Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mammograms, my mum, and motivation

Only her faded, well-worn denim hat adorned with various enameled pink ribbons and survivor pins accompanied me to my first mammogram appointment instead of Kathy herself. The irony is not lost on me.

For years, my OBGYN recommended I begin mammogram testing at age 27. My direct family history screams, “Test early!” At age 37, my mum, Kathy, was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Her sister was diagnosed in her late 60s.

According to my OBGYN, I needed to get a baseline mammogram 10 years prior to my mum’s age of diagnosis. Because of my age, and subsequent dense tissue, I’d likely receive a false positive.

When you’re 18, 27 is eons away. Annually hearing the same advice over the course of 10 years naturally dulls its impact. It also twists time.

Although I eventually surmised enough independence to venture to appointments on my own, without mum sitting as a security blanket in the waiting room for me, I’d always assumed Kathy would take me to, at the very least, my first mammogram appointment, when I finally turned the ripe ‘ol age of 27. 

Never did I expect she would die from metastasized breast cancer when I was 26, two months shy of turning the long-awaited age of 27.

Here’s how hearing that same advice twists time: age 27 seems drastically old when you’re in your early 20s making a mental note to schedule a mammogram. But thinking about losing your mum at 26? That’s so young!

Visions of chatting with Kathy about her first mammogram while I waited to be called into the doctor’s office, of reclining casually in a waiting room listening to her compare the difference in technology from the late 80s to today, promising her I’d ask to see the resulting picture, disappeared.

Crammed out of my mind in the year after her death, while my brain weighed pressing needs like, “What does Christmas look like without her?” and “Who’s going to call me in the afternoon on my birthday to comedically retell the story of my birth?” and “So if you’re really not coming back, what do I do?,” was scheduling a mammogram.

It wasn’t until I began planning a month-long series profiling breast cancer survivors for the paper of which I am editor did I seriously consider scheduling one.

While chatting with one survivor, who had her breast cancer discovered through a routine mammogram - a tumor so small a self-exam wouldn’t have revealed it - I instinctively shared Kathy’s battle. It comes so naturally; I can’t disassociate breast cancer and survivorship with my mum. She was in and out of remission for 24 years; diagnosed when I was 2. Telling her story, proudly, is different these days, I realize, because there is now an end.

I told the survivor how I’d been recommended to have a mammogram at 27, but put it off. Now, at 28, I was a year behind. Simply, she said, “Well, schedule one!” Perhaps it was her familiar positive attitude or gentle prodding mothers often use when attempting to convince their older child, who is no longer a child, that resonated within and motivated me. Whatever it was, I made the call.

A week later, I showed up for my first mammogram. The radiologist was unsure if I needed it or an ultrasound with less radiation exposure. But after a call to her main office, it was determined I’d get a mammogram.

Speculation about mammograms has produced a reputation associated with pain. Pressed against the cold, metal mammogram machine, I was worried. But the radiologist was friendly and accommodating. She apologized for the repeated repositioning and length I’d have to hold my breath. She was creating my baseline, the image to which future exams would be compared, so she wanted to create the best, most informative picture. I could appreciate that. Plus, she let me see the picture.

Twice on each side I was squished and mammoramed. Uncomfortable? Completely. Slightly awkward? Totally. But manageable? Heck yes!

Following the exam on my way out of the room, I stopped to take a survey in which I’d been asked to participate. The door to the waiting room remained open, and I could see my fiancé, who tagged along (my dad also offered his own company), reading in a row of seats. I’d answered the last question and hit “done” when I heard, “Kathy? The radiologist will see you now,” as the next patient was called.

Hearing that name, at that time, in that place, sent a shock through me. Despite it not “belonging” to my mum, it made all the difference. I teared up and smiled.

Forty-eight hours later, I received my results in the mail and braced for the expected false positive. But it wasn’t there. My test results were normal. I cried.

What I’ve learned in these past two years is you can’t expect certain things to happen. I never expected to lose my mum when I was 26. I honestly didn’t expect to see a clean mammogram. And I didn’t expect to not have Kathy with me at my first exam. But maybe I wasn’t without her after all. And her story, her inspiration, doesn’t have to end.

