Something happened on Tuesday that NEVER happens. It actually rained all day long–in JUNE! We are in the middle of one of the worst droughts in California history, and even though this half-inch or so of rain won’t do much to help our dire situation, it certainly was a welcome sight. It’s almost as if I could hear the parched earth sighing with relief. The grass already looks greener and the flowers brighter. I don’t want to jinx it, but maybe this is a sign that things are about to change. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Take a look at my happy flowers!
The doctor sat us down in the hospital room, his face full of concern. “We finally know what it is,” he said, quietly, “She has a form of leukemia.”
For two agonizing days, my husband and I had been pacing the hospital hallways waiting for the bone marrow biopsy to tell us what was wrong with our daughter. Now a pediatric oncologist with tired eyes and a stethoscope around his neck was telling us that our fourth child—our baby girl—had cancer.
Those ominous words should have expelled all the air from my lungs, buckled my knees out from under me, or caused me to run screaming down the hospital corridor—but they didn’t. Oddly, I felt only relief. We finally had a definitive answer as to why my two year-old was so sick. Yes, it turned out to be cancer—but at least we knew what it was and could immediately get started on saving her life.
I can do this, I told myself, not realizing that our ROAD TRIP TO HELL was about to begin. For the next two and a half years, our family would travel down that bumpy, pot-holed road, the gas tank running on empty, the tires balding and the radiator constantly threatening to overheat as we navigated our way through a cancer diagnosis without a map. Isa, strapped into her car seat, would thrash about in the back, sweaty and miserable as she crammed Lays potato chips into her mouth, the salty snacks the only food she ever wanted to eat. In the rearview mirror I watched in horror as my beautiful daughter morphed into this hairless, grotesque creature with a protruding belly and swollen cheeks. Her normally sweet brown eyes were filled with an unrecognizable fury caused by the steroids that we crushed into a white powder and mixed with cherry syrup, feeding it to her each night like a special treat.
The constant fear was the worst part—the multiple surgeries to infuse chemo into Isa’s spine; the weekly lab reports signaling her low blood counts which indicated a non-functioning immune system. This meant staying indoors, constant hand-washing and no visitors. A high blood count report meant that I could actually breathe again until the next round of chemo started. For years my hands rarely left Isa’s body as I felt her skin for any sign of fever. When her skin burned with a temperature over 101.5 it meant a trip back to the hospital—cool skin under my fingertips meant no infection and it was such an enormous relief it was like diving into a refreshing swimming pool on a hot, summer day.
Now, eight years after Isa’s diagnosis of cancer, the lives of our family have returned to normal—if there even is such a thing. Isa is perfectly healthy with no long-term effects from the chemotherapy. Now I can’t even remember the names of all the medications she took. Our daughter is blossoming into an intelligent and thoughtful young girl with a wicked sense of humor. Every day when I see her beautiful smile and hear her laugh, my heart fills with gratitude.
And although we are beyond delighted with our happy outcome, we do carry residual sadness in our hearts from losing children we have known and loved during this long trip. That sorrow gets easier as time goes on, but it will never go away. And I believe that’s a good thing—because in remembering those who have died, we are more apt to cherish those who are still here with us.
As we approach the eighth anniversary of Isa’s diagnosis, I’m truly thankful for what our family went through all those years ago. I’m grateful for the friends, family and those in the medical field who supported us back then—and who still support us today. I’m grateful that this experience changed me, and that I’m not the same woman I used to be. I’m more loving, more appreciative, more present in the moment, and more at peace with myself than I was before Isa got sick. I’ve realized how incredibly strong I am. I understand that there is only right now, and most importantly, that not only is it acceptable for me to put myself first at times—it’s often necessary. After all, I’m the one behind the wheel.
Our long road trip was arduous and exhausting and I consider it a miracle we arrived home safely. I’ve no doubt there will be other journeys as our family navigates down that long road of life, but lately it’s become a much smoother ride. So smooth, in fact—that now we can actually take time to roll down the windows, breathe in the sweet spring air and marvel at the scenery.
The garden has yet to realize we’re in a severe drought. We’ve completely stopped watering the lawn and it has since turned it into a crunchy plot of brown turf that makes me cringe every time I drive up to the house. I absolutely refuse to let my flowers die though, which means it’s bucket time around our house. We now have buckets in each shower to catch all the cold water that would normally go down the drain until the water temperature is hot enough.
For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why my back was hurting so much until I figured out it’s because I’m lugging buckets of water out to the yard every day. Curse you, drought!
