Willie, Kenny, and The Jeffersons (of course)
To say Fall of 2019 was a busy one may be an understatement, well, in some ways, in most ways, but not in the ways you would normally think. Here’s a timeline for you for our end to the month of August: I was diagnosed on a Tuesday, had kyphoplasty back surgery on that Friday, started chemo the following Tuesday, and the moving truck came on Friday to move us from our house of 22 years. We loved that house. We loved the neighborhood, the neighbors, the kids running around, the dogs everywhere, the actual house that we designed and built, and of course, the fact that we brought home all three boys to this house when they were born. Kenneth always described our neighborhood like this….some places you live will report you to the homeowner’s association if your grass is too tall but in Candela, somebody just comes and mows it without even telling you because they know you are busy working. It’s a neighborhood of hard working fishermen, teachers, police officers, retired couples, and simply families just working hard every day to provide for their families. Crime is low—definitely not the place to rob with hunters around every corner— and bartering is still a form of business. Our neighbors were, and still are, our family, teaching our boys to garden and stop in for dinner anytime, to catch fly balls in the middle of the afternoon thrown higher than the rooftops, to enjoy the best in life by making forts and bonfires, to fix just about anything and to always jump in to help others. They had help dressing for prom, learning to always look their best complete with cuff links and fancy socks, and, don’t worry Ron, I didn’t forget you, how to lay in the grass to relax with a beer… among other things that we won’t bring up but thanks!! Haha!! Because of all of these things, it was a terribly difficult decision to move. We secretly were looking at a house we found for sale right on the water. It was an older house but the views and access to the sound was a dream come true. When we decided to jump, the hardest part of the move was telling and leaving our neighbors.
We arrived home from the hospital that Sunday night. Mom was planning on staying with us to help while we started chemo treatments and through the big move. Tuesday, Kenneth and I made our first trek to Greenville. The drill was blood test first, meet with the doctor, and then chemo treatment. I was strangely fine with having the first treatment; I just looked at my treatments as if I was checking an item off a “to do” list. The first four treatments would be AC (Adriamycin in combination with Cytoxan) otherwise known as THE RED DEVIL. My nurse would sit beside me and manually push the treatment into my IV after a drip that included a steroid, anti-nausea medication, and Benadryl in case of an allergic reaction. My doctor said I would lose my hair after the second treatment! THAT FAST!! WHAT??? If I had a penny for everyone who told me that I should try the cooling cap to save my hair, I would be rich, but my doctor told me the chemo would be too strong. We finished the first treatment and were starving! I didn’t think I would have an appetite but I was definitely hungry. We went to a little Italian bistro in Greenville, sat down, and had a nice meal. It sure was good…..until it wasn’t….definitely didn’t quite sit with me right! That would be the last time I ate red sauce in a very long while.
That week I waited for the side effects to hit me….I waited and waited but to my surprise, I felt pretty good! I was told by my friend and “cancer mentor”, Regina, who had already gone through chemotherapy herself, to make sure to take the “cocktail” of medication that was prescribed to me. I left the chemo bay with a crazy amount of medications–some you took every morning, some at night and some three times a day. Heck, I could hardly keep my mind on the basics of life, much less, all of these medications. Jenn asked what she could do and I asked her to create a spreadsheet for me to organize what I needed to be taking–I bet she wishes she had never asked…hahah! The math teacher and logic minded person in me just found this comforting. It became my job to mark complete every time I took any medication… maybe it resembled me checking attendance each day, I don’t know but I know it was strangely satisfying.
