Archive | June, 2012

Cafe con Leche

25 Jun

My husband leaves me every year—sometimes twice. He packs his bag, kisses me and our children goodbye and heads back to Mexico to see his other family—the one I stole him away from over twenty five years ago.

When he first leaves me, I breathe a sigh of relief because I am free. I can stay up late watching television with the volume on high. I can spend hours on Facebook without him complaining how I’m ridiculously addicted to social media. I can sleep in late and skip breakfast and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles everyday for lunch. I can bake scones and give them away so as not to eat any (okay, I eat some.) I can work in my garden for hours knowing that no one is going to call out to me and ask me to do something or go somewhere. I can send my youngest daughter over to play at a neighbor’s house and then I can savor my aloneness like a hot Grande Decaf Mocha (one and a half pumps of chocolate, extra whip) with a morning bun on the side, and no one gives me a look that says: Should you really be eating that?

For about three days my new sense of freedom makes me as giddy and excited as a teenager whose parents have left for the weekend. I make plans to clean out closets, scrub baseboards, and organize my messy life into neat little plastic containers. I drool over the stack of books on my nightstand and ponder which one I’m going to read first. I make detailed lists and compose emails and decide to use every hour—no—every minute, to accomplish what I’ve mapped out to do.

And then something strange happens. I end up sitting on the couch doing nothing. My stress level has gone all the way down to zero but for some reason I’m not happy.

I miss my husband.

My problem is that I really like to spend time with my husband. Or at least I do in reasonable quantities. Even though he readily admits to me that he’s high maintenance and difficult at times, his sense of humor, his generosity, and his ability to love is unparalleled. I’ve discovered that I like to hang out with people who have these qualities, even if they drive me nuts at times.

Not only that, he makes me laugh. I cannot stay mad at him for longer than fifteen minutes because he always tries to hug me and kiss me and cajole me out of my snit by teasing me until I finally have to cover my mouth to stifle my laughter. No matter what hurtful things we’ve just said to each other (and both of us are expert button pushers), the moment I crack that smile, he knows that everything is instantly forgiven. Trust me—I’ve tried in vain to hold on to that hot, delicious anger—it’s virtually impossible with Rene.

On June fourth we celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. As money has been a bit tight this year (join the club, right?) we didn’t make plans to go away to spend a weekend in wine country or take a short cruise to Baja. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything anyway—we’ve always been sort of casual about giving each other presents.

But he surprised me the morning of our anniversary by playing hooky from work and bringing me peach colored roses (he actually remembered that peach was the color of our wedding flowers) and then he took me out to a fancy restaurant on State Street to eat French toast with fresh berries and whipped cream.

He held my hand and kissed me, just like he did during our first date, which involved the two of us making out passionately in a seedy movie theatre somewhere in downtown Los Angeles while a Chuck Norris film (dubbed in Spanish) blasted out at an unusually high volume.

In that dark theatre, Rene kissed me liked I’d never been kissed before, so completely paralyzing my body that I literally melted into the squeaky seat and could not move.  I barely heard the screaming  children who ran up and down the aisles throwing popcorn and crying out for their mothers.

Rene and I met at an upscale gourmet hamburger joint in Santa Monica (I guarantee you, there was such a thing in the 80’s) where he was a cook and I was a waitress.  He spoke mostly Spanish and I spoke mostly English. He was a dark-skinned Zapotec Indian from the mountains of Oaxaca whose first language was an indigenous dialect, and who at eight years old, was sent away to work as a houseboy in the home of a rich family in the city. I grew up a semi-privileged white girl from Santa Barbara, California, who had her own room and her own car (it was a beat-up 67 Oldsmobile, aka the Tuna Boat, but a car, nonetheless) and whose parents paid for weekly piano lessons.

Rene worked tirelessly for years, often sending his entire paycheck to his parents in Mexico so that they and his nine siblings could have a real roof over their heads, one that wasn’t made from scraps of discarded wood and corrugated aluminum. While I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in piano performance from a prestigious Los Angeles music school, he was riding the bus for an hour each way to attend ESL classes so that he could to learn English and begin his education. Seven years later, when he was thirty-one years old, he received his master’s degree in Education. At that time, I was seven months pregnant with our third child.

