Love and waiting

A few years ago, I came across an article by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic called “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators”:

I was drawn to the essay because 1) I’m a writer, and 2) I’ve procrastinated on occasion. Once I break away from procrastination, though, I always question why I fell into the cycle in the first place. Truth be told, I love writing–pretty much everything about it.

The creation of ideas.

Finding the right words to present those ideas.

The rhythm on the page.

The satisfaction of working through thoughts and emotions in a way that only writing can do.

According to McArdle, there’s a logic to writers turning into the “worst procrastinators.” Simply put, they worry too much. They’ll have nothing to show for hours spent leaning over a desk staring at an empty sheet of paper or slouched in front of a computer. Coming up with words that aren’t any good. Fearing the arduous work that is writing–the same feeling that turns to a sense of joy and satiation once the words are committed to the page and you realize that you’ve nailed it. Not meeting a deadline, or meeting it minus a gleeful response from an editor or intended reader.

Since 2017, when Dad became ill and Mom went to the nursing home for care, I’ve found writing to be even more necessary to my daily life. I’ve always turned to writing, a staple of my day like eating or exercising. But these days, I write with a greater sense of urgency.

If I fail to put what I’m experiencing into words, I might just not make it.  Every morning since Dad passed away, I wake up with a lingering sense of uncertainty. It settles in my brain and my gut, in no particular order. What crises will emerge regarding Mom’s health, the running of the family farm, moving out of one house and into another where Mom’s needs and ours can be addressed? Writing helps me sort through all of those disparate parts.

After I’ve put it all down on paper, the chaos is still chaos. But it’s a tad more manageable. Writers wait, but we love that feeling of creating order in an unpredictable world.


Good news, and bad, about young people and cancer

Lately, I’ve come across a number of news stories celebrating the decline of several types of cancer across particular segments of the U.S. population. Unfortunately, some less encouraging news was released today:

Turns out that Millennials are currently more susceptible to certain kinds of cancer, largely due to their packing on the pounds. Cancers including pancreatic, kidney, and colorectal are increasing among young people. Since these cancers are traditionally associated with older folks, diagnosis of younger bodies is unexpected–making careful “surveillance” of symptoms rare as well, thus upping the possibility of diagnoses at later stages.

Perhaps it’s just the population of students who take my classes, but the majority seem committed to a healthy diet and overall lifestyle. Students often spring into class right after a visit to the gym, and more often than not, their snacking fare during class (which happens to coincide with lunchtime in one case) consisting of veggies and hummus or a lean turkey sandwich. That said, I have observed that those young people in my classes who appear to follow a less health-focused regimen are often on the other end of the spectrum: leaning towards obese rather than a tad out of shape.

One thing that does disturb me about the report that the rise of certain cancers among Millennials is being attributed to rising rates of obesity is the blame and shame that coincides with the assumption.  Obesity is certainly a negative trend. An increase in certain cancers among the young is not good news. But I’m not sure we are equipped to address potential solutions in a productive way. Telling Millennials to eat less and work out more arguably misses the mark–there are much larger issues driving obesity (pre-packaged foods full of caloric preservatives and enticing devices for delaying physical movement) that certainly must be addressed. I hope we get our approach to the “problem” right this time around.

Year’s End

Four days ago was the one-year anniversary of Dad’s passing. It was a busy day of teaching and meeting with students, but thoughts of Dad filled my mind from the time I woke up until I finally drifted off after midnight. I can still remember every detail of the day Dad left us, from the words we shared that morning and again when he was brought to the ICU following the TAVR procedure and was confused about the tingling in his right arm to the feel of his skin when I rubbed his forehead to the serene look on his face as he slipped from this world to the next.

I’ve often heard that making it to the one-year anniversary of a loved one’s passing is a significant milestone. Conventional wisdom suggests that getting through important holidays and other events without the deceased by your side provides those left behind with the confidence that they can move forward. That everything will be okay once again. Perhaps this one-year mark works for some, but I can’t say I’m confident that life without Dad will be smooth-sailing from here on out.

There’s still the farm. I’ve learned a lot during the past year, paying bills and following through on decisions set in motion by Dad, like honoring contracts for the sale of 2018 grain. But there’s still so very much I don’t know and mistakes I’ve made–not to mention those that I haven’t yet been made aware of.

