TRIGGER WARNING: childhood cancer, loss of child
It was the day before my birthday and my younger kids and I were visiting with our friends the Chantemerles—Joanna and her two children—in Charlotte, NC. It was hot (it’s always hot in Charlotte in July), so we took our kids to nearby Carowinds to the water park, Carolina Harbor.
It was a beautiful day, but I was not at all in a festive mood. My friend Kim from Oklahoma City was in the hospital due to complications from a recent surgery; her son, Caleb, the same age as my youngest daughter, was at home with the rest of the family. I kept my Nokia flip-phone handy; I did not want to miss her call.
You see, Kim and her family had been suffering through an unimaginably difficult year. March of the previous year, Kim had triumphed over breast cancer. The joy over this victory faded quickly, though, because in April the family learned that Caleb had a rare and deadly form of cancer called DIPG (Diffused Intrinsic Pontine Glioma). By that day at Carowinds, Caleb had lived with DIPG for 15 months.
A month earlier, Kim had gotten more devastating news. She had a new cancer—no connection to the breast cancer—and would have to undergo surgery to have a chance at a full recovery. Around that same time, Caleb’s condition began declining rapidly. Kim had the surgery and returned home to join the family in attending to Caleb’s palliative care. Unbelievably, she soon began experiencing excruciating pain and was rushed back to the hospital for emergency surgery. That was where things stood on that day, July 21, 2009.
Meanwhile, my kids and their friends played in the water park, enjoying new independence at the ages of 11, 13, and 15. Joanna and I pulled a couple of lounge chairs together to serve as headquarters for the day, directed the kids to check in with us hourly, and sent them on their way.
The call came. Kim sounded numb, hollow really.
What do you say to someone who is in the hospital recovering from emergency surgery while her son slips into the hereafter back at home? I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you what I said; I just remember being determined not to lose it emotionally while I was on the phone with her. I held it together for the few minutes we were on the phone, hung up and released the fragile hold I had on my state of mind.
About that time the children stopped by for their check-in and Joanna told them about the call. I was crying, head in hands, but immediately became concerned for my kids who had just heard this devastating news. When I looked up, my youngest was reaching for me. She wrapped the two of us in her towel and drew me close. She looked back at the rest of our group and explained, “She’s sad because this reminds her of when Paxten died.”
She was right. I don’t know if it happens to everyone, but when I lose a loved one, all other losses rush forward into the present. The aunt who passed away when I was six years old, the grandmother who died when I was in college, and yes, my little three-and-a-half-year-old friend, Paxten, who died the previous year, also from cancer. . .those and others crowded into my heart for their share of the sadness, managing to multiply, rather than to divide it.
Yes, my daughter spoke the truth: I did feel a sweeping, all-encompassing grief in the minutes following that phone call. But I also felt a pain piercing past all previous ones, a one-of-a-kind sorrow, instantly and specifically formed by the passing of 11-year-old Caleb Spady.
After a few moments, the sounds of Carolina Harbor seeped back into my awareness: loud music proclaiming “Summertime’s calling me,” children squealing as they waited for the bucket hanging above to dump cold water on their heads, parents calling out, “Walk!” and “How about a snack?” and “Come dry off!” Just another day at the water park.
And a day I will never forget.
(Today, Kim is in good health. She and her husband Ken live in Oklahoma with their sons Seth and Luke. Their son Jacob and his new wife live not very far away.)
And now, dear brothers and sisters,
we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died
so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.
For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again,
we also believe that when Jesus returns,
God will bring back with him the believers who have died.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (NLT)
A little over a year ago, I overhauled my blog with the help of WordPress guru, Renee’ Groskreutz. One of the things Renee’ and I tackled was defining a purpose for my blog. Most blogs exist for a particular reason: to showcase regional activities, to encourage new teachers, or perhaps to educate readers on a specific topic. Not so with my blog. I blog because I like to write. I write about parenting, theology, movies, literature, relationships—well, all kinds of things. (The overhaul, by the way, led me to identify three broad categories: friends, family, and faith.) So anyway, I didn’t know how to answer Renee’s question, “What is the purpose of your blog?”
