The Girl in the Hideous Poncho, by Katie McWane Diecker

Katie is a funny, blonde, talented mommy of three lovely children: two earthly blonde cuties, and one darling angel in Heaven. Reading about my Cancer-versary, Katie admitted to a measure of jealousy. Two years later, I have my hair back. But Zachary? Not any number of Zach-aversaries will bring him back. Putting fingertips to keyboard, Katie sent me this collection of paragraphs that she calls her Christmas miracle—the redeeming notion that maybe, after four years, she’s back.

I would like to offer those of you in the gutter of your grief, some hope (I hope). I just felt a Christmas miracle. Of course the best would be to have Zachary home, but recently I just sort of, well…woke up? And of course, I am a totally changed person, woman, mother from losing my biggest dream, my first baby, my Zachary. Sometimes I feel like people can see the grief all over me. Possibly that’s all they see, covering everything like some hideous poncho. But now I see that miracles happen, even to girls in hideous ponchos.

A few weeks ago an old child psychology colleague recommended me for a really great job, and the selling point of my employ-ability was this:

She is one of the funniest people…EVER.

Me? This was me she was advocating. Grief-stricken, Dead Baby Mommy, me? But when I read that cc-ed email, something shifted, and my blonde head started spinning. Wait, I was funny! I mean, I used to be funny. But not anymore. I don’t know how to be funny anymore. Funny stopped at Zachary. But maybe this email suggested that humor (humor!) had begun creeping back in. Great, now they’ll be expecting hilarious emails and witty asides. This is how grief (and human nature) distort otherwise lovely compliments. I wasn’t quite ready for Zachary-cancelling compliments.

But fate (God?) is persistent. Today I was at work with three people I spend more time with than my two small children. As a voice director for animation, we work hard, fast, and precisely to meet deadlines, simultaneously preventing those pressures from sapping our creativity or performance. I sit beside a recording engineer and we work in tandem, with a producer and casting director behind us. It’s Hollywood and badass and also tedious and repetitive. I love it.

Today was our last session before the holiday so we were unwinding, saying things we normally wouldn’t say, collapsing into the friend zone and sharing the best sort of inappropriate insights about our industry and the challenges of finding work. The casting director said, “You know Katie, you could be an actor.” Hmmm, “Yeah, I used to be, but I just don’t know what my ‘thing’ is, you know? You have to know what you are best at in order to sell yourself.” My engineer nearly slapped me in the arm

C’mon Katie you’re funny! TV needs you. You’re like Lucille Ball!

And now I’m crying. For the first time, I realized I’m back. Not because I’m ready to stop being Dead Baby Mommy, but because the world doesn’t see me that way anymore. I have a little boy in Heaven guiding our family, but I am a woman that no longer wears her grief first. It’s no longer the prow of the family ship. I’m not sure if any of this makes sense, but maybe it will to those who feel that sadness defines them, owns them. And my hope (my Christmas wish) is that your losses will come back. Though earthly losses remain, our personal ones can be filled with the love and appreciation of people who really see us under our hideous ponchos. My Zachary is gone, but I’m still here… laughing with other people. This happens. It’s a proof of love in the world, or the power of humor, or the grace of God. But this happens.

STOCKINGS

The Diecker house is trimmed for Christmas cheer, and love, and laughter… with a stocking hung for Zachary. Merry Christmas, friends.

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My Ta-tas aren’t amused

Reissuing this oldie in honor of a day many of us dread: the ridiculous No Bra Day. Keep your unmentionables hidden and support research that aims to cure metastatic disease.

You’re either a bumper sticker kind of person or you are not, and I am firmly seated in the latter group. I cannot think of a single thing I need you to know while we queue to brave the rotary. If pressed to slap something on my fender, I might be able to commit to, “You look pretty!” My community service call to action would resemble: “Did you make your bed today?” And the most politically polarizing statement I could muster is an endorsement of only white Christmas lights. (I’m actually kind of passionate about that one.) So today, as I inched the entire length of Beacon Street behind a “Save the Ta-Tas” truck in threatening weather, I wondered who convinced the owner of this otherwise serviceable vehicle to besmirch it with pink ribbon dreck.

