Milk Sharing

It’s a pretty niche market. Chances are you haven’t heard of it.

Unless you have had a great abundance or a critical lack, you’re probably not privy to the milk sharing community - breast milk, that is.
Giving birth to a child from a body completely absent of milk ducts (thank you bilateral mastectomy) is a new experience for me, one that has created the dilemma of how I will sustain and nourish this new life.

I do not want my daughter to be any more disadvantaged than my cancer has already made us. I want her to reap some of the great many benefits of breast milk; I want her to be free of the potentially harmful side effects of formula. ...And so begins my jaunt into the community of milk sharing mamas.

I start by researching breast milk banks, the only thing I've heard of at this point.
Just as I’m finding that milk banks cater to infants in the NICU, not people like me, my dear friend calls. “I have a really weird question and you don’t have to answer right away. I’ve been thinking about it a lot though,” she begins. “Would you want me to pump milk for your daughter? ...Is that too weird?”

I don’t find it weird.

Okay, maybe it's a little weird. But the kindness, the benevolence, the benefit outshine the oddity. 

Within weeks, one friend becomes two, then three, then six, as word of my need spreads.

I research milk sharing risks and how to minimize them, how to store milk and for how long, how to thaw and prepare the frozen milk.     

When I realize how quickly entire freezers of stored milk will dwindle under the demands of a new and voracious little appetite, I will eventually branch out into the world of milk sharing amongst strangers. I will arrive there gingerly, over time, and with much research.
For now, I am reveling in the blessing that a community of girlfriends can be. I know who the milk is coming from; I know each mama intimately. And I know what amazing friends I have to give my daughter such a precious gift - a gift I cannot provide her myself.


The Black Satin Maternity Shirt

There is a black satin maternity shirt that my best friend wore the night she attended a “Girls Night Out” cancer fundraiser with me.

It was in October of 2010, a few months after I had been diagnosed. She and I sat quietly at a table for two in the back of the small comedy club. I was wearing an itchy wig and wondering if the food would make me sick; she was 7 months pregnant with her third and probably also wondering if the food would make her sick.
Early into the show, she took my hand and placed it on her belly; her baby girl was moving and she wanted me to feel. I quickly felt through the satin and the skin, that little life shift under my palm. I stopped hearing the act and it was just the three of us in that moment, which might sound lovely and idyllic, but was actually brutally difficult for me. I was just beginning to deal with the dichotomy of what my life had become as compared to everyone else’s continuing down their normal tracks. And I was deeply hurting at the idea of not having another child. 

So there, in the back of the darkened club, with my hand on my friend’s baby-belly, I started to cry. I remember it distinctly; amidst the laughter and the applause, I swiped the tears away. 

It was only a brief moment that passed between us and then we both turned back to the stage. 

Eleven months later, almost to the day, I’m sitting in the same comedy club with my husband. This time though, I am eight months along with my own baby girl. We’re here on what we figure will be our last date for a long time.

I lean back against the wall - where we have strategically seated ourselves for the evening due to the proximity to the ladies bathroom. I’m trying to elongate my abdomen and alleviate the pressure my increasingly tight maternity jeans are placing on my already impeded bladder. (Can I get away with unbuttoning the top button? Didn’t I buy these jeans a size too big just a couple months ago?) 
As I stretch back and look out across the club, remembering those two girls at the back table, I feel a world away. And so grateful. 

I am alive; the worst may be over for me. I’m sporting my own hair this evening. And there is a healthy baby squirming around underneath the palms I have placed on either side of my flattened bellybutton. I look down at my shirt and realize I’m wearing that very same black satin maternity shirt, borrowed from my friend.
So close, but a world away.


Healthy Habits

When it comes to taking care of our bodies, the chasm between knowing and doing is often so great that I sometimes forget lack of knowledge is still a culprit.

Now, I am a long and loud cry from a nutritional expert, by any means. As simply a gal who listens and reads and has picked up a modicum of at-least-presumably-healthy habits over the years, please allow me to share a few general tips. Perhaps some of them will be new to you.