Schedule your mammogram or call to start that conversation with your doctor today. Urge the other women in your life to do the same -you could be that motivation they need.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Running for a reason

Peter called my bluff with which I didn’t consciously realize I was faltering. 
“No you’re not,” he told me matter-of-factly, in the way one says the sky is blue and the grass is green.
I had just told him I was okay, was holding up fine. 
It’s a keen intuition unfortunately gifted only to those who have experienced tragic, piercing loss; the ability to calculate unnatural blinking patterns, a nod too many, a slight raise of the eyebrows used when trying to convince with conviction. 
Dumbfounded, I paused and reclined in the chair facing him, repeatedly capping and uncapping the red pen I was using to proof the newspaper. A nervous tick. My façade was faulty. Someone could see I was falling apart at the seams.
In the seven months since my Mum passed away, “How are you doing?” is the question I’m most often asked.
Everyone has taken my reply at face value. “I’m okay,” I’ve said. And so they believe just that. 
I like to think they don’t second-guess my answer because, well,  A) I’m a trustworthy woman and B) they can see I’m just as strong as she was. 
But what else am I supposed to say? That I feel lost without someone for whom to care? Entirely too angry I have to deal with this at 27? That every time I wake from dreaming of her I cry uncontrollably, inconsolably, when reality quickly comes crashing? 
I’m sure friends ask because they’re genuinely concerned. But I know they don’t want me to unload the whole of my emotions on them just as much as I don’t want to be a burden.
So I run from a real answer. I mean, I do work in public relations.
Until I had talked with Peter, I hadn’t considered it was okay to not be okay.  I assumed the racing of my mind was normal. That I would soon stop mentally running in circles from an emotional ebb and flow.
Initially, I ignored it, like most things I don’t want to deal with in life. But after chest pain, continual stomachaches and breakouts worse than the whole of my teens, I had to be honest with myself. I’m not okay. I have anxiety. 
Mum and I had a running joke when she would tell me to not lift something heavy or she’d ask someone for help. “Don’t you know who my mother is?” I’d reply back. “I can do anything.”
To realize I’m not invincible – and that’s okay - was kind of an “ah-ha” moment. Something needed to change. 
On a whim, I joined friends Trudy and Janet in May and ran the route of a local 5k. Every .5 miles I had to stop and catch my breath. But for the first time in months, I fell asleep without a case of the “What-Ifs?” I slept through the night. And I felt great the next morning.
Today, we run three times a week. I participated in my first official 5k Saturday. More importantly, I don’t feel so anxious and sad. I’ve learned to focus and channel my energy, nervous or excited, into a steady cadence.  
On the third of every month, I still have a hard time leaving my bed. I still ache for my Mum. And my mind will race every once in a while. 
But I’m keeping the running for the road. 


Coincidently enough, I'm obsessed with this song, called, "Time to Run," by Lord Huron