I definitely had a hard time sleeping. I looked at the clock, 1 am, 2:30 am, 3:15 am, 4:30 am, and finally 5:30 am. When I saw that time come up, I jumped up (ok, there was no jumping after having a tumor in my back), let’s rephrase that…..I slowly rolled out of bed, literally, and pushed my self up to a standing position to go outside to sit on my deck and watch the sun come up over the water. It was the most calming thing I could do at that time for the first couple of weeks. The upcoming weekend was a big one! My dad was coming to join my Mom to help with the big move and Rise and my sister/cousin, Debbie, was coming in. Ok, side story real quick….so Deb and I have lived on different coasts all of our lives. Heck, at one point she lived in Hawaii,. Could that be any farther from the Outer Banks of North Carolina? I think not! Growing up we spent every Thanksgiving together and alternated staying with each other for a week in the summer. We had matching everything-bathing suits, pajamas, you name it! I can still see the picture of us standing at her pool in Chicago with our new cool burgundy suits on. Her family had just moved to Florida to be closer to her parents and her new job flew her to places up and down the East Coast. This particular weekend, one of the biggest of my whole life, her job actually took her to Richmond, only three hours away. She rented a car and drove to the Outer Banks….never has this been a possibility for a visit before. God was loving on both of us!
The move was crazy! I hardly remember all of the comings and goings. BIG Rise took charge snapping out orders left and right and somehow for some reason, all complied with whatever she said. She knew just when to jump in and “save” Kenneth from losing it during the craziness. Weeks after the move, heck, maybe even months, the boys would text her asking her where something of theirs was, hahah!! Somewhere in the midst of all of this, Drew and Mom went to Ace to get spraypaint for his bike….well, lets just say it didn’t make it to his bike and we ended up at the local body shop cleaning Dad’s car. All I had to do is text Rise a MAYDAY message and she had my dad drinking Miller Lites on the deck….all bad news is better after a few beers.
That night was an exciting one-Jake’s first senior football game. We’d been waiting to watch this group of seniors for a long time! I don’t remember being super tired from the chemo but I guess I was because that Friday night of the move we were all waiting in our new house for a storm to pass. The lighting over the sound was unbelievable; in fact, I haven’t seen anything like it since. I actually didn’t see much of it because right there, with a room packed full of people I love dearly, I fell right to sleep on the couch. That was definitely a first.
They cancelled the game and moved it to Saturday. Will’s senior year was a blast and I was determined to help make Jake’s just as special. Saturday was a beautiful night. We walked the familiar path around the track to get to the stands only this time it was so different. I was told not to be around a lot of people so I stayed close to my family and didn’t do a lot of visiting and talking, again, WEIRD!! Students and teachers alike would come up and want to give me a hug and I awkwardly had to deny their incoming well wishes. Looking back, I know they all understood but the last thing I wanted to do was to be rude to anyone. I took out my rally towel from my spirit bag and I was ready to cheer…because that is what I do…only this game, the energy escaped me. It felt as if I were in a fog. I remember distinctly that I didn’t have the energy to jump up and yell as I always did and I wondered if I ever would. The game ended and we trekked back to the truck-kind of a long walk but never really thought of it before. I walked back slowly with tears in my eyes maybe because I had a limp (the mets to my hip was giving me a hard time) or maybe because I realized that I may never be a teacher watching her students play ball again–a part of the school but not a part at the same time.
We continued to move on Sunday and Will was heading back to school. I knew the next time I would see him, my hair would be gone. I had an urgency to get our family pictures done. This would be our last family photo as “the old me”. Bella came over in all of her big camera and new lens glory and got to some beautiful family shots. I am forever grateful for these pictures now hanging in my dining room. I hugged every one and thanked them for coming down to help and then we looked around and it was just us. It was the first time we had been alone since our world was turned upside down. We laughed about the whirl wind move and enjoyed dinner brought to us by friends on the deck that night. What a crazy ride already!
