Monday, September 23, 2013

A Weekend of Remembrance

As parents, it's important to teach our children about the past -- whether that be news events of wide importance or their families' histories. This past weekend I took my sons to Connecticut and New York on just such an educational trip.

Christopher was invited to sing in a concert benefiting the families of the Sandy Hook shooting victims. The concert took place at a festival called "Light the Sky with Light and Love for Sandy Hook Elementary Angels" in Portland, Connecticut, outside Hartford. Since the event had been postponed twice due to flooding of the field where it was to be held and continued wet conditions, we were beyond excited to finally be able to attend and give something back toward the worthy cause.

My older son sang a song called 26 Angels with four other kids, one guitarist, and one adult singer. Recorded last year over our holiday break, 26 Angels has been viewed 23,408 times on YouTube. The original group was comprised of twenty boys and girls, five adult musicians, and singer/songwriter Justin Cohen representing the twenty first graders and six school employees killed in the attack. (See "26 Angels," 12/26/12.) But everyone is very busy this time of year, so just six of the original twenty-six made it down to Portland.

My son understood why he was singing. I explained the December 14 tragedy to him. He is very mature for his age, so I felt he could handle the news with just the right amount of anger and compassion. And he did.

I did not tell my younger son who was the same age as the child victims, however. (See "Psychologically Protecting Kids: One Size Does Not Fit All," 12/16/12.) To this day, I have still not told him. It's just too darn god-awful for a child of seven to learn of a rampage on children of six and seven.

So the question became: How could I, a full-time single mother without readily available weekend child care, bring Charlie along to the audio recording and video recording sessions and Saturday's concert? Fortunately, I figured it out. I dropped off Chris at the first two then whisked Charlie off to Starbucks to play Hangman and Market Basket to pick up chicken wings. He entertained himself in a bounce house this past weekend.

Charlie whirls around in his own world. He seeks out gratification through physical means. Thus, he kept himself busy jumping; climbing an inflatable slide; riding the carnival swings, kiddie roller coaster, spinning metal tubs, and race cars; and eating snacks. He did not ask questions. The event was just a country fair to him. Still, I was relieved for his sake that more blatant reminders of the tragedy were not thrust in front of him.

Though Charlie is not as inquisitive as Christopher -- of course, he is almost two and a half years younger -- he did recently pose a question that startled me. "What is 9/11?" he asked as I watched Today before school on September 11. Thinking a moment, I decided to give him the news.

Fast forward to this past weekend: Following the Sandy Hook concert, we continued on to Stamford to spend the night. The next morning, yesterday, we parked in the Darien train station lot and rode Metro-North into New York City because Charlie was auditioning for Benetton in the back of a downtown wine shop.

Indeed, it's a long haul to journey to the Big Apple for a five-minute photo shoot! On the other hand, a one-day trip to the city and back home to northeastern Massachusetts does not allow for much sightseeing. So I have resolved to hit up just one tourist attraction when we go.

As we had back in March, the first time my younger son tried out to model for the global fashion brand along with DKNY Kids, we strolled up to the nearby South Street Seaport to have lunch. But this time we were disappointed to find the Pier 17 pavilion all but closed save for one cafe. The mall building, depressingly empty as a ghost town, is slated to be torn down and rebuilt.

Argh. Onto Plan B. We ate barbecued chicken on skewers from a street vendor. Thinking fast on my feet, I decided on Ground Zero. The former site of the Twin Towers was just across town, and both of my sons now knew about the events of 9/11. The time was right, and the weather was perfect.

The 9/11 Memorial was incredibly moving, highly secure -- though I read today that a Milwaukee woman attempted to bring a loaded gun inside yesterday, the day we were there! -- and very busy on a sunny and warm Sunday in September. Passing through airport-like security, I pointed out to Charlie three large photographs on the wall. The top one showed the World Trade Center before the terrorist attack. The middle one showed an aerial view right after; the bottom image, as it looks today in the process of reconstruction. Overhearing my explanation to my young son, a woman in front of me turned around and praised my parenting skills. (Let me tell you: it never gets old to be lauded doing the hardest job in the world, especially after a very rough week as mine had been.)

Mid-afternoon we caught a train back to Darien, my hometown, and picked up the car. I had thought about trying to meet up with a relative living in Fairfield County, yet I hadn't made advance plans. Plus, we really didn't have time. I considered taking the boys to the cemetery where my parents are interred in the urn garden, but that would have been just too Claire Dunphy-morbid following the Sandy Hook concert and 9/11 Memorial! So I drove them to Tokeneke, the beautiful club on Long Island Sound that my parents belonged to during my growing-up years.

