Model prep

The American Cancer Society’s Couture for the Cause is fast approaching. As in tomorrow. I’m experiencing equal parts excitement and terror about modeling in the fashion show. Since this is my second time to model in the Couture, the excitement should be outweighing the terror, but alas it is not. Ask me tomorrow which feeling prevails. Hopefully it will be excitement. Sadly, all the fun and triumph surrounding this event are overshadowed by the unexpected death of our sweet dog Harry. It has been a long, hard day at our house, following a sleepless, sad night. I can only hope tomorrow is better. I’ll have a couple of my besties modeling with me this year, so it will be a great comfort to have them backstage and on the catwalk with me.

Getting ready for the show is pretty easy, assuming there are no big bumps in the road like the one we’re experiencing as we grieve for our dog. There’s the model survey to fill out (height, weight, hair & eye color, favorite designers, personal style, etc) and a full-length photo to submit. Then show up for a fitting of the outfits I’ll be wearing; show up for rehearsal with finger- and toenails painted red; and show up a few hours early for the event to have my face painted and my hair teased and tousled by a team of professionals. Oh, and procure the items on my “bring list,” which this year include a pair of brown platform sandals, a pair of black peep-toe platform heels as high as I can manage, and a strapless bra. Last year, I modeled between mastectomy and reconstruction, so there was no need whatsoever to bring a bra, strapless or otherwise.

In fact, last year I modeled having been sprung from the hospital just a few weeks before the big event. That nasty post-mastectomy infection damn near kept me from being able to participate in the most terrifying and most amazing experience I’ve ever had. This year, I’ll skip the hospital part and head straight for the show.

Last year, I had no idea what I was getting myself into but was coaxed and cajoled by some people I really love (that means you, Yvonne) and some people I’d never met but who assured me I’d be perfect, just perfect. All of the other models were cancer survivors, save a dozen or so real-life models to really showcase the outfits and lend an air of professional gravitas to the event. There were several other breast cancer survivors among the non-professional models, and they happened to be a lot farther along in the cancer “journey” than this fledgling model was. Every single one of them was done with reconstruction and didn’t bat an eye before showing me their results. Only at an ACS event would it seem perfectly normal to be closely examining a complete stranger’s breasts, but that’s how cancerchicks roll. 

Needless to say, last year I was a teensy bit unsure about taking the stage and strutting my stuff on the catwalk among hordes of people who’d paid a lot of money to get into this gig. My body was a train wreck, my mind was somewhere between blown and trying to follow along, and my emotions were all over the place. I’d managed pretty well at that point to wrap my head around the cancer diagnosis, but dealing with the infection that threatened to be an unsolved medical mystery — not so much. 

Hooray for being in a muuuuuuuuch better place this time around.

And hooray for actually liking the outfits I’m going to model on Saturday, and for hopefully not having a mink headwrap this time around.

While there is a lot of prep work that goes into pulling off a successful Couture show, thankfully most of it is done by others. I’m pretty sure there’s not another cause I’d be willing to model for, even though it gives me an excuse to buy new shoes. All this fashion show prep reminded me of a story Trevor shared with me a while back, about what the Victoria’s Secret models go through before their big fashion shows. Seems the Telegraph followed VS model Adriana Lima leading up to her fashion show. Lima is a bit more serious about prepping for her show than I am for mine:

She sees a nutritionist, who has measured her body’s muscle mass, fat ratio and levels of water retention. He prescribes protein shakes, vitamins and supplements to keep Lima’s energy levels up during this training period. Lima drinks a gallon of water a day. For nine days before the show, she will drink only protein shakes – ‘no solids.’ The concoctions include powdered egg. Two days before the show, she will abstain from the daily gallon of water, and ‘just drink normally.’ Then, 12 hours before the show, she will stop drinking entirely. “No liquids at all so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that,” Lima says.

Say what??

I can assure you that I will most certainly not stop drinking entirely before my show. If anything, I’ll probably be drinking even more than usual. I will most definitely raise a glass and send up a toast to my sweet dog who is no longer waiting to greet me after my big event.

A dog named Harry

There are some infamous phone calls you never want to receive. Like the one from the principal of your kid’s school, announcing all manner of bad behavior. Like the one from your doctor’s office to say don’t bother looking for a letter in the mail to say everything is fine after a test/scan/biopsy, because it’s not fine. Like the one from your best friend at bedtime on a Thursday night saying your dog, who he’s watching, seems to be dying on the living room rug.

Of those three infamous phone calls, the first example is the only one I’ve not received. On April 26, 2010, I got the call from the doctor’s office saying we need to see you ASAP because the breast biopsy results don’t look so good. And tonight, I got the call from Ed to say that Harry, sweet-crazy-loyal-kookoo-devoted-amped up Harry, was dying. 

Ed was kind enough to let Harry stay at his house for a week while our little piggie convalesced after being spayed. The old boy had been slowing down of late, for sure, but I certainly didn’t think he was that close to death, and by the time he made it apparent, both of my kids were in bed sleeping and Trevor is out of the country, so rushing over to Ed’s to be by Harry’s side as he breathed his last breath wasn’t an option.

I’m going to try really hard to not feel guilty about that.

And I’m going to try really hard to not feel eternally indebted to Ed for comforting sweet, old Harry in his last few minutes of life while giving me the play-by-play on the phone.

Harry was a sweetie. Crazy, but sweet. I wrote about his habit of snatching food here and about the trials & tribulations of his nervous stomach here. I’m sure that many thoughts and memories of Harry will come as the shock and sadness become fully realized in my brain. I’ll be calling upon the gods of parental wisdom as I break the news to my kids, who haven’t seen their big dog in a week and who likely hadn’t noticed how much he was slowing down, how rapidly he was aging. 