Tuesday we headed back to Greenville to meet with Dr. Habal about getting my port on Friday. For some reason, I was petrified of this. Something hard sticking out of my chest…uggg, just gross! I watch every medical show there is.. Greys, ER, New Amsterdam..but when it’s the real thing, I’m out! He calmed my nerves immediately and the procedure (can’t even call it a surgery really) was over in no time. I remember waking up the next morning after Kenneth had gone to work and seeing the bruise around it and feeling something hard. I took pictures and sent it to my neighbor, Kim, who had been there and done that with her mom. When she came over to feel “this hard thing in my chest”, we both laughed when she told me it was the actual port….again just so gross! HA! As much as I have watched Grey’s Anatomy you would think I wouldn’t have a problem with all of these needles and such. I mean, you do become an expert just by watching medical shows right? I would find that EVERYONE is a doctor of some kind once they heard my diagnosis. They missed the memo of “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV”—or in our case “ I’m not a doctor but now that you are diagnosed I know more than yours”. Don’t get me started!
Just when we thought things would settle down a bit, the weather man added to the excitement by mixing Hurricane Dorian into the forecast. Now, we are used to hurricanes in our area. We don’t have snow days; we have hurricane days where schools close down, cars are moved to higher ground, plywood covers windows, and yes, the surfers hit the waves. When the boys were little, we tracked down Jim Cantore while he was covering a storm in our area. Those pictures are among my favorites with Will and Jake. It is a known fact that if Jim Cantore is in your area during a forecasted storm, you better look out. This was actually kind of a big one–our first week of living on the water! It was predicted to come up the sound as a Category 2 storm. It definitely did not disappoint–trees were brought down all over the county, our bulk head was torn up, and my awesome sun rise watching deck was now almost fallen. The northeast wind was fierce blowing right at us from the sound but thankfully, we suffered minimal damage to our new house. The storm came in with me having a head full +of hair and left taking all of it with it! We’ll get to that later……
This same week Drew was turning 11! Through out everything, the last thing I wanted was for my boys to miss out on any of their fun just because “butthead” (our family name for “that C word”) had entered into our world. We invited the baseball team plus Eastie and Bailey, of course, over for an epic birthday party on the sound complete with pizza and cake. Tripp and Jake set up the tents and had the boats available to taxi friends to the island. Will came home to join the party and Kenneth got home after a long day on the water just in time to join the fun. It was a beautiful night! It was my first time being around Drew’s crew with my scarf after I had lost my hair. Kids are so resilient–they pretty much ran right past me without even giving me a second look…until I broke out the birthday cake, that is! HA!
Kenneth and I had hot dates to Greenville once every two weeks for four weeks for my AC treatment (otherwise known as the “red devil”) and then once a week for 12 weeks for Taxol. Each morning we would pack a little cooler, Kenneth would stop at Alligator Marina for a biscuit, I’d start putting the numbing cream on my port site when we got to Williamston. Two and half hours later we were in “G-Vegas”, as the big city of Greenville is affectionately called those of us on the Outer Banks. I tried to talk Kenneth into dropping me off and going to run errands or whatever in Greenville but he wouldn’t leave my side. The nurses were amazing throughout and Dr. White continued to cheer me on. They called Kenneth my guard dog as he sat by my side as I fell asleep during treatments. Besides the weird neuropathy, crazy change in diet, hair loss, and cancer fatigue that truly warrants its own word, I kept up pretty well with everything going on. Now remember, we had just moved into a new house and I wasn’t working so my new job was to unpack a box a day and of course shop for new things we needed for the house. My shopping partner in crime, Kim, would wisk me away in her little cute Audi- her, dressed to the nines of course and me in one of my fancy scarves. She always made me feel beautiful-she has that way about her. I remember one very specific time when I flat couldn’t keep my eyes open as we were playing. She told me she was going to run into Food Lion and next thing I know, I was snoring in the car! Going out with Kimmy was my escape from reality-we shopped, ate, went to the movies, stayed home and watched our “based on a true story” favorites, and talked until I couldn’t anymore, my mouth and my face would literally stop working.
