Sick

I’m sick. Not Cancer sick, or chemo sick, or even sick and tired of scratchy Tatum and these ridiculous hats. I just have a cold and by dose is wunny. Having spent all my chits regarding Britty-pity, I’m not expecting speedy noodle soup delivery. It’s quite enough that I have a captive audience and something completely mundane to kvetch about. But if someone could make a bit more tea…

I completed a phone interview with the nosy nurse who needed to check off all of her pre-op boxes before next week’s surgery. Thank goodness she reminded me to curb my recreational drug usage and remove all of my risqué piercings. Poor thing. I didn’t tell her until after the domestic violence screening that yup, my husband is that Dr. Lee. During the whole pleasantly awkward conversation (pre-op nurses are not so jokey), I was stifling my coughs and hoping she thought I always sound this mannish. I don’t want anything to postpone the swapping of these prow-of-a-ship expanders (call me Sea Bitch) for a more reasonably sized silicone set. I’m ready to shut the door on this nonsense, run Tatum up a flagpole, and resume embarrassing myself without the help of prosthetics.

I realize now that Maria will be reading this and won’t let Adam operate on me if I have even the smallest suggestion of sniffles. So obviously, I’m feeling better already. Nope, no fever here! I know I’ll get a text from Momma Maria later, reminding me not to swallow fistfuls of aspirin this close to surgery, inquiring if I really want that noodle soup, or just letting me know for the umpteenth time that she’s thinking of me, and that any cup size query is no one’s business but mine. Maria is The Nurse in Bernie’s office, and she brings her heart-on-a-sleeve, crying-right-along with-you, tell-me-what-you-really-need-ness to all of her patients—even the ones who aren’t the wife of the boss. There are hundreds of us who have unloaded our secret, deepest fears onto Maria. And because I know she carries them in her heart, I often find Maria in my prayers, asking for her to be unburdened of our sadness and terror. I wish we could somehow return the Peace she gifted to us when we so desperately needed it.

Gorgeous Maria, here with Adam: Team B(ritt) Cup

I’ll bet not everyone is lucky enough to have a Maria, but I hope that other women sweating under Tatums do. Next week she will sacrifice another one of her vacation days to babysit me through humiliating backless gown moments, and then make sure Bernie remembers to eat something. She’ll have someone else pick up her son from school, so that I make it home to see mine. Bernie and I will sail through another dreaded day, as Maria sucks up all of our nervous apprehension like some Italian, bustling, bossy Dyson. And should anyone attempt to foil her carefully laid plans for the day, then you’ve got a problem to solve… called Maria.

Just thinking about her and her fierce competence, I feel compelled to drink some juice and get a good night’s sleep. And as my head hits the pillow tonight I hope you’ll join me in saying a prayer for the Marias of the world (especially mine) who take us into their loving hearts and make everything infinitely better. Wuv you, Maria (sniffle).

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Fromage

I received a letter in the mail. A letter! In the mail! As quaint as a corded telephone, this correspondence was sent by the brilliant, venerated, often feared, but fiercely loved Professor John Simmons. Among other gems in this beautifully composed missive was the sweet wish that we’d known each other better back in my decapitate-rats-for-honors college days. In our rekindled friendship, long after graduation, I was delighted to learn that this elegant, eloquent, manner-minding man is not only deeply spiritual, but also charmingly quick to giggle. And even though I spent many pre-med hours in his intimidating classroom and bloody laboratory, he generously affirmed my life choices (quitting medicine to great happiness and effect). But back ‘neath the elms in the early nineties, he certainly wasn’t missing out on anything. Like a smelly cheese, I was unformed and unpalatable young, only improving with the deep blue vein of Life Amongst Asians, (and probably cracker barreling toward a moldering end of self-involved Cancer drivel). Had we shared a bottle of Sancerre twenty years ago, the great Professor would have found me quite dull in my single-minded pursuit of science, degrees, job security, and everything else the expensive education promised. These days, especially with the tongue-loosening effect of chemical menopause, I’m a lot more interesting.

While possibly life-saving, this tamoxifen is one hot little pill. I now understand why my own mother prefers her coffee iced, shirts sleeveless, and thermostat fixed at the same temperature as the produce drawer. As a fair-skinned (former) blonde, I’ve always been quick to flush, or blush, or even break out in nervous hives. Now this happens even when I’m not embarrassing myself. I’m assembling an arsenal of snarky retorts for strangers who helpfully remind me that I should have used sunblock. Bernie combed the internet for tricks to combat side effects which read like advice from an old, warty crone. And feeling quite tapped out regarding sacrifice and fortitude, I’m not forsaking my beloved coffee or taking disgusting oil supplements. I’d rather endure the oscillating temperatures in this edematous fat suit, and resist asking you for the tenth time if it’s hot in here.