I half-expected to be stopped at the entrance for trespassing by the Tokeneke area police force. (Yes, you read that right. The neighborhood has its own very small force!) Thankfully, I was not.

Charlie ran to the water's edge to look for crabs. Meanwhile, I took Christopher to the pool where I swam on the team, the locker area where my mother and I changed our clothes, the tennis courts where I played in tournaments, the sailing area where I taught myself how to windsurf, and the dining room where my parents and I occasionally ate. I showed Chris old club photos dating back about a century, including one from 1972 featuring a girl I knew.

We left Darien around 5 p.m. It was a long, slow drive back to our home on Cape Ann. I missed half the Emmy Awards on TV, but that was pretty unimportant. We'd had a great time and a very smooth trip for once. It was really wonderful to spend the weekend away having fun with my sons -- each getting his own special activity -- and teaching Christopher and Charlie about momentous current events and my childhood all at the same time.

When you take the time to share the world -- the one you grew up in and the one they may not understand -- your children will be better off for it. They will feel more connected to the universe and their own family, and they will gain a keener understanding of who they are as individuals.

Friday, September 13, 2013

This is 52

When I was a child, my father told me he didn't expect to live past fifty-two. He had suffered from rheumatic fever in World War II and was discharged at the very beginning of his service. The condition weakens the heart, he explained. Doctors had given him the numerical prognosis. "I think you should know," he added. My mother didn't like it that my father put this ominous information in her young child's head. Sure enough, I couldn't look at my father after that without fearing he would drop dead at any moment. Today, as a parent of two kids myself, I have to agree with my late mother. As it played out, my father lived to sixty-eight. I was twenty-five at the time instead of nine.

Now let me tell you: fifty-two ain't so bad. I know because I just turned the playing-card age today. To be sure, two years past a half-century is getting up there. I could be a member of AARP and get a free donut at Dunkin' Donuts, but I'm not ready to enroll in that age-based organization. I deal with health issues I didn't have even a few years ago in my late forties. However, I am still active (mountain climbing, camping, canoeing, kayaking, etc.) and mostly happy -- indeed, some days are more of a struggle than others -- and very busy because of my kids. Many, many years await me, God willing.

I will do whatever I can to make sure of that.

Fifty-two (or any age, of course) strikes everyone differently. Here's how it has found me: I look, act, and dress much younger than my age. That's not to say I'm immature or wear crop tops. I am not and do not. Yet I still have plenty of wavy blond hair -- no gray -- that I often wear in a ponytail and that hasn't been painted with highlights or wrapped in hair salon foil in probably a year. Occasionally, I get compliments on my skin, which is amazing to me since I used to have acne that I made terrible by obsessive picking. (For the record, you can still get zits at fifty-two! Who knew? I have some right now. My post-summer flare ups from wearing sunblock.) I was forty the first time someone told me I had nice skin. She meant no wrinkles. It was my aunt, but still. Attired in jeans, shorts, tee shirts, or other casual tops nearly all the time, I am generally mistaken for five to ten years younger than my age and sometimes even more.

Back in boarding school, my roommate my first year used Erno Laszlo products. Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and fifteen-year-old V. Seriously. A college roommate of mine was a Shaklee devotee. I had never heard of either skin care line before meeting these classmates. For a time, I used a Clinique trifecta -- cleanser, toner, and moisturizer -- because something free came with the deal, no doubt. Maybe a shiny makeup bag or little case of eye shadow I didn't know how to apply. For the money I was spending, did these products really improve my skin? I really can't say. Mostly I chose what my friends were using, like Noxzema. (My mother really hated that smell.) More recently, it was Cetaphil, and now I buy a Neutrogena cleanser. Jennifer Garner looks pretty good, doesn't she?

I attribute my lack of wrinkles for a woman my age to my simple cleaning regimen and, particularly, my decision to face the world au naturel. What you see is what you get. No makeup (or concealer), Botox, collagen, plastic surgery, facelift, or what have you. I wear a little makeup if I have a date, photo shoot, or evening plans. Otherwise, I walk out the door bare-faced.