I would also escape my new reality and head to school to have lunch with my fellow math dorks. Aaaaah, so fun! When I walked in, it wasn’t “how are you? How do you feel”, it was instead immediate talks of curriculum, students, and of course, math problems. Aaah, sounds heavenly!! The teachers of the MHS Math department are the hardest workers I know. It’s not just enough to “check it off the list” but each of them make sure they get the job done right and their students are on the ball. My replacement for the year , Melissa Mann, has taught exceptional Ed classes but never core classes with 25+ students. I was so grateful she was able to take over. From August to November, I would pick up her quizzes on a Friday, grade them, and return them to our classroom. One day in November when I was grading, I found myself falling asleep mid-problem and not being able to focus on the students’ work. I had to tell her I couldn’t grade anymore and that was the worst feeling. I felt like I was continually letting people down. I am now learning to give myself grace but wow, I sure didn’t in that situation. That lesson comes and is still coming hard. Houston, my math partner in crime, would do his subtle check ins calling to “talk shop”. We’ve been teaching across the hall from each other for all of my 25 years. He is more like a brother to me than just a colleague. I could go on and on but I love how everyone has those special things they want to do for you during these times- his was to call to talk shop because he just knew I needed that and send his homegrown tomatoes home with Jake, who was in his statistics class, for my daily fresh tomato sandwiches. You don’t know how good of a friend you have, until you do.
So back up to September, most rides back from Greenville include a frosty from Wendy’s and a call to one of our favorite couples, Becky and Ron. These two were our lifelines and our neighbors for the last 11 years but had recently moved to New Orleans. They looked at our kids as family, hooked us up with happy hour on the weekend at the kitchen bar, and taught us a lot about marriage. Becky is one of these people who are just givers. She is selfless and always ready to put a smile on your face . By the end of September, I had been overwhelmed by the graciousness of our community and so many amazing well wishers…but I just needed one more. We spoke to them on the way home one Tuesday and Beck said she was ready to jump in the car whenever we wanted her. She came the next weekend with soup, casseroles, and desserts – remember, our boys have grown up eating with the neighbors so this was a welcome comfort. That Friday was our first team meal for our high school football team at Coastal Family Church, just one of the amazingly generous churches who feeds our team each year. I had not seen any of the boys since I had lost my hair. I taught most of them and didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable or worry about me when they saw me. I cried on the way over with Beck thinking how different this all is now. The boys were precious and I truly felt as if nothing was any different than before, It was wonderful and I was ready for some football that night!
September came and went followed by October wins on the football field. Drew’s team won the championship with Drew under center and our Manteo Redskins, with our fierce linebacker, Jake, made a good run in the playoffs…..Dang it, Edenton!! Before we knew it, Thanksgiving was sneaking up on us. Everyone had a different idea but I was determined to have a “normal” Thanksgiving with everyone at our house just as we had done for the last twenty years. I made and froze casseroles, plopped a couple of pumpkins by the front door, and opened up our new house to our family. Everyone pitched in to make it the best normal Thanksgiving ever with oysters on the grill, my Meremere’s brocolli casserole and lumpy mashed potatoes, mmmmmmmm.
December rolled in and I was 2/3 of the way through my chemo treatments. I continued to follow my strict orders of which meds to take to squelch side effects as much as possible. I learned that the treatments were cumulative and I could tell I was feeling it all much more than before. I think the craziest side effect was the neuropathy for me. I would go, go, go in the morning and then everyday between 1-2 o’clock, my face and hands would go numb. I felt as if I was slurring my words and just over all in a fog. I put on a Lifetime movie (yes, I’m a sucker for the crazy ones), pushed back the recliner, and fell in and out of sleep for a couple of hours each day. Thank goodness the neuropathy has passed; many times that is a serious lingering side effect. I rinsed my mouth out with Biotene mouthwash several times a day and stayed on my Claritin as it seemed to really help with the bone pain–two random things that just worked for me. This is when I really started to wear out. I wanted to put up the Christmas tree, go shopping for gifts, send Christmas cards, decorate the outside but I. Just. Couldn’t. I could not get my energy up to work more than an hour at a time and I let it get me down. Looking back, I wish I had just accepted that “this too shall pass” but when you are in the depths of it, you just have a hard time seeing the end of the tunnel. I let myself get really down. I never really understood the true meaning of what it meant to feel depression until now. I just wasn’t motivated after a while to get anything up and ready for Christmas. I’m not sure if it was solely the effects of the chemo or just watching everyone around me find their Christmas spirit and wondering why I had lost mine….no, actually knowing why I had lost mine.
