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Ten Junes

30 May

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June is almost here and I’ve begun to feel it—that sense of giddy anticipation for the coming summer. All the signs are here—the misty fog banks that hug the coast, the scent of jasmine in the air when I open the front door; the ruffled towers of purple delphinium that sway in the offshore breezes that slip in off the Pacific.

Since I was a girl I’ve associated June with happy affairs—a long vacation from school, the prospect of lazy days spent at the beach, a new part time job—the thrill of a budding summer romance. June was always filled with a sense of endless possibility and hope.

Then in 2007, June turned on me. It became the month my daughter, Isa was diagnosed with leukemia.

Exactly ten years have passed since Isa’s diagnosis of cancer, when the perfect month of June lost its allure and became a time associated with doctors, nurses and hospitals; with antibiotic cocktails, blood transfusions and chemotherapy. When June became a time saturated with anxiety as my two year-old developed an angry rash all over her body and suddenly stopped eating because her mouth was filled with painful sores. June was raging fevers, sweat-soaked hospital sheets and sleepless nights. June was spending our twentieth wedding anniversary in an isolated hospital room watching our daughter suffer. June was thinking Isa could die.

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Isa  in the hospital on her third birthday.

But June turned out to be other things, as well. It was the wisdom of the doctors and the compassion of the nurses who held our hands, loved our daughter and reassured us that Isa would be all right. It was when our family, friends and community gave us their unconditional support through selfless acts of kindness—big and small. June was when we received that phone call from the doctor telling us that Isa had responded rapidly to the chemotherapy and was in remission.

Ten years.

In a few weeks, Isa will graduate from sixth grade. Like the jasmine that grows outside my front door, Isa has blossomed into a beautiful young girl—outgoing, smart, funny and most importantly, kind. Today she is considered cured and shows no residual effects from the chemotherapy.

As I stand on my front porch and look out at my garden, I realize the anxiety I carried for so long is gone. I am no longer afraid. Isa is still here with us and for this I am forever grateful. As summer stretches out before me, I feel only wonder for the possibility of what is to come.

June has come back to me.

 

Isa in a commercial for Santa Barbara Cottage Children’s Hospital

 

Happy New Year

11 Jan
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The Mireles Family: Back row: Nino, Nora and Leah. Front row: Rene, Isa and Jessica

I’ll be honest–due to my complete lack of preparation and general malaise, I neglected to get my annual holiday letter out before Christmas. I did manage to send out a few cards, but if you didn’t get one this year, here it is. I’m sharing it on my blog because after a rough 2016 for all of us, I feel the need to spread some love.

Dear Family and Friends (and Blog Followers),

Okay, I know I’m late in getting our annual Christmas letter out this year and I’ve no doubt most of you were paralyzed with fear and dread that I wasn’t writing one. Rest assured, I will not leave you in your state of angst any longer. You may now drag yourself out from under the covers and move on with your life.

As difficult as it is to focus on the good after 2016 went flying off the deep end, my plan of action is to try my best to focus on the one thing that has the ability to solve everyone’s problems: LOVE.

Here goes:

NORA: My oldest and favorite child. I love that Nora still lives at home even though she worries that she’s too old to still be living at home. I love that she adores her job working with such amazing women at California Retina Consultants and has developed wonderful relationships with them. I love that Nora plays coed fast pitch softball and that she’s really, really good at it. I love that Nora drives a Prius and has become totally vegan and is now super healthy. I love that she’s trying to convince the rest of the family to do it too (hmmm….we’ll have to see about that.) I love that she’s goofy, funny and kind and still tolerates me and René (most of the time.)

LEAH: My second oldest and favorite child. I love that Leah is will graduate in May from USC with a masters in Hospital Administration. I love that after working a full-time unpaid internship at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles while going to school full time, the hospital hired her for a paid position. I love that Leah wrote an incredible essay about healthcare and won a huge scholarship that paid half a year’s tuition. I love that she took a solo trip to Italy to meet up with a friend. I love that Leah and her boyfriend, Jeff come and visit us often and bring their dog Luna, who is my favorite granddoggy. I love that Leah is so funny, kind and generous to our family as well as the rest of the world. (And I love Jeff, too.)

NINO: My only son and favorite child. I love that Nino graduated from UCSB last June as an art major. I love that in July he moved to Oaxaca, Mexico to live for six months (he just got back right before Christmas which is why this letter is late—I mean, what kind of mother would I be if I took our family Xmas photo without him? I love that the minute he arrived home, he got his old job back (with a raise) and started working right away with the intent to pay off his student debt within the year. I love that he makes me belly laugh all the time. I love that I didn’t realize how much I missed him until he was home again.

