, like some massage therapist for goats. And I bought a new sewing machine to make coats for them out of fleece blankets and an old nylon tarp. (Making the coats was so easy I wished I had made them three years ago.)

Every day I give Jack his insulin shots, his heart pills, his liver pills, his skin pills. I kiss him every time I walk past him, snuggle with him and tell him how much I love him.

Every day I brace myself, holding my own breath until I’ve made sure everyone is still breathing—the dogs, the cats, the goats, and yes, Doug (who is 63). And every day I say my prayers of gratitude as I confirm each one is still with us.

All I want to do is keep everyone alive. Given that I do not possess the power to do so, all I can do is shower them with love for as long as they are still here—and, sadly, grieve them when they are gone. I have lived through too many losses already, and the cumulative grief chips away at my enthusiasm for life. But as Queen Elizabeth said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” And I cannot and will not stop loving. Fully. Deeply. Courageously.

Mamacita. Forever loved.

Thank you, Mamacita, for your sweetness, your feistiness, your girl power, for the four years I visited you in Selma, and for the three happy years we had together at Camp Doug. You are so very missed, and forever very loved.

Dark Pie and Other Adorable, Wacky Music Videos

Here's something I stumbled upon one day while going down an internet rabbit hole. These whimsical songs/cartoons made me smile and laugh, and since we could all use a little -- no, a LOT -- more smiling and laughing these days, I wanted to share it. Enjoy!

Dark Pie






I Jump on Cake





To see more of these fun, wacky, adorable music videos and learn more about the artist, go to Gusterfeld Yellowgold's website:  http://gustaferyellowgold.com/about/

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Celebrating Oktoberfest with my Book Launch!


Check this out! It's a #1 New Release!!
It's here! Hausfrau Honeymoon: Love, Language, and Other Misadventures is now out and released into the world.

It's been a bittersweet launch for several reasons: the first is that the book is (once again) centered around Marcus. I wrote it while we were living in Germany and later in Portland, and, as you all know, he's not here to see its publication. I've been pretty weepy about that.

The other reason is that, as I said before, self-publishing has introduced me to a new form of terror and raw vulnerability. While I expose the private details of my life in my other books, it's different this time because I don't have a publisher or agent to hide behind. It's just me on the front lines, and every marketing effort I make feels like pure self-promotion. Ugh! I could choose not to promote it, but an author doesn't pour herself into a project only to launch it and ignore it afterward. So I'm going to get out there, do some bookstore and library events, some media interviews, and more. I'll post my appearances soon.
Our wedding invitation. I know...smoldering.

Hausfrau Honeymoon has already received praise. The Pulpwood Queens Book Club has named it an official selection and gave it Five Diamonds in the Tiara! Its founder Kathy Murphy said, "It's good, really, really good! You truly had me from the get-go!"

And John Busbee of The Culture Buzz said, "Beth Howard writes like Erma Bombeck on steroids. But more emotional and more sensitive. She is a reincarnation of writers in that genre." (Though I would say more like Erma Bombeck with a potty mouth and an attitude.)

I hope this book makes people want to travel more, to explore places like Germany, to be more open to other cultures (even ones that we don't fully understand or relate to), and to take a chance on life -- to dive into a new experience even when you have no idea how it's going to turn out. That seems to be a regular theme in my life -- some people (ahem, my mother) didn't think I should move to Germany. She didn't think I should move into the American Gothic House either. But I followed my own instincts and did both. I am forever grateful for the experiences, even when faced with such big challenges -- like 7-foot snakes in the American Gothic House!  Or like in Germany, trying to learn "that awful German language" and get Marcus to do the dishes!

Marcus and me in our favorite Munich Biergarten.
I consider my book launch to be good timing, not just for Oktoberfest, but for its feminist bent, because throughout it I am striving for equality in my marriage. So in that vein, I also hope this book serves as a message to women that they matter, their well being matters, that it can be unhealthy to sacrifice too much for another person, and that no matter how much you love someone and want to spend your life with them, you have to still be true to who YOU are and honor your own needs.

Hausfrau Honeymoon is as much a travel memoir as it is a love story -- a modern-day fairy tale that's striving for the happily ever after. I hope you like it.