Obviously, my reaction was informed heavily by my Cancer-versary. So whatever “Save the Ta-tas” intends to protect, it’s certainly not my patience. We never see this inane message translated into testicular cancer awareness in order to sell stickers. Defend the Danglers! Safeguard the Stones! Protect the Plums! Keep the Cojones! Oh, the hilarity of designing t-shirts that urge women to Cup Your Husbands for Cancer! But this is for sale:

You could find a Cancerous lump! It's sexy AND hilarious!

Oooh, sexy sexy! And maybe you’ll find a CANCEROUS LUMP! Hilarious!

The mission statement from this dreadful ta-ta advocate is that laughter heals. Well, sort of. Surgery removes cancer, chemotherapy intends to zap stragglers, and laughter makes the whole bald nightmare tolerable. But no amount of hee-hee-you-said-boobies humor kills rogue cells. And until we have a cure, launching a slogan that insinuates saving a cancerous organ is just irresponsible and confusing when it stops being sophomoric and insulting. Are we supposed to “save” our breasts at all costs, succumb to shark bite surgery and post-operative radiation that turns the ta-ta into a dried fruit approximation of breast-ness? Is this the message of “Save the Ta-tas?” Breasts are not endangered animals, and cancerous ones are unlikely to have a longer life expectancy for the five research projects you’ve funded with a pittance of the proceeds from your disrespectful swag. I can only imagine the weight of all of those horrible jokes on the good scientists whose work will be expected to atone for them.

An oft-viewed post on this site is Things to Say to People With Cancer. Because wordpress.com practically assigns you a blog at the first mammogram abnormality, we blabby girls in the Shitty Sorority become a Google-searchable source for cancer information and attitudes. I’ve been asked about Komen, and this Ta-ta nonsense, and even how to contribute in a grand gesture way. It’s quite simple. If you have time, donate it to your friend with Cancer: she’s too tired to ask. If you have money, contribute to funds for metastatic breast cancer research, because that is the disease that kills us. The Ta-tas don’t need saving. And no one needs goofball slogans about boobies intended to support the very women who don’t have them.

Well, that was an uncharacteristically shout-y, probably post-traumatic little rant. But I stand behind it with the full weight of my implants. Now go make your beds, my pretties.

White lights... only white lights.

And Merry White Light Christmas!

Phototherapy

Today is my Cancer-versary. All day I’ve been morbidly imagining a Jacquie Lawson whimsical, animated e-card for this, though I doubt there’s some cutesy montage of a woodland animal getting scared fur-less then starting a blog. Last year, this day was a tough one. This year I’m inventing really inappropriate Christmas greetings in my head as Tinyprints offers no canned holiday slogans for the cancered. I should probably exorcize them prior to sitting down to the actual task.

Merry Christmas from ALL FOUR Lees! Not dead! Yay!!

Still here—Hair-allulia!

Wishing you a wonderful New Year (knock on wood)!

April came over today to exchange gifts, check in, and make sure I hadn’t started drinking, or possibly join me if I had (…these are the things friends do). Two years ago today, I took the life-changing call in her living room. One year ago, to mark a shitty year completed, April organized a trip to Turks & Caicos for our families (…these are the things April does). Her gift to me this year was a bound photo album of that vacation: 38 pages of gorgeous, warm, sun-kissed memories. If today was always going to be about looking backwards with fear and sadness, this lovely book of pictures flipped the switch on that.

Brodie just padded down the stairs with are-you-mad-I’m-still-awake reluctance. He’s deep into the fourth Percy Jackson, and it had gotten a little creepy. It had also gotten quite late past the allotted reading time, but I can never muster any real parental sternness for this transgression. I think many of us remember unsanctioned school night flashlight reading for just one… more… chapter. Usually mommy hugs and expert bed-tucking are the cure for the Can’t Sleeps, but tonight Brodie requested something else:

I need something good to replace the scary things in my head.

