Monday, November 14, 2011

Montana Part II: Kid Swap

Last month my friend Jenna Skype'd to say she was getting her ovaries removed in (yet another) preventative measure to hopefully avoid a cancer relapse. I was in a rare position to afford the $300 plane ticket to Kalispell, Montana and decided to fly out to give her hand. This is the second of three posts about that trip. The first post is here. The third post is here.

Jenna grew up in Montana and moved back with her California-born husband in 2002 but they come back to the Bay Area every summer (mostly because her husband's job demands it) and I get to spend time with her then. Still, our schedules are busy (she works too) and we tend to plan our outings in such a way that we can be without children (and husband, in her case) to catch up and chat without interruptions.

Don't get me wrong. I love her husband and kids - and even their extended families - but when time is precious, I just want to hang out with Jenna. 

This trip to Montana would be different. For one thing, I was going with a purpose. While I was absolutely looking forward to long chats on her recovery bed, I was also determined to make myself useful by entertaining her two boys and taking some stress off her husband who is working full time AND going to school. I wanted Jenna to rest and recover from the surgery. My job was babysitting and cooking.

Of course I've spent time with Jen's kids. I've watched them grow up. I hear about their triumphs and challenges from Jenna. They know me as "Mama's friend Cori" in the way that a lot of kids know a long distance aunt: I say things like "oh how much you've grown" and pinch their cheeks and make them give me hugs. I'm also the one who takes away Mama's attention - or worse - takes Mama away completely when she comes to my house for an evening away... So, the first sentence in this paragraph is actually false: I've never really spent time with Jenna's kids.

I arrived on Friday - the day after Jenna's surgery. The boys were at school so we took the opportunity to settle her in (she and her dad had picked me up on her way back from the hospital!) and get her set up with tea, water, snacks and all her recovery drugs. We talked about the forthcoming weekend and everyone's schedule. At 3pm she said, "the boys will be home in 15 minutes" and sure enough they came skidding up to the door on their bikes, happy for the weekend to begin.

Noah is 9 - born a year and a half after (my son) Joe - and Kai is 6 - the same age as (my daughter) Maia. The brothers are mirror images of each other in that the older looks just like Jenna and the younger, exactly like his dad. Their energy is delightfully "little boy" which was a welcome presence in the recovery room. They were excited to see their mom who had been at the hospital for the past two days and - after the necessary hugs and kisses - I harnessed their attention (thank you Smarties lollies!) and brought them downstairs to let Mama rest.

The boys warmed up to me quickly and we were soon laying next to the fire chatting about school and friends and the kinds of things they like to do. When their dad got home I brought out my iPad and they all got busy playing with Google Earth (big map fanatics, these guys!) By the next morning Kai and Noah felt comfortable enough with me to leave their parents home and take me around the hood while giving geo-caching a go. We didn't have luck finding a cache, but ended up at a cozy local restaurant for hot coco and grilled cheese. On Sunday we poked around the house - played with apps on my iPad, made fabulous marshmallow/toothpick structures (lots), did homework, played some word search and I may or may not have introduced them to The Simpsons.

More interesting than all of this is what I learned about the boys. Jenna had always said that Noah was smart, but the kid is actually off the charts gifted. He enjoys studying cookbooks in search of the perfect chocolate dessert and he plans biking trips through the Italian countryside. He asks questions like "why do people prefer push pins to thumb tacks" and he wants a serious answer. (my statement about using magnets was not accepted.)

Kai bursts with energy. He is self sufficient (sometimes to a fault, but we don't cry over spilt milk) and somewhat stubborn. He loved playing with TocaBoca apps on my iPad and excelled at creating marshmallow/toothpick structures. Someday he may very well be an engineer. Of course, the highlight of my time with Kai was when he snuggled up next to me at bedtime and - instead of reading a story - we worked out way, together, through a word search puzzle.

By Monday night Kai and Noah were asking why I couldn't stay longer. They thanked me (seriously unprompted) for spending the weekend with them and gave me hugs and kisses without me asking.

I wish I'd spent more time with them sooner.

Of course Jenna and her husband say that Noah and Kai were on their best behavior because I was a guest. Furthermore, my job was to entertain them - of course they were good - they were having fun! So it got me thinking... I should spend time with other people's kids more often. In fact - other parents should spend time with my kids as well.

As a single mom there are times when I'm with my children for days on end without a break. We all begin to grate on each other's nerves. But what if I take a clue from my experience in Montana and swap kids with another mom for a day.