Oh, and I hope you'll buy it too.

It's available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle, and from your local bookstore and library. If they don't have it, ask them to order it! If you want me to do a reading or event, or have me Skype with your book club, or whatever, just get in touch. And if you want a signed book plate to put inside your copy, email me and I'll send you one.

Now go have a beer (er, Bier) and a pretzel and enjoy it with my book.

Thanks, everyone!!

Love,
Beth

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Radio Commentary: An Outlet for Dealing with Overwhelming Issues


Over the past few years I have occasionally written commentaries for Tri States Public Radio, but only when an issue bothered me so badly I was compelled to weigh in on it.

Apparently listeners appreciate the positive messages I try to convey as I was invited to contribute more commentaries, but this time I was given scheduled dates for them. One of those dates is today. (LISTEN HERE)

I’ve had weeks to come up with a topic, but there are so many issues bothering me that I didn’t know which one to pick.
  • Immigration
  • The separation of families
  • The nominee to the Supreme Court
  • Gun violence
  • Climate change
  • Trade wars
  • Russian election interference
  • The Mueller investigation
  • An unstable president who is one tweet away from starting World War III
  • Abortion
  • Voting rights
  • Gay rights
  • Civil rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Human rights
  • The right to safe drinking water
  • Education
  • Affordable health care
  • Taking a knee
  • Racial profiling
  • Catholic priests
  • The #MeToo movement
Oh, and, here’s one that really gets my blood boiling: Western Illinois University’s withdrawal of funding for this radio station.

I do my best thinking while out riding my bike. I live on a farm and have miles of traffic-free country roads where my mind can work out ideas while I’m working out my body. So to home in on a topic for this commentary, I headed out on my bike.


Each time I settled on a single issue, crafting the story in my head as I pedaled, my outrage only grew—outrage over injustice, incivility, oppression, deprivation, divisiveness, and more. As I thought about each issue it became so complex it would require a podcast series worth of airtime. Worse, my ruminations exploded into a mushroom cloud of emotion—my anger turned to rage, my vocabulary filled with profanity, and my heart ached so badly over my impotence to fix all our broken systems—that I had to scrap every one of my ideas.

This happened three days in a row. But each day, half way through my ride, lulled by being in motion, I stopped thinking and started observing the things around me. Soybean fields turning from green to yellow. Butterflies fluttering above the roadside clover. Pristine red barns. A farmer on his combine harvesting his corn in artistic rows. Horses grazing in a pasture. A hawk silhouetted against the sun. Maple leaves rustling in the breeze.

There was so much beauty right in front of me! As I continued to focus on this pastoral beauty, my anger and despair softened into a state of near bliss.

This is what near-bliss looks like.

According to science, my lightened mood was no accident.

A number of studies, as outlined by Jill Suttie in Greater Good magazine, prove that being in nature decreases stress, makes you happier and less brooding, relieves attention fatigue, increases creativity, may help you to be kind and generous, and makes you feel more alive. Research also shows that spending time in nature lowers your blood pressure and heart rate, relieves muscle tension, and decreases stress hormones.

An article on the CRC Health website states that nature leads to a sense of spirituality and an appreciation for powers larger than oneself, reminding us that individuals are part of the larger whole. “In a world bogged down by social pressures, standards of conduct, and the demands of others, nature gives people a chance to appreciate a grander sense that the world is…meaningful.”

These are not new revelations. The importance of being in nature has long been documented.

Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” 

Naturalist John Burroughs, wrote, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order."

I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by all the negativity out there.

There has been a huge uptick in anxiety and depression caused by the current state of political affairs. Recent statistics from the American Psychological Association show that 59% of Americans say that the United States is at the lowest point they can remember in its history, and 63% say the future of the nation is a significant source of stress.

It’s vital that we don’t allow ourselves to be consumed by this stress, so I would add to Burroughs’ message: We go to nature to restore our wellbeing, to have the ability, fortitude and clarity we need to put our country, our democracy, our whole messy world in order.