- Of course, eat LOTS of veggies and fruit every day.

- Go with frozen vegetables over canned every time; they retain their nutritional value and are not packed in sodium water.

- Eliminate white; replace it with whole grains. There is no nutritional value in white (stripped) rice, flour, pasta, or bread.
            * Try introducing whole grains to your household by mixing them with whites to help everyone adjust to the flavors/textures over time.

- Try not to consume so much processed food. A general rule: the less ingredients in the item you are considering, the better. Have you ever really looked at the ingredients in a boxed cake mix, in coffee creamer, in cheap ice cream?

- Fat free or sugar free are not always a good choice. The idea is to stick to whole, real foods, in their natural state. Fat-free products often replace removed fat with sugar (which turns to fat anyway). “Sugar free” means sweetened with artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame and Acesulfame Potassium, which have been found to increase hunger and have harmful side effects that include being carcinogenic.

- Minimize consumption of processed meats: lunch meats, standard hog dogs, sausages... Not only do they contain sodium nitrite, a questionable chemical preservative, but are also high in sodium and saturated fat.

- Adding citrus to your water is said to have great benefits, making it alkaline and helping to neutralize acids in the body.

- Stay away from microwave popcorn. The lining of the bags are coated with carcinogenic chemicals, (fluorotelomers). Instead, pop your corn in a popping machine or a pan on the stove.

- Try not to buy or use plastic water bottles and definitely don't reuse them. Similarly, avoid microwaving plastic, which includes saran-wrap topped things. As plastics age or heat-up, there is an increased risk for leaching of phthalates or BPA from the plastic to the food or water.
- The safest cookware is cast iron or stainless steel. As soon as the Teflon-lined/nonstick kinds scratch, they're leaching aluminum into your food. If you find that you only want to use nonstick, coated pans, be prepared to replace them frequently.

Fad diets are often confusing and contradictory. They go out of style for a reason. Many healthy choices are intuitive.... natural, unprocessed, homemade foods - and less of them if your caloric intake does not match your energy output.

Here's to avoiding risks, where we can, and to putting real, nutritious foods into our bodies, when we can.
What are your favorite healthy habits?


Mommy's Post-Road-Trip Prayer

 Dear Lord,

First, thank you many times over for my precious son, who is so dear to me he is life. Second, thank you that my husband and I survived many, many hours in the car with him and still hold-fast to our sanity.

That one small child can talk so much is a truly astounding. A number of times I questioned whether he was still breathing, the words were spilling fourth with such rapidity. How can he think of so much to say, so much to ask, and not tire of asking it? (Why is milk white? What letter does Grammy start with? What does that sign say? Who made the world? Is soda healthy? When's the sun coming back out? Can we look for some more trucks? Where do grapes come from?...)

Please forgive me that I occasionally wanted to stick my head out of an open window for the refreshing wash of wind to drown out his unceasing little voice. And please forgive my spouse and I for possibly overindulging him in snack foods as a means of entertainment and a source of quiet during the intervals of chewing and swallowing that stemmed word formation.

His growing brain is without a doubt a marvel. But I thank you that, on these many hours trapped together in our seats, we didn't blow a gasket, overheat, or run out of gas. Oh, and thank you that the car didn't either.

I admit, at times I thought I was being punished. But now I see I was being loved.

Thank you for our yammering ball of energy who blesses our lives daily and allows us to experience a love so deep that, when he finally falls asleep at night and gives us a break, we often spend our alone time talking about him - the endearing or hilarious things he did that day, how much we love him.

With only-very-slightly-wavering gratitude,



It’s Sunday afternoon. We’re out running errands before our upcoming summer vacation. And I am smiling - smiling at the day, smiling at the future, smiling.

A sense of normal has returned. Cancer is a nightmare that I just may live through. Arthritis is a misfortune that will fluctuate in degree of disturbance. I will live, and live in happiness. (Or, at least for now.)