I’ve accomplished just a fraction of the work needed to sort through my parents’ farmhouse. Now that a year has passed, I think I might be ready to sift through Dad’s clothes and personal belongings when I head back to Illinois next week, though I wonder whether I’ll actually be able to part with items that he made use of during our days together those last few months of his life. Several of his shirts still smell like Dad, and I am not ready to let go of that tangible reminder.

I continue to struggle with how best to support Mom as she mourns the loss of her husband of almost six decades. Mom will move to Birmingham sometime this summer to start a new life with us. It’s the best solution for us all–Mom will feel less isolated, we’ll worry less about her well-being, the girls will spend more time with their grandmother when they come home from college and wherever else their lives take them in the coming years. Despite the perks of Mom moving South, I recognize that the change will be difficult for her. Mom has never lived anywhere other than Central Illinois, where she knows just about everybody in our small hometown. And while I’ll still take Mom to Illinois occasionally to visit, “home” will never be the same again.

My brother continues to face his own demons. He fled Illinois and is now in Idaho, where he’s already running into trouble with the law and sought assistance at a mental health facility. Like me, Dad never did know how to respond to Joe’s unrelenting highs and lows brought on by mental illness and addiction to drugs and alcohol. Knowing that Dad was there to talk to about the situation, and the feelings of helplessness that don’t go away when a member of your family is perpetually troubled, was a comfort–more than I realized until Dad was no longer there to listen and offer advice.

A few years ago, I talked with Pastor Thomas Kelly, who serves St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church which we’ve attended since moving to Birmingham, about funeral traditions in Ireland for a story I was writing. Father Kelly told me that families in his home country celebrate “Year’s End Masses,” services that are announced in church bulletins and newspapers and intended to draw those who knew the deceased one year after their passing. According to Father Kelly, there are two rituals that define how Irish Catholic mourners are encouraged to process their grief. I found both compelling at the time and continue to think about them as I experience the aftermath of Dad’s passing.

First, there’s the “kicking of the chairs” that occurs at the close of the wake which even today often takes place in the home. The casket, usually consisting of a simple pine box, is held up by two overturned chairs on each end. Once the casket lid is nailed on, the box is lifted for transporting to the church for a funeral mass and the pallbearers “kick” over the chairs to symbolize the end of the deceased’s life on earth. Father Kelly said that as the chairs fall, those in attendance are urged to “make peace with the departure of their loved one’s soul.”

By the time the “year’s end mass” is celebrated,  Father Kelly said, mourners have experienced a full calendar year without the deceased. They have had the time to process their loss and to bid a final goodbye. Again, I’m not certain that one year is sufficient for preparing for this moment.

I’m setting my sights on “week’s end” at this point. Dad’s ashes arrived in the U.S. Mail last Saturday, and I’ve chosen this weekend to open the box and look at what remains of his mortal body. I might gain some closure, or perhaps another perspective on what this journey means–for Dad and those of us who miss him dearly.




So many scars

I came across an article in my newsfeed today about embracing our scars:

The article was posted on Women’s Health, where Tracy Middleton, a friend who used to work in media relations at the AACR, is now editor and health director. I don’t know whether you had a hand in this particular article, Tracy, but if so, well done!

The article got me thinking about my own scars, physical and emotional, and the positive messages they convey to both myself and others. You can’t get through two bouts of breast cancer and the accompanying cancer and reconstructive surgeries without a whole lot of scars. Sometimes, I look at myself as I climb out of the shower and am amazed that I’ve survived this long/made it this far, close to 25 years since my first cancer diagnosis. As one of the women voices in the WH article, I was “lucky to come out of this alive.”

I do have to pat myself on one (or perhaps, two) front(s): Even when I lost my left breast at age 29, I considered the physical changes to my body to be a step towards health. Don’t get me wrong–emotionally, I was a wreck, fearful of the unknown, angry and extremely depressed that I had been the one in eight (or less, technically, given my age) to experience breast cancer. But I felt okay about my body from an aesthetic perspective. Sure, I looked different than other women, but I also had gained strength and a nuanced sense of dignity and selfhood along the way. What bothered me far more than the physical scars were the aches and pains that accompanied them–and that still do accompany them when I discover a yoga pose that my rearranged body can’t manage or the lower back pain that goes along with the loss of most of my stomach muscles during reconstructive surgery following the loss of my right breast at age 40.