So take a break. Get outside. Exercise. Pay attention to the beauty around you. Spend time in nature. The benefits reaped are an important step toward tackling that long list of issues and finding the solutions we so desperately need.

Now if we can just find a solution to funding Tri States Public Radio.


TO DONATE TO TRI STATES PUBLIC RADIO, go to tspr.org or call 800-895-2912

Sunday, September 9, 2018

My Next Book, HAUSFRAU HONEYMOON, is Coming Soon

In June, after logging several months of marathon hours at my computer, I finished my manuscript for my American Gothic House memoir. (It really was like running a marathon!) I submitted it to a big-five publisher who had asked to see it, which in itself was a kind of thrill. Once I hit the send button I looked around my office and asked myself, "Now what?"

I had read a few articles by other writers about what to do during the submission process, a period of waiting that can take several months. The answer was "Start your next book."

What? No! I was still tired from crossing the 350-page finish line and couldn't fathom starting that long journey again, and certainly not so soon. But then I remembered that I already have another book -- one that's already written!

Hello, Hausfrau Honeymoon: Love, Language, and Other Misadventures.

I wrote this memoir 12 years ago, when Marcus and I were first married and living in Germany. Writing the book was my way of coping with the difficulties of adjusting, both to a new culture and to marriage. I still don't know which was harder! I had to learn the language. I had to learn new customs and rules. So. Many. Rules. I had to learn how to balance my previously independent life with supporting my husband in his career, as he was on track for a promotion. After he got his Golden Ticket, we would be free to choose another place to live where we could both be happy. So I thought. Instead, I signed up for more German classes, and the misadventures continued.

I printed out my old manuscript and read it again after not having looked at it for 10 years. I had fun turning the pages, laughing a little, wincing a little, crying a little, as I relived the experiences, the excitement, the frustrations, the determination, the love. It made me miss Marcus. It made me remember why I loved him. It even made me want to go back to Germany! (But just to visit.)

Given that I dusted this off to fill the time during the submission process, the thought of submitting this to a publisher only to endure another waiting period did not appeal to me. Which is why I decided to self-publish Hausfrau Honeymoon.

Here is what I've learned so far:

1.  You will love having creative control.
I get to choose my own cover, choose my own interior font, decide on the styles for chapter headings and section breaks. I even get to choose the paper and the book's dimensions. I get to own the whole look and feel. This is important to me because a book is more than just the words. This book in its entirely represents me and my personal story. If you have a traditional publisher, you have to be really famous or a NYT-bestselling author to have any say in the creative process, and even then you have to have it spelled out in your contract. And even then you may have to fight for creative control.

2.  The learning process is laborious but fun and fascinating.
I've spent hours and hours reading articles about self-publishing: the dos, the don'ts, the pros, the cons, the timelines, the checklists, the most common mistakes to avoid, which indie publishing companies to use, and more. There's a lot of information out there, and thanks to the Internet most of it is free. I highly recommend Jane Friedman's blog. (Her blog links to many other great resources.) If Hausfrau Honeymoon succeeds as a self-published title, I will have Jane to thank. (That said, I'm not even sure how I would define "succeeds." Selling 10,000? 100,000? Holding just one printed copy in my hand will be enough!)

3.  You can't do this alone.  
Having already been through the publishing process the traditional way twice, I understand and appreciate just how much work goes into getting a book into print. Publishing houses have teams of people for each stage of a book: the editor, copy editor, proofreader, sales and marketing, designers, distributors, publicists, etc. When you self-publish, you will need each of these, and while you may have the superhuman powers to do all of these jobs yourself, you will want to hire some outside help. So far I've been working with a book designer and a copy editor -- and a slew of writer friends who are giving me feedback, guidance, and support.

4.  Amazon isn't the only place to self-publish.
Where and how do you get your book out there? Again, I have Jane Friedman to thank for her advice.  She suggests publishing on two platforms. One is Amazon, which covers all sales for Kindle ebooks and all print sales on Amazon only. Amazon is a closed system, much the way Apple's Mac and iPhones talk to each other but not to PCs or Androids, so you need to have a second supplier to cover book sales to the rest of the non-Amazon world. (Yes, a world beyond Amazon still exists!) Jane recommends IngramSpark to make your ebook available on Nook, Kobo, iBook, and all the other versions of ebook reader devices -- also so your print book can be distributed to book stores and libraries. (As you can imagine, Amazon would rather you didn't buy your books from other stores.) So I am using both Amazon and IngramSpark to give my book a bigger life -- and give you, the reader, broader access ensuring you will be able to find it in the vast and growing sea of indie titles.

