Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sibling Alterations



I miss my sister. Ruth Anne lives only 70 miles away. But I miss her.

We go way back. In high school when the "cool" girls would avoid kid sisters like the plague, I always made sure my sister came along. Two years apart in age, we each had our own friends, but her friends were my friends and mine were hers. And we all mingled. A peer rebellion that surely kept me out of the right social circles. I didn't ignore the social boundaries of the teen world, I simply didn't see them. (Except one: talking to boys I had crushes on... but that's a completely different story.)

Looking out for my sister came naturally. Once, while out collecting for our paper route, a guy in only a towel tried to get us to come into the house. Ruth Anne, trust still fully intact, nearly agreed but I stopped her and firmly told the pervert that we'd come back when his parents were home as I pushed my sister down the driveway. When we reached the end of the driveway he called out, I reflexively turned around and he pulled his towel off. I pushed my sister into the street and instructed her not to turn around.

Some things were easier to take. Like when she was too young to go to concerts by herself, I drove her to see Rick Springfield. Twice.

We had our rituals. After our brother David* went off to college, there was one night each week when both our parents were away from home for the evening. Ruth Anne and I would take the money we were given to buy dinner and get something wholesome and nutritional like ice cream bonbons or Little Debbies. While watching "LA Law" we would proceed to eat the entire package of whatever treat we had purchased and destroy the evidence. Bonding through mini-rebellion.

But I'm no hero in this story. I did take care to uphold the older sibling responsibility to tease and torment younger ones. The meanest things I did to my sister in ascending degrees: Once after refusing to give up the front seat to me as she had promised, I retaliated with the focus of a seasoned martial artist and channeling all my energy into my finger, I flicked her ear. At the time I felt justified because words seemed an inadequate tool. Immature yes. In my defense, I was a teenager.

During high school one infamous showdown in the lunch room ended with me hauling out the big guns. Yes, to end a stereotypical teenage girl drama, I called my little sister a baby. Always fighting words to the youngest child in the family. I knew it. And I'm not proud. Never was. In our typical fashion though, we were over it by the end of the day, if not the by end of the week. I never did recall the topic of the argument.

My most heinous sibling torture came during Ash Wednesday mass, once again, while we were teens. Just before we stood to join the line to receive the ashes on our foreheads, I leaned toward my sister's ear and said, "you know where they get the ashes, don't you?" Wide-eyed she responded, "no." "They come from cremated bodies." I claimed confidently, as we filed away to get the ashes rubbed into our heads. She had always been my straight man, I the jokester. So I was sure she knew I was joking. I was wrong. She spent the next several years believing that.


Despite, or perhaps because of all that, we forged a strong friendship. So strong that when I left for college, a mere forty miles away in Dubuque, when we said goodbye you would have thought I had been exiled to the other side of the world. We knew that the separation would alter our relationship forever. As adults we stayed relatively close despite some physical distances. Most recently we lived together for eight years, until a little over two years ago when she moved out of my house and now, appropriately, she lives with her husband Bobby in Raymond, Iowa. Bobby is a good man and I love him. He loves my sister and treats her like the best thing that's ever happened to him. How can someone not respect and admire that in a brother-in-law? Life is good. I'm happy. They are happy. Still, as I drove home last Saturday after staying with Bobby and Ruth Anne for a few days it hit me hard that I miss her. Another alteration.

Before I really started feeling sorry for myself though, I thought of my friend Chris who had reminded me the week before that sometimes in life you have to be tough regardless of the circumstances. Just over a year ago, Chris lost his younger brother Robin to cancer. Chris describes theirs as a typical childhood relationship of our generation. A generation in which kids were more likely to go outside to play rather than stay inside to play video games, which were more often than not played in arcades rather than at home, when kids walked or rode their bikes to Little League or the pool rather than being chauffeured.

Chris and Robin were three years apart and also had their own circles of friends but were close. As adults physical distance kept them distant for a while but common interest in cycling brought them together. Now an eleven-year testicular cancer survivor, Chris bonded powerfully with his brother through their love of cycling. Then in the summer of 2005 Robin was diagnosed with stomach cancer. When it recurred the following summer with a grim prognosis Robin chose to discontinue treatment. Chris made the trip to visit his brother to say goodbye and to help put Robin's affairs in order. The last day of Chris' visit, the two brothers left the house at the same time; Chris to head home, Robin to a doctor appointment. At a t-intersection where their paths diverged Chris went his way and watched Robin go his. Chris broke down as he grasped that this sight of his brother driving away was the last... that he would never see his brother alive again. A few weeks later Robin died. Permanent alteration.