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Messages from Mum

Cheeses of all kinds blurred together into one bright orange block as I attempted to compose myself in Big Y’s dairy aisle last week.
Moments earlier, my body let out an audible, involuntarily gasp as I passed a woman whose perfume wafted my way.
It was Tova. My Mum’s signature perfume.
I nearly dropped my basket.
Memories are one thing I’ve managed to confront with little problem these days. And I readily inhale her faint smell still traceable in sections of her house. But to come in contact with this scent I’ve forever associated with my Mum in a random aisle in a grocery store six months after her passing literally stopped me in my tracks. I was not prepared for this.
I understand I cannot equip myself for every similar moment, although I do try. Each month seems to bring its own high and low.
April found me preparing for the six-month marker the first week of May, and conversely, her birthday the last. Ironically in this effort, I had forgotten about Mothers’ Day.
A purple sign displaying “Mothers’ Day Cards!” caught my attention in Target and I thought, “Ooh!” and then immediately, “Oh.”
This holiday dedicated to mothers is not something in which I will participate this year. And I feel wholly cheated. It makes me want to scream with anger, frustration and despair. 
I just want my Mom!
My friends feel her absence, too. One recently told me she had a “What would Kathy do?” moment when solving a problem. Another just this evening said it feels like a night she would drink tea with Mum and I and get some good advice.
My Mum was a mom to more than just my brother and me. So many of my friends wished she were theirs. Her nickname was “K-Mom.” I know I’m incredibly lucky to have called her mine.
She is here, though. I can feel her.
A partial lunar eclipse paired with a pink moon April 25 found me ascending the Mt. Holyoke Range to snap some shots of the giant moon. As that vantage point didn’t pan out, I drove to various spots in South Hadley to look for a better view.
Parked in front of a field near McCrays, I lamented the loss of my moon-watching Mum and adventure sidekick. She once gave me a card that said, “Every time you see the moon, it’s me watching over you. I’m with you always.”
With a giant moon in my view, I felt closer to her that night than I have since she passed.
Last weekend at the Springfield Symphony with my boyfriend, Sean, I picked up tickets a co-worker held at will-call under my name. Mum and I often would have symphony dates. She loves those strings!
“Enjoy your show, Kathryn,” the ticketmaster said.
Again I found myself gasping out loud, with tunnel vision focused on the name printed on my ticket envelope – hers. Shaking, I held it up to show Sean, tears instantly streaming.
I can’t explain how her name appeared on my tickets. But I’m taking it as a sign she’s saying hello.
Last Mothers’ Day I wrote a column about Mum, calling her my North Star. Always present, no matter the weather. Illuminating my way. Never burning out. The best in the universe.
That analogy couldn’t have held more true.
These days are painful, but progressively less so. And like the cheese I composed myself in front of last week, this pain will get better with time. But it’ll still stink.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

That's the thing about pain...

I just devoured "The Fault in our Stars" by John Green in two days. It was otherworldly to read exactly what I'm feeling without knowing I was feeling that way until I read it. Some of these quotes just struck such resonating chords inside.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I miss my biggest cheerleader

I put down the receiver just as quickly as I picked it up after learning I had won. I disconnected that number months ago; there would be no one on the other end to listen to my excited chatter. 

Sitting at my desk tucked away in the back corner of my newspaper office, in this small town, in the state of Massachusetts, on the East Coast, in the United States, on planet Earth, in the Milky Way Galaxy, I felt small, unconnected. With whom would I share this news who would match my own excitement?

Mum. The only correct answer is my Mum. But she's not here. And it makes this exciting moment actually painful. 

I drop the receiver in its cradle and stare at the telephone - an ancient way of communicating - choking up because I cannot use it to communicate what I want to say to the sole person to whom I want to say it.

This knee-jerk instinctual reaction to call her surprises me, because it has been three months since Mum passed away. I should have known better than to reach for the phone because I know she is not on the other end. I'm the one who disconnected the phone number, my home phone number, in December. I'm the one who called the ambulance that Friday night to transport her to the hospital. I'm the one who slept with her overnight in the ER and ICU. I'm the one Nurse Debbie called to say Mum was calling a family meeting. I'm the one who had to rally our family. I'm the one who pleaded with Mum to change her mind, that it was not her time, that it was not the right decision. I'm the one who had to instantly process that it was time, swallow my sadness and inform her siblings wearing my brave face. I slept in her room that night listening to her breathing slow. I was in the room when her breathing stopped. I held her hand until it was cold. I know she is dead. My brain can process the facts  - my body cannot and my heart refuses. 

Sitting at my desk, I felt breathless. I could feel my cheeks grow hot and searing tears form. But then the phone rang.

My friend Aimee was on the other line. We have a standing "Monday check-in."  

I relayed how she has funny timing and that I was genuinely upset about not being able to tell Mum about the news I just learned. And how that aching sadnesses outweighed the award. Nonchalantly, Aimee just said, "She knows. She's watching," in a factual tone. And that was that. She is watching.

Up until then, the thought hadn't occurred to me. She already knows I won, because she's watching.

