Halloween Memory: Eight Years Ago

Eight years ago today I had surgery for cancer, and Halloween was the day I came home from the hospital.  Today no patient is kept in the hospital for very long, even after cancer surgery.  I remember being tucked up all cozy on the living room sofa while my two grown-up daughters and my husband handed out treats to the neighborhood children.

There was something very comforting about the normalcy of life after a cancer diagnosis.  It’s almost impossible to imagine that life moves along from day to day as if nothing major happened.  I think that enables one to mentally handle the shock of illness.  After all, we are meant to be healthy and happy, aren’t we?  So we need to be able to move beyond the bad things and focus on the good, like little ones dressed up as princesses and pirates holding out their paper bags for treats on a cold October night.

The truth is after a cancer diagnosis, nothing ever seems normal.  Complacency is gone.  Maybe that is not really such a bad thing.  We need to be prepared for anything life throws our way.  We just need to leave behind us a footprint that says, “Yes, I was here, and I hope that my presence here on earth has made a difference to at least one other person.”  Then we can move on to wherever we go next and know that we have in some way made the world a better place.

Sometimes I am able to forget I had breast cancer.  It often still seems a little surreal.  But then I look at the photo of my sister who lost her life to breast cancer, or I sit at the table making greeting cards for breast cancer patients, or I read obituaries of women who died from breast cancer, and I have to push aside my own experience and struggle to remember to live on hope, not fear.

I am glad to see the last day of October coming, October with its emphasis on the color pink and its magazine and newspaper stories about how much closer we are now to a cure for breast cancer, a cure that still seems to me to be so elusive, it seems more like a fantasy than a possibility.  When the children ring the doorbell tomorrow night, I will remember as always that Halloween eight years ago, but each year brings me a little closer to security, pushes the fear a little further away from me, and reminds me that I am just here to leave a footprint for someone else to step into.

Snow Fell Too Early in Upstate New York

Before the first frost iced the few remaining garden flowers, before the maple leaves could finish changing from green to red and orange, before Halloween was over with its smashed pumpkins and toilet paper tree décor, snow fell in upstate New York.  It was far too early and not exactly as predicted, since our local meteorologists forecast snow mainly in the higher elevations.  So now I feel a little more unsure about the next predicted storm tomorrow afternoon into Sunday, one of those coastal storms that occur usually after Thanksgiving and sometimes not even before Christmas.

The thing is, I really like the first snowfall of the year.  I like the way the snow weighs down the pine branches, forming a canopy over the roads.  I like when the sun shines on the powdery surfaces of the ground and sparkles the edges of the pines.

But I’m not ready.  I’m not ready to let go of autumn just as I was beginning to enjoy the falling leaves, the pumpkin patches, and the apple crop.  The stores seem to be ready, however, having displayed Christmas trees and ornaments during the last few weeks.  I don’t know why we rush the seasons.  I don’t know why we don’t get to immerse ourselves completely in each one before the next arrives.  I don’t like being unprepared.

Still, I’m not going to put my wreath on the front door or buy my Christmas cards yet.  I’m not going to be drawn in to the beautiful ornaments adorning the trees in Michaels or A.C. Moore or Macy’s or the malls.  I have yet to think about a turkey for Thanksgiving and I have no idea where my snow brush is or my scraper.  I would rather sit looking out my sliding glass doors at the squirrels racing around the garden and the woodpeckers searching for bugs in the dead pine trees.  I like watching the snow melt into the still-soft ground, uncovering the leaves waiting expectantly to be raked up into piles.  I long for autumn to linger a while.  I want it to rage against the onslaught of winter snow and icy mornings.  I want to hear the crunch of leaves under my feet and smell the first smoky fires from neighborhood chimneys.  I want to hold tightly on to the remaining October days before I am thrown headlong into the frenzy of the holidays.  I am not ready yet for winter in New York.

The Magic of Milkweed

Memories connect to current moments in unexpected ways.  This week as I was driving on the rural roads near my house, I noticed the fading colors of the autumn leaves and the fields of milkweed along the side of the road, the pods splitting open to reveal their silky fluff within.   I suddenly remembered the first time I discovered the magic of milkweed.

My sister and I were walking through the fields near our house one Saturday morning in October when we spied among the drying weeds some plants with pods on them.  We opened the pods and discovered the fluffy white fibers inside.  The milky liquid from the leaves was sticky on our fingers.  We pulled out the fluff and scattered it in the wind.  We were children discovering the magic of milkweed for the first time.

