I had to Fake It

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you had to fake it? A couple of months ago, the circumstances were a little awkward, but I really felt backed into a corner. I had no choice. I had to smile. I had to pretend.

It was December, 2017. I knew going in to my oncology appointment that all would be fine as far as my cancer was concerned. I was unafraid.

My oncologist said, “Hey! Great news! You are four years cancer-free!” He was smiling. My husband was smiling. I felt nothing. A couple of awkward seconds passed and I realized I needed to DO SOMETHING. So, I smiled,nodded my head and said, “Yeah, that’s great! Awesome! Thanks so much!”

Four Years is Awesome! Can I Please have Four Easy Years Now?

Four years is pretty damned amazing, especially for pancreatic cancer. I know so many other people have been denied the opportunity to experience four years after a cancer diagnosis. I am not ungrateful. I know exactly what pancreatic cancer means for most patients. I knew what it meant when I was diagnosed with it.

I mean, how could I NOT fake feeling ecstatic? That would be horrible. That would make ME horrible. I felt guilty and ashamed for not genuinely wanting to do cartwheels up and down the hall. I knew the people in the full waiting room were not likely getting good news. Yet, I had a very long list of other things which were weighing heavily on my mind. It is a little bit of one of those post-cancer bullshit realities: even when you face cancer, other hard things continue to come at you.

pancreatic cancer

Four years cancer free. Smiling because that’s what I am supposed to do.

When I was diagnosed in 2013, cancer was not on my ‘worry radar’ at all. I really did not think about it. I never was angry about having cancer because I do not think I ever fully moved beyond being stunned by my diagnosis.

Like many young(ish) people who have never been ill, I thought I would have cancer, get treatment and I would either die from it or I would go back to living life as it had always been. I am grateful the first option did not happen. I was surprised when B also did not happen.

Cancer comes along and creates upheaval for everyone in its orbit. It impacts the things you see as well as those things beneath the surface which have yet to make an appearance.

Earthquake, Aftershocks and Tsunami

For many survivors, cancer is the 8.9-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake which comes out of nowhere. After a period of terrifying rumbling and shaking, you and your loved ones are left huddled together (if you are lucky) in the rubble, tasked with rebuilding something which will hopefully make you feel safe and protected again. You take the pieces, patch them back together as best as you can, but there is no longer any illusion of real safety.

You know another earthquake could roll through at any time, and you know your structure is probably not strong enough to withstand more destruction and trauma. In fact, waves of aftershocks keep occurring and no matter how well you feel you have braced yourself, the shaking chips away endlessly at your foundation.

All you can do is hang on to one another and hope for the best.

Four years of survival. It sounds glorious, and in many ways it has been; however, it has also been four years of aftershocks and tsunamis. I am still here, but I feel like I have been shaken and nearly drown.

The first aftershock came in the form of a scare two years ago. The scare was a large lymph node in the celiac plexus area. I went in for a biopsy, knowing that if my cancer was back it would be extremely difficult to fight. The celiac plexus is a difficult area to reach and it is surrounded by major blood vessels. So, it is hard to remove anything there and with the blood vessels in the area, it is easy for the cancer to travel to remote parts of the body.

It was terrifying, obviously to go through a couple of months not knowing if the cancer was back. One of the hardest parts for me was not being 100% transparent with my kids about the situation. Steve and I knew we were terrified, and I did not want to shake my children’s’ foundation unnecessarily. We would tell them what we knew when we knew it. Ultimately we did not know for sure until after the biopsy and more CT scans.

There were other things that happened during that time, and I found myself sinking into a deep, dark pit of depression. Ultrarunning was what kept me literally and figuratively moving forward. I spent the summer of 2016 training for the Run Rabbit Run 100. I put one foot in front of the other, day after day after day, trying to keep the panther from eating me alive. (You can read more about that Here)

As fate would have it, the race brought me the joy I needed, but a few months later I realized I had an injury I needed to address. I needed a delicate and possibly run-ending hip surgery. I had a hip labrum repair at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, CO under Dr. Phillippon. I had the right hip operated on March 30, 2017, just under a year ago. (Read more HERE)

My recovery was going extremely well until A)I hurt my shoulder swimming during rehab and B) my foot started to hurt. I had some foot pain off and on prior to RRR 100, but it was never enough to stop me. As soon as I started running again and adding hills into my training program, my foot started hurting. It hurt so badly I walked with a limp.

EVERY SINGLE DAY I woke up and told myself, my husband, my friends, “Today is the day! I am going to get out there, have a great run and turn this around!” I did not want this foot injury to sink me mentally after everything else I had been through.