Finally, I came up with this:
I write to encourage, educate, and amuse.
Still pretty broad, I know, but this has helped me to refine my goals here at aileengoeson.com. It’s also helped me to determine what to post on my Facebook page and on Instagram. If you follow my Facebook page, for example, you’ll not find anything remotely controversial. You’ll surely find lots of “aww!” there as well as some “aha!” and a little “haha!” But no “grrrr!” or “ick!” (If those are there, know I’ve been hacked.)
On Instagram, I only follow positive feeds. Every single time I open the app, I’m met with sweet dog pictures and wonderful photography. It’s delightful—so much so that I thought you’d like to learn about some of these lovely Insta-folks.
So, in no particular order, for your viewing pleasure, are my favorite Instagram accounts.
A couple of years ago, I started a Thank You note series. The (lofty and unrealistic for me) goal was that I would write one a week for 50 weeks. Alas, the last one I published in the series came out in September of 2016. I never really quit the series; just got busy writing other things. I'm reviving it for this post--the story of someone whose name topped the list when I started this project.
Have you ever heard the one about how I met my wife? I mean, our union was in no way official because (1) it was illegal back then and (2) we are both happily married to our husbands. But still, she’s the only wife I’ve ever had. This is our story.
It was the first week of November 1998, the end of a very long six months. Jay had started working in Asheville, NC in early May that year; I stayed back in Sanford, NC with our three kids: ages 3 months, 2 years, and not-quite-4 years. The plan was that our Sanford house would sell quickly and we would find an affordable home in Asheville within a month or so. Yep, that was the plan. In reality, it took approximately forever to sell the house; by October, we gave up and rented it so we could close on our house in Asheville.
My memory places our first meeting simultaneous with the moving van’s exit. “I’m Joanna! I live across the street,” she said when I answered the door. “I was so excited when I saw you unloading toys; I think our kids are about the same age!” She was right. As it turns out, her oldest, a girl, is a month younger than my oldest daughter; her son is a month younger than mine.
She was a stay-at-home mom, working part-time, despite having advanced degrees that qualified her for a professional career; same here. There were other similarities—crazy coincidences we learned as we got to know each other. For example, she knew and loved sign language; I’d been raised around deaf children and had communicated with them fluently back in the day. I’d been gleefully addicted to Diet Mountain Dew since its inception; Joanna too. Like me, Joanna graduated from her high school in 1983.
“So where did you go to high school?” I asked her.
“A tiny little private school in Wilmington, NC,” she said. “You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
“It wasn’t Cape Fear Academy was it?” It was the only school I knew of that fit the description.
“Um, YES! How did you guess?”
“Oh my gosh you are kidding! Jay moved to Wilmington in the 11th grade and actually graduated from Cape Fear Academy in 1981!”
Our families shared Super Bowl Sundays, birthday parties, trick-or-treating, Easter Egg Hunts, and always snow days. Oh man, snow days were the best. I recall those days in full color, punctuated with squeals and laughter and sweetened by the smell of fresh baked cookies and steaming hot chocolate. The four big kids--Margaret always thought of “Nana” as her personal playmate—raced out to our backyard hill, streaking down then trudging up to do it all over again and again until they were soaking wet or completely exhausted or both.
Our friendship formed over Power Rangers™ and Powerpuff Girls™, Legos™ and Polly Pockets™, PTO meetings and summer vacation. We talked about parenting and marriage, friendship and family, and where to find the best prices on dinosaur egg instant oatmeal. When it was time for our girls to go to kindergarten, we were delighted that they were in the same class. Two years later, our sons started school—together in that very same room.
“It’s like having a wife!” we often said, appreciating the convenience of having someone to pick up a gallon of milk or drop off library books, watch the kids for just a minute or pick them up from school. But Joanna was much more than a partner in the monotony. When three-year-old Margaret, diagnosed with both the flu and pneumonia, was so terrifyingly ill that I could barely see beyond her rising temperature, Joanna was there. When little grade school Baker experienced yet another classmate making fun of his impeded speech, Joanna’s rage matched my own. When Jay and I rushed 8-year-old Trellace to the emergency room late one night, and during all the days after when she was hospitalized for peritonitis following her appendectomy, Joanna seamlessly filled in the gaps.