5.  You can save trees.
In traditional publishing, thousands of books are printed at once. When self-publishing, if you have the funds, the fan base, what have you, you can choose this option. Or you can have books printed on demand (POD). I like the idea of POD, creating books only on an as-needed basis. That means less paper wasted (more trees saved!) and no need for a warehouse or a garage (or in my case here on the farm, a grain bin) for storing books that may or may not ever get sold. I remember seeing a bookstore in New York City where they had a POD printer right in the store. I'd like to think we will see more of an in-store POD business model in the future -- and that there will still be bookstores to accommodate this!

6.  You will be terrified. (I am anyway!)
The one thing I did not expect in this exciting, entrepreneurial endeavor is how terrified I would be to put my work out there. I have never been this scared to expose myself! By self-publishing I don't have an agent or publishing company to blame if my book doesn't sell, and I don't have them to hide behind when the criticism comes pouring in. And it will.

Hausfrau Honeymoon isn't exactly a love letter to Germany. This book likely won't be well received by Germans at all. They might not even let me back into their country! Out of the 10 readers I've had, half of them loved it. The other half have given me notes that start off with "I don't want to offend you, but..." before launching into their one- or two-star reviews. But it's my story, my own personal and unique experience, my own perspective, and in spite of knowing the risks, I still have a desire to share it. Because... to quote Sean Thomas Dougherty's poem: "Because right now, there is someone out there with a wound in the exact shape of your words."

When I tried to get Hausfrau Honeymoon published right after I wrote it 12 years ago, publishers said, "If it were about France or Italy, we would buy it. But Germany isn't romantic enough." I know! That is EXACTLY the point of my story! In fact, the title could have been Why Couldn't I have Fallen in Love with a Frenchman or an Italian?

Germany may not be "romantic enough," but my book is full of romance. And though it may not make you want to move to Germany, you will learn a lot about the country, both the good and the frustrating parts. Hopefully the story will make you want to at least visit. As I said above, even after reliving the hard stuff, it had that effect on me. And if the ultimate outcome of my marriage to Marcus is already known to readers, I hope the story will still resonate as it is ultimately a love story about two people and their dogged determination to merge their disparate lives. Love may not conquer all, but there is nobility in the effort. I'd like to think that is worth something -- at least the $14.99 cover price.

Hausfrau Honeymoon: Love, Language, and Other Misadventures will be launched into the world on October 1st.  Pre-order for Kindle now.  Print and other ebook formats ordering info coming soon.


Related Posts:

The Book That Doesn't Want to be Born Yet

The Birthing Process of a Book


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Day I Thought I Had Cancer

The night before my annual mammogram I was thinking about canceling my appointment. Did I want to be bothered with a trip to the hospital—50 minutes away—to have my boobs squished between two plates and hit with a dose of radiation? No. Did I have any history of breast cancer in my family? No. My mammogram last year was fine. So why go?

The commercials may be more
important than you know.
Just as I was lamenting this to my boyfriend, Doug, who was listening to the Cardinals baseball game on the radio, a PSA came on. “About one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime,” it began. “If you are 40 or older, get a mammogram every year to avoid cancer—or death.”

Why was this airing during a major league baseball game? It didn’t seem like the right demographic for this. Or…was this message meant just for me? I took it as a sign and went to my appointment the next day.

Two days later I got a call from my doctor. “Your right breast shows no sign of malignancy,” she said, “but…”

But what? I suddenly realized this was not going to be a call to tell me everything looked normal.

“But there is a focal asymmetry on the left. We’ve scheduled an ultrasound for you for at one o’clock tomorrow.”

That they didn’t even ask if the appointment time worked for me made me think they considered my case urgent…as if it were a life—or death—emergency.