After months of positive self-talk which did nothing to help me, I wondered if I was doing it wrong. Or if I was delusional…or just plain old stupid.

Tonia Willy Williams Canyon

For the last six months, I have tried different things to fix my foot, as I have slowly watched my identity of being a runner disappear over the horizon. I would not care so much if I could hike or do anything without being pain. But that is not where things are for me right now.

Dear God, NOW What?

In the meantime, I have been diagnosed with two other significant health issues, one being an issue I caught on my cancer CT scan report and brought to my doctor.  (People, always read your reports and ask your doctors what stuff means. If you do not get good explanations, go somewhere else!) There is another issue I am still trying to figure out.

In addition, a very dear. very much-loved family member is also having significant health issues. It kills me to be far away because I cannot hug him during his own aftershocks. And, of course, I can never forget the impact my cancer had on my children.

Who am I and Why am I Here?

The constant stress of the last four years have indeed triggered a chain reaction of problems.

I MISS the old me. I miss being a person who took for granted the fact that I would live to be 90 or older. I miss my strong, uncut body. I miss the body which rebounded from illness and injury quickly. I miss not being in pain.

I miss the unquestioning faith I had in my physical abilities. I miss the belief I once had in myself that ‘anything was possible’.

Tonia Smith Pancreatic Cancer

Tonia & Steve

I miss having a body that was imperfect but dependable. I miss taking for granted there would be more running and more races for years to come. I miss believing with every fiber of my being that I could conquer every mountain and finish every 100.

And I miss how running protected my mental health and emotions. I miss knowing I could go spend a couple of hours in the mountains and come back better for it.

Maybe it will all come back. I have not give up all hope, though there have been some extremely difficult days. I keep thinking that after battling cancer, life should guarantee you a couple of relatively easy years, but it does not. For now, I will just hold my loved ones in the rubble and hope we can all keep hanging on. And I hope at my five-year appointment, I no longer need to fake it.

Tonia Smith cancer

With my Aussie, Willy, a couple of months ago.

EEG

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Sophomore Year: It’s not about the Boots

Last year when I moved my older daughter, Riley, into her college dorm room for the first time, my feelings were too painful and raw to voice, let alone write about for a public blog. Months later, I touched on the topic briefly, when time and distance had dulled the feelings enough to make sharing them tolerable.

I foolishly thought bringing her to college would be easier this year, but it was not. In August, we drove Riley back to college and helped her move into her first apartment. Moving her into a dorm for the first time last year felt BIG but moving her into her own apartment felt monumental. This is it. She has to pay bills and be an adult. She has a lease. She needs to prepare meals for herself and shop for herself and do all of the fun and not-so-fun things adults do every day.

Even though I knew she was capable of succeeding on her own as a Freshman last year, there were still plenty of unknowns. Would she enjoy school? Would she make friends? Would she and her roommate get along? Would she be lonely? Would she want to stay for four years?

Sophomore Year Drop Off

Returning for Sophomore year, in theory, seemed like a piece of cake. Yes, we had to move her into her apartment, but she had a successful year of college under her belt and she was planning to live with people of her own choosing this year. And yet I couldn’t shake my conflicted emotions. There is never, ever enough time.

Sophomore year college

Riley happy to be returning to college for her Sophomore year

We hugged and said our goodbyes at the end of the day. Steve, Peyton and I descended the four flights of stairs and piled back into our now-empty van for the return trip home. As I sat silently in the passenger seat, I grappled with the realization that this summer was probably the final time Riley would ever really live in our home under our roof. As scenes from her childhood flashed through my mind like a movie, I panicked and thought, “Oh my God…I wonder if she has an umbrella? And what about rain boots?”

SERIOUSLY?

What. The. Hell. I kid you not. I was in a panic thinking she might not have an umbrella and rain boots. I fought back against my urge to cry and beg Steve to turn back towards the apartment building. Where did THOSE seemingly random thoughts come from? Of all of the things I could think about, why did an umbrella and rain boots seem suddenly critically important? I did not give voice to my internal storm because I knew I would sound insane and irrational. I also knew it wasn’t about the boots.

What’s the Big Idea?

We spend our whole lives trying to prepare our kids to exist on their own. If we do a ‘good enough’ job, we hope they will absorb enough information to become fully functional adults.

I also spent a lot of time conversing with my kids about ‘big picture’ things: love, marriage, sex, friends, drugs, career, war, equality, religion, and pretty much any controversial or important topic we can think of. Rather than dictating beliefs, I hoped to instill ethics and values and give them room to be thinking individuals who could seek information and make decisions in life.