Leave it to crazy old Harry to die in a manner that is both the least troublesome to me yet the most complicated: at someone else’s house, out of my sight so the visuals don’t becoming permanent, searing bad memories; yet at a time of night that leaves me utterly clueless as to what to do.

I was already mentally rearranging my day tomorrow, so that I could go pick him up after getting the kids off to school and take him to the vet. Since his back legs went out just before he died, I assumed I’d have to carry him — all 60 pounds of him — into the vet so that he could be put down. Been there, done that, and while it’s certainly not pleasant, I personally feel a responsibility to my animals to be there, in the room and stroking their soft fur, as the vet administers first the sedative that calms them then the lethal dose that stops their old, sweet, full heart. Not saying that’s the right thing for everyone who finds themselves in that situation, but that it’s right for me.

I fully expected that that’s what I’d be doing tomorrow — standing next to Harry, who joined our family shortly after the crushing loss of my first and best dog Maddy, as our longtime vet reassured me that it was time and that putting him down was the right thing to do, before the suffering became too great and the indignities of a proud alpha dog became apparent to the rest of the pack. I expected to hold his white-with-age face in my hands and look into his brown eyes, speaking softly to reassure him that he’s ok, that he’s a good boy, that he’s loved. 

Instead, I will try not to wonder if he would have lived a little longer had he been at home, in his own environment. I will try not to regret that he spent the last few days of his life in his home-away-from-home instead of in his real home, surrounded by the two little kids who love him with all their hearts. I will try to figure out how to act normal for those two little kids in the morning, knowing that as soon as I see them off to school I will have to start thinking about what to tell them when they get home. I will try to reassure myself that it’s cruel and disruptive to tell them their dog died then send them off to school, that waiting until they’re home and at the start of a weekend is best.

And I will remember the day we picked him out at the Houston Humane Society.

Because of our love of the Harry the Dirty Dog series of books, Macy — age 4 — wanted a dog named Harry. How delighted we were to find a dog named Harry who greeted us with a wagging tail, a sweet face, and eyes that seemed to ask if we wanted to play.

Goodbye, Harry boy. You’re ok. You’re a good boy. You are loved.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Remember that book from back in the day? It was also made into an animated movie by Chuck Jones, the genius of cartooning. It was written before I was born, by Norton Juster and was illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Not sure what either of them has gone on to do, but perhaps the Tollbooth was enough.

It’s the story of a boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth, which he explores in a toy car. Along the way he becomes lost in the Doldrums, where thinking and laughing are strictly prohibited, and is rescued by Tock, a lovely giant watchdog with an alarm clock attached to his belly. The parallels between this story and the cancer “journey” are many.

I was thinking of The Phantom Tollbooth yesterday as I noticed a phantom pain deep in the area formerly known as my right breast, where the evil post-mastectomy infection set up camp and decided to stay awhile. The pain itself wasn’t strong enough to take my breath away, but the implications were, and my mind immediately began racing: what if the infection is back? what if it never fully went away? There were signs of that damned infection, after all, during The Big Dig, which was 9 months after the infection first made itself known.

It’s been a year since The Big Dig, which was my best option for defense against the infection after 267 days of oral antibiotics didn’t fully slay that beast. Nearly a year later, a random pain in the area of my body that was my Ground Zero still has the power to bring me to my knees. Not because it hurts so badly, but because of what it represents.

The idea of the infection once again rearing its ugly head scares me. A lot. I don’t think about it often because I’m busy living my life, but once in a while, as in the case with the phantom pain, the thought does cross my mind. If it did come back, or if it reasserted itself after lying dormant, I would freak out. And yes, that is the correct medical term for becoming reacquainted with the mycobacterium that made a cancer diagnosis at age 40 seem like a walk in the park. The cancer part was easy (relatively speaking) but the myco damn near destroyed me.

Looking back on that dark period of my life is like watching a movie. I see this girl who’s going about her charmed life. Sure there are things that could be better but for the most part it was indeed a charmed life. She lives this charmed life rather out loud, and does “all the right things” to ensure that the charmed life has plenty of staying power. Baseline mammograms at age 36 because of her sweet mama’s premature death; a meat-free, plant-based diet free from preservatives and other nasty; daily exercise; a premium placed on a good night’s sleep; plentiful fresh air and clean water; an all-out avoidance of hormone-filled dairy products for her and meat products for her kids; a plan to deal with the stresses that sometimes darkened her door.

This girl was the last person you might expect to be felled by cancer. And yet, she was.

It’s hard for me to recall those dark days. Of course I know it happened and I was there, but my brain seems to protect me from all the gritty details. After taking in the diagnosis, deciding on the bilateral mastectomy, enduring the surgery and thinking I was on the road to recovery, the infection hit and knocked the wind right out of me.

There’s a vivid PTSD associated with the whole infection thing. I’d bet there’s a whole separate PTSD associated with the cancer thing, too, and it comes out in strange ways, such as a phantom pain sending me straight from normalcy to crazy town without stopping to collect my $200. Could be that the phantom pain in my chest was from 4 sets of tennis on Sunday after a tough upper-body workout on Friday. Or it could be from the wear & tear of multiple tissue excisions and general gutting of the infected skin during the infection’s salad days. When I was a kid, I had pneumonia, and some part of the illness settled in my left lung. For years after that illness, I’d often feel a pain/fatigue in that same spot. Perhaps the phantom pain in my chest is similar.

Very likely it’s nothing to worry about, but once you’ve  danced with the devil that is cancer, any twinge or spot or pain sets you on high alert. Some of us head straight for the catastrophic death spiral my sweet friend Lauren writes about. As she so knowingly puts it “The catastrophic death spiral makes us think a lump in our thigh is thigh cancer, a headache is brain cancer, and shortness of breath after running is surely announcing lung cancer. The catastrophic death spiral is the vortex that is cancer.” My recent phantom pain sent me spiraling before I had a chance to reel myself back in to the land of rational thought. It’s worrisome enough to have already dealt with the havoc that cancer brings, but to also feel the aftershocks of that disaster just stinks.