For a little more than five years, Joanna and her family lived across the street from us. I have to keep recounting that number because I just can’t believe it was only five years. (Of course, that’s just chronological time; it has never been all that reliable in tracking memories.)
So, here’s to Joanna, my across-the-street wife and one of God’s most extravagant gifts to me. I will forever be grateful for this extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime friendship that has made me a better me.
It was January 13, 2009 and I was on my way to the college when my cell phone rang.
"Where are you?" my GWU friend asked.
"On the way. What's up?"
"Uhhh, nothin', just wanted to see if you wanted to meet Gary and me for coffee."
"You're out of class?" I asked. It was only 8:30 and they had Dr. Cal Robertson. Doc Cal never ends class early. Never. "I thought you had Robertson."
"We do. . . we just . . . well . . . we're at the coffee shop."
"Is something wrong with Robertson? Is he sick?" There was something she wasn't telling me, but she said he was fine. "Robertson is NOT fine if he let you out of class early."
"No, really. Robertson is fine."
I'm slow on the uptake at 8:30 in the morning. I didn't hear the shock in her voice, the utter disbelief. I didn't hurry. When I got to GWU, my friends met me, not at the coffee shop, but in the yard outside the divinity school.
"Aileen. Dr. Goodman died this morning," Donna told me.
"It's true Aileen," Gary said, "He collapsed in the shower. We don't know any more details right now."
"Dr. Goodman?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Are you sure?" (We ask stupid questions like that when we are in shock.) They nodded, even while still disbelieving the news themselves.
When I was six years old, my family moved to Wilson, NC where we would soon meet the Daniels family. Mrs. Daniels became one of my mother's closest friends, so our families socialized frequently. I was younger than the Daniels' youngest, so I was more of a tag-a-long than a peer; but still, I remember.
In the attached post, Anna Daniels Anderson recalls her younger sister, Beth. She'll tell you about the struggles Beth faced and the victories she celebrated. I'll leave that to her. But I'll say this: knowing Beth Daniels made me a better me. Because of Beth, I've never been intimidated by wheelchairs or braces, or any other physical difference. Shoot, I remember one time when Beth had some surgery or another and she had to be in this weird contraption for months (at least that's what it seemed like to me). We'd go over to the Daniels' house and Beth managed--even strapped to that bed/board/whatever-it-was--to participate in whatever we were doing. We told jokes, we giggled, we played games, we had fun just being little girls.
Beth never tried to teach me how to treat someone who had physical limitations. I never studied her like some kind of science project. We just shared a childhood. That's all. And that's everything. And I am grateful.
via Remembering Beth
In the monthly newsletter that I send out to subscribers . . . Wait, what? You're not subscribed? Well, you better get on that right away! There's a subscribe form at the bottom of the mobile screen or on the side of the laptop screen. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Okay, got that done? Excellent.
Anyway in my monthly newsletter (it's short, about a two minute read), I offer short info-bites, cute beagle pics, and something I call an "Aileenism." (A friend--shout out to Destiny--labeled my oft-repeated sayings Aileenisms years ago. It stuck.) In celebration of a full year of Aileen Goes On, the Newsletter, I give you all 12 Aileenisms.
Oh also, if you already subscribe, would you comment below and tell me which newsletter feature you like best? Thanks! You're the best. No really: you are literally the absolute best!
I use this daily and I find it quite helpful in stressful situations. For example, it helps minimize my annoyance with such things as slow moving traffic (maybe there's a wreck ahead) gum-smacking cashiers (maybe he's trying to quit smoking), or obnoxious fans at football games who scream at the players even though their team is already 50 points ahead and continue their disruptive behavior through the marching band show (maybe they should stay themselves right on home until they learn how to act right . . . ) Okay so maybe I need to work on this a bit more, but you get the drift.
Saying "I can't" shuts out the possibility of success. Instead, choose one of these options.
It calms the haggard parent, soothes the anxious spouse, and encourages the overworked employee (or employer). What is this wonder word, you ask?
"What can I do to help?"
Or its identical siblings:
“How can I help you?”