My latest writing assignment is to compose a book proposal. So naturally, I’m feeling undue pressure to be extraordinary in the re-telling of this journey from the quaking fear of diagnosis to its sweltering aftermath. I have warm, fuzzy, married-the-right-guy-Holy-Spirit-is-everywhere feelings about the whole thing now, so I’m worried that it will all sound (forgive the appalling, recurrent conceit) cheesy. I need a good argument that this story hasn’t already been told, and begs to be shared. Reviewing the statistics, I’ve got the unique part clinched. Young(ish) people are much less likely to get breast cancer; and although you’d never know it cruising past bus stops in my neighborhood, inter-racial marriage is still uncommon. Whittling down the numbers to women who get this bummer news while being married to a Taiwanese, published-in-breast-cancer-journals plastic surgeon… well, I’m probably the only one with that bumper sticker. Because I’m chatty, and the Family Lee provides a rather constant stream of entertaining material, I occasionally think just recording life as it happens around here might suffice for a diverting, paperback beach read. But at the very least my story is one where the cancer-addled protagonist doesn’t die. I’ve grown quite fond of those.

As I struggle to convince some far-away editor that I’m fabulous, this unsolicited ego-boosting letter from Dr. Simmons was well timed. All writers (and especially fake, bloggy ones like me) need unsolicited ego boosting. Also, it was a reminder of how far I’ve traveled since my undergraduate rat-murdering days when I thought there would be some nirvana career endpoint to all of that assertive schooling. Yet here I sit, bald and unemployed (20 year old me would be horrified), as a much better lunch date than that clever college girl. An aborted career, cute children, helpfully hilarious in-laws, and rediscovered Faith have brought me more joy than the pursuit of academic greatness. Writing these little essays helps me make sense of this life I didn’t plan, or just temporarily deflects the nagging, ever-present question, “Why me?” And as my East Meets Breast story continues to unfold (Bernie’s sister is coming soon… stay tuned) I hope that interest in this survival story endures my recounting of it. In short, (last one) I hope my cheese is peaking.

Just today, beautiful Susan asked me if it’s too soon for cancer walks and other bald-girl bonding. Honestly, because most (normal) people find Cancer sad and terrifying, their stories are inevitably sad and terrifying; add in tedious reporting of cell counts, yellowing fingernails, and nausea remedies, and they’re also a bit boring. Of course I am profoundly indebted to those women who know what it’s like to wonder if their wig (or breasts) are sitting properly, and are not only too willing to share the funny moments, but the very fact that Cancer no longer defines them. But I’m also deeply inspired by the messages of love and support on these Pages, or the casual comments from my cute kids (“Mommy did you become Chinese when you married Daddy?”), or in a real letter from a man too proper to blog, but darling enough to encourage me to continue.

The very handsome, occasionally terrifying, but always stylish… Professor John E. Simmons

Mother’s Day Musings

There is already an overlarge shelf in the bookstore about parenting styles, pitting the Tiger Mom (the standard to aspire to, or to vilify) against the Attached Parent (to applaud, or to mock). The world cannot possibly need even another slim pamphlet about raising children. But my dear friend Nancy (a real writer) insists that it must be interesting how we’ve muddled along. That’s probably because she hasn’t spent an extended period of time with my boys. Rather, she gets the cute snippets that make my boys seem more perfect than they are. And their endearingly sage Cancer sound bites might point to sublimely good parenting instead of just an innocent reaction to some really bad luck.

But I won’t deny it. My boys are tops. Brodie, now 8, has always been one of those “old soul” kids. He is a gorgeous, Eurasian mix and has this deep, cool voice but absolutely infectious giggle. Teddy, my seven year old, is really really really funny, honestly the cutest kid I’ve ever seen, and he dances and sings without effort or embarrassment. Both of them are whip smart and near clones of the fabulous man I married. Quite often I wonder how much my DNA is holding them back. However, they hit the jackpot as far as Moms go. I’m kind of awesome at this.

I harbor no delusions that others may not be so quick to award me the Mommy Blue Ribbon. I don’t even particularly like kids. I was a horrible, bedtime story-refusing, impatient babysitter who couldn’t wait to raid the pantry and watch cable. Even now, I avoid play-dates. I don’t want my kid over at your house any more than I want your little germ carriers at mine. Unless the child is unusually entertaining or the spawn of someone I really like (who also enjoys a bit of play-date wine), we’re busy. Even when my own boys were babies, I’ll admit to a smidge of bored resentment with them. They were just so needy and always hungry in ways that required a lot of chopping.