I’m walking down the sidewalk holding my little boy’s hand. He’s wearing an unbecoming outfit, born partly of the majority of his clothes being packed for our trip and partly of my granting him autonomy in the selection process this morning. The strange-fitting jeans, outdated hand-me-down loafers, and ugly red and green toolbox sweater do not diminish his handsome little face. 

In the time we walk from one block corner to the next, he manages to get in a steady stream of questions that includes, “Is coffee healthy? Why do we have to go to bed every day? Where is a bee's stinger?”
I laugh softly at his constant stream of words. As I look down at his little body next to mine, I hear my mother-in-law telling me how his daddy too was a jabber-box, and then one day, right around puberty, just stopped talking near bouts altogether. I know that day will likely come with Little H too. He’ll reach an age when he wants independence from us, where he’s not interested in sharing his thoughts or questions with Mom or Dad. He’ll go into his room a growing boy, who raids the refrigerator with regularity and who cares deeply about his friends’ opinions, and then he’ll come out a young man. With a deep voice and a broadening interest in his girlfriend, he’ll emerge and turn into the person he’s going to be. Oh, that I long to be there to see it. 
While I often ache over the possibility of missing his life, a part of me has begun to accept that he will be okay even without me - he and my daughter. My husband is a man of utmost character, and he is an excellent father; he would raise my children into beautiful people even without my help. And the love and support that our families would surround them with would help him along and keep them afloat.  

I squeeze Little H’s hand. I want to tell him I will be here to keep answering his questions, to clip his fingernails and hold him when he cries. I want to tell him that I will still be here to fill the fridge for him as he grows, to drop him off at the movie theater a block away, safely out of sight of his friends, to cheer on the sidelines of his sports games, to meet his girlfriend, to wait outside the door when he shuts himself inside. I am proud of you already Little H; I believe you have what it takes to become a great man.

“What are snails made out of?” he asks. I kneel down next to him to tie the lace of his ugly, brown shoe. His huge hazel eyes with long, curled eyelashes that make me jealous, stare expectantly at me. “Snails are slugs inside a shell,” I answer. And then, “I love you so much, son.” 
“I love you too Mommy,” he replies easily, "up to the moon and back." 

As I’m standing back up, I feel my baby girl kick hard inside me, as she frequently does. She is strong and healthy.
The world is right.


Stepping into Reality through Little Shoes

On a warm summer afternoon, my brother and his family arrive to spend the day at the beach with us. With them they bring just about everything their daughter has outgrown in the three years of her life, delivering us several large plastic boxes of pink. 
Passed down baby items and clothes have become a perk of being the youngest in a large family. My brothers have gone ahead of me and had 2, 3, and 4 children, respectively, making Little H the youngest in a brood of 10 grandchildren for my parents. Our daughter will be the 11th and final of their generation.  

After a day of summer fun, we return home to our family room that looks like about 200 gallons of sherbet melted across it. As soon as the beach sand from the day is washed down the shower drain, the pizza sauce from dinner wiped from the dining room table, and H's tired, sun-kissed head on the pillow, I am upstairs opening those boxes of miniature couture.

I want to see all the tiny ruffles, ribbons, and bows. I unfold and refold one pint-sized shirt, pant and dress after another. I'm so used to big-wheeled vehicles, sports balls and four legged-critters, I keep smiling at the delicate flowers, butterflies, and hearts. I hold them up and feel happy, marveling at both the sudden flood of pink that is soon to wash over our household and the extreme but fleeting delicacy of a newborn.
I open a small box filled with shoes and slippers in various sizes and rummage through the scuffed patent leather and velcro bows. I lift a tiny pair of sandals out and stare at them. I keep running my fingers over the soles that will one day soon hold my baby's soft feet. MY daughter; I have a little girl. She exists. Her feet will be real and she will slide them into butterfly sandals, pink Converse, and rhinestone flip-flops. She is real. I keep touching those tiny shoes in a frozen state of reality.

I spent the first half of this pregnancy afraid of losing her; the second half is tipping toward a fear that she will lose me.