I expect that the constant looking over my shoulder is common in cancerland. But I don’t like it. I’m rather known for my heightened sense of justice and the idea that if you do the hard work/right thing, you’ll get the payout. But bad things happen to good people every day, and life isn’t fair. People who take good care of themselves get cancer, and people who treat their bodies to a buffet of Animal House-style debauchery outlive them. I know this, yet I’m still brought up short by the phantom pain’s effect on me and how quickly and effortlessly I returned to the catastrophic death spiral.

I was probably foolish to think that there would be an end to the cancer “journey” and that the incidences that trigger PTSD would gradually disappear. I should have known that even after logging many miles and paying the requisite tolls in this “journey,” I would forever be circling, just shy of my destination, and always consulting the map. Once Milo returns home from his trip on the tollbooth, he sees a note, which reads, “FOR MILO, WHO NOW KNOWS THE WAY.” I’m looking for my note and wishing I knew the way.

Phantom Tollbooth's Map of Lands Beyond

Shuffling the Pack

Another story from our fine local newspaper. Yes, it’s about cancer, and yes, it’s sad. Consider yourself forewarned.

Last month, there was a wonderful story called “Shuffling the Pack” about a woman, Tina Borja, and her dog Buck. Two years ago, Tina found a lump in her breast and became one of the the “one in eight” women in the United States to be diagnosed with the dreaded disease. She endured the all-too-familiar treatment of lumpectomy, mastectomy, chemo, and radiation to combat her cancer. During the misery that is cancer treatment, as Tina grew weaker, Buck took over as the pack’s alpha. According to Tina, it was no longer her job to take care of him; he decided it was his job to take care of her.

Reminds me of my sweet Maddy, the All Time Ever Best Dog in the History of the World. She and my sweet mama got sick about the same time, and both were going downhill fast: mom’s cancer was eating her alive, and  Maddy’s advanced age (98 in dog years) resulted in some nasty degenerative problems that no pet owner should have to witness. Long story short, my mom knew she wasn’t going to win her cancer battle and was heartbroken about the idea of me losing her and my beloved dog at the same time. The vet gave Maddy a few weeks to live, while Mom was given a few months. Darned if that dog didn’t defy the odds and live nearly 6 months past her predicted expiration date. She held on for several months after Mom died, then quietly let me know it was her time, too.

But back to Buck. And Tina.

After enduring treatment, Tina was pronounced cured of breast cancer. Not “in remission,” Tina says, but “cured.” Big difference. And one that this cancer survivor won’t feel comfortable assuming, ever. As I’ve written about here and here, “cured” isn’t something I consider. To me, “cured” connotes a permanent state, while recurrence is always on the horizon.

Tina looked at it differently, and didn’t think about recurrence. After being pronounced “cured,” she felt safe. She probably figured she’d endured so much hardship that she deserved to have a big payoff, i.e., a long, healthy life. Instead, she was hit with what every cancer patient dreads: recurrence. One day, out of the blue, she started  having trouble with fine-motor skills. Everyday stuff like typing and signing her name became iffy. After the all-too-familiar scans we cancer patients endure, Tina learned she had four tumors in her brain. Her breast cancer was not cured but in fact had spread.

She’s now enduring radiation on her brain, a last-ditch treatment that will most likely buy her some time, but it comes at a great cost. “With this cancer, you never know,” she says. “Will the cortex go first? Will I lose my speech? Or my motor control? Or my inhibitions? I could be running in the streets naked.”
Before any of that happens, Tina wants to make sure Buck has a new home.
So…it’s not enough for this woman to be dying of metastatic breast cancer, she also has to make plans for her dog to go to a new home? That is wrong. Just wrong.
I give Tina a lot of credit. Nowhere in the two articles I read about her is there a hint of “poor me” or “why me?” but instead, she’s focused on taking care of business. According to last week’s article, Tina “believes the right home is out there, that somewhere, someone is willing to give him the place in the world he deserves. A place with room to run, and someone to make him feel secure.”
Isn’t that what we all want, really? When we boil our life’s pursuits down to their essential elements, don’t we all want someone to give us the place in the world we deserve? A place with room to run, and someone to make us feel secure?
While my heart is breaking for Tina and my sense of righteous indignation is roiling over her situation — and that of millions of other cancer victims out there — I can’t help but be really moved by the love she has for her dog. I’m a dog lover and a cancer victim myself, so I’m ripe for the picking here, but even the most hard-hearted among us surely must be a teensy bit verklempt here.
For everyone concerned — animal lovers and “I’m fine without a furry creature in my life” alike — good news. Well, if you can consider anything good about Tina’s situation. After the initial article ran in the paper, more than 150 people emailed the columnist, Lisa Gray, and 100 of them expresed interest in adopting Buck.
Tina read every single email. I knew she was good people. She was reportedly overwhelmed, in a good way, and she replied to everyone who’d inquired about making Buck a part of their family. “Dear all, Your collective response evokes more adjectives than I can name: heartwarming, tender, encouraging, overwhelming.”
One email stood out among the horde, and curiously, it wasn’t even written by the person who might end up with the dog. Brett Felker recently had to put his dog down, and his stepmom, Kristy, emailed Tina. Brett’s dog, Boogie, was a blue-heeler mix, just like Buck. Boogie was a cattle dog on the Felker family ranch in Odessa, and Boogie lived a long, happy life with Brett on the ranch. At age 16, however, Boogie’s ranching days were over. The day that Kristy read about Tina’s plight was Brett’s first day back on the ranch without Boogie. Kristy took action, writing to Tina, “Perhaps we can see if Brett is ready for Buck. I think they both might need one another.”
This was a bold move by Kristy, and one that Brett could have interpreted as meddling. I know this, because I’ve been there. My beloved Maddy girl has been gone from this earth for 6 years, but I can still recall like it was yesterday how much it hurt to say good-bye, and how raw it felt to even consider getting another dog after my heart had been ripped out by her absence in my life. I remember saying I will NEVER get another dog, because the pain was too deep, the loss was too great. But in a matter of days, I knew that I would NEVER live my life without a dog as a part of it. I missed that sweet face in the window as my car pulled into the driveway. I missed that full-body wiggle when I walked through the door. I missed that comforting thump of the tail every time I entered the room. I missed the solid warmth and soothing presence of a furry body next to me as I reposed.
Brett wasn’t there yet when Kristy sent him the story of Buck. It was too soon, and he wasn’t ready. But Kristy soldiered on anyway, like a good bossypants, and emailed Tina. Then she took the bossiness one step further–which I love, by the way–and forwarded the emails between Tina and herself to Brett. Brett decided he was interested in Buck, because the blue-heeler side of Tina’s dog reminded him of his own beloved Boogie, but he wasn’t sure he was ready.
Tina replied in admirable dog-mama fashion, saying no pressure, but think about it because he seemed like a good match for Buck. I love that Tina wasn’t concerned with securing a home as much as she was with making a good match. That’s a good dog-mama for ya.
Tina and Brett are planning to meet soon, and Tina is sure it will be a good match between Brett and Buck. So sure that she’s already planning to take a picture of Brett leading Buck away. She says “it’ll be a brand new pack, each starting over, but each knowing what it means to be loved.” I sure hope Buck keeps this photo in his heart, forever:

Rush-hour circus

A girl walks into a bar with a pig….

My latest adventure had all the makings of a great joke. Except it was reality.


Our little piggy needed to be spayed. Not because we worry about roving male pigs bursting in on her unannounced and leaving a litter of bastard piglets, but because female piggies can come into heat at 12 weeks of age (yes, you read that right — 12 weeks old; talk about babies having babies) and because they can come into heat every 3 weeks. While there was no need for piggie hygiene products, being in heat was bothersome nonetheless; there was the uncharacteristic bitchiness and the restlessness and the excessive friendliness on her part.

Our quest for a piggie vet was long and complicated. You’d think that living in the 4th largest city would make it easier to find a pig vet, but you would be wrong. After a tiresome, stressful, mostly unfruitful search, we hit pay-dirt, and scheduled our piggie’s hysterectomy. Silly me, I thought the worst part of this process would be surviving the period during which Piper was NPO–that girl likes her chow. I was rather nervous about making the 44-mile drive alone with a ravenous pig on her way to a painful and permanent sterility.

So focused was I on getting Piper to the vet on an empty stomach that I didn’t even think about getting her home. That was a whole ‘nother ordeal. Getting her to the vet was surprisingly easy. She’s like a tiny baby — wait, she is a baby — who falls asleep as soon as she gets in the car. So even though her tummy was rumbling, she snoozed all the way across town to the vet.

The vet techs swarmed around her and nearly came to blows over who got to hold her first, so I left her in good hands and with minimal trepidation. Even though I knew she was going to have to endure an unpleasant procedure, she was going to get plenty of love, so it was ok.

The pig-crazed receptionist called after a few hours to say the surgery was over, the piggie was awake, and all was well. She would be ready to go home by 5:00. I’m not sure how it is where you live, but 5:00 in Houston can be scary and treacherous.

It’s a big ol’ city, y’all. Stretching some 60 miles across, my fine city has some serious freeways, loops, toll roads, and beltways, but every one of them is jam-packed at rush hour. My 44-mile one-way trip from my humble abode to the piggie vet was a breeze this morning, but making that same trip at rush hour was a bear. A big, hungry bear with a slobbery mouth and razor-sharp teeth.

Much of the trip to pick her up was spent putzing along at speeds of less than 30 mph alternating with coming to a complete standstill. Any time an interchange loomed, the creeping and crawling slowed even more. I started to wonder why so slow? Don’t most of these drivers know where they’re going? Don’t they drive this route most every weekday? Don’t they know which lane to be in before they face the concrete jungle of freeway fly-overs?

Apparently not.

All right, fine, it’s rush hour, and I’m resolved to it. I’ve got some good tunes and a full tank of gas, and plenty of cool AC to combat the 86-degree spring day. I’m not in rush-hour traffic often, so a little bit of patience was easy to muster. After an hour and 20 minutes, I arrived at the vet’s office ready to collect my pig and get on my merry way.

After the money changed hands, I took my pig and bid the vet techs good day. I bundled Piggie into a blanket and placed her quite gingerly into the passenger seat. I thought I was a mere hour’s drive away from a cold beer and the beginning of the weekend, but instead it was a slow descent into hell.

Piggie decided that she needed to ride in my lap, as she is wont to do. Fine, but let me get the blanket too, so she’s comfy for the long ride home. Doh! I didn’t realize that the blanket gave her a cushy 12 inches or so to project from my lap. My arms struggled to get around her and grip the steering wheel. I looked like a T-Rex trying to steer my little car with Piggie and her cushy bed in my lap.

If my steering radius was bad, my visibility was worse. With the porcine dumpling in my lap, I struggled to turn my head and shoulders enough to see the other 900,000 cars on the road, all of which seemed to be whizzing by me and changing lanes abruptly. Between little piggie groans and snores, I navigated the traffic on my stumpy arms, cursing the slowdowns and flying through the open stretches in a balls-out effort to get home ASAP.

At one point, about halfway home, Piper started acting like she needed to use the facilities. With no facilities in sight, I began to sweat. If she relieved herself in the car, it would be a really long ride home. No sooner did I start worrying about her needing to go, then I began to worry about needing to go myself. The last thing I wanted to do was try to swivel my head around my porky parcel to exit the beltway and find a restroom. And then what? Take her with me? I couldn’t very well leave her in the car, but nor could I imagine hauling her into the gas station to request the ladies’ room key. Better to just hold it and hustle home.