My husband and I are like night and day—we’re café con leche. We come from dissimilar cultures and we don’t like the same music. We’ve had some difficult times in our marriage; the most arduous being the time our youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia when she was two. But through some kind of consecrated grace, we pulled together instead of pulling apart, and we endured. Yes, we still fight a lot, and yes, we say mean things to each other at times. Yet we also say “I love you” every single day, no matter what.

And most importantly, we laugh a lot.

I didn’t plan to fall in love with Rene after only dating him for three weeks, after which he told me he was leaving me to go back to Mexico and didn’t know when he would be back. I was heartbroken and had no idea if I’d ever see him again, but somehow I knew he was the one, and that whatever happened was meant to be.

Together in 1985. The hairstyle proves it.

He came back four months later.

I was twenty-three when he left me for the first time. He’s been leaving me without fail ever since. This time around, he’s only been gone a little over two weeks. Last night he called, the connection scratchy and faint, and told me he missed me and the kids and he was coming home early. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait too long this time.

Still together after twenty five years of marriage.

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Nature’s Eye Candy

19 Jun

I couldn’t resist posting these…summer is here!

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Riding the Waves

14 Jun

My seven year-old daughter is Hanging Ten this week. The soggy gray drizzle of Santa Barbara’s typical June weather doesn’t discourage my little brown “Wahine” as she dons a miniature wet suit and wades into the frigid Pacific Ocean. Spread with a thick layer of sunscreen and a light dusting of sand on her cinnamon skin, she is as delicious as a warm sugar bun fresh from the oven. Isa giggles and shrieks with delight as the foamy tide hungrily swallows up her feet and as I watch her leap and dance upon the shore I’m so full of gratitude that my heart physically hurts.

This week, Isa gets to do something for which I would never consider paying good money for her to learn to do: SURF. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a California girl born and raised, and I most certainly do appreciate the sport (or art form) of surfing—it’s just that the $400 for five days of surf camp isn’t something our budget can realistically handle at the moment.

The most wonderful and marvelous detail about this story is that I don’t have to pay for surf camp—Isa gets to participate in this camp for free. She gets this opportunity because when she was two and a half years old, she came close to losing her life to cancer, and surf camp is just one of the many “cancer perks” she has received since her diagnosis over five years ago.

All of you know that cancer (especially when kids get it) is mostly evil and rotten and torturous, but as I’ve reiterated since the start of our wild journey into the world of pediatric cancer, it’s also responsible for bringing beauty and kindness and love into the lives of patients and their families. One of the most moving aspects of being thrown into this whole cancer mess is discovering how many people out there are willing to help make your life easier. This week, the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation and Surf Happens of Santa Barbara have stepped up for us, sponsoring Isa for a week of surf camp so that she can climb up on a surfboard and ride a wave for the very first time in her life.

Now, over the past five years, I’ve learned to appreciate these “cancer perks” that have been generously given to Isa and the rest of our family since she was  diagnosed with her leukemia. I first heard the term, “cancer perks” from writer John Green, whose teenage characters in his novel The Fault in Our Stars discuss the various perks they receive because they are fighting cancer. (I highly recommend reading this poignant, yet often hilarious love story if you want to understand a little more about how life-changing pediatric cancer can be, not only for the patient but for the entire family as well.)

Some of the “cancer perks” our family has received over the past few years are: financial support during Isa’s initial hospitalization, loads of fun parties, free tickets to events, weekend family camps and presents too numerous to even count. Let’s not forget the Big Kahuna perk—the all expenses-paid trip to Disneyworld (Thank you, Make-a-Wish Foundation for an experience our family will never forget.) We’ve accepted these gifts with great appreciation and gratitude, but now that Isa is coming up on her five year anniversary of complete remission, the idea that we should still be receiving “cancer perks” weighs on my mind quite a bit. The internal struggle I’ve been facing is that I wonder if it’s still all right for Isa to get free stuff even if she’s going to be considered cured in a few short months?