ISA: My youngest and favorite child. I love that this kid is so great that sometimes I have to close my eyes and thank the universe that she’s here with us. I love that she was elected La Patera School’s student body president and when she came home from school that day, she very nonchalantly told me she’d won. I love that she does cartwheels and handstands around the house like a crazy person, plays soccer, takes piano, voice and dance lessons and does her homework without asking. I love that she begged for an iPhone and got it for her 12th birthday (and Christmas and sixth grade graduation.) I love how she laughs all the time and that she can come up with puns and zingers that put her siblings to shame. I love that I don’t embarrass her in public (or at least not yet.)

RENE: My favorite husband (so far.) I love that René comes home from work each day raving about how much he loves his students. I love that he still drives to L.A. almost every weekend to see his sister who is confined to a nursing home. I love that he yells at me to get off my phone and then proceeds to spend hours playing games on his. I love that wherever we go, he meets someone he knows. I love that he values family above all else. I love that he stops for coffee at McDonald’s everyone morning on the way to work and has breakfast with a group of homeless men. I love that even when I want to kill him, he makes me laugh. I love that we will celebrate thirty years of marriage this coming June. And I especially love that I still love him after all these years together.

ME: my favorite self. I love that I’m blessed with the best job where I teach children how to love music. I love that I got to spend several days at a beach house with a group of women friends I’ve known since junior high. I love that I finished my novel and am now trying to find an agent. I love that I’ve received over thirty rejections (really—I do love this because it will make it all the more sweet when it actually gets picked up.) I love that the five people I’ve allowed to read my book have raved about it (including Nino, who is a hard sell.) I love that my mom is still going strong at eighty. I love that my kids tease me and laughingly accuse me of turning into my mother. I love that I dote on my two lap dogs, Cody and Leo. I love that I still work in my flower garden and that it brings me so much joy. I love that our extended family spent Christmas together and had such a wonderful time.

2016 was a challenge, and perhaps 2017 will be as well, but I love that I will ALWAYS try to find the good around me. I love that I will always try to be a helper to those who are disenfranchised and looked down upon. I love that I will never stop believing that the majority of us are kind and moral people who choose to see that deep down we are all the same.

We send our warmest wish of LOVE, happiness and good health to all of you in the coming year!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

René, Jessica, Nora, Leah, Nino and Isa (and Cody and Leo, too!)

Miracle

12 Dec

img_0612My youngest daughter, Isa turns twelve years old today. I guess you could say she’s a bit of a miracle–born to a mother in her forties whose other three kids were practically grown up when she entered the world with a lusty cry and a head full of thick, black hair. Then, when she was a toddler, this miracle girl did something even bigger: she was diagnosed with cancer and after a fierce battle, she survived. And as a family, we also survived. The greatest miracle of all is that through this nightmare of cancer, Isa taught us how to live.

Today is a special day: Isa’s golden birthday. She is 12 on 12/12. It’s also the birthday of the Virgin de Guadalupe, who is an iconic saint in Mexican culture. When Isa was going through treatment, when her hair fell out and her belly swelled from the medication, Rene took a short trip back to Oaxaca to see his family. While in Mexico City, he went to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe to make an offering to the Virgincita and to pray for Isa’s life. Now, my husband could certainly win the prize for the best lapsed Catholic, but going to that shrine somehow comforted him, offering him hope during a very dark time.

Since that time, our family has made it a tradition to go to Olvera Street in Los Angeles on Isa’s birthday to Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church to offer our thanks for another year with our beautiful daughter. We went last night and had a wonderful time, marveling at the beautiful culture of Mexico and deeply grateful that Isa is still here with us.

Happy Birthday, Isa!

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That Time of Year Again

4 Nov

I have my husband to thank for bringing the celebration of “Day of the Dead” into my life. This is a tradition that he grew up with in Oaxaca and always brought a great deal of excitement into his family’s life. They are a family of bakers and during this time, they baked and sold many loaves of pan de muerto or “bread of death”  which people would place on their altars honoring their relatives and friends who had died.

The Day of the Dead altar has now become a tradition in our family. During the process of setting up the altar each year, our family takes the time to reflect on those we’ve loved and lost. It’s not our intention to forget our loved ones, but busy lives often keep our minds on other things. As my husband says, “Everyone dies twice. The first time is when you physically die. The second time is when people forget you.”

Celebrating Day of the Dead keeps those we love from dying twice.

Here are some photos of this year’s celebration.

 

Who am I?

16 May

 

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For Mother’s Day, my children got me one of those DNA testing kits where I have to spit into a vial and mail it in to a company who will test it and tell me who I am.

Who am I?

It’s all the rage right now to find out who you are by researching your ancestry. Many of my friends are going onto Ancestry.com to find out more about their distant relatives. Families are truly fascinating. I especially love that PBS show Finding Your Roots where celebrities learn about their backgrounds.