While the trip home seemed endless, it did finally end, and both Piper and I made it without incident. In her groggy, anesthesia-riddled state, she was actually in better shape than I. A bit rattled and rather cramped from driving with the use of just 6 inches of arms, I was very happy to be home in one piece. Just a day in the life, people. 

Fighting from the front lines

I’m always on the lookout for inspiring stories about cancer: patients, survivors, battles won, valiant fights fought. This story found me, via the local newspaper last week, and it’s been on my mind ever since. I am bowled away by this woman. Her attitude is nothing short of fantastic, and her drive to make a difference in the “war on cancer” is inspiring, for sure. Because I’m juggling 4th grade homework on units of measure and a 7th grade study guide on Texas history with the usual chores, animal herding, and the ever-elusive hunt for something healthy/yummy/pleasing to 4 different palates before another weeknight at the baseball fields, I’m going to just relay this story simply and without a lot of editorializing. You’re welcome.

Chisa Echendu had her eye on a doctorate in medical research from Baylor College of Medicine, right here in good ol’ Houston. The 32-year-old Nigerian native had every intention of spending her career in a lab, peering into a microscope and solving medical mysteries.

But then the doctor became the patient as she found a lump in her breast in 2006. At age 26 and halfway through her molecular virology doctorate, Chisa was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I didn’t think it was serious,” she said. “I was 26, I didn’t have a family history. I was busy in the lab, busy with publications.”

Cancer, however, has no regard for one’s schedule, plans, hopes, or dreams. Chisa learned this first-hand. After her diagnosis, Chisa’s professors suggested she put her studies on the back burner while she faced chemo, surgery, and radiation. But Chisa said no. She was determined to make sure cancer didn’t steal everything from her. She remained resolute in her goal of finishing school, and her attitude is inspiring. She said, “I didn’t want a pity party, I just wanted to be like everyone else and take care of my business. People go through more challenging things in life. I had hope to get well, good resources, good physician tools. Some people are worse — without anything — and they just keep going.”

Instead of feeling sorry for herself or asking “why me?” Chisa not only pushed through the endless parade of problems one confronts with a cancer diagnosis, she refocused her goal. After enduring endless doctor’s appointment, multiple body scans and medical tests, chemo brain, recovery from surgery, and fatigue from radiation, Chisa decided to get out of the lab and fight cancer from the front lines as a radiation oncologist. So after 4 years of med school, she will take on another 5 years of training to help others on this wretched cancer “journey.”

Being a young breast cancer survivor filled Chisa with “more of a sense of urgency” in pursuing her goals. “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. There is no time to complain or make excuses. Like everyone who goes through difficult times, you gain more strength, a sense that you can accomplish anything you want to do.”

With 2-year-old twin daughters at home and a lot of schoolwork ahead of her, Chisa is proving that she can indeed do anything she wants to do. What an inspiration.

The spring of my discontent

As the spring equinox draws to a close, I can’t help but notice that today is the beginning of the season I dread. Springtime is hard, really hard, and today heralds the beginning of the period of time that hurts my heart. Three events in a short span, one right after another, that bring heartbreak.
An anniversary, a birthday, and Mother’s Day. Bam, bam, bam. Just when I get through one, the next one is right on its heels, waiting to slam into me like a brick wall. But instead of mortar and bricks, this wall is made up of sadness and loss.
Today, the first official day of spring, is my parents’ 47th wedding anniversary. 47 years. Just a few years shy of the big 5-0. I can imagine myself planning a gee-gantic golden celebration: friends, family, neighbors, cake, champagne, confetti. But one thing is missing: the bride.

Mom's photo for her wedding announcement in the newspaper

My mom’s chance to celebrate her golden anniversary was stolen by the vicious beast we call cancer. Stupid cancer.
My parents set a great example for what a successful marriage is all about. Give and take, support, and sacrifice. Good years, lean times. For better, for worse. Most definitely in sickness and in health. While they had a lot of good years together, I sure wish they’d have had more.

Pig races!

This weekend,I was too busy squeezing every ounce of fun out of spring break to get back to the pig races. Fear not, faithful readers: pig race coverage begins now.

May I just say that one hasn’t lived — really lived — until one has witnessed a spectacle such as the annual pig races at the Houston Rodeo & Livestock Show. Just as this wasn’t our first rodeo, it wasn’t our first pig race, either. It was, however, our first pig race since we became owners of a pet pig, so the races took on a bit more significance now that we know and love a little piggie. Naturally, we thought of our little Piper while at the piggie raceway.

So here’s the set-up: a grandstand full of spectators, the pit crew, the emcee, and of course, the piggies. The emcee spoke of the fierce competition among the piggie racers for the big prize: an Oreo cookie. Macy & I nodded out heads knowingly at the flat-out determination and light ing-fast speed a piggie would display in pursuit of an Oreo. We giggled among ourselves at the idea of our little piggie losing her piggie mind over an Oreo.Our emcee. What a gig, right? Calling the pig races every hour on the hour, every day for 18 days.Each of the three races featured four piggie racers. In race #1, it was a fierce, four-way matchup  between Kevin Bacon, Brad Pig, Simon Sowell, and Justin Bieboar.

The girls in the black t-shirts escorted the piggie racers to their gates. I know the pictures aren’t great, so just focus on the little pink blob coming down the ramp, just underneath the first girl’s hand.

The racers head to the metal gates and line up for their race. Off they go!

The next race featured Jennifer Lo-pig, Britney Spare-Rib, Lindsay Lo-ham, and Christina Hogulara. I gotta give some mad props to the person who named the racers. They  must have run out of clever names by the third race, though, because instead of hoggy celebs it was a college bedlam battle with the mighty University of Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and the Oklahoma Sooners. Not sure why they didn’t have the Arkansas Razorbacks, whose battle cry is Sooooo-ey pig.