Children always act best when they're not with their parents. Spending time with a new/different adult is a learning experience for them and fun - in that the activities are different than what they'd be doing at with their own folks. Really - just a change of scenery, a change in general, can be a relief for everyone involved.

So, the next time your kids are driving you up a wall (during the upcoming holiday school-break, for example), approach a trusted friend and suggest a swap. She may look at you like your nuts, but when you explain that you're talking about kids (not husbands) she'll be relieved enough to actually consider it. Try it once. I'll bet you'll do it again.

Montana Part I: Jenna's Cancer

Last month my friend Jenna Skype'd to say she was getting her ovaries removed in (yet another) preventative measure to hopefully avoid a cancer relapse. I was in a rare position to afford the $300 plane ticket to Kalispell, Montana and decided to fly out to give her hand. This is the first of three posts about that trip. (Part II is here. Part III is here.)

Jenna and Me c. 1999
(yes, I had short hair.)
Jenna and I met 20 years ago when we both had our first "real" job at a well known San Francisco publishing house. Neither of us made enough money to live comfortably and we bonded over lunch strategies (soup or potatoes? Rice or beans?). We struggled through boyfriends and breakups - job changes and moves. We were first attendants at each others' weddings (neither of us like the term "brides maid") and we went through four pregnancies between us. She moved to Montana in 2002 but it didn't keep us from seeing each other - she visited the Bay Area often and we had our phones and computers to stay connected.

In 2009, a few months after I left my marriage, Jenna was diagnosed with breast cancer. It wasn't just a little lump that had to be removed. She was looking at a full course of chemo, a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, radiation, hormone treatment and (now) the removal of her ovaries. She was 39. We both were.

For me it was a reality check. I didn't think anything could be worse than what I was going through by attempting to end my marriage (though officially separated, my husband and I were living in the same home) but suddenly I was grateful for my health.

Because the hospitals in San Francisco and Marin County (where her in-laws live) specialize in breast cancer, much of her treatment was done there. For me it meant she was a mere thirty minutes away and I could spend some time with her. The chemo - she said - wasn't so bad. She was never sick. Just really really tired. Three days after returning from the surgery that removed her breasts, Jenna was up and around visiting with people at her mother-in-law's home on her 40th birthday. And no. I'm not kidding.

Jenna was a picture of graceful strength. Inspiring in her humble silence.

Furthermore, Jenna never made light of my divorce proceedings. She'd always ask how things were going, offer advice, listen to me cry. She never said "well at least you still have your boobs." If I were her, I'd have sure been tempted.

My divorce is over and my life, though different, is generally good. Being a single mom isn't as bad as being married to the wrong person. Yes -I  struggle to pay the bills and juggle schedules but I'm not worried about a relapse. It's over. 

Not for Jenna. Almost three years since her diagnosis and she made the decision to have her ovaries removed, a step to make permanent the depletion of estrogen circulating in her body since her tumor was one that feeds off her own natural hormones. In January of 2009, when she was diagnosed, I wasn't able to fly out to be with her. This time everything was lined up to make it work: a little extra cash in my wallet, a surprisingly affordable plane ticket and her surgery was taking place right before a weekend my kids would be their dad.

I was off to Montana.

PS - Here is a link with instructions on how to check your breasts for lumps every month. DON'T WAIT to see your doctor if you find ANYTHING suspicious.

UPDATE: From Jenna:
Statistically, younger women are diagnosed with more aggressive and faster-progressing cancers, so if a younger woman (pre-menopausal) feels a lump OR ANY MARKED CHANGE (mine wasn’t a lump) in her breast she should have it checked. Many younger women wouldn’t even really think that they have breast cancer -- “it’s an older woman’s disease”, “I don’t have BC in my family”, etc...First time I felt mine I never gave a serious thought that it might be breast cancer.

I honestly believe that if I had gone to the doctor early in December when I first felt the thickish firmer part of my right breast rather than a month later, I may have been diagnosed at stage II before it went to my nodes and the nodes are the big deal.  

The 5-year survival rate between stage II and stage III is about 20% better and looking at a 80% survival rate is WAY better than a 60% survival rate. If you are younger and feel a change in your breast you can’t necessarily afford to wait.  And even if they did mammograms on younger women, waiting a year between exams would likely lead to a stage IV or metastatic disease if you had an aggressive cancer.  

I had even had my annual exam and my doctor had done a breast exam in September and it didn’t make a difference for me.