Almost daily now, I battle varying degrees of fear that I will not live to raise my children. In the same way that I am now not prone to imagine the future in general with any sort of clarity or certainty, I have been hesitant to imagine raising a daughter with any sort of detail or unabashed enthusiasm. I don't want to anticipate joy that may not be mine to experience.

She will have long hair, probably with lots of curls. Will I be there to brush it and braid it for her? She will take dance lessons and wear tutus at some point. Will I be there to watch her twirl and plie? She'll want to go shopping and have sleep-overs; will I be the one she cries dramatically to when her friends leave her out? Will she be good at sports? Will she inherit my family’s musical ineptitude or her father’s keen ear? Will I ever know? Can I dare to even imagine being there to help her pick out her wedding dress? 
All of those things in my life would have been lacking had I not had a loving mother to share them with. I hurt to realize the possibility I may create lack in her life. ...As I do that my sweet baby boy may grow into a young man I may not experience ...As I do that my dear husband, the only man I've ever loved, might need to move on to loving someone else someday. How does anyone ever accept these heartbreaking possibilities?

So tonight I sit with the tiny shoes. The reality of my daughter creeps through my guard as I dare to imagine her little feet slipping into those feminine soles. She does exist. So much after that may be uncertain, but she is real.


It's a Girl

The 19-week ultrasound is a milestone in the pregnancy. It's where the final tests on the health and viability of the baby are conducted; it is also when we find out the gender.

The three of us crowd into the tiny office with the ultrasound tech and hear that everything looks healthy and normal. Growth is on-schedule; organs are developing; the placenta looks just right and any further bleeding is unexpected. It’s a girl.

My cheeks ache from prolonged smiling. Surely God has read the deepest desires of my and Bobby’s heart, giving us this exceptional gift of a daughter.

I call every member of my family and all of my closest friends. I make them listen to the details of how she is healthy and then I share that share that she is a she. I am struck by how wonderful it feels to be sharing positive news. So many months now I have been at the top of a phone-tree of pain; I am refreshed to bear good news and joy to everyone I love.
That joy and excitement interrupts my thoughts daily and my sleep nightly. I think about her. What will she be like? Will she have my curly hair, her daddy’s beautiful hazel-green eyes? Will she follow Little H around adoringly, be as cautious and observant as him? Or will she be quick to embrace change, as the second child often is? Will she want me to read her Anne of Green Gables, as my mother did me? Will she despise me when she gets to junior high and go through a mean phase? What will she and Little H’s relationship be as they become adults and their nearly four-year age gap closes to insignificance?

I almost don’t even think about the question of whether she has inherited the BRCA gene mutation or not. Almost.  
I paint a soft, pink sign for above her crib that says, “I made a wish and you came true.”


Words I Need to Hear

Bobby doesn't realize I need him to tell me this. And sometimes, I need him to tell me over and over.
 I tell him.
He writes it down for me.


One Day at a Time

I would love to say that with the growth of the baby inside me, all the bad clouding my days faded away…. as though a magic fairy had waved a wand of normal and good across my strange body. But of course, that simply wouldn’t be so – it simply wouldn’t be real life.

Most certainly, I am lifted out of sorrow with a deep and moving hope. But I do still wake up every day to maneuver the tribulations before me - as we all do - stubborn, pervasive troubles.

The radiation side effects are primarily localized skin irritation and progressive fatigue… manageable. But meanwhile, arthritis symptoms have taken hold of my chest and hip joints, debilitating me into a slow-moving, rather defeated cripple (who is still pretty bald.)

Anti-inflammatory drugs are not safe for use during pregnancy. Instead, I am using a walker to get around. I am having a particularly difficult time accepting that, even after the cancer treatments conclude, I may still have this awful disease of Spondylitis – accepting that I may be like this forever.

At this point, I haven’t yet shed Cancer Patient from how I see myself and perceive others to be seeing me. I keep a steady stream of self-deprecating jokes on-hand… I am, after all, a crippled, pregnant lady, who has cancer. Does it get any more physically handicapped than that?

Inside, I’m appalled this is who I am. On the outside, well, just give me your parking spot.

One day at a time. …Unless someone has a wand I can borrow?