After the third race, it was showtime for Swifty the Swimming Pig. We’ve been wondering how our little piggie will take to water, once it warms up enough for her to dip her hooves in the pool. If Swifty is any indication, Piper will do just fine You’ve heard the expression, when pigs fly, right? What about when pigs swim?

Here she is, ready to take her place at the edge of her pool.

She’s in place, ready to dive in.

Go, Swifty!

With one big leap, Swifty dove into the water and swam lickety-split across her pool. 

The crowd went wild! And Swifty was wrapped in a warm towel. Hooray for pig races!

This isn’t my first rodeo

I’ve always loved that saying. Don’t know why, exactly, but I suppose it has to do with the directness of the statement, the idea that one can utter 5 words to clearly convey a depth of experience on the matter at  hand. The first time I ever heard it was in the movie Mommie Dearest…shudder. More recently, Payton’s 6th grade speech & theater teacher, Ms Pointer, used that saying at parents’ open house at the middle school. The first-time middle-school parents, trying to navigate the newness and independence thrust upon us and our little darlings, showed up at school with our kids’ schedules in hand and followed their class schedule for an intro to middle school by each teacher. From one end of the school to the other, upstairs, downstairs, down the hallway and back we traipsed, just as our kiddos do every school day. I tried to picture my 6th grader going from class to class in this giant building that houses some 1,100 kids, and was frankly, a little overwhelmed.

Ms Pointer, one of the more beloved teachers at FCMS, is direct and has high expectations–my kind of girl. She reassured all the nervous parents in the room that she would turn our babies from shuffling, eyes-downcast pre-teens to confident public speakers who present themselves proficiently and engagingly. My boy isn’t the most, uh, talkative, and I did worry a bit about his choice of speech & theater as his elective (“it beats band, orchestra, and choir” was his rationale). But Ms Pointer assured each parent in the room that night that she could work her magic and coax even the most reluctant kid out of his/her shell. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” she said. And she was right. Not only did my guy deliver his speeches with elan, he also learned to sew — with fabric, needle, and thread — a tiny costume for an action figure. He needed a Barbie or Ken doll, but seeing as his sister isn’t exactly the Barbie type, and his mama didn’t want to trek over to Target that day, we scrounged around in the discarded playthings box and found a Troy Bolton doll from High School Musical. My kid transformed the doll from teen basketball star to an ancient Chinese warlord in full battle gear, happily and with no needle pricks, thanks to Ms Pointer. 

But I digress.

I remember well Ms Pointer uttering that saying, and I thought of her yesterday as my favorite girl and I headed out for the rodeo. It’s a big event in these parts, and she had eagerly anticipated our visit. This year is the 80th annual Houston Rodeo & Livestock Show. For 80 years, my fair city has been putting on this event, and it’s quite the spectacle. For 19 days every spring, hordes of people come to the rodeo — attendance tops 100,000 on weekends. No doubt the rodeo has evolved over the years, and it now encompasses not just ropin’ and bull ridin’ and carny entertainment, but big-name performers, a world-class BBQ championship, horse shows, wine tastings, sheepdog trials, and all kinds of fun. The muttin bustin’ has quickly become a crowd favorite.

There’s plenty of swagger at the rodeo, from the giant belt-buckles on the guys to the sundresses & cowboy boots a la Taylor Swift on the girls to the 10-gallon hats on the seasoned ranchers. I especially liked the sign on this bull ride; the Sissy Boy part made me laugh.

Our first year at the rodeo looked like this:

My little cowgirl was 3, and she reveled in the sights and sounds of the big event. The cowboy next to her was 6, and was a bit more interested in the giant ice cream than anything else.

This is the kind of ride they enjoyed back then.

And this is the kind of ride my girl enjoys now. 

Let me state for the record that I am not an amusement-park kind of girl. I don’t enjoy the rides, the crowds, the footsore grumps who are tired of waiting in line. It’s not my scene. I’m also a little teeny bit scared of heights. And jerky motions. And flunky ride-operators who hold my life in their hands as they operate thousands of pounds of machinery that may or may not have been properly inspected. There’s even a website devoted to chronicling accidents on carnival rides, after all. Yikes.

But hey, my girl wanted to ride some rides, and she wanted me to do it with her. I’ve already faced the scariest thing I can imagine — a cancer diagnosis — so surely I could handle the Sky Flyer. Which happens to be the tallest swing ride in North America. Oh goody. Here we are in our swing, ready to soar over the rodeo crowd. I’m terrified. Seriously. My girl is in disbelief that her otherwise-fearless mama is actually riding this ride.

Aerial view as we began our ascent into the sky. Up high. Very, very high. Looking down at lots of pavement and people and pointy things that would not cushion a fall.

But we survived, with a complete absence of screaming and a minimal amount of cussing by me. My girl was very proud of me for doing something she knows is way, way, way outside my comfort zone. As we exited the Sky Flyer, a girl in her early teens asked me, “Is it scary? How high do you think it goes? Does it last long?” She must have recognized a fellow reluctant rider. I wish we’d stuck around to see if she was convinced by my answers enough to hop on.

But no, we had to hustle on over to the G Force.

My girl had heard about this ride or remembered it from last year or something. I can’t recall because I stopped breathing when I saw it and was focused on remaining upright as I saw people hurtling through the sky on this G Force of death.

Really?? People pay money to ride this?? On purpose??

20 people, in groups of 4, get strapped into this thing, which hurls them from side to side and around in circles as it swings back and forth, climbing ever higher into the sky. 