Sometimes It’s the Little Things

Still, I wondered….had I done a good enough job? I covered as many big life topics as I could, but did I do a good enough job with the details, the mundane aspects of life, too? During the drive home, I silently held onto my pain, wishing for a few short hours that I could go back and cover safety lessons and proper attire for a variety of weather conditions and so I could assuage the guilt I was feeling for maybe not having covered all of the important little lessons she would need to know in life.

What I really wish for is a chance to go back for just a few moments in time…to hold and nurse my baby again….to read another bedtime story…to hold her hand and play games and walk her into school. As scenes from her childhood rolled through my brain, I regretted the times I was distracted or tired or impatient.

If Only I Knew then What I Know Now

At one time it seemed we had all the time in the world, and now I see how quickly it has passed by. At 28, as a new mom, I wondered how my mom seemed to have all of the patience in the world with my screaming newborn baby. I was exhausted and it felt like it would be forever before my baby could do anything for herself. Riley growing up and leaving home was a possibility I never pondered at that point.

But now, at 48, I understand that patience very clearly. It is funny how the passage of time gives us an entirely new perspective and what seemed like an eternity before is now truly just a very brief and fleeting moment in our lives. Don’t we all wish our younger selves knew what we know now?

So now, my daughter is off successfully navigating life as an adult and I am happy for her and proud of her. Like all of us, she will make mistakes and will have regrets. I hope she feels loved and confident in herself as she moves forward, knowing she has a mom at home who is proud of her and who thinks she is amazing.

And if she has questions about relationships, love, career, children, religion, politics, social justice….or what kind of umbrella to buy…I am here, just a phone call or text message away.

Sophomore year 2017

Riley at the Oval with Peyton in the background. Go forth and do Epic Shit, my darling!

 

I refuse to be a helicopter mom. Don’t judge me.

I have a confession to make. I don’t check my kids homework. I don’t look at their assignments. I do not log into the various on-line places that the schools want me to check their grades. In a world where supposedly “every” parent is a helicopter parent, dooming their children to be clingy and dysfunctional, I sometimes feel like a bad parent. As much as we hear “don’t be a helicopter parent” from schools, colleges, and various media sources, it really feels like society and schools are pushing parents into the role of helicopter parenting. I am fighting back against it as hard as I can but I admit that sometimes I feel like a loser for nothing constantly logging on to see what my kids’ grades look like. That said, so far, I think my strategy is working out just fine for my kids. But sometimes I wonder if I am a secret loser of parent who is not being as “involved” as I should be.

When Riley was in elementary school, I used to check on her homework. I would go over her math answers and make sure they were correct. I tried to help her when she was struggling with something, but even though I was doing my best and my heart was in the right place, I think my “involvement” caused more harm than good (my poor first-born “test” child). I am now embarrassed when I think back at the time I spent standing over her shoulder correcting her. But, I was trying to help, be involved, be a good parent. That is not to say that I think parents should not help their kids when they are struggling. But, it really is OK if they make mistakes. We do not need to point all of these mistakes out to our kids.

When Riley moved on to Middle School and Peyton went to elementary school, I went back to work.  My  husband works very long hours and I was working a health care setting. I frequently worked swing shifts and was not there when Riley got home from school. I started relying on the on-line grade book to see how she was doing. This only served to increase the loss of control that I felt over what was happening in my kids’ lives. I was barely seeing them as it was, and I could not be there to help or monitor what was going on in their lives. This prompted me to ask questions based upon electronic information. “You have an assignment missing in this class? You went from an A to a D over night! Where is this assignment?” I was at turns exasperated and afraid and angry. Most of these conversations took place over the phone or in the brief, bleary-eyed few minutes that I had with my kids in the mornings. I felt our relationships slipping away. I realized that I thought I had some semblance of control over these people with whom I lived, but in reality, I cannot control what other people are doing. I can only control myself. I decided to back off. When cancer decided to visit my life, it really hit home that these two girls that I am raising will have to function on their own in life. I may not always be here for them. I need to make sure that they are equipped to face the ups and downs of life on their own. They need to believe in themselves.

Unfortunately, I feel that the expectation in today’s world is that parents will be available at all times and will be constantly monitoring their children. When Riley went to high school, she did not have a smart phone. Right off the bat, at back-to-school night, a teacher started talking about how they will use their smart phones in class. WHAT?! I was very upset. The district policy was “no phones” in class, but the teacher said essentially, “The kids use them anyway, so we might as well harness the technology for academic purposes.” While I understand that sentiment and realize that teachers are playing whack-a-mole with the ‘no phone’ policy, I felt that my own parenting was being undermined. Suddenly, I felt that I HAD to get my daughter a smart phone or she would be at a disadvantage in school. Shortly thereafter, we had an emergency where she had to miss a sports practice. Because I, myself, had no smart phone and I was not at home at my computer, I had no way to communicate to the coach. I bought myself a smart phone so that I could be a “good parent” and essentially be available 24/7. I resented feeling like I had to be “on call” at all times and like I had to purchase expensive technology that I did not believe was necessary for a 15-year-old or for myself (how quaint, I know, but that’s just my personal belief).