A highlight, however, was going to our small town Christmas tree lighting on a brisk December night. Yes, it is just like the Hallmark movies that my mom loves so much! Bundled up in our scarves and cute hats, my girls and I made our way through the crowd. Some of our beautiful local artists hold an annual Christmas party on this night in order to give everyone a chance to get a head start on their shopping (or treat yourself! HA) When I walked in, they had their annual raffle all set up. For $5 a ticket or a donation, you bought a raffle ticket to win some of their beautifully hand crafted jewelry. As I checked it out, I saw who the raffle was in honor of this year….ME! I was swept away with emotion. I didn’t know what to say. I just was…well, speechless and full of tears. When Denise brought me the gift after a few days, I told her I couldn’t believe their kindness. She told me to use the money to do something for myself …..”treat yourself” she said! She has such a kind spirit and is such a good friend to so many. Once the new year had passed, I enjoyed “treating myself” to feeling good by using the gift to actually gift others going through hardships of their own…I had so much fun making someone else’s day and of course, shopping!
Christmas is a big deal in our house. Kenneth is Christmas Crazy!! When the boys were little, he would put more lights up than Chevy Chase and challenge our neighbors to do the same…..lights on the roof, lights on the trees, lights on the porch, you name it! Our house now is down the winding long driveway that I always wanted but you can’t see the lights from the road. We saved our energy and put up some modest lights for Christmas this year. I will forever treasure the fun the boys had hanging the lighted deer in the tree with Santa in a tree stand above them! Santa came and dropped off two kayaks for the boys to enjoy in our back yard equipped with rod holders and the works. Grammy came over to watch everyone open presents and we had our traditional breakfast casserole. Cancer doesn’t take a break for anyone, not even baby Jesus’ birthday so I crashed for a couple of hours to regain my strength for round 2 at Grammy’s house.
Now, Kenneth’s mom is also Christmas crazy! We definitely know where he gets it. She loves to shop and often starts shopping the sales the week after Christmas for the next year. After 25 years, I still cannot bring myself to do it although I have tried (well, thought about it) several years. I just end up giving the gifts to the people instead of waiting 365 days. So Grammy, shops and wraps and shops and wraps. I always giggle when we shake a box and say jokingly, “what is it?” and she literally has no idea! HAHA!! We always have a big time exchanging gifts at her house! Drew, being 11 years old, is the most fun to shop for so it seemed as if his gifts were endless. By the end, the trash is overflowing and you cannot walk through the family room. Next up is lunch! Now, in true southern fashion, she cannot just have a meat and a couple of sides. Her lunches consist of a roast, fried chicken, deviled eggs, potatoes, fresh green beans, collards, broccoli casserole (for me:), mac and cheese, and on and on! We sit at the table and reminisce about stories that have been told over and over and talk of Kenneth’s dad, who passed away in 2013. My boys have special memories of Grandad taking them hunting and fishing, riding to the fishing center or to Pea Island to look at the ducks, and listening to classic rock as they ride in the front seat of his pickup truck. We were laughing and enjoying our meal when I started to fade. Now remember, this is nothing new….every day around this time of the day is when I crash but today was Christmas day and I was supposed to be able to keep going. As I sat listening, I couldn’t chime in and stories became fuzzy in my ears. I almost felt like I was looking at the table from above and seeing how this table would look without me there. I stayed stoic for everyone’s sake but I will never forget that feeling of sadness that swept over me as we finished Christmas dinner……and I never told a soul!