Indeed. Though I was going to save it for Christmas, Brodie needed it now. I pulled out the Anderson and Lee Family Adventure book and we reminisced over the images, erasing chapters of spooky monsters, and months of cold terror with the turn of each page. Brodie returned to his cozy bed dreaming of conch shell diving and night swimming and paddle boarding and sea turtles. I returned to my keyboard to write April (this) little thank you for a more-than-she-could-ever-know magical gift of pictures.

Anniversaries are powerful. The sights and smells of Christmastime may always harbor a twinge of fear, hesitation, superstition, and gloom for me. I still haven’t set foot in April’s living room, and I’m growing my hair like I’m trying to prove something. Certainly the cure for scary memories is to outnumber them with fabulous ones. And to do that, all I need is to surround myself with these wonderful people I call family and friends… and to stick around for many more photos.

Two years. Hair. Here. Happy. Hallelujah.

From April's book... me and the boys and a mop of hair and smiles all around

From April’s book… me and the boys and a mop of hair and smiles all around

“F” is for Florida, by Steve Safran

In 1973, my whole family lived here. Twenty-six of us were in New England, and that was just on my mother’s side. From Nana and Papa right down to lucky cousin #13, most of us lived within 20 miles of Boston and braved entire Red Sox seasons and decades of snow-melt sprinkling and shoveling together. When power went out in one of our towns, we just packed up and piled into the closest cousin’s house that still had cable. Today from that group, it’s just Aunt & Uncle #1 and cousins #2 and #3 who still need puffy coats. The rest moved to Florida.

Florida.

My grandfather moved the family hardware business in the mid-‘70s (one I regret not going into, given its success), choosing America’s longest-lasting penis joke as a permanent residence. He eventually lured the majority of the family to follow him to the crotch of the nation. Well, one moved to Louisiana. But that’s just the Florida of the South. Ask northerners who move to Florida why they would do that on purpose, and they’ll tell you, “I got tired of the cold.” To which I add, “You’re always cold. Now you’re just cold when it dips below 70.” I was born in a snowstorm in January– about a mile from Fenway Park. Two things I know and love are snow and baseball. Why would anyone leave this? We hearty few refuse to fly south to escape weather that was designed for unflattering jackets and four months of whining because we’re New Englanders! But to add insult to frostbite, we have to hand over entire paychecks to JetBlue to visit these thinner-skinned relatives… in F-ing Florida.

With our holidays wrapped, and family fleeing to Friggin’ Florida, it was time to reunite the best substitute for actual blood relations: old friends. Agent 99 and I had a little cocktail party last weekend. Britt, Tony, the splendid Gammonses-Browns and Jason gathered at my Mall-à-terre. I made rum punch and 99 shared her mulled wine recipe. (“Just put in these spices and a lot of alcohol.”) With some amusement, I noticed that when drinking, we all turn into ersatz cousins, brothers, sisters and those two uncles who know exactly how to fix the world. Uncle Left wants to have a 100% inheritance tax (“Fuck You, Trust Funders!”). Uncle Right is tired of the slackers (“Fuck You, Freeloaders!”). And at the end of the night everyone still loves each other, making plans to do it all over again next year.

I dropped off my snowbird parents at Logan Airport early Friday morning, feeling like they must have when they delivered me and sister Boo to summer camp: “Have an awesome time in the sun… see you in two months!” Actually, I suspect they felt a mixture of relief and excitement to be rid of us for a handful of weeks. But there was probably a bit of that aren’t-you-lucky-to-avoid-local-weather-and-responsibility sentiment. Now it’s their turn to enjoy rest and relaxation in perfect, puffy-coat-free weather. Escaping frozen pipes and ice dams and slippery sidewalks and AccuWeather warnings of a doozy of a storm on the way, my parents were only too happy to get settled in Fabulous Florida.

But after only twenty hours in penis-shaped paradise, a text from Mom:

“Snow?”

Enjoy the storm.  I certainly will be.

Refusing to leave the blue zone...

Why New Englanders have only f-bombs for Florida…

Mall Santa

I dreaded Mall Santa Season as a kid. My father, always eager to whip us up into (occasionally forced) holiday cheer, would float the query at some point during our 11th hour Christmas shopping for mom:

Who wants to see Santa?!?