For those of you around the country who are experiencing hurricanes, tornadoes, thunderstorms, hail the size of baseballs and massive flooding, I apologize for complaining about a little dead grass. I humbly request that you please send some of your surplus rain out to Santa Barbara!
My son, Nino is an artist. I figured this out back when he was four years old and he drew a meticulous rendition of the front of our house with the most intricate details, including the coiled up hose off to one side of the garden. I distinctly remember thinking: This kid sees the world through different eyes.
Now Nino is a senior is college and I think at age twenty, he’s finally realized what I knew all along—that creating art makes him happy. For a couple of years he went down a different path, thinking that a degree in economics and accounting would offer a better chance at financial success. Luckily, this path didn’t turn out to be the right one for Nino and he changed his major to Art. Since making that decision, I don’t think I’ve seen him happier. When you follow your bliss you’re heading down the right road, no matter what.
Last night our family attended Nino’s first solo art exhibit at the UCSB Art Box Gallery and I’ve got to say, I’ve never been more proud of my boy.
The title of Nino’s show is “F*** You, Pay Me”. Sorry if the profanity offends you, but hey, it’s Nino’s prerogative to express himself in any way he chooses. He’s the artist, after all.
All week long I’ve been chanting in my head: “Just four more days until vacation…just three more days…just two more…just one”—and poof—it’s finally here. I’m actually on vacation where I don’t have to do anything, go anywhere or teach anyone how to play the piano for nine glorious days.
Husband is off to L.A. to watch a soccer game. Ten year-old has been dropped off at the sleepover. Son is off somewhere in southern California with his friends. Daughters are off living their lives.
No one is asking me what’s for dinner or why there’s no milk in the fridge. I’m not having to bite my tongue to keep myself from screaming at that particular student who’s played the same wrong note for the third week in a row. At the moment my husband is not lying on the floor in front of the television watching Mexican soccer at full volume while begging me to please rub his feet.
The house is quiet—check. I’m barefoot—check. My unwashed hair is up in a messy pony tail—check. I’ve taken off my bra—double check. I’m wearing my most comfortable show-all yoga pants (which my husband tactfully calls unflattering—translation: your butt looks huge in those)—check. I’m on the couch with my feet up—check. The dog is curled up on the couch next to me—check. I have a hot cup of Starbucks coffee right in front of me—oh baby—CHECK!
I am totally and utterly alone to do whatever my little heart desires and my mind is abuzz with all the things I should be doing with my free time. It’s the most beautiful spring day outside and I tell myself I should be going to the beach or out taking a hike even though I don’t really feel like doing either of those things the moment. I tell myself there is a huge basket of clean laundry that won’t magically fold itself; I tell myself the front lawn needs to be mowed; the flower garden needs to be weeded; there’s hair on the bathroom floor that needs to be vacuumed up; there are bills to pay; I need to go to the grocery store…ARRRRGH!
I can come up with a million things I should be doing with all this free time, but the truth is, I don’t want to do anything but sit right here on this couch and write. Writing makes me happy. Writing is my bliss—thoughts, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters—eventually a finished novel. This is what I love to do.
So, for today—for right now, I’m leaving the guilt behind.
And I’m writing.
Today is the first day of spring and the proof is right outside my front door. Sorry to those of you who feel like you’re still stuck in the thick of winter, although I’m hoping these photographs might send some cheer your way. I so love this time year–the birds are busy composing their symphonies, the Liquid Ambar trees are fluttering their lacy lime green leaves and nature’s atomizer is spritzing the scent of Pitasporum and Star Jasmine in the air. Lovely! Now all we need is some rain…
I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with me. When did I become a self-sabotaging idiot who will do just about anything to avoid working on her novel? Since last Friday, I’ve been practically salivating about today because incredibly, there is nothing on my calendar for a four hour block of time. I’ve been eagerly anticipating finishing a particularly difficult chapter that’s been hounding me for weeks and yet I’ve already wasted more than an hour of precious writing time on the most mundane tasks possible.
Here is a list of the things that I believed were more important to complete today before working on my novel:
1) Stripping the bed and throwing the sheets in the washing machine. I mean, who can even think of writing anything when they know the bed sheets haven’t been washed for over a week?
2) Running out to Starbucks to get a coffee. I really shouldn’t count this as unnecessary as all writers know that coffee is needed to get the creative juices flowing (and other important juices as well.) Plus, they know my name and order at Starbucks and this makes me feel important.
3) Realizing that I need to pick up 25 Valentines for Isa’s class, plus candy to attach to each Valentine even though you’re not really supposed to do that because candy is so unhealthy and the school district frowns upon it. Then after seeing how crowded Michael’s Craft Store is, immediately deciding to let my oldest daughter handle the whole Valentine undertaking when she gets off work tonight.