Last weekend, award recipients were supposed to gather with the New England Newspaper and Press Association in Boston for a convention and subsequent award ceremony. I won third place in Environmental Reporting for a series of articles and an editorial I had written about our town's landfill issues. They're not particularly outstanding on their own, but together I guess they were noteworthy. Truthfully, I'm upset this article wasn't recognized, which I feel I put more time into. But I digress. 

The Nemo Blizzard prevented me from attending the ceremony and honestly, I'm glad. I had been dreading going, to an extent, because I would have been a melancholy mess. It's not that I can't share my excitement with my dads, who were siked, or with Sean, who was equally proud, but it's just not the same as sharing it with Mum. She was so proud of me when I, her beloved  "flying crime writer," won last year. She was my biggest cheerleader, whether I won a regional award or successfully cooked a tasty new dish. My prize was seeing the love on her face. 

Quiet honestly, I wish I hadn't won anything. To me, it's just the beginning of a series of firsts without her. 

I really would like to fast forward this coming year. I want to put so much distance between myself and  Nov. 3, 2012 as possible. I'd like nothing remarkable to happen this year because I don't want to remember right now. I don't want to remember this moment and this deep pain that penetrates every pore of my person. 

It's a longing, sorrowful frustration I'm forlornly fighting. Each morning I wake up feeling like I'm back at square one with handling my erratic emotions.  I'm either "on," and focused and strong and forging through this awful grieving/healing process, being a rock for myself and others, or I'm emotionally immobile simply going through the motions of what I know I need to do that particular day without being "there."

I began taking a yoga class, because internally, I need to calm down. My heart literally feels heavy. There's a dull ache in my chest that lingers on those "off" days. In November, right after she died, I went to the doctors because my chest hurt so badly I thought I had pneumonia. (My uncle had it at the time, which was another reason to go). I had an X-Ray taken. An X-Ray! It showed nothing. The pain in my chest was grief. A tangible grief.

I need to relax. I need to let go. 

But I also need to be reminded she is watching me. I talk out loud to her at least once a day. And when I catch a glimpse of the moon at night, I say "Hi, Mum!" because she loved the moon and anything astronomy related. 

On my desk, I've kept this moon card she gave me when I was in college. Then, it was taped to my wall. When I became editor in 2010, I placed it on my office shelves. I hadn't read it in years and recently picked it up because I wanted to look at her handwriting. I gasped when I read her words. "I know there will be tough days, but you will get through them fine. Every time you see the moon, it's me watching over you."  And then she quotes our favorite movie, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." 
She knew when the time came, I would severely struggle with moving forward, so she would always write notes like this, knowing I keep everything. It was such a pleasant shock to read this one I had forgotten about in a time when I need it most. 

"Every time you see the moon, it's me watching over you," she wrote. She's telling me she's watching. I just need to remember.

Monday, November 19, 2012

I will be okay

“Do you want to come ice skating?” Sean says to me, in the living room, from the kitchen. He glides across the linoleum floor in fluffy socks, exaggerating his arm movements, making his way to me on the couch.
“Okay,” I say.
Okay. I will be okay. It’s moments like these in which I know I will be okay.
Two weeks and two days ago I lost the one person who could read me and my mind within seconds of seeing or hearing from me, who could communicate with me in literal mumbles and beep sounds, who always knew how to make me feel better instantly.
And as Sean skates back into the kitchen after pretending to be hurt when I accidentally struck him when he leaned in to kiss my cheek, complete with fake tears of saliva running down his face, I know I will be okay.
He, nor will anyone, ever replace Mum or the fierce bond we had. But he truly “gets” me, in a similar way. He knows when I need him and his comic relief even when I don’t. And we communicate in our own weird way of just “knowing” without having to say anything. And he knows that I will always want to join a fluffy sock ice skating party in our kitchen.
I will be okay.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The last word: strong

The last word.

I always have had to have the last word as a child. Which may or may not have carried over into adulthood. I could go on for hours, arguing with my brother, saying either "yes" or "no" repeatedly after anything he said. And when I would argue with mum, for the most part, she would let me have the last word.

And here I am now. With the last word.
I want that "last word" to be a bevy of synonyms for the word "strong."