Lately, I’ve been pondering another kind of scar altogether. In two days, I will wake up on the first anniversary of my dad’s passing. It’s been a year of mourning his absence; remembering so many moments that we shared, especially during his final months; celebrating the fullness of his life; acknowledging the disappointments and heartbreaks he experienced in his 81 (almost 82) years; dwelling too often on the ways in which my actions during the past year would have made him chuckle with pride or sigh in exasperation.

I have thought about how I might mark January 17 and all that I have felt and endured without Dad by my side–or a phone call away–for the past 365 days. I’m thinking about getting my ear pierced–one more “hole in my head,” as Dad would have put it, to serve as a reminder that it has been one hell of a difficult time that has left, literally, a hole in my heart and a wayward sense of how to move forward. I like the idea of an ear piercing over something like a tattoo because 1) tattooing is painful for a longer amount of time (and I’ve already suffered plenty of pain), 2) I’m not a big fan of tattoos, and 3) I can “fill” the hole in my ear with whatever jewelry speaks to me on a given day.

The piercing will leave another scar, but it will also offer a space for beauty.


Christmas in 3114

Two days ago, I received a text from Edwina letting me know that she was in the hospital again and likely to remain there through Christmas.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“My heart.” Short and to the point.

It wouldn’t be the first holiday Edwina has spent in the hospital. She’s been there on her birthday, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day. I told Edwina that I would head over on Christmas Eve to bring her gifts and spend time with her.

Before heading to the early Christmas Eve mass yesterday, I drove to Princeton Hospital, which sits just a few blocks from Edwina’s current residence–a small, one-bedroom house with a concrete front porch. According to Edwina, it’s a “real quiet neighborhood” where she can sit outside “without hearing no (gun)shots or people yelling or raping” on the street near her window.  I checked at the front desk inside Princeton to make sure that Edwina was still in Room 3114. I’ve visited the third floor many, many times–especially in recent years, as Edwina’s heart and lung issues have become more serious.

I walked in, carrying Edwina’s presents, including a pair of soft navy pants and a flowered blouse to match, lotion and bath gel, a Three Musketeers candy bar (Edwina’s favorite), and a gift card from Walmart. Immediately, a smile spread across my friend’s face. She was lying on her side, wrapped up in a festive red plaid blanket and holiday pajamas, watching television. I gave her a hug and sat down by her bed. We fell into a conversation like we always do, adopting a steady pace like any old friends.

Despite her health concerns, Edwina seemed to be in good spirits. She’d had a lot of company. Her husband Tyrone had been sleeping next to her on a cot at the hospital, and her sister Linda was cooking Christmas dinner to bring to her house when she got home: chitterlings (another of Edwina’s favorites), ham, greens (though Edwina told me she wasn’t supposed to eat those anymore), and two potato pies.

She told me that she was excited for Christmas. She had saved up the little money she has left over each month to buy a hover-board for Alexis.

“It’s the only thing she want, Miss Rayan,” she told me. “I had to get her one. It red.”

The more we talked, the more I realized how much I’ve missed talking with Edwina and just hanging out with her. It surprises me how easily the two of us connect, despite the vast differences between us–where we come from and most of the boxes we check to identify how we and others see us. As we sit side by side chatting away, though, I feel above everything else the many things we share.

Our survival from cancer.

Our shared identity as “daddy’s girls.”

Our history of living in dysfunction, of wrangling with siblings (and in Edwina’s case, a parent) who make life challenging.

Our frustration with things we can’t seem to get to, change, get over. For Edwina, it’s deciding once and for all not to allow so many members of her famly to crash at her house without contributing to the rent or food bills, to kick her smoking habit, to find a direction for her life that puts her best interests at the center–before it’s too late, frankly. For me, it’s finding the space and time to focus on my writing and granting myself the grace not to feel responsible and guilty for every mistake I make when trying to find my way as caretaker of our family farm.