3) Arriving home and switching the sheets into the dryer while noticing that there are toast crumbs all over the counter and the dishwasher needs emptying.
4) Wiping toast crumbs off counter and emptying dishwasher while mentally grousing how nobody in this goddamn family ever cleans up the kitchen but me.
5) Opening the refrigerator door and noticing a rank odor that turns out to be a bag of rotting cauliflower florets that now resemble hunks of yellow mucus. Throwing said cauliflower away while grousing that nobody in this goddamn family ever cleans out the refrigerator but me.
6) Taking the dog outside to poop. This task is quite a production and can take up to ten minutes as Cody, our Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix must sniff every inch of the front lawn while intermittently pausing to bark at invisible threats before his own creative juices start to flow, wherein he’s finally able to produce the tiniest nugget of poop imaginable. Wherein, I have to praise him in a high squeaky voice and give him a treat.
7) Removing sheets from dryer and realizing that two balled-up pillow cases got stuck inside the fitted sheet which means they are still sopping wet while everything else is dry. Deciding to put wet pillow cases on the pillows anyway and hope they’ll dry by tonight.
8) Reading and answering emails. Checking Facebook. Sharing a post about how Annie Lennox thinks older women are more interesting. Love her!
9) Deciding that even though I’m an older woman and I’m certainly more interesting, I still can’t think of anything compelling to write about lately, and it’s been way too long since I posted anything on my blog. Realizing that if I don’t post something soon, my readers might eventually forget all about me which will be a problem when I finally get this stupid novel written and want them to read it.
There. Almost two hours gone. Damn.
Now it’s time to start thinking about lunch.
For the first time in weeks, I find myself completely alone in the house. No kids, no husband, just me and the dog. As a functional introvert who constantly pines for alone time, I should consider this to be a minor post-Christmas miracle. Oddly though, I find this unexpected quiet to be strangely unnerving. I even feel a bit lonely.
I attribute my current unease to the fact that it’s been so crazy around the Mireles household over the holidays with a steady stream of people coming and going (we had sixteen people for Christmas dinner) that I’ve done nothing but shop, cook, clean, wrap presents, entertain small children and do about six loads of laundry each day. I guess I’ve become so accustomed to the constant noise and commotion that now the silence feels thunderous.
But that’s just me—always longing for something I don’t have or not appreciating what I do. Being dissatisfied is a tough habit to break and for much of my adult life I’ve had to work really hard at being grateful. This is really the most ridiculous thing ever because the real truth is that compared to most of the world, I live a privileged and abundant life.
What’s most remarkable is that I’ve discovered when I post something on my blog, my gratitude meter begins to rise. I believe this is because in the process of writing and posting photographs, I’m compelled to think about all the good I have in my life and I become more cognizant of the wondrous beauty that presents itself to me every day. And you, dear readers, are largely responsible for allowing me this chance to become more aware and mindful of my good fortune. For this gift I humbly offer you my thanks.
I hope that for all of you the coming year is filled with hope, love and deep gratitude for all of the grand events and milestones that may come to pass, but even more importantly, gratitude for all of the insignificant things that make up the moments of our days—the ones we pay little attention to—but are ultimately responsible for making our lives that much more extraordinary.
I so appreciate your readership.
Autumn color has arrived and all I want to do is curl up into a cocoon of quiet contemplation. And if I can’t swing that amid the chaos of my life, maybe I’ll make myself a cup of tea and pick out a good book to read. I absolutely love this time of year. How lucky I am to be able to live here.
Wishing you all a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with many happy moments and much love and laughter!
When I was six years old, there was a package under the Christmas tree which I was absolutely sure was for me. It was wrapped in green and yellow striated tissue paper and had no ribbon or bow. Frugal and uninspired, my mother never made a fuss when wrapping presents, even making her own gift tags fashioned from white index cards—cutouts of Christmas trees with her looping handwriting in green marker indicating the recipient. For some reason though, this particular green box had no handmade tag.
My parents weren’t big believers in promoting the idea that Santa brought us presents on Christmas Eve—their 1970’s pseudo-hippie philosophy prevented them from propagating the Santa Claus myth, so our family never hung up stockings or read The Christmas Story. Gifts were bought and wrapped in colored tissue paper (no bow, of course) and kept high up on a shelf in their closet until the tree went up two weeks before Christmas. Why my mother couldn’t splurge on a traditional roll of Christmas paper or a bag of bows has always remained a mystery to me. Usually a few days before Christmas, the presents were placed under our fragrant, tinsel laden Douglas fir, giving my older brother, Chris and me ample time to ponder what was in each wondrous package and making it impossible for us to keep our tiny hands off the gifts.