After we hung up I sprinted to Dr. Google to figure out what focal asymmetry meant. Did it mean…cancer? I learned that it could—and that was all it took for me to spend the next 24 hours considering the possibility of having The Big C, and all that a diagnosis might imply. A friend of mine had breast cancer and it spread. I went to her funeral a few months ago. (Read the story here.) So to say my imagination went wild would be an understatement.

First, I thought of all the reasons this (cancer) might have happened, and caused my cells to mutate:

Could it be from carrying my cell phone around in the front pocket of my bib overalls—right on top of my left breast?
Could it be from living on the farm, breathing in the pesticides?
Could it be from eating too much meat? (Said farm raises cattle and hogs.)
Could it be from The Great Hormonal Shift known as menopause?
Could it be from the increased stress I’ve had over the last year and a half, the combo of my dad dying (from cancer) and my dog Jack almost dying several times (from diabetes)?
Could it be Karma, that I should have treated people better, done more to help the homeless and the poor?

Next, I thought of all the people (and pets) who would outlive me—the ones I had expected to pass on years ahead of me. I thought of all the crap I would have to get rid of so it wouldn’t be left behind for someone else to deal with. I thought of the old journals I’ve been meaning to burn, the clothes I’ve been meaning to take to Goodwill, the piles on my desk I’ve been meaning to file.

I thought of the things I would do with whatever time I have left:
- Go on more bike rides.
- Eat whatever the hell I want! Especially ice cream.
- Take Doug to Africa on a safari, and to Italy to indulge in the food. (See above: eat whatever the hell I want!)

I thought of all the things I would miss:
- Swimming
- My dog, my goats, my boyfriend, my family
- Cocktail hour on the porch swing
- Feeling the wind in my face
- Peach crumble pie

And all the things I would NOT miss:
- Mean, abusive people
- Guns and violence
- Divisive politics
- Toxic masculinity
- Seeing the demise of our planet

I thought of all the things I’m grateful for:
- Modern medicine and mammograms—and Obamacare
- The love of Doug, my family and friends, all my pets
- The privilege I was born into
- The education I’ve had
- The means to travel the world
- My health (up to now)

I thought of how I would tackle the cancer Angelia Jolie-style—aggressively, by cutting off both breasts. I thought of how I would look with a flat chest and of what I would wear when I no longer needed a bra. I thought of how my hair would grow back, maybe coarse, maybe all gray.

The following day as I drove to the hospital, I saw the familiar scenery in a different way. The sky, the clouds, the blackbirds on the fence posts, the red barns, the white dotted line on the highway, every single detail appeared more vivid, sharper, more meaningful, knowing I might not be on this beautiful earth much longer.

In the Diagnostic Imaging ward, I was ushered to a dark room, disrobed from the waist up, and lay on a bed while a technician moved her wand across my chest. She kept her eyes focused on the black and white monitor—and I kept my eyes focused on her, looking for any trace of concern, any hint of news.

“It’s inconclusive,” she said. “I need to show it to the doctor and see what he says.”

I waited on the table, half naked. To keep myself calm I did some yoga stretches and leg lifts, hoping there was no hidden camera.

When the technician came back, she said, “The doctor wants you to have another mammogram. I’ll walk you over there right now.” She handed me a hospital-issue top. “You don’t need to get dressed. Just put this on.”

She ushered me into the mammogram room, the same room I had (begrudgingly) been in four days earlier. The technician was, as the others had been, friendly, speaking in gentle tones, and going about her business as usual, tasks that she and her coworkers do daily for hundreds, nay thousands, of other women: Placing sticker with a tiny metal ball on nipples. Positioning body and arms against X-ray machine. Giving instructions to hold breath. Pressing button to take picture.

This is what it's like, in case you've never seen what women go through to get tested. 

She showed me the image, black and white and blurry and, to the untrained eye, hard to comprehend. She pointed out the fibrous tissue, the ducts, the adipose fat, the muscle—the unknown parts of me hidden under the skin.

“This is the area where the doctor saw the spot,” she said. “Where there was a change from last year’s image.”

It was no bigger than a pea. But a pea-size mass is still a mass.