You may not realize it, but a ton of guilt attaches itself to a family of a cancer survivor. Bottom line is that your child is alive, while some of your friends’ children have died. The guilt that comes with this experience is often wrenching (although I know our pain is only a minute fraction of the pain that my friends feel after having lost their child.) Then there’s the guilt you feel when your child is done with her treatment and is now living a happy and healthy life, while other children are suffering through their chemotherapy and are constantly miserable. You are beyond elated that your child made it and want to shout it to the mountaintops, but feel the need to keep it to yourself so as not to make anyone feel too badly that they’re still in the thick of it.

A few weeks ago Isa and I attended the annual “Family Fun Day” event put on by The Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation. It’s a chance for families to get together at a ranch in our local mountains and just relax and have fun with other families who have children battling cancer. I was surprised to have met so many new families whose children have recently been diagnosed, and as I watched the parents interact with their kids, I could see the fear in their eyes, even though they were smiling and laughing and acting as if they were having a good time.

I know exactly how they feel—how their world has shrunk into a place where you only think about cancer and treatment and worry and fear; a world where you carry plastic bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere you go to kill any microscopic germs that may infect and sicken your immune-suppressed child; a world where you try to get your kid to eat even a tiny bit of healthy food even though they shake their heads and cry and tell you that they’re not hungry.

I talked to a few parents whose children have been diagnosed with the same leukemia that Isa had. I remember when Isa first got sick, any story of survival gave me the faith I needed to get through another day, so my hope is that by relating our happy ending to them, they are comforted by the fact that if my child survived, theirs will too.

I guess I’ve just answered my own question about whether or not it’s all right for us to still be receiving “cancer perks.” Of course it is. Our role is that of cancer warriors—if we beat it, then so can you. If our presence offers hope to others, then accepting perks like surf camp is the right thing to do.  If we turn our sad story into a triumphant one,  then perhaps the guilt can be left behind.

I believe that because Isa had cancer, she will never again be just an ordinary girl. Her cancer experience has turned her into something special because she’s a survivor and for this reason alone, she’s a bright light of hope for those families who are waiting and watching as their own child goes through treatment. It’s our responsibility to do whatever we can to ease the pain of others who find themselves navigating helplessly through the rough waters of pediatric cancer.

My sweet little bald Isa.

I’ll never forget that I was once caught in that storm, feeling as if I was about to capsize without a lifejacket. Even today, I think about cancer every morning when I run the hairbrush through Isa’s long, tangled hair while she whines and complains that I’m such a mean mommy to be hurting her this way, and I remember the time when there was nothing growing on her bald little head. I think about cancer when she comes home from school and runs into my piano studio to kiss me hello and gushes on about what her teacher taught her, or what her best friend said, and these seemingly mundane moments make me happier than I ever thought I could be.  I think about cancer when I tuck her in at night and kiss her smooth cheeks, and I no longer have to force her to swallow four different kinds of chemotherapy pills before she drifts off to sleep.

I’m not able to leave the cancer world behind because as I’ve said so many times before, I don’t want to. Isa’s cancer has helped turn me into the person I needed to become. I refuse to stop thinking about cancer because if I do, I might lapse back into that woman who I used to be—the one who was ungrateful and disappointed and dissatisfied for so long—the one who used to stand on the beach and moan and groan about the sand and the tar and the freezing water.

I realize now that I’m lucky to be where I am today. All of that pain and suffering that our family went through has made me aware that the beauty and magnificence of life is hurtling down upon us every minute of every day, just like those perfect green waves that form and curl, and then break upon the shoreline, never resting, never stopping, never giving up.

So I’ll take the “cancer perks” for as long as they’re offered, and in turn, I’ll be right there, holding Isa’s hand as we stand on the beach, the frothy waves crashing over our feet, our presence there offering absolute proof to others that anything is possible.