Riley's birthday

Now, as Riley prepares to graduate and Peyton is in middle school, things are very different. I am determined to be as supportive but as un-helicoptery as possible. I ask them every day, “What did you do at school today?” and “Do you have much homework?” I never check their homework unless they specifically ask me to read something that they have written (which is almost never, because apparently writing professionally affords me no gravitas at home!). Sometimes we talk specifically about what they did in classes, but only if it is something that they want to share. There are no inquisitions from me. They choose what they want to talk about. Sometimes we talk about friends or activities or what is going on in the news, the election cycle, or the universe. I want to hear about whatever interests them. I want to talk to my children about their lives. I want to learn more about who they are and what they care about. I am more interested in who they are as people than what their current grades are looking like. A funny thing happened as I backed off from the role of monitor and enforcer: our relationships improved and their own personalities started to develop and really show themselves. I started learning more about who my daughters are as people and about what they actually think about and believe in. They put enough pressure on themselves to succeed academically. They do not need me adding to the pressure that they face. They need me to help put those pressures into perspective.

But, here is my problem: I feel constant pressure from the academic world to not be the kind of parent I want to be. Every week, I get multiple email reminders to check this app and that app and the on-line grade book and the team and class web pages, etc. I do not blame the teachers one bit. They have pressure from everywhere to COMMUNICATE with parents. Parents demand to know what is going on every single day. But, does that make me a bad parent if I do not feel like i have to be constantly informed as to what is happening in the classroom? I trust the teachers to do their jobs. I trust my kids to do theirs. If my kids do not do their jobs, the natural consequence is that they will get poor grades. If a teacher is not doing his or her job, my kid will also suffer consequences, but no website or app is going to tell me anything important about what the teacher is doing. If my kid comes home and tells me, “We are talking about X in class and it is really interesting!”, then that is what I feel like I really need to know.

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My kids are fortunate enough to be in a school district that consistently performs well by all metrics that I have available to me. I know that they will be prepared for college. I am well aware that we are “privileged” in this regard. As important as I believe parent-involvement is, I just do not think it is something that can forced. I consider myself to be a very involved parent in the ways that truly matter. Signing papers and looking at apps will not make me more involved in any meaningful way.

delicate arch

I want to make sure that my kids are hungry to learn and excited about education by the time they get to college, because ultimately that is what matters most. I want my kids to learn to monitor their own work loads on their own. I want them to be responsible for themselves. It is a process, of course, and I will provide support for them when and if they need it. But, I am not interested in looking over their shoulders every day to see what grade their received for behavior or on any one particular homework assignment. I laugh when I have to sign off on a homework calendar for my 18-year-old. (Really? How the hell do I know whether she did these assignments or not? “Hey Riley, did you do these assignments?” “Yes”. “Ok, I guess I can sign it then”). I expect that they will do their jobs and do them as well as they are able.

So, by bucking the system, I hope I am teaching my kids not that I do not care or am not involved. Rather, I hope they see that I am involved in the stuff that matters. My job is to be the support system and help shape and guide them as they grow up. I am actually more interested in guiding their ethical and moral behavior than I am in driving them to get good grades. Their desire to get good grades needs to be internally-motivated, because I sure as hell am not going to college with them.

So, to my teacher friends. I love you and respect you and would never want to do your job, because I know it is really, really difficult. I also trust that you are doing your job. This does not mean that we should not touch base on occasion, because I actually really like you and enjoy chatting with you. But please forgive me for not looking at the apps you set up. I ask my kids how they are doing and when they answer, I assume they are telling me the truth. If my kid is a problem, I want to know about it and I assure you that it will be dealt with, as I am in no way a pushover. But, my expectation as a parent is that they will do the right things in life. If they don’t, then they have to live with the consequences and learn those lessons. Trust me to be an involved parent but not one who is constantly looking over my daughters’ shoulders. They need to learn to be independent. I want them to go out into the world and feel strong and confident and competent. I want them to know that they have a mom who is interested in hearing what they want to share but it not interested in micromanaging their lives. I want them to learn the lessons that they will fail and fall down and make mistakes and that they will be able to brush themselves off and continue on with their lives…and that i will love them no less.