While the doctor was summoned to analyze my mammogram, I sat in the waiting room—in my pink hospital top that didn’t stay closed because of the worn-out Velcro closures. The TV was tuned into a soap opera, “Days of Our Lives,” the one my sister had been on 25 years earlier. The drama was still the same, so were some of the actors, as I recognized a few. As for my sister, she had either been carted off to a mental institution or killed by an ex-lover, or…maybe she died from breast cancer—I don’t remember how her role ended, but seeing the soap made me think back on the last 25 years (actually, all 56 years of my life) and how I had packed a lot of experiences into those years. Maybe I had lived so fiercely because somewhere in my intuition I knew my time would be cut short. Nowadays, it seems like it’s not a matter of if you get cancer (or shot in a school or hit by a distracted driver), but when.

I waited. And waited. It wasn’t long in the scheme of hospital visits, but 20 minutes feels like 20 hours when you are waiting to hear if your life is going to be fine—or if it’s going to hell.

Finally, the technician came back out, took me into the dressing room, and shut the door. Here we go. Here comes the news. I braced myself.

“It’s nothing,” she said. “You have dense tissue so next time get a 3D mammogram. You won’t need to come back for another year.”

When I went outside into the sunlight, I had to blink to fend off the brightness—and the tears. “It’s nothing.” It was not cancer. I was fine.
Let's do away with these ribbons
and find a cure already! 

I was fine, but as I walked out to the parking lot, passing other people walking in, I wondered about all the others who were not fine. The other women whose ultrasounds showed malignant tumors or whose mammograms sent them on to the next stage for a biopsy, and the many (too many) others who were at this moment tethered to chemo drips or confined to hospital beds or taking their last breaths as I walked out with my health—and my freedom.

I sat down by the outdoor fountain at the hospital entrance to collect myself. Relief washed over me like the water cascading down the fountain’s pyramid of gold shingles. And then came the tears, the release of the terror I had been harboring for 24 hours. Soothed by the moving water, I took a few minutes to transition from “this might be the end” to “life goes on.”

In our house we have an expression we have been using since my dog was diagnosed with diabetes last year. “Every day is a bonus,” we say. As we ride the waves of my dog’s good days and bad days, Doug and I remind each other that every day he is still with us is a bonus. As a 56-year-old woman who has had a lifetime of good health, I've had no reason for counting each day as a bonus for myself. It even seemed a bit paranoid, fatalistic to count the days that way. But this “little scare” is a reminder of just how quickly things could change.

In a way, I’m glad I went through this as it forced me to consider what’s important to me, and reminded me not to put things off. I now have a list of Things I’d Miss and Things I Want to Do Before I Die that I can consult for those times I relapse into taking life for granted.

Me. Celebrating. Life.
With my list in mind, I left the hospital and drove—with my windows down—straight to Dairy Queen. I went home and hugged my dog and my goats, went for a swim, and joined my boyfriend for a gin and tonic on the porch swing.

I also put a reminder on my calendar to schedule next year’s mammogram. And guaranteed, when that day comes around, it won’t take a Cardinals baseball game to convince me to keep the appointment. ⧫






Some breast cancer resources:

https://ww5.komen.org
https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org
https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/mammograms-fact-sheet

Well, what are you waiting for? Go get your mammogram screening. Do it.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Could Today Get Any Better?

Today has been surreal. I woke up to discover that the story I wrote for the New York Times about living in the American Gothic House was placed on the front page of the Arts section.

Early this morning, a friend sent me a picture of the print version of the newspaper —since we don't get it delivered here on the farm. Taking up almost the entire page was a photo of me, dressed in overalls and braids, posing with a pitchfork in front of my beloved old house in Eldon, Iowa.

It was exciting enough to get a piece published at all in the mother of all newspapers, but to get a feature this big? Seriously, I am still in shock.
Read the article online here

The article is even bigger inside the section!
But the day just got stranger. In a good way.

I had been putting off a trip to the grocery store for days now, until—NYT excitement or not—buying groceries was imperative. I had been so busy, ahem, self-promoting my story on social media all morning, I forgot to eat, so I stopped at McDonald’s on my way to the store. (I was going to go to Cottage Cafe, but their parking lot was crowded and I figured I would be more anonymous at McD's.  Besides, I like their pancakes, plus they have lattes.)