I’ve never really felt connected in any way to one specific ethnic group. Being born a white American I’ve always envied those who come from big families and wholeheartedly embrace their culture. My parents migrated to California from Baltimore in the early sixties and I grew up without any extended family nearby. To this day, I’ve not met several of my first cousins. Beyond my immediate family, I’ve never had that sense of belonging to a clan.

I know some of my heritage. My father was half-Italian but didn’t discover this about himself until he was in his forties, after my grandfather—the estranged son of immigrant Italians—died and his secret past was uncovered. Maybe that’s why I married a Latino man with thirteen siblings and a strong family connection—that little bit of Italian in me was crying out for some familia.

I’m intrigued to find out if there are any big surprises in my DNA—besides being part Italian, maybe I have something else going on from my mom’s side—something other than western European—something exotic.

My kids also got my husband a DNA kit. I think he’s a little hesitant to do it—probably because he doesn’t want to know how much Spanish blood is mixed into his Zapotec blood.

I guess it doesn’t really matter what we find out about ourselves. Sometime in the future, there will be so much genetic mixing that we’ll all end up looking pretty much the same.

Which is really what we all are on the inside anyway—the same.

I’ll be sure to let you know who I am when I find out.

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My Italian great grandparents, Giuseppi and Rosa Intrieri (a.k.a. Joseph and Rose Winters)

The Pacification

19 Apr

 

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My son, Nino is graduating from University of California Santa Barbara this coming June. He is an art major who specializes in printmaking. This week he’s having a solo art show at UCSB’s Glass Box Gallery entitled “The Pacification” which explores his relationship with his father. Since many of you won’t be able to attend, I thought I’d share some of his work on my blog.

I’m so proud of Nino for following his passion. He started U.C.S.B. as an Economics/Accounting Major and I knew this was not the path he should have chosen. Luckily, he realized that creating art is what makes him happy and changed his major. In July he’ll be off to live in Oaxaca for sixth months where he will continue to study printmaking.

Here is the explanation behind this show and some examples of his work:

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The artist, Nino Mireles

Breathe

12 Feb

I recently read the inspiring book—When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. It’s the story of a highly educated man with degrees in English literature and biology who becomes a renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. A lover of literature and philosophy, Kalanithi writes eloquently about his family, his education, and being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at age thirty-six.

Here’s a doctor who treats terminally ill patients suddenly facing his own mortality. Before he dies, he’s able to write this poignant book about the true meaning of life.

I guess what really resonated with me about his story was that for years Kalanithi put life on hold while working diligently to become the best possible neurosurgeon—spending hours and hours studying, researching and performing surgeries to leave his mark on the world. Yet in the end what really mattered was not his career, but his wife, baby daughter and extended family.

Why does it take something so devastating to wake us up to what’s really important? When my own daughter was diagnosed with cancer, I thought I had learned my lesson. Yet after almost ten years it’s still a struggle for me to consistently take pleasure in the little things. That darn “if only” pattern of thinking seeps into my subconscious, constantly diluting all the precious joy.

Fortunately, I have found a way to break free from these negative thought patterns—by practicing gratitude. Every day as I go about my daily tasks, I try to consciously think about how very lucky I am.

Today was full of the little things: Sleeping in because of a school holiday; breakfast out with Rene and Isa followed by a glorious walk to our local butterfly preserve. Watching the dogs romp happily through the grass, soft and green from the recent rains. Running into neighbors at the local pizza parlor and joining them for lunch and delightful conversation. A trip to the library. Little things, really—but oh, so very big.

Life is short. Be kind and show gratitude. Nurture relationships.

Revel in the beauty around you. LOVE. I will die someday and so will you.

Breathe deeply before that breath becomes air. It’s that simple.

The Long Road Home

26 May

Eight isa pile of puppiesyears ago, our lives changed forever.

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.

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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.

Through Different Eyes

23 Apr

nino 14My 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.

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Nino and my proud husband Rene standing in front of the gallery.

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.

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Nino drew this by hand and digitally colorized it on the computer.

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These are prints from a drawing that NIno carved by hand into some sort of material and then ran them though a print making machine.

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Nino will probably kill me for including this, but he painted this for me while he was in high school and it now hangs in my music studio. It’s a rendition of five famous composers: clockwise from left, Chopin with the Polish flag; Tchaikovsky with a deck of cards because he loved to play card games; Bach with a personalized coffee mug because he had so many children; Beethoven with an apple core and dirty underwear because he was such a slob; and a young Mozart playing the violin in front. I look at this painting every day and I truly love it.

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One of NIno’s earliest drawings at age four. Even then he was into cartooning.

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More prints.

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Pen and Ink drawing.

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NIno musing on the way things are.

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Another print, this time using color ink.

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He really has a unique style.