Like nearly everything in nature, there is so much more to learn about milkweed beyond a first encounter.  Its name, Asclepias, is from the Greek god of healing and the roots were used as medicine.  The leaves are arranged in a specific pattern.  Each pair of leaves is at right angles to the next pair, so if one pair points east and west, the pair above and below point north and south.    The leaves are the only food of the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly.  The milk is bitter and one drop can make your thumb and fingers cling together like rubber cement.  The blossoms turn into pods with a seam along one side which pops open when the pod becomes ripe and dry.  Inside is a “parachute” of silky fibers, often used by birds for their nests.  The seeds are carried away by the wind to become new plants.

During World War II, the milkweed had some surprising purposes.  The liquid from the leaves and stems was used when there was a scarcity of natural rubber from rubber trees.  The silky fluff from the pods was gathered by children and processed as a substitute for kapok to pad life jackets and flying suits.

I didn’t know any of this as a child.  All I knew was what a miracle it was to walk through the dry fields in October and discover the milkweed growing there.  What a miracle it was to split open the dry pod and pull out the white fluff inside, feel the softness and the lightness of it, and watch as the winds of autumn carried the threads away in the crisp fall air.  Whenever I see milkweed now, when I see the pods partly open, their insides spilling out, I am a child again, innocent of the ways this weed contributed so much to mankind during wartime, innocent of the ways it gives life to the monarch butterfly and soft nesting to birds.  I know only of the miracle before me that can transform the chaos of every day into one moment to treasure.





A quiet sadness settles into the garden this morning,
A forlorn, end-of-life grief.
Roses once entwined in the trellis,
Their crimson petals peeking through the openings,
Now stripped of their beauty.
Impatiens with their salmon, deep rose, and pale pink petals
Have  thrived all summer in the shade under the pines,
Now close to gone,
Green leaves hiding a few lingering blooms.

But there, anchoring the edge of the garden,
There in the corner remains the glory of the coleus–
Painted nettle–
Its burgundy, velvety foliage outlined perfectly in pale green,
Determined, strong,
As lovely now as in its summer beauty,
Surrounded by a blanket of rusty brown pine needles.
No need for colorful blooms,
Its foliage all the show.
Not ready yet to let go,
Like the way we all hang on at the end,
Reluctance within our veins.

The coleus will die with the first frost.
It most likely knows that will come.
But for now,
For today,
On this cool October morning
Mid the languishing remnants
Of summer heat and cooling rain showers,
The coleus brings a moment of hope
Into the dying of nature.

© Barbara Flass 2011

Halloween Scrooge: How many of us are there?

The proliferation of spider webs, witches, jack-o-lanterns, and skeletons is beginning to move into our neighborhood.  I wish I liked Halloween. What fun decorating trees, porches, and windows with frightening objects!  I guess I just find enough fright other places in my life making me no doubt a real wuss.  (Where did that word originate anyway?)

It seems that in every neighborhood, most likely those with small children and teenagers, there are households that go a little overboard with the scary theme.  There are even sensor-triggered sounds from skeletons and witches, ghouls and ghosts, eerie screams in the night.  I have always thought that we like to scare ourselves in a controlled way to cope with those scary things in life over which we have no control.  We thumb our noses at death when we watch terrifying movies and thrill to the fear of Halloween.

When my children were small, I had to go along with the décor of Halloween, although carving a pumpkin was the extent of my compliance some years.  Then there were the huge bags of candy we had to purchase.  If we tried to go cheap and buy the variety packs of Smartees and lollipops, we were often greeted with disappointment.  However, those expensive chocolate candy bars were always a big hit.  Then there were years we bought only what we truly loved ourselves, especially after our children were grown up and buying candy themselves for children.  I always felt that I was held hostage by teenagers who showed up at our door with little more than a pillow case, a fake mustache, or a baseball cap.  Sometimes we got a trick even if we gave a treat—shaving cream on the car, toilet paper hanging from the trees.

I guess in these difficult times, we all need to have a little fun.  We all need to be afraid of something besides losing a job and our life savings tied up in the stock market.  Some years when I was teaching, I forced myself to pull out my black witch’s hat, relishing the age-old line that as a teacher I had chosen an appropriate costume.  One year I borrowed my sister’s Miss Piggy costume (as a school nurse, she loved to dress up for Halloween) and went over to the cafeteria to greet the students, only a few of whom guessed it was me.  Now I want to just hide upstairs with our dog and let my husband hand out the candy, oohing and ahhing at the little ones’ costumes.  We try to turn out the lights and lock up before the older ones begin their cruising up and down the street, sometimes multiple times.  I want to shout at them, “Go get a job and buy your own candy!”  What is wrong with me, I later wonder.