This is one moment from childhood that I recall avidly praying to God. Please, please, please, let there be NO Santa. Or make the lines really long. Please make Dad forget. As a shy child (and a logical one), I thought it was creepy, scary, and weird to sit on the lap of a stranger for any reason… even if it meant a greater possibility of finding The Game of Simon under the tree. Also, I don’t think we Stockton kids actually “believed” for any significant stretch of time. Mom began holiday shopping just shy of Halloween and inexpertly hid wrapped presents in our usual hide-and-seek spots. And in order to remember what she wrapped for whom, mom’s slant-y cursive handwriting could be found on a tiny sticky note affixed to the underside of the presents. It was also hard to believe that my owl-shaped calculator was wrought by North Pole elves that shared mom’s zeal for coordinating wrapping papers. I think we fell for the feint until kindergarten, but then gifts that were signed “from Santa” were just a quaint nod to the tradition, and we openly thanked mom and dad for them. Until then, even as a six year old, I found all of the good-natured wheedling to believe insulting. It was a relief when we finally reached the arbitrary ages grownups deemed appropriate for disbelief, and threats of Santa Mall visiting finally ceased.

Recently, Bernie and I found ourselves at the tinsel-covered mall. As our window-shopping brought us closer and closer to Neiman Marcus, louder and louder became the wails of impatient and terrified children. The Santa Line: a queue forty strollers deep with 37% of the children in tears… and the remainder being asked by Starbuck’s-fueled adults, “Are you EXCITED?” I wanted to rescue all of them. Given the choice, I think any kid would prefer fries at the food court to sitting on the lap of a ridiculously dressed stranger while his frantic parents yell at him to replace his panicked tears with “SMILE!!!” But that’s me. Maybe some kids love this crap.

As a kid who feared forced Santa sitting, and then was annoyed by this childish and dishonest prank perpetuated by adults I normally liked, I became a parent who couldn’t muster enthusiasm for the myth. My boys have never really “believed.” Faced with actually lying to them, I chose not to. “Is Santa sorta like Spiderman?” asked three-year-old Brodie. Yup. Good comparison, kiddo. We still put out cookies (which they know Daddy eats), and write “from Santa” on gifts (which they know are from us), and Lee Family Christmas is still awesome. And no Santa line.

I’ve been holding my tongue (well, fingertips) when ALL CAPS Facebook statuses from agitated mommies implore parents like me to prevent kids like mine from “ruining” it for their innocents on the bus. Be assured that my boys have been schooled in this just as well as the Jewish kids (who must think Christian youth are a bit feeble-minded). Mine aren’t going to “ruin” it for anyone. Well, maybe a little. I never insisted they protect other parental lies as fiercely, and Teddy totally outed the tooth fairy on bus 698. Whoops… sorry, parents.

Dear friend April’s strategy is to tell her kids, “if you don’t believe, you don’t receive!” Knowing their parents aren’t actually going to withhold Christmas presents, this extends the myth for the sake of fun; it puts them into a collusion that is sort of adorable: we know it’s you, but we’ll pretend we don’t, and isn’t this Santa thing a hoot? But I’d love to ask the ALL CAPS mommies, when is the arbitrary age for appropriate disbelief? Is five too young? Is twelve too old? And if my kid debunking the myth at circle time seems cruel and unfair, what is the ideal way for small children to learn Santa isn’t real? And why is this belief so ALL CAPS important?

Obviously the ALL CAPS mommies have much fonder memories of forced Santa-sitting than I do. I’m sure they just want their own kiddos to experience the same magical Christmastime excitement they had, which somehow included bouncing on the lap of a jolly stranger. For the Lees, we’ve never relied on Santa to provide all of the excited anticipation of a Christmas morning. And though I think the creepy custom of Mall Santa could end without irreversibly damaging Christmas, I think we’d be missing something if abandoning the tradition meant no more pictures like this.

BAD SANTA

The hilarity of this photo is not lost on the lovely parents of these tortured kiddos.

There really cannot be too many of these. Ho ho ho!!