A close family member and her siblings gather for a similar journey next Saturday when their brother comes to Iowa to visit. Cancer brought about this bittersweet visit too. Their brother was diagnosed earlier this year with esophageal cancer. He underwent chemo and radiation all summer and then just prior to his surgery which would have been followed by radiation, his doctors discovered that his cancer had metastasized to his bones. Their brother had to choose between impending death with certain pain accompanied by the discomfort of more treatment or impending death with probable pain from the cancer but considerably less discomfort from treatments. Like Robin, he chose the latter.

After receiving the news, I shared with Chris who wisely advised me to respect the decision, fight like hell and leave nothing unsaid. I struggled briefly to realize that discontinuing treatment and fighting like hell are not mutually exclusive acts, therefore accepting and honoring this family member's decision. Still I haven't figured out the unsaid thoughts or feelings I need to get out before time runs out. So in the meantime I passed along that wisdom to my mom and to her brother in the hope that they can share and heal. Alterations in progress.

The youngest of four, this sibling moved far away after his high school graduation. First to southern Missouri, then Georgia and finally Florida. I suspect that his main reason was to escape their abusive father and break that pattern. End the abusiveness in that generation. By my estimates he and his wife have achieved award-winning levels of success here. My one visit to their home in Atlanta when I lived relatively nearby in Orlando revealed a typical happy family. This could be one of those things that needs to be said.

Baffled to now know that the man my siblings and cousins all knew as Boompa was an abusive father, I want these siblings to see that he was more than that. I can't excuse the abuse he imposed on them. And it is not my place to forgive him. But Boompa, had gifts as well. Until I learned of his abusive and abused past, to me he was simply a talented writer, storyteller, humorist and a loving husband to Nanny. My favorite memories of holidays include visits to Nanny & Boompa's where one family member would laugh so hard at his father-in-law's stories that his whole head turned red and veins popped out on his forehead. A man is more than his one great flaw. Even if his one great flaw is inexcusable and huge and brought immense pain, even to people he loved. And forgiveness is less for the person receiving it and more for the person giving it. This might be one more thing that I need to say.

So yes, I miss my sister. But she's still here with no indications of imminent death. (Knock on wood.) I can reach out and call or email or instant message her. I don't have to know that the next time I see her will be the last. And perhaps that is more tragic. For what might I be leaving unsaid? Shouldn't every parting be treated as gently and respectfully as if it were final? Or does that make life one long goodbye?

I don't know any of those answers, but I do know this, I am making "I love you" a more common part of my vocabulary.


*My brother David deserves more than a footnote but I'm still at a loss for words in describing this relationship. David is a seventeen-year testicular cancer survivor and fitting that into this story is like forcing a jigsaw puzzle piece in to a crossword puzzle. Apologies as necessary. I love this sibling as well. That's all the words I can use for this, at this moment.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Normal" people creep me out

Yesterday I attended a scrapbooking workshop. My main goal was to use some of the tools I'm too cheap to buy that are provided so I could finish my RAGBRAI Team LIVESTRONG scrapbook. My fellow attendees appeared to be normal. And by normal, I mean the types of women who marry when the time is right, not necessarily because of any mutual affection, and who have 2.3 children, or whatever the average is nowadays. "Normal" women join the PTA, bake pies for church raffles and go on cruises not because it fuels any kind of passion for them but because that's the picture someone painted for them and they're striving to be that perfect woman who has it all together because these are the goals they have assumed that they made for themselves. "Normal" women take no interest in conversation but will monologue endlessly about gift receipts and baby showers and supposed dreary weather. It's creepy.

Don't get me wrong, I find MANY women in this world interesting. And some of them happen to be married, some are PTA members, some bake pies, scrapbook, and various activities that bring domestic tranquility. It's the automatons who stare blankly when you ask them questions about their lives or about things that stir passions... those are the ones that I find disturbing.

I tried unsuccessfully to engage in conversation with the Mrs. Normal who sat across from me. After introducing myself and asking what she was working on, she appeared eager for me to become invisible. I could be misreading her no-eye-contact, "don't cheat off my paper" head down body language, so I may be judging harshly.