If my grandchildren were here and not in California, I would make the attempt to get into the spirit of Halloween.  I would decorate the front porch, hang skeletons from trees, get one of those motion-sensor ghouls, and buy only the most popular candy.  I would try not to be one of those people who in the spirit of proper nutrition hand out boxes of raisins and pencils.  I saw an ad recently for tiny containers of Play-Doh just the right size for Halloween bags.  Would a child really enjoy getting this instead of candy?

The truth is this year I am not going to work in a school wearing a witch’s hat since I have retired.  I won’t put on the hat for the neighborhood children since each year we have fewer trick-or-treaters as they go off to the malls or firehouses where the treats are abundant and temperatures are warm.  I do miss the days when we dressed up our children, often in costumes I made myself, and went to see the parade of kids at school as they walked around the hallways or streets near the school.

If there such a thing as a Scrooge of Halloween, I would be an excellent candidate.  This year as always my husband will carve a pumpkin.  He will hand out treats.  I will hide out in the bedroom with the dog.  And for weeks afterward we will eat chocolate candy we do not need until the Christmas candy appears and the healthy diet continues on its downward spiral.

Today as I look out at the falling autumn leaves and feel the coolness of the morning air, I realize that I do truly love October.  I do love the idea of pumpkins on front porches and ghouls and goblins everywhere.  I love that children love Halloween even if I don’t.  And I will try to enjoy these weeks before Christmas when the real Scrooge appears in our lives.

A Date to Remember: Breast Cancer Diagnosis

On this date, October 15, eight years ago I was diagnosed with early stage invasive breast cancer.  It was a day that changed my life, but I can’t say that my life is now so much better because of it.  I sometimes feel that is wrong of me, you know, not to believe that I am now stronger or more appreciative of life or kinder to others or more aware of all the real important things in life.

On that same day eight years ago my daily phone call from my sister came from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City where she had gone hoping to find a miracle treatment for the recurrence of her aggressive breast cancer she had been fighting for four years.

On April 1, 2005 my sister died leaving me with overwhelming survivor guilt and grief that has still not ended.

Today I often feel like a fraud because cancer was relatively easy for me compared to my sister’s experience.  Lumpectomy, radiation, what could be easier?

This much I do know.  Pay attention to your body in spite of what doctors may say to you.  I knew something was wrong, and after several doctors told me breast cancer did not cause pain and they could not feel a lump, I insisted one more time that something was wrong.  A few hours after a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy, I received the call informing me I had breast cancer.  My sister and I would be fighting this disease together.

I also know that early detection saved my life. Today a diagnosis of breast cancer doesn’t always mean mastectomy and chemotherapy.  I had a lumpectomy, radiation, and three years of an aromatase inhibitor.

I consider myself cured, although my oncologist says, “Well, with a cancer, you can never be sure.”  He is cautious and aggressive in his approach to cancer treatment, and that is definitely a good thing.  But today with targeted therapy and easier chemotherapy, with different drugs, better testing, and hopefully for most, better insurance coverage, a cancer diagnosis is not what it used to be in the past.

Here I am.  A cancer survivor.  I still think about it every day.  I wonder when I will stop thinking about it.  I think about my sister every day.  I miss her more than I ever imagined I would.  I miss her laughter, her jokes, her sense of adventure, her love of life, her support.  And I am angry that she did not survive.

If you are someone who has been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, I think you can be comforted by the advances in recent years.  I think you should be optimistic and hopeful.  I think you can look at all of the survivors today and realize that you will be one of them, are even one of them now.  If your diagnosis came late, if your tumor size was large, if your cancer has spread, you can still be hopeful because women are surviving longer today than in the past.

But today I am sad that there weren’t enough advances six years ago to save my sister.  And I want research to continue.  I want support to continue.  I want awareness to continue.  I want hope to continue.  I hope everyone will find a way to take a stand against breast cancer the way Americans of all ages and situations are fighting against the economical injustices in this country.  If people can stand in groups and fight for justice, I would hope also they can stand in groups and fight for a cure for breast cancer.

Today can never be a day of celebration for me.  Yes, I am alive after eight years.  Yes, I should have put it all behind me and moved on in my life to achieve something great.  Holding me back is the loss of my sister.  No celebration in my life has ever occurred without my sister, and so I am grateful to be alive and I am happy to provide hope and encouragement to women everywhere diagnosed with breast cancer, but I wish more than anything that I could do all of those things with my sister by my side.