‘Tis the Season

Much like my favorite atheist Jew, my blogger friend Rob is a vocal non-believer. But lately, it’s his fellow There’s-No-Big-Guy friends who have been gnawing at his patience with their smart-alecky, know-it-all-ness. And although he recently posted a list of five things we Believers should do differently (e.g., stop trying to convert him), what he really wants—what most of us really want—is for open discussion and kindness to prevail. Steve and I had a popular discussion about this a year ago, and it continues to be read almost daily as Google searches for religious themes click unsuspecting readers over to our back-and-forth about the essential absurdity of Faith. (Essential for me… absurd for others.) In a world that seems broken with all of its celebrity worship and gun-toting children, where jobs can’t be found and tires are being stolen off of cars, where insane, angry people blow up innocent athletes… well, we’re all looking for something, right? The discussion of God, whether He is or is not, and regardless, how to multiply kindness in our midst … well, that’s the most important discussion we can have.

Rob adorably asserts we share the same opinions on just about everything, even though 20 years and half a planet separate us. We’re in agreement right up to where I believe Jesus died on a cross to change the world (and did). And though he takes a more logical approach to Biblical things, I cajole him into admitting a glimmer of Faith, because certainly someone who talks about it with such frequency and respect couldn’t possibly be a nihilistic heathen. Although admittedly, the heathen post will always trump in entertainment value the vague, otherworldly musings of annoying zealots, especially this time of year. Overused “blessings” can make the season sound quite sneezy. An Atheist’s 5-Step Guide to Being Religious begs a thoughtful rebuttal from a mouthy Jesus Girl. But having spent the past week entirely at Church planning and organizing our annual fundraiser, I’ve had few opportunities to bump up against non-believers who question my passion for a supernatural, undead Jew.

What I can share is why this is an excellent time of year to visit Church… whether you Capital B believe or not. The birth of a baby that saves the world is at least as compelling a story as a gaggle of pitch-perfect Austrians. And the music of the season is equally fantastic. Ave Maria? O Holy Night? Goose bumps and damp eyes all around. You’ll find throngs of robed singers eager to belt out harking heralds for all ye faithful at Church, where it smells wonderful, and where real candles glow, and where sacred music is always free. What if we all attended a service of Lessons and Carols and murdered the melody of Once in Royal David’s City together? I strongly believe a community that sings together is more likely to contemplate community. There’s just something about gorgeous music wafting up toward stained glass that makes our hearts swell with the fantastic notion that everyone deserves to have similarly swelling hearts, and inspires our Scrooge-y souls to consider the most vulnerable among us. Of course this can happen outside of Church… but come inside, light a candle, sing along, see what happens.

Saturday night was our annual Trinity mini-reunion, fancy dress grown-up party at Steve’s. Steve recently guest-blogged about this year, which began with a new friendship: Agent 99 joined our gang with sparkly aplomb. Our chat chat chatting about times long past and what’s happening now was accompanied by mulled wine and bubbly wine and savory bits and sushi. We were over-served and we overstayed, which is the mark of excellent hosting. We just weren’t finished celebrating our collective fabulousness (my impression, and these old friends kindly tolerate my vanity.). To prolong the fun, Tony—whose scotch consumption made Honda-maneuvering a bad idea—came home with me and found himself in the hustle bustle of Church readying at 9am the next morning. He could have easily slept in, begged off, pleaded atheist, feigned ill, or claimed hangover… but Tony accompanied The Family Lee to sit in pews and listen to an Advent season sermon.

Our Church prints a weekly leaflet to avoid hymnal page ruffling, provide sit-stand-kneeling directions, and offer words to un-memorized prayers. For the kiddos, it’s also an effective tool for marking time, and answering the rather frequent query, “is it almost over?” But Tony didn’t even crack its cover. Instead he put it aside and just took it all in, approaching this novel church-going more like a college class he was auditing for the day than a zoo exhibit we insisted he see. Eventually it was time to take the sacrament of communion, and well-dressed ushers politely nodded that it was our turn.

