Road Trip

Earlier this week, I gave a presentation for Breast Cancer Awareness Month at Drake Community and Technical College in Huntsville. I asked Edwina when I first received the invitation if she’d like to go along. She replied with a resounding “Yes!”

I decided to mix things up a bit during my talk by focusing on what breast cancer “awareness” might mean in 2015. At the beginning of the presentation I asked the audience how many of them were aware of breast cancer–what it is and some of the messages about the disease that had been communicated through the years–and hands shot up across the room. Since we’re pretty aware, I asked, what should we be talking about each October? What followed was an examination of the nuances of the disease and the many unknowns that persist.

The presentation went great. At the end, the crowd had even convinced Edwina to say a few words about her experiences with breast cancer and our evolving friendship.

Following questions, Denise Gaymon, the counsellor who had invited me to speak, thanked me on behalf of the college. She handed me a gift bag filled with Drake merchandise and also gave one to Edwina.

“We also want to thank Miss Edwina for taking the time to come along with Dr. Ryan to share her story,” Denise said as she handed the bag to Edwina. Edwina was smiling from ear to ear.

As we loaded up the car to return to Birmingham, stuffing in the pink balloons that Edwina has snagged on the way out the door, Edwina shared that she’d seen the gift bags when we’d walked into the building where I was slated to speak.

“I seen them bags,” she told me. “And I kept askin’ myself, ‘Why are there two gift bags? I bet one’s for Miss Rayan, but who’s that other one for?’ I couldn’t stop thinkin’ about that the whole time you talkin.”

Sure enough, the second bag was for Edwina. She couldn’t have been happier.

All the way to and from Huntsville, Edwina and I caught up on what we’ve been up to. It was wonderful to see her again. I’ve missed her big smile and perspective on the world.

Plus, we got to sing along to Michael Jackson as we made our way 100 miles to Huntsville and back again. Edwina and I tapped our feet and raised our voices, remembering just about every beat and lyric.

A celebration of writing

October 20 is National Day on Writing, a day committed to celebrating the power of writing in all its forms–both teaching and doing.

Members of the professional writing faculty, including Purdue alums Jaci Wells, Jeff Bacha, Bruce and me, along with our alum from Arizona, Chris Minnix, decided to set up a booth on the green and invite students to learn more about the day and our programs. We were a big hit!

Professional Writing Faculty: Bruce, Jaci, and Chris (standing); Jeff and me (sitting)

Professional Writing Faculty: Bruce, Jaci, and Chris (standing); Jeff and me (sitting)

To entice students to learn more about us, we set up a drawing for a $50 gift card from the campus bookstore. Students just had to write down their contact info and the best writing advice they’d ever been given. We ended up with more than 100 entries with some inspiring pieces of wisdom.

I made cookies and some of my mom’s special recipe party mix to pass out, too. The students loved it. Thanks, mom!

It was a great event, one we plan to build on next year. We’re hoping that more aspiring writers come our way after learning more about what we do and the many possibilities for those with writing chops.

Bodies matter, even in Alabama

I came across yet another story in the popular media about horrendous decision-making in Alabama:

A judge in Marion, Alabama, one of the areas I traveled to with David Jay to document the lives of breast cancer survivors lacking access to health insurance and oftentimes knowledge about their disease, is accused of exploiting the poor who enter his courtroom. Of which there are plenty. Marion is home to some of the poorest in the state, many of them African Americans.

As I read this story about people without the means to pay fines being told to donate blood and then bring a form back to the judge proving they’d donated for a credit towards their payment, I thought about the kinds of historical atrocities we discuss in a course I teach called Writing and Medicine. Among them is the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which happened between the 30s and 70s (yes, it continued into the 70s) right down the road from Birmingham. Even though penicillin was being used to treat Syphilis by the late 30s, poor African American men were unknowingly refused treatment just to see what would happen to a body left to suffer from the disease. The results were horrific–excruciating pain, infertility, blindness.

While donating blood is certainly a good thing to do, there’s something wrong with making someone with limited means submit to a physical procedure to pay off a debt. Granted, giving blood isn’t as life changing as donating a kidney. Still, offering poor people who are already intimidated by the justice system the “option” of using their bodies as replacement commodities is wrong.

Come on, Alabama.

A hurt heart

Edwina left me a desperate voice message Monday night.

“Miss Rayan, you don’t love me no more,” she said, her voice quivering. “I never hear from you, you don’t call me, nothin’. Call me. Please.”

I called her first thing Tuesday morning to tell her that I do still love her. I’ve just been busy and had a lot on my mind.

I’ve been down this road before with Edwina. When life gets crazy and I’m otherwise occupied, Edwina begins to panic. She’s certain that I’m dropping her as a friend, even though I’ve assured her many times that I’ll always be there for her. That’s what friends do.

Once Edwina calmed down, she and I talked a while. Turns out, Edwina has been in the hospital twice in the past few weeks. Both times, she had to have stents put in her heart. I know she must have been scared, and I told her that no matter how busy I am, she should call me when she faces something scary and needs some support. I’ll find a way to see her.

We do have an outing planned in a couple of weeks. I’ve been invited to be the guest speaker at a breast cancer event at a community college in Huntsville on October 28, and I invited Edwina to come along.

“We’ll spend the day together,” I told her. “Two friends on a road trip.”

Edwina told me she can’t wait to go.


This week’s issue of the journal Science features a story on the largest man-made wavemaker just engineered by a Dutch research facility in Delft, a small city which our group visited in April:

The Delta Flume, a water-filled trough that will produce waves as high as 4.5 meters, will be used to study threats to coastal areas and to devise new systems for protecting these areas. Since so much of the Netherlands lies below sea level, there’s a real need for innovative approaches to managing all that water.

The Dutch are absolute masters of technology.

To test or not to test

An essay I wrote about deciding whether to test for BRCA and meeting Dr. Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1 in 1990, was just published in Cancer Today

Before meeting Dr. King in person, I watched Decoding Annie Parker. Actress Helen Hunt plays King and tells the interesting story about how King uncovered the genetic cause of some breast and ovarian cancers. It’s an emotional film, but definitely one worth checking out.

On a related note, Mary-Claire was pleased by Helen Hunt’s portrayal of her character!

Meeting Father Robert

Since traveling to the Netherlands, I’ve been working on a story about sustainable burials–approaches to leaving the world in the most eco-efficient way. The story is nearing completion, and I’ll be submitting it to an editor who has expressed interest in publishing the piece next week. Fingers crossed.

In the process of researching and composing the story, I came across a long-lost relative who was rumored (among members of my family) to have been buried in a less than conventional way in the early 1970s. Father Robert Donovan, my great-great uncle, was a Benedictine priest who taught English and religion at St. Bede Academy in Peru, Illinois, and served at parishes in Florida and California, in addition to Illinois.

Benedictines take a vow of poverty, and their funeral rites, I’ve learned, reflect this vow. I’ll leave the details for the article (which I hope I’ll be able to post soon on my blog), but I can say that following the trail of facts about Father Robert’s life and death has been an amazing experience.

Over the course of a few months, I’ve shared long conversations with my dad about his memories of Father Robert. Emails with members of the Donovan clan, people I’ve known all my life but never collaborated with in quite this way. A phone call to the current abbot at St. Bede’s, who knew Father Robert personally and provided some colorful stories about him. An interview with my parish priest, Father Thomas Kelly, who offered a perspective on funeral rites in the Catholic Church in Ireland as well as the United States.

It’s been a journey, and well worth the effort to meet Father Robert.