It swings in great arcs that cover a huge swath of landscape over the midway, traveling fast enough to elicit the unit of force equal to the force exerted by gravity. The force to which a body is subjected when it is accelerated by a crazy carnival ride. Which may or may not have been properly inspected. I’m thinking you’d have to be cuckoo to ride this thing. And lo and behold, there’s the cuckoo house right across from the G Force.

Well, guess who rode the G Force? Yep, that’s right–it was me. The gal who really doesn’t like rides. At all. Of any kind. The gal who is perfectly happy to hold purses, hats, cell phones, drinks–whatever, as long as I don’t have to go on a ride. The control-freak gal who hates putting her fate in someone else’s hands. Uh huh, I rode the G Force. All for my favorite girl. It was scary, ok terrifying really, and people were screaming. Some people were actually smiling. My girl reached over to hold my hand, and told me it’s ok to scream but please don’t cry. I did neither, although one time I extolled the ride operator to make it stop. For the love of all things sacred and holy, make it stop.

After surviving the G Force, we were ready to sample some of the fine delicacies the rodeo is known for, and the choices were plentiful. This one, we skipped. Ewwwwww.

This, however, is what my girl wanted. She’d never had a funnel cake and was jonesing to try it. 

She pronounced it heavenly, and only scowled at me a little when I encouraged her to throw half of it away. We won’t mention the giant stomach ache she ended up with after consuming half of that bad boy. We skipped the Cowboy Kettle Corn, but I do like the Texas-sized bag on the right.

Sweet Cheeks is well-known for its fried desserts on a stick. The fried Snickers bar made headlines when it debuted, and this year’s addition to the lineup is Fried Fruity Pebbles. Apparently they coat the cereal in melted marshmallows, form it into a rectangle, add a stick, dunk it in batter, and fry it. 

As the recent article in the Houston Chronicle says about the Sweet Cheeks booth, “it’s not a health-food store.”

Plenty of people lined up for the non-health-food-store wares.

After the sweets we happened upon the meats. The Texas-sized turkey legs are popular. 

Lots of carnivores were strolling the midway while gnawing on a turkey leg. Inside, at the livestock show, I noticed this sign about just how many turkey legs are consumed at the rodeo.

That’s bad news for this guy. Tom Turkey better rest while he can, because before long, it’ll be curtains for him, and lunch for someone else.

Seeing the animals is always a highlight at the rodeo. The local FFA kids work really hard to raise and show their animals, and hope for a big payoff. The rodeo has resulted in some $238 million in scholarships, research, and youth programs. 

This longhorn looked like he had something to add to the topic. Perhaps it’s that some 2,000 students attend more than 100 different Texas universities on livestock show scholarships, enjoying $30 million in school funds.

We saved the best for last at the livestock show: the birthing center. The tally board shows the babies born at the rodeo, and of course our eyes went straight to the column that lists the piglets. 

As of yesterday, 67 piglets had been born at the rodeo.

That’s a lot of little squealers.

We saw some of them, and could have stayed all day watching them. 

Yes, those are the mama pig’s hooves you see, and yes, they are indeed bigger than her babies. Mama pig weighs 600 lbs, so her hooves have to be able to support her heft. Those piglets are a week old, and their mama’s hooves could crush them. Miss Piggy is the proud mother of 5, all of whom were ready for their next meal.

Next to Miss Piggy’s little family was another brood named The Brady Bunch.

Why some of the mama pigs were in the clear enclosures with the scary-looking bars near their faces and some were in more friendly fenced enclosures I don’t know. Perhaps the scary-looking pens were for feeding and the fenced ones were for piggie playtime? The fenced ones allowed the piglets to run and play, and Macy and I loved watching them cavort like puppies.

Piglets galore! This mama pig snoozed while her little ones entertained each other. So did Jasmine, as her 5 piglets, named The Wrecking Crew, delighted the crowd with their piggie antics.

The Wrecking Crew at work. 

Seeing the piglets was the perfect ending to our rodeo fun. After gazing upon their little pink faces, there was only one thing left to do: go to the pig races!

To be continued….

Piggie’s day out

Yesterday was a big day for our little piggie. She met her vet, Dr Borland, and returned to Wabash on Washington, the feed store where she’s a full-blown celebrity.

First, the vet visit. What a relief to find a piggie vet, after calling 19 different clinics in the greater Houston area. I was beginning to think they were all messing with me because I’d call one to be told, we don’t see piggies anymore but Dr So-and-So does. I’d call Dr So-and-So and say, Dr Whozit recommended you as a piggie vet, then Dr So-and-So would chuckle and say oh really? By the way, several of the 19 clinics recommended I call the vet school at Texas A&M. Not saying it’s an Aggie thing, but no one ever answered the phone. No answering machine, no voice mail, no human on the other end. Hmmmm. Those Aggies missed out on their chance to see Miss Piggy all dressed up for her doctor’s appointment. 

Big, big thanks to Cyndi at Ranch Pony for turning us onto Dr Borland. Everyone in her office was so excited to meet Piper. I felt bad for the lady who walked in at the same time as us with her adorable lab-mix puppy, who certainly was precious but didn’t get much attention with Miss Piggy in the house! Several of the vet techs wanted to take a picture of Piper, and one even wanted a pic of Macy’s t-shirt. Our little piggie got a good report from Dr B, and I’m sure Piper wanted to kiss Dr B when she recommended we increase Miss Piggy’s food rations a bit. Music to Piper’s ears!

We picked a day to bring Piper back to get spayed; gotta get the idea out of my head that it would be fun to let her have a litter. No! No! Walk away from the crazy idea!

After the vet visit, we trekked across town to Wabash on Washington, the feed store, to buy another bag of pig chow. Piper made a trip to Wabash about a week after we got her and was quickly befriended by the folks who work there. A couple of them remembered her from our last visit, and our little piggie was a lot more comfortable exploring the store. It didn’t take her long to find the doggie Cheez-Its, and we came home with a big bag. And two mesclun plants, because our piggie likes her some fancy lettuce.Wabash is a super cool place–not just because they sell pig chow, but because they have some cool live animals, gorgeous plants, fun trinkets, and out-of-this world yard art.