“I think I’ve gotta be a part of this thing,” said Tony… who quite possibly hasn’t had the merest sliver of host in years. We bellied up to the rail together. It could have been Cathy’s sermon, which was intelligent and uplifting, thoughtful and soul-touching; maybe it was the chance meeting and Tony’s introduction to some of my favorite Churchy friends; possibly it was Michael’s incredible organ solos with pompadour-flipping gusto. Or perhaps it was just the sense of community and a collective mindfulness of those who don’t have that component of cozy goodness in their lives. Gotta be a part of this thing? Well, exactly.

Maybe you go to Church all of the time, or maybe the idea of pew-sitting and communion-taking gives you all sorts of heebie jeebies. Or maybe (Rob?) you’ve been wondering if you should see what it’s all about, or start going again, or finally find a place that feels like a spiritual home. ‘Tis the season for that. Come inside, light a candle, sing along… see what happens.

For local readers: Carols By Candlelight, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Thursday, December 19th. Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill.

The Redeemer in the snow...

The Redeemer in the snow… where miracles happen.

December, by Steve Safran

December. This is a notable month for me and Britt. It was two years ago that we shared our respective big news, albeit on markedly different fronts. I moved out of my home, in the first step toward a divorce. Upstaging me considerably on the Oh Crap meter, Britt told us, her friends, that she had breast cancer.

It took years to work up to a divorce. Britt stole all my thunder with one mammogram. I have yet to forgive her fully.

So, for both of us, December 2013 marks the second anniversary of our reorganizations. Britt’s changes involved an unplanned physical assault on her body and peace of mind, a year’s worth of rotating relatives, hair loss, hair growth, and a blog. My reorg was self-imposed, required the packing and unpacking of many boxes, job changes, post-marital dating (and a blog). Within a span of three months, I’d lived in three different locations, finally settling into an apartment near Nordstrom’s. I hardly expected that years of domestic disharmony would lead to the mall. But for me, Black Friday simply means I can’t get out of my driveway.

The second part of my reorg was my mental health. I had suffered years of depression and anxiety. Although I have regulated the depression, the anxiety remains. I suspect it always will. A visit a couple of years back to Dr. Drug Dispenser yielded this diagnosis: “You’re fucked.” Not kidding. Direct quote. Let it be noted that I, like Britt, do not approve of candy-coated health information. “Fucked” was an excellent diagnosis, accurate and pithy.

In what now seems an absurdity, one year into my reorg in December 2012, I became a producer on a series for the Discovery Channel called “Amish Mafia.” The highly rated “reality” show was a lot of fun. The pay was good and the hours, though long, were tolerable. But the commute blew. It meant weekly trips to New York City, coming back to Natick on weekends to cram in a week’s worth of quality time with the kids. And the awesome paycheck was largely wasted on overpriced New York sublets. After two seasons, I’d had enough, and announced The Amish would have to keep being Amish without my guidance.

Reorganization needs support, and I had plenty. My family and friends were there. Last December, when I was at a particularly low point, I arranged a “grownups cocktail hour” over here above the mall so I could spend an evening drinking and laughing and reminiscing with Britt and our other college cronies. When reorganization leaves you feeling adrift and lonely, seeing old friends in their holiday finest and reminding you that you are loved and occasionally funny… well, that helps.

You know what else helps? Fate. Luck. Love. Britt would call it the Holy Spirit (and there she goes, wielding her editorial power), but I wouldn’t. This December also marks a year since my first date with a woman I met on Match.com. She billed herself as “Agent 99” and, as I am a huge “Get Smart” fan, drew my attention immediately. After a few exhanges, 99 and I took our virtual relationship into a nice restaurant. I met this smart and funny and pretty woman. I also love the fact that she found a typo in my Match.com bio describing myself as an annoyingly fastidious writer. My life turned on a typo, unearthed by Agent 99.

This December, I don’t have a job and Britt has chin-length hair. Our reorganization continues. But as the pair of us head into another holiday season that evokes all sorts of bad memories, an intervening year creating better ones makes it all seem like there are many reasons for drinks to be poured. And next week is the second annual Grownups Cocktail Hour.

HELLO DECEMBER