Anyway, shortly after that I received a phone call from my mom informing me that my aunt had just been diagnosed with breast cancer for the third time. (Horrible news, that turned out to be incorrect. That's a different story altogether.) Mom asked if I would be willing to go with her to Guttenberg to visit my aunt and uncle. Since it seemed the supportive thing to do, I agreed to leave the (not free) workshop several hours early. When I informed the workshop hostess that I would be leaving early, I told her why. (Don't get scared now, this is where it gets REALLY creepy!) Her first question, "Oh, where do they live in Guttenberg?"

What???? I just said that my aunt has CANCER. And you're asking me about Guttenberg? It stunned me. Now, I get that talking openly about cancer is still a relatively new and foreign concept for some people and that it causes discomfort. So I'm not completely incapable of understanding an attempt to change the subject quickly. But forgive me for being completely baffled by an immediate glossing over my attempt to share. Weird. No? Creepy. No? I think so.

Clearly someone needs to let go of her harsh opinion of others in this scenario. And I'm working on it. But it's going to be a while. If I can find something in any of these women that indicates something other than "normal" that will make it easier. I'll keep an eye out.

After all that, Mom and I headed to Guttenberg, an hour drive from Monticello. When we arrived, it appeared that no one was home, so Mom called her brother. They were in Dubuque. That's when I found out that Mom hadn't confirmed our visit with them. Grr!

She asked him about what she had heard from her sister via their other brother about the latest cancer diagnosis. Not true. She has her upcoming re-constructive surgery from her mastectomy that followed her recent and second bout with breast cancer. Good news. But double-Grr! Where did this misunderstanding come from and could we have avoided a LOT of angst?

So, my lessons for the day? Go straight to the source to confirm bad news before making your next move. Try harder to look past the "normal " in others. And if you don't find evidence of passion or willingness to engage in conversation, decide if the trade-off is worth it.

Actually, there might be another lesson for me. I have always considered myself to be talented at finding silver linings. I resisted doing so while "in the moment" yesterday. If one truly looks at life as a journey, this extremely brief side-trip could be more inspirational. Instead of sadly looking on as I see people being creepily normal, I should stir up my own enthusiasm and at least attempt to ignite passion in the people around me, even in "normal" activities like a scrapbook workshop. And instead of taking a day to get over the aggravation over the miscommunication, I could have celebrated with Mom.

So, I guess this is me turning a new silver-lined cloud and looking for the best reaction to a bad (or just normal) situation SOONER!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

How did I get here?

In March 2007, I signed up to join Lance Armstrong's RAGBRAI* Team LIVESTRONG and was accepted. One responsibility as a team member was to raise a minimum of $1000 for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Of course another was to train so that we could actually ride part or all of each day as part of the team.

*RAGBRAI is the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, held the last full week in July.

July rolled around. I had surpassed the minimum individual fundraising goal, had done sufficient (but could have done more!) training and was in Rock Rapids, Iowa, ready to ride.

Our team: 147 riders
Our goal: $100,000
What we raised: $340,000 and counting

Serious withdrawal followed the weeks after RAGBRAI. 147 strangers met on Saturday in Rock Rapids and by the following Saturday in Bellevue we were family... even though some teammates I still only knew faces, but no names. Spending a week of vacation with 10,000 fellow vacationers might sound like an escape from reality, living in a bubble. And maybe it is, but I feel like the person I was during that week... that's the real me. And the person I am, now, back in the "real world" of work, bills, housework, etc, that's the bubble.

Out on the road among countless riders, my teammates, other teams, individual riders, when you ride "alone" you're never really alone. Even when the rest of my team rode faster, someone would ride along and chat, or if I stopped on the side of the road several someones looking out for me asking if I was okay, and thousands of friendly faces to sit with and have lunch.

We gathered some of the team together to attend the unprecedented Presidential Cancer Forum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A reunion of sorts for us. An historical event for the Lance Armstrong Foundation -- getting presidential candidates on record committing to making cancer a national priority.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation invited attendees at the Forum to also partake in some supplemental activities -- a focus group, to make any improvements for the next Presidential Cancer Forum; and Advocacy Training, to share how one person can do things to be part of the fight. I attended both and am even more committed to the fight.

The Long version -- how did I get to the point where I even thought of joining Team LIVESTRONG for RAGBRAI 2007? STILL TO COME...