My weight has been more difficult to maintain. The culprit, as I see it, is less my age and more my stress level as a full-time single mother for one and a half months short of a decade. Put a crown on my head! I dropped the baby pounds immediately, Duchess of Cambridge-style, both times I gave birth in my forties and even shed a few extra lbs. for good measure one of those times. Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian, eat your hearts out! Yet once the reality of raising a child then a second without hardly any free help kicked in (uh, that would be immediately!), the pounds began to creep back -- first, slowly and, later, more rapidly. I was wiped out with one child, but my chronic fatigue syndrome really moved in for the duration after my second (colicky AND a horrible sleeper) came along. Sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and weight gain go hand in hand, nevermind the pressure brought on by my huge responsibilities. All told, I put on about thirty pounds.

I lost the first five myself then went on a formal diet plan and shed the rest. Unfortunately, my effort was all for nought as a series of bad circumstances soon befell me and derailed my success and motivation. Tragedy! I injured my back. My boyfriend broke up with me. My home was damaged following a toilet issue. And I got taken in by a Nigerian fraud on after wasting an entire summer on him. My mood went from super proud of myself to defeated in a matter of months. The fact that I could not deal with -- and still haven't dealt with -- my home on top of my demanding 24/7 single-mother duties ensured that I could not restore my demeanor to its earlier upbeat level. What's more, despite the fact that I've rejoined Jenny Craig after dropping out, I have not returned to my lowest recent weight. In fact, I am right now at the upper end of that spectrum.

Here's the thing: I like to eat. There, I've said it. I am not a binger or even an overeater, I believe. Yet I still have my appetite, and I indulge myself if I feel like it. I am not someone who picks at her food or chooses hummus and carrots for lunch, though I do love a good salad. I am not a waif, and I'm never going to be anorexic, though I have been too skinny a couple of times in my life after protest-starving myself (another blog post) and returning from four months in Asia during which I contracted bronchitis, severe bacterial dysentery, and dehydration.

Ah, the good old days!

These days I finish my meals then follow up with dessert if I feel tempted. I'm not going to apologize to anyone for enjoying food or having gained some weight as a result. I am okay with both -- emotionally and physically. Unlike the first time I gained weight as a single mother, I feel strong not depleted. I wish I could say the added pounds were all muscle this time around, but I can't because I still don't get enough exercise due to lack of time.

In any case, my situation is not at all uncommon among mothers, even more so overburdened single mothers like myself. And I am fifty-two, don't forget. The march of age does play a role in weight gain.

Regarding my eyes, a new milestone was reached a couple of years ago when I was informed, gulp, that I needed bifocals. I've worn prescription glasses or contact lenses since senior year in high school. Pearle Vision worked the prescription into my new eyewear -- I believe that was the time they gave me a free silver and blue digital camera -- and I even went so far as to purchase two pairs of contact lenses: one for daily use and the other for playing sports like tennis to help me better see the ball across the court. Lol. I can't remember when I last wore lenses AND played tennis at the same time. No wait, I do remember. It was during the spring of 2011 when we took our last week-long vacation, a trip to a family Club Med in Florida. At forty-nine, I beat in the finals of the Ladies Singles tournament that week a thirty-five-year-old MIT professor who was about six feet tall. Still got it (or, maybe, had it)! Four months before my fiftieth birthday, that made me feel really good.

As for my teeth, I don't believe I flossed my entire mouth once before the age of fifty. "Don't leave home without it" -- that classic American Express slogan -- is now how I feel about floss and my seafoam-green plastic CVS toothpicks. I have a near panic attack (okay, a small one) if I find myself out and about and possibly eating a meal or snack without one of the above in my pocket or purse. Food gets lodged easily between my teeth, particularly inside the two pockets in the back on both sides, and it bothers the heck out of me if I can't remove it right away. The word "periodontist" has entered my conversations with my dental hygienist and dentist, but I have yet to seek one out.

Then there's that other aspect of my skin, not the fantastic looking-younger-than-its-age part. I'm talking about the, ugh, skin-cancer part. I was diagnosed at thirty-four, eighteen years ago. The year was 1996, and my mother died from the disease the year before. Certainly, the diagnosis was unwelcome and shocking because of my young age, but it was not surprising given that I possessed the basic markers: genetics, fair skin, and countless painful sunburns in my past.

To be sure, my nose peeled every summer when I was a child and youth on a Connecticut beach club's swim and tennis teams and at a camp in Maine I attended six years. During my college summers, I lifeguarded and taught swimming at a beach-club pool in the Hamptons. And when I was lucky, I got invited down to Palm Beach to visit my aunt and uncle. Suntan lotion, sunscreen and, later, sunblock were beach-bag necessities for me. But I made a lot of mistakes. I forgot to bring them along too many times to count. Or I didn't have a high enough SPF. Or I couldn't reach a spot on my back. Or I got involved in something in the sun before remembering to apply the cream.