Because my Mum was the epitome of strong. She was a warrior. A fighter. A trooper. Powerful. Brave. Sturdy. Tough. Determined. Tenacious. Indomitable. Gutsy. Fierce.

Kathy didn't quit.
In messages from family and friends recounting their memories and thoughts of her, I keep reading the word "strong." And even for friends of mine who never had the opportunity to meet her, and solely saw our interactions on Facebook, they all say the same thing. She was a tough, brave, strong fighter.
Kathryn Bieda Will never backed down. She battled this breast cancer, which metastasized into her bones, for 24 years. 24 YEARS! She surpassed any time limit given to her. She blew predicted life expectancies out of the water.

For the last 12 years straight, she received radiation and every chemotherapy drug on the market. And she would laugh for some, saying she testing them back in the 80s when they first were created.
When I look back on our life together, and review all of the struggles she endured not related to health, I think to myself, "How did she not give up?" "How did she keep going?"
She had this indomitable will to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. Move through the hard, through the bad, through the times when anyone else would give up. And she prevailed. Each time.
On Saturday, Nov. 3, Kathy didn't quit. Her body quit on her.

She called a family meeting the day before and laid out her plans. And no matter how much convincing  from our end, she had already accepted that the one thing that hadn't given up all these years, her body, had finally threw in the towel.

"It's okay," she said. "You'll be okay. It's time."
She wanted her closest family and friends around her when she went. And we were. Her sister and I slept over that night. My dads, my brother, her own brother, her best friend and her cousin made round-the-clock visits. She was never alone.

At 9:30 Saturday night, my Dad and I heard her peacefully inhale for the last time.

All of us again gathered around her and said our final goodbyes. Kathy didn't quit.
My life is forever changed. For having known her, grown up with her, for having her genes within me. And for losing her in just 26 short years of my life.
She and I had a bond that will never be broken. It went beyond mother and daughter. It went deeper than best friends. She knew me to a T and I knew her similarly. We could just look at one another and know. We would just know.
So when I look back on this past weekend, I know this is what she wanted. I know that she was okay with her decision and I know she wouldn't have made it if she didn't believe that we, her family, would be okay without her being our buffer, our glue.
And I feel weird. I have felt different since Saturday night. I feel stronger. If that's the adrenaline I've been operating on or the pneumonia I contracted while spending last week with her in the ICU and not eating or sleeping, I'm not sure. But I feel oddly calm.  Like she is within me, helping me navigate this week ahead when I feel completely lost.
Mornings are the hardest. I wake up and for a brief few milliseconds before my brain connects to my heart, I feel fine. And then immediately I am immobile, weighed down with all of these feelings and reality. And I cry.
And then I hear her say to herself, "You gotta get up." And I do the same. "You have to get up, Kristin," I repeat. So I do. And I make the bed. And I emulate her morning rituals.
I almost feel like she is still in the hospital, going to bounce back from this infection, like she always did. And I don't know if I have let myself accept she is gone, or am in disbelief and denial.  My life doesn't seem real right now.
"This too shall pass," she would say to me when I was struggling. These feelings, I know, will never pass. I will never be the same without her here. But I do know it will get easier. She is with me, with every decision and every step. She will be in the moon, in the ocean waves and the loudest thunderstorms. She was and will forever be, my north star. Illuminating my way, never burning out.
We're holding a Celebration of Life Thursday, Nov. 8 from 3 to 6 p.m. at Cierpial Memorial Funeral Home at 69 East St., Chicopee, for anyone who would like to attend. A short service will be held at 5:30 p.m. We will play the music - Ray Lynch - she made me promise we would play. And we will remember her, happy and well. She didn't want people to be sad and cry - she wanted them to just remember her happy.

So we will do that. And we will send her off in the most Will Family way we know how. Please come and bring photos to share and be prepared to write down your favorite memories and adventures of and with her in the provided books.

Kathy was never really one for flowers, at least not lately as Kali, our cat, loved to eat/knock them over.   Kathy did, however, find solace, peace and relaxation in yoga classes and water yoga classes she found through the Cancer House of Hope in Westfield. She would come home rejuvenated, refreshed. Energized to keep fighting. And she loved her instructor, Niti.
Initially, the classes were free to cancer survivors and their caregivers, but then a fee appeared and increased. Unfortunately, this stopped her from attending.