We were greeted by Beyonce the giant metal chicken.

If you haven’t read this story about Beyonce the giant metal chicken, I urge you to do so now. Not because the Bloggess needs any more publicity, but because it’s hilarious. There’s a bit of cursing, so beware.

After the giant chickens, we spied this giant pig. The iPhone photos don’t do it justice. 

That is some pig. I must go back and discover what the handle on the side opens up to; a grill? a cooler? a hiding place? The plot thickens.

On to the fabulous yard art, of which I am a big fan. Most species are represented at Wabash. I’d be hard-pressed to choose my favorite, but if I had to pick just one yard-art species it would be the weenie dogs. 

Or maybe the flamingos.

Or maybe the peacocks. So proud. 

But which version? They’ve both fabulous in their own right.

But of course, we are rather partial to pigs in our house. The winged ones are just delightful, although the black & white ones with the long eyelashes look a lot like our piggie girl. 

Seeing as how we are in Texas, the longhorn would be a good addition to the yard (Hook ‘Em!).

If the full-size version is a bit much, there’s always the convenient smaller guy.

The “We don’t dial 911” signs don’t really do it for me, but I applaud the delivery and the sassiness nonetheless.

Piper enjoyed all the yard art species, too.

Almost as much as she enjoyed rooting in the soft, damp earth.

As if all the species weren’t enough, there are flowers and birdhouses, too. 

Tall & short, big & small, the flowering yard art on display made us smile.

The girl is there to give you an idea of the scale (both of the flowers, and of the piggie snacks).

What bird wouldn’t feel luckier than a dog with two tails to live in these houses?

Just when I thought we’d seen every piece of yard art, we spied this little guy, tucked into the corner of a pond. 

So cute!

Once we were sure we’d laid eyes on all the cute inanimate objects, it was time to move on to the real deal. With “Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry” playing in my head, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing these guys. I especially like the guy in front of the red feeder with the duck-fro. That is one stylin’ duck.

Next to the ducks were the chickens, a most beautiful color of chickens, in fact. I absolutely love that soft grey/beige/white combination. I’d always thought chickens were rather bland looking, but now I know better.

Next to the chickens were the roosters, and they were quite proud and preened for us. 

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear these two were having a conversation. I’ve no idea what roosters talk about, but I’d bet it has something to do with the broody hens they can peep at through the wire of their enclosure.

In between the chickens and the roosters, naturally, were eggs. Something about this simple line-up speaks to me. Each egg is a little different, whether in size, color, or the number of speckles contained on the shell, but they all represent some primal, untapped potential. 

The fantailed pigeons are lovely and a step up from the run-of-the-mill pigeons seen begging for scraps in an urban landscape. 

This guy didn’t seem to mind me snapping a pic of his backside.

While the brown & white fantail pigeon got our attention, it paled in comparison to its all-white neighbor. 

Wow. What a showy, feathery display. Beautiful. I wasn’t sure what fantail pigeons were all about, but a quick peek at wikipedia schooled me. They have 30 to 40 feathers, which is “abnormally more tail feathers than most members of the pigeon family.” The less-endowed pigeons tend to have a measly 12 to 14 tail feathers. There are two varieties of fantails, the regular (pictured above), and the silky fantail, which has more variegated feathers. Charles Darwin used the fantail pigeon as an example of the correlation of growth principle in an opening chapter of On the Origin of Species. Fantails are also used in training other pigeons, called Tipplers, that engage in endurance trials. Who knew that a Tippler can fly for 22 hours nonstop? Fascinating.

Stuffed full of pigeon knowledge, we can now move on to the rabbits. 

So cute! I was struck by how similar their markings are to our piggie girl’s. Dark face and body, with a white neck and a white blaze. 

I sure hope these two get to stay together. They look pretty chummy. And the feet on the reclining bunny…precious.

This little bun-bun was kinda shy. I’m not sure, but I think she whispered, “Take me with you!” Ok, but only if we can get this hutch, too. So beautiful (but I’ll pass on the cowboy dude).

It was naptime for this guy, so we didn’t stick around after admiring his extreme cuteness.

While making our way toward the door after a thoroughly enjoyable time at Wabash, a family walked in and exclaimed over Piper. The two young girls were smitten. Their mom told me that on the way to Wabash, one girl said she sure hoped she’d get to pet a pig there. Well, Piper was happy to oblige. Poor Macy was about to collapse from holding her piggie during the family’s Q&A session. They asked all the usual questions: where did you get her? what does she eat? where does she sleep? then the mom asked me one I’ve not heard before: how great of a mom are you for letting your daughter have a pet pig? Macy chimed in before I could answer by saying, “Pretty great!”

We were almost out the door and to the car when we were stopped by one more family, this time a young mother and her mom and a toddler girl clutching a green Care Bear. The moms were way more interested in Piper than the little girl, who eyed our piggie from a safe distance and the security of her mama’s arms. More questions, more ooohing and aaahing, and we were home free. As I was loading our purchases into the car, however, a man with his two tiny, fluffy dogs pulled up beside us and shouted out the window, “Wait! Don’t leave! I’ve got to see that pig!” Another parking-lot chat ensued, and he finagled a trade with Macy so that she had his two fluffy dogs, Shakira and the one who growled a lot, in her arms and he ended up holding Piper. His visit wasn’t complete without taking a picture or two, both with his “real” camera and his iPhone camera. Man, that little piggie is popular.

Finally, after our long, pig-filled day, we were safely packed into the car for the ride home. Piper had a belly full of Cheez-Its and lettuce and a snout full of dirt. The only thing left to do was nap.

Sweet dreams, little piggie.