Ladybug, Ladybug

Ladybug, Ladybug

The jar sat on the kitchen counter
Surrounded by sippy cups,
Coffee receipts, stray barrettes,
Small dolls and parts of toys,
The paraphernalia of daily life
With two small children.

During breakfast the jar
Was a nauseating distraction from
Bowls of cereal and
Glasses of milk
And cups of coffee,
Fifteen hundred ladybugs
Crawling around inside
Moving up and around each other
As they sought out the food
At the bottom of the jar.

The conversation several days earlier
Between the two six-year-olds
Probably went something like this:

“Do you like ladybugs?”
“I love ladybugs!”

And so the birthday gift emerged,
A jar of ladybugs to be released
Into the garden at dusk
To eat the aphids,
To move along the damp earth
To freedom.

Freedom also for those within
Whose breakfast would now
Involve a less squeamish sight–
A view from the wall of windows
Of the sunrise over the mountains
That surrounded the gardens
Where the ladybugs now moved
And did their work.
Nature as it should be.

© Barbara Flass 2011

Autumn Visit to California: A Lesson in Today’s Frantic Parenting

The week we just spent in California was different from a week at home in New York in ways too numerous to mention completely.   The weather was definitely better since it apparently rained in New York every day we were gone.  When we walked out of the Burbank airport, heat hit us immediately, the bright sun and pure blue sky replacing the grayness of New York.

I love the beauty of California, but I knew we would be returning to cool autumn mornings and the brilliant oranges and reds of falling leaves.  Still we managed to experience a bit of fall during our visit in California.

While we were there, my daughter and her husband threw a birthday party for their oldest daughter who had just turned six.   Sixty-two guests came to the event at a local farm where there were hay rides, pony rides, corn mazes, and an animal feeding area with goats and sheep and other farm animals.  There were games and bouncy houses and the never-to-be-forgotten cow train.  Late September and early October in California has a lot in common with New York.

What is very different is the pace, a pace that is a challenge for retired grandparents whose days are more leisurely.  My daughter’s schedule is frenetic.  She has to drive her oldest daughter to school every day and pick her up.  Her two-year-old has music class one morning, Gymboree one morning, and a mommy and me class two mornings.  Her six-year-old has dance class once a week, karate twice a week, gymnastics once a week, a religious education class once a week, and soccer every Saturday.  Every day is a mad dash somewhere.

While I was rushing around with my daughter, I tried to remember how I managed with my own two daughters when they were the same age.  I know they had swimming lessons, dance classes, piano lessons, religious education classes, gymnastics, t-ball, Indian Princesses, and Brownies.  I obviously ran around just as much.  What I remember now that time has passed is not the fatigue and frantic need to get somewhere on time but the way the activities helped my daughters develop physical strength, coordination, discipline, and confidence.  I think the sacrifices I made to get my daughters to all these activities helped them become successful, mature adults.  The goal of parenting for any generation seems to be to offer to our children as many opportunities for success and fun as we can cram into each day.  It’s a lofty goal.  It was probably more fun for me to watch my granddaughters at these activities than it was for my daughter who was most likely thinking of errands she still needed to run and what she could make for dinner.  Still, watching my oldest granddaughter play soccer and excel at karate and watching the little one play with Play-Doh and paint at an easel for the first time lifted my heart and also made me sad that these moments are all too rare.   California is just too far from New York for many visits.

Parenting today seems so much more stressful than when my daughters were young.  I had my parents, grandparents, and sister nearby to help when I needed it.  My daughter has no family nearby.  She and her husband are on their own, and every day is exhausting for them.  Maybe grandparents become even more special when they are seldom seen, at least that is what I am telling myself.  I can still feel my youngest granddaughter hugging my arm as I sat next to her in the car and coming up behind me in the kitchen, wrapping her arms around my leg, and resting her head on me.  I can remember the way it felt to lie next to my oldest granddaughter and read to her every night, giving her a hug and kiss before bedtime.  I remember how she ran into the house the day we left and threw herself on her bed crying hysterically because we had to leave.

There may be miles and miles between California and New York, but there is very little distance between my heart and the hearts of my granddaughters.  Our visits may be far apart, but love knows no distance.  I love autumn in New York, but I was so grateful for the chance to experience the same season in California, even if there wasn’t an orange or red leaf anywhere to be seen.  And the best part of all was experiencing a California autumn with my grandchildren by my side.