Our family is asking in lieu of flowers to please make memorial contributions  in Kathy's name to the Cancer House of Hope, 86 Court St., Westfield, Ma, 01085, in support of "The Healing Art of Yoga for Ongoing Cancer Recovery" and/or their water yoga program.

She would want other survivors and their caregivers to experience the peace and energy she found in that program. I have spoken directly with the program coordinator who assured me the memorial contributions will be earmarked specifically for these yoga programs.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart, as does our family. <3

I hurt. I can't believe this happened. And I think of how I thought we had more time. And I keep saying "What if?" to myself. If there is one thing, ONE THING, I am taking away from this, is not a sense of never giving up, because that has been instilled in me since birth, but to stop saying "tomorrow" and say "today." No more, "I'll do that tomorrow, Mum," but  I will do that now.

I've treasured this quote from Alice in Wonderland for a long time now - "'If you knew Time as well as I do,' said the Hatter, 'You wouldn't talk of wasting it.'"

So I will stop wasting time. Stop stressing out about people and things that don't directly affect  me. I will focus on me, and my time, and how I will effectively spend my time.  Because I would give anything, ANYTHING, even my right arm and eyes which would render my a useless photographer, if I could just have more time with her.

I love you, Mum. To the moon and back.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Water ways of seeing

I've been told a number of times I "see things" differently. And every so often, I agree. There are these times when I see something so beautiful or different that I have an insatiable NEED to photograph it. A drop-everything-you're-doing need. In this case, a "put-pants-on-because-it's-mosquito-y" need to photograph the Maher's asparagus plants after a rainstorm.
Originally, this is what caught my attention as I was wandering through the Maher garden looking for edible tomatoes. The reflecting light caught by the thousands of large and small droplets was what got me through the fence as I passed by. At first I thought, "wet Christmas tree," and then laughed.
It's just that the branches of the asparagus are so pine tree-like!  And the bokeh of the droplets in the background reminded me of Christmas lights. Haha!
I ran back inside and grabbed my camera and attached my macro lens and snapped away. My pants got soaked and I definitely need to clean my macro lens after this adventure. And I only received one mosquito bite! He got me though my jeans! Thumbs down.
There's just something about the varying greens, the spikey branches and the plethora of water droplets that I absolutely love.

What was the last time you had a "stop-everything" moment and snapped away?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ways of seeing

I took my first photograph when I was three, maybe four years old. I have the original 4x5 copy from the late 80s. It's a blurry, off-kilter picture of the two greatest women in my life - Mum and Baci. They're both laughing; the harsh flash reflecting off Baci's large round glasses, Mum in mid-sentence most likely instructing me to push the shutter button. It's one of my favorite photos to date, in all of my 26 years.

What I enjoy most about it is the subjects. They're not posed, but in their natural states. You can see my way of seeing at that time.

This past Sunday I photographed a fellow editor and close friend of mine who also shares a passion for photography. She's nearly eight months pregnant and wanted maternity photos with her family. The afternoon shoot turned into a couples/maternity/family photo shoot at Mount Holyoke College.
Her oldest, Francis, who I believe is seven, has become enamored with photography. Digital camera in tow, he was more interested in shooting next to me than being my subject. At every spot we stopped, he had to be rounded up to join the family. Truthfully, it was entirely cute and endearing. And I loved how patient he was with the slow, ancient model.

There's two specific shots I snapped of him taking pictures of his parents. This is my favorite of the two. I love how he's propping himself against the stair railing, firmly grasping his digital camera with both hands. The look on his parents faces attests to how great they are as role models - this was the sixth or seventh time he had jumped out of the frame, unable to control his need to take a photograph - and yet they're still smiling away for him, not rolling their eyes or looking at him skeptically. (Fellow photogs, I know you know how he feels.) I love his sister crawling up the tree in her polka dotted dress. But mostly, I love viewing what - and how - he's seeing.