“What else can I do?”
“What can I do for you?”
Try it. It's magic!
And once your children, spouse, or co-workers learn the question, all you have to do is remind them. Such subtleties as these are sure to bring about instant results.
I have never thought that I had all the answers. Frequently, when I state my opinion, I add, "I could be wrong." I've been wrong many times in my life--including times when I felt absolutely certain I was right. Realizing that I could be wrong frees me to consider other opinions. In these days, when our opinions polarize us into static affiliations, how lovely it is to enter into balanced dialog. Maybe I'm wrong, but it surely works for me.
As a mom--and okay as a spouse, sister, daughter, you name it--I have, on the (not so) rare occasion, said too much. You?
When we are in the midst of any conflict, what most of us want is to hear some version of, "You are so right. I am completely at fault. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with me. I am blessed to know someone so brilliant and generous." Unfortunately, the fact that this pretty much NEVER happens does not dissuade us from pursuing that end.
At some point, I learned that if I stop before I'm finished, I have much better results. By not backing my loved one into an ideological corner, I create the opportunity for continued dialogue. Additionally, I give us both a chance to think about what has been said already. Of course, it is not easy for me to quit talking before I've said absolutely every single solitary thing I could say on the matter. But I try to remember that a few well-chosen words are always more effective than a monotonous lecture. When I do, I bite my tongue, and stop talking. Even if I'm not finished.
In this time of extreme opinions and divisive conversations, I find it helpful to ask myself the question, "With which part of this can I agree?" Like this:
Comment: Majoring in History is stupid. You'll never get a job in that!
Response: Yes, some people do say that. That's not my opinion, but I can see why you think that.
Comment: University of Academics is the best school in the country! You'd be crazy to go anywhere else when you can go there!
Response: Yes, University of Academics is considered an excellent school and I am pleased I was accepted there.
Comment: Low fat diets are better than low carb ones.
Response: Yes, I know a lot of people have succeeded using that strategy.
In time, you can begin to disclose more details of your opinion, but start by naming something you can affirm; then move into the more contentious aspects of the conversation. Return to this method frequently throughout the discussion.
Admittedly, it was Dr. Phil's idea; his life law #8 is "We teach people how to treat us. Maya Angelou is quoted as saying something something similar: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."
In any case, when my kids were young, I used the statement above to stop unwanted behavior. As in, "You are acting so ugly right now. Did you meant to teach me that you shouldn't be allowed to stay up late?" Or "I'm learning that I should not let you go on sleepovers, because when you come home you are grumpy."
Over time, the statement morphed into a sort of shorthand that stopped the kids before their actions got the better of them.
"You sure you want to teach me that?"
"You're teaching me something."
"Oooh! I'm really learning right now!"
In no time, they got pretty good at hitting reverse just as soon as they heard those words. A beautiful thing for a parent, that's for sure.
I can't remember if someone else taught me this saying or if I read it in a children's book or something. There's even a slight chance I came up with it myself--doubtful, but possible. In any case, it's a great question to help kids (or adults) deal with bullies. It works like this.
Bully: "You are a poo-poo head!"
Person to self: If this bully says this 1000 times, will it make it true?
Person realizes that there's no such thing as a poo-poo head & that the bully can't change that no matter how many times the statement is made.
Person dismisses insult.
For me, this kind of exaggeration shows just how impotent the bully really is. In fact, it strips all their power away and turns bullies into nice, regular people. Well. Maybe not exactly nice, but better anyway.
Children go through a phase when they are absurdly preoccupied with what is and is not fair. Parents, it's a battle you cannot win once your frontal lobe is fully developed. Just don't try. Here's what I came up with to combat the inevitable.
Question: "How come he gets to do it and I don't? That's not fair!"
Response: "True. But then the fair only comes once a year. It's not September, so you are out of luck."
Sarcastic? Totally. Flippant? Absolutely. But the response doesn't leave much room for discussion.
Otherwise I'd get caught in a loop like this.
Child: "How come he gets to do it and I don't? That's not fair!"
Me: "Well his friend invited him, and yours didn't."
Child: "Well I could invite my friend."
Me: "Then I would have to drive."