With those same small hands we felt, tapped and shook each package with utter focus, but it was the green box that piqued our interest the most. For hours my brother and I discussed at length what was in the unmarked box—he insisted it was the Hot Wheels set for which he’d been begging for months—while I furiously argued it had to be a Crissy Doll for me.
Ah, the Crissy Doll. How I begged and pleaded with my parents for a Crissy Doll! With her dark eyes and lustrous red hair that literally grew out of a hole in the top of her head when you turned a knob on her back, I was certain I couldn’t be happy without her.
My new found obsession with Crissy had grown rampant after a distressing incident where my mother, frustrated with my hysterical crying every time she brushed my hair, had taken me to her hairdresser and had my own stringy locks hacked into a hideous pixie cut. Long hair was just becoming all the rage, and I was beyond devastated by my mother’s insensitive betrayal. I figured if I couldn’t have my own long hair to brush and style, then by God, I would have Crissy’s.
Christmas morning arrived with the usual fervor and excitement. My father, despite a raging hangover, cheerfully passed out a variety of presents to each of us which we dutifully tore open and tossed aside with casual indifference. To be honest, my brother and I only had eyes for that unmarked green box—the one my dad had purposely left until the very end.
He finally picked up the mystery package. “Now, who could this be for?” he said, expertly dangling a cigarette between his lips, the inch long ash threatening to fall to the ground at any second.
My brother and I both raised our hands, “Me, me!” we shouted in unison. My dad, grinning with holiday mischief, looked back and forth at the two of us before finally handing the box to my brother who managed to unwrap it in four seconds flat, revealing it was indeed a Hot Wheels set.
“Yippee!” he shouted, holding it in up in the air, “Thanks, Dad! It’s just what I wanted!”
My heart dropped. How could this be? That was supposed to be my Crissy Doll! Oh, the unfairness of it all. My lower lip jutted out and I could feel the hot tears stinging my eyes as I faced away from my parents and began to settle into the most monumental sulk I’d ever had in my short life. I decided I would never speak to any of them again, including my greedy, double-crossing brother.
A moment later, my mother put a gentle hand on my shorn head. “Jess, Honey,” she said, “I think I may have forgotten a present in my bedroom. Why don’t you go take a look behind my desk and see if there’s anything there.”
What was this? I leapt up and tore into their room with both hands holding up my loose pajama bottoms so they wouldn’t slip off my hips. There, behind my mother’s boxy black desk, I found an identical green tissue paper wrapped present—exactly the same shape and size as the one my brother had just opened. With a euphoric and somewhat sheepish grin on my face, I carried it out to the living room and set it on the rug.
“Well aren’t you going to open it?” my dad asked.
I knew what it was, but I wanted to savor the moment a little longer. I ran my hands along the smooth green paper and stuck my finger under the tape to loosen the flap. Slowly tearing the edge of the paper I saw a flash of red and no longer able to contain myself, I ripped off the paper and tore open the box. There she was in all her flaming glory—my beautiful Crissy Doll—wearing an orange dress and matching orange shoes, her shiny red hair luminescent in the glow of the Christmas tree lights.
Years later, my mother told me that I almost didn’t get a Crissy Doll that Christmas. She had waited too long to buy one, and by the time she got around to doing her Christmas shopping, they were all gone.
On Christmas Eve and she found herself desperately driving from store to store with no luck. Finally, in sheer desperation, she went into a Thrifty Drug Store around the corner from our house where the clerk told her he had one left but was saving it for a lady who was supposed to come in to pick it up. My mother saw her chance. She laid it on thick, telling him how sad and disappointed her little girl would be not to find a Crissy Doll under the tree the next day. It was already so late in the day—surely the woman wasn’t coming after all. She literally begged him to sell it to her—perhaps she even allowed the tears to wet her eyes. My guess is she offered him twenty bucks extra for the doll. Whatever she did, it worked, and my Christmas was magically complete.
I played with my Crissy Doll religiously every day for a month until one evening I decided to take her into the bath with me. With one dip into the hot water, her shiny, lustrous hair turned into a mass of red, tangled straw that could no longer be wound back into the hole in her head. Soon her dress and matching orange shoes were misplaced and poor Crissy became just another shoeless, naked doll shoved into the bottom of my toy box.
No matter, I had something else in mind. My birthday was coming up in a few months and it was time to start planting the seed in my mother’s brain.
“Mommy,” I said sweetly, carrying my empty cereal bowl to the sink one morning, “Have you ever heard of an Easy Bake Oven?”