I gave Edwina a kiss goodbye and wished her a very merry Christmas. Before I closed my eyes last night, I said a prayer that Edwina achieves some of what she wishes for in life and that we will continue to connect “like sisters,” as Edwina puts it, for as long as God gives us.



Digitizing corpses

My newsfeed included an intriguing article from National Geographic a few days ago:

With the ongoing issues with medical schools being gifted sufficient cadavers for training medical professionals (as in, enough specimens representing a continuum of body types and diseases at an affordable cost to house and maintain) alongside ever-improving programs for reflecting the complexities of the human body in virtual environments, medical schools are moving towards digitized–versus flesh and blood–corpses. I appreciated that while author Cathy Newman thoroughly addressed the benefits of using virtual cadavers–for example, organs and other systems can be portrayed as dynamic (a “beating” versus stopped heart) and students can hit “reset” when they make a mistake during a procedure as opposed to possibly damaging the body beyond repair so that another student can take a turn–she also asks whether digitized bodies should be used for preparing medical students for careers that will involve working with real bodies, real people. The fear among some critics is that the manipulation of virtual cadavers might desensitize doctors in training to the human beings on whom and for whom they are sharpening their skills.

My own dad decided during the last couple of years of his life to donate his body to Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago so that students pursuing a career in medicine could learn from the many physical afflictions he experienced during his eight-plus decades–rheumatic fever, a brain aneurysm, prostate cancer, numerous joint replacements, a twisted colon, Congestive Heart Failure. For Dad, the decision to offer his body for this purpose was a personal one. He had witnessed the intensity he saw displayed on the faces of medical students and residents who stood by Mom’s bedside while she was being treated for a hiatal hernia; studying over breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the cafeteria; walking the hallways in small groups discussing a case or impending exam (flashbacks to some exciting episodes of House). Dad was impressed by the dedication he observed–noting how many people, including his own son, didn’t display that kind of commitment–and he wanted to give back, to show his appreciation for the hours, days, and years they sacrificed to help other people.

At the start of the article, Newman describes how important small details of a particular body are for reminding medical students that a cadaver–while reflecting a body in a general sense–is also a significant remnant of an individual’s life. The color of nail polish on a cadaver’s toes . . . a unique tattoo adorning an arm or back . . . a well-worn scar reflecting a horrific accident or a life interrupted by cancer–all of these marks serve as reminders that the body on the table is the real thing, not a screenshot that can be manipulated by aspiring physicians without regard for a life lived. A body with meaning beyond medicine.


. . . and the fields

Dad has been gone for ten months now, and life has continued both at record speed and a glacial pace since his passing. I miss Dad every single day and am working hard (on far too little sleep) to keep the farm going by learning how to do things for the first time on my own–negotiating with our tenants, figuring out how to stay on top of the grain markets, responding to new initiatives and payouts (most recently, the payout offered to grain farmers from the U.S. government thanks to Trump’s tariffs on imports . . . and resulting cuts in exports).

I began this blog some time ago to explore how cancer “hits the streets,” but the past year has taken me beyond those settings that have become second nature to me–the streets of Birmingham and the unique landscapes in which men and women tackle cancer around the world. My feet have been planted these past ten months (and the months leading up to Dad’s death during which he coped with Congestive Heart Failure) in the fields of corn and soybeans that have supported the Ryan’s for generations. While I grew up visiting Dad and my uncle as they rounded the rows in these very same fields, the terrain became something quite foreign to me during the 30+ years I spent away from my home in Illinois. Sometimes, I fear that I will sink into the soil before I get my bearings.

I am learning, slowly but necessarily, how to survive as a farmer/writer/teacher/wife/mother. In addition to taking on new roles–landowner and sole caretaker of my mom–I’m grappling with how to sustain the other parts of my life that I left home at 17 to pursue. Especially that of a writer.

When Dad died, I wasn’t prepared to share my pain and sorrow with a public audience. Those feelings led me away from this blog, away from a lot of the public writing I’d done for some time, and towards journal writing. I’ve filled pages and pages of bound journals with fears and anxieties, frustrations and surprises. Some days, I haven’t been able to utter words at all, opting instead to draw images on the page or jot down lists of things to do or emotions I’m struggling to process.

Little by little, I’m attempting to re-inhabit this writing space, and others, in an effort to figure out where I, and my thoughts, belong.