Child: "You always drive Favorite Child of the Day! That's not fair!"
Me: "That is inaccurate."
Child: "It is not."
(And on and on until I finally give in and let the child do what I don't want them to do while setting a precedent that whining is okay.)
So when your beloved says, "That's not fair," be sympathetic and be genuine when you respond, "Yep. You're right, it's not. But then the fair only comes once a year." At the very least the kids will be stymied by your reply and have to take a minute to figure it out.
In keeping with the message of this Aileenism, I confess, this is not an original idea. I mean, Moses had it engraved in stone, so there's that. Also, it's one of those "DUH" things that everyone knows, right? But the thing is, we so often fail to comply. We tell little white lies or half-truths (which, contrary to popular opinion, are not truth). We say things like . . .
I emailed you! You didn't get it?
You should have gotten that by now--stupid USPS.
I never speed.
Traffic! Sorry I'm late.
And the ultimate lie we've all told: "I don't have time!" What we usually mean is, "This is not my priority." But then that's next month's Aileenism: "We only have time for our priorities." True statement.
"I don't have time!"
"I wish I could, but I'm too busy!"
"You're [fill in the blank]? I don't have time for stuff like that!"
Have you ever said something like that? I know I have. But the thing is, we make time for the things that matter most to us.
People argue this point with me saying things like, "I have to work overtime or I would lose my job!" And I say, "Maybe. But not going to your kids' orchestra concert or school play could cause you to lose your relationship with them." In this case, the fear of unemployment is greater than the fear of being estranged from your children.
Another argument I've heard is, "You do not understand! I am slammed from 5 am until 10 pm 7 days a week. I cannot add anything into my schedule!" To that, I answer, "No you cannot. Your schedule is already full of your priorities." This person would need to downgrade something, remove it from the daily schedule, and then add the new obligation.
Me? I read a lot. That's because reading is a priority for me. I don't clean my house as often as I should. Not a priority--not when there are books yet to be read.
See what I mean? We only have time for our priorities! So, if you're spending time on things you don't consider valuable, then think about making some changes. Priorities--they're what come first.
Back in the 90's, I worked for a small regional college: University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma--Oklahoma's ONLY public liberal arts university! (I was a recruiter.) At my suggestion, we held the college's very first visitation day for potential students. The event was well attended and was considered a success by the university. Me? I was still reeling from the mistake I had made six weeks previously.
We had designed these way cool invitations and though we had a shoestring budget, we got permission to have them printed professionally. They arrived and looked perfect! Well, mostly. One problem: when I okayed the proof, I had failed to notice the incorrect date emblazoned in the middle of every invitation.
My mistake cost the university money we didn't have; we had to trash the originals and reprint them with the correct information. Today, I literally cannot remember much of anything about that event other than those flubbed-up invitations. I could describe those down to the font size! I was absolutely mortified by my error.
Here's the thing, though: I have NEVER done that again. Whether I am ordering t-shirts or announcements, for work or for personal use, I check the proof carefully and have another person or four check it as well. I learned from my mistake. The successes I experienced that day are forgotten. But my failure? That lesson has stayed with me forever.
Messed up lately? Consider it a life lesson. Value your mistake as a step on the journey to a better you. Mainly, be sure that you don't waste it! Cause that? That'd be a huge mistake!
Ever wished you knew how to respond to the bullies in your life? You know, those people who feel free to say things that hit us right where we are most vulnerable? A co-worker, a family member, a boss, a neighbor: whoever they are, their words catch you up short and leave you gagging for the right response. No more! Here are four ways to fend off the bully without becoming one yourself.
A little background: My mother grew up in South Georgia where, according to her, “the roaches grow as big as your thumb.” She says she would occasionally return to the kitchen for a late night snack or a glass of water. She’d switch on the light and too often she would spy one or more of those nasty monster roaches scurrying into cracks and crevices, hurrying out of sight.
When I learned about this phenomenon, I considered a parallel: like roaches, bullies spread nastiness with every flick of their tongues. I wondered: What kind of light could cause these humanesque roaches to skitter away? I came up with several.