Now that they are older, whether they are delighting me with their Bernie-ness or annoying me with all of the wrestling and subsequent tears, I just adore them. All moms love their kids, and many are probably as absurdly (but not as exasperatingly) boastful of them as I am. But after many years of discussing mommy-hood with family, friends, countless sleep-deprived women, and society-at-large, I find that not many moms are fully confident in their job. And the most competent, responsible women I know are the ones wondering if they couldn’t be doing more. Meanwhile, I harbor a bigheaded belief that my boys are wicked lucky to have me: I’m fun and silly, I bake cookies, I’m quick to hug and pepper them with kisses, I say yes more than no, I’m un-moody and don’t yell. Yay, Mommy! These are the things they are going to remember on countless Mother’s Days, and they are the things that are inherently me, cannot be improved nor stifled, and don’t require a battery of books to learn.

April, as you know from these Pages, is a banner friend. She is one of those people whose loyalty springs from a strong sense of self: she knows what is good and right, and then steadfastly honors that with others. In addition to her inherent virtue, she is also smarter than the average crust-cutter. And her ability to chat up even the stodgiest New Englander, and eagerness pour you a cocktail, makes her super fun at a party. April’s polite, smart, athletically gifted, adorable children reflect her unfailing, and yet loving, efforts to improve them. She is one of those moms I aspire to be, except for all of that running around driving them to myriad sports. (If this is required for great parenting, my kids are screwed.) But in spite of the hours she logs printing extra math problems, reading aloud, chopping healthy foods, and finagling spots on teams, April still wonders if she’s “mom enough” and always has an article or book in the queue about how to do it better– even though she is the one who should be writing them. Her oldest, Bryan, said this to me recently: “Mrs. Lee! I’ve been waiting so long to HUG you!” Obviously, April doesn’t need the best-selling guidance of a self-congratulatory Tiger Mom or a relentlessly breast-feeding helicopter parent.

With all of the external messages about how we’re doing it wrong, or just never as well as the Asians, I think we should all be helping each other make the mommy job easier and more enjoyable. Call me lazy, but there are really only two areas where I’m a total pedant: manners and bedtime. If your kid isn’t an overtired whiny ***hole and sounds cute asking for stuff, you’ve already done a bang up job of parenting. It will come as no surprise that, especially now with the brilliant Cancer excuse, I’m too pooped to fuss over anything that isn’t important. My boys have to practice their spelling words. They have to go to Sunday school. They have to say please and thank you and I’m sorry. But they don’t have to finish their milk, or pick up their clothes, or put away their toys, or practice piano, or say “hi” to grandma on the phone. Of course I make them do all sorts of extra work so they can beat yours at the Math Minutes. But that’s because after 11 years of Lee marriage, I’m practically Asian.

Especially now in Life After Cancer, I believe parenting should be painless enough so that a 4pm glass of wine is more social than necessary. It’s a time-consuming job, and by whittling out entirely futile nagging over unimportant things, I may have more enjoyment at the workplace than other (better) moms. Occasionally I will encounter a rule of etiquette I probably should have been a bit more rigid about. Teddy has a really annoying habit of getting out of his seat at meals at least seventeen times (to dance, or to see if he’s taller than yesterday, or to poop, or to imitate Bugs Bunny if there are raw carrots on that evening’s menu). But this doesn’t make him any less awesome as a little person. His handwriting is perfect. He’s earned more stars than anyone in his class. He reads encyclopedias! His smartypants cuteness reminds me that I’m doing a better than average job at this. And frankly, the Bugs Bunny imitation hasn’t gotten old yet.

When the whole Tiger Mom sensation hit the media, my father-in-law was deeply disturbed. A-Gong thought Amy Chua’s approach was decidedly lacking in one area: Faith. In addition to being appalled by her stereotypical generalization of American Parents, he felt sorry for her children who, in spite of an expensively arranged Bat Mitzvah, were growing up without God. And maybe what we were all feeling, in addition to annoyance with this woman and her arguably brag-worthy children, was that the Tiger Mom had no Faith in herself. All of this parental one-upmanship was to fill a void. Darling Joe Burke, who is wise, funny, and has faith in my well-intentioned ways, recently told me I might be trying too hard, too. As I worried about the quality or frequency or (I’ll admit it) usefulness of my prayers, he reminded me that my Faith in God could be as effortless as His in me. To him, it’s all in the noticing. Beauty and Goodness are everywhere, but sorely lacking when we beat up each other and ourselves about how to be better moms, wives, Christians. God is in that sweet greeting from bed-headed Bryan to this tired, bald mommy. And what better Mother’s Day gift than to know you encouraged this Divine kind of goodness? It’s all in the noticing.