While skin cancer itself is not a sign of aging -- actually, I've come to learn that people can die from it in their twenties -- the passage of each year since my diagnosis makes me very grateful once again how long my skin has managed to keep the bad kind at bay. Skin cancer usually worsens with age. In the past close to two decades, I have had numerous actinic keratosis and basal cell carcinomas removed from my face, shoulders, back, and other parts of my body. It seems I can't walk out of my dermatologist's office without something having been done to me: a biopsy here, a liquid-nitrogen application there.... I've been poked, scraped, and cut over and over again. I've had Mohs surgery on my face and shoulders. And one time, when my second son was less than a year old, that surgery was needed to treat a squamous cell carcinoma. During the consultation with the dermatologic surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, I was told that the surgery could result in disfiguration because the problem area was very close to my right nostril. Needless to say, that was horrifying news to receive. "But we will call in a plastic surgeon," she added in an attempt to make me feel better.

As it turned out, she did an incredible job removing all the cancerous tissue without interfering with my nose. But then the trick became preventing more interference. At the time, I was running after my three-year-old son Christopher but, worse, co-sleeping with baby Charlie and breastfeeding him while trying to keep his flailing arms and reaching hands away from the healing scar!

For several years, I had a question on my mind but was afraid to ask it: Does the presence of a squamous cell carcinoma mean my skin cancer is no longer benign? After finally mustering up the courage a couple of years ago, my fears were confirmed. My skin cancer had left the realm of benign and entered the territory of "invasive."

I don't like the word invasive. It suggests aggressive armies attacking innocent civilian populations. No. I don't want anything invasive forcing its way around my epidermis and taking up residence there!

I also didn't like it when my dermatologist's assistant told me that the BIDMC surgeon had "asked about me." Not because she liked me so much and was interested in my family. But because she wanted to know about my present condition. Let me tell you: you don't want to hear that your surgeon is asking about you!

In any case, the same physician assistant -- who, at first sight of me, lunges toward my scar -- concluded the last time I saw her that I'm just one of these people who gets marks frequently that need to be treated. She is extremely pleased with the job the surgeon did on my face. The scar running straight down from the right side of my nose to my upper lip has healed well, and it appears no different than it did when it first closed up. These are good signs. And it is not too noticeable. It just looks like I was in a street fight. I don't even cover it with makeup. I visit the physician assistant every six months, though I've learned it does me no good to be examined in the warm months when I have color in my face because it's harder for her to tell what might or might not be something she needs to examine. Now that summer is over and my "tan" has faded, I am due for another checkup.

Checkups cause me some anxiety, but I don't talk about my skin cancer or give it much thought, really. I have kept it private. Well, that is, until now.

Another condition I have that makes me think of Charlie is vertigo. He gave it to me when he was breathing into my ear while we were still co-sleeping, and he had a virus. The virus manifested itself in me as an inner-ear infection. For three weeks solid, I had momentary yet relentless waves of dizziness day and night. They were especially scary when I had to drive with my young boys on the highway. Unfortunately, the condition is chronic. Indeed, I have experienced other briefer and less severe periods of vertigo including one that lasted all of last week! I haven't had the chance to go scuba diving in a dozen years, but I hope my vertigo doesn't preclude me from doing so in the future.

Finally, what would a fifty-something birthday be without a new diagnosis?! Yep, 'this true. Today I was told I have plantar fasciitis, a foot issue. A friend's husband, a podiatrist, broke the news to me before he and his wife presented me with their birthday present: my first pair of orthotics!


Fifty-two doesn't suck. Still, it reminds me which way down the continuum I am heading. For that reason, I took it upon myself to do something today to feel young. I purchased a Rainbow Loom, the hot toy of the moment of girls and boys across the country. Crafting bracelets and rings out of brightly colored rubber bands may not make me feel twelve, so let's just call it a draw.

I'll settle for thirty-two.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Tribute to Diana (Nyad, of course)

"I'm in my prime."

"I'm not a quitter."

"I have a tremendous will."

"You never are too old to chase your dreams."

"[P]ush Cuba back, and push Florida towards you."

Box jellyfish
"[N]ever, ever give up."

Shoulder pain
Saltwater intake
"[T]o come in with my intrepid crew, it just takes all the physical pain away."

Prosthetic mask
Ribbon line
Shark Shield
"Find a way."

The iconic American extreme athlete completed a 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida on September 2. It was her fifth try in thirty-five years. It took her nearly fifty-three hours. She is sixty-four years old.