If the roach bully persists, do not give into the temptation to squash it. Violence: it's never good. Besides, if you allow yourself to crawl around on the level of the bully, you'll just get roachy yourself. Instead, stand firm and turn on all of your lights at once. The conversation might go like this:
Bully: "What is WRONG with you?"
Response: "Why do you ask?"
Bully: “You can't even understand English!"
Response: "You don't think I can understand English?
Bully: "Good grief! No one even likes you!"
Response: “Could you explain?
Bully: “You aren't just stupid, you're weird!"
Response: "Whoa, that's mean!"
Bully: "What is your problem?"
Response: "Why do you ask?"
(You get the point, right?)
Those are the ones I've found. What about you? What is your best response to a bully? Share in the comment section below!
Recently, my daughter moved to Brooklyn to attend New York University in pursuit of her PhD. Other than the airports, I had never been to New York City and had no burning desire to change that. As a southerner born and bred, I’m not about to seek out cities that don’t understand the goodness of hot buttered grits, home-made peach cobbler, and sweet iced tea. It was with no small sense of trepidation that I visited this foreign region north of the Mason-Dixon line.
And cover me with kudzu, but I liked it! My favorite thing—other than my daughter of course—was the public transportation. Do you know that in NYC, you can walk to a designated spot, and a train will come and take you where you want to go? It’s true! You don’t even have to own a car, much less drive one. It’s amazing. AND, you have a built-in workout in every day because, not having a car, you walk everywhere you want to go. Awesome! Here are just a few of the other things I saw in NYC while I was there.
Here are a few pictures illustrating the above plus a few more of the other interesting things I spotted. (Comment below and tell me your favorite thing about NYC!)
Recently I saw a youtube video of an artist illustrating depression. The depressed person would describe how depression felt to them, and the artist would conceptualize their stories in a drawing. Their stories, thus the pictures, varied greatly. I don't have an artist, but I thought I'd try to describe what it is like for me anyway. Here you go.
For me, it’s not so much a color as a sensation. I guess the sensation is a dark one, sort of a muddy black, but mainly it’s heavy. And oozy. It usually creeps up slowly. I feel it pulling on my feet, slowing me down, and I don’t recognize it at first. I kick at it, trying to loosen the hold, thinking it’s something outside myself, rather than the all too familiar internal struggle. (After all these years, you’d think I would recognize all its disguises.) So, I think I can flick it off with a little justification. It’s patient, depression, so it backs off into the shadows, waiting.
I’m fooled into thinking I’ve resolved it, until it starts from another angle—messing with my sleep, my appetite, my mind. By now it has lured me into emotional quicksand. I get pulled under by depression’s Sirens: “What is wrong with you?” “Why can’t you get over it?” “What real problems do you have?” I try to answer and they pull me closer and their voices get louder. The more I search for the answers to their squealing demands, the more pressure I feel, the deeper I fall, the weight of the world pressing me down, down, down.
It feels like I’m wearing pain. Seeking responses to the non-answerables, I envision all those who face life’s most hopeless battles. Cancer, war, divorce, oppression, loss, racism, poverty, inequities. Tragedies loop through my mind mocking me with the reminder that I have no reason to be sad. I agree. And the pain grows heavier.
When depression opts for a more direct attack, I go from feeling like me, to feeling as if I’m caught in a vortex of despair. I sink fast. There’s no slowing it down, no getting away.
And I’m not sure what lifts the weight and allows me to move again. It helps to remember that Sirens aim to destroy me, not to expand my self-awareness. It helps to plug my ears to their false refrains and to answer with dismissal rather than with access to my soul.
And it helps to do what my mama says (as it does no matter what the problem is): “Do one thing.”
I might send a single email, do one chore, write one sentence. I tell myself that after I do that one thing, I can resume lethargy. Then I do just one more thing. And then another. And in time, I’m back on solid ground, back to me.
That’s what it’s like for me.
The last time it happened, I wasn’t impressed. As I recall, Daddy put a little bit of water in our baby pool. He said we were supposed to look into the pool to see the sun — not at the sun, which of course had never occurred to us. He was saying some other crazy stuff too about the moon covering up the sun or something like that. The details are a little fuzzy; but then, I was only 4-and-a-half years old.