I waited for the three people in front of me to order and then it was my turn.

“Do you still serve pancakes?” It was just before noon.

“Yes,” the counter person said.

Phew! Adding an all-day breakfast is the best decision McD's has ever made.

“Great. I’ll have the pancakes and a small latte, no flavor."

A petite, redheaded woman was standing next to me quite close, and as I reached for my money to pay she moved in even closer.

“I’ll get that,” she said.

I didn’t know what she meant. She was holding a receipt so I knew she had paid and was waiting for her order. As I dug into my wallet, she pushed her hand in front of me, handing a ten-dollar bill to the cashier.

I was so confused. What was going on? Why was she paying--for me? 

“I’ve got this,” she repeated.

While she paid I just stood there, immobilized with disbelief for the second time today—and it wasn’t even noon!

We moved to the side to wait for our food. She looked straight ahead at the counter, not showing any further interest in me, nor in any desire for conversation.

“What made you buy my breakfast?” I finally asked.

“Just think of it as a random act of kindness,” she said. “Like paying it forward.”

I looked into her eyes for a moment, searching for the reason she had singled me out. There were other customers who looked like they needed a free meal more than I did. Surely, in Fort Madison, Iowa, she hadn’t read the New York Times, so I ruled that out. Did she recognize me as “the Pie Lady of Eldon?” Or had she read my recent blog posts about my despair with the world (as well as the recent loss of a friend to cancer) and bought me breakfast because she felt bad for me?

But she wasn’t going to say anymore or give me any specifics.

“I’m just so….” I started, choking back tears. “I’m so touched.”

She still didn’t say anything. She wasn’t asking anything of me. She just wanted to do something nice, and I needed to be nice in return by simply accepting her gesture without demanding an explanation. Making a bigger fuss was only going to make her--make both of us--uncomfortable.

“Thank you,” I said. “I will just accept your gift graciously.”

The lump in my throat was so big it took me another minute before I could speak again. “I write about kindness in my blog,” I said, wiping my tears. “I’m going to write about you.”

She smiled shyly, but didn't say anything.

After another awkward pause, I added, “Funny enough, I was just thinking about that paying it forward idea on my way here. A friend of mine just did a huge favor for me and there is no way I can do enough to repay her. So I was going to tell her that I would pay it forward.”

I did not tell her that the friend is a staff writer at the New York Times who was responsible for connecting me with the Arts editor—not just connecting me, but pitching my story to her, the story that was on the front page of today's Arts section!!!

“How are the pancakes here?” she asked, changing the subject. “I always get the Egg McMuffin.”

Man, she was not going to explain anything more!

“They’re good,” I said. “But I almost always get the Egg McMuffin.”

“I like the lattes, too” she continued, “but not with any flavoring. That makes them too sweet. No whipped cream either.” 

“Same here,” I said. “I drink the iced lattes in the summer. I like those a lot.”

“I’ll have to try one,” she said.

“Sometimes they’re too milky, so ask for extra espresso. That’s what I do.”

The counter person handed her a brown sack—presumably containing an Egg McMuffin.

“Have a nice day,” she said as she left.

 “You too. And thank you again.”

And that was it.


Breakfast with a view.
McDonald's in Fort Madison, Iowa 
I took my tray and found a table by the window. I sat there looking down at my food -- tears landing on the plastic lid that covered the pancakes -- too emotional to eat.

This stuff isn’t supposed to happen to me. I’m the one who is always preaching about kindness, sharing, giving of yourself, building community, contributing something valuable to society, blah, blah, blah…you know how I go on about world peace (and world piece.) I expect to be the one to give, not to receive. And here, in the span of a few hours, I had received an overabundance of riches.

It was too much to handle.

I couldn’t stop crying. But the tears were not of grief or despair, or even tears of joy. They were tears of gratitude. Because today, surreal as it was, I was reminded —in newsprint and in pancakes— that I have so very much to be grateful for.

Never has